fxguide goes behind the scenes of American Hustle, How I Live Now, Philomena and The Monuments Men in our latest round-up of invisible visual effects work.
American Hustle: where sunglasses rule
In American Hustle, director David O. Russell crafts the story of a scam operation in the late 1970s. Whilst the period setting involved minor visual effects enhancements for the film, the majority of work lay in the distinctive sunglasses worn by much of the cast. We talk to visual effects supervisor Sean Devereaux from Zero VFX about this work and other effects that made up more than 600 shots.
“I supervised on-set,” says Devereaux, “which was an interesting job because it’s obviously not a visual effects film, so a lot of stuff was on the fly. The biggest work Zero did was the Plaza Hotel in New York City. The exterior of that building and some of the surrounding trees were all CG. This is because during filming there was some scaffolding around it and the hotel sort of appeared to be under construction.”
In order to replicate concrete, building facades, trees and other details, Devereaux captured reference textures and HDRIs from around the area. “Initially we thought we could get away with simple geometry and re-projections,” he says, “but there wasn’t much to re-project since the scaffolding covered so much of it and so we only had little pieces we could use. In the end it was more of a full CG build to help us get the lighting and the gradations on the concrete.”
The largest surprise in terms of visual effects, however, was the reflections in sunglasses. “A lot of the characters were glasses, and Christian Bale wears them the entire movie,” notes Devereaux. “Despite the fact we used anti-reflective lenses, you can still see production lights, crew and David O. Russell in many reflections throughout the entire film.”
Most of the fixes were actually done by an in-house team who used on-set reference to aid in the covering up of reflections. “We knew in the first two days of shooting that this was going to be a major challenge,” recalls Devereaux. “We had 96 locations in the movie, and we have full HDRi and set surveys for all 96 locations, so that we could take out what’s there and put back in pure reflections. So if anyone wants to shoot in Boston again for 1970, we have 96 locations that they can fully shoot in!”
Interestingly, since the film was shot on 35mm film, the production only had access on set to a NTSC 640 x 480 video tap. “It wasn’t until the second day that I realized we could see the production lights in the glasses just in the video tap, so on film it was going to be a major problem,” says Devereaux.
“And because of the way David shoots,” adds Devereaux, “just the energy of it, we always shoot 20 minute takes. So every magazine load of 400 feet of film is 20 minutes of film. So often what David does to keep the energy up is get the Christian Bale side, and then in the middle of the take when he feels he got Christian’s performance, he’ll say ‘Alright, let’s turn around, while the camera is rolling and the entire crew has to run out of frame as the camera turns to look the other way to get Amy Adams’ side of things. So it keeps the energy really high but it also didn’t allow us to do regular lighting – so we actually had lights on boom poles that could fly around with the camera. That thing showed up constantly in glasses because it was much closer to the actors’ faces and because of the way we had this kinematic movement. And we knew they weren’t stopping for visual effects so we just had to deal with it in post.”
How I Live Now: a subtle dystopia
Kevin Macdonald’s How I Live Now tells the story of the aftermath of a nuclear explosion in London. During the film, the central characters journey through the countryside and witness glimpses of devastation. Union VFX was called upon to show these fleeting moments for around 100 shots.
“Once the film was shot,” explains Union visual effects supervisor Simon Hughes, “I sat down with Kevin and went through the journey looking to augment it and make it more scary. We looked for key moments in the film to turn up the volume a little bit without putting it over the top.”
The VFX team made use of partial builds to add in more mayhem, smoke or fire – mostly via matte paintings but also by sometimes breaking up scenes to craft new camera moves, for example.
For one sequence showing military vehicles traveling down an empty motorway in convoy, Union removed traffic from the original plate shot in Wales and then also added dead bodies, overturned crashed cars, deceased animals, as well as dirtied up the road with cracks and debris.
A more ambitious shot made use of a plate looking out from a military vehicle window with a view of a single burial mound in a field with some dead bodies burning in it. “I photographed that single mound and we took that shot and made a field with hundreds of burial mounds everywhere,” explains Hughes. “We also added in a crashed car and a CG helicopter.”
