The Armageddon Story

Armageddon is, without a doubt, one of the most talked about summer movies. Love it or hate it, you have to admit that the film’s visual effects were quite spectacular. The story is arguably not very original. An asteroid on a collision course with Earth has been the subject of many a TV show, novel, or in this case a feature film. Many comparisons has been made with Deep Impact, but in terms of both story and visual effects the two films are like chalk and cheese.

Michael Bay, the Armageddon’s director, is well known as one of the film industry’s finest filmmakers. His reputation springs from movies like Bad Boys, and The Rock – two films which clearly establish his style as intensely action packed, unpredictable, and topped full of the ‘wow factor’. “Michael is incredibly talented in my opinion. He is very visually oriented and he really has a vision in his head that he wants to create,” explained Richard Hoover, one of Armageddon’s visual effects supervisors, “He really pushed me visually, which I think is great.”

It took all of 21 visual effects companies to fully realize Bay’s imagery in Armageddon. Some of Hollywood’s finest are among them: Dream Quest Images, Blue Sky|VIFX, Tippett Studios, Computer Film Company, and Digital Domain to name a few. The film itself made no effort to disguise the fact that visual effects were used heavily. In fact, the movie opens with a spectacular CG title sequence of the famous Cretaceous meteor strike that supposedly spelled the end of the dinosaurs created by Blue Sky|VIFX, who worked on this single shot for 6 months.

“First of all, the entire shot was computer generated – there’s nothing real in the whole shot.” stated Richard Hollander, President of Blue Sky|VIFX and Senior Visual Effects Supervisor for the work the company did on Armageddon. Several different elements had to be created and animated by Blue Sky|VIFX, including the earth, the asteroid, stars and a nebula.

“The stars themselves were procedurally rendered in Renderman, and the asteroid was a 3D model of an asteroid which we built and shaded in Houdini. The earth was a very complex entity, in that it had different phases, different things that had to happen to it,” Richard explained, “the earth was a very graphical one, and I don’t think you’d ever see an earth like this if you were out in outer space. On top of the ordinary earth, which was very detailed – we used 3D clouds and ocean maps, etc. – we had the earth that was being destroyed by the asteroid. This involved a lot of particle work that was done in Houdini.”

Josh Jaggars, Blue Sky|VIFX’s visual effects producer added that, *“each element – the stars, the earth, the asteroid, the shockwave, the burned earth, the sun, the lens flares, and the moon – were all created separately (as Richard explained) and pulled together in Chalice at the end of the project.” *

But the spectacular effects are only beginning. In the first ten minutes of the movie the earth is showered with a storm of small meteor fragments, which cause mass destruction in many major cities, and even in space.

Computer Film Company handled an amazing shot where an astronaut is working in space. “The camera pulls out from the centre of a satellite to reveal astronauts and in the background, a beautiful revolving earth. Michael Bay wanted the earth to be visibly moving. He wanted it to be different than it has always been done in the past,” explained Rob Hodgson, digital effects supervisor for Computer Film Company, “so we got actual NASA transparencies of the Earth and mapped them as bump maps on a sphere in Alias|Wavefront. Then we added haze and faded it out to this beautiful rich blue in 2D.”

Then they did the compositing of the earth with all the other elements in Discreet Logic Inferno. “In this shot, the astronaut and the satellite were photographed in a studio against black – this was originally meant to just have stars in it and no earth,” Rob explained. “When the brief changed, we then had to put in a brightly lit earth behind the action, and undertake highly complex and accurate rotoscoping around the figure to make the composite.”

As well as smashing up the space shuttle, the asteroid fragments hit some of the world’s major cities (Paris, New York, etc.). Digital Magic/POP Film, and Cinesite produced effects for the New York destruction shots. “We created the New York matte painting [and it] was probably the biggest challenge, simply because we were not given many elements to work with.” Carlos Arguello, Cinesite’s visual effects supervisor for Armageddon explained, “Your Bruckheimer fans might be interested to learn that we used bomb fires from the movie The Rock, in that scene.”

Bob Wiatr was at Digital Magic during his time working on Armageddon, and now he’s at POP Film, “We did a few [of the] New York scenes, as the asteroid fragments are crashing into buildings. We also did the pan shot, near the beginning of the movie, when the meteor blasts through 2 buildings and crashes into Grand Central Station. The shot most people remember is the one of the top of a building falling down toward the camera as it looks upward.”

