Blurring the Line Between Reality and Fiction

Ivo Horvat on the CG world he created for the award-winning Danish short, Peaceforce.

Set in Copenhagen in 2045, director Peter Gornstein’s Danish sci-fi short “Peaceforce” offers a modern take on George Orwell’s story “Shooting an Elephant”. In the film, which recently won the prestigious Prix Canal+ at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in France, the world is in the midst of global economic collapse. Anarchy has ensued and Daniel (played by Cyron Melville), an officer with what is known as the Peaceforce, volunteers to investigate reports of a crazed elephant running wild, causing injuries and death.

"Daniel follows the local man who told him about the elephant into the city, which has essentially been reduced to rubble, and quickly finds out something is wrong," explains Ivo Horvat, VFX supervisor for the film. Horvat, who had worked on past projects with Gornstein, was involved with the film from the start. Using MAXON’s Cinema 4D, After Effects and Photoshop he created six CG environments for the 20-minute film.

Horvat’s early concept art not only helped set the film’s apocalyptic, industrial tone but was also useful in attracting talent and drumming up financing for the project. And when the film crew went to Copenhagen for 12 days of shooting at four different locations, Horvat went along to see firsthand what would need to be created or expanded on digitally. "We were lucky because we needed a certain level of decay and we lined up locations such as a modern-day industrial power facility that had a lot of grime and machinery and a ruined factory that was almost completely destroyed," he explains. "We could never have art-directed or built sets like those with all the crooked chimneys, debris and blast holes."

Creating a believable, digital world
While the tone of Peaceforce is dark and foreboding, Horvat’s mission was to create environments that made clear the danger faced by the main character as he searched for the elephant without conveying a sense of hopelessness. After location principal photography was complete, he brought plates back to Los Angeles and began production. "I had other artists do matchmoves, rotoscoping and some modeling, and then I began the process of reinterpreting the concept art to match the look of the photography, which was of course slightly different than initially planned," he explains.

Horvat’s artistry can be seen from the first shot in the film, which is heavy on CG. There is a palpable sense of danger as an armored military vehicle leaves the safety of the Peaceforce compound to travel through the wasteland of a city that is now a war zone. Burned out cars, some real and some digital, can be seen as the vehicle, belching oil and smoke, passes by.

"It looks like a simple plate to shoot but it took several takes of the vehicle driving by at about 60 miles per hour, and a lot of playing with camera speed and lenses to get the composition that would best favor the background," he says. Once the painting was created and the camera projections devised and rendered out of Cinema 4D, it was composited with the actual footage using After Effects.

The process of integrating the projected and rendered painting footage with the photography included adding lens distortion, Horvat says, explaining that he measured the amount of lens distortion and applied it to the Cinema 4D footage so the two would move identically.

One of the biggest challenges of matte painting is matching the photo-realistic look of the particular film to which you’re painting, Horvat says. While people assume photorealism is somehow an accurate version of real-world elements, it’s actually extremely simplified and limited. It’s also necessary to match the aesthetic of a given film stock, which is largely determined by the film and/or sensor's latitude. This film was particularly difficult because it was shot on the Red. "It was wonderfully sharp, sometimes to a point where it was hard to match so I had to work at three to four times film resolution to ensure I had the highest sampling for rendering," he explains.

Of all environments Horvat created, the film’s wide establishing shot showing the scale of the destruction of the city is the most striking. Expanding on a shot taken in Copenhagen about 60 feet above a heavily damaged industrial area, his matte painting includes a digitally-created portion of a collapsed bridge. In truth, he says, the only thing authentic in the shot is the roadway in the foreground on which an armored vehicle carrying the film’s protagonist is traveling. "It took us a long time to find a damaged road surface like this and when we found it they were literally knocking down the entire factory during our last day of shooting," Horvat recalls. "We rotoscoped some of the road and the car in the shot and completely replaced the environment."

Since its win at France’s Clermont-Ferrand Festival, “Peaceforce” has been invited to the 201l Tiff's in England (often called the British equivalent of the Oscars) and the Toronto International Film Festival. It has also been invited to the Telluride Film Festival and has been shown on television in Denmark and France. "It was really a amazing production to be involved with and I was fortunate to have had so much creative input from beginning to end of the entire process," says Horvat.

Ivo Horvats Website