You can't make a Die Hard film without some crazy stunts, massive explosions and, these days, incredible visual effects. We talk to overall VFX supe Everett Burrell and several of the studios behind the previs and effects for four of the biggest sequences in John Moore's A Good Day to Die Hard - the truck chase, hotel shootout, Chernobyl showdown and the Mi-26 crash. Warning: this article contains spoilers.
1. The truck chase
WHAT HAPPENS: John McClane (Bruce Willis) and son Jack (Jai Courtney) are chased on the streets of Moscow by Russian henchmen. The epic sequence involves a truck, a van and a giant armoured vehicle known as a MRAP (Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected).
THE CHALLENGE: Wreaking havoc solely on real Moscow freeways wasn't really an option for the filmmakers, who acquired additional plates on Budapest streets and on a giant backlot against greenscreen, and mixed those with scenes shot at the Russian capital. Meticulous previs from Screen Scene and final VFX from UPP completed the shots for the 10-minute long chase.
Planning and previs
Screen Scene VFX was the sole previs vendor on the film, turning out animatics for all of the film's key action beats (the film was also edited at Screen Scene's facilities in Dublin). The studio also crafted postviz shots and some final visual effects for a Predator Drone sequence.
One shot in particular from the truck chase became known as the taxi flip, and featured the MRAP bursting through an off-ramp and landing on the back of a taxi cab, causing it to flip onto the ceiling of an underpass. Having created the previs for that sequence, Screen Scene visual effects supervisor Ed Bruce and VFX coordinator Nick Murphy sought to go beyond the usual deliveries by shooting actual elements. "After finding a location on the A55 near Colwyn Bay, North Wales, we headed over to shoot some plates on a couple of Canon 5Ds," says Bruce. "Once back in Dublin we cut three shots together and began the process of adding the CG MRAP, taxi, additional cars, FX destruction and Moscow backdrop. We used 3ds Max and V-Ray, Thinking Particles, Krakatoa, and Fume to create our CG which was all composted within Nuke after being tracked with SynthEyes." (see the video below)
Making it Moscow
Scenes for the truck chase were realized as a hybrid of Budapest and Moscow views by UPP under visual effects supervisor Viktor Muller, who was also the on-set supervisor for the Budapest shoot. An enormous stunt car effort came together to enable the sequence. The MRAP, for example, was purpose-built - the chassis was made from a Russian made ZIL truck and the vehicle incorporated an eight-liter, 500 horsepower Dodge Ram engine, a specially made camshaft, off-road shocks and racing tires. In the end, the MRAP was nine feet tall, eight feet wide, and weighed 8,000 pounds.
"We also built a 1000 feet by 40 feet greenscreen in the parking lot of the Hungaroring, the F1 racetrack near Budapest," says Burrell. "It had to be that long in order to achieve all these driving stunts, because once you get in your car and doing 30 mile an hour, 1000 feet goes by pretty quickly. We nicknamed it the greenscreen playground. It sufficed for a lot of different set pieces and action beats that we would give codenames to - the ramp vitek, RPG, knock-knock, family affair and the turtle."
Additional Moscow imagery was acquired at a location scout and from a specially hired photographer in the capital. "Eventually at the end of shooting the director and a small crew went to Moscow, shot a bunch of action stuff, the best they could using local stunt drivers, to tie in the shots from Budapest," says Burrell.
The hybrid approach had began with scanning in Budapest. "We LIDAR'd a big section of Budapest that was very similar in look to downtown Moscow," explains Burrell. "That became the basis of our modular digital backlot. The buildings were all built as facades, they weren't super detailed at the back. What we were trying to replicate was the Garden Ring in Moscow, a super highway there with 15 lanes across. We drove it many times in Moscow. Sitting in the back of a van I plugged in GoPro cameras all over to get reflection passes we could later use on top of the vehicles. I did the same thing in Budapest, too, and we had three 35mm ARRIs on a plate that would give us a 180 degree view of any area we drove down to."
UPP created CG versions of several cars and the MRAP in Maya and XSI, based on LIDAR scans. They also created digital extras and other objects to fill out the scenes. For one particular shot of the MRAP jumping off the bridge and into concrete pipes, UPP had to combine the real stunt with digital elements. "We always tried to combine real action," says Muller. "There's a big truck going under the bridge and when the MRAP jumps from the bridge and goes into the concrete pipes, the camera is turning around - that was really difficult for special fx and digital. We also had an issue because for safety reasons we were not able to turn the track so close to the bridge. We had to bring the bridge closer but still do the right animation and make it look realistic."
2. Hotel shootout
WHAT HAPPENS: John and Jack are being shot up in the ballroom of The Hotel Ukraina by a MI-24 helicopter gunship. To escape, they leap out of a window onto scaffolding and escape via garbage shoots below.
THE CHALLENGE: Method Studios was tasked with mixing a CG Mi-24 and hotel building with the real things, and combining plates of stunties and the real actors exiting the window in one long shot.
- Above: watch a breakdown of Method's hotel shootout VFX in this video produced in co-operation with Fairfax Media.
