Back for more mayhem: The Expendables 2

Returning from their successful first outing, the Expendables are back with new members and more mayhem. Also returning are visual effects outfit Worldwide FX as principal vendor for a range of CG, digital environments and enhancements to the Simon West film. We talk to overall visual effects supervisor on The Expendables 2, Ajoy Mani, and showcase two WWFX making of reels. Note, this interview contains some minor plot spoilers.

fxg: Can you give me an overview of Worldwide FX’s visual effects for Expendables 2?

Mani: WorldwideFX (WWFX) was the primary vendor. Expendables 2 was done on an unusually compressed deadline for a project of this caliber. Preproduction started in July 2011 and the final delivery was exactly a year later. I was engaged at the onset of the project, and we decided early to start work in parallel with production so as to get maximum VFX mileage.

During preproduction, I would meet with the director, Simon West, daily. WWFX has a concept department with a lot of talented artists who used to do comic books. So I offered Simon the option of doing well illustrated storyboards. In addition, WWFX was able to do animatics that were very helpful for previsualisation. The great advantage of being this close to the storytelling process was that it helped me design and plan the VFX bible with a lot more accuracy.

Watch a WorldwideFX making of reel for The Expendables 2.

I joined Simon West in Bulgaria in July 2011. WWFX’s primary facility is situated in Kinocenter Boyana in Sofia, Bulgaria where the majority of production was shot. As a result, this gave us unlimited access to the sets. Scott Coulter, the Visual Effects Producer and founder at WWFX, gave me access to an array of camera, survey equipment and staff which went a long ways to ensure we got all the set and camera information we needed. We had a first and second unit VFX team. Each team included a set supervisor, data wrangler, visual effects coordinator and photographer. The first unit set supervisor was Danail “Dundee” Hadzhiyski and the second unit was under Nikolay Gachev. The team had excellent chemistry as we had worked together previously on Conan the Barbarian.

We worked closely with the art department. This turned out to be helpful for both departments. By modeling the assets in some cases before the production version was built, we were able to flag issues and give production a more optimised plan for construction. In return, by building the assets in tandem with production, we gained an identical CG model. By doing this, we had most of the sets and vehicles modeled before production ended.

As a rule we photographed anything I felt was likely to need a CG double. It was modeled regardless of whether we knew if it was in our not. Data wranglers meticulously measured sets using Total stations, an industry standard surveyors tool. We photographed each and every set in great detail and were able to extrude a 3D textured model using photogrammetry. This became particularly useful later during edit when the story was adjusted and we had to rebuild entire CG segue scenes.

Due to production and other constraints, the VFX workload projections quickly rose and at the time of delivery, it stood at 1547 shots. WWFX handled 1186 of those shots. In addition, there was a massive re-edit in April, where we dropped 800 shots and acquired new ones. So in essence, WWFX worked on over 1900 shots for Expendables 2. We were really riding on the edge when the re-edit happened. 803 shots that we planned carefully from preproduction and worked for months got tossed out. They were replaced with extremely difficult shots that had to be rebuilt from scratch. In the end, WWFX did a phenomenal job bringing together all shots on schedule in spite of a devastatingly difficult delivery schedule fraught with complications.

WWFX acted as the hub for the other 5 vendors on project, El Ranchito, Malditochroma, Tata Elxsi, Reliance Mediaworks and R-Team. 361 shots were spread as sequences with these vendors. When the bids for additional vendors went out, WWFX was able to seamlessly hand over sequence, camera and shot information to the other vendors. During post, I was working out of Los Angeles directly from the editorial. From editorial, I was in constant communication with Stephan Tchakarov the studio supervisor at WWFX who ensured miracle after miracle was pulled off weekly. As the edit changed, sometimes brand new fully CG shots were stitched together in a matter of days to work with the story line.

Watch behind the scenes b-roll footage from the production.

fxg: Like the first film, the effects really seem grounded in reality – can you talk about practical versus digital decisions for the sequel?

Mani: The movie was shot entirely as a PG-13 movie. Therefore, all the bullet hits were dust-hits. Once in edit, it was decided that the movie would be an R-rated, which meant that entirely fell on VFX. All the blood, eviscerations, decapitations, limbs being lopped-off are all CG.

I had originally designed the plane crash sequence to be a miniature shoot with CG augmentation. I had a day set aside for it with a 1/3rd scale model of the Canadair CL215 amphibious aircraft the Expendables use. The plane has a 90 feet wing span, so the scale model is still a whopping 30 feet. However, due to production constraints and the shoot days being exceeded, the miniature shoot never happened. This meant the entire sequence had to be done in CG.

fxg: What were some of the digital environments Worldwide created for the film?

Mani: As a rule, we measured, shot and recorded all information from a set, even areas not considered relevant (at the time of the shoot). Experience has taught me to get more information than less. So we went all out recording set information.

