District 9 was a significant film for me for a few different reasons.
- Efficient use of effects. It’s not just what you can do, but how you use it.
- Story with meaning. In a time where films rarely follow their core message… it’s refreshing to see an exception (including Pixar).
- I was almost lucky enough to work on it. Almost. :\
- Oh yeah, and it’s got aliens!
The film was directed by Neill Blomkamp, a Vancouver Film School graduate who is a VFX veteran from The Embassy, who directed the popular Citroen commercial.
Long story short, Neill was supposed to direct the Halo film, but that was put on hold (indefinitely?) and so Peter Jackson assisted Neill in turning his short film, “Alive in Jorberg“. into a feature film. District 9 was green lit with a budget of $30 million.
On September 29th I attended a Siggraph talk with Image Engine, where spoke on the making of District 9. Image Engine was one of a handful of studios in Vancouver that worked on the film. While Image Engine focused on the creation of the “prawn” characters, The Embassy was working on the large robot and little critters. Goldtooth Creative worked on some of the 3D user interfaces shots and WETA, since they were busy with Avatar, was only able to contribute to a few shot elements, including the mothership.
The original intention was to use prosthetic suits for the alien prawns w/ CG face overlays. Peter Muyzers recommended that Image Engine be allowed to create the creatures entirely in 3D. In the end, about 300 alien shots were created by Image Engine. The aliens were acted out by a grey suited actor and then replaced by a CG double, which was created in Maya. It was noted that the grey suit provided a great reference for lighting. Nuke was heavily used in the production as allowed for much of the CG lighting to be adjusted in real-time.
People at Goldtooth and Image Engine both noted how the use of the “Red One” camera sometimes produced warping of the frame during fast camera moves. This was often difficult for the tracking software and forced them to fully recreate the scenes in 3D in order to do touchups. The warping effect was referred to as the “rolling shutter“.
The 300 alien shots felt like a lot more. This and many of the other tricks, including filtering footage through VHS recorders, were testiment to Neill’s efficient use of FX. He understood that 3D is expensive and when some shots were pushed through the pipe, he was quoted saying that the cost was “a snowmobile or 2“. Like Fight Club, Neill used used FX to help tell a story, not a story to show off pretty effects. The crew at Image Engine expressed how much of a benefit it was to have someone directing that spoke their language.
I hope to see more movies like this and nearly everyone who’s seen it agrees. Would Neill be able to produce double the quality with 60 million? Anybody ready for a District 10? We’ll see.
FXGuide has a very detailed breakdown that includes before/after shots organized by studio.