Making a Mi-24
Production had access to a real military chopper which was both extensively photographed and LIDAR'd by Plowman Craven (who scanned several other vehicles, props and actors for the film). "We also shot it with about five cameras at an air base doing a series of manoeuvres," says Burrell. "The original plan was to shoot the real helicopter and comp it into backgrounds we'd shoot in Moscow with an RC helicopter but it was tricky to get all the right permissions. So we ended up doing a combination of real building, real helicopter, CG buildings and CG helicopter."
Building (and breaking) the hotel
For the hotel, Method crafted a 20 story building surrounded by scaffolding that had to work from several different angles. "Our task was to make this iconic building re-located in a more picturesque setting closer to iconic backgrounds of Moscow," explains Method visual effects producer Brett Dowler. "It was an old stone building that was actually the University of Moscow, but they wanted it to be in the position of a hotel, and play it as a hotel."
Production hired a Muscovite to shoot reference photographs of the hotel and University to Method's specifications, which the studio relied on for its CG build and consequent destruction work as the Mi-24 attacks the McClanes. "We needed to not only destruct but also destroy the scaffolding that was there in terms of knocking over buckets and breaking pieces of the rebar and scaffolding," says Method CG supervisor Dan Mayer. "There was even digital doubles and cloth effects done in Maya for the netting sections."
Through the window
In one long shot, the camera follows John and Jack as they run up the length of the ballroom dodging helicopter gunfire, pans, and then follows them from behind through the smashing window and down 40 feet to the scaffolding and garbage shoots. The shot was filmed in two plates. First, Willis and Courtney were captured on the ballroom set with a Spydercam rig making the run. Then, two stuntmen replicated the run on a greenscreen painted section of the set, jumping through candy glass onto cardboard boxes. "We literally scrapped the whole original set," recalls Burrell, "which took three weeks to do, then using the same wall and floor which was painted green, we used the Spydercam almost like a mo-co to line up the two plates."
Method then massaged the camera moves to form one plate. "We did a combination of 3D tracking and Nuke camera work," says Method compositing supervisor Abel Milanes. "We got the two cameras for the two shots as separate camera files and in Nuke we did a setup to blend those together into one. Then one of the main challenges was to find a good place in time to blend the two plates together."
The stunt plate, which incorporates the smashing glass, served as reference for extra CG debris including glass and wood pieces and fine dust. Method also carried out extensive roto for the real glass pieces. The Moscow background was a matte painting made up of photography taken at the real hotel and the University, then stitched together and complemented with additional city landmarks. "The main note we got from the director was to create a sense of vertigo when the camera goes out the window," adds Milanes. "We would place key elements in the matte painting but also change the focal length a little bit so that the feeling of danger would be increased."
The window shot, and others in the hotel shootout, made significant use of a technique coined 'stone-washing' by director John Moore. "He wanted to add dirt and scratches and out of focus chunks on the lens to give it a little more of a real feel," says Burrell. "We found a really nice pattern Method did and we would make variations on that so that the lens flare dirt was not always the same. We were always trying to change it up so we never had the same dirt twice."
3. Chernobyl showdown
WHAT HAPPENS: John and Jack follow their adversaries to Chernobyl where they learn of the existence of weapons-grade uranium. In an effort to stop its transportation, John drives an MRAP out of the cargo hold of an Mi-26, before slingshotting himself from the truck through a window.
THE CHALLENGE: Pixomondo had to augment and create from scratch various buildings and the Mi-26 for the Chernobyl showdown, as well as piece together from several plates the dramatic window shot.
World's biggest helicopter
The Mi-26 'Halo' is acknowledged as the world's largest and most powerful helicopter. Production sourced a real helicopter from Belarus that was normally used to fight forest fires. It was LIDAR'd and photographed for exterior and interior detail, and also took off and landed on set. Pixomondo then built a CG version of the Mi-26. "We created what we called the Pepsi challenge where we put our chopper side by side with the real one," says Pixomondo visual effects supervisor Sean Faden. "It was modeled in 3ds Max, animated in Maya, with textures created in Photoshop and distinct paneling done in ZBrush. We then rendered it in V-Ray via 3ds Max."
"Interestingly," adds Faden, "for the rotors, we noticed on the real chopper there was a curvature to the blades where at times the weight of the helicopter would be pulling the center down, so the tips of the blades curve upwards when it's actually flying, but on the ground they hang down. And the way the helicopter actually turns is that the blades themselves twist along their axis, so we had that in our setup. It was subtle but it helped them feel more real."
Production filmed the sequence at Kiskun, an abandoned Russian air force base south of Budapest. "The cool thing was that it was abandoned in 1989, and Chernobyl was abandoned in 1986, so it had that same brutalist concrete and barrack buildings look," says Faden. Pixomondo extended one of the key buildings, the bank, and added further views via CG geometry and two-and-a-half D projections. Faden even worked on set in Budapest directly with the Pixo team back in LA to do 3D mock-ups for the environments that he would run by the director and production designer on his iPhone.
