CVD's visual effects shine bright in sci-fi thriller At First Light, which tells the story of Alex, a teenager who develops telekinetic abilities after an encounter with mysterious lights over her small town.
CVD's team completed 100 shots for At First Light, showcasing Alex's levitational powers and creating the final sequence, in which Alex and her friend Sean find themselves in a mirror field, surrounded by a womb of light, as glowing orbs descend from the sky.
Full of geometric light and complex animation, the mirror field sequence is key to director Jason Stone's unique vision and it's where CVD's work shines brightest.
I knew Chris was going to go further and dig deeper, giving these things a character, a life, and a creativity that was beyond anything I was hearing from anybody else. It was fantastic. Honestly, at every stage, things surpassed all of my expectations."
– Jason Stone, Director
Ivanpah Solar Facility
The mirror field sequence was shot in the Mojave Desert at the Ivanpah Solar Facility, which has more than 300,000 mirrors focusing the sun's light into three central towers. "Everything that we could do practically, we wanted to do practically, and then let CVD augment the reality we were creating, to give it as much credibility as we could," said Jason.
But the final sequence required aerial and ground shots, showing the movement of hundreds of thousands of mirrors, in At First Light's most powerful demonstration of Alex's powers. This was the work of CG Lead Dmitry Vinnik, who animated the mirrors using Autodesk 3ds Max, Autodesk Maya, iToo Forest Pack, VRay Renderer, and custom tools written specifically for the sequence. Utilizing reference photos and HDR images shot by CVD on set at Ivanpah, Dmitry and the CVD team created aerial shots of the entire mirror field, as well as ground shots showing row upon row of mirrors, all moving according to the whims of Alex's telekinesis.
“Each mirror was instanced from single source geometry, with a rig that allowed it to aim at a given target, which would then animate, since the mirrors had to aim at specific points during the sequence," explains Dmitry.
CVD used animated image sequences to drive the mirror orientation and wrote a system for dynamically scaling the mirror rows, size, and number of rings, to allow Jason to show the mirrors were being controlled by Alex, but also convey a sense of imperfection. "They weren't all moving in perfect unison. We offset their movements, so some of them started a little earlier or moved a little faster," he said. "CVD did a brilliant job. When I first saw the test, I was just blown away”
Bringing Life to Pure Light
CVD also created the orbs of light which descend from the night sky and the womb of light that grows around Alex and Sean in the mirror field. This was no mean feat – Jason's inspiration for the orbs was E8 geometry, which aims to show every interaction in the universe.
“I loved the geometry of it so much. It's an amazingly beautiful 12-dimensional geodesic sphere, with connected geometries inside," explains Jason.
At Chris' suggestion, this geometry also became the model for the womb of light, with Lead Lookdev, Fenner Rockliffe, designing the final effect. Fenner began with mandala patterns and 3D Mandelbrot geometry, which was endlessly evolving, constantly distorting and collapsing in on itself. “The nodal look of the mandala patterns gave us a really unique visual that felt like a great mix between an organic texture and a more grounded classic sci-fi effect," he said.
He then developed this to give the womb of light a retro sci-fi look. “We wanted a more raw and analogue look, with a lot of intense anamorphic flaring, exaggerated chromatic aberration, and a healthy dose of reflective lens elements," said Fenner.
Creating the orbs, the CVD team developed detailed qualities for the mysterious lights blinking and phasing their way to Earth.
Jason calls Fenner's work on the womb of light "...amazing. It felt like each orb had an individual character, which was both mysterious and a little friendly, but also potentially intelligent," said Jason. “You sense a little bit of moisture, a little bit of atmosphere, that I thought gave it a real, terrestrial, tangible quality. I was in love with that."
Compositing brought its own challenges. Due to restrictions at Ivanpah, Jason had to shoot close-ups of the actors using a small green screen in a friend's garage. “That ended up working way better than I ever thought possible," said Jason. “What CVD did in blending what we were shooting on location, with the stuff we were doing in this little garage, I thought was utterly seamless."
Building out the final sequences proved an exercise in attention to detail, with military helicopters circling the vastness of the orb colony. “Pulling all the assets together into the final shot required us to essentially rebuild the plate with a new camera move, a new sky, project our orb colony asset onto some geometry we’d placed in the distance in 3D space, and finally, integrate our military helicopters," said Fenner.
Ultimately, At First Light allowed the team at CVD to flex their creative muscles and deliver a visually stimulating, beautiful final product.
“We're really proud of the work!" said Chris. "It's so much fun working on a show that calls for both technical and creative challenges and Jason really allowed us to experiment.
"Also, I'd love to share that it was one of the first projects that really helped us expand our company and for that, I'm very grateful."
Jason Stone, Director