The biggest digital environment was the Devetashka cave in Bulgaria. The cave was just discovered in 1927, although it has signs of hominid/human habitation going back 60,000 years. The cave is also the nesting grounds of 17 species of birds and bats. This incredible cave is 2.5km deep and 60m high in places. The plane crash in the movie happens in here. Understandably, we can neither do explosions or noisy shoots in a place like this. As a result of the environmental and archeological concerns, we decided to build a detailed CG environment of the cave. Using over 5000 photographs and mesh built from a detailed survey, we built a digitally accurate monstrous model of the cave, detailed down to every crevice and moss bank. Several 360 HDR images where captured throughout the cave at several times of the day to get a comprehensive lighting model.

Almost all the sets had digital intervention.The entire opening sequence of the movie (before the title) was shot in Bulgaria in fall and winter. The location is supposed to be tropical South Asia. This meant tropical replacement throughout the sequence. Remove snow and deciduous trees and replace with tropical flora. This turned out to be a grueling task as the first reel alone had over 340 shots.

Watch a clip involving a smart car shoot-out.

To complicate things even more, due to scheduling constraints, Jet Li couldn’t be with the rest of the Expendables in Bulgaria. We had to cut the sets and ship it to Hong Kong, reassemble and shoot with him there. We had to then rebuild the Bulgaria set backgrounds fully CG and then merge with Jet Li green screens.

The airport sequence is another complex digital environment. The airport sequence happens in three entirely different locations, shot during two different seasons. We spent a lot of time studying the geography of the locations and building a congruous singular feel for all three paying close attention to placement. For example when Vilain’s nuke trucks break out of the airport by shattering the glass, it’s shot in the middle of Sofia with traffic and other urban features abound. The exterior of the airport was shot in Plovdiv Airport and was used for the exteriors. We shot extensive 360 HDR’s around all locations and were able to seamlessly merge them together.

The cave vault sequence is by far the most complex CG environment. The cave vault is where they store the nuclear pods. The entire environment was created in CG, but due to editorial changes kept changing ’til two months before delivery. This made this a particularly hard sequence as we were constantly chasing editorial changes. Sometimes that meant massive space redesign. We also built the Travelator (which is a minibus looking rail car that is used for transportation in the cave). With editing changes, the CG Travelator kept taking prominence over the production version. Fortunately, because we worked so closely with the art department, the CG Travelator was identical to the production version and far more versatile as it turned out. In the end, all the shots of the Travelator were CG. All the shots inside the vault where the prisoners and the Expendables are trapped were shot against blue screen and our massive CG environment was used to replace the background.

Watch the airport shoot-out, featuring enhancements by WWFX.

fxg: Can you talk about the effects required for the helicopter shoot-outs?

Mani: The helicopter work on this project was some of the crowning work. In all there were four action helicopters in the movie. The first was the MBB Bo105 attack helicopter in the opening sequence. We originally shot with a practical helicopter; however, as the edit changed the helicopter was required to do more dynamic moves. As a result, we ended up completely painting out and replacing the practical helicopter with the CG one.

The second is the Eurocopter during the Christmas fight sequence in the hangar. The practical helicopter lacked rotors. It started out with the just rotor replacement, but as the sequence congealed, we ended up adding more and more CG to it. We built all the CG assets and when the reel was locked, we studied the sequence as a whole and timed everything from the lights, rotors and even the rotor wash as a cohesive build. The practical helicopter body shook unnaturally during impact during the fight, so we had to digitally steady it, the culmination of it being Hector (Vilain’s henchman) being eviscerated by the tail rotor.

Watch the water tower clip featuring a crashing chopper.

The third is the Cougar helicopter used by the Expendables. Originally, this had no VFX component to it as we had two on hand during production. However, due to edit changes, we ended up building a CG double and using it for segue shots, some of which was created 100% from elements and within a few weeks as the changes happened close to completion.

The fourth is the Vilain’s Mi8 Helicopter. During production we used a Mi8 civilian variant from Bulgarian Air. Right from the beginning I was aware that we would have to do body work on this as the helicopter we used during production had Bulgarian Air decaling and it was white. We would have to do some body replacement on it already for this. I found a special gunship variant of this Mi8 called the HipE. We found it was only incrementally more work to replace the helicopter throughout the movie with the meaner, badder looking HipE version. Both Simon and Sly both liked it with a reflective finish (reminiscent of scales on a snake with Fresnel effect) and so we ended up replacing the Mi8 civilian in all shots with a full CG version. The CG version is full black with reflective coating and fully armed with AT2 Missiles and two pods with missiles. A more fitting craft for the villain it turned out to be.

fxg: Can you break down the effects required for the plane and cave sequence?

