“The Volcano“ describes the scenario of a volcanic eruption in the Eifel and the damages for the people in the disaster area: A drama of a logistical and social emergency situation in the middle of Germany.
Both parts of the film have been a crowd-pleaser for over 10 million spectators.
Pixomondo has been responsible for circa two-thirds of the visual effects of the production. The focus was laid on the task of creating a huge water vortex, a disastrous volcanic eruption and an explosion as well as full digital landscapes.
On the whole, we came up to 65 shots for the two-parter.
The particularity of this production was a phase of pre-production of two months in which the look of the volcano catastrophe has been intensively developed. That was particular because there is usually only very seldom any time disposable for visual developments in contemporary productions.
What exactly is visual development?
This is a tool which is laid before the proper post-production. Visual development is the phase in that you set the optical stylistic elements. Concept arts and 3D-pre-visualisation are a few items. Visual Development is the visual translation of the script. This process forms a sort of style-guide with the function of scrutinizing all eventual possibilities already in the run-up to the post-production. Thereby, the creative coordination with the director matters as well as the technical feasibility. You have an aim in view and you can work out concrete ways to achieve it. These style-frames emphasize quite quickly which solutions function for the sceneries. The artists (TDs, 3D-modeler etc.) get that style-guide as soon as it is formed – Finally, the whole design seems as from a single source. That procedure becomes even more important, the more artists or studios are involved.
Visual development takes somewhat of the role as “crash test dummies”. We try to walk in every imaginable trap which might appear during the production in order to reduce mistakes and one-ways.
We test which colorings adapt to the single scenes, which light-changes happen and which elements reflect in the landscape. Proceeding this way, the look of the film becomes more controllable. We request the items systematically at the outset in order to prevent protracted phases of adjustments during the proper production, so the producer can be able to plan precisely what is required for the shots: plates, camera projection, matte paintings…
In case of “The Volcano”, there were four persons who all had a certain workspace involved in the first step of development: a 3D-artist who made camera-tests of the single shots, a 2D-artist who defined the look, a composer who constructed a technical pipeline for the later production and a person who coordinated all this.
Which guidelines did you have to embody the atmosphere of the volcano and its surrounding? Which techniques did you use therefore?
Although the film is just made for entertainment, overdoing reality, the facts about what there happens with the volcano are true anyway. A lot of these eruptions are patterned on Mount Saint Helen – that is material which we found in documentary reports.
All the information required about volcanic eruptions had to be exact. We spent a lot of time on pursuing inquiries about eruptions which had once threatened inhabited areas. Soon we noticed that the real facts about volcanic eruptions were absolutely enough to produce a threatening scenario. An exaggeration wasn’t necessary to create impressive pictures…
We have realized what a huge repertory a volcanic eruption provides and how varied and diversified the single phases can be.
The mountain alone did a lot on which we were able to work. At the first moment you think of a volcano, you just connect that with lava-flows turning down hills. But several more natural disasters happen parallely: earthquakes – ash clouds – ardent shots – mudslides – forest fires. Lots of “funny“ things.
For example, in the third part of the eruption we had clear thunderbolts flashing between the black columns of smoke: they came up through the charge of catapulted little parts of soot in high velocity. Such a huge ash-cloud forms tremendous electric potential which is even able to give rise to a thunderstorm. A cockaigne of catastrophes.
We played through a lot of scenarios to see how the volcano would look like in its eruption phases. How would it look from a distance? Would it look threatening enough? Our visitors shouldn’t have any time to rest, that was our aim. The whole scenery shouldn’t rest. We developed a roadmap on how the entire landscape would become increasingly dark and misanthropic step by step.
The hardest part of the shots was to create a visual enhancement. The whole film was designed for this growing enhancement…
The first explosion destroyed the whole city. Nothing stood there anymore. Absolute chaos – just ruins. At this scene, the spectator thinks: - Oh, that’s it – there’s nothing more left to break down… The end of the world is completed…
Curiously, our actual work went up from that date… We tinkered a very long time on the visual drama of the eruptions.
Which reference-material did you use regarding vegetation and geography to create the volcano in the Eifel? The volcano or the “Maar”, as it is called in the Eifel, did it already exist there or did you completely create it?
One issue that puzzled us was the flat countryside of the Eifel. We had to show a volcanic cone, although the flat area of the Eifel does not geologically allow such a mountain; and it wouldn’t have been authentic to show anything like a massive volcano as the cone in Ecuador placed in the middle of Germany…
When we captured the basic form of the Eifel-Maar in our first drafts, we noticed that our volcano wasn’t recognizable as such. The crater lake (Maar) is just 72 meters deep. The chain of hills is hardly visible from a distance.
