For Breaking Bad, the TV series currently airing on AMC, Entity FX was tasked with some crucial VFX shots to help tell the story of high school teacher Walter White as he slowly descends into a suburban drug culture. We talk to VFX supe Mat Beck about the creation of a digital fly which torments Walter in one of the episodes.
fxg: The fly that seems to terrorize Walt and eventually lands on his glasses looks like it was fun to do. What was involved in making the fly shots possible?
Beck: Well, the fly is a main character of the piece so it plays a big role. All in all, the fly was in the show for about 20 minutes and was planned to be portrayed in different ways. We had a high-res CG model for the close-ups. For wider flying shots, we figured it could just be a flying CG dot – which turned out to be more trouble than we thought. For wider static shots, the original idea was to use practical flies made by a guy who made fishing flies. It was a really good looking fly, but it didn’t take long in a shot of the fly sitting there motionless for it to become apparent that it wasn’t a real fly. So we ended up digitally replacing most of the practical flies and doing the bulk of the flies as all-CG.
fxg: What kind of fly reference did you look to?
Beck: Firstly, it even said in the script, ‘Don’t worry everybody – there will be no real flies on the set’. So we had to look elsewhere. There is some microphotography reference out there, and like any other insects, flies look amazing up close. The producers got some close-up reference footage of a fly doing its thing. It was going to play within the main episode, but Vince decided he didn’t want to use it because it was to be more about what was going through Walt’s mind. The glasses shot was originally cut with an insert between extremely close-up views of the fly’s head – what would have been Walt’s POV. But none of us can really see a fly that close to us that big, so Vince thought it was a distraction and we added additional frames to the objective view of the fly. Ironically, what we couldn’t find reference for was how a fly moves around a room. Everybody
fxg: How did you make the fly read on the screen?
Beck: That was one of the challenges – because a fly is so small, the audience needed to pick it up in frame, without an overt attempt at calling attention to it. When the model fly was filmed sitting in the set, it would often be hard to find – you wouldn’t know where to look, whereas when we replaced it with our CG fly, one of the things we would do is move the wings a bit and it would catch the light and your eye would go to it. We also used that trick a lot when he was flying around. So what was originally going to be not many instances of a CG fly became, instead, virtually every shot is now a CG fly. For the close-ups, we just had to make a great looking fly with fly-like behaviours. Flies actually do move like little insect-ey robots. They have very stereotypical behaviours. They roll their head around and groom with their legs. We also did some cool things with the wings where we would render the background with the fly’s body and then put the wings on top and refract the background, including the fly’s body, through it. When the wings moved, it gave more realism and helped your eyes go to it.
fxg: What were some of the tools you used for the fly modeling and animation?
Beck: The fly was animated in Maya and rendered in mental ray. We did tracking in boujou and pfTrack. Most of the compositing was done in After Effects.
fxg: What kind of lighting challenges were there?
Beck: Firstly, we documented the room in a number of ways. One way was to photograph the room with hi-res bracketed photography. And we used the chrome ball. In addition, we treated the fly as if it was an actor. If you had a small actor in there, you might as a DP say, ‘Let’s give him a kicker, let’s give him a rim light for some definition.’ So we had a little fly light that flew around with him. We dialed that up and down so you’d be able to find him. Part of the animation was putting him in backgrounds so you could see him. The flying around the room animation was more challenging than I had guessed. It had to follow the motion of a fly, follow the eyeline of the actor, and it had to fly against a background where it was visible, and it had to mostly stay in frame. Plus it had to get to certain places in order to move to the next shot. And it had to drop into the scene completely believably!
fxg: One of the key shots is the fly walking over Walt’s glasses? Can you talk about that?
Beck: That is actually my favourite shot, where you see Walt’s eye in extreme close focus, looking very distressed and moving around to the sound of what is obviously a fly in the room and then it lands right in front of him – on his glasses. As he focuses onto the fly, we pull back into focus from his eye onto the fly. This was always designed to be a CG fly. We had a few tracking dots on the glasses. If you look at the original plate it plays beautifully, except that there are six little dots on the glasses where the feet are to go and no fly. We had lots of lighting reference for that. The sound department did such a good job for that shot too, because if you listen carefully you can hear the sound of him rubbing his little legs together. Another challenge with the animation was that flies do a pretty good job of flying but they kind of crash-land a lot of the time. So we’d have to add a little bit of movement after the landing.
fxg: And before that Walt actually falls over. Were there any effects involved there?
