When you talk about Wing Commander, the movie created and directed by Chris Roberts, you have to talk about the fact that it’s based on the characters and themes from the top-selling games of the same name. The $27 million film, set in the year 2564, documents the exploits of a young pilot (played by Freddie Prinze Jr.) fresh from the Academy who joins the Confederate forces to quash an alien attack from the invading Kilrathians, a cat-like species who have captured a computer navigation device that will enable them to attack and destroy Earth. But the sci-fi flick is infused with many 1940s military references and style, making it, according to Roberts, “a hard-core war movie set in space in the distant future.”
Although Wing Commander represents Roberts’ film directing debut, the role is not entirely new to him. He has directed actors –for instance, Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell–in extensive live scenes during production of the third and fourth game series. “The Wing Commander games were so successful because they became increasingly cinematic–we shot on film and had motion-picture production values. Each time it was like making a film, so going to the big screen felt like the next logical step,” Roberts says.
While the film retains Wing Commander’s origins, Roberts walked a fine line, being careful not to ignore the games’ loyal following, but taking advantage of today’s technology and the chance to attract a whole new audience. “The film delivers all the action and visual impact that Wing Commander fans expect. Yet we insisted that it also have mass appeal. We worked with a brand-new story line, so moviegoers don’t have to be familiar with the game to understand or enjoy the film,” he says.
Breaking with Tradition
The drama, distributed by Twentieth Century Fox, was created untraditionally by Hollywood standards. For the live action, production designer Peter Lamont, who recently received an Academy Award for his work on Titanic, created a retro-futuristic world by transforming two sound stages in Luxembourg, Belgium, into the flight deck, bridge, and corridors of the Confederate carrier Tiger Claw, as well as the bridge of the merchant vessel Diligent and the bridge and corridors of the Kilrathi ship. The footage was then integrated with about 300 effects–all digital–most of which were created by Roberts’ entertainment company, Austin-based Digital Anvil. Roberts formed the company more than a year ago when he left Origin Systems (a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, which released the Wing Commander games), after securing film rights to the series.
The animators at upstart Digital Anvil hit the road running, completing all but 20 of the film’s effects, while also creating content for four new computer games, scheduled for staggered releases throughout the next 12 months. “The biggest challenge was putting together a digital-content team of 20 people–most of whom never worked together before–outfitting them with new software in a new facility, then trying to produce about 300 digital effects for a feature film,” says Chris Olivia, Digital Anvil’s visual-effects director, who served as sequence supervisor for the movie. Complicating the situation were the diverse backgrounds of the animation team–some came from gaming, while others grew their roots in the commercial effects field–who helped fulfill Digital Anvil’s focus of an all-around digital-effects house. “We borrowed from both sides. We took the organizational production from the film side, and let people wear many different hats–modeler, texturer, animator–from the game side,” he adds.
To help the company maximize its resources, it used off-the-shelf products to produce the film’s effects. For almost all the CG work, the animators used Alias/Wavefront’s (Toronto) Maya, running on SGI (Mountain View, CA) Octanes, for building, texturing, and animating. For the rendering, the group used Maya running on a distributed system comprising 30 NT-based Boxx Technologies’ (Austin) RenderBOXXs and SGI Octanes, Origin 200s, and O2s. For compositing, the animators chose Maya Composer and Nothing Real’s (Los Angeles) Shake.
“We didn’t use a digitizer or anything like that. We built everything directly in Maya from drawings provided by the artists,” says Olivia. He adds that the only physical models used for the film were those provided by the art department as a guideline for the animators. The decision to avoid practical models was driven by time and money, but mostly because “we also knew we could do it digitally; we have a lot more experience in that arena.”
According to Olivia, almost all the digital effects performed by Digital Anvil were 100% 3D, with no live action. Although Star Trek: Insurrection beat Wing Commander to the screen with an all-CG star fleet and fully digital space sequences, Olivia believes the level of detail in the ships and the realism of Wing Commander is superior. “The film contains a full atmospheric, colorful look at space, instead of the blackness and void commonly depicted. So you have a lot of things like pulsars, nebula, and quasars that occupy these 3D environments,” he says.
In fact, while Roberts notes that the CG work on the movie was fun, it was not exactly like creating a game, in that the resolution is much higher and the amount of detail is far greater in film, requiring more attention. Adds Olivia: “You just can’t hand the images over to be digitized. You have to be aware of how everything will look when it is magnified about eight times.”