Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes recently received the Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Feature Motion Picture prize at the 8th annual VES Awards. Vfx supervisor Chas Jarrett led the effort behind more than 1000 effect shots to recreate Victorian London in 1891. In this article, we focus on three visual effects sequences from the film: the shipyard fight and the wharf explosion shot, both by Framestore, and the Tower Bridge shots by DNeg.
The shipyard fight
While investigating the ongoing murders by occult sorcerer Lord Blackwood, Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Dr. Watson pursue one of Blackwood’s henchmen, Dredger, to a London shipyard. As they fight, the characters cause destruction and mayhem to a shipbuilding shed before a boat is inadvertently launched into the Thames. Holmes and Watson then survive a near miss from an out-of-control capstan and chain. Framestore completed over a 100 shots for the sequence, overseen by visual effects supervisor Jonathan Fawkner. “They had found an actual location in the Chatham Dockyards,” recalled Fawkner, “which is almost like a theme park for ship historians. It’s still a working slipway and the building we used was at one time the widest single-span structure in the world.”
Production shot the sequence over three separate shoot periods. An initial shoot involved a practical boat hull and other scaffolding and set pieces. Framestore fleshed out the boat with a top half, adding anchor chains and missing structures for establishing shots. A second shoot dealt with shots as the boat starts to move out of the shed after Dredger has loosened the chain holding it. “They struck the set one weekend, moved the boat out, left some props in there and then continued to shoot,” said Fawkner. Finally, a bare minimum set was filmed to accommodate shots of the boat leaving the shed with an enormous splash. “There’s a high angle shot of the boat just about to enter the water,” said Fawkner, “and the whole thing is computer generated. It’s based on a plate that was shot, but we replaced the shed, the floor and added in the debris. We’re watching the end of the chain slamming into the launchway and coming up the side of the launchway smashing into stuff.”
The boat then splashes into the Thames as Dredger manages to escape. But then suddenly the heroes find themselves in more jeopardy as the capstan gets flung off its bearings under the stress, whirling out of control and slamming into the slipway. It just misses Holmes and Watson before also splashing into the water. “If you look very carefully there’s even another kind of Guy-ism after the capstan shots, notes Fawkner. “He does a reverse angle and the police are running and there’s a little bit of wood falling and another collapse. It’s never quite finished and when it does finish it ends in something small and quiet.”
To create the destruction seen in the shipyard fight sequence, Framestore used Maya for modelling assets. The debris, dust and smoke were realised in Houdini and through the studio’s proprietary software Whisper. Another in-house tool, fBounce, was used for rigid body simulations. “We had the scaffolding set up as rigid objects that were pre-broken,” noted Framestore CG supervisor Laurent Hugueniot. “We’d make some cracks on the wood, then apply some forces and pull them and they’d snap and eventually break in half or collapse.” The capstan and chain, in particular, were animated to be erratic. “The path of the chain was a mix of cloth dynamics and animation,” explained Hugueniot, “and could be blended with simulated curves as well. If you only animated you get unnatural moves. It had some cloth simulation to give it some physical reality.”
Artists used Maya to light the scenes, choosing a point-based real world lighting technique, rather than traditional three point lighting. “Lighting was interesting,” said Hugueniot. “It’s indoors but it was also outdoors. The opening to the river was massive and the roof was partly made of transparent material. So there was a lot of light coming in from all directions. And it was shot on days where the weather changed a lot.” Compositors then worked in Nuke with a 3D model of the set and ship to combine elements. All of the shed itself was re-projected in Nuke to give the compositors full control.
For shots in which the river and buildings on the banks of the Thames are visible, Framestore used real plates and historic photographs. The splash created by the runaway boat was also practical. “We shot that splash element by going to see a lifeboat being launched,” said Fawkner. “They launched it about 12 times in a row and we tried to get it from every angle. We didn’t know what the shot was going to be at the time so we used three cameras. It was actually a really fun day because they gave us some fresh fish at the end of it!”
The wharf explosion shot
Still on the trail of Lord Blackwood, Holmes, Watson and Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) find themselves outside an industrial slaughterhouse. Watson chases after Blackwood but is injured by a tripwire explosion before warning his friends. Holmes’ subsequent escape from the explosions is captured in a single shot. “What Guy really wanted was to see real actors in actual jeopardy and for them to be engulfed in flames and debris,” recalled Fawkner. “He didn’t want the audience to question whether they were really there.”
