Joe Wright’s coming-of-age espionage thriller, Hanna, tells the story of a 16-year-old girl who has grown up in the Finnish wilderness and is now being pursued by the CIA. Mr. X Inc, the film’s sole visual effects vendor, completed around 200 shots for the film, and presented VFX sup. Brendan Taylor with the chance to collaborate closely with the director, production designer, DoP, stunt crew and other filmmakers on key sequences.
For Mr. X, production on Hanna moved swiftly. “We got the script in January of 2010, I think on a Wednesday,” recalls Taylor. “By Monday I was in Hamburg for a location scout!” At first glance, the studio’s shots seemed to be limited to driving composites, snow enhancements, muzzle flashes and gore enhancements. But after scouting the locations, it became clear to Taylor that Mr. X’s responsibilities were going to be much larger. “Hanna needed to go to all these locations across Europe,” he says, “and it needed to feel like a $100 million movie, but we had to do it at less than a third of the price.”
Production began shooting in March 2010 in northern Finland, an area that posed minus 35 degrees centigrade weather. The location shoot, however, was deemed important by the director, working with production designer Sarah Greenwood and DoP Alwin Kuchler, and Taylor, to show the harsh environment Hanna had been raised to survive in. It would also mean that digital additions of snow would be kept to a minimum. Additional scenes were filmed in Bavaria, Germany using masses of physical fake snow created using paper and water, with only minor digital touch-ups required. The same was essentially true for all of the film’s locations and sets. “It was really important to enhance the cinematographer’s and the production designer’s work,” remarks Taylor. “We hear that a lot from cinematographers and production designers – that when it gets into the visual effects realm, the images take on a whole life of their own. But because they did such a wonderful job, we just wanted to complement what they did.”
“for the reindeer… they are not very bright animals…we had considered going with a Steve Martin appliance”
An early scene in Finland involves Hanna utilizing her archery skills to kill a reindeer, a sequence ultimately accomplished with a real animal and digital arrows. “I had never worked with reindeer before,” notes Taylor, “but they are not very bright animals. We had considered going with a ‘Steve Martin appliance’ (a reference to a 1970s Steve Martin arrow-through-the-head gag) but it was minus 35 at the time and there was no point in getting this giant arrow stuck onto the side of a big reindeer, who in the first place wasn’t doing what it was told. So we decided to do the arrow digitally, and concentrate on the performance of the reindeer on location.”
Mr. X also created a digital C-130 Hercules plane that flies over the snow-covered trees and Hanna’s head in another Finland scene. The plate for the shot, a low crane looking up at the actress as she follows the plane, was acquired on the first day of shooting. “It was actually a little nerve-wracking,” recalls Taylor. “Joe hasn’t really done that many visual effects films before and we hadn’t previs’d the shot, so we had to figure out how fast the airplane would be going over. Everyone’s nervous on the first day. But I was amazed at how quickly we got into a groove of being able to discuss the particulars of the shot. It’s the kind of collaboration that you really dream of.”
Further visual effects work for scenes in Finland by Mr. X also remained of the seamless variety. “There was a fight scene out on a frozen lake in the middle of nowhere and it needed to have pristine snow,” says Taylor. “But after you shoot the scene a number of times, say five takes, all the snow is trampled. They were shooting it very frenetically and hand-held, but I just said keep shooting and we’ll roto the people and smooth out the snow. In the end it was just done by compositing still photographs onto the snow and by using a variety of clean plates.”
That work, and the majority of location visual effects, was completed without the aid of detailed survey data or tracking markers. “In Finland we were only 60km from the Arctic Circle and another five kilometers to the border of Russia,” says Taylor. “So getting survey equipment up there wasn’t really practical or worth the cost. I debated whether or not to put tracking markers on the ground, but you don’t want to get into a situation where you’ve put all these great tracking markers down and then three quarters of your shots are removing those markers! It just meant we had to track to the shadow or footprint on the snow, and it really brought our shot count down.”
At one point in the film, Hanna is captured and taken to a bunker underneath the Moroccan desert. The underground scenes were filmed at the now disused Berlin Windkanal, a cavernous aerodynamic testing wind tunnel built for German aircraft after the First World War. Hanna escapes her holding cell and is pursued down the hallway before narrowly sliding to freedom under a giant closing steel door.
“The giant steel door didn’t exist in the wind tunnel, nor did the holding cell and area around it,” says Taylor. “So the art department built that area and we had Hanna run on the practical ground and then we digitally extended the entire tunnel around her. We ended up replacing the tunnel for continuity reasons. As well, we had two full-CG shots, and her POV down the tunnel as the door is closing.”
