Interview with Bläck Studios on 'State Zero'
In the near future, the capital of Sweden has turned into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. We join four soldiers on a routine mission in ‘Zone 3’, with the assignment to investigate an old surveillance tower that just went offline. That’s the setting in first-time director Andrée Wallin’s short film. Produced by Claire Fleming, the film was shot in London with an international cast, while all exteriors were shot in Stockholm. With incredible CGI and VFX by Bläck, entirely rendered in Arnold, this looks like an excerpt from a big budget blockbuster. We interviewed Bläck to find out more.
What's the origin story for Bläck Studios, and the background of the core team?
Bläck was started in june 2014, however most of the team have been working together for several years at other companies and have long experience collaborating with each other doing VFX and full-CG productions for games and commercials. Bläck's core-team is comprised of ten artists, most with a generalist background, but nowadays specialized to cover a specific area of production. Together with Bläck's directors, art directors and producers, we have experience not only doing post-production but are equally used to handling projects involving concept and script development through to producing live-action shoots.
What was the process through which the director came up with State Zero?
While working as a concept artist on Star Wars, State Zero director Andrée Wallin felt the desire to create a story of his own while also having the creative freedom to do his own take on some of his favorite subjects: science-fiction, vampires and a post-apocalyptic world. Andrée also felt inspired to do a different rendition of vampires than the one most present in today’s mainstream culture like True blood or Twilight, one with more animal-like traits, playing with the idea of humans turned beasts bearing traces of their former self. A native of Sweden, he was also compelled to find a new setting for his post-apocalyptic world and chose Stockholm, which provided a fresh location for a well-established movie genre. State Zero takes place in a near future around the year 2030, a few years after a major world-changing event that has left large parts of the world uninhabitable due to large scores of vampires. These factors provide the basic foundation for the environments, technology and production design of the movie.
What was the pitch for the studio?
In preparation for the shoot, and planning up the post-production, Andrée sought up his old friend from school Lead Compositor Calle Granström who came on the project as VFX Supervisor prior to Bläck's involvement. Over time, more and more of Andrée and Calle’s friends and colleagues got word of the project and wanted to get involved and elaborate on the effects. The vampires had originally been intended to be actors in make-up and most of the VFX would consist of matte paintings and the integration of the Wasp aircraft done in 3D. However, the growing VFX team managed to convince Andrée that they could pull it off better than prosthetics ahead of the shoot, and the script was adjusted to initially include some background vampires situated in the ceilings of the shopping mall sequence that was not possible to do on-set. Early sculpts and render tests, however, won Andrée over completely, and after the shoot it was decided to discard all of the live-action vampires in favor of CG vampires. The team also pushed for adding more, and more complex, Wasp shots. Until then, the project had largely been done in spare-time during off hours, but due to the growing amount of work, and the need for both render-power and a motion capture shoot, the team decided to bring it to the attention of the company employing many of artists involved: production company Bläck. Seeing the potential of both the director and the project, Bläck studio manager Tom Olsson, together with CEO Peter Levin and co-founder Annika Torrel Österman, came on as VFX Producers. The project was continued in conjunction with regular productions at Bläck involving most of the resident artists along with a group of freelancers and collaborators working both in-house at Bläck and remote. The post-production team involved up to 15 people, but most of the time it was around 8 artists working in parallel.
What range of tools were used on the project?
Rigging, animation and scene assembly was handled in Maya while lots of other applications were used to build assets including 3ds Max, Zbrush, Blender, Houdini, Marvelous designer, Mari and Substance designer. Motion capture was edited in Motion builder and Maya.
How much Arnold experience did the team have coming into it?
The Arnold renderer is the principal renderer used at Bläck and the obvious choice for our lighting and shading supervisor Henrik Eklundh, who handled the look-dev and rendering of both the Wasp and the vampires. Most of the Bläck team have been using Arnold from around 2012 and rely on its ease of use and its resilience towards facing massive amounts of geometry.
Can you tell us a bit about your lighting and rendering workflow in Arnold?
One of the technical challenges during the rendering process was handling the 34 16k textures of the Wasp together with component passes. Thanks to using texture maps in the tiled .tx file format, and a batch script for farming the texture updates, a lot of time was saved.
Because the vampires were originally meant to be all in camera, and because of the general time constraint on set, there were no lighting references apart from the actual plates, so the lighting was all matched by eye. We relied on finding HDR balls that would fit and we color-corrected them to match the live-action footage both for the aerials and the interior shots. We blocked some light with geometries and added beauty lights (area and cylindrical) where it was needed to fit the plate further or to improve the final look. We put out some volumetric passes for compositing to use in some shots and additional light passes for flashing lights but mostly we relied on a beauty render straight from Arnold.
We used aiStandard shaders for the wasp and other hardsurface models, and aiSkin and aiHair for the vampires. We had to use aiImage to get the wrinkle maps to behave, but other than that no special nodes. We use IPR on a regular basis, some artists use it alot, others more seldom.
Any other technical challenges that really stood out?
Creatively, the most challenging task was making the vampires as believable as possible. This was achieved using motion capture provided by Bläck’s sister company Imagination Studios for the body mechanics and reference footage and key-frame animation for the faces. The character setup was done in Maya and featured a muscle system to handle larger deformations and wrinkle maps driven by blendshapes for smaller deformations such as the face. Arnold’s standard skin shader was used together with Yeti for body and facial hair.
What were render times like and how large of a render farm does the studio run?
The close-up's of the vampire faces were the ones requiring the longest render times, topping out at around 1 hour for the final renders, with 10 AA and 2 SSS samples, and with auto-bump in SSS and quite a lot of hairs. The Wasp and other elements were really lightweight renders, maybe 10-15 mins for a random shot of the Wasp aircraft in final quality. It was all rendered in-house on 10 render nodes, so not a very large farm. The average render node spec was 16 cores (32 hyper-threaded) with 48 GB of RAM.
Is it all rendered locally in-house or is there any remote rendering?
We have used external render farms on occasion for larger projects with tight or rapidly changing deadlines but it's not very common for us.
Thank you! Any parting thoughts?
All in all it was a very inspiring project for everyone involved and also very rewarding to make the world of State Zero come to life in a photo-realistic manner. As with all indie productions, money was short and production had to give way for commercial projects along the way, but the close relationship between the director and the team meant the collaboration was always strong and each artist was able to contribute his best work to the end result.