April 2016 [VFX]
Despite the need for prosthetics, the zombie genre of horror films has production cost ranges that are incredibly broad. With every budget that spends only 45 GBP (approx.65 USD) there are Hollywood zombie films with cost tens of millions of US dollars. However, most people typically have the impression that zombie films are low budget B-movies. George A. Romero, a zombie film pioneer and master, made his films in this exact fashion and his success can be credited for making this stereotype stick. The sense that fans of the genre were limited to an eccentric audience continued for a long time. Its fans were not typical film buffs, nor were they fans of simple horror films, nor were they monster movie fans, the zombie film was a small market supported by fans that only liked zombie films. It wasn't until the 2000s that Hollywood began to make zombie films for a larger audience. The mainstream zombie movement began with 2 titles, 2013's "World War Z" and the TV drama "The Walking Dead" that began airing in 2010. For these titles, an enormous budget was spent on creating high quality VFX-driven zombies that looked like living corpses. Combined with compelling dramatic elements, these A-level zombie titles increased to the point that even the general audience became captivated by the genre.
On the other end, Japanese zombies have been continued to be portrayed as they always have been, as symbolic characters. In recent years, zombie titles have emerged using famous idols and comedians to expand customer bases all the way to kabuki; but the biggest sales points have always been the combination of the casting and the genre. The depiction of zombies never really changed. Traditionally the Japanese, a culture that practices cremation, has long struggled to accept the idea of a zombie being born from a grave. But the reason that the traditional image of a zombie never changed most likely has to do with the fact that Japan does not invest in big budget productions in the way that Hollywood does. Despite these circumstances, the Japanese zombie film "I AM A HERO" was created. In the film, the ZQN (pronounced Zokyun) are lifeforms that emerge due to the spread of a mysterious virus. Just as in the Kengo Hanazawa's original manga, the film brings them to life in such a raw and realistic way that it will make you want to turn away from the screen in horror. In the film, the beings are not referred to as "zombies". But they come into existence in a way that is realistic in a Japanese society and chase their victims with the same unbreakable resolve that "zombies" from burial cultures do. In the end, even the Japanese become overrun by this new type of living corpse! How exactly was the ZQN, a new type of zombie, created? Atsushi Doi, the leader of the CG production team, and 5 team members from the composite, character and animation departments will share what production looked like from the VFX side.
(Interviewer: Kao Yamashita from ZAKKA MEKKA Inc. / Text: Miyuki Morikawa)
In recent years, a number of low budget titles have created zombies by adding CG elements to special effects makeup. CG is primarily used to create zombie-like features such as the eyes and skin textures but depending on the budget and the director's intentions the use of CG changes. Particularly with limited budgets, at minimum the wounds, complexions, glint in the eye, cracked skin, remnants of blood, etc should be enough to evoke "zombieness" but with the ZQN in this project, from the very beginning a specific ZQN concept was set and the team needed to decide what needed to be done in production to achieve it. We will discuss the process with CG Director, Atsushi Doi, who supervised VFX from the initial shoot on location, Composite* Team Members Kazutake Saito (Shot Design Department Lead), Hiroki Ando (Shot Design Artist), Shuji Miyao (Character Artist) and Miki Hasegawa (Effect Artist).
*“Composite” refers to the process of combining rendered elements, 3D models and live action footage using compositing software then adding color correction and effects.
ZQN Modeling Concept
Basically, the concept didn’t deviate from the original source material. The director, Mr. Sato, told us he wanted to use CG to express the partial loss of ZQN’s body parts. With special effects make up, typically you can only add to what is already there. Since you could only “add” to the actor’s original skin, you couldn’t do physical subtractions. In traditional small scale zombie films, people are limited to using additive makeup to add elements such as keloid scars to the skin, blood shed, and false teeth; they then use simple CG to make it seem natural. But with this film since the original manga was such a big hit, we wanted to try our very best to create a live-action version that didn’t deviate from the original’s expressions. This is why subtractive physical expressions such as depressions and holes came about. To us, these elements were extremely important.
But we didn’t have to refine all ZQNs. Instead of that, we established ZQN production priority rankings. The highest ranking A-level ZQNs were CG intensive and to create partial damage on them we attached green areas to the special effect makeup. The ZQNs with names in the story were considered A-rank. We also performed composite work in the eyes of B and C rank ZQNs in shots so that you can recognize them. The total number of shots we worked on for VFX was about 520, which was about 30% of the total number of shots in the entire film. In about 300 shots we had to deal with scenes in which ZQNs that lost parts of their body and their head. About 150 shots required only eye composite work. But even the eye-only composite work wasn’t simple. The area around the Western person’s eye is so deep that even if the eye pops out, it doesn’t feel strange. Unfortunately Asian skeletal structure isn’t like that. That being said, there are various types of ZQNs that appear such as a pimple-faced ZQN and a fox-eyed ZQN. The eye shapes and positions of the ZQNs that appear in the manga are grotesque so often left and right eyes are of different sizes and are distant from each other. The director asked us to pay particular attention to this characteristic and wanted to compositing to make B rank ZQNs to have left and right eyes that move in opposing directions. I think this type of attention to detail allowed us to arouse a subliminal sense of discomfort on those watching.
