Interview With Caleb Howard
(March 2003)

The Digital Effects Supervisor from Rhythm and Hues talks about working on the Daredevil movie. Thanks to Scot Byrd for making this interview happen and sharing the images of Shadow World!

Kuljit Mithra: Can you describe what was involved with creating Shadow World? Why was the colour blue chosen?

Caleb Howard: There was never an explanation given to us for that aspect of the art direction. I expect it was entirely an aesthetic judgement made by Doug Juhn, the Art Director who generated the concept drawings initially. Towards the end of the development of the look for Shadow World, we were asked to generate red and green versions as well, but it was decided to go with blue - as I say, purely for artistic reasons. On the subconscious level, blue-white is traditionally the colour of good, where red is traditionally the colour of evil.

In general, the development of Shadow World was driven initially by the comic books, which had very simple graphical methods of representing it. We knew up front that we would have to vaguely model acoustic dynamics, but that we would have to take great liberties with the physics. We could not have the sound waves move at the speed of sound, or there would be no way to see them, so we decided to slow it right down for purely artistic reasons.

Shadow World is not meant to represent the actual movement of sound, so much as Daredevil's internal conscious model of the echoes coming back to him. It's more his imagination, than the actual sound which we see.

Starting with that, it was a lengthy process of trying something out that we thought was cool, and then showing it to the client to see if they liked it. It was actually a long iterative process to get to where the director, VFX supervisor, and studio execs wanted us to be. In the end, though, it was worth it.

Technologically, Shadow World gave us an opportunity to develop volumetric tools. Thanks to this movie, we now have production tested tools which allow us a great deal of flexibility and control of the shape, and appearance of three-dimensional density fields. These fields are not only useful in generating soft-edged cloudy effects. They may also be used to derive isometric surfaces around the volumes. This can be very effective in the representation of fluids as well. In the Eyeball shot (in which young Matt is blinded by toxic waste), we used this to render additional spew from the barrel.

The "Shadow World" comes to life after Matt's accident in Daredevil
(c)2003 Rhythm and Hues

Mithra: Reflections play a big part in the movie... in DD's lens, Urich's glasses, the opening scene's puddles etc. Any comments on this?

Howard: If I was to speculate, which is all it would be, I would suggest that the usage of reflections - in particular in puddles - might have been used to create visual confusion in the audience in order to help draw them more into Daredevil's frame of reference.

Mithra: Is it generally more difficult to portray downward movement of weight or momentum than upwards?

Howard: I have never found it so, but I work more with simulation of physical effects than an animator, who must replicate physics through their skill with hand-animation. In the simulations which I use, up and down are arbitrary. In hand-animation, down is more natural than up, due to the pervasive quality of gravity. I suspect that it might be more difficult for a hand animator to convince the audience of a downward movement simply because the audience has seen downward movement more than they have seen upward movement. Being less familiar with the upward inertial effects, their expectations would be less stringent (in the upward case) for 2nd and 3rd order physical accuracy.

Mithra: What was involved with creating some of Bullseye's weapons? Paperclips, the peanuts, the sai, church stainglass etc...

Howard: Digital Effects! Each of these projectiles was modelled in 3D on the computer, animated, lit, rendered, and then composited back into the live action photographic plate. The challenge was as much in the lighting as anything. To make these objects look as if they are being lit by the same lights as photographic elements in the scene is crucial, and the lighters on the show did brilliant work (no pun intended).

Mithra: Since Daredevil is such a "auditory" movie, did that play into the way you approached doing the visual effects?

Howard: Absolutely. We spoke early and often with the sound designer on the show, and played our visual development of Shadow World off of his ideas. At the same time, he developed his ideas around the look of what we were developing. There was a lot of give and take. It was a lot of fun, and added tremendously to the overall impact of the effect. In general, the effect of sound design upon the audience's perception of the final digital imagery cannot be overstated. Sound is *everything* in film.

Mithra: Some shots seem to right out the comics (especially DD doing loops on the wire), did you look at the artwork from the books almost in a storyboard sense?

Howard: The owners of the Daredevil character [Marvel] were present in many of the developmental meetings, and had everything to do with maintaining their intention for the look of the character and his environment. Every phase of the production was steeped in this sensibility, right down to the artists who were working out the technical aspects of the implementation. There were many Daredevil Graphic Novels around Rhythm and Hues during the production.

