Jumper, from director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity and Mr and Mrs Smith), introduces a new superhero played by actor Haydn Christensen, who discovers he has the power to teleport himself anywhere in the world he wants to be. For the first time, Bill Dawes joins the fxguide team and talks to the team at Weta about the complexity of jumping all over the world.
Christensen, best known as Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels, is able to use his special power to extraordinary effect, from simply sneaking to the head of a ticket queue to eating lunch on the head of the Sphinx.
Visual effects supervisor Joel Hynek, who won an Oscar for What Dreams May Come and was integral in developing the cutting-edge effects seen in The Matrix, teamed up with visual effects producer Kevin Elam (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) to create the visual essence of Jumping as well as the film’s other visual effects shots.
A range of VFX facilities across the globe contributed to the film, with the crucial Jumping shots created by New Zealand’s Weta Digital. Weta’s VFX Supervisors Erik Winquist and Dan Lemmon were responsible for over 300 shots in Jumper. They were challenged to make Jumping a dynamic, ever-changing effect that evolves as Christensen’s character builds his skill level after discovering his unique power.
Hynek explained that he familiarised himself with the many different screen manifestations of teleporting seen in movies from the past, then determined that Jumper would offer a new view. “Teleporting has almost always been seen from an objective view – in others words, you’re in a place and you suddenly see somebody arrive or depart. But we’ve created true POV jumps so that you get a sense of what it looks and feels like from the Jumper’s perspective to move from one place to another on the other side of the earth or the other side of a wall. In other words, this time the audience gets to go along for the ride.”
Erik Winquist explains the challenge to develop a visual representation of this brief..
“When we came into the project there was a big reel of things that Doug liked some aspect of. We based our work on what we knew he sort of liked about other tests and moved forward from there but it was a really long surprisingly difficult R&D process, largely because you’re talking about something that’s so abstract,” said Winquist.
“Doug’s initial direction to us was that this thing needed to vary with the conditions of the jump itself. If the jumper was going a very short distance, say from one cushion of the couch to the next, as happens in one instance in the film, that’s not a very disruptive occurrence. But if the jumper is going from the couch to the head of the sphinx halfway around the world that’s a much more disruptive event.
“Early on in the film the character Hayden Christensen plays is an adolescent and the jumps are clumsy. It s a very disruptive event. He tries to land in a bank vault and ends up in the toilets shearing all the doors off the stalls, craters the tiles in the bathroom, breaks off all the urinals and the water starts spouting everywhere. “When we cut to a number of years later, when David’s an adult, its a really fluid thing. Without thinking much about it he can be in Paris and there’s no big earthquakes.”
Weta was asked to devise the Jumping effect to appear as if the action leaves a scar in the fabric of time-space. “Picture a solid glass block if you smash that with a sledgehammer. You’d have a crack in the 3D volume, it shouldn’t just be a flat portal opening up. Its more a volumetric kind of thing.”We came up with something much less literal than a crack in a glass volume. Doug wanted it to be subtle to the point where if the camera wasn’t moving it’s be very hard to see if there was a scar there at all. As soon as the camera ends up moving around it or tracking past it then you see a very subtle disruption where the jumper used to be. There were a lot of iterations coming up with what that was supposed to look like.”
“Another idea that Doug liked was that the act of jumping would cause the meeting of two different weather systems, so if you jump from a hot dry place to a humid place because those two worlds are coming together in an instant, it can be like when a jet goes supersonic. So you could have vapour condensation that would swirl around and because of that you would see the jump scar more from the kind of environmental effects that were swirling around it than of itself.”
There are more than 100 Jumping shots in the film, and each required a different level of intensity depending on the scenario. “A lot of the actual Jump effect happened in compositing,” said Winquist. “We had our compositors taking one shot and doing a lot of variations on how we could jump the actor out of frame or move back in frame again. Eventually after quite a while of showing iterations to Doug he ended up liking the look of that particular shot. So we could at least get a general comp setup as a starting point for everybody.
“The one thing we quickly found was that the background plates played a major role in how successfully a given jump would read. The effect usually worked out to be a two-frame event, and with the short duration and subtlety of the effect, a busy background plate would just conceal everything and we’d have to tweak the look a bit. It took a while to actually get that technique worked out, but once we had it the rest of the jumps became a bit less of an issue.
“The thing that was a real challenge was the actual look of the scar itself. We tried lots of strictly 2D approaches to get that done, but it was by nature too flat of a look for Doug. We also initially tried using Maya Paint Effects to generate a branching structure but it didn’t quite give us the control over the animation that we needed. Ultimately, we ended up with a solution that used an in-house Maya plug-in called Flora which we’d originally written for creating digital foliage.
“We used that to generate the actual branches of the jump scar, which were raytraced in Renderman with multiple procedural displacements and levels of refraction to give us the base look. Multiple control mattes were also run out which were used in the comp to munge up the edges and make it look more ethereal. Once you laid that back on the plate again it largely disappeared, but once the scar was animated or there was parallax revealed from a moving camera, it got us to a place where Doug was liking the qualities of it.
