Interview with Main Road|Post

 Main Road|Post is Moscow based a visual effects production studio. Studio produced visual effects for Attraction, Duelist, August. Eighth, Metro, Stalingrad, Wanted, Winter Olympic Sochi 2014 Opening, Ghost. Our interlocutors are: Arman Yahin – CEO, Mikhail Lesin – CTO, Andrey Maximov – Attraction VFX supervisor, Dmitry Kuznetsov – Attraction VFX supervisor.

 

Can you tell us more about Main Road|Post? 

Arman Yahin: Main Road Post began in 2006 as a team of six. Today we have about 60 artists and plan to expand significantly by the end of the year. Our team provides VFX for movies, mostly for the biggest Russian projects. Stalingrad was our breakthrough work, which made us prominent among the global VFX community. This year we have decided to change our management style and turn to Scrum, which made us separate the whole company into small, versatile teams.

How does look your production flow from the initial idea to the final product?

Arman Yahin: I do not believe there is something different for us. We start working on the project along with the script writing. We tell producers and directors what is possible and what is not. At the same time we begin drawing concept art to derive visual style of the movie. After the script is finished we turn to comprehensive development of VFX scenes, evaluate their price, search for technical solutions together with movie production designer, draw storyboards and make previs. We also start research and development at this stage, inventing technologies needed for future work. During movie shoots our supervisors work at film sets and collect all the necessary information like reference photos and videos, lens information and HDRs. Along, we discuss our work, since principal photography may sometimes make serious adjustments. Then we have an editing period, and only after we start shot production until the end of a project.

 

You worked on big-budget Russian films that had a lot of VFX. Which film was the most challenging and why?

Arman Yahin: Well, almost every movie is very challenging for us. We are often approached to with very complex tasks and ideas and every time we try to outdo ourselves. But, for today we are most proud of “Attraction” movie. It was a very tough project and we liked the outcome very much.

Tell us about your pipeline

Mikhail Lesin: The core of our pipeline is SideFX Houdini. We use it for almost all mentioned tasks except compositing, modeling and texturing. All non-procedural modeling is done in Autodesk Maya. Texturing is done with Mari by The Foundry. For compositing we use Nuke, which is common in the industry.

 

VFX in the Attraction got a great interest from our readers, what were the creative and technical challenges of this project?

Arman Yahin: Well, for this, very emotional movie, where a lot of story revolves around self-sacrifice and love, VFX worked like a blade, roughly interrupting the life of simple Moscow citizens.

As can be seen in the scene of spaceship crashing into one of the districts on the outskirts of Moscow, where some of our characters lead the life of hoodlums.

Every single VFX was developed in-house by our artists. We did have a strong bond with the art department of the project, so we built green or blue on set props and constructions which later were to be replaced by CG. It was the first project we worked on with Zhanna Pakhomova, who was the production designer of the movie. She really is a brilliant person, who helped us immensely on every occasion and put a lot of trust in us, for what we are very grateful.

How was the collaboration with director Fyodor Bondarchuk?

Arman Yahin: Working with Fedor is always simple. On the one hand, he was very confident in us and accepted a large number of our ideas and concepts, yet on the other hand it is of course a huge responsibility. But we are all in love with sci-fi movies, and taking part in this project was a dream which came true, so we were very productive and supplied each other with a lot of energy in the process. It played a huge role at the end of production, when we were pressed for time and still had many tasks to complete, even at that stage, we had incredible understanding and support from Fedor and his producers.

What was his approach and expectations about the visual effects?

Arman Yahin: Fedor is a visionary director. He gravitates towards unusual images and difficult angles. In Attraction, he eased away from his usual style and hired a young director of photography for the project.

Our task here was to make this as real as possible. We tried our best, now it’s up to the viewers to judge. But Fedor ended up pleased with the result.

 

 Can you tell us more about the creation of alien character and their spaceship? Which references did you use to create?

Andrey Maximov: The alien suit was the most complicated piece of design. Viewers are known to pay a lot of attention to design of the aliens, specifically when an alien plays a major role. Our design is not really an alien itself, we wanted to make it unknown to viewers that it is a suit. In other words, we were to construct a technological device resembling an alien, or a creature with obscure motivations.