The sequence was shot along a pillared corridor at a wharf in Liverpool, with the action taking place from one end to the other. Production filmed in slow motion to shoot Holmes’ run, with gas flames, air mortars and a small amount of dust on set. Some additional shots with a stuntman featured larger explosions. “For the shot of Holmes witnessing Watson being blown up,” explained Fawkner, the camera was on a low-slung rider on a quad bike running backwards. He’s running towards the camera, he picks up a tray, defends the next explosion, a wall lands on him, there’s another explosion behind him, he lands on top of Rachel McAdams and then another one goes off before they finally cut. It’s something like 1800 frames. They shot that all in one take, with timed flashes of flame to give some sort of lighting. But nothing near the sort of explosions that would make it really dangerous.”
Framestore would then composite in more perilous explosions to the original photography. A fireball and debris elements shoot took place for that purpose on a greenscreen stage in Chertsey, Surrey. “Because the original set was so long,” said Fawkner, “they ended up making a greenscreen portion with movable columns that they were able to just about, with each and every explosion, match the spots on the set where the explosion would have to be composited in. On top of all that it had to be shot motion control as well. So we had a motion control rig running at 25 miles an hour on the track. Traditional motion control rigs couldn’t cope so well with that speed, so we were left with one that didn’t give us X and Y translation.”
Each explosion was shot separately and an on-set video overlay system used to check line-ups. Framestore then went about compositing Holmes and the elements into one seamless shot using Nuke. “We could load the tracked camera in from the set shoot,” said Fawkner, “hen we could load the tracked camera in from the elements shoot, subtract the difference between them and make one sit on top of the other. That you can all do relatively simply in Nuke. We also added in some interactive lighting from the explosions using Nuke and point based lighting from Maya, which used the actual explosion data to give us the right sort of interaction on set.”
Debris, rather than mountainous amounts of flame, was utilised to add more peril to the Holmes’ plight. “We augmented the explosions with as much computer generated debris as we could,” explained Fawkner. “We used Maya nCloth and fBounce to just fling debris all over the place. This was solid-looking stuff that would fly past the ears and threaten them almost more than the explosions.” A final fireball was in fact massaged to be somewhat less explosive after the director thought it might be over the top. “Eventually, it was so big that Guy thought, ‘God, they’re never going to survive.’ So even though we had this fireball working and everything, we had to massage it smaller and smaller and through more debris in it so it didn’t look ridiculous.”
A brick wall that was supposed to crash over Holmes was originally shot as a practical element. “We did shoot a brick wall falling over, but it was rubbish,” said Fawkner. “All the mortar was wet and we had built a special ram to hit it with, and it was being pulled by a lorry that needed to get up to a certain speed. It rammed through the brick wall and the wall went ‘blergh’. Because it was going to take about six hours to re-set, the decision was made to do the whole thing in CG.” Using blastCode, Framestore recreated the brick wall explosion and also made the resulting debris interact with Holmes. “We took the tray he had and adjusted that a little bit to make it appear the bricks were hitting it. The tray then breaks into a few pieces, so we animated bits coming off it and had to paint Robert back through the holes that were revealed in the tray.”
Ultimately, the explosion shot was accomplished with some very specific direction from Guy Ritchie and 2D massaging over a period of six months for Framestore. “In the shot where the fire engulfs Robert,” noted Fawkner, “he picks up the tray and it engulfs him and the tray catches fire – well, that involved some serious compositing. Guy never wanted to lose him entirely – that was the key – if you lost him you might have thought we switched a stunt double in there. The idea was that we wanted to engulf him but not completely eat him.”
The Tower Bridge
Recreations of scenes around the River Thames and, in particular, the Tower Bridge under construction, were handled by Double Negative under the supervision of David Vickery. The look and feel of these shots was dictated by a desire to bring the grime and pollution of that era out on film. “Chas Jarret came into Dneg and we showed him some of our work on Cloverfield,” said Vickery. “There was nothing in that picture that was trying to stand out. And that’s what he wanted with Victorian London. He wanted to create the city at that time, not in a typical Hollywood style, but in the seedy way that it would have been – the Victorian underworld, almost. He wanted to see the muck on the floor and the mud on the horses and filth on the buildings.”
For reference, Vickery and his team used material and artwork from Jarret and existing images on the Internet and at the Tower Bridge museum. They also visited locations in Manchester, Liverpool and the historic docks in Chatham. To survey the period buildings, around 75 in total, Double Negative combined engineering survey equipment and photogrammetry techniques. “What we were trying to do,” recalled Vickery, “was avoid the sense of building a completely CG environment where everything looks like it was created at the same time. In Victorian times there were of course still medieval buildings around and buildings from the 16th century.”
