While on his first hunt, an initiation to his tribe’s most elite group, a young man, Keda is injured and left for dead after a bison hunt goes horribly wrong. Awaking to find himself broken, alone, and miles from his village – he must learn to survive and navigate the harsh and unforgiving wilderness. Reluctantly taming a lone wolf, Alpha, abandoned by its pack, the pair learn to rely on each other to hunt and become unlikely allies, enduring countless dangers and overwhelming odds in order to find their way home before the deadly winter arrives.
Working closely with Production VFX Supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun, MPC Film’s visual effects team were given the challenge of creating 16 photoreal characters and five environments for the Ice Age world of Studio 8’s Alpha.
An emphasis was placed on real world references and research into this fascinating period in early human history. One of the biggest challenges was creating a digital wolf that could be seamlessly blended with a Czechoslovakian wolf dog called Chuck, the onset dog actor. Depending on the type of shot, the performance from Chuck on the day or the directors desire to change the nuance of acting we had to have a variety of approaches. These included full take over where the full performance wasn't working, or facial performance enhancements where the intensity of a snarl or direction of the eye line needed to be changed.
To make this possible MPC Film’s Character Lab team began building a digital version of Chuck. They collected photography, scans and various wolf and dog motion studies to begin the work. Artists modeled and sculpted a digital replica of the wolf and then using MPC’s proprietary software Furtility, created its groom and rigged it with anatomically correct skeleton and muscles for realistic movement. Taking the work of the Character Lab the shot departments where able to animate, simulate dynamics properties and render an extremely realistic wolf.
To help with the realism, MPC’s lighting team matched the lighting to plate, using high resolution HDR imagery and other lighting reference captured on set. Using these techniques the team was able to seamlessly add Alpha into all the various environments seen throughout the film. The most challenging lighting condition was integrating the wolf in near white-out blizzard conditions, but also maintaining the shape and integrity of the wolf and his facial features. It was important for the audience to have the ability to recognize him through the snow and amongst the other wolves in the pack.
Another major technical task was how to seamlessly blend the performance of the CG wolf with Chuck’s performance. Primarily, the CG wolf was used to enhance the wolf dog’s facial performance, adding snarls and eye movement. For this, various optical flow techniques in both compositing and tech animation disciplines were implemented. For example, Nuke 10's Smart Vector toolsets; generating STMAPs from both Chuck's performance on set and the CG wolf animation. Calculating the vector differential between the two gave the team a solid distortion map allowing them to essentially pin one to the other, seamlessly blending CG fur and real fur.
The Character Lab team also created other digital creatures including a Wolf pup at various ages, Woolly Mammoth, Woolly Rhino, Vulture and a Cave Lion.
MPC Film’s FX team was tasked with adding weather effects that ranged from light snow to blizzards – including a gigantic snowstorm. This was created with a combination of particle and fluid simulations. Nuke particles were also employed for some of the close-up snow and embers shots, allowing the compositing team more room to iterate and art direct the scene.
For the environments, a combination of plate and on set photography was used with 3D digital matte painting for the set extensions. Epic vistas shot primarily in Iceland and the Californian desert were used throughout the film to convey an Upper Paleolithic landscape. Finally, bugs, birds and pollen were all added to breathe life and additional realism into final image.