Searching for shape, we had our artists draw dozens of sketches, they studied numerous anatomical schemes, mechanics and formations, from flexible tentacles as limbs to more fluid forms. The exoskeleton was designed for fast movement, wall climbing and had to be in line with the ship design. It was quite a task we had to solve, keeping all extraterrestrial objects in compliance with each other. In the end we derived a suitable design and proceeded to develop it further.

Then, we had to create a working sketch-based model, so we began adjusting the limb length and location of the joints, thus creating a brand new anatomy. Inside we built a muscle and bone system to run hundreds of deformation tests to check the way a skeleton moves and his ability to set poses. We were guided by the notion that a well-thought-out internal mechanics (or anatomy) is an essential condition for obtaining a real and believable object, whether it is a living being or a complex piece of machinery.

The final anatomical model included some tuning of the exoskeleton outline, designated secondary lines and medium-size shapes. Then, working by sketches we turned to precise modeling of the exoskeleton. At first, we sculpted the model to check for possible issues in small details, textures and materials. These details also demanded a lot of attention and a considerable artistic research, because it is usually them what gives the viewer most information about an object’s origin, its story, and what place it is from. Once we found all the artistic solutions, the way we worked became more and more natural. First, the sculpting artist worked on the detailing, then several modelers performed retopology and UV mapping.

As we already mentioned, works on the rig began at the early stage of development. We divided the rig into three modules: 1 — animation rig, 2 — deformation rig, 3 — shading asset. We made the animation rig “lighter” to ensure interactive and real time work, necessary for the animation stage.

The deformation rig was designed for the deformation of the highly polygonal geometry of the exoskeleton, and to write the cache for final rendering. The deformation rig was based on an in-house muscle framework. One of the features of this framework is its soft body muscle dynamics, which was used in most of the shots.

The shading asset was necessary to render the exoskeleton. It contained a library of shaders and a small preprocessor that prepared the geometry for rendering. Input data for the shading asset were taken from the cache files generated by the deformation rig. Shading was carried out in two skins: black and white. According to the plot, there is only one white suit which is controlled by a human, while the black one is a robot controlled remotely by the ship’s AI. In addition, this asset accounted for the amount of “dirt” on the exoskeleton. Since a lot of action happens in the area destroyed by the crash, all the surfaces are covered with dust, ash, debris and dirt. Therefore, any object lacking these traces of interaction with the environment would look out of place.

Animation of alien characters is like the movements of the insects. What was your reference? Did you received specific instructions from the director for animation?

Andrey Maximov: At one of the sessions, the director proposed an idea to make an atom-shaped ship, so we took this idea. During animation tests, we checked the feasibility of a spherical design with rings orbiting it. We tested the ship size and decided on the number of rings and their relative sizes, so we have no problems with the flight and crash scene animation later.

Simultaneously, our concept artist Maxim Revin was working hard on the hull and rings of the spaceship. He drew a bunch of different prototypes, and was constantly adjusting them in search of the right emotional feedback from the director. After an operational proxy model of the spaceship was completed, we began working on the medium-size elements by the favored sketches. All the details of the ship were drawn thoroughly and in a more “engineered” way so the artist would exactly know what needs to be done. Objects of modern architecture (by Zaha Hadid in particular) were the main reference material for detailing of the spaceship.

In order to make the animation of the spaceship more deep and complex, we added additional animatable elements, like the ability of ship’s hull to slightly change its shape due to its “living” wavelike texture. The hull next to engine can also change its shape, just as jet pipes of modern fighters change the shape in flight.

The rings also have an interesting but not very noticeable animation feature, being a kinematic sculpture. In addition to their outer contour, there is a set of “combs” forming the inner contour. These internal parts move in a wave-like manner in two opposite phases with a slight displacement from one another, creating an intriguing visual effect.

As usual, we wanted to decrease the amount of familiar materials in the shading (iron, plastic, painted surfaces), and therefore had to develop some unusual, ‘alien’ materials. In some sense, due to it we had a lot of creative freedom, but it was a rather difficult task due to the scale of the research. In any event, the director had a vision of a dark gray, almost ebony ship. Finally, we picked a black anisotropic material with a mixed metallic flare to serve as the base material. The anisotropy angle on the surface formed from its strict mosaic texture was our little trick to give the surfaces a more complexly detailed and technological appearance. Apart from this, we created a large number of additional textures to make the surfaces more plausible, such as abrasions, scratches, chips, small burn marks, etc.

 

How did you create the full CG Moscow district Chertanovo?

