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April 01
2017

ISSUE

Spring 2017

EFFECTS ELEVATE DAZZLING LIVE-ACTION REMAKE OF CLASSIC GHOST IN THE SHELL

Scarlett Johansson plays The Major in Ghost in the Shell, a synthetic cybernetic counterterrorist assigned to take on a gang of cyber criminals. All photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

By IAN FAILES

In the years that followed the release of the anime Ghost in the Shell, directed by Mamoru Oshii and based on the manga series by Masamune Shirow, a bevy of science-fiction films seemed to echo both the look and futuristic predictions of the 1995 film.

Jump forward just over two decades and director Rupert Sanders has entered the Ghost in the Shell fray with a live-action remake starring Scarlett Johansson in the role of The Major, a synthetic cybernetic counterterrorist who is assigned to take on a gang of cyber criminals.

Looking to honor the original visions of Oshii and Shirow, while implementing his own take on the Ghost in the Shell world, Sanders assembled a team of effects artisans for the task. Visual Effects Supervisors Guillaume Rocheron and John Dykstra and Visual Effects Producer Fiona Campbell Westgate oversaw work from lead vendor MPC and other studios, among them Atomic Fiction, Territory Studio, Pixomondo, Framestore, Method Studios and Raynault VFX. Weta Workshop took on several conceptual design, fabrication, prop and costume challenges. Steve Ingram handled special effects duties.

Sanders says he went for a grounded approach to the visual effects in the film. “I use visual effects to embellish and do things that aren’t achievable in-camera,” he says. “I try and do everything else in-camera. We built a lot of animatronics, we did a lot of prosthetic makeup, we built a lot of sets and we did very little full greenscreen environments. I always wanted Ghost in the Shell to be a tactile world that you felt really existed.”

A CYBORG IS MADE

In a ‘shelling’ sequence that echoes the original anime, The Major is shown entering the world – her cybernetic parts are melded together and then infused through a white milky substance that rips off to reveal her outer suit layer.

The Major (Scarlett Johansson) in camouflage suit. Weta Workshop fabricated a silicone suit, tinted flesh-colored, for Johansson to wear.

The Major (Scarlett Johansson) in camouflage suit. Weta Workshop fabricated a silicone suit, tinted flesh-colored, for Johansson to wear.

Based on initial art department concepts and previs from The Mill, Weta Workshop continued designs for the sequence. It was part of the company’s wider compilation of elements for the film. “We used visual graphics to help organize the film,” notes Workshop Concept Designer Leri Greer. “What we were trying to do was take the really broad team of people coming onto the film and give them info-graphics to get them up to speed very graphically.”

The Workshop designed and 3D printed The Major’s brain and underskeleton parts, in metal and as optically clear materials to represent more fibrous pieces. They were then assembled, jigsaw puzzle-style, for the shoot at the nearby Stone Street Studios in Wellington, New Zealand.

A dry for wet approach using smoke and particles was followed to make the shots at times appear underwater. Weta Workshop also built a replica of The Major’s body weighted with concrete for views of it emerging from the white liquid. “That liquid was a mix of products to give it the right thickness that our Special Effects Supervisor Steve Ingram put together,” says Rocheron. “We shot a bunch of passes of dipping the body into the white liquid and pulling it out. In the end it was a combination of CG and live action, with elements of the dripping liquid and bubbles that we shot at 1500 frames per second.”

“Rupert had a driving desire to do as much practically as possible,” says Weta Workshop CEO Richard Taylor, noting the combination of practical and digital for the shelling sequence. “At the Workshop, we don’t think digital is the enemy, far from it. But there is no doubt for us that our passion is the physical feel of practical effects.”

The Major dons a thermoptic suit that allows her to go into camouflage mode. Weta Workshop fabricated a silicone suit, tinted flesh-colored, for Johansson. “We had measurements and a body scan sent to us for Scarlett,” describes Workshop costume maker Flo Foxworthy. “We then found an in-house fit model and we milled out and created life-size mannequins, too. We didn’t get it onto Scarlett until the day before filming but it worked out great.”

The Major on a mission.

The Major on a mission.


Major Maddy Kisana (Scarlett Johansson) entering the world – her cybernetic parts melded together and then infused through a white milky substance that rips off to reveal her outer suit layer.

