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Luma Pictures Hits New Heights with Underworld: Evolution

Lead House on Sci-Fi Spectacular Reveals Its Mastery of Creatures & 3D Environments (January 20, 2006)

In the most ambitious project in its 4-year history, Luma Pictures served as lead visual effects house for the new Lakeshore Entertainment blockbuster: UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION, now screening worldwide. The studio created approximately 200 visual effects shots for the film, including numerous fully articulated 3D creatures who interact with live action characters and who have the ability to transform into human form—frequently very close to camera. Additionally, the studio designed and produced an expansive and fully CG medieval fortress environment, one of the film’s principal locations.

It was a coup for Luma to secure the role of lead visual effects provider on UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION, one of the most anticipated sci-fi/horror films of the year and the sequel to UNDERWORLD, one of 2003 surprise hits, bringing in more than $100 million in revenue. The feat underscores the studio’s rise from boutique start-up in 2002 to become one of Hollywood’s fastest growing suppliers of high-end visual effects for feature films.

Luma earned the confidence of Lakeshore through work on several previous titles, most notably last summer’s THE CAVE, where it was the soul provider of CG intensive visual effects involving 3D creatures and environments. The studio also had an established relationship with the film’s director, Len Wiseman, through the original UNDERWORLD, for which Luma served as a supporting VFX studio, completing nearly half the visual effects shots in that film.

Still, Luma had to win the assignment in competition with several much larger visual effects providers. “It took some convincing and a projected screening of our CAVE creatures to tip the scales in our favor,” said Luma Visual Effects Supervisor Payam Shohadai. “Once we won Len's confidence, we were given the opportunity to produce nearly every CG-intensive VFX shot in the film, including all of the 3D creatures and 3D environments.”

The key to Luma’s success is its ability to generate extremely sophisticated visual effects with high efficiency. The studio produced the effects for UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION in just eight months with a staff of 50 artists. Luma has built what may well be one of the industry’s most efficient pipelines for visual effects production and has assembled a team of very talented and ambitious artists.

“We are very fortunate for the staff we have,” explained Shohadai. “Other facilities capable of similar work often need twice the time and three times the staff to get the same job done. We know how to pick talent, from management to artists, so there are many superstars on our staff. When you have such a high concentration of talent in one place, everyone feeds off of each other and makes better art and better tools for creating the art.”

Luma’s CG creature work appears in more than 100 shots in UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION, and includes creatures representing alter egos of several of the film’s principal characters as well as CG body extensions such as wings and talons. As characters regularly transform from human state to bestial form, Luma also had to produce digital doubles of the talent for use in creating the complex transitions. “Many of the shots are so well executed that they are routinely mistaken for practical animatronics. We have had prospective clients ask us to see the preliminary animatics and wire frames because they simply did not believe that they were looking at CG,” commented Shohadai.

“Markus, the main antagonist, required a CG incarnation of his human state and his creature state,” Shohadai added. “Michael existed in three forms, one human and two creatures, each of which had to be created in 3D. There were also the main CG Werewolf characters; Markus’s white werewolf brother William, and a variety of secondary characters who are featured prominently—a peasant who transforms to a wolf, a burning corpse that transforms into a burning creature.”

The transformations could not be simple morphs. Rather, they had to occur organically and with great complexity. “The creatures’ skeletal systems needed to change, stretching the muscles and tissue with it,” explained Luma CG Supervisor Vince Cirelli. “Skin needed to roll over bone mass, veins pop and blood spurt. One of the transitions happens so close to camera that you can see its pores.”

Luma accomplished the transformations with a variety of off-the-shelf and proprietary tools. Artists used Pixologic’s ZBrush to define skeletal transformations using just a few low resolution base meshes. Luma’s staff created their own plug-ins for character rigging, including a capsule deformer that allowed independent control over different aspects of the character transitions.

“The transformations had to look painful and sporadic,” said Cirelli. “For this we devised underlying influence objects that pushed and pulled the skin.  That was sequenced with a shader that output passes for compositors to make capillaries burst and skin bruise. We also employed stress maps to raise the creatures to photo-real level. Even with all this technology, the creatures would not look like they do without the incredible work of the modelers and texture artists here at Luma.”

As impressive as are the creature effects, Shohadai is most proud of the studio’s work on the CG fortress. For that, artists worked without photographic reference material, creating the environment virtually out of thin air. “It is much harder to create something photo-real without a specific reference and becomes increasingly difficult as you introduce environmental elements, such as a stormy sky, snow, a lake, a cliff, fog and mountains. Each addition raised new questions about lighting and scale.” Shohadai observed.

“For the fortress, we only had a sketch from the production designer outlining a general layout,” added Christopher Sage, Luma’s texture and environment supervisor. “We gathered a large amount of reference materials from various public sources, but the director had something very specific in mind and the photos of existing castles that we found were less than ideal. We were able to take generic cues from the material we had compiled and the back-story of the film to develop a language to create this enormous and menacing castle.”

In the two years since it worked on the original UNDERWORLD, Luma has not only added resources, it has also learned a lot about what it takes to manage complex visual effects projects. “Aside from the core group of artists and overall philosophy, there isn’t much comparison between where Luma was during the first UNDERWORLD and where we are today,” said compositing supervisor Justin Johnson. “The staff has grown from 15 to 50 and we have switched to the Mac platform, which has added to the speed and simplicity of our pipeline. Project tracking, render farm submission, file structure generation, reference tracking, image conversion, shot review, multi-pass rendering management and many other aspects of our pipeline are now handled through proprietary technology.”

The structural and artistic advances Luma has made are apparent in the product they deliver to the screen. “From the start of UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION, we wanted to seize the opportunity given us, and we set the bar very high,” said Shohadai. “In doing so, we now have a very solid foundation in character work that we can apply to future projects. The next character film we do should produce some very exciting stuff.”

 Luma Pictures is located at 248 Westminster Ave., Venice CA 90291 For more information, call (310) 888-8738 or go to


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