Andrey Maximov: We developed a set of assets that helped us create city areas in a procedure-oriented manner. The asset kit included the residential housing generator, city infrastructure generator (trees, bushes, lawns, parked cars, footpaths, fences, lights, road signs, traffic lights, booths, billboards, communication wires between buildings, trash cans and much more), as well as the traffic simulating system, which was based on the principles of traffic laws. It is worth adding that this algorithm also regulates traffic flow using traffic lights. The building generator (as mentioned above) made it possible to create a building with any number of storeys or configuration type. Among other accomplishments, we achieved diversity through changing the parameters of balcony window style, the variability of any attached equipment (satellite dishes, AC units), and textures. With this asset kit, manual work came down to simply identifying the main streets in the area, and the rest was generated automatically. Based on the plot, we made three main areas where the action took place, and in addition to full-cg scenes, we also used them quite a bit for set extension in the footage. There were several additional districts as well, mainly placed to serve as backgrounds. This helped us reduce the use of matepaint to a minimum when working on the shots. Moreover, the caches of ruined houses from the ship crash scene were used again to create the assets of the ravaged areas. It allowed us preserve the “natural” pattern of destruction and spread of debris, and considerably saved on resources as well.

 

The most impressions left on us and our readers is the sequence of spacecraft landing to Earth and destruction of buildings in Chertanovo. Can you explain more about the simulation and the FX destructions?

Andrey Maximov:

In terms of simulations, the scene of the crash was one of the most complex in the movie. At the beginning we developed the motion and location of the crash, like where the ship flies out from, how fast it is going and where it finally stops. We came up with an original design for the crash area by positioning the houses to be destroyed and which of them would survive, as well as roads and other elements of urban infrastructure. Then we made a previs with an end-to-end animation of the entire crash scene. The previs also featured the main elements of falling houses, the stadium, flyover, and smoke from the ship. Then, we shot the entire scene with several cameras (about 20 different angles) and edited the episode. As a matter of fact, it is similar to the process of shooting a difficult movie stunt, complete with preparation, shooting from the largest possible number of angles, and editing.

As soon as we got the previs approved by the director, we set to work on the simulations. In the previs we made the first iteration of the ship’s animation and cameras. In the scene we had two basic groups of visual effects: RBD and Fluids. To simulate RBD, we followed the geometrical requirements in bullet-like solvers when designing buildings (and the stadium). Moreover, all the buildings have their own internal layout and stairways. In fact, we are ready to destroy any building in this movie, since this possibility was considered at the earliest stage of development of the procedural buildings generator (more on this later). We were able to change the number of levels of the building, and their starting layout for the final stage of the crash simulation, thus varying the scale of demolition.

The stadium, buildings and flyover were destroyed using Bullet Solver in Houdini. The ship was a one-way collision object in the simulation. So the ship destroys the houses, not vice versa. So we faced the problem of an unrealistic object acceleration, which does not comply with real life, as any material, has a certain degree of plasticity that dampers the initial impact as it deforms and breaks. In order to reach balanced debris movement, we added a number of “soft” acceleration limiters.

In addition, all the carnage resulted in huge amounts of dust tossed up, smoke and fine particles were whirled into the air. All of them were also done with fluid simulations. The climax and most complicated part of this type of simulation was the final phase of the crash, where in a single frame we had a pyroclastic cloud of dense dust from the impact, the dust from the collapsing stadium, and the smoke from burning parts of the ship’s hull after missile hit. In the end, we did not use a single stock sequence in this scene: all the smoke, dust and fire effects were made with simulations.

 

Shots of fighter aircrafts are very realistic. Particularly interesting are the close-ups of pilot in the cockpit.  Why did you make full CG pilot when he could be shot in real cockpit on green screen? Can you explain more about aerial shots?

Dmitry Kuznetsov: Unfortunately, it is quite a task to shoot an authentic pilot on a green screen. There is a huge risk to fail to follow the lighting and color of the whole sequence, which is a backbone for the exterior shots. However launching a plane to shoot a real pilot is very costly. So we took the risk and proposed to make a full-cg pilot. Thus we had much more freedom in terms of setting the light in the scene. By the way, here we added an easter egg, pilot’s badge bears the name of our technical director Mikhail Lesin, who is a huge fan of planes. Since we developed a full scale model of the Earth’s atmosphere and had simulated clouds, we were able to animate planes cruising at their real speed with pilots inside. Thanks to it and also physically correct shaders and lighting we achieved such an accurate feel. Funny thing is that later an interview with a pilot shot in other scenes was followed by our full-cg shot.

