Bullet Train is directed by David Leitch from a screenplay by Zak Olkewicz. It is based on the 2010 novel Maria Beetle by Kōtarō Isaka. The film stars Brad Pitt as an assassin, codenamed “Ladybug”, who must battle a team of killers while riding a Tokaido Shinkansen Hikari bullet train to Kyoto. The main unit photography began in Los Angeles in November 2020 and wrapped in March 2021. Director David Leitch had worked with Brad Pitt extensively before, having been Pitt’s stunt double in multiple films including Fight Club, Troy, and Mr & Mrs. Smith before becoming a director of John Wick, Atomic Blonde, and Deadpool 2 – which Pitt appear in a cameo role in 2018.
DNEG delivered over 1015 VFX shots, and a further 200 VFX shots ended up becoming final pixels in camera due to the use of virtual production. Mike Brazelton was the Production VFX supervisor, and the DNEG team was led by VFX Supervisor Stephen James, with VFX Exec. Producer David Fox and VFX Producer Saado Aboukhazaal.
The team constructed 3 full train cars and LED screens with video footage of the Japanese countryside that were hung outside the train set’s windows to help immerse the actors. As much of the moving footage was based on filmed material, the LED walls did not exhibit any parallax, in other words, it was just displayed independently from the camera’s movements.
Much of the filmed background plates also had to be sped up, to get the background plates to match the train’s notional 300km/hr speed. This required a significant amount of cleanup and heavy stabilization.
Generally, the team shot switched from LED screen to blue screen out the windows for the stronger daylight composites with the sun rising, due to the limitations of LEDs.
To complete some of the complex camera shots inside the train that was on the sound stage, the train was built in sections that the crew could remove or add back depending on the action. Additionally, for some shots, train seats had to be added back in digitally as the camera rig swept back through the carriage. “There’s not a lot of space for the crew, so they had to be pretty creative in cramming everyone in,” comments James. “It was essential we be able to tear out entire sections of the train to get the camera in and the crew in – inspired, maybe, by the Japanese culture of how to fold furniture away,” he jokes.
James and the DNEG team used a variety of techniques to generate a number of distinct train station environments, with practical background plates captured traveling throughout Japan, and over 25km of unique CG environments to travel through.
The director, David Leitch worked directly with the postviz team in Unreal regarding environments and camera moves. “They had a lot of fun with the cameras flying up and under things and that kind of thing,” James recalls. “They went wild with the cameras when it came to establishing shots to give them some punch in the edit.”
There was one nose section of the train driver’s engine built which was used for the front and again for the rear of the train. It is seen here as ‘Tangerine’ hits the glass to re-join the action. To make the shot work, DNEG had to replace all of the train interiors, the glass and add multiple reflections. The team even had to replace the actor’s hand, arm up to his shoulder. So that actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson did not hurt himself, he punched the stunt glass with a section of foam.
Tangerine fights to get back in, filmed without movement. To simulate the great speed and buffering from the wind, the actor had cables attached so he could lean into the action and a large wind machine off screen left.
In terms of the main train set, the production built a first-class carriage, that had a beautiful modern interior, driver car, lounge car, and an economy car. “We extended those sets and repeated them to fill out the entire train length, but they built enough on the sound stage to represent each type of car and be able to have shots that carry between multiple cars” says James.
The team created action sequences consisting of FX explosions of cars, CG weapons, snakes, and gore, as well as multiple train crashes and collisions. As the director comes from a stunt background the DNEG team did not need to do extensive digital double work, so much of the action was filmed with very careful and inventive stunt work, but digital doubles were made for most of the main cast, and while not used extensively, they had to be very accurate and finely detailed. In particular, when Brad Pitt is fighting the deadly snake in the bathroom, “we had to make sure that Brad’s build was pretty accurate, because that’s a fully CG interaction. We ended up replacing pieces of his arm to make the interaction work,” James points out.
Some of the really interesting aspects of the creative problem-solving DNEG needed to do was balancing action with comedy and gore with humor. “It was definitely a tricky one to solve because it’s a balancing act of the need to be funny where it needs to be, and the need to be exciting where it needs to be – and often also feel dangerous,” explains James “We really had to hit all those specific comedic and story moments throughout the film – sometimes in slow motion! Yeah, it was quite a balancing act.”
