Flying high

Print the customer story (PDF, 450K)


Pixel Liberation Front
Venice, California

Digital Sandbox
Marina Del Rey, California

The Orphanage
San Francisco, California


  • Accurately digitize and retransmit data from a Panavision Genesis camera for film output
  • Help streamline shoots and effects through extensive previsualization
  • Coordinate the efforts of 11 visual effects vendors
  • Generate exceptional matte paintings and visual effects shots


  • Use Adobe Premiere Pro and a Blackmagic Design HD card to digitize and retransmit data for film output
  • Rely on the industry-standard toolset of Adobe Production Studio to work with effects shots from 11 different vendors
  • Create set diagrams and plans for daily shoots using Adobe Illustrator CS2
  • Produce matte paintings using Adobe Photoshop CS2 and stunning effects using After Effects in conjunction with Illustrator CS2 and Photoshop CS2


  • Handled data-transfer issues associated with Panavision Genesis
  • Saved time and money through previsualization
  • Created sophisticated matte paintings and fun, playful, high-caliber visual effects


Adobe Production Studio Premium. Components used include:

From film output to previsualization and visual effects, Adobe® software had it covered for artists on Superman Returns

Released in June 2006, Superman Returns is a blockbuster hit from Warner Bros., grossing tens of millions of dollars in the first few weeks after it hit theaters. With a budget reported to be near a quarter of a billion dollars, Superman Returns is one of the highest production value films ever made.

Director Bryan Singer, Visual Effects Supervisor Mark Stetson, Visual Effects Producer Joyce Cox, and a large number of visual effects artists around the globe needed to make the "Man of Steel" fly, see through walls, repel bullets, and save the world. The talented artists on the movie chose Adobe Production Studio software to complete a significant amount of their work, including Adobe Premiere® Pro, After Effects® Professional, Illustrator® CS2, and Photoshop® CS2.

“Adobe just keeps improving its products to make them more effective tools for visual effects artists.”

—Jonathan Rothbart,
senior visual effects supervisor and founder, The Orphanage

At the center of this flurry of activity was Digital Sandbox, a company that provided extensive technical support and served as a digital hub for Superman Returns. To handle color space and data-transfer issues, Digital Sandbox Owner Scott Anderson set up the standards for image transfer and the company became the digital conform and quality control center for shots coming in from vendors and for color-space issues for Technicolor Digital Intermediates. For instance, Digital Sandbox used After Effects and Photoshop CS2 for color consistency, collaboration, and file exchange among vendors working on the project.

"Adobe software has become a standard across the entertainment industry, making it easier for us to coordinate and match the efforts of many different visual effects contributors," says Anderson, who also served as visual effects and imaging supervisor for Superman Returns.

Artists at The Orphanage, including Jonathan Rothbart (left) and Kevin Baillie (right), created 130 visual effects shots for Superman Returns using Adobe After Effects and Adobe Photoshop CS2 software. Visual effects studio Pixel Liberation Front provided extensive previsualization for Superman Returns. The studio’s team, including Sean Cushing (left) and Raul Moreno (right), relied heavily on the new Graph Editor in After Effects to see at a glance what was happening with their animations.

From video to film

Interestingly, Superman Returns was the first major effects-intensive motion picture to be shot using the Genesis HD Digital Cinematography System from Panavision. Among Digital Sandbox’s biggest challenges was accurately digitizing the data from the Genesis camera for use by everyone on the project. The seven Panavison Genesis cameras recorded video as raw images to HDCAM SR tape at 10-bit 4:4:4 RGB Panalog4 color. The tapes were then digitized using a Blackmagic Design Multibridge Extreme system in a PC running Adobe Premiere Pro. Once shots were digitized using Adobe Premiere Pro, they were converted to .dpx files using Blackmagic’s FrameLink utility that converts Adobe Premiere Pro .avi files to .dpx. The images were then inspected via a rigorous quality control process and distributed to editorial and visual effects groups. As shots were completed, they were returned to Digital Sandbox and conformed for dailies and digital intermediate reels.

"Adobe Premiere Pro digitized the footage for Superman Returns reliably and flawlessly from an imaging standpoint," says Anderson. "Every single frame of this film was touched by us and in turn by Adobe Premiere Pro."