Mani: The Canadair CL215 amphibious craft used in the movie was a character unto itself. Knowing that it would get tested beyond its capability, we built a 3D model during production to match the practical. There are 5 plane/parts that act as this one plane in the movie.

1. Real Canadair CL215 for the wide shots of the plane flying and taking off from the water.
2. An amphibious version that cannot fly, it’s a boat that looks like the plane essentially. It has no props. So for all shots of the plane in the water, VFX added the props. This was used for the most part during the river chase sequence.
3. An interior version for interior shots.
4. A version that is the plane broken up and on rails for the plane crash scene in the cave. In the end we only used a handful of shots with this and ended up replacing it completely with the CG model. This was because the practical model just wasn’t moving fast enough on set even with lower frame rates to give the desired feel.
5. Finally, the all CG model.

Watch a breakdown of the cave crash.

Since we were involved from preproduction, VFX became the hub for ensuring all the versions of the plane looked the same. We were able to keep this together by communicating with all departments and cause fewer changes on the post side as a result.

The plane also does some things that a plane like this cannot physically do. First, there is the nose cannon. If such a cannon really existed on this plane, the recoil could possibly stall the plane in mid flight. The second hurdle was to create a rear hatch for the plane so that the jet skis could drive into it. The design of the plane makes this impossible; with some CG wizardry and sleight of hand we were able to make this seem perfectly normal. The script called for the plane to do a lot of things that weren’t physically possible. A lot of time went into planning how to execute this naturally.

The cave crash sequence was right from the start the most difficult sequence to execute. It became harder still, once the miniature shoot was canceled and we had to go all CG. During the shoot we did an animatic for visualizing the entire cave plane crash. Most of the shoot was done according to this; we stayed with the animatic as our base.

Knowing this sequence was now fast moving towards all CG, we focused on building the assets and CG environments during the early part of the post. VFX kept providing animatics till editorial could lock. No other work could occur till we knew we had a locked shot. The reel for this sequence wasn’t locked till May, which meant we couldn’t work on the shots until two months before delivery. We built the entire environment in detailed 3D, and used it for the major chunk of the sequence. It took a lot of simulation and lighting work to bring these shots to fruition. Being in a cave meant it had varying lighting and a lot of atmosphere. Getting all the pieces together and in the time we had was a challenge.

Watch an Expendables 2 featurette with behind the scenes footage and interviews.

fxg: Is there another stand-out shot that perhaps most people won’t think is a visual effect that you could talk about?

Mani: We were working on a compressed timeline for completion. Our final delivery was end of June. This meant that post production was five months. The reels weren’t fully locked till May, as a result a lot of shots were dropped and a lot of shots were created out of thin air to marry the sequences. There are a slew of shots in the movie that look like it was shot, but in fact is a full CG construct.

Amongst ones that come to mind is the shot of the Expendables’ plane in the hangar in New Orleans. The shot was required in edit. The shot is of Barney riding up in his motorcycle towards the plane in the hangar. We ended up going through dailies from the first movie and taking a shot of Barney on a motorcycle, a photograph of the hangar and a CG plane and retiming and reworking it so that it came together as the shot that was required.

Another one to watch for is Vilain’s black Mi8 HipE attack helicopter. All CG.

There is a shot of the plane landing on a field in a village. We found some aerial footage shot by second unit and ended up landing the CG plane on it to work with editorial needs.

We had a T72 tank during the shoot. However, if the tank fired a single round, the concussion wave would down the entire set. As a result, we ended up replacing the tank in almost all the shots with a CG one which does all the shooting.

In the opening sequence when the head baddie drives into his encampment there is a fish tank with eels swimming in it. The tank originally had fish, but they all died and sank to the bottom. Simon wanted some life in the shot. We researched and found a river eel from South Asia, which we modeled and increased in size three times. This then went into the tank writhing about so as to give the intention that it’s a snake pit. There are a lot of small details like this in the movie that is completely CG. It was put there to subliminally evoke an emotional response.

When the trucks break the glass and exit out of the airport, the exterior is all CG. It was originally shot in the middle of the city of Sofia with blue screens.

There are numerous digital matte paintings throughout the film that change the terrain. Most of the movie was shot in Bulgaria during fall and winter. We used digital matte paintings to make it match the geographic terrain it’s meant to be in. The first reel is a good example of this. It was shot in Bulgaria on the outskirts of the city in winter. Massive DMP work was done to change the look and feel to be tropical and desolate.

All images and clips copyright © 2012 Lions Gate Entertainment.

4 thoughts on “Back for more mayhem: The Expendables 2”

  1. Nice article! Just saw it last weekend. Good old muscles, good old feeling!

    P.s. The download links for the first two videos, the “making of reel” and the “b-roll footage,” are out of function. It would be good if they could be fixed. Thx.

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