Bringing the chopper down
The Mi-26 takes off, but to stop it, John McClane jumps onto the back of the aircraft. He then notices the helicopter is taking aim at his son on the roof, so he drives the MRAP into the side of the cargo hold forcing the Mi-26 out of control. Eventually it spins around until McClane, hanging onto the back of the truck, is himself ejected and propelled through a window.
For the shots of McClane on the truck, the filmmakers shot plates of the real Mi-26 and a truck on a gimbal rig with both Willis and a stuntperson. Pixomondo pieced these together and also created digi-doubles or digital face replacements for the actor. The spinning helicopter scenes made heavy use of volumetric lights and lens flares - stone-washing, again - to tie the plates together. "The lights all had a degree of noise break-up in them," says Faden. "We had some great reference of the real helicopter and especially the lights off the nose - which they called the night sun - which was a super bright xeon light that had a lot of break-up in it."
Through the window (again)
Mirroring perhaps the earlier Ukraina Hotel window smash, McClane is launched from the spinning Mi-26 into a glass window. A stuntman was filmed on a wire coming through the section, with the final shot enhanced by Pixomondo with digital environments, the ailing chopper and truck, and smashing glass pieces.
We had the idea to ramp the exposure...it just started to make it more plausible - as plausible as a guy swinging off a helicopter can feel, anyway!"
"We had a digital double of Bruce that we had to blend in from a point about 10 feet outside of the window back to the helicopter," explains Faden. "Because the curve of the stuntman gag was such that he kind of went down and then up and down again, we literally had to cut him out and move him so that the trajectory would be a smooth arc. That was difficult because he was filmed behind all the window frames - we had a lot of paint work to restore him in order to offset his move."
Pixomondo also extended the camera move itself, added around 100 frames at the head of the shot so that it began closer to the glass. "The reason we did that was the director really wanted to see more of the gap between the hero rooftop area and the area he smashes through," says Faden. The smashing glass was created in Thinking Particles via 3ds Max, with extra dust and particulates achieved with Krakatoa and FumeFX. Meticulous tracking and animation ensured Willis is seen rolling in the debris, too.
"Another thing that really helped the shot was that we had the idea to ramp the exposure as the glass breaks," continues Faden. "At the beginning of the shot we made the room darker and the exterior lighter and when the glass breaks there's a pop in the exposure and the interior gets brighter.As soon as we darkened the interior, it just started to make it more plausible - as plausible as a guy swinging off a helicopter can feel, anyway!"
4. Death of the Mi-26
WHAT HAPPENS: John and Jack are reunited but soon the Mi-26 is rammed into the building they're on, and they must jump to safety through a glass ceiling and into a pool of water as the blazing chopper crashes down.
THE CHALLENGE: Scanline had to combine plates of stuntmen dropping through the scene shot on a Spydercam rig, with a fully digital helicopter crashing along with fire and explosion sims (referencing a full scale chopper shell crash that was shot practically).
Shooting the scene
For the Mi-26 element, production dropped an old helicopter shell from an 80 foot crane. "It fell down and hit this tanker and generated a massive explosion," says Burrell. "It looked so good that John said, 'Well, you can't get this wrong!' We really used the original plate and the real debris, the shockwave, the dust on the ground - not just for reference but in the final shot too."
On location, a glass ceiling and pool was built to provide for the stunt which was filmed with the Spydercam rig following the two jumpers. "The camera went through a cut-out hole in the ceiling at the same rate as the actors," describes Burrell. "We also built a plexiglass box so the camera would splash in the water, a bit like the diving cams in the Olympics."
Scanline used Pixomondo's Mi-26 model for the shot and adjusted it to suit the practical elements. "A lot of that practical shoot governed how we animated and broke apart our chopper," says Scanline visual effects supervisor Joe Farrell. "We broke it up into a lot of different sections and keyframed it. We attached secondary animation panels flying off, distorting metal and twisting rivets. We could block in the animation and check with Everett about how things would fall off and where the tail would go and all the dynamics. A lot of the explosion was done with Thinking Particles."
"Most of our shots were filmed at 120 or 150 fps, so four to five times slower than normal 24 fps," adds Farrell. "It really drew attention to all the details you would normally get away with, so we had to pay a lot of attention to how the glass hit the ground, how the wall broke off. The blades themselves from the helicopter have a huge downwash to keep it in the air, and then as they break off, all that dynamic air changes and as a consequence, half way through the shot, the dynamics also change."
Scanline was also called on to produce one of the film's climatic moments dubbed the 'sea of fire', when a gas designed to neutralize radiation explodes in an unusual manner above the ground. The studio matched to practical fire elements with various tools including its proprietary Flowline fluid simulation software.
Combining the crashing Mi-26 and the falling actors proved challenging, since the stuntpersons had been filmed with a 40 to 60 foot flame behind them that ended up being removed from the plate. "If you've ever done a composite where you need to get rid of fire which is pretty bright out of a plate, you know you need to do a lot of reconstruction," says Farrell. "We even added cloth dynamics to their clothing. And when they come down through the roof, thousands of pieces of glass came shattering apart so we needed to extract all of that and, of course, all the glass is transparent and you can see behind it. Plus the shot is about 32 seconds long - about 800 frames - in slow motion!"
All images and clips copyright © 2013 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.
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