The Kingdom: the Agency, the Effects, the Titles

One of our favourite films of 2007 was The Kingdom. If you missed it – rent it. Peter Berg’s film is a powerful action drama based around a criminal investigation shared by two cultures chasing deadly terrorists before they are ready to strike again. We explore the seamless visual effects delivered by Rhythm & Hues and explore the amazing opening titles which both inform and set the tone for the entire film from the PIC Agency.

The Titles: PIC Agency

The opening and closing titles for this year’s Cloverfield were done by the PIC Agency, a cutting edge visual communications company in the United States. Their work on the titles for The Kingdom were generally were applauded by critics as some of the best film titles of 2007. Late last year, fxguide spoke to The PIC Agency creative directors Jarik Van Sluijs and Julio Ferrario and their team.

From the opening titles

PIC Agency started working on the titles for The Kingdom in November 2006, as the original release date was to have been May 2007. But the film was not released until much later in 2007. The opening lasts just over three minutes and yet the team only met with the film makers four times. Perhaps this is because the PIC Agency team have an extremely good relationship with Berg and the film’s producers.

The team had previously worked on The Bourne Ultimatum, and while the team has worked together for many years, the PIC Agency has only been around since 2005. Their credits include title and trailer work for a variety of films including The Punisher, Van Helsing, Running Scared, Ghost Rider and others.

PIC Agency wrote the script themselves

Unlike many films, the titles of Kingdom serve as a prologue to the film, acting as a key part of the story telling…in effect a “history lesson that doesn’t feel like a history lesson”. The brief was to tell the history of the relationship of Saudi Arabia and the United States. PIC did not get a script for the titles; they wrote one themselves, literally going back to their history books to tell the story.

PIC director/designer Stephan Burle story-boarded the project, working with Van Sluijs to design the flow of the piece. “As we got closer to the end we wanted a really nice way to carry the viewer from one piece to another,” comments Burle. The colour palette was a muted colour range – this helped unify the material which was sourced from VHS, 16mm and news sources over many decades.

128 separate clips were used

The original design was more graphical, but as the process evolved, the design started to integrate more live action footage. The use of 128 shots of original source material required a vast effort to obtain rights clearances, from CNN to the Saudi government. Sourcing material can always be difficult, but very old footage from the Middle East presented some unique challenges. The Saudi government provided co-operation, and PIC managed to get almost all the footage they wanted. There was one piece of footage that they could not get, which was a shot of Prince Abdullah Bin-Abd-al-Aziz Al Saudi with a shot of a plane from his Kingdom holdings marked with a Kingdom logo. It was one of the few shots that would have been perfect but clearances could never be obtained. “it would have been perfect” comments producer Pamela Green.

Gary Hebert did most of the 3D Animation, using Cinema 4D, with compositing in After Effects at 2K resolution. Hebert pointed out that a lot of the material was much lower resolution and so he used AE to up res the material. This was particularly difficult with some of the earlier footage, such as the original film footage from 1932.

The team has since done Lions for Lambs for Robert Redford and most recently the Cloverfield titles.


John Des Jardin was the visual effects supervisor on the film

Peter Berg conceived the idea for The Kingdom a decade ago, after watching news coverage of the infamous June 1996 Khobar Towers terrorist attack in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Hezbollah exploded a fuel truck that slaughtered 19 Americans, a Saudi national and wounded 372 people of many nationalities in one of the most brutal anti-American attacks ever staged in that region.

Berg made his feature directorial debut with the cult favorite Very Bad Things, starring Cameron Diaz, Jon Favreau and Christian Slater. Berg also wrote and directed episodes of David E. Kelley’s critically acclaimed series Chicago Hope, in which he also starred for three seasons. He made an indelible impression as a cocky hockey-playing surgeon, Dr. Billy Kronk, on the medical drama. Most recently, he was seen in a recurring role on the ABC action series Alias.

Berg recalls the attack effected U.S. relations with its Saudi allies. “It was an act of terrorism that targeted Americans, and was felt painfully by Saudis as well,” says Berg. “It led to the FBI trying to work for the first time with Saudi law enforcement, which proved to be a complicated and tricky investigative effort. I thought it would be a fascinating idea for a film, to watch how the American and Arab cultures both targets of religious violence and sharing a common interest in battling religious extremism navigate differences, suspicions and politics to try and work together.”

Over the next few years, the idea would gestate as Berg developed a dual career as actor and filmmaker, helming films from The Rundown to Friday Night Lights. The concept would also gel in the scores of conversations he and a close Saudi friend had about the political realities and complexities of Arab-American relations. And then came September 11, 2001.

After 9/11, there was much anti-Saudi sentiment in the States because so many of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia and Bin Laden was Saudi. The director wanted to create an action-thriller that presented two worlds working together, although the friendship that develops between two lead characters comes from very different places: an FBI agent and a Saudi colonel.

