Opening recently, Body of Lies finds Ridley Scott directing a triller in which bomb blasts across Europe are now far too common. To find out how the film’s explosions and similar rocket attack crash sequences were achieved fxguide spoke to VFX supervisor Sheena Duggal of Sony Pictures Imageworks. From blowing up left over explosives to crafting helicopter gun ship crashes, Duggal breaks down the complexity of blorphing stuff up.
Body of Lies is directed by three-time Academy Award nominee Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, “Thelma & Louise) The film is based on the novel of the same name by author David Ignatius, a veteran journalist who covered the CIA and Middle Eastern affairs for 10 years for The Wall Street Journal before joining The Washington Post, where he is currently an associate editor and columnist. Scott read the book when it was still in galley form, and decided to make the film.
In keeping with Scott’s desire for realism, most of the film’s special effects were achieved practically, with Scott working closely with special effects supervisor Paul Corbould. When necessary, they were augmented with CG in post-production. Likewise, stunts and action sequences were carefully orchestrated to be as credible as possible. “Ridley wants it real,” says stunt coordinator G.A. Aguilar. “He never wants anything that looks, feels or even smells phony.” With the exception of dodging the major explosion (and having his legs bitten by ferocious dogs), DiCaprio did all of his own stunts. “There were a few very intense, very difficult action sequences,” he comments, “But Ridley is so prepared for this kind of stuff and makes you feel so at ease, it’s just another day’s work.”
Scott’s distinctive shooting style—he uses an average of four to eight cameras per setup—allows him to film scenes with full coverage in minimal takes. “I was amazed at how he could coordinate and shoot with so many cameras from multiple angles at once,” DiCaprio commented on a recent press tour. “You’re doing a scene with 20 explosions going off in the background, and there’s a person up in a tree half a mile away zooming in on your face and you don’t even know it. There will be two helicopters on standby waiting to do a fly over, and Ridley will just grab the walkie-talkie and here they come. And, meanwhile, he is watching all the different monitors, cutting in his head as he goes. I think he has a channel into the eyes of the viewer. That’s why Ridley is so good at what he does, because he sees the big picture.” Choreographing multiple cameras shooting enables Scott to create the kind of breathtaking momentum that he brings to his storytelling.
Body of Lies has over 200 VFX shots, approx. 50 of those shots were done at Imageworks. “We kept all the tricky 2d and 3d shots at Imageworks and the less complex (predator monitor burn ins etc) as well as the graphics were done by Dick Edwards at Invisible Effects. I supervised the shoot for all the VFX work”, explained Visual Effects Supervisor Sheena Duggal, of Sony Pictures Imageworks (SPI).
Blowin stuff up
Two of the main sequences in the film revolve around explosions and dramatic action, the first is a flower market bombing in Europe, the second is a chase in the desert involving helicopters and SUVs. In both cases SPI had to create very realistic bomb blasts and explosions.
“Ridley’s ability to envision what he wants was such a great help to us, he was able to draw reference for us on almost all the shots of what he had in his minds eye, this cut out a lot of the guess work about what he was thinking in regard to scale, position and orientation” comments Duggal who clearly found the crew that Ridley works with very collaborative and a great experience to work with. “Collaborating with editorial on post really helped us understand what Ridley wanted, and was essential since Ridley was often out of town in the UK wasn’t able to see our shots until we had progressed quite far with them. I felt that Ridley made it easy for us to be on the same page with him, he was visionary and open to suggestions and ideas, once he had given us direction we put the shots together quite quickly” she adds.
For Duggal the trickest shots mostly comprised of 2d combined with 3D, ” these effects included blorphing (blend morphing), loads of FX animation and matte painting” combined with intercutting some fully digital shots, CG elements and characters.
In a trend we being seen widely across the Industry, SPI created the fully digital explosions using Houdini to run the volumetric simulations, there is a photorealistic CG SUV which is seen in a couple of explosion and post explosion shots. Lots of smoke, dust, debris, glass FX, were added into all the shots created by FX animators Tom Lynnes and Frederic Gaudreau.