Chris MacLean modeled and lit the created environment, which was rendered in V-Ray, with compositing by Robert Greb and Greg Astles to match the location based on reference photos taken by Taylor. “Those shots were real monsters and took a long time and finessing to get them done,” he says. “I guess the most difficult thing about them was getting the texture and the material on the wall to feel like concrete. For a while, it just wasn’t reacting correctly and we wanted to match what Sarah had done with her production design and what Alwin had done – he had lit the environment with strobe lights and matching the intensity of those was a challenge.”
For a hotel room scene in which one of the characters, Lewis (John MacMillan), is killed, Taylor relied on some innovative on-set collaboration with the director and stunt coordinators in particular to help with the staging of a long stunt shot. Lewis walks down a large hotel room to talk to intelligence operative Marissa (Cate Blanchett), then hears a knock at the door, turns around, walks to the door, puts his eye up to the peep hole, before being suddenly shot and blown backwards.
The shot was conceived as a one take with the actual actor and not a stunt double, and without the benefit of a face replacement, since MacMillian had to deliver a line of dialogue and walk the length of the room before being violently killed. “Because he gets yanked back so hard,” says Taylor, “we needed to have him on a rig and I was really concerned that he walks all this way down and turns around and then you’ve got this stunt wire crossing in front of his blazer as it moves. I just didn’t want to get into the whole scenario of digitally re-creating his blazer or one of those monster paint outs that takes months.”
“So what we ended up doing,” continues Taylor, “was having the actor come down to camera and talk to Marissa with this pick point in his back. As he’s talking to Cate Blanchett we had a guy dressed in green crawl along the ground and meet him right where he gets hit, clip him in the back and then he gets yanked almost immediately. It was one of those shots where a little bit of shot design went a long way. Working with Joe and the stunt guys – over dinner actually – we were able to come up with a pretty effective solution.”
To help the assembly process, Mr. X also supplied editor Paul Tothill with an early effects shot to remove the comedic presence of the greenscreened person. “It was a very emotional scene, and Paul couldn’t cut it without cracking up,” laughs Taylor. “We needed to get Paul an effects shot without the extra guy in there, so we basically spent a day doing ‘green man removal’.”
Similar innovation was required for a scene towards the end of the film of a fist fight between Erik (Eric Bana) and Isaacs (Tom Hollander). “They shot the entire fight at 48 frames per second,” explains Taylor, “and I never would have known this, but a lot of the success in fake movie punches relies on shooting at 24 frames. When you start to slow it down, you really see the punches missing. Some of them looked fantastic but others you could feel were just a little bit too far away from the face. So what we ended up doing there was a completely 2D solution.”
Compositor Barb Benoit worked on the Flame to rotoscope the actor being hit and move them a little closer to the person delivering the punches. “We’d start with that, but it still wouldn’t feel like the punch was connecting,” says Taylor. “So in addition, Barb would do a subtle time warp just before the punch was connecting to slow it down. Then as the punch connects she’d speed it up. It doesn’t feel like a music video crazy-slow-then-fast time warp. It actually really makes the punch feel like it’s connecting. Just watching them sometimes in dailies we would go, “Oh, man!”. We only had to do that two or three times, but I was just really impressed with Barb’s wizardry for those shots.”
Mr. X carried out wire removals and set extensions for a scene in which Hanna is pursued by Isaacs’ henchmen atop several shipping containers. “This was beautifully choreographed by Jeff Imada,” says Taylor. “All of the scary as hell looking stuff is Saoirse! For our set extensions, it was really important to feel the damp murkiness of a cold Hamburg night. Matte painter Milan Schere handled that rather obscure direction perfectly.”
Other visual effects work by Mr. X included several matte paintings to help sell the multiple locations Hanna visits during the film. “In the movie, Hanna travels all through Europe but there wasn’t really the budget to do that for real,” says Taylor. “There’s one shot where they’re in a van driving through the desert. We shot the van in Morocco and then flew to Spain and took digital stills and some HD video on a Canon 5D. We created a digital matte painting and composited it into the plate and it looks really wonderful. That was Greg Astles again and Matt Schofield.”
For Taylor, some of the biggest – and most fun – challenges on Hanna included traveling to several countries and then ultimately dealing with 200 varying shots of differing complexities, some as one-offs, and working with an edit that remained in flux until near the end of production. The close interaction with the other creatives on the film, however, made it an incredibly enjoyable experience for the visual effects supervisor.
Above: Original plate (L) and final shot.
“The one thing that was really different about this film,” says Taylor, “was that the whole way through it really felt like a family. People were really looking out for each other and trying to find the best solution for the movie. I credit a lot of that to Joe. He was a real leader – we would get our shot lists in the morning and there would be a little inspirational note or a line from the movie just to keep everyone going. It helps you get through the freezing cold Hamburg night or being up at 3am in the morning at a container park, or the freezing cold Finland day!”
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