Visual effects studio Pixel Liberation Front provided extensive previsualization for Superman Returns. The studio's team, including Sean Cushing and Raul Moreno, relied heavily on the Graph Editor in After Effects to see at a glance what was happening with their animations.

Digital Sandbox also completed the final digital conform, putting together the film digital negative using the color and editorial information to build the final reels of the film. At the end of the process, the firm delivered the whole package to Technicolor Digital Imaging for final color grading.

Getting started right

Even before visual effects teams started work in earnest, visual effects studio Pixel Liberation Front (PLF) started previsualizing shots, a process that involves creating 3D versions of shots in advance to ensure that shoots go well and effects come together smoothly. To ensure that crews captured the shots they needed, PLF generated set diagrams and plans for each day’s shoot using Illustrator CS2. By providing extensive previsualization, PLF helped everyone on the film work more effectively.

Visual effects artists, including Ryan Tudhope of The Orphanage (show here), worked together on set to help ensure that shots went as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

One sequence that stands out is Listening Post, in which Superman floats above earth. The beautiful sequence uses clouds and filters to heighten its emotional intensity. The sequence not only helped tell the Superman story, but also showed the cast and crew the vision of the director. For all of their previsualization work, PLF uses Illustrator CS2 for creating graphics and diagrams and Photoshop CS2 for creating textures. They comp 2D and 3D elements with live action shots using Adobe After Effects.

"Adobe software provides us with a powerful, integrated set of tools for previsualization and effects. For instance, we can preserve layered files when creating comps in After Effects for a fast, streamlined workflow that can’t be matched with other products," says Sean Cushing, executive producer for Pixel Liberation Front.

For their work on this project, PLF relied heavily on the new Graph Editor in After Effects. The graph editor in After Effects gave PLF more control over its animations and more flexibility in tweaking them. For instance, color-coding helped PLF animators see at a glance what was happening with their animations.

Dazzling, fun effects

Another key player in bringing Superman Returns to the big screen was visual effects powerhouse The Orphanage. The company created extensive matte paintings of the city of Metropolis, using Photoshop CS2 software. After Effects and Photoshop CS2 also played a key role in the company’s production of 130 visual effects shots, including many of the movie’s most playful visual effects sequences.

One standout is the bank robber sequence involving thieves trying to rob the city of Metropolis and Superman flying in to deflect bullets aimed at security guards. The sequence involves muzzle flashes, explosions, and several ultra-slow-motion shots of Superman deflecting speeding bullets. The sequence was shot on and composited against a green screen with a digital backdrop created using Adobe Photoshop CS2. All of the bullet effects were completed in Houdini, Maya, 3D Studio Max, and Brazil and then composited together using After Effects.

“Increasingly, some of the world’s most celebrated entertainment work is being accomplished on the desktop using Adobe software.”

—Scott Anderson,
Digital Sandbox owner and president, Visual Effects and Imaging Supervisor, Superman Returns

The extensibility of After Effects for this project was crucial. The Orphanage created a custom plug-in for After Effects that manipulates color space, taking a normal linear or Panalog file and stretching its color range so that it does not peak or clip out brights. This gave The Orphanage the ability to work with and output a wider range of color, contributing to a higher level of quality.

"Adobe just keeps improving its products to make them more effective tools for visual effects artists," says Jonathan Rothbart, senior visual effects supervisor and founder of The Orphanage. "From the ability to work in 16-bit color depth in Photoshop CS2 for more realistic matte paintings to the open architecture of After Effects, we can customize a workflow that maximizes our efficiency and the quality of the effects we can deliver."

Tools for virtually every task

For the production and effects teams that worked on this massive project, Adobe software provided an end-to-end set of tools for everything from matte painting to film output. "Whether effects and production artists need to accomplish video to film translation, previsualization, or stunning visual effects, Adobe Production Studio software has the capabilities we need," says Anderson. "Increasingly, some of the world’s most celebrated entertainment work is being accomplished on the desktop using Adobe software. Visual effects houses have embraced the components of Adobe Production Studio, and so has Hollywood."