You probably know most fantasy blockbusters are stuffed with computer-generated (CG) effects making spaceships fly and superheroes clash. But digital visual effects are everywhere in modern filmmaking. To find out how this cutting-edge movie magic is created, we visited the London studios of effects company MPC.
MPC's work on Disney's 2016 version of The Jungle Book earned an Oscar. The entire jungle and all the animals were created with CG -- the only "real" thing in the movie is the young actor playing Mowgli, which meant he had to be filmed in such a way as to be carefully matched with the animated elements added later. So this shot, for example, begins with Mowgli hugging a model of one of his animal chums, filmed in front of a blue screen. This unaltered shot is known as a "plate".
The process of creating effects is as technical as it is creative, with software using complex algorithms and character creation requiring expertise in everything from anatomy to the physics of water. As a result, the office is piled high with as many textbooks as movie magazines.
Footage is continually presented to supervisors, heads of department, the movie's visual effects supervisor and the director in cosy screening rooms dotted around the office. Rough temporary versions of each shot are generally shown until everyone's happy, as rendering shots in full detail takes a huge amount of time and processing power.
Visual effects traditionally refers to the effects added after shooting, but with today's complex techniques visual effects supervisors have to be on the set for movies like Prometheus to ensure each shot will work with what comes later.
In order to match shots like this, the effects team must capture lots of reference information on set. They use techniques like photographing silver and chrome balls to record the lighting conditions and using Lidar 3D scanning to map the location.
Visual effects also create virtual people in much more detail. CG is often used to create fantastic-looking creatures like the apes of the Planet of the Apes movies or Marvel characters like Rocket Raccoon and Groot, but in Terminator Genisys a "digital double" was created to take years off star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Another digitally de-aged character appeared in Blade Runner 2049, when MPC spent a year making a CG model of the character Rachael looking exactly as she did in the original movie. This picture shows the incredibly lifelike CG model.
Digital animals and humans are built from the inside out so they move realistically. Underneath it all the rigging team builds a 3D skeleton with joints and bones that move realistically. Another layer of musculature is then added on top.