The stunts and action of Fast & Furious 6 may well be the biggest yet. Here’s a look at just four of the biggest. We examine both the special and visual effects work behind them – from crashing a massive Russian cargo plane, to battling a tank, destroying a parkade and driving around city streets. Plus we have a bonus interview with the film’s cinematographer Stephen Windon, ACS.
Crash of the Antonov
Perhaps the most audacious stunt in the movie, nay, the series, is the bringing down of an Antonov AN-225 as it attempts to take off. In the film, the team tether the plane to their vehicles and drive into and out of a ramp in the rear of the aircraft, which finally ends up crashing on the runway. At one point, Dominic (Vin Diesel) drives his car through the nose cone of the plane.
- Above: watch an exclusive breakdown of Dneg’s VFX for the Antonov crash, thanks to our media partner WIRED.
Like many of the action sequences in the film, director Justin Lin wanted to capture the stunt practically as much as possible. “That’s all…good…until you start looking at the previs and realize they’re trying to throw tanks through the air and have them jump and race alongside an aeroplane at 100 miles an hour,” notes visual effects supervisor David Vickery, from Double Negative, which handled effects for the Antonov crash.
“So you go, ‘How are we going to do that for real?’, and Justin comes along and says well we can’t get a real plane but we can build most of a real plane! So he’ll go to whatever lengths he can to shoot stuff in-camera to get stuff for real.”
Special effects supervisor Joss Williams built three practical set-pieces that would be filmed on an RAF base at Bovingdon, Hertfordshire:
- a 75 foot long, 50 foot wide section of the fuselage completely finished up to a height of 25 to 30 feet, with rolling wheels.
- a ramp piece dressed like the tail piece of the plane – about 100 feet long – that allowed the cars to drive in and out out the back of the plane.
- a 1:1 scale partial build of the center of the fuselage and the wings and engines, and the nose, that could be set on fire.
“The second unit shoot crew was often made up of more that 200 people,” notes Vickery. “Stunt drivers, camera operators and technicians, special effects and safety experts, electricians, painters, carpenters, art department, hair and makeup artists and of course the visual effects crew to name just a few. In pre-production there would have been dozens more technicians involved in fabricating the rigs and planning the work. When it came to post production we had over 350 artists working on the project at Double Negative alone. A typical Antonov destruction shot would take well over 100 man days to complete and would have perhaps 10 different people working on it.”
Vickery says that the practical elements, which also included plenty of practical fire and smoke elements, were invaluable. “I think a lot of the time in visual effects you assume we can do anything now. And you can do anything, but everything’s limited by the time constraints you have, and the artist’s imagination. Building these huge explosions from scratch requires a lot of effort and time, and a lot of detail. It’s one of those things – you have to plow so much detail into one of these renders / simulations in order to throw it all away when you composite it. Because if you don’t have all the detail in the first place it becomes very apparent that it doesn’t have the complexity and layers of effects required to make something real and believable.”
In particular, Double Negative could reference aspects of the pyro and smoke effects from the shoot to work out the exposure and detail required for their digital augmentations. “We spent a lot of time making shots dirtier,” says Vickery. “Justin referred to them not being dirty enough – I think he reacted to the clarity and fidelity of any digital work or any 3D where you tend to see a little too much detail in the surface of the plane or exposing perfectly for the fire and the actors’ faces. He would spend a long time just throwing detail away. We were being very precious with our work and people spent a lot of time doing a huge amount of fantastic detail, but what it came down to in the end was that the shots themselves have to work when you watch them, and if you’ve got pieces of debris trying to centerstage themselves and become really obvious and visible in a shot – it wasn’t working anymore.”
This extended, also, to matching the look the camera operators achieved, and even the behavior of film to “match the strains and stresses that are put on cameras and cameraman and DOPs when they go and film this stuff,” adds Vickery. “Just with the amount of available light they had as we shot the plane being destroyed was very little. And the stock got very grainy and the camera often had terrible artifacts in it where the film was moving around in the gate because of the stresses that were being put on the rig that the camera’s on.”