 

How did you light these big scenes? 

Mikhail Lesin: Actually, lighting of exterior scenes is a much simpler task than lighting of interiors. In case of exterior we almost always have only two main light sources: sun and sky. We have an in-house system for computing physically correct sky lighting based on current angle of sun above (or below) the horizon. So, the only tricky part was to find right angle for the sun to match the mood of an episode.

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Sequence of the fight at the end of the film is very impressive. There is a lot of animation, destruction, particles … Can you tell us something more about it?

Andrey Maximov: Final battle scene is one of the most complex in the movie. Alien animation was made manually, no motion capture was used. On the other hand mocap clips were needed for ultras crowd animation and in some other crowd simulation scenes. To indicate ground contact we developed an asset automatically generating dust and dirt ejection in compliance with the contacting surface speed, its volume and plunge depth. Some VFX were developed solely for single shots. There were flames from Molotov cocktail in a few shots, which we took from our “Stalingrad” movie developments.

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What is the sequence in the film that was the most challenging and why?

Dmitry Kuznetsov : I would not name any sequence as the most challenging. Every scene of the movie had its own tasks. Some sequences were difficult in an artistic way, though easy in technical. Others were quite thoroughly planned artistically, but demanded almost scientific development and research. One thing is for sure, there were no simple sequences, every one of them hid its own challenges.

 

 What was the size of your team and number of shots on the movie?

Arman Yahin: At that time we had a team of 50 working in the studio, including management. In total there were 255 artist working on the movie, the final credits also listed 255 people. In total, there were about 1,100 shots, 700 of which were made by our studio, and the other 400 were handed to other vendors.

 

How long have you worked on the Attraction?

Arman Yahin: We spent a year on preparation, concept art and RnD, and then we spent 5 months hard working on shots.

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Today, the film without VFX is unimaginable, so the need for talents exists. Do you have problems with a lack of workforce and how do you solve it? 

Arman Yahin: Yes, we have a lot of problems with a lack of talents. And when we implemented scrum in our company it became moretricky. Because not only you need good specialists but you also need good specialists with good communication skills and he or she must have a nice character.

We have a long experience of raising interns. It’s not like school for interns. No, just take them to studio and start giving them simple tasks and waiting for growth.

Trying to find people from CIS countries. There are a lot of great artists.

 

Are there educational institutions in Russia that study VFX and do they meet the needs of the industry in terms of the quality of knowledge that students have?

Arman Yahin: Yes, we have a few here in Moscow. And now they started to provide us with artists at good junior level.

 

What are the challenges of the VFX industry in Russia?

Arman Yahin: Money at first. Small budgets of the movies and the same or higher prices for hardware and software.

I think everything else is more or less ok. We had problems with clients when they don’t understand our needs for making good VFX but now we have full trust with some of our loyal clients.

And of course talents. Russian movie industry now started to understand that VFX is a powerful tool and we have a lot of projects with VFX but there is still very tiny VFX industry here.

 

What knowledge Houdini (FX) artist must have and what is necessary for advancement? 

Arman Yahin: Here is our vacancy post:

We are looking for specialists with knowledge of Houdini for the studio Main Road Post.

Requirements:

– Be a person whom others feel comfortable and at ease around;
– Be able to find solutions to unconventional problems on your own;

– Be able to communicate constructively with colleagues, propose solutions, and hear the opinions of others;
– Have at least 2 years of experience working with Houdini;
– Have at least one of the following skills:
* Relevant work experience with other applications (Maya, Nuke, Mari, etc.),
* Deep understanding of mathematics/physics,
* Knowledge of various programming languages,
* Artistic experience,
* Experience in photography, camerawork, or directing,

Responsibilities:
– Use your own skills as well as skills received from your colleagues to create realistic scenes in Russian and foreign feature films;
– Find artistic and technical solutions to creative tasks that might not always be clearly defined.

 

At the and, if not a secret, what is the next project you’re working on?

Arman Yahin: Right now, we finished a Russian blockbuster Furious (The Legend of Kolovrat), and began working on three motion pictures: Hong Kong’s Warriors of Future, a large Russian sci-fi movie with the draft title Cosmoball, and just finished the military/history movie Frontier. Moreover, we are looking forward to start working on Attraction 2.

 

A big thanks for your aswers.

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