The Sound of Sight

While trying to visualize Daredevil’s unique superpower of "radar sense," director Mark Steven Johnson realized he had something in common with his hero: he was flying blind. He and the film’s visual-effects team had to create a credible visualization of a blind man’s world via soundwaves bounced off of objects, similar to how a bat navigates in flight.

In the original comic, Daredevil’s radar sense is crudely depicted as radar-like circles superimposed over an image. "It has a dated look," Johnson acknowledges. "I put so much pressure on myself to honor the comic, and I worked with this basic concept: Daredevil is blind, but he can see sound. Any sound creates a soundwave that illuminates objects for a flash. In visual terms, that means we start with a frame of blackness, which is Daredevil’s POV, and though we don’t see what happens, we see the soundwave the action creates. So if a gun fires, you hear the bang, and the soundwaves create a funnel cloud that illuminates the barrel of the gun, and through that funnel you see a stream representing the bullet. You don’t see the bullet, you just see the sound the bullet makes."

In his quest to bring Daredevil’s radar sense to the silver screen, Johnson enlisted visual-effects supervisor Rich Thorne (Behind Enemy Lines. The two men quickly discovered that every in-camera process produced imagery that was the antithesis of blindness. Thorne explains, "Anything you shoot is a product of light, and the minute you start seeing the way light bounces and [produces] shadows, it doesn’t look right. We opted to go with a CG approach to visualize soundwaves bouncing off of objects in Daredevil’s environment."

Thorne and Johnson needed to accomplish the seemingly impossible: they had to photograph environments, objects and even actors without light. Thorne dubbed the effect he was seeking "Shadow World," noting that "it’s never a product of light. You never see objects, you only see their shadows."

Devising imagery that depicted not objects but their radar-like shadows was like playing a digital game of Blind-Man’s Bluff. Although several visual-effects houses submitted Shadow World concepts, only Rhythm & Hues, whose artists tackled most of Daredevil ‘s 515 effects shots, had the answer: throw away the camera. As Thorne recalls, "We said, ‘Guys, get a lidar laser scanner to shoot Shadow World, because that’s the only place it exists.’"

The lidar system could incrementally laser-scan a set – such as a bar where Daredevil defeats several brawlers by using his radar sense – within hours. With the resulting data, Rhythm & Hues’ artists generated a 3-D digital model of the environment and every object in it. Best of all, says Thorne, "Lidar can work in the dark, and once each set’s in the computer, we can bounce our version of soundwaves through it."

After creating a 3-D digital model of the bar set, the effects team then unleashed volumetrics – scads of CG particles – into that environment to visualize the impact of soundwaves. "We used Houdini’s new Image 3-D tool set for generating and rendering volumetric elements extensively," says Caleb Howard, Rhythm & Hues’ digital-effects supervisor. "In Houdini, we built a Cloud Tank tool set, comprised of a previsualization tool for rapidly developing the character of volumetric elements using hardware OpenGL shading. We used that tool to ‘cook’ the volume out to a file on disk for multiple applications, from rendering cloudy objects to providing global illumination for scenes, and finally [employed] an adaptive ray-marcher to render the final images. The Cloud Tank software allowed us to build complex volumes to simulate many effects in the film, including lighting effects, fog effects and fluid dynamic effects. Shadow World was rendered exclusively with Houdini v5.0.152 on Linux boxes running Red Hat 7.2. A great deal of the final effect was created by compositing artists who used Inferno and Icy, which allowed the client to take an assortment of 3-D volume elements and quickly arrive at their desired composition."

When the CG particles collided with objects in the scene, their edges were "illuminated" by Daredevil’s radar sense in a form of digital acoustic mapping. "The concept was seeing the particles, which represent the soundwaves, bouncing off of objects as opposed to seeing the objects themselves," says Thorne.

Johnson, however, wanted Daredevil to experience much more with radar sense. One of the film’s technical consultants, a blind man named Tom Sullivan, explained that when it rains, the blind experience much more detail than usual in the world; Johnson therefore wanted a romantic rendezvous between Daredevil and his love interest, Elektra (Jennifer Garner), to unfold during a storm. As raindrops fall on Elektra’s face, Daredevil "sees" her features appear. "When it rains, [the blind] get a lot of detail they usually miss," Johnson says. "I thought that would be a beautiful way for him to see Elektra."

A laser scan of Garner’s face and body provided Rhythm & Hues artists with a 3-D digital model of the actress, off of which they bounced particle "soundwaves." Thorne notes, "When thousands of little raindrops make a sound, it creates a sparkly feeling. Imagine thousands of little ringlets and pools of sound in the shape of Jennifer Garner."

The impressive effect has no parallel in the Marvel Comics. Yet Johnson feels that while "I was able to stay true to the character by giving him radar sense, we created our own thing. I had a chance to show something no one’s ever seen before, which is rare."

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.