Added by on 2013-05-22

Kon-Tiki Real-Life Graphics for Real-Life Heroes

Niklas Jacobson, VFX Supervisor and Co-founder of Important Looking Pirates, provides a look at the techniques and pipeline behind the studio’s stunning visual effects for the Oscar-nominated Norwegian film Kon-Tiki. Niklas walks through the shots from concept to completion, describing how they approached the film both creatively and technically. He also reveals some of the exciting new projects Important Looking Pirates has been working on.

Making of Kon-Tiki & Kon-tiki Vfx Breakdown

The making of Kon-Tiki
In the summer 2011 ILP was awarded a massive sequence for the upcoming Norwegian feature film “Kon-Tiki” directed by Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg. The film is about the legendary explorer Thor Heyerdal’s epic journey crossing the Pacific on a balsa wood raft in 1947.

Our sequence takes place during a major emotional peak of the movie, as the crew struggles with internal conflicts while facing a critical situation involving white sharks.
ILP delivered 58 shots in total, with plenty of hero shots and some extremely complex fully computer generated scenes.

One of the greatest challenges with this sequence was that it had to look a 100% believable in order to not spoil the emotional moment, which put incredible high demands on everything from models, textures, lighting, animation to compositing and integration of the computer generated elements into the filmed plates.

Another extremely challenging part of our work was all the effects work, such as, blood, bubbles and cutting edge water effects. We made a few 100% CG generated shots that needed to cut seamlessly with the live action footage. We used state of the art software such as Exotic Matter’s Naiad for water simulation and we also used our proprietary render engine, Tempest, for rendering additional particles and volumetric effects such as blood. But most important of all was all the hard work put down from our incredibly talented artists.

Creature work
We made a digital double of the crew’s pet parrot Lorita. The digital parrot was used for the scene when Lorita flies into the water, and also when the sharks attack her in the water. Using a digital double of the parrot enabled the directors to play out the scene in a very controlled fashion, and it makes for some stunning visual effects. During principal photography we took some time aside with the real parrot, to take plenty of reference photos and films to document the details in shape, feathers and subtle movements of the real parrot. She was then digitally reconstructed using software such as Maya and Mudbox, where we sculpted her, attached feathers and fur, and rigged her for animation.

Our work with our digital sharks begun immediately when the work was awarded. We watched endless hours of documentary films like Planet Earth to study shark behaviour and underwater photography in order to prepare for the task. We made a digital shark using Maya, Mudbox and Z-brush. Once we had made one photorealistic shark we were happy with, we started creating variations with slightly different textures and sizes. We also had to make a custom close up shark with plenty of details for a hero close up shot when the shark gets slain on the raft.

The biggest challenge for us was the high detailed water simulations that had to be created for the movie. Fortunately we had plenty of experience of liquid simulations since we where early adopters of Exotic Matter’s fluids solver Naiad. We have been their clients since the alpha days in 2008 and over the years we have done several high end commercial productions with Naiad. It still required lots of research and testing of various techniques to reach our goal. One of the major scenes is when the sharks are attacking the parrot in the water. This scene was made from scratch in the computer. The final water simulation took about a week to simulate, it consisted of hundreds of millions of particles that we used to create a surface mesh to render in V-Ray. By the end of the project this shot took up approximately 10 terabyte of disk space. It was both an artistic and technical challenge to say the least.

The compositing was done in The Foundry’s Nuke software. In addition to all compositing of CG elements, we had plenty of complex clean up work such as removing a rubber shark that was used on set and reconstructing clean plates in order to put our digital shark in the scenes. The underwater shots required careful study of references and artistry in order to nail subtle changes in color and depth haze and balancing levels in order to make our digital shark integrated with our live action plates. Additional particles and debris were created and composited to bridge the live action with our CG elements.

This was an extremely exciting project for us to work on, and we would like to extend our thanks to the all people involved in this project. Even though the production budget was huge in Nordic measures, it is still a fraction compared to the international blockbuster movies. We still feel that we managed to create some of the better sharks shots seen in film to date.
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  • John Samonte


  • Nelson

    When I first watched the movie I honestly thought they had killed a real shark. Impressive CGI!

  • In movie VFX work is very awesome!!!

  • Lenny

    How the heck did they pull off the texturing on the sharks? Absolutely phenomenal. These are probably the most photo-realistic sharks I’ve ever seen. Not just the look but the weight and movement. Amazing job!!!!!!

    I hope you guys make a Gnomon DVD some day about texturing…. (hint hint!) :)