In terms of digital effects work, Dneg used their proprietary tools for fire and smoke sims, and also concentrated on the plane’s first impact with the ground. “We spent a lot of time doing lots of really complicated simulations for tarmac being thrown up,” says Vickery, who was assisted at Dneg by internal VFX supes Paul Riddle and Sean Stranks, “and for the way the plane shredded itself when the plane hits the ground to these shockwaves that the first impact of the aeroplane – we spent a long time looking at the dynamics of the construction of fuselage – the way the rib structures were clabbed with a fairly lightweight metal and as the plane impacted the ribs compressed and the plane basically started to shrug its metal surface off and you get this little ripple running back through the plane.”
The signature stunt of Dom’s car launching through the nose cone involved, of course, a practical stunt. Explains Vickery: “They got a charger, they put it on a pneumatic air ram called a canon – they mount it inside a ramp that’s being toed by a very low slung 4×4 truck. Then they dressed the nose on the front of the plane. They dressed it in a black wadding that they’re able to then completely soak in petrol and fuel and flammable gel. They run it down the runway and there are obviously limitations in the speeds this thing could go – so they could get certain speeds out of it and they go as fast as they could safely, and then they fire the Charger out the front.”
The benefits of this practical approach to the plane crash were, to Vickery, certainly obvious. “The cameraman can go out and react to something. The DOP can expose for the fire correctly. The stunt drivers in the cars are basically driving for their lives because they’ve basically got a 40 ton burning plane rig chasing them down the runway. All that stuff adds to the realism, I think.”
The tank attack
Another of Double Negative’s visual effects challenges was to enhance, again, practical photography of a tank shootout near a NATO Spanish military base. It was a sequence full of some ambitious practical setups, notes David Vickery. “We approached this beat of the tank leaping out of the front of a huge convoy vehicle – an 18-wheeler – and went, ‘Wow, that’s a CG shot, isn’t it?’ and Justin was like, ‘No, we’re gonna do that’. It’s a real tank jumping out of a real truck, and it’s just amazing.”
The tank attack does make use of extensive digital work, however, starting with initial previs by Proof, Inc. under the supervision of Alex Vegh. And Dneg enhanced the scene with rig and car removal, digital cars, explosion effects, digital debris, face replacements and environment work.
Shooting at the Canary Islands on the island of Tenerife, the production filmed real cars, trucks, the tank and elaborate stunt work, with Dneg initially painting out camera vehicles and crew. “The whole of the motorway we filmed on was a 5km stretch of road and it had hotels along the side of the road all along the coastline and you could see all of the Tenerife holiday resorts,” says Vickery. “We had to have this deserted road so we had to paint those out.”
At one point the tank shoots at a bridge, causing an explosion and a large amount of debris that Dneg augmented with digital sims. “For the bridge explosion,” explains Vickery, “it was shot over three days, and each of those days we got a slightly different component to the explosion. One day was a big drop tank of styrofoam rubble that the art department had built. Another day with a big explosion on the bridge itself which SFX rigged, and then a third day with a helicopter rig with another smaller pyro explosion.”
Dneg’s Singapore office also worked on the sequence, including shots of the tank firing at cars on the road. “There’s a great little beat in there,” recalls Vickery, “where they had to augment the explosions, but then when they shot it, Dom and Brian’s (Paul Walker) car were way behind that set of explosions, so our job in there was to make it feel like they were right next to it. They basically had a couple of greenscreen shots in the middle – to show that Dom and Brian were being enveloped by all of the smoke and debris from the tank explosion. Then we were doing digital vehicles racing past really close to camera.”
The end of the sequence involves a spectacular jump and the flipping of the tank. “We built a completely digital bridge and digital environment and we kept little bits of plate photography and reprojected them back in,” says Vickery.
The parkade collapse
In a sequence known as the Shaw Trap Raid, the film’s villain Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) brings down the pillars of a London parkade to escape a police raid – another scene informed by practical work. “Justin was really concerned about doing all of the destruction in CG,” notes visual effects supervisor Kelvin McIlwain, who was on hand to supervise the sequence. “So we came up with a system where we had some columns that we could shoot on set that would explode. Then we set big dust mortars all around and blew them knowing they were never going to give the look we wanted, but they were perfect reference material for knowing how to light and get the right look on the CG destruction and massive dust cloud that results in the CG work Image Engine did.”