Berg approached Michael Mann, and asked if he’d produce the project through his Forward Pass production company. Mann was producing The Aviator and liked the idea of working with strong directors with authoritative visions. The screenwriter Berg had in mind was a 30-year old unknown named Matthew Michael Carnahan. Mann, long known for his catalogue of explosive thrillers and smart dramas, was curious to explore a procedural homicide investigation done in the most hostile of circumstances.


The Kingdom began principal photography on location in the Phoenix area. In addition to the Sun Valley, key domestic locations for the project included Mesa and Gilbert, Arizona where the film’s main sets were built at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic Campus. Washington, D.C. locations included the World War II Memorial and the Department of Justice building. The shoot was harsh, with plenty of scorching weather that forced 4:00 a.m. call times throughout the course of the 10-week stay in Arizona.

In designing his Riyadh set, production designer Tom Duffield notes the Arab buildings in this movie were based on sites in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). The crew needed an old military housing compound to set the American oil company housing development in Riyadh where the bomb blast occurs. Suburban Phoenix’s Williams Air Force Base, a decommissioned military compound adjacent to Williams Gateway Airfield in Mesa, was the perfect space. The area, now serving as part of ASU’s Polytechnic’s East Campus, had a layout that would prove ideal for the desert look of the Gulf Oasis Western Housing Compound.

The compound of the attack
The compound after the attack via the R&H team

On the ASU campus, the art department and construction crews leveled an old dirt road and built three four-story condo facades and a working baseball field for the film’s opening sequences prior to the attack and the decimated aftermath. After Berg filmed the huge explosion, Duffield’s crew spent the next 10 days stripping down the set to create the bombed-out facade, littered with dozens of torched auto carcasses strewn across the baseball diamond and parking lot courtesy of special effects coordinator Burt Dalton’s mechanical effects crew. His team actually blew up 40 cars in the desert to dress the remarkable set.

The painstakingly detailed set took the construction crew almost three months to build and dress for the cameras in scorching heat that, on many days, forced laborers to abandon their posts as early as 2:00 p.m.
Instead of building two separate sets (pre- and post-explosion), Duffield describes how they economized the look. “We stripped the facades off built the pre-explosion facade over the post-explosion front,”he relates. “The material looks like concrete block, but it’s actually foam cast made to look like concrete block. Our set decorator, Ron Reiss, went out and got all the debris to scatter around this six-acre set.”

On an adjacent part of the ASU campus, the production design team also constructed a network of suburban streets (accurately doubling the Suweidi section of Riyadh) where the FBI agents and Saudi police engage in a fierce gunfight with the terrorist cell. In an industrial park warehouse in the nearby suburb of Chandler, Duffield’s art department designed the interiors of an apartment where the terrorist mastermind takes refuge, and where one of the FBI agents is kidnapped and tortured. As needed, the art department dressed the surrounding freeway near ASU with Arabic-language signs, replacing the normal speed limit and exit signage scattered throughout the two-mile route. Of course, almost all signs were removed prior to the Monday morning commute so local airfreight drivers didn’t get confused during deliveries.

To add authenticity to the film, however, the production would need to turn to an international advisory and strategic consulting firm that had assisted producer Mann on his Caribbean and South American location shoots for Miami Vice. Upon consideration of multiple Middle Eastern locales, Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the seven United Arab Emirates situated on the Arabian Gulf east of Saudi Arabia and southwest of Iran proved to be an attractive option. The only catch? The city had never hosted a large film production from the West.

Consultant Richard Klein secured meetings for the filmmakers with top officials in the U.A.E. government and military. They were eager to welcome the production to their country and demonstrate the thriving economy and tolerance of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and the U.A.E. As the team scouted locations, they found they could stage pivotal scenes from Carnahan’s story at the Emirates Palace Hotel and the tough working-class area of Mussafah, both doubling for The Kingdom’s locations in Riyadh. There were many architectural similarities to be found throughout the city.

In anticipation of the eight-day photography in Abu Dhabi, Klein issued a 17 page memo to all cast and crew, prior to their traveling. The document covered everything from protocol to security to sensitivity issues, such as signs of disrespect (including use of one’s left hand or showing the bottom of one’s shoes or feet) and the production members need to dress modestly to respect local tradition and cultures.

Rhythm & Hues

The visual effects for the film were done by Rhythm & Hues, the oscar award winning effects company based in Los Angeles. John Des Jardin was the visual effects supervisor on the film. From Rhythm & Hues, John Des Jardin worked with Lisa Goldberg (vfx producer), Harry Lam (Compositing Supervisor) & Richard Mahon (vfx art director). The visual effects ranged from matte painting to complex finger removal in a vital plot point, in the film.

The plate photography
The digitally altered hand

fxg: Tell us about the vfx work for The Kingdom.

