For the Hell sequences in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, Tippett Studio augmented miniature photography with various digital elements. Visual effects supervisor Matt Jacobs gives Ian Failes a run-down of Tippett’s work for the film. This story contains Spoilers.
fxg: Can you give me an overview of your work for the Hell shots?
MJ: Tom Schelesny and I were the visual effects supervisors for Tippett Studio on the project. Tippett worked on two major sequences in the film. One was the opening sequence of the little boy who has been cursed and is dragged into Hell. Most of that work was doing augmentations to the set. Hell starts to open up and the earth cracks. We had to add light rays, smoke, embers and fire. In one shot, which didn’t actually appear in the picture, there was a demon – this creature called the Lamia which resembled a goat and had a Hag’s head. That was actually a shared model with other facilities that was given to us. We had to do some work internally for our Lamia shots, using shaders. It was basically taking this grand hall that the kid was in, cracking the earth as he is pulled down to Hell, while this gypsy woman watches. So there were several shots of the kid and then a couple of reverses of the woman trying to take the curse off of him.
MJ: It was the end of the movie, when the girl, Christine, is dragged to Hell. She thinks she is free of the curse. She and her boyfriend are going to take some sort of train trip. She gets to the train platform, and (this is a bit of a spoiler) comes to find out that she in fact hasn’t because of this button her boyfriend produces. She realises that she hasn’t passed on the curse to someone else because of the button and what the button actually means. So she falls onto the train tracks. We did a large set extension there. The train itself, the train station, and everything other than the girl and an eight foot square of railroad is a massive set extension. So the train is bearing down on her and at the same time the demons from Hell come to drag her down there.
Bruce Jones, the studio visual effects supervisor and producer on the film, shot Christine on a greenscreen stage with a section of train track inside of a trough. He had some actors with green coverings on and rubber arms that they used as demon arms to reach out and drag her down to Hell. We did some augmentation for the set and for the rubber arms, trying to make them look a little less rubber and little more demon-like.
We also shot a Hell miniature here at Tippett. Lorne Peterson, who used to be with the ILM Model Shop for 30 years, came over to help us out. The look that they wanted for Hell was a massive cavern. So the miniature involved a bunch of stalagtites hanging down. It’s supposed to be a white hot core, almost completely blown out to the point where we’re supposed to see the stalagtites, but it has the heat of Hell. So when we filmed the miniature we filmed with a lot of smoke elements and lighting passes. We had a couple of different kinds of smoke and we also used dry ice. Electric fans were used to try and get different characteristics like wafting out through the hole. We also tried different tricks and lighting scenarios on the miniature to give different rim light effects.
For the miniature shoot, lighting of the miniature was handled by Jim Aupperle, a lighting TD here at the studio with extensive experience in lighting practical and miniature visual effects. Andy Trickel and Bart Trickel wrangled set construction, lighting and grip. The miniature was supervised by Lorne Peterson. The RED camera was provided to us by Miguel Ortega, a Tippett Studio modeler and independent filmmaker.
We added fire and embers and smoke to the shots. We also added a lot of heat distortion ripples, which were basically just a warp effect. Those were the principal elements that went into making Hell. We put those underneath the train tracks. There’s a whole idea that as Hell opens up, the rocks underneath the train track are pouring down into Hell. This is like a hole that opens up, demon arms reach up to grab Christine, fire’s shooting out, embers are going everywhere and there’s heat distortion.
Then, eventually, the hole closes up and the rocks begin piling back in on themselves as the train passes by. Christine turns into what we called the ‘Desiccated girl’. It involved adding cracks and fissures to her face and then giving that to the compers to manipulate even further to make it feel like she was really drying up. Then in one of the last shots in the movie, you see her all dried up. Her skin’s peeled back and her hand has turned into more of a husk. She’s dragged down into these rocks and she disappears forever into Hell.
fxg: It sounds like there was a nice mixture of practical and digital effects.
MJ: For us, we wanted to use the miniature so we could have something photographic in our pocket as opposed to using just a CG approach. That gave us the ability to photograph this thing and immediately have something. It meant that everybody knew what we were making. To paraphrase someone else, there’s this idea that while CG stuff might look right, photographed things feel right. It made more sense for the number of setups we had to do, for the time we had to do it in and the resources that were available to us. It was actually a really great experience to be able to work with some of the people like Lorne Peterson on making a miniature.
We were building this thing and dressing it to camera, as opposed to what you would do in CG. You know, ‘What’s the back of the cave look like?’ Sometimes things get overbuilt in the CG world. We really just built what we needed. We’ve got a stage here at Tippett, with lights and the right gels and the smoke machines and the ability to film these elements here. It made perfect sense for us to go with that approach, as opposed to building it digitally and then wondering if it was going to look right.
fxg: It’s great to hear that miniatures are still being used.
MJ: They get used a lot more than people think. I mean, Kerner Optical’s up here in the Bay Area. They’re still busy right now and we’ve worked on projects with them. Of course, Phil (Tippett) goes back to the days of ILM, so he’s got a lot of relationships with people at Kerner. It opens us up to using those people’s talents and their knowledge for what we’re doing. It’s not just locked into doing everything by modelling it digitally and then rendering it and all that stuff. Like I said, the photographic stuff just feels right.
fxg: What did you shoot the miniature with?
MJ: We used the RED camera to shoot the miniature. It was great because we were able to have instant feedback on what we were shooting. We shot a lot more footage than we ended up using, which was nice. The resolution was helpful too. We prevised out pretty well the dimensions of what we needed to build and the scale of it. That was an interesting process, again, to take what we knew we had to build in the computer based on our matchmoves to the plate and realise that we had to build everything down to one-fifth scale. We worked back and forth between the computer and what we had built on stage. When we brought the footage back into Shake, everything was lining up pretty well. You push and pull things a little bit, or you scale things up a little, but most of the footage dropped in relatively quickly in the comp.
fxg: What tools did you use to do the fire and smoke effects and the molten rocks?
MJ: We ended up shooting a bunch of high-speed fire elements with a Phantom camera. I think it was over 100 frames a second on most of the stuff to reinforce the scale and slow down the fire to make it look like it was travelling further. We did the same thing for the smoke elements for the miniature. We shot these mostly at 50 frames per second on the RED, and that way the smoke had the appearance of a larger scale. For the fire elements, once we’d filmed them at a higher rate, it was up to the compers to corner-pin, track them in and make them work for the shots. For the rocks, we mostly used nParticles which is Maya’s newer particle simulation tool. Lead compositing was done by Jonathan Knight and Joe Bailey. Tom Gibbons supervised animation on the project, and Larry Weiss was the lead lighting TD for all of our CG assets.
fxg: What were some of the bigger challenges on this show?
MJ: Probably the biggest impact for us was editorial decisions, on what beat certain things might have to happen. The pace of the picture, and the pace of the end sequence really drove it. It was all about performance beats. That could even come with some of the elements we were putting in the shots – when a railroad pipe broke, when you saw fire, when you saw a CG hand come up and grab Christine. Those sorts of things were driven more by editorial to enhance the cut.
Photos: Tippett Studio / Universal Pictures
(c) 2009 Universal Studios
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