Beautified reality: making Walter Mitty’s world

VFX supervisor Guillaume Rocheron describes his approach to the visual effects of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty as a process of creating a ‘beautified reality’ – a kind of reality that is not quite real and not quite fantastical. “Walter (played by Ben Stiller) sees the world through the eyes of the expert photographers at Life magazine who are seeing the beauty of nature and the world at its best,” says Rocheron. “Sometimes we see things in photographs and say, ‘Wow is that real?’ So that is reflected in the film too.”

We take a look at just some of the film’s major visual effects sequences.

Dog rescue

Watch the dog rescue sequence.

Beautified reality: Spacing out while on a train platform, Walter suddenly leaps into the window of an apartment block to save the dog of his crush Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) before a fiery explosion occurs.

Framestore and MPC combined to realize the visual effects for the ‘one shot’ which was actually filmed as three separate plates. First, Stiller was shot on the train platform in New York, which transitions to a greenscreen plate of him jumping on a wire rig. The third plate is the actor exiting the building.

The final ‘continuous’ shot involved careful massaging of the plates plus a digital reconstruction of the environment. “During the pan on the platform section we transition to the second plate,” explains Rocheron, “and we transition to basically an all-digital environment so that we can get the camera to go over the railing, the camera rushes down the building and blends into the third plate which is Walter coming out of the building. The camera pulls back and we added explosions on the upper floors of the building.”

The explosions themselves were actually real elements that were filmed at 96 fps using a miniature mock-up (at quarter scale) of the building facade. These were composited back into the shot and enhanced with digital flames and debris.

Imagining the arctic

Watch Walter’s Arctic explorer fantasy.

Beautified reality: Walter imagines himself as an Arctic explorer in the hope of making a strong impression on Cheryl at the office.

Hydraulx enabled a transition from the office environment as the camera pans to reveal the chilly Arctic surrounds with Walter in climbing gear.

“Originally,” says Rocheron, “the way it was designed we were going to keep a lot of the office set and put that into the digital extension. On the soundstage the camera would pan to greenscreen and a lot of the office parts were pre-dressed as being covered in snow. As we started to do the shot, we realized there was not enough time for the audience to register the complexity of how the office blends into the arctic environment. So we ended up re-creating through the transition – we roto’d out the characters and we just made the background completely digital. We could basically remove the office sets a little sooner than we ended up doing and blending that into the arctic environments.”

To help create a smooth transition Hydraulx replicated a Life magazine cover behind the actors to become the arctic environment. “They re-created the whole wall and ran some rigid-body simulations to collapse it and open it up and see the chain of mountains,” says Rocheron. “The mountains were a mix of 3D assets and moving snow, and the backgrounds were two and a half D matte paintings.”


A still from the fight scene between Walter and
A still from the fight scene between Walter and Ted.

Beautified reality: Walter becomes so aggrieved with his new nemesis, the Life corporate transition manager Ted (Adam Scott), that he fantasizes a snowboard-like duel through the city streets.

Much of the sequence was filmed practically in Manhattan, with MPC then adding to shots with digi-environments, vehicles, occasional digi-doubles and a wake of road debris. “We could have shot the whole sequence on a greenscreen,” notes Rocheron, “but then you just don’t get the natural lighting and all the environment of the streets that can be pretty complex. The practical photography was a mix of actors on various rigs that would be carried through the streets, or it was stuntmen on rollerblades.”

See behind the scenes of the city-boarding shoot.

For the stuntmen shots, MPC completed several face replacements and sometimes leg replacements, as well as adding in the snowboard and skis. “We also replaced the ground sections so it could be carved out and then we could add the destruction effects,” says Rocheron. “It wasn’t quite pushing through concrete like a truck would do, it was more like cool surfing and the board was pushing through water or snow. We used a lot of snowboard reference to see the kind of wake you get with snow. It had to feel like there was a meter of powder.”

Border crossing

Catch a brief glimpse of this sequence in the above trailer.

Beautified reality: Walter must seek out photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) in Greenland and Iceland for a missing negative. His journey there is revealed in a continuous overhead plane shot from sunset in New York to nighttime and then sunrise in Greenland.

This sequence was handled by Soho VFX as an almost total-CG shot. “We went to Laguardia Airport and shot helicopter tiles on the runway so we could re-create the runway,” explains Rocheron, “and then we shot the same thing in Iceland – tiles of icebergs, mountain features and those sorts of things. Then Soho reassembled all those things to create the sense of travel and re-animated the sunlight over everything to show the timelapse happening over the shot.”

Interestingly, the travel shot also featured a motif seen throughout the film – what Rocheron dubbed the ‘text in picture’ effect where text on screen is integrated into the plates. “For example, when Walter gets to the airport, he gets to the counter of the Greenland airline and there are messages that are some of the Life magazine mottos that subtlety integrated into the shots. Also on the runway there is text in there. We also have that later when Walter travels back from Iceland to New York and receives a text message and it forms in the mountain behind him. We simulated that by sim’ing a landslide that reveals a text message. They’re a stylistic effect where we had to work out how to integrate them into natural landscapes.”

Swimming with sharks

Watch part of the shark sequence.

Beautified reality: Making a leap of faith in the search for O’Connell, Walter jumps from a helicopter to a fishing vessel – but misses – and ends up facing down a shark in the open ocean.

Again, practical photography including a real ocean jump by Stiller informed the final shots that featured VFX for the ocean, skies and shark. Says Rocheron: “Obviously you can’t shoot in stormy conditions and waves that are that heavy, but it’s always worth having something real, because it’s always something you can work back to. The way it was approached was we replaced the water and skies completely and kept the actors and the boats. Sometimes we had to re-animate the boats on the waves as well.”

Framestore delivered large scale wave simulations for the ocean, while tighter shots were completed by Hydraulx. “We did every shot there practically first with a mechanical shark (from Walt Conti’s Edge Innovations) to get eyelines right. It was basically a mechanical fin that let us choreograph where the shark would go, how the shots would be framed. The shots of the shark trying to bite Walter were done with a completely digital shark by Soho.”

Caught in a volcano

Water must escape an erupting volcano.

Beautified reality: Walter’s search takes him to the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, which promptly erupts as he witnesses O’Connell photographing the event on a plane.

Soho VFX created the eruption and cloud simulations the envelop Walter and his eventual rescuer. “Those simulations for the mountain and the plumes chasing the car were pretty massive,” states Rocheron. “Some of the sims took weeks to do. We had to make sure the simulations were doing the right thing in terms of progression so we broke the process down into different layers into low res sims to get the timing right. As were blocking the shot, we started to increase the resolution and added localized simulation for more and more details.”

“Then we had to sit that into the environment,” adds Rocheron, “so often we would be replacing the CG trees on the side of the road, or the houses so that streams of clouds and lava could lend on them and break the rooftops.”

Discovery in the Himalayas

Walter eventually finds the elusive
Walter eventually finds the elusive Sean O’Connell.

Beautified reality: Walter finally tracks down O’Connell to the Himalayan mountains to ask him about the missing negative.

The footage of a trekking Walter was filmed in Iceland, with Look Effects replacing backgrounds with appropriate Nepalese imagery using supplied reference and real photographs taken by one of their own artists. “Something that was very successful was not only replacing the backgrounds,” says Rocheron, “but also we tweaked the foregrounds on which Walter is walking. We added cliffs, or little chunks he was walking on, to make them steeper. It was a subtle manipulation to show he was always climbing those mountains and that it was somehow a very hostile environment.”

All images copyright © 2013 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.