Vickery and his crew also visited the Tower Bridge and surveyed the area around the structure. “If you go inside the Tower itself it’s actually a cast iron skeleton, which has then been clad in brickwork,” said Vickery. “We then had to also match this with what the production designer, Sarah Greenwood, had built on the set in New York. Plus we had to dress it with hundreds of buckets and ropes and chains, left there by the workmen, to give it a sense of scale.” Artists relied on the natural lighting of present-day London for the scenes featuring the Tower Bridge, with reference filmed for such purposes. “They actually went up to the Tower Bridge and hung a 35mm camera off the side of one of the walkways looking due east,” said Vickery. “Then they put an identical rig on the opposite side. At the same time, Rick Leary, our CG supervisor, and I were harnessed off the side of the Bridge with one DS Canon on tripods and we shot the entire environment as bracketed 360 degree multiple exposure stills.”
Construction of the Tower Bridge was undertaken via traditional modelling in Maya, with elements such as ropes and chains handled more dynamically. “We knew if we had to hand animate every chain and piece of cloth, we’d never finish the movie,” said Vickery. “So we came up with some tools that allowed us to pre-animate the ropes and chains using soft-body dynamics and Maya cloth packages. We have our own in-house rigid body solver called Dnamite. We’d run 500-600 frame caches out which would become invisible in the Maya scene and saved out as a rib archive and would disappear until render time.” A similar system was adapted for the boats and barges inhabiting the River Thames. Recalls Vickery: “Rick Leary came up with a system that, depending on how big the footprint of the boat was, would alter how high it would sit in the water. So row boats would sit quite high and the cargo barges full of lead and iron would sit lower. They all had procedural animation – you wouldn’t have to worry about for every shot.”
To create the digital water for the Thames, Double Negative utilised its water generator dnOcean, adapting the software to achieve the brown, murkiness of the river. “We had to match all the complexities of the swirling currents and waves,” said Vickery. “Basically these are generated by hundreds of different displacement maps controlled with little cordinate systems about the river. We painted the currents and flow paths, even down to the underlying geometry of the river. dnOcean allows us to make the water change movement depending on that geometry.”
Incorporating the river, bridge and other buildings into shots, which numbered up to 250, necessitated a fast turn-around approach in compositing. “The way we did that was to actually render the entire 360 degree environment out to a spherical map,” explained Vickery. “Like your typical HDRI environment, we actually re-rendered ours to a multiple exposure 360 degree map. In the end it wound up being about a 32,000 pixel spherical map. We rendered that as a sequence of frames too. So what you do is plug it straight into Shake and have the compositors look at any point at any time in the environment and get a camera track and then line it up, rather than having to do a 3D render for every shot every time.”
A combination of moody, overcast weather and thunderous clouds inhabit the scenes, as the film reaches a dangerous climax on the Tower Bridge. “The basis of the lighting started with that lighting from the locations,” noted Vickery. “We were lucky to have very moody, overcast thunderous clouds, with very bright sun as well. Chas was very keen to do as much as we can with the photography. The problem we had was that so many of the buildings along the river had to be replaced. So although we replaced about 90 per cent of the plate, we still had to constantly refer back to our original photography to check the lighting was right.” Double Negative finished shots in a neutrally lit environment so that atmospherics could be further enhanced in the DI.
The final fight sequence on the Tower Bridge, featuring Holmes, Blackwood and Adler, was filmed on a complete greenscreen set in New York, which also utilised a 75 foot section of walkway. Previs helped the filmmakers work out interesting shooting angles in terms of whether the bridge or the river would be seen in the background. At Double Negative, Vickery again relied on a rendered spherical map for the backgrounds, with a walkway extension rendered in 3D for appropriate parallax movement.
Vickery reflects on Double Negative’s environment and other shots as having achieved the stated aims of remaining naturalistic and true to real Victorian London. “The only thing is,” recalled David, “all our reference was really good, but every time we went out to get reference, London and the Thames looked different. I think it’s just a case of really studying it. The level of complexity is what makes a river look real, for instance. Sometimes Chas would see a render and say, ‘That just doesn’t look real.’ And that’s because he’d come to work that day over the Thames and it looked a certain way and then the next day he’d come in and go, ‘It looks different again!’
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