While many visual effects might seem apparent, there were a collection of invisible effects also, sometimes centered around what was funny. In the final crash, Ladybug is hit in the face by a coffee pot in slow motion. Many hours of scrutinizing went into what would be the funniest thing to be thrown, what was funny, and what wouldn’t be, with everyone on the team having an opinion about what would make for the best visual gag. “Certain artists were better for certain things; some people just get that type of humor. Our animation supervisors, Evan Clover and Sianoosh Nasiriziba definitely did a really good job of finding those comedic moments.”
Technically the environments and most of the visual effects were produced in Clarisse with Nuke. And Houdini was used for some effects and some of the procedural work. “We used Houdini as we had to build out some pretty long and extensive travel environments,” James comments. “We utilized Houdini for being able to use OSM data and give us like a good quick foundation and using that blueprint to populate city blocks or village environments. We then went in and manually dressed the environments from there to give it a bit more specific style.”
The production built out one master station segment that was three or four lengths of a train car long. This set would be dressed differently per environment or station the train visited throughout the film. The art department would change the vinyls on the set floor. “We had a base train station and then we’d just alter it with all different types of textures and props to really add variety, some outdoor stations, some indoor stations, but all built around the same base structure that we had on set,’ comments James.
For the case explosion on the station, there was an explosive flash rig filmed with stunt performers being thrown and pulled on elaborate stunt rigs. But ultimately most of the explosion was covered up by the massive intense digital explosion. “We need the blast to feel strong enough to kick all these guys back without exploding them into pieces,” points out James. The final solution was more of a concussive blast than a fireball, but the DNEG team closely referenced everything on set. “We studied and matched the intensity of the fireball, the way the paper money flies down, and the intensity of the light… It did give us a really good foundation to match into,” he adds.
To give audiences a sense of the story taking place on a moving train, the DNEG Virtual Production team used LED screens to display immersive CG environments, bringing Tokyo and the Japanese countryside to life. With a project set on a train traveling at 300km/h, the team needed a vast amount of content to illustrate the journey taking place outside of the windows. James and the DNEG team used a variety of techniques to generate a number of distinct train station environments, with practical background plates captured traveling throughout Japan, and over 25km of unique CG environments to travel through.
COVID-19 pandemic restrictions caused a unique set of challenges. With international travel to Japan not possible, the team relied on local vendor JAID Productions for reference photography of Japan. JAID captured a variety of settings from the streets of Akihabara at night to the rice fields of Maibara at sunrise. The DNEG environments team also utilized new techniques using OpenStreetMap data from throughout Japan to generate huge areas of environment to travel through. Using this data, they were able to identify the locations of forests, streets, and buildings. This allowed the team to generate a variety of environments from dense city suburbs, traditional villages, and the mountains surrounding Kyoto, and dress the scenes in a variety of structures based on the style of the areas: varieties of buildings, rooftops, walls, street props, and gardens.
DNEG developed the environments based on key locations in Japan. For the end crash, the team referenced the hillside Kyoto, and a particularly traditional touristy Plaza area that is very beautiful in Kyoto with wooden buildings and temples. James points out that they “had our team take quite a lot of photography of the hillsides of Kyoto to get the right types of trees, props, and architecture.” Unfortunately, COVID meant that the DNEG team could not travel to Japan. They ended up reaching out to various production companies in Japan and then sent over their standard on-set shooting kit to collect data. “Our round shot kits have everything you’d need,” James says. “Our shoot supervisor, Dan Kunz trained the local team up over a few weeks to use our shoot kits and then we would stay up late at night remotely with them and essentially be remote tourists. In turn, they would be guiding us around, via their iPhones.” While the local team gathered a lot of valuable data there was no LIDAR, but VFX Supervisor Mike Brazelton did coordinate a week of drone photography. From this drone footage the team engineered flying CG takeover shots that would then fly down in ways that were unsafe for a drone, or into CG set extensions. The team even managed to get some helicopter footage filmed remotely.
The train crashes into an oncoming train and is sheared open as if by a ‘can opener.’ For this final scene, the DNEG environments team built a massive CG station and connecting city, to resemble a train utility station on the outskirts of Kyoto. In the finale, the train bursts out of the end of a station, down a mountain, and into a traditional village, as our hero flies through the cabins.