There hasn’t been this much zombie CG work done on a Japanese zombie film before right? In my experience, even with bigger budget VFX-laden films, CG necessary shots have ranged from about 100 to 200. Low budget films have about 50. I think the number of CG shots in this film really helped demonstrate how much “a lot” truly is. You really have the impression that special effect makeup team were in full operation working from morning to night applying the makeup. Of course if you rely too heavily on CG it can break the sense of reality. So to the bitter end, we used special effects and prosthetics as a base and then it was up to our VFX team to figure out how to layer CG that blended in without overdoing it.
The main tools used were Maya for 3DCG along with Max and RealFlow Fluid Simulation for effects. For compositing we used After Effects and Nuke and V-Ray for rendering.
Saito-kun established a system that allowed for us to concurrently create a delivery DPX file and the QuickTime file we used for checks. With this workflow, you can use Nuke and After Effects at the same time so we had a system where we could use both programs. Thanks to this we worked efficiently and got a lot done quick. I think you could say that this type of background effort is the reason we were able take on the task of creating a creature like the ZQN.
The fundamentals of the ZQN are partial damage, destruction and explosion.
The ZQN are not limited to the types that are finished off by being shot in the head. When they are shot in the head, their heads literally explode. These types of zombies are also sometimes used in Hollywood films but since their rating committee is stricter than Japan’s, I think most try to avoid such types. With this project, we also had rating restrictions but I think we were able to push the limit during violent battle scenes. The usual practice is to split up shots to depict evoke the sense of heads being “blown up”. But we didn’t fake the effect and openly showed the moment where the ZQN dying in this film. It is the main character Hideo’s job to fight ZQNs that constantly get back up after being defeated over and over so we wanted depict the gross lengths to which a ZQN would go to destroy him. The power that CG has to depict the ZQN losing their body parts is, in my opinion, the reason that this film quality earned its A-level status. There are moments where we pursue reality even it seems like a bit too much detail. For instance, we show brain tissue swaying inside of damaged heads and also create CG models to blow up the ZQN’s heads even though they are only shown on screen for a few frames.
For references, we gathered footage to study how items like water balloons and watermelons break and separate on impact. Of this footage, we narrowed down which clips could work as samples. In addition to these, we also gathered CG samples as well.
As expected, when we were refining the head there were a lot of components so it took us quite a bit of time. The instantaneous explosion of the head was easy but when we had to more slowly show the explosion - for instance when a bullet from a rifle hits 2 ZQNs - we would think of the direction and order of the impact as we created the effects. We would even take time to calculate which side of the head the strength of impact was strongest before creating body damage. If we didn’t execute at this much detail, this moment would look fake and in an instant the quality of the film would diminish.
Adding blood is the effects team’s job. Before this film, we have never created blood for this amount shots. But it was amazing to work on scenes where a head bursts and meat and blood fly out. The blood wasn’t just one color. And the quantity of blood that sprayed versus blood that exploded differed as well. For the most part, we received pieces from the character team and then added movement and exploded them. We created the exaggerated blood using RealFlow to create a form that matched a shattered piece’s movement. From here, we ran an explosion simulation to create the blood’s actual movement and then added “character” to the blood by adding a harshness to the explosion and various other movement patterns to the simulation. For the flying blood, incidental movement was also necessary but we also adjusted this movement also to give it more character. The blood that actually flew on set was thick and didn’t fly very far so we corrected that as well using CG. Ironically, showing thick blood in CG was difficult.
One of the biggest characteristics about the CG representation of the ZQN isn’t just they’re explosions, but also the partial loss of their body parts. We get a lot of jobs where we use a full-sized digital body double to insert things requested by the client. But we’ve never encountered a job like this where we needed to alter an extremely large amount of requests on a very localized level. In these moments, we weren’t adding CG elements, we were using CG to destroy parts of the body as the director wanted. For instance in a scene where only a nose would be destroyed, we’d create a CG nose and work with the live action team to get it to match. As expected, to achieve proper lip sync we’d also have to work at a minute level to match the CG to the live action movement.
For the loss of a nose, we performed CG work on a molded model based on sample images. When the nose is removed we used CG to show the exposed teeth. Without a prosthetic model, we wouldn’t be able to blend the CG so the character team made us a 3D model to match the original. In a traditional Japanese film, you achieve an effect like this by working with an “appliance”*. But here, as much as possible, we used CG to show the most inner parts of damaged areas. You could say that this type of work is similar to Hollywood. There were times where the director requested wound silhouettes from us. For instance, if there were parts of body that was to be bitten by a ZQN, we would add fat and bone ahead of time. If relied too much on subtracting from the actual body, the sense of reality would be lost and the moment wouldn’t stand out as much. So we worked to accentuate wounds to make it look like body parts were gouged out etc.
For reference material, we searched for live action shots of wounds. For the most we didn’t recycle wounds. We made each asset from scratch. Depending on the ZQN, the skin color was different so we attached color to the original live action footage. Other than this, we were also in charge of the effects of small items and accessories. For instance, the end of a knife, a flying arrow and flies that would suddenly fly from out of nowhere (laugh). For wounds we were provided the wound models with color and we 3D scanned them. Then we added a bit more effect detail to them in CG. We created textures that best matched the feel of the material and worked on effects all the way to the final lighting stage.
We made a lot of ZQNs but no matter how far we pushed ourselves it was always hard to assess whether or not the work was perfect.
The number of assets we were able to recycle was small but the first ZQN we made was extremely important. From that model, the texture etc needed became apparent.
*“Appliance” refers to a facial adhesive made from latex.