In this one-off 'Close Up' about Len Wiseman's Total Recall, Prime Focus World VFX Supervisor Alex Pejic gives a detailed account of how PFW went about creating the spectacular 'Synth' robots, alongside some stunning breakdown footage of our work on the film.

Is life in the rat race getting you down? Have you had a bad day at work you’d rather forget about? You’re in luck: at Rekall they can give you memories you can only dream of.

Factory worker Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) tires of the daily grind and pays a visit to Rekall - a company that implants memories of virtual vacations - to turn his dream of being a super-spy into real memories. But the procedure goes badly wrong and suddenly he finds himself a hunted man: unable to tell the difference between what is real and what is recall.

Prime Focus World is delighted to have delivered nearly 400 visual effects shots for director Len Wiseman’s Total Recall, in partnership with lead VFX vendors Double Negative. Prime Focus artists in London, Mumbai and Vancouver came together to work on the movie, linked by the Prime Focus Global Digital Pipeline.  

Around 220 of the shots delivered involved the film’s striking robotic soldiers, ‘Synths’, who are replete with internal moving mechanics, visible in the breaks between their armour plates. The Synths themselves were portrayed on-set by live actors, and shots featuring the Synths were supplied without mo-cap data, making the tracking and animation of internal hydraulics and gears a real challenge.

"With over 700 Synths to be animated, and no motion capture data, we had to provide accurate frame-by-frame body tracking using in-house tracking and animation tools," said Alex Pejic, Prime Focus World VFX Supervisor. "We had rig calibration controls to adjust for the different physiques of the various stuntmen in costume: skinny or muscular, tall or short, for example. Tracking shots with CG-guts added inside live-action armour was made more complicated by the fact that the live actor body armour is sliding and vibrating over muscle and fat, rather than bolted to a metal skeleton," Alex added. "It’s often that smaller gestures are more challenging to achieve than the larger ones, as the slightest over-rotation of the hips could knock the arm hydraulics out of alignment. The team’s attention to detail was the key to the success of the animation."

Rendering and integrating the shiny, reflective metal and plastic surfaces of the Synth suits into the scenes proved equally challenging. “We tried many different approaches,” said Alex. “Initially, we started with HDRI, but very quickly realized we weren’t going to be satisfied by the quality as the reflection integration wasn't accurate enough. As we had the set used by our tracking department, we decided to try the brute force reflections, but after a few tests we discovered the numbers of bounces required to light the interiors would give us huge render times. So, we decided to bake the interior shading solution into a point cloud and then raytrace the set. It was the perfect solution for short render times and proper spatial reflections.”

“We developed several tools: a few of them for very hard and extensive body tracking, which was one of the biggest challenges we faced, and a lighting tool (render graph) we developed with the Guerilla development team,” Alex added. “The render graph is a system for setting lighting scenes up. The relations between the various elements of the scene are expressed inside a nodal graph instead of hard links or complex scripts. In simple words, you can assign lights, shaders, textures, shader values, render passes and many more things to selected parts of the geometry.”

The lighting team was able to cope with an extreme number of shots due to our in-house lighting tool developed with the Guerilla team,” Alex continued. “Once it's all rendered, through our in-house render dispatcher (the Q, based on Grid Engine), everything would get published. As soon as renders were published the 2D team was able to bring all of the passes in together at the press of a button - thanks to our pipeline; they didn't even have to know what got changed in 3D.”

The pipeline for Total Recall allowed artists at Prime Focus World’s facilities to work simultaneously across three different continents. “When we received the plate shot, we would ingest it into MASH, our in-house pipeline management system. Tools would reformat the scan into the right resolution and colour space. Next our database would sync the shot with our other 2 locations if required. We would all start work on the shot simultaneously which usually involves roto and paint, tracking / body tracking. Once that's finished they would publish the work and people who are scheduled to do the next task would be notified through our pipeline that it's ready for them to pick it up.”

Another major challenge was creating multiple Synths for the Synth bay. “One major challenge in match-moving the Synth stuntmen for CG skeleton replacement down a long row of robots was the fact that so many identical limbs overlapping in space makes it really tough to figure out which limb belonged to which Synth,” continued Alex. “The sheer number of Synths, up to 30 in some shots, each with over 1,000 modelled parts, really slowed down the workflow. As a result our CG Supervisor Lee Sullivan and his team made special optimized 'sitting Synth' assets for the bay, and we textured a Synth bay set model provided by DNeg and animated digi-doubles to cast the actors' shadows and reflections.”

Prime Focus also supplied extensive set-extension work for the Lobby sequence, and delivered shots for the epic zero gravity fight during the China Falls sequence.

“The main challenge with the China Falls sequence was the very high number of wires and their resulting shadows, which had to be removed in an environment where the cameras and lighting were constantly changing,” Alex said. As well as removing wires from actors, the team removed Jessica Biel's hair bun so that a CG ponytail could be added in comp to help emulate the 'Zero G' effect.

“The sequences we delivered for Total Recall all had different technical and creative requirements, for which we carefully customized our modular Global Digital Pipeline to allow us to respond quickly to changes,” Alex added. “Fortunately I have a great relationship with Peter Chiang, Paul Riddle, and the rest of the team at DNeg from my time there, which helped to make it a really smooth process throughout. It was great to collaborate creatively with them on such a challenging project.”

Prime Focus World Managing Director Martin Hobbs added, “The collaboration with DNeg worked very well for us and it was a pleasure opening up our bandwidth and talent across not only London but also Vancouver and Mumbai to complete this project. The work looks absolutely stunning and is testament to the outstanding abilities of the VFX teams we have across Prime Focus World.”

Speaking about the project, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Director, Merzin Tavaria said, “Since the movie 'Total Recall' is a science fiction adventure, the visuals needed to look flawless and believable. The Global VFX team worked well together to create spectacular effects to enhance the storyline of the movie."

Total Recall is directed by Len Wiseman. The screenplay is by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback and the film was produced by Toby Jaffe, Neal H. Moritz and Ric Kidney. The film is released in the US on 3 August and in the UK on August 29.

RELEASE: August 3, 2012

Director: Len Wiseman
Producers: Toby Jaffe, Neal H. Moritz
Studio / Distributor: Sony Pictures

PFW Supervisor: Alex Pejic
PFW Producer: Tim Keene
PFW Scope of Work: VFX, 400 shots
PFW Lead Facility: London
PFW Associate Team(s): Mumbai & Vancouver


Total Recal PFW VFX Breakdown Reel