The film is very FX animation heavy, partly because of the way Ridley Scott shoots, “he always incorporates lots of atmosphere and going into this at the bidding stage I knew FX animation was going to be key to the success of shots, without it our shots wouldn’t blend seamlessly with the practical photography. We also used FX animation to to sit the CG elements spatially into the shots layering them behind smoke, dust, debris, glass etc. Our FX animation crew did a great job, there isn’t a VFX shot of ours in the movie that doesn’t have some FX animation.” explains Duggal who has had an impressive career at SPI dating back to 1996. Her credits include Anger Management, 50 First Dates, and many more).
The Amsterdam bomb sequence, is seen from both overhead, an Aerial view, and from a surveillance camera POV. The aerial shot of the explosion, shows a 3D matte painting of canals with barges which has been tracked into the live action helicopter plate, as all of the action on the ground has been removed and replaced with digital people. The team used already existing CG characters and motion-capture performance that SPI have in their in-house library. “We added a digital explosion created by Dr. Patrick Witting using Houdini to run simulations rendered using svea (Svea is a volumetric renderer, written in-house at SPI). Additionally, Jason Greenblum and Bjorn Zipprich added colour and lighting, compositing and effects animation comprised of smoke and debris, glass, shock-wave and distortion FX, and Kevin Sheedy simulated the CG market awning.” This CG awning is very distinctive, due to it’s ripple effect which travels down from the blast centre. The rooftop of the building behind the market is also CG, because the building in the actual photography was under construction, as one can see in the plate photography above. The shot was helped by the crew exploding unused explosive ordinance in Morocco and seeing the shock wave effects from the real blast.
The Amsterdam bomb cctv shot is a live action plate, which was populated with people from a separate live action plate, there was a small explosion in the plate to which the team added FX animation to create a bigger explosion, smoke, ” the debris effects of a “pack of fleas” flying into camera” says Duggal. “that’s how Ridley described this shot as looking like a pack of fleas, that are made of soot and debris”. The rippling awning, the shattering glass in the windows, CG cables flicking into the camera, the 2d video look and FX that make the camera look like it going on the blink and dying are all composited by Fish Essenfeld.
It was important for Ridley Scott to shoot a lot of the scenes, live action, so Duggal relied on her knowledge of what can be done in 2d to combine plates together and attenuate that with FX and CG elements, “we shot plates for most of the elements practically on the set as time allowed. Obviously with all the explosions in the film there were safety restrictions which meant shooting multiple passes was the best option we had”, she explains, “Peter Kohn the 1st AD has shot some big VFX movies and so he was used to shooting multiple passes and he was a great help to us”.
Duggal worked closely with two Special Effects (practical) Supervisors, John Mcleod in DC; and Paul Courbould in Morocco to find the line between what they could do practically and what we would be doing digitally.
Desert Car Chase
To get such vivid explosions the team relied on ” some amazing explosions shot beautifully by Director of Photography Alexander Witt” credits Duggal. Witt, first worked with director Ridley Scott as a camera operator on the 1989 thriller “Black Rain,” and later re-teamed with Scott as second unit director and/or second unit cinematographer on “American Gangster,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Hannibal” and “Gladiator.” Witt has earned praise for his work as second unit director and second unit director of photography. His high-octane car chases and action sequences have been seen in such films as the most recent James Bond thriller, “Casino Royale,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” “The Italian Job,” and “The Bourne Identity.” This clearly helped enormously with the helicopter chase in Body of Lies.
The car chase sequence shot in the Central Sahara desert, has lots of invisible FX in it, “the way it worked out was we choreographed the seq in post to create the timing and pacing Ridley and Pietro were looking for” explains Duggal. This meant adding some VFX shots and using VFX to adjust the relationship between the 3 cars and 2 helicopters in the chase seq. The explosion shots were shot in multiple passes for safety reasons. She explains,
“To describe one of the explosion shots where the SUV blown up, you see:
1) a moving FG SUV,
2) an exploded BG SUV,
3) helicopters and
4) extreme BG explosion,
and each element was shot if a separate pass and composited and blorphed together, by flame artist Brian Battles”.
