The 2016 edition of SparkFX took place this weekend in Vancouver. It was the first time I got the opportunity to attend an event from the Spark CG Society here in Vancouver, where I relocated 3 months ago. Here is a quick recap of the event.

The Visual Effects of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Industrial Light & Magic Vancouver

A pannel of artists from ILM Vancouver – composed of Tim Belsher (CG Sup.), Patrick Conaty (Senior Comp.), Iain Morton (Senior Generalist), Daniel Schmidt (Lead Generalist), Mihai Cioroba (FX TD) – was in charge of opening this day of conferences with a presentation about Star Wars – The Force Awakens, focusing on the VFX work done in the Vancouver facility.

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ILM Vancouver was in charge of 350 shots (being around 20% of the 2100 total visual effects shots) and 24 sequences, including the notable “big speech”, the “Starkiller base gun firing”, the Maz Castle Battle, the lightsabers lookdev and the character of “Unkar Plutt” (played by Simon Pegg) on Jakku.


General Hux’s Big Speech on Starkiller Base

Prior to do the first demonstration of the new First Order ultimate weapon, General Hux gave an outstanding speech in front of thousands of Stormtrooper. To realize this sequence, the team relied on their Zeno in-house tool’s particles system to generate the 26000 crowd. In order to be able to quickly test different iterations, ILM reworked the export process to avoid any crowd caching before render time.

One of the tricky part of this sequence was to give a minimum of live to the crowd even though the soldiers are supposed to be completely static during their leader’s speech: to do so they left some “happy accident” walk cycle in their nearly static crowd. A couple of stormtroopers can be seen walking between the different battalions in the background.

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The “big speech” sequence required a 26.000 Stormtroopers army and the final environment contains 6 billions of polygons.

As for the 6 billions polygons’ environment, a smart mix of full CG shots relying on a 3DSMax/Vray workflow and digital matte painting handled by the talented Generalist team has been used. They had to deal with a similar problem than the crowd: it’s actually very difficult to create a hard-surface military environment that doesn’t look “CG”. To bring some life to it, they created some patches of snow here and there, as well as additional smoke elements to add more complexity in their environment.

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Finally the FX team was in charge of the Starkiller’s gun firing, that they achieved with several passes of static and dynamic clouds, as well as some additional effects passes for the snow vacuumed up from the surrounding mountains, the final look being controlled later on in compositing. Laws of physics had to be put aside in order to provide more artistic control and to gave a better sense of scale to the scene.


Unkar Plutt’s face replacement

Firstly intended to be shot in-camera with a physical creature make-up, Simon Pegg’s Unkar Plutt character -this alien we saw dealing with Rey at the Niima Outpost’s concession stand on Jakku  – finally got a cg face replacement in order to enhance its initial look, but also because of new dialogues requiring to adapt the lip-syncing.

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Maz Castle Battle

Another big sequence done in Vancouver was the Maz Castle on Takodana. Once again the Generalist Department had to create a wide CG environment, including huge forest, lakes and the Maz’s Castle.

The Maz Castle environment required +80 trees / vegetation species and the total poly-count reached the 10 billions of polygons!

The Generalist/Environment team started by studying the original plates (most of them couldn’t be used in the final edit due to different lighting conditions accross the shots or because of new camera movement) and lots of British lakes’ photographies. The key to get a believable environment was to get as much details as possible: generalist artists created a library of 80+ trees, bushes, vegetation to populate a full CG forest; added lots of smaller details like bricks on the ground or landing areas to help the story and tested different solutions to get the best final result possible (even when the sequence was already approved). Funny anecdote for Vancouver inhabitans: ILM’s artists went to Stanley Park to shoot lots of texture references in order to build the tree assets for the Maz Castle sequence.

The trees seen around the Maz Castle are using some textures from Vancouver Stanley Park’s trees!

Ex Machina & Mad Max case studies

More Human Than Human: The Making of Ava, Ex Machina’s Incredible Android (Double Negative)

Paul Norris – compositing supervisor at Double Negative London – then presented how he and his team dealt with the seamless visual effects work on the Oscar nominated Ex Machina. No post-prod animation or mocap have been used to bring the android character of Ava to life: in order to keep the full performance of Alicia Vikander, the VFX team at DNeg decided to use a roto-animation tracking system and some additional 2D warp tools to replace Ava’s robotic parts.

The CG double of Ava has to perfectly fit the actress’ body and a very detailed rig has to be build so that the CG parts could seamlessly be integrated with her original face, breast, hands and feets. As we are supposed to see through the robotic parts of Ava, DNeg team also had to do an extensive clean-up work on the original plate to rebuild the environment behind the actress.

Check out this breakdown to get a better idea of the impressive work they did on the movie.


Mad Max: Toxic Storm (Iloura)

To conclude this serie of conferences, Iloura‘s compositing supervisor Lindsay Adams gave a detailed overview of their work on Mad Max – Fury Road, and more particularly on the crazy sandstorm sequence. It was also the occasion to prove to everybody that contrary to popular thoughts, nearly every shots of the movie rely on extensive visual effects work, and not only on in camera special effects.

Better than words, check out this cool VFX Breakdown released by Iloura a few weeks ago :


Job Fair

SparFX‘s attendants also had the chance to enjoy an impressive job fair! All the biggest visual effects companies of the country were there to recruit: ILM Vancouver, Image Engine, Cinesite, DNeg, Digital Domain, Scanline VFX, Framestore, Animal Logic, Pixomondo, MPC and more!

Unfortunately if the line-up was nearly perfect, the location itself was definetely not ideal.  Stacked in the small reception hall of the Vancity Theater, the dozen of booths were really hard to access, especially with the big number of attendants. A job fair registration system has been put in place to limit the number of people in the job fair area, but it was apparently not enough. The same problem with the location happened early in the morning when people tried to pick up their tickets bought online with no clear indications on where was the “real” queue.

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SparkFX – Job Fair // Credit: SPARK CG Society


Location issues appart, SparkFX has been a very great event, with high quality and exclusive conferences. With Vancouver being one of the most important place in the world for the VFX Industry, we would actually expect a longer event!

High quality conferences for the 3 best movies of the year. Location too small for the Job Fair and no place to stay between 2 conferences.
Exclusive gift (artbook, signed poster) for a random attendant at the end of each conference. Slow ticket pick-up system.
Impressive Job Fair line-up For an annual event, a second day of conferences/job fair would not be too much. We want more!
Exclusive content during the talks: lots of visual breakdowns and anecdotes not seen on internet before.
Great focus on ILM’s environment work, which stand out from the common VFX talks that usually focus more on creature work or animation!
One of the only event of this kind happening during the weekend! Way easier for everybody to attend the conferences.