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Cowboys & Aliens

Jake Lonergan: "Is there something you know about me, lady?"

Key Credits

  • RELEASED: 2011
  • CLIENT: Industrial Light & Magic
  • STUDIO: Dreamworks SKG
  • DIRECTOR: Jon Favreau
  • PRODUCERS: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
  • VFX SUPERVISOR: Roger Guyett
  • ILM VFX PRODUCER: Stephanie Hornish
  • VFX SUPERVISOR: Simon Maddison
  • VFX PRODUCER: Jason Bath

Fuel VFX was excited to work with Industrial Light & Magic, VFX supervisor Roger Guyett, and Director Jon Favreau on the sci-fi/western genre mash-up COWBOYS & ALIENS.

Fuel worked on two sequences for the DreamWorks Pictures/Universal Pictures feature, which enabled us to do two of our favourite things – play with fire and CG character animation.
In the first of these sequences, the character of Ella, played by Olivia Wilde, is reborn within a funeral pyre, emerging from the flames.

“Although the whole concept of that is other-worldly, it was important to Jon (Favreau) that it not look too magical,” explained Fuel’s VFX Supervisor Simon Maddison. “He wanted us to achieve something that was subtle and seductive, but powerful enough to help tell the story.”

Based on that, it was important that the fire looked real, but it was equally important that the fire moved in some unusual ways as Fuel artists needed it to – either pulling into the character to help form her, or pushing around her to convey a sense of her volume.

To achieve this, Fuel’s R&D team built a ‘natural’ fire simulation, then a plug-in for the ‘magical’ fire which was based on pressure and moving fluid physics. A digital double of Ella was built which became an ‘attractor’ to the fire sims, working with or against her based on the pressure dynamics. Combined with 3D smoke and embers, Fuel artists could create the illusion of fire dancing around her and gradually forming her shape.


“We did several rounds of testing and versioning to get the right look, feel and timing of the flames as well as the silhouette,” said Maddison. “Fire is all about movement and colour, and an audience can detect a fake fire very easily. We spent a lot of time finessing it and working with Roger to achieve the seductiveness that Jon wanted, but also the realism.”

Fuel also created the Hummingbird that appears to the character of Jake Lonergan, played by Daniel Craig. “Luckily there is a lot of high speed footage of hummingbirds around. Their wings can beat up to 200 times a second, so it became obvious that we had to understand how they actually move and why they look the way they do to the naked eye. At real speed they can be just a blur,” said Simon.


Even so, a lot of time was spent on developing feathers and getting the look right, especially when lit by firelight. Fuel then had to make sure they captured the unique hovering and zipping motion in the CG hummingbird, while making sure it stayed in the actor’s eye line. “Because Daniel’s eye movements were so convincing, this wasn’t nearly as hard as it could have been. It meant we could take on board Jon and Roger’s comments pretty easily and have a whole bunch of fun with it.”