BigHugFX packs a punch on Creed, with ftrack in its corner
Four decades after its release, the original Rocky film endures as a legendary underdog story, the titular amateur boxer overcoming adversity to fight for the world heavyweight championship.
Now, several sequels later, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is back, but in a supporting role to Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed.
Much like Rocky himself, the recently released Creed has something to prove: the spinoff film needs to show not only that the Rocky franchise still had legs after 40 years in the spotlight, but also that this new story deserves to stand alongside its well-known forebears. Given the rapturous reception for Ryan Coogler’s film from both viewers and critics, it seems like a mission well accomplished.
Like the first Rocky, Creed concludes with a major showdown in the ring – this time set in Goodison Park in Liverpool, England, the stadium that Everton F.C. calls home. To capture the intensity of the big fight and the raging crowd around the combatants, Coogler and MGM enlisted the talents of three studios to bring the battle to life. BigHugFX was one of those studios, and it relied on ftrack to roll with the punches throughout the expansive sequence.
Step into the ring
Creed tells the tale of Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, son of legendary fighter Apollo Creed from the earlier films, who decides to forge his own boxing career with the help of Rocky as his trainer. Following his work on the also-acclaimed Fruitvale Station, director and co-writer Coogler infuses the film with plenty of heart and high stakes, and Michael B. Jordan shines as the star-in-the-making wrestling with his father’s legacy.
VFX supervisor John Nugent, whose credits include The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Matrix, tapped the Munich-based BigHugFX GmbH alongside East Side Effects and his own Sandbox FX studio to deliver the film’s climactic boxing match with plenty of cinematic punch.
BigHugFX took on 141 VFX shots of the sequence’s 350, with the remainder split between the other vendors. Nevertheless, they all worked as a tight team to ensure the work was consistent and of the highest possible standard. “It was a kind of constellation that worked out both personally and professionally, which is very important for a project of this scope,” begins Benedikt Laubenthal, CEO and VFX producer at BigHugFX. “We were always on time, and as questions or problems arose we could easily stick together, helping out or supporting each other however it was needed.”
BigHug’s task was to create a textured and fully-lit model of Goodison Park using a LIDAR scan of the stadium as the base. The team also created a 360-degree camera array in NUKE using filmed footage from eight overlapping Red cameras, and a dynamic, realistic CG crowd that exhibited the energy and enthusiasm of a real fight audience. About 40 crowd animation cycles were developed to avoid repetition, along with clothing that could be switched at will between the character models.
Creating a full football stadium of anxious, excited fight fans was the biggest challenge for BigHugFX, and one that required a number of unique solutions across a variety of shots.
“The challenge was to figure out what worked best in each case,” says Laubenthal. “Some of the hero shots required a full CG crowd and the full CG stadium, while others worked in 2D, since production had been shooting full 360-degree footage of a real football match in the packed stadium. We used different set-ups on a shot-by-shot basis.”
Even before commencing work on Creed, BigHugFX had been using ftrack for two years, relying on the management platform for all of its projects, be it film work, television, or advertisements. Laubenthal says the team initially tried using another freeware solution, but found it didn’t meet their needs. “We quickly recognized that the development time to get the tool to a usable level would take too long,” he remembers.
It wasn’t long before BigHug discovered ftrack, quickly embracing its toolset for all projects tackled from that point on.
ftrack was instrumental in planning and executing all the work on Creed, which spanned five months following a two-month pre-production process. BigHug tracked all of its shots and divided tasks using the lists feature, which enabled the team to easily sort which shots required certain elements – such as a fighter close-up or CG crowd – while also marking scenery to primary directions to link up with their panoramic array.
“When it came to our asset builds, both 2D or 3D, we recorded everything in ftrack and assigned tasks from ingesting plates to crowd simulation, LIDAR cleanup, or building of reusable setups for compositing,” he explains. “The ability to add notes to every element in ftrack, from sequences down to specific comp versions, was also key in providing every artist with a clear overview of what he had to use in what kind of shot, and where he would find the asset on our servers. The artists also used notes eagerly to ask their supervisors or producers questions. It’s a great communication tool in that regard.”
Meanwhile, producers benefitted from the bid hours and planning features to actively keep tabs on the progress of the project and how far along each shot had come. That allowed BigHug to easily manage the scope of the project without taking extensive time away from the work. This was crucial considering that a small team of just 20 (eight full-time staff with freelance artists) tackled all of BigHug’s complex work.
“ftrack had a huge impact in providing a clear and uncomplicated overview of every single step,” says Laubenthal. “It simplifies the workflow and makes everything run smoothly.”
During their time with ftrack, BigHugFX has made numerous tweaks to the platform, enabling them to manage their projects with greater efficiency. “We did things like adjust task and shot status types to reflect the kind of review and approval processes we’ve encountered,” says Laubenthal. “We’re also using the status of asset versions to tag which comps are meant for editorial delivery or final DPX delivery.”
With two years of ftrack usage and numerous projects completed, BigHugFX has also utilized ftrack’s powerful and flexible API to engage in custom development, making the software an even better fit for its specific pipeline. That ensures that ftrack not only keeps BigHug on top of its production schedule, but also carves out extra time in their daily workflow.
“We’re making great use of ftrack’s API and have developed a variety of custom scripts which include generation of a file system structure and methods of delivering shots to the client,” explains Laubenthal. “Since every project has a different naming convention and every client requires different QuickTime codecs for dailies, we have written a standalone Python program that reads project-specific custom attributes and status types stored in ftrack to figure out what to deliver, how to name the final files, and which LUT to burn in. ftrack has proven to be immensely flexible for this.
“Even as ftrack’s API has gotten more and more powerful over the years, updates have never broken our existing scripts,” he continues. “That amount of care and foresight on behalf of ftrack makes us confident that building our pipeline on it was the right decision.”
More custom work is planned to further integrate ftrack with the studio’s other programs and systems. BigHugFX intends to make its custom Python tools controllable within ftrack’s web interface, and take advantage of the API’s file management capabilities. “We intend to leverage this capability in the future to reduce the need for copying or uploading final shots to the client manually,” he adds.
A champion effort
Following up on the success of Creed, BigHugFX is also working on several additional large film projects, including Barbershop: The Next Cut and another huge IP, along with continuing work on a number of German television shows. Whatever comes their way, Laubenthal is confident that ftrack has the studio well equipped to tackle it.
“ftrack’s ease of use and ability to quickly check shot status, shot priority, tasks, bid hours, and date of most recent client delivery gave us a secure feeling about the whole production,” he says. “We never had the feeling that we missed any important steps or tasks.
“Ultimately, ftrack increased our production speed and allowed us to present an organized front towards the client,” he concludes. “On the inside of our company, we could avoid stressful moments, were always in control of our budget, and provided the artists with a fair and well-structured working environment with close to no overtime. Frankly, it delivers a knockout punch!”