Bob went on to explain that the most memorable shot of the movie, in which the top of the Chrysler building is smashed off by a meteor fragment and falls down onto the camera, “was done mostly with particles and miniatures. The building miniature was shot outside under natural sky. Then the miniature of the top of the building was laid on its side and shot with motion control. We used smoke, fire, explosion and debris elements from a library they created. We also added a few 3D elements. Mostly, they were particle elements. We were often using 30 to 60 elements in a shot. I was working with up to 125 layers. In addition, many of the elements we used had been shot for other scenes. They were at the wrong angle for us to use, so we had to find a way to force them into the right perspective and make them seem natural.”

“Many of the debris pieces we used [in this shot] were actually text elements. Lou Condor, who works at Digital Magic, created a variety of geometric patterns and shapes in Fontographer. The Fontographer Fonts were then converted into SGI fonts. We then used them as 3D fonts, texture-mapped them and added them in as debris.”

Adam Howard, the film’s compositing supervisor, also mentioned that this was a favourite shot of his, “The miniature of the building was very good. The shot just became very complex due to all of the elements involved. The director wanted debris pouring off of the top as if still caught in the slipstream of the asteroid. To create some of the debris we eventually used 3D text elements that had been created from geometric shapes. Bob Wiatr and I even spelled our names in some of the debris created from this 3D text that is pouring off the building.”

The award winning visual effects house Digital Domain also contributed to the New York destruction sequence, with the Grand Central Station interior destruction shot. “We only had 8 weeks to come up with the Grand Central Station shot.” Erik Nash, Digital Domain’s visual effects supervisor for Armageddon, “Our producer Cari Thomas pulled the entire production together with zero lead time. George Stevens and his terrific model crew did their usual stellar work. And for this show they did it on a ridiculously short schedule. Joe Viscozil handled the [miniatures for the] Grand Central Station sequence, and Matthew Butler was our CG Supervisor for all of the 3D work. Rick Dunn served [as lead compositor for the] Grand Central [sequence]. But the person who made it all possible was Rob Legato. He was constantly there offering suggestions, sharing his vast experience, and keeping me out of trouble. He is absolutely the best in the business.”

Digital Domain was also handed the Shanghai Harbor sequence, where yet another asteroid fragment causes mass destruction. Again, the shot consisted mostly of miniatures, while the water was CG (created using Arete). “[One of the things] we were having trouble creating [was] the geyser in Shanghai Harbor that is created when the asteroid hits.” Erik explained, “Finally we ended up using tiny glass beads. These beads were very small, like grains of sand but perfectly round and clear. We blew them out of a 10 inch air mortar and filmed it at high speed and it perfectly simulated a plume of water.”

The next big visual effects scene is the shuttle launch sequence, where the Freedom and Independence are launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida. This was created by Editel and Computer Cafe. Don Lee, compositing Supervisor for Editel on Armageddon explained that, “Michael Bay, the Director, had gone down to Florida with a crew and actually filmed a shuttle launch. They shot this from about 14 different angles and we were then given this footage as our background elements. They then shot motion control greenscreen footage of the miniature shuttles which were, I believe, about two feet tall. After that we inserted the model footage into the launch footage.”

“We also had three shots leading up to the launch. There was a shot of one of the shuttles when you first see it inside the hangar. Again, we had actual footage of the hangar and had to insert the shuttle model and add lighting. There was also a shot of the crawler moving the shuttle to the launch site. We added the shuttle model to that shot. Finally there was a wide shot from about two miles away of the two shuttles on the pad with spotlights on them. These shots were in addition to thirteen shots of the actual launch. We did all the launch shots up to the Apollo 13-type shots.”

David Ebner, animation director at Computer Cafe explained that, “On Armageddon we were responsible for a much smaller part of the overall movie, but it had it’s own set of challenges. Our main responsibility was the shots of the two shuttles taking off. You may remember the shot where you are overhead looking down on the first shuttle as it lifts off. This was similar to the shots from Apollo 13.”

“Those shuttles were miniatures that were shot on a dark stage, then they did a matte pass and sent the element to us. We added all of the fire and smoke from the rockets and even the condensation and debris,” David went on.

“We also had to reconstruct the launch site to accommodate the dual launch,” David added. “The director actually went to Florida and filmed a shuttle taking off but the real space centre is not equipped to launch two shuttles simultaneously. Therefore, all of the background had to be built in CGI.”

“We did a couple of other shots for Armageddon as well. You may recall the scene, after the shuttles have taken off, and you can see one at a little distance with the Earth in the background. Suddenly the second shuttle passes by right in front of the camera which pans to follow it and ends up focused on the rocket’s burners.”