An earlier sequence required a large gust of wind to cut across some treetrops after the nuclear blast. “It’s an eerie moment,” says Hughes. “The way we did that was that we had a helicopter and got it to do multiple passes flying over the treeline and fields. We took those multiple passes in comp and split them all up into sections and made it look like it was a massive significant blast going across the trees.”
How I Live Now images © The British Film Institute/Channel Four Television Corporation/HILN Ltd 2013.
Philomena: meet the President
Stephen Frears also looked to Union VFX for invisible effects work for his film, Philomena, based on the true story of a women’s search for her son she had given up 50 years earlier. Union helped seam three locations into one, carried out some ‘Forest Gump’ style meetings and also carried out a number of other comp and effects shots.
An Irish convent represented in the film was actually filmed at three separate places. “We shot exteriors at all those places and seamed them together,” says Union visual effects supervisor Adam Gascoyne. “It involved a lot of re-projection work. We did pretty thorough surveys of all of the locations and built all three of the buildings. We tracked and lit them with HDRs and projected the textures onto them using NUKE.”
The woman’s son turns out to be a senior official in the Reagan administration. For shots of him shown shaking the President’s hand, Union acquired archival footage and inserted the son shot separately on greenscreen. “We searched for relevant footage that would work for the story from about the right time it was supposed to be happening,” says Gascoyne. “Most of it was sourced from rather rubbish formats, like VHS tape, and then we would shoot our actor against a greenscreen. He would shake hands with a stand-in and then we replaced the stand-in with Reagan. The lack of quality of footage actually helped us a little bit because it meant we could sit our character back a little bit more into the scene.”
Other shots by Union included several window and environment comps, as well as insertion of the main actors – Steve Coogan and Judi Dench – from re-shoots into key locations. “Nobody really knows what we did on Philomena,” states Gascoyne, “but it just adds to all of the production value.”
Philomena images © 2013 PHILOMENA LEE LIMITED, PATHÉ PRODUCTIONS LIMITED, BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE AND BRITISH BROADCASTING CORPORATION. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
The Monuments Men: art meets war
George Clooney’s The Monuments Men follows a group of allied forces tasked with saving culturally important art and relics from destruction by the Nazis during World War II. Here we look at two sequences with visual effects from Cinesite.
One scene highlighted the Merkers Gold Room discovery. Here, Bill Murray’s character turns on the lights in an underground salt mine to reveal a vast array of gold bars in bags, along with cash in boxes extending into the background. “We did not want to just reveal patches of a matte painted lit room over a matted painted dark room as we felt that this would look flat and 2 dimensional,” says Cinesite visual effects supervisor Jon Neill. “There were already some set objects that we could reference such as rail tracks, trolley, end stop, gas canisters and of course the bags of gold and boxes of cash. We got photogrammetry photography of those objects from which we generated textured models. The models were then laid out in a Maya scene and a light rig, replicating a continuation of the set lighting, was created.”
Cinesite rendered an image from a fully ray-traced and global illuminated scene with the lights at ‘on’. “It was important to not to lock down the sequence in which the lights could come on,” notes Neill, “so we then rendered an occlusion pass for each spot light. In Nuke we set up a script where the light passes could illuminate the background in any order by bringing through the beauty pass and adding proper directional shadows. Grain and anamorphic lens flares and aberration completed the photorealistic look.”
Another sequence showed images of ruin and rubble among the streets of Seigen. For these shots Cinesite created piles based on photogrammetry elements, adding in CG elements such as light poles and trees. “We populated a vast hilly terrain with thousands of models using MODO replicators,” explains Cinesite environment supervisor Thomas Dyg. “Based on painted masks – painted in MODO in context of the shot camera – we were able to alter the density and type of model we wanted for a given area in order to create interesting and believable views. Modo’s replicator tools gave us control while at the same time offering many happy accidents in terms of interesting ruin layouts.”
Dyg adds that “MODO’s physical sky was used to create the initial lighting solution. It was set to match the location and time of the shoot and remarkably it gave us something very close to the actual lighting in the plate. Raw passes was rendered out of modo with the purpose of assembling them and tweaking them in a environment finishing stage in NUKE.”
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