Having done a fair amount of dust sim for the recent Zero Dark Thirty, Image Engine’s team ramped up for the parkade shots quickly. “It was also one of the biggest shots that featured in the trailer,” notes IE visual effects producer Geoff Anderson, “so basically production was wrapping principal photography just before Xmas and it had to be done mid to late January.”
The studio scoured the internet for building demolition reference. “It was that kind of explosive charge that would go off and then sink down into itself,” explains IE visual effects supervisor Chris Harvey. “Then they set off a couple of huge dust canons on set that in the end weren’t useful in terms of shots but very useful for lighting reference – how detailed the dust looked, the densities, texture of it.”
“We post-vis’d and blocked out the sequence with a very low-res simulation,” adds Harvey. “Once that was refined we built the whole sequence up. It was all about dust simulation and had full rigid body dynamic destruction. Then huge amounts of dust plumes, as well as a few fire explosions as the pillars went off. It was all done in Houdini with a variety of different solvers, and then the guys did their magic hooking up and connecting different things together.”
The team also rendered everything through different cameras for re-projections as window reflections and for other needs. “We had a lot of separated out lighting AOVs,” says Harvey. “We had lighting AOVs for police headlights, sirens and keylight and backfill for parkade lights. So we had a lot of different volumes and could re-balance them in comp and try to find this very moody look.”
Driving, fast and furious style
A Fast & Furious movie wouldn’t be a Fast & Furious movie without some incredible driving sequences, and the new film has several. Along with carefully choreographed driving in the streets of London and elsewhere, the visual effects teams enhanced shots with digital vehicles, transitions, backgrounds and greenscreen photography.
Added to the mix this time around were ‘flip cars’ driven by Shaw’s men that could literally send other cars flying. “They’re these very low slung wedge-shaped cars,” explains Kelvin McIlwain. “In the team-versus-team sequence, they tried to build a practical moving car that could flip vehicles, but in all practicality to get the violence that you really want, you really need to build a pipe ramp, and you have police or hero cars that get up to speed and hit this pipe ramp and launch through the air. You get this really spectacular stunt but then you have to put this CG car in and paint out the pipe ramp.”
In most driving sequences, real photography – often captured from an Allan Padelford camera car fitted with an Ultimate Arm – was mixed with the building extensions, car enhancements and the actors on greenscreen. A number of vendors, including MPC and Pixomondo, handled in-car composites and environment extensions.
Background plates were often captured on the ‘Mike Wassel’ rig, a reference to a multi-cam setup employed by VFX supe Mike Wassel on the previous Fast movies. “We shot every location with 2 or 3 plate camera rigs on film,” says McIlwain. “We would have a car dedicated specifically to capturing those background plates. Depending on the shot design you would have the camera mounted differently. With two of them you get at best about 270 degrees of coverage.”
The greenscreen shoot for the Fast films has also been refined and perfected. “We shoot without glass because when we’re on stage, Steve Windon, the DP, is going to be running between 3 to 4 cameras at a time,” notes McIlwain. “So you wind up having to replace all of the glass on the cars, and that has to be tracked in in 3D. You have to add in interior car reflections and environmental reflections. We’d try to get street lights passing and so on practically on set, so there’s some sense of reflections. But in the end – all of our cars have been LIDAR’d and we can do the tracking.”
Faking the interactive light is a major part of the greenscreen shoots. Says McIlwain: “Everything goes through a sequencer so you can slow down or speed up the light passing past the car. The most effective thing is what we call the wurly gate. It’s just a big helicopter rig that you can hang up above the cars that has lights pointing down on the cars – it’s very effective at simulating driving down a street and simulating lights passing over. So you get this fantastic interactive light on the interior of the car and on your actors.”
BONUS Interview – Stephen Windon, ACS
DOP Stephen Window tells fxguide about his favorite piece of kit on Fast & Furious 6, testing digital but going with film, and how to shoot beautiful car shots.
fxg: How are the driving sequences and stunts on a film like Fast 6 planned?
Windon: Everything’s planned quite specifically because of the effects required – practical effects, actual choreographing the movement or cars. Usually any sequence involving practical or visual effects is storyboarded. So in addition to the main storyboarded frame, they’ll be additional cameras positioned somewhere in that scenario capturing action. And that is never boarded and stuff we knew will be cool on the day for a specific moment. Or it might be the beat after the moment that we capture at the same time. So there’s always that spontaneity and organicness to the process.
fxg: How was it shooting on film again for this new movie?