Major Maddy Kisana (Scarlett Johansson) entering the world – her cybernetic parts melded together and then infused through a white milky substance that rips off to reveal her outer suit layer.

Ghost in the Shell’s cityscape. Director Sanders sought to populate the city views with a form of solid, sometimes enormous, augmented reality holograms he called ‘solograms’.

Ghost in the Shell’s cityscape. Director Sanders sought to populate the city views with a form of solid, sometimes enormous, augmented reality holograms he called ‘solograms’.

WORLD BUILDING

Ghost in the Shell’s city landscape was fleshed out by several artists, including Production Designer Jan Roelfs and Concept Designer Ash Thorp. Sanders chose to reveal the city with a series of long, floating camera moves, dubbed ‘Ghost Cam’, that he devised with cinematographer Jess Hall. “We flew a helicopter up and down paths pre-determined from Google Maps, photographing textures and roof textures and then we photographed the same places from the street so we could start to build a digital environment,” says the director.

Sanders also sought to populate the city views with a form of solid, sometimes enormous, augmented reality holograms he called ‘solograms’. To acquire the imagery appearing in the solograms, a specialized 80-camera rig array designed by Dayton Taylor took a ‘fully immersive’ 15-second take showcasing an actor from all angles. Still camera arrays have been used on many films, but in this case the rig was a video array, an attractive prospect to Rocheron for achieving the desired sologram look.

Pilou Asbaek plays Batou.

Pilou Asbaek plays Batou.

 

Director Rupert Sanders and Scarlett Johansson on the set of Ghost in the Shell.

Director Rupert Sanders and Scarlett Johansson on the set of Ghost in the Shell.

 “This technique allowed us to capture 24 cyberscans per second of an actor and generate what was effectively animated clips,” he says. “MPC’s Visual Effects Supervisor Axel Bonami then had to take that footage and voxelize it to get the 3D hologram appearance. We also had Territory Studio spending months creating volumetric assets for signage and displays in the city and pairing it with our footage.”

Photographic elements further helped make up the city buildings themselves, thanks to a photogrammetry shoot of scaled miniatures built by Weta Workshop. “What they built,” says Rocheron, “was more for prototyping and creating a kit-bash library that we could photograph from multiple angles and then have as 3D assets. We never used one of those miniatures in a shot directly, but it was a good choice to design them that way.”

TOP LEFT: Robot Geisha in Ghost. Weta Workshop created several masks worn by performers.

Robot Geisha in Ghost. Weta Workshop created several masks worn by performers.

BEWARE THE ROBOT GEISHA

Robot Geisha featured in the film included contributions from Weta Workshop, which created several masks worn by performers as well as a standalone animatronic head for a later scene. “Rupert had this idea that the actress Rila Fukushima could play all of the geisha,” says Workshop Senior Art Director Ben Hawker. “So we replicated her face and 3D printed the mask, so the performers all looked identical.”

“It’s a very polished suit – it’s meant to look like highly finished ceramic or porcelain on the outside,” describes Workshop Supervisor Rob Gilles. “The actual masks were semi-rigid, so they did have a little bit of flex in them. We tried to keep that surface quite hard so we could get a really nice paint finish on it. And then we had a silicone neck cowl and silicone arms and gloves.”

At one point, a Robot Geisha head is examined. An elaborate on-set prop was made by Weta Workshop to spring open and reveal an elaborate concoction of internal clockwork-like mechanisms, crafted to look as if the geisha had been tampered with.

CRAFTING KUZE

The Major’s nemesis Kuze (Michael Pitt) is himself a cybernetic being, but not as elite as the current model. “Rupert wanted him to look like he was a broken piece of porcelain,” says Gilles, “and that he had tried to repair himself with different body parts. He’d become this enigma of knowledge and didn’t really associate himself with a physical form. So we made prosthetics down his face and neck and these transformed into a costume element with ceramic panels that were like moving plates that articulated when he moved.”

“We’d then use CG to create all the negative space where you would see into muscle and skeleton for Kuze,” details Rocheron. “In post we also started just keeping certain things like his eyes, or his hair or just parts of his face. We re-created an entire body above the torso and animated it based on Pitt’s performance and then had all this exposed translucent and transparent muscles with these skin plates cladded on.”