Computer Cafe used 3D Studio MAX and Lightwave to realize their part of the movie, as well as a new MAX plug-in called Afterburn. “The hardest part of our assignment was definitely the smoke,” said David. “We were doing complete CG simulations of the exhaust from the rockets and it was a challenge to create the right kind of billowing clouds of smoke to make the scene believable. We ended up creating a custom shader for Max.”

As the two shuttles leave earth there are several shots where the two shuttles fly over the camera; the miniatures here were handled by Dream Quest Images. “One of our model crews built two 1/20 scale, 6-foot miniatures of the space shuttles,” Richard Hoover described, “using epoxy and fiberglass with a six-point mount for motion-control shooting. Additionally, we created digital models of the shuttles with dimensional surface texture and detail that precisely matched that of the miniatures.” Lens flares, stars and the earth were all digital elements in these shots.

The Mir Space Station sequence featured a huge amount of incredible visual effects. Computer Film Company and Cinesite handled these shots. The sequence consisted mostly of miniatures, but there were one or two incredible effects shots that slipped in there. Computer Film Company created one such shot – as the camera approaches the space station you can see Lev, the Russian cosmonaut looking out the window. “The appearance of Lev the cosmonaut inside the Russian space station was done by Senior Compositor David Fuhrer on Discreet Logic Inferno,” Rob Hodgson from Computer Film Company said, “it’s a hard shot to explain.”

This shot contained many elements – to get an idea of how many and thus how complex the shot was, here is a short list of the elements involved in the shot (courtesy by Rob Hodgson):

  • Mir station (fully detailed model, 20 feet long) – motion control element
  • Mir station mattes – motion control element
  • Mir hatch model (fully detailed hatch 12 inches across) – matched move motion control element
  • Mir hatch mattes – motion control elements
  • Interior back wall of Mir (fully detailed setpiece, 5 foot high) -matched motion control move
  • Glass for window (to give texture to window glass) – matched motion control element
  • Smoke passes (to put into interior of Mir) – shot with locked off camera against black
  • Thruster passes (to be tracked onto exterior of space ship) – locked-off elements shot against black
  • Star plate (to put behind Mir) – locked off 3d computer generated element tracked in 2d to motion of Mir
  • 3D modeled and animated book and pen – (to float around Lev to accentuate the zero gravity interior)
  • Earth plate (to be reflected in window) – NASA transparency tracked onto window plane
  • Lev plate (actor) – shot non-motion controlled, non-locked off against greenscreen

“The hardest thing for people to understand is why the different scale models were used. The full Mir model had a porthole that was only 1 inch across – the detail on that size model cannot stand up to being photographed so close-up. In addition, the lens cannot keep pin sharp focus on something that close. That is why the second model was made of the hatch at a larger scale, so that more detail could be put into the model (the hatch was 12 inches across). “

“The trouble then came in the composition with matching lens distortion of the different scale models – with the big rotating move that pulls out simultaneously, the disparities of the lenses had to be counteracted. All passes of the hatch had to be tracked using 4 points – again this was tricky as in certain sections the hatch went off screen. One of the other major problems was that the actor shot against greenscreen was shot with a moving camera – we had to take out that camera move from his element, and then introduce the move to put onto the model, while keeping his face within the window, so we could see him deliver his line. There was no real perspective move put on the actor, that was fabricated during the composite.”

Another of Computer Film Company’s incredible shots was the destruction of the space station. Rob Hodgson explained that, “on the interior shots of the station exploding, it was very hectic. It was all shot with a handheld camera to get a real feeling of intensity. So when you cut to the exterior it seemed kind of clean and quiet. It was just too serene, so we had to try to create a feeling of intensity and hectic activity.”

“We added pyro, interactive lights and shadow, and all kinds of things going on. We had to bring these elements together. We wanted to create the impression that the space station was literally coming apart at the seams.”

As the shuttles flee from the exploding Mir space station, they head for the monstrous asteroid. The asteroid was created as a miniature by Dream Quest Images, Richard Hoover told us that, “The main asteroid was a 28 ft. by 15 ft. model, built on a rotator.” The asteroid’s gases were CG, created using some very colourful and quite spectacular particle effects.

The Armadillos play a rather interesting part in the asteroid action, and Richard Hoover explained that, “Pat McClung’s model crew built a fully functional Armadillo. When they were finished with it, we brought it back here, stripped the motors out of it and used it as a motion control vehicle.” This motion control was used to create the sequence in which the Armadillo ‘jumps’ the canyon.

