Groom gains

How ILM overhauled its feather system for ‘Jurassic World: Dominion’.

Crash-landing near an iced over lake near Biosyn Genetics’ dinosaur preserve in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise) are soon stalked by a Pyroraptor, which chases them on the ice.

This dramatic sequence in Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World: Dominion–which featured visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic–was made all the more complicated owing to the Pyroraptor’s feathers covering different parts of its body. In fact, to deal with the ‘Pyro’s’ feathers, and other feathered creatures in the film, ILM re-built its feather generation and grooming toolset.

Here, ILM senior visual effects supervisor and production visual effects supervisor on Dominion, David Vickery, and ILM visual effects supervisor, Dan Snape, reveal the brand new aspects of the VFX studio’s feather system, for befores & afters.

b&a: What I think is interesting about this character–the Pyroraptor–is that you had to deal with feathers, snow, you had to make it dive under the ice, and it had to be menacing. There were a lot of things going on.

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David Vickery: Yeah, it was really tricky because of, as you say, the number of different atmospheric conditions and environments that we had to put it through. I mean, I think I’m okay to say feathers tend to strike fear into everybody’s hearts when it comes to visual effects, but for all the right reasons. We want to do stuff that’s really complex and really challenging.

But the complicated thing with feathers is finding a way to allow the artists to create and reiterate on work rather than spend their time just banging their head against technical challenges. We all want to make great images and create beautiful shots. If all you’re doing is trying to stop feathers interpenetrating or colliding or not grooming properly, that can suck all of the fun and the creative side out of the work.

We knew the Pyroraptor had to be out in the wind and the snow and the ice. We knew that it had to dive through the surface of the ice down under the water. It had to swim underwater and track with all those bubbles and the complexity of the underwater environment. And it had to burst through the surface of the ice. Actually, the script rather wonderfully had a line in it that said, ‘It lands on the ice, snow crystals forming on its feathers.’ And you’re like, ‘Yikes, what a cool image!’

b&a: Dan coming to you, when that comes to you and your team at ILM, where do you start with realizing those things, and feathers?

Dan Snape: We knew early on that there were going to be feathered dinosaurs. So we’d already started tackling the problem. Plus, the feather types of each of those dinosaurs were all slightly different, from, say, your protofeathers, which are more like the spines all the way through, to the Pyro, which we knew was full-feathered and had more like traditional-looking feathers.

That’s when we started looking at a new feather system, something that would be able to give us that flexibility, efficiency, but also creativity to change. It was then the script landed, and then speaking with David, we found out we were adding into that mix all of the different environmental challenges that had to go with it.

On-set Pyro by John Nolan Studio.

b&a: How did you start the process of building a new feather system?

Dan Snape: First we started looking at what had been our previous challenges with feathers. Like David mentioned, there were the issues with the technical side of things, of just being unable to iterate quickly. We wanted to find a more efficient way of doing things, so we built a feather system to do just that, allowing our groom artists to very quickly scatter and place guides across the body of the dinosaurs. They’re just working with guides, which effectively translate as the quills of the feathers themselves.

Once you’ve got that initial very quick scatter and coverage, that’s when then the artist, using a very intuitive paint system, will paint into those guides, attaching different styles of feathers to them.

Pyro has multiple different kinds of feathers across it. It has the head crest with very large, big feathers. It has the traditional wing feathers down on the arms, but then it has all those much softer downy, almost fluffy feathers, underneath the joints. With the new tool, our groom artists could quickly go in and assign the different feather types to each of the areas. The new system meant we could get very quickly to our very first, fully feathered, fully covered dinosaur with traditional feathers on there.

From that point, we then had to start discussing how those feathers would interact with each other. Built into our system was an auto-sim that would run a ‘detangle’ across the whole of the Pyro as well, which was just an amazing step forward. I mean, we were looking at a first version of the groom which looked great, and all covered, but there were all these intersections everywhere. Then the team said, ‘Just so you know, we haven’t run the auto detangle on this yet.’

David Vickery: A magic bullet.

Dan Snape: It was amazing. What that did was, it just took all of those guides, and all those feathers, and separated them. Then they settle, but they settle back to contact to give you the flat feather look. This means, at the groom stage, you are detangling, which then aids once we were getting into the creature team for sim’ing. There they’ve then already got a base sim that was a ‘detangled’ version.

At some point we were also discussing the silhouette of Pyro. We started saying, ‘Well, it needs to be sleeker in certain areas.’ And we were looking at references and birds, and what you sometimes get are areas of birds where they fluff up their feathers and they’re always a little bit bigger. Then in other parts of their body, it’s a much denser and slicker silhouette.

So, also built into the system was the ability to have a ‘flattening zone’ in certain places. What that would do is, it would take the curvature that had been applied to each of the feathers and flatten and push them. You could have, say, less gaps between any feathers. That was driven by masks. We could pick zones where we would flatten the area down. That allowed us to extremely quickly get to initially just a grayscale feathered version that we could then present to start getting feedback on the result very quickly.

Director Colin Trevorrow on the set with the practical Pyro head.

David Vickery: The other part of the system that was really interesting to me was the feather generation component, which actually allowed us to create a quill, run the barbules up either side of it, and then shape those barbules using guide curves. We could then break them up to get all of the little broken edges in between the barbules and then actually shape and create proxy geometry for simulation if we needed it. We could also then texture and define all of the characteristics and details of all the individual feathers, which we could then propagate across the grid.

Dan Snape: On creation of each feather, the system, in the background, also generated the simulation card. We didn’t have to sim the full feather geometry every time it was a simulation card. It also assigned any UV information and UDIM. As soon as you created a feather, that information was there, locked and stored, so it could then be propagated through to all of the departments further downstream.

David Vickery: The other thing that I found really interesting as well is that we took this curve-based approach to creating and defining all the feathers. In the past, what you might do is use a lot of polygonal geometry to define the larger feathers and texture them. The way we’ve done it is all based on curves. Even for fur.

Dan and the team came up with a really unique way of grooming the individual fur to look like feather shapes and to be able to then map and UV them so that we could texture them to look like feathers as well. That meant we could do these transitions from what is a feather generated in the feather system, to fur groomed to look like feathers, to the fluffy downy kind of underbelly. It was a completely seamless transition between all of that.

Dan Snape: It was all using these ‘scatter’ guides. Anything that needed to be groomed to be feather on top was all from the groom artist, initially. Then we thought, if we can groom fur in any direction, surely we can groom it to form the side. Then what we did is, once we got into lookdev and texturing, we then had our maps that allowed us to then put different transparency on edges and break-up on edges.

Anything that was fur or groom-based would give us that same break-up in the barbules that we were seeing in our big, main hero feathers on the wings. It allowed us to then seamlessly transition between where it needed to be really soft or very dense, almost fur-like feathers in certain zones that you see in birds, and transition into those very, very traditional looking wing feathers.

Final shot featuring ILM’s creature work.

b&a: On top of generating and grooming the feathers for the Pyro, you had to populate them sometimes with snow, and then sometimes they needed to be wet. What extra challenges did that put on the feather system?

Dan Snape: This was another reason why the feather system itself was such a huge step for us on this particular show, because of the environmental challenges. We knew that it needed to play with the FX department, so we built it in a way that allowed everything to feed through to them.

The water was another challenge, too. If you look carefully, you’ll see we actually had the water on the surface of the Pyro. We looked at reference of seals and birds exiting the water and saw how the water forms over the top of the creatures as they come out. In our feather system, we could account for that moment of release where you see the meniscus of the water breaking and spraying. There was a lot going on in these shots.

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