In a fight sequence in a flooded slum area, The Major demonstrates her camouflage abilities, donning a thermoptic suit that allows her to go into camouflage mode.

In a fight sequence in a flooded slum area, The Major demonstrates her camouflage abilities, donning a thermoptic suit that allows her to go into camouflage mode.

DIVING IN

When The Major combines her brain with that of a cyborg to look through its memories, she moves into what was termed the ‘Deep Dive’. “The fun part of that,” suggests Dykstra, “was getting to highlight the differences between the way the cyborg thinks and the way the human thinks and you also get to give The Major a different point of view about exactly what she is.”

After falling through a seemingly endless amount of black liquid, The Major walks through the Yakuza Club where club-goers are frozen and de-grading into digital noise, the idea being that memories are unstable. “You could see their faces but not the back of their heads to give the idea that The Major was navigating memories from a different point of view,” says Rocheron.

The visuals were realized by blocking out camera moves and recording their positions, then shooting a clean plate. Later, a 150 DSLR photogrammetry rig was used to re-film those actors in the same poses. “That way, I would get a scan and textures of everyone exactly the way they were supposed to be featured in the club to then send to MPC for treatment and degradation,” he explains.

“I use visual effects to embellish and do things that aren’t achievable in-camera. I try and do everything else in-camera. We built a lot of animatronics, we did a lot of prosthetic makeup, we built a lot of sets and we did very little full greenscreen environments. I always wanted Ghost in the Shell to be a tactile world that you felt really existed.”

— Director Rupert Sanders

During the Deep Dive, Kuze sees he is about to be uncovered and hacks into the memories to unleash a series of black figures who try to drown The Major. Part of that scene employed some relatively inexpensive, yet innovative, approaches to the effects, as Sanders recounts. “I got wardrobe to make some plastic suits for our extras. We covered them all in black oil and had them slipping around and grabbing at The Major. Later, we used the same people in Kuze’s lair and they were in those same suits and linked with cables and generating his network, but I was thinking, how do we make them different? So we Vaselined over their eyes and then we doused them in flour.”

INVISIBLE EFFECTS

Another iconic moment from the original anime film is a fight sequence in a flooded slum area, in which The Major demonstrates her camouflage abilities. “I think that was one of the scenes from the original that I felt had to be in there,” comments Sanders. “We built a water tank in New Zealand and that’s one of the few things that we filmed almost entirely greenscreen. Then we tiled a lot of Hong Kong apartment blocks and then Guillaume and I started to design it slightly more sci-fi.”

The water fight was filmed with Johansson and her stunt performer in and out of frame, so that the themoptic look could be achieved in CG. “For that look,” says Rocheron, “we wanted to get away from any kind of magnifying glass effect. What we did was create an animated version of The Major and then she was completely voxelized. It’s as if she was moving through a volume and the voxels would displace depending on her movements.”

BATTLE OF THE GHOSTS

A final tank battle, again inspired by the original film, sees The Major use her hybrid cybernetic-human brain to outsmart the six-legged machine. The scene was filmed on a backlot area and required significant set extensions, a CG tank, pyrotechnics and digital double work for The Major and Kuze, with The Major ultimately compromising her physical body to defeat the tank.

“At the Workshop, we don’t think digital is the enemy, far from it. But there is no doubt for us that our passion is the physical feel of practical effects.”

— Weta Workshop CEO Richard Taylor

“We spent a lot of time giving personality to the tank to give a sense of a relationship between it and The Major,” says Dykstra, “but also to show how The Major’s biggest strength is her ability to reason. The bottom line for this story is the idea of a ‘ghost in the shell’ and how that is better than a cyber-being in terms of the depth of its free will and the ability of it to be creative and imagine something that doesn’t necessarily follow a reasonable route.”

For Sanders, the tank battle typified his general approach to the film – it was something that paid homage to the original anime, that took advantage of the existing impressive visual elements and continued to leave the audience engaged on several levels.

“I think what attracted me to Ghost in the Shell overall,” says Sanders, “was the opportunity to exist in both worlds where you had a big spectacular action-packed film, but also you were left with something resonating beyond just spectacle.

“There’s so much in that original film to borrow from about technology and humanity that would make it a richer and more memorable experience.”


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