Windon: Justin is very much a film fanatic. I did discuss with him the option of, would Fast 6 be the change for us – having shot two films prior together – and all have been on film. A lot of the movie is at night and my experience having shot a lot of digital was maybe this was the way to embrace London, in terms of using digital as a medium.
I went and shot some tests and spent several evenings with a tracking car at night shooting the streets of London. I shot film, RED EPIC and ARRI Alexa. And just shot the exact same shots, with the same lenses and did the exact same run all from a moving vehicle, just to look at things like lagging or shuttle angles. It was really interesting. We went into Technicolor, colortimed them all and put it altogether and got Justin back in to look at them. Each of them had their own nuance and their own look and feel, but Justin looked at it without him knowing which one was which. And he kept on thinking that he liked film the best in nearly all the shots that we did. So that was really it.
fxg: Would digital cameras have allowed you a different lighting setup say in nighttime London?
Windon: Well, Fast and Furious is all lit anyway. Even with a digital camera, we’d still go in there and change the practical lights in case they were all the same – because we didn’t want a monochromatic look or we’d put gels on different lamps, or we’d architecturally light a building that didn’t have any. And ultimately it was never really the big Muscos pouring down the streets – it was just smaller units and lots of them. Or we’d add bus shelters and light them to help create speed.
fxg: What was one of your most useful pieces of kit on the film?
Windon: The camera vehicle we use quite a lot is provided by a company called Allan Padelford Camera Cars. We use an arm called an Ultimate Arm which is a remote controlled arm with a stabilized head – it’s a high speed pursuit vehicle really that can have the cameras mounted on the roof and it can be rotated 360 degrees by a crane operator. Then either myself or Igor the second unit DP or any of our operators would operate the camera from the remote head.
The Ultimate Arm lets you have up to 26 feet of arm movement, so you can imagine that out at 90 degrees on a vehicle. It means we can look low, move forward at an oncoming car and rise up over it as it swoops under us without seeing the camera car. That’s a great tool and we shot a lot of the movie with that setup.
fxg: How did the camera department help in staging and capturing the Antonov crash?
Windon: In pre-production we would literally be cutting two by one pieces of timber and stands that would give me the height of the tail rudder or wing tips or nose, or where the pilots were sitting. We’d literally do that on an open space, say the backlot at Shepparton. Then we moved that same kind of thing out onto the actual airfield. Then we lensed that up with a car in the foreground and would note that a 21mm at 120 feet at four foot off the ground meant a certain scale.
The interactive part of all that was as well as lighting a three kilometer long runway, was lighting an object that we only had pieces of. We only had pieces of fuselage, pieces of undercarriage, pieces of wheels, a ramp and an interior. The fun part was joining it altogether. There was also such a great visual effects team. Transferring that location onto the stage environment which was shot towards the end of the movie for the interior of the aircraft. I always wanted the interior of the aircraft to be the brightest light source so we could light down the ramp and also see the airplane up ahead.
The effect of speed was important in my head and making sure everything would look fast enough – so even on the runway lights that we put down, I wanted to space them a certain distance apart so it had the effect of moving in and out of light. I wanted to then transfer that movement into the sound stage for greenscreen photography. I had a lot of moving lights, rotating lights, on what looks like a helicopter blade – four lamps rotating on a 30 foot span – which makes for interactive light. That’s the fun stuff!
fxg: Do you have any particular approaches to achieving the ‘beauty’ shots of cars that you see?
Windon: We tend to discuss the color of cars and whether they’ll be shot in day or at night. The secret is really that it’s always about fast cars. We like doing low angles using high speed pursuit vehicles with the crane arm. It’s also the format – we like the 2:35:1 format. It’s the right frame ratio for a car. We do things with the shutter to help with the speed. We also like the car to be intimate to the camera and it have it close to the actor, so we like to be right in front of the steering wheel or column or gear shift, so we literally have the rear half of the car and everything from the front of the steering wheel is completely removed so I can be right in front of the actor at four feet away or outside the window.
All images and clips copyright 2013 Universal Pictures.
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