Morphing through the ages in ‘Mission to Mars’

Mission to Mars

Looking back at ILM’s evolution sequence for the film

Audiences might remember the year 2000 as the battle of the Mars films; Mission to Mars and Red Planet. Both were, of course, heavy visual effects projects.

Mission to Mars, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, saw Dream Quest Images (led by Hoyt Yeatman) and ILM (led by John Knoll), among other VFX shops, deliver several major sequences via complex CG, miniatures and compositing.

Christophe Hery
Christophe Hery.

One sequence that always remained in my memory was the lengthy holographic evolution shot.

Here, microscopic paramecia evolve – with no cuts – into other creatures including fish, lizards, crocodiles, dinosaurs, mammoths and buffalo, with hunting humans featured at the end.

ILM handled this moment, which occurs while several astronauts are being versed on the origins of the universe.

I asked then CG supervisor Christophe Hery, now a research scientist at Facebook Reality Labs, who supervised the work, how it was pulled off with Cari and some unique approaches to morphing.

Christophe Hery: We ultimately delivered an illustrative look, but in making it we approached it from a more photoreal perspective, going as far as putting detailed displacement on the creatures and the terrain.

The difficulties (and innovations) stem, besides the length, from the fact that we had to morph animals that were shaped quite differently, from early fishes to bisons, in the context of a herd (or school).

We approached these transformations by imposing a common topology on all creatures. This was an interesting exercise for the modelers and the riggers at the time, and they did a great job at that.

ILM 'Mission to Mars' VFX supervisor John Knoll.
ILM ‘Mission to Mars’ VFX supervisor John Knoll.

A tool was written on top of Cari [aka Caricature, a tool developed by ILM’s Cary Phillips], if I remember correctly, that would weigh the morphs in various regions of the bodies (so we could have, say, legs from crocodiles and necks from diplodocus appearing at different rates). All of this could be tailored and key-framed.

We had very fine control there, per limb, but we settled, again for illustration purposes, into a more unified morph speed. The camera is panning along from above, so it became hard to read the subtleties and we wanted the message to be obvious.

The morph weights were also automatically exported from this Cari extension into the shaders, so we would get a blend of the corresponding appearances automatically.

ILM 'Mission to Mars' animation supervisor Dennis Turner
ILM ‘Mission to Mars’ animation supervisor Dennis Turner.

Surprisingly, the initial push into the water was the most difficult part to render. With all these bubbles motion blurred and very close-by, we were constantly faced with camera near clipping plane issues.

The shot was truly delivered/rendered as one continuous full CG shot (in Renderman). Only the actual footage of the astronauts and the alien hand were composited in (the alien being a separate CG render pass, obviously).

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