A Maar (lat. “mare“ means ◊sea“) is a bowl-shaped volcano which is sunk into the earth's surface. Unlike calderas, Maars aren’t caused by collapses of the magma chamber but by gas explosions which let the earth’s surface sink. That’s why remnants of volcanic cones or other volcanic structures are not to see in that case.
However, we needed a vivid dimension to be able to speak optically of a volcano. This has been a tightrope walk: to create an impressive picture, still maintaining the Eifel… In particular, the first shots of the emptied crater lake looked like a small soup bowl: they had been taken with the original measures by flying over it. The crater was too hard to recognize. Later, in the final painting, the dimensions were essentially deeper.
Even before the first "outbreak" of an explosive vaporization of the entire lake, a foreboding earthquake razed the Eifel-village to the ground. Everything was covered with ashes and remnants. The long shot is just a scarce second to see in the film. Paradoxically, it was just this short time which has made the shot so complicated: We had to make sure that the spectator would be able to understand in such a short time that the entire city had been destroyed.
In the first attempts to develop the shot, we began uncovering the roofs and tumbling down the facades… Then, in the test we noticed that the picture would be too hard to decipher. All you could recognize was just a patchwork of single frames – but the effect of destruction just didn’t come up. Therefore we left the typical earthquake pictures and started to look for aerial photographs of cities from the Second World War. Bombs tear large holes in the cityscape: In these sorts of gaps we finally found the impression of destruction... We thought that such an image would be better to get captured by the viewer.
A volcano makes its own weather, darkens its own surroundings and makes its own daytime: A world in which it never gets light again. We wanted to show how the sun hardly soaks through the whirled ashes. The volcanic ash is a strong feature for the construction of visual language. These and similar elements are like a train – they transport danger into the scene. We needed a lot of time to find the right texture...
You have created big parts of the area and the volcano in 3D. What software and techniques did you use? (Could you please show a special picture to work out what was special about the shot and what it took to create the image that way?)
We worked on the lava for over four months, in order to make it look real. The implementation of the lava-shots puzzled us from the start. Therefore it must be understood that the approach of simulation, which is the physical calculation of the flow properties, would have blown up the computational power of our computers for the required mass and on the other hand, it would have been just too difficult to control.
Therefore we soon had divided the various lava-shots in different categories: There was the fast-flowing lava, for example, which penetrated from the cave ceiling, there were the larger and slower lava-flows and the so-called lava-lake in which these flows flew into the rivers over small cascades as "lava-falls".
I decided to use various simulation techniques for these various situations and to keep the percentage of simulation as low as possible. For the lava spurting over several rocks in the cave, no other approach was possible: we had to use fluid simulations for that part. The lava flows have been formed as a combination of manually animated geometry and painted textures, refined with twisted and colored water. This technique has worked remarkably well and has allowed us to control the lava specifically in its movement and to achieve a level of detail, which would have been very difficult to get otherwise.
In the long shots, even all of the techniques have been used. We ranged painted lava-veins for distance-related views; in the foreground you see manually animated lava-flows with water-texture which run over a simulated waterfall into the geometrically warped and matte-painted lava-lake. The combination of these different techniques reinforces the illusion perfectly. Basically it is a projected image which has been slightly distorted to simulate the motion.
What we see for only a few seconds, have been weeks and weeks of hard work. A lot of things came together: How fluid may our lava be? How bright could it light up without losing its dangerous character? The boundary between a threatening and a coloreful (kitschy) picture was often blurred...
How many layers does a complete picture consist of, in average?
Here we have superimposed 60 layers – just for the composing. The matte painting consists of hundreds of single elements. We had version numbers between 24 and 30 with the major shots.
How long did you need for all the shots? Have you already been involved in the project while shooting for the film?
Could you exert any influence on the shots?
We have been briefed by the producers with the first script version: We were told that there wouldn’t be any prototype for the film-shooting and it would have to look better than “Dante's Peak” and “Volcano”. Even before the shooting we had already developed animatics and concept paintings for the most scenes by reference to the storyboard. So these became patterns for the real shooting, whereby we have partly been on set next to the production supervisor in order to ensure the implementation.
The pure production period took approximately 3,5 months with a team of about 36 artists who have really done a very good job. You could see that everyone was having fun at work!
Disaster movies always are a rewarding medium for impressive pictures. You meet in the morning drinking coffee and wonder what you could destroy next ... Daniel Stern (Technical Director of “The Volcano”) told me that the film gave him the opportunity to act out two of three things he had always wanted to implement in his life. Big explosions always just make fun...