While our heroes are on the asteroid; back on Earth Paris is taking a beating from some more asteroid fragments in two of the most finely crafted effects shots in the whole movie. Created by both Dream Quest Images and Matte World Digital, these shots are truly stunning. In the first shot of the destruction, Dream Quest Images gave us a wonderful shot of the meteor fragment smashing into the city and creating a shockwave. This effect was created by smashing the meteor fragment miniature into gravel and earth. The miniature footage was then composited onto footage of Paris.

Matte World Digital then provided the second effects shot of the sequence, which was completed in only 2 weeks. “We were responsible for what we called the Paris aftermath scene,” explained Craig Barron, owner and visual effects supervisor for Matte World Digital. “This was the final shot of Paris and the surrounding devastation, after the asteroid fragments had hit.”

“We had originally hoped to use a plate shot by helicopter as the basis for our matte scene. But the weather was hazy when the helicopter was filming and it just wouldn’t work, because you couldn’t see any detail in the distant buildings. In the end, we were able to use a photograph from Robert Cameron’s book, Above Paris, [and] we scanned this transparency to a 45 megabyte file.”

“Next, Paul Rivera, our Digital Composite Supervisor, broke this still shot into multi-plane layers. We were able to use the hazy halo footage as a reference for recovering the camera move. We then applied the moving camera information back to the still elements so that it looked like we filmed our new scene from the helicopter to create a move file.”

“Then, Sean Joyce sculpted a highly detailed 4 by 8 foot impact creator out of clay that we photographed outside in natural sunlight matching the lighting and time of day from the Above Paris photo. Using the scanned photograph coupled with scanned photography of Joyce’s crater now the equivalent of a “digital under-painting”, artists Brett Northcutt aided by Chris Evans created a new digital matte painting of the final image in Amazon Paint, Photoshop and Alias|Wavefront Composer. But, the most difficult part of the image was integrating all the digital re-touching of the destroyed buildings that Northcutt achieved using various custom “rubble texture elements” that he cloned from.”

Back on the asteroid, a meteor shower rains down on our heros as they try to drill the asteroid surface. Created by Tippett Studios, the shower was a very complex effect to create. Like so many of the shots on the asteroid, it contains a very large amount of elements, live, miniature and digital. “We used SoftImage for the 3D work to model and animate the rocks,” explained Bruce Nicholson, Tippett Studios visual effects supervisor for Armageddon. “We used Dynamation for the effects animation; fiery tails etc. We also used Dynamation on the geysers. Then it was all composited with Alias Composer. We sent people to LA to measure and survey the sets. Then we performed 3D match move with SoftImage and 2D match move with Alias Composer.”

He went on, “The entire sequence was challenging due to the short time schedule. Also the director was looking for a specific rhythm and pacing and we had to develop shots that matched that rhythm and pace even though the cuts were changing continuously. As for the toughest shot, that would have to be the geyser erupting. There were so many elements, and they were complicated to generate and blend together.”

Dream Quest Images produced the shot of the asteroid exploding, as Richard Hoover explains, “The final explosion sequence spliting the asteroid in two halves was accomplished with models. The big explosion, where you see the blast ring spreading out was done with a CG asteroid.”

Once the mission is complete the shuttles return to earth. Rainmaker Digital Pictures handled most of the shots of the shuttle landing. The artists at Rainmaker worked primarily with Adam Howard, Armageddon FX compositing supervisor to create these sequences.

“At the very end of the movie there is a profile shot of the shuttle Freedom sitting alone,” Adam Howard explained, “This was originally shot with a 12 foot miniature on a real NASA runway. It just did not look right and at one point was cut from the film. We went and shot the 40-foot miniature of the shuttle for detail, but it still didn’t look right. I just kept coming back to that shot. Then one day it just clicked. Both the sky above it and ground below the shuttle were flat, one colour. So we went in and added a slight gradient to the sky and added some shadows and texture to the ground and now the shot works.”

But Armageddon’s visual effects didn’t end there. Black Box created screen visuals (the images you see on computer screens) and low-end visual effects that the actors used to act against. There were many more miniatures, composites, and effects animations shots that aren’t covered here. Cinesite created some digital characters for one shot – the characters that walk out of the shuttle once it lands are actually CG (the shuttle is a miniature).

We’ve all seen disaster movies before but none as detailed as the destruction sequences in Armageddon. We’ve all seen space sequences before, but none as colourful and spectacular as some of Armageddon’s asteroid shots. In both the scope of the special effects and in the sheer effort of coordinating the abilities of the battalion of visual effects companies working on the film, Armageddon has set a new industry standard.