John Des Jardin: The visual effects work in The Kingdom consisted of several main components: the American apartment complex building extensions (pre-destroyed and destroyed), suicide bombings, city extensions (for wide views of the city from rooftops and helicopters) and general visual effects assistance to the physical effects unit and the many action scenes in the movie (bullet hits, blood spurts, smoke, rig removals, CACTUS REMOVALS, MOUNTAIN REMOVALS…Since Saudi Arabia doesn’t have cactus or mountains like Arizona).

The apartment complex was the first main element to get under control. The art department built two-story facades of each of the three buildings in the compound. The initial phase of shooting we did featured them dressed as normal institutional, fairly new structures. The second phase was for the many scenes showing the results of the big nighttime ambulance explosion.

The description by Peter Berg (director) was to make it look like the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. That’s exactly what Rich Mahon and I referenced as he painted the concepts and we went back and forth to add detail before bringing the concept art back to Peter to sign off on.

Once the design was set, the modeling team at R&H began making the duplicate stories of pre-destroyed buildings first which took little time since they’re all somewhat pre-fab. Then they began building the thousands of pieces of destroyed building. This took a few months as detail after detail had to be created mostly in geometry, then textured to look like the bottom two floors of existing destroyed set. The final touches included extensive wear and distress for the fallen roof structure; filling the interiors of rooms with little painted details for broken tiles, CDs, dirty clothing and furniture to make it look like the apartments were occupied; and FX animation for moving dust, smoke, and falling clumps of debris.

While this CG construction was going on, a massive effort to track each hand-held shot was underway so the final CG buildings could be dropped into the shots as the tracking was completed. Lots of rotoscoping was needed to pull foreground objects and people in front of the CG structures. The pipeline used to complete these types of shots was very efficient, and we were able to add shots somewhat easily toward the end of the schedule.

The next big vfx concern was how to build the Saudi city of Riyadh knowing we were never going to be able to go there and shoot plates or get reference. Riyadh would be mainly featured in views from a rooftop tying the city to the softball field in Arizona. We shot plates from a Condor crane in Arizona at approximately the height from which we wanted to be looking down on the field. We shot them during the softball game (for shots where the terrorists were on the roof watching their bombs go off) and later, during the post-destruction clean-up operation (for the scenes where Fleury and his team visit the rooftop and realize that this was where the terrorists were).

Using reference on the internet, we isolated key buildings in Riyadh and approximated their topographic relationships. Peter Berg always wanted our CG cities to be urban sprawls. So I worked with Rich Mahon again to design the rooftop view as a template for how we would construct the CG city. Rich included the actual Riyadh buildings mostly near the horizon. Plates I shot in Abu Dhabi of typical suburban buildings were used as reference to construct the near-to-the-rooftop, totally 3D CG neighborhoods. These CG buildings were made of modular parts that could be mixed and matched to make a variety of buildings suitable for close scrutiny as well as far away. HDRI photographs taken during the Arizona exterior rooftop set shoot provided the lighting guide for the CG city.

The original photography
The final shot

We built the city with a radius of CG buildings which could be composited into a panorama of matte painting also done by Rich Mahon. This combination meant we could track all of the hand-held cameras used on the rooftop set and not worry that we’d be looking in a direction where we didn’t have CG set.

The near-to-rooftop CG neighborhood configuration was re-purposed for other wide aerial views of the city in two shots: One is a high, wide view of the Suweidi streets seen during the car chase near the end of the movie; The other is a helicopter shot of the Palace, where the ocean bordering the grounds was replaced entirely by our CG neighborhood, stretching the urban sprawl to the horizon.

The last shot worth mentioning is the large-scale nighttime parking lot explosion that destroys the apartment complex. This was a real explosion created by special effects supervisor Burt Dalton which nearly filled the huge apartment complex parking lot with fire and smoke. Due to budgetary constraints, it was determined that no practical cars in the parking lot would be rigged to move in conjunction with the explosion. Once we got into post, however, Peter requested that we investigate adding movement to the cars.

The solution we designed was to first create a clean plate with no cars. The cars were modeled as simple CG geometry upon which were projected textures of the cars from the original explosion plate. This geometry was then animated, rendered and composited over the clean plate, allowing the cars in the lot to move. We even animated two cars flipping out of the center of the explosion, along with CG people of various types (firemen, American and Riyadh citizens, and policemen) who also react to the shock wave and are decimated in the fire. A final post-tilt and post-shake were added to follow the fireball up and add to the massive feel of the event.

The background needed to be replaced in this shot
The background extended, note prior to cropping

fxg: Did the location work pose any problems ?

John Des Jardin: The location work was grueling from a heat standpoint. We shot mostly in Arizona through the summer. Temps were around 115 degrees most days, and we would shoot early in the morning till mid-afternoon in order to deal with the fatigue caused by the high temperatures. The most difficult effects work occurred outside during the day. Some of our work included locations in Abu Dhabi, where we shot for about a week in September. That was high temperature and high humidity (desert along the Persian Gulf). We had to wipe the lenses down constantly to rid them of condensation. And then there were the dust storms…!