Beck: That was a stunt guy falling and landing on the floor. Using a switcher, we lined up Bryan Cranston as well as possible with the stunt guy and had him repeat the last bit of the move, so we could do a morph on the move and then the camera dollied in so you could see it was a one-shot where it went from a wide of the character falling to a push-in so you could see it was Walt. The morph, which we did in Nuke, was relatively elaborate because no matter how well you do it, you’ve got a lot of body parts moving around there. Arms had to line up with arms and heads with heads. The only other thing was that there was a slight bump on the dolly-in that we had to remove. We were actually prepared to do a morph on the moving camera, but the director, Rian Thompson, wanted this to be a formal wide lock-off shot.
fxg: What were some of the other effects you were responsible for on Breaking Bad?
Beck: Well, when Jesse and Walt are climbing around the lab there were some safety rigs that had to be removed – we actually had to build a little bit of the lab in 3D. And of course, the essential premise is a high school teacher living in suburbia combined with this quite violent drug culture. So there are moments where really bad stuff happens to people quite frequently! One guy whose legs we chopped off for the episode “I See You” was a drug assassin trying to kill one of the local law enforcement officials and he lost his legs in the attempt. We put some green leggings on him, removed his legs digitally and replaced the background behind him. As he hauled himself across the floor towards the door, we added in some blood streaks. We used three separate tricks: the hole in the bed to get it done practically, a real amputee for some shots and for other shots we had the real actor and did a digital leg removal. We ended up creating CG bandages as well.
What was also challenging about the shot was the complicated wire removal because this guy had all these tubes that he was wearing and he was ripping them off as he was getting out of the hospital bed. Some of them were getting wrapped around his legs where there weren’t supposed to be any legs! At the same time, it’s a story point that he looks out the window and starts to get very angry, his heart rate goes up and you hear the soundtrack going faster and faster. We had to replace all the contents of the monitors with read-outs that matched his accelerating heart rate. There were lots of wires that had to be re-located. Also, the bed clothing required some 3D work to replace it.
fxg: How easy is it to integrate your visual effects into a show like Breaking Bad, which isn’t an overtly big effects show.
Beck: I think some of the most imaginative and impactful storytelling is taking place on the smaller screen these days. And Breaking Bad is an example of that. In terms of lead time from discussions about what we were going to do, it can be substantial. There can be months from the time it was shot to the time it went to air. But the actual specific shots that needed to be done had to be finished in about a week and a half. That was the time between an approved cut coming from Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, to us needing to deliver the show. So it was always a tight turnaround. But the show is so amazing and the people are so great and talented that we just love extending ourselves to contribute.
All images copyright AMC and courtesy of Entity FX.
Mat Beck, Senior VFX Supervisor
David Stump, Additional On-Set VFX Supervisor
Brian Harding, In-house VFX Supervisor
David Alexander, 3D Supervisor/Compositor
Mike “Pharoah” Barrett, 3D Artist/Animator/Compositor
Dan Rucinski, VFX Executive Producer
Trent Smith, VFX Producer / Co-Supervisor
Bob Hamel, VFX Coordinator
Kaz Yoshida, 3D Artist/Animator
Junji Hirano, 3D Artist
Rik Panero, 3D Artist/Lead Tracker
Leslie Conover, 3D Artist/Modeler/Texture Painter
Rob Reinhart, Compositor/Rig Removal Artist
John Cornejo, Compositor/Morph Artist
Jacob Debbs, Compositor/Roto/Rig Removal Artist
Seth Helpap, Compositor/Roto/Rig Removal Artist
Christy Angell, Compositor/Roto/Rig Removal Artist
Eli Jarra, Compositor
Jeremy Renteria, Compositor
Paul Santagada, Compositor