Daredevil finds Jose Quesada hiding in Josie's Bar
(c)2003 Rhythm and Hues

Mithra: Did you have access to the storyboards, the shooting script, director's notes, etc?

Howard: We had the storyboards available to us, and the script. As well, notes were taken on set which detailed the practical setup for the shoots, so that we would have a more complete understanding of what we were matching digitally. On top of that, additional video was shot by the VFX supervisor on set of any detail he thought would be useful to have reference material for. There was an abundance of still photography shot as well.

Mithra: What kind of tools/software is used to make the effects? Generally how long does it take to create?

Howard: At R&H, we use Houdini for Effects work, simulation, and lighting on Daredevil. All of the Shadow World Effects were done in Houdini as well. For modelling, and character animation, we have in-house tools. There are various tools which we use for Rotoscoping and Match-moving the photographic objects. Depending on the shot, we will use one package or another, according to their strengths for a particular type of shot. Compositing was done with in-house tools, and also with the Inferno package from Discreet Logic. Painting was done with Photoshop, Gimp, Studio Paint, and Amazon Paint.

As for how long it takes, that's a fundamental question. Some types of effect take a long time (measured in months) to attain - like character animation where the motion has to be as close to perfect as humanly possible. Some things can be knocked off in a day or two. Experience allows you to guess ahead of time, so that a schedule can be made, but these estimates can be way off target. Invariably, there's a shot in a movie which is expected to take days which ends up taking months. The pullback through the eyeball when young Matt is being blinded was one such. We bid it at six weeks, and it ended up taking closer to six months to achieve. A lot of this discrepancy comes from the gulf between what the artist making the guess thinks the shot will look like, and what the VFX supervisor has in mind. It takes a lot of conversation to know what the client is after, and that conversation happens after we've already made our best guess.

Mithra: How many artists were involved?

Howard: Over the course of the show, at Rhythm and Hues, I would guess that number to be around 70.

Mithra: Was the DD costume difficult to translate into CGI? the texture, folds etc.

Howard: While it wasn't too difficult, it did involve a certain amount of innovation. The actor was scanned in 3D using laser scanning technology, *and* the character was modelled with complete controls to allow the animators to do their work. These two digital models were compared to see what the difference was between the idealized digital model, and the physical character with all of its organic imperfection. The difference was used in the rendering to add that organic imperfection back into the animated model. As well, the stresses on the digital actor's joints were calculated, and used to add additional wrinkling to the suit. The effect worked very well, and didn't add too much to our render times, thanks to Houdini's VEx language, which allowed us to generate these complex surface displacements with relative ease.

The colour of the suit, and its lighting was completely dependent upon the skill of our painters, and lighters. They should be proud of what was accomplished with a digital leading character on Daredevil.

Mithra: How many effects in total did R+H produce for DD?

Howard: Roughly 300, I believe.

Mithra: Are there any hardcore DD fans at R+H?

Howard: There are a handful, as well as more casual fans (such as myself). There were more after the movie than before.

Mithra: What's currently being produced at R+H?

[Scot Byrd from R&H's Media Relations provides the answer...]

Scot Byrd: We are currently working on "X-Men 2," "The Cat in the Hat," starring Mike Myers, "Around the World in 80 Days," "Intolerable Cruelty" for the Coen Brothers, The Untitled Peter Berg Project Formerly Known as "Helldorado" starring The Rock, and more to come!

[back to Caleb Howard...]

Mithra: what was your favourite effect in the movie?

Howard: Shadow World, definitely. It was innovative, unreal, and drove the story completely. It's always a pleasure to work on an effect which isn't trying to be invisible. It can be a double edged sword, though. When one is attempting to render something that looks like something we all see every day, it's boring, but it's also easy to say if it look right or wrong. When one is trying to show how a blind man sees the world (for example), there is a lot of room for artistic expression, but also a lot of room for disagreement, or confusion as to what it should look like. The mix of artistry and technology needed to develop Shadow World was rich, and I enjoy that most in my job.

The digital characters were at the forefront of such work, and so were enjoyable as well.

The High Dynamic Range Lighting models which we derived from the actual lighting on the sets was wonderfully effective as well.

It's always nice to solve a problem that hasn't been solved before, or to implement a better solution than has been done in the past. Daredevil had much to enjoy in its production.

Matt hones in on the punching bag
(c)2003 Rhythm and Hues

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(c) Kuljit Mithra 2003
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