For most of the Jumping shots, VFX Supervisor Joel Hynek had arranged to shoot the actors on greenscreen or at least provide multiple passes of the environment that could be laced together. However there were a number of shots that required the actor to be painted out manually. Updating a page from his work on The Matrix, Hynek utilized multiple, variable-shutter still cameras firing in sequence to create assorted blurring and stretching effects, and this became a component of some of the jumps in the film.
“The concept of what a jump looks like changed and evolved a little over the course of post production, explains Winquist. “There are shots in the film that use still array footage but not in the same way that we saw in the Matrix. The Matrix was largely about stopping time whereas this was about using slow shutter speeds on those still array cameras to end up with a streaky motion-blurred image as the perspective was changing, which is a pretty interesting look.
The producers also employed motion-control techniques to create Jumping effects where a character simply pops up in a different place within the same scene. “They used a type of motion control photography for repeatable camera moves and we had several of those takes,” said Winquist. “Because they were so similar you could just roto an actor off one plate and put them back on the clean plate without anyone being the wiser. “We ended up doing some of that stuff by brute force by just manually lining up the plates in cases where there were hand-held or Steadicam moves.
“The clock itself was a hero build which ended up being used for one shot,” said Winquist. “Doug was looking for a very specific quality in that camera move, and it was a tricky process to capture the look of that long lens SpaceCam sort of move. And then the environment build itself was pretty tricky because there wasn’t an aerial shoot done in London which would have provided background plates.
“Finding good source material to use is the tricky part. The shot was lensed on a 125mm so resolution was crucial. To manually create a hero matte painting to that level would have been a bit of a nightmare,” says WInquist.
“We went around trying to find images in the usual places on the web which wasn’t proving very successful until we remembered a former coworker currently over in London who is a photographer. Production had managed to hook her up with a location scout and got them access to the top of Big Ben. They were actually able to go up to the observation deck above the clock tower and give us a 50,000 pixel wide panorama of London from that vantage point so it was a pretty accurate depiction of the surrounding area. The whole thing is made up of stills shot on a Canon EOS 5D with a 200mm lens.”
One of the biggest challenges of creating VFX for a movie where a character can be anywhere on the world in the blink of an eye is creating a huge number of digital environments. “You may only be in a location for one or two shots but you still have to build a hero asset,” said Winquist.
“The sphinx model created in Maya was used in two shots, and there’s one shot in the film that uses a fully digital Colosseum for a big flyover move that couldn’t have been shot live so we had to do a complete build. It was a lot of development time for a very short amount of screen time. We got the Colosseum model from their previz artist who had been working with Doug but we still had to go through and uprez the model and textures and get the thing working to a hero level. That took a number of months for what turned out to be one shot.”
“The Sphinx was quite a tricky one to get locking in because first of all its hard to get a camera to lock to helicopter footage , you’re never quite sure how much of what you’re seeing is zoom and how much of it is the helicopter moving. We had to get the helicopter footage to lock into some of the cablecam footage they had shot at the Fox studios in Baja, Mexico, and getting those two plates to lock together was an interesting challenge as well. Its really easy to get 95% of the way there but its the last 5%. and making sure nothing’s slipping that can have you pulling your hair out for weeks.”
Another large aspect of Weta’s work on the film was the “electrical effect”. The Paladins use electricity delivered in the form of charged metal nets or tethers, fired like harpoons out of high-tech hand held devices to restrain jumpers. While the electricity doesn’t kill them like it would a normal human being, it does reduce their ability to jump.
The effect manifests itself through multiple layers of streaked, distorted, almost glassy treatments of the jumper combined in the composite. Once again, this went through a fairly long development cycle to get a look that Doug really liked. There were a lot of very subtle ways that it could quickly devolve into looking like a piece of shower glass or a flat filter effect, and that was the primary challenge of those shots; keeping it alive and full of dimension when it was a very temporally fleeting effect. We only had a handful of frames to sell the idea in any given shot and they had to be the just the right frames.
As part of the climactic chase sequence at the end of the film, David follows Griffen to a war-torn Chechnya where he manages to trap Griffen in the wreckage of a crumbling power pylon. Pickup shooting in Prague provided establishing footage of the chaos with Hayden and Jamie, with Weta providing environment extensions and a fully digital pylon to flush out the action. This sequence, as well as the freefall sequence from the Empire State Building was taken from previs through to final footage at Weta, which was a good challenge for us as well. It’s great when you can work with a director to take their seed of an idea and flush it out to something really kinetic like this.
One point of interest about the film itself is the use of the RED ONE camera for second unit shots, such as the surfing scene. The crew used a prototype version of the RED camera. This footage was seamlessly intercut with the main unit 35mm footage. The surfing footage was shot off the coast of Massachusetts with a minimal crew of just three people including Hayden Christensen.
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