For the explosion plates for the car chase, the team mapped out on the ground where each car should be relative to the other at the time of the explosions, (relative to the overall chase), They then shot the cars driving through the shot lined up in the correct position and then we went back and rigged the cars in a static position and blew them up. “In post we blorphed the moving cars in to the static exploding cars, compositing in the helicopters (which were also shot as a separate plate) and a 2nd moving and exploding car, also the explosions in the back ground which were also shot as a separate pass” explains Duggal. There were multiple camera’s on the shots approximately 8-10 including aerial. On the ground there was a VFX crew collecting reference, texture data, HDRI’s and surveying. The missiles, RPG’s and trails that one sees in all the shots are created digitally by the FX animation team lead by Brian Davis with Lynn Basas responsible for colour and lighting compositing.
While the team worked hard at recording all the details, the precise measurement, and shooting some of the multiple pass plates, Ridley Scott broke off and shot some insert shots in a nearby part of the desert.
“There is one shot where we created a CG SUV, debris and most of the explosion. In editorial Ridley felt that we needed a shot where the SUV impacted towards camera and so we used the plates shot on location combined the passes to create a pre-comp and the added a simulated explosion, fire, debris, CG SUV, dust, dirt and bouncing tire” explains Duggal. The animator on the sequence was Koji Morihiro, Duggal says she” worked closely with Ridley Scott to create an animation which Scott felt had realistic weight dynamics”.
The team re-purposed a few shots in the car chase sequence by adding CG car elements or removing live action elements, or changing the relationship between the cars and helicopters, “we used VFX to give Pietro and Ridley greater flexibility in how they could use the footage we’d shot” she adds.
To avoid having more expensive VFX shots the team shot elements such as the Jihadist firing in passes, one pass with the missile in the launcher and one without the missile in the rocket launcher, in the without pass to be added as a practical FX in post, where they were able to avoid creating CG RPG and trails. The shot was completed in 2d by combining the 2 passes they shot. Duggal warmly “Ridley was happy to shoot this way knowing it would save us on the VFX budget and that he always had the option to do the RPG CG if he wasn’t happy with the result. On set Ridley knew I was always going to ask for it both ways, if he asked me”.
Duggal is of the school that believes that if one can get it in camera – it’s always better, and even if you don’t use an element in the shot its still the best lighting reference, “the fact that Ridley is such an accomplished filmmaker makes my job so easy, he understands what we (VFX) are asking for and why because he can visualize it. If he questions a methodology I learned to go with his instincts or shoot it both ways, after all he knows what he wants better than I do. He really is an amazing visionary story teller ” she says admiringly, adding “Certainly when working with Ridley, (and when supervising all VFX) , I feel my job is to cover the director for any VFX possibility and this is how I approach a day on the set. Even if it isn’t a VFX shot, I cover it as if it is, because it could become one in post especially if it helps to tell the story better,… it’s always about that”.
There are also 2 fully digital shots of Incirlik Airbase. Duggal collaborated again with Rob Stromburg’s Digital Backlot to create a 3D matte painting, Duggal’s team prevised a camera move, (which they passed along to Stromburg), and then added a CG helicopter, CG humvee and CG explosions – animated and rigged by Koji Morihiro. “We discussed going to the desert to shoot plates for this but decided that it was more cost effective to do it all digitally. In fact we didn’t do any re-shoots or VFX pick up elements, we were able to do everything digitally,” Duggal commented.
A number of situations, such as with some of the explosion shots where you see the extras getting ripped by the bombs, the shots were tackled in Duggal’s old department High Speed Compositing (HSC) at SPI. These shots were composited by Mark Holmes with Candice Scott both on Autodesk flame. Duggal previously managed the flame HSC unit at SPI.
The SPI CG Supervisor was John Monos , “he did a great job with a small crew of key artists” explains Duggal. Given the size of the film’s modest shot count, the small team allowed for rapid and detailed work, away from the larger most structured approaches always required on much larger 1000 shot count tentpole films such as say Spiderman – a film Duggal also worked on at SPI. “We created all the shots for two HD temp screenings at the start of our schedule, using HD avid MXF files. We completed the bulk of the VFX work in 5 weeks, with a few extra shots that were tagged the end of the schedule” she finishes up by commenting.
VFX producer: Jacquie Barnbrook
DC VFX producer: Julia Frey
Digital VFX producer: Daniel Kuehn
Post supervisor: Theresa Kelly
Editor: Pietro Scala
VFX Editor: Billy Rich
DI: Company 3
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