Catching Fire: meet the real Gamemaker

We break down the key visual effects shots in Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire with VFX supe Janek Sirrs, whose credits include The Matrix Reloaded, Iron Man 2 and The Avengers. We delve into the effects for the Victory Tour to the detailed views of the Capitol, to the brand new arena and the hazards the Tributes face in the game.

**Warning: this article contains major plot spoilers**

Sirrs oversaw around 1200 shots in the final film, which broke down between the vendors roughly as follows:

Double Negative – Arena jungle and Cornucopia environment, spinning island and tidal wave digital water work, finale jungle/dome destruction, fog, birds and the bigger Capitol sequences such as the Avenue of the Tributes (VFX supervisor: Adrian De Wet)
Weta Digital – Digital monkeys (VFX supervisor: Guy Williams)
Method Studios – Victor’s Village and robotic cameras, Capitol train, President Snow’s party, Caesar Flickerman’s theater show and Mockingjay dress (VFX supervisors Stephane Naze and Matt Dessero)
Rodeo FX – D12 and Victory Tour districts environments/set extensions (VFX supervisor: François Dumoulin)
Fuel VFX – Tribute training center holograms (VFX supervisor: Paul Butterworth)
Hybride – Games control hologram and desktop graphical interfaces (VFX supervisor: Thierry Delattre)
Proof Inc – Previs and postvis

For more on the visual effects of Catching Fire, listen to Mike Seymour’s in-depth fxpodcast with visual effects supervisor Janek Sirrs

In the Districts

This clip from the film features some of District 12’s outskirts.

After the events of the first film, Katniss and Peeta travel by train to various other Districts on a ‘Victory Tour’. “There are probably more set extensions for the various districts in the movie than the audiences realizes,” notes Sirrs. “All these scenes were shot in various locations around Atlanta – an artists’ commune, an abandoned railyard, and a private airport, to name but a few – so there’s a fair amount of work to ‘transplant’ those locations and put them into the Hunger Games world.”

Rodeo FX, in conjunction with Hatch FX, crafted the District set extensions with 2D and 3D matte paintings and some fully animated machines such as the mechanical digger in District 12. “To always keep things feeling authentic, as opposed to more fantasy-based, the digital extensions and dressing were always based on real-world contemporary, or historical reference,” says Sirrs. “For example, the digger is based on a real (huge) excavating machine known as a Bagger, and the Appalachian hillsides and associated buildings all referenced photographs of period American mining towns.”

Director Francis Lawrence on the set of Catching Fire.
Director Francis Lawrence on the set of Catching Fire.

Method Studios created the train effects. “Exterior shots of the train were typically aerial plate shots into which a digital train and track were added,” explains Sirrs, “although one environment added at the last moment was created from a series of panoramic stills shot at Lone Pine, just north of Los Angeles. Interior scenes were shot on a green screen stage and process plates composited outside the windows for the passing landscape. Method also generated the tunnel and massive security wall that the train passes through en route to District 11 as completely digital creations.”

Method was also responsible for views of Victor’s Village, realized as a 3D matte painting. “All that was constructed at the location was the gate at one end the Katniss walks thru, and the ground floors of two opposing houses,” notes Sirrs. “The upper floors, and the rest of the remaining houses were all added digitally. Method also created the robot camera systems for the Katniss and Peeta TV interview, using motion control rigs and assembly-line wielding robots as design inspiration.”

Expanding the Capitol

Many of the film’s visual effects shots are featured in this trailer.

Scenes of the Capitol for this second film were expanded upon to see more of the Hunger Games world. “We inherited the basic layout of Avenue of The Tributes from the previous movie so that provided the basic foundation or core for the city build shots,” states Sirrs. “That said, we still opened up the avenue further to make it an even more impressive space.”

Sirrs notes that surrounding buildings were inspired by real life structures favored by production designer Philip Messina. “Brutalist architecture was one of the major styles that we referenced, for example,” says Sirrs. “In terms of general layout, we tried to convey the feeling that the city was built with a grand sense of scale, with big open plazas, and without concern for any previous/existing structures in keeping with the rebuilding of a city after a major war.”

Double Negative handled much of the Capitol views the final shots, using the Avenue of The Tributes as the core setup. Live action for that sequence was filmed in the expansive parking lot of the Atlanta Speedway under what Sirrs describes as ‘real bold, naked sunlight’. “This provided the (realistic) basis for the lighting you see in that sequence. We didn’t want to try and simulate any sort of more stylized lighting, such as magic hour, as this typically fights against the realism of the fabricated environment.”

Shots of the hovercrafts seen in the Capitol and later in the Arena were also completed by Double Negative. “The goal was to put something more utilitarian in there than it was in the first movie,” says Sirrs. “We designed this weird Epilady shape – it was almost like a circular thing with a razorneck shape going on inside of it.”

For one shot of a hovercraft flying away from the city, Sirrs devised the shot by shooting reference from the top of a building in Atlanta. “We shot an original plate tilting down and looking at the imaginary hovercraft as it flies away,” he says. “We started with a real plate which gave us something concrete to deal with in the first place, and then we started to add in features by adding in our own architecture.”

Attack of the cubes

See shots of the archery drill in this TV spot.

A revamped training center plays host to several new interactive tasks for the Tributes, including an archery drill where Katniss displays her prowess against some pixelated foes. “Production found a great parking space in Atlanta that they could re-purpose as the main training center room,” says Sirrs, “and next to that was a concrete atrium-like space running down through all the parking levels that we thought was big enough to be an hi-tech archery range with a bit of set dressing and digital enhancement.”

“We wanted to up the ante on the (more physical) tech from the first Hunger Games training center,” adds Sirrs, “so some form of virtual targets seemed the logical way to go. Given the nature of the Hunger Games it made sense for them to be recognizably humanoid, but it a stylized manner so that we could depict dramatic arrow impacts without any ratings issues.”

Fuel VFX created the final visual effects for the sequence based on plates of Lawrence. “We designed the template for the archery sequence by having Katniss pretend shoot at stunt performers stationed around the space until she had the sequence down pat, and then we filmed her coverage in the empty set,” says Sirrs. “The virtual target animation was based on motion capture performance, and the sweeping lasers carefully choreographed to help motivate Katniss’ turns and to lead the audience to where we wanted them to look next.”

Caesar on show


Once again, announcer and commentator Caesar Flickerman presents his glitzy show on the Hunger Games and interviews the Tributes. “All the graphics and displays seen behind Caesar were live playback on a series of modular LED display panels that could conform to match the general shape of the set,” says Sirrs. “Not only could these panels display simple colors but they could also be fed input from a series of pre-rendered QuickTime animations, and be controlled via the overall lighting DMX mixing board. That way we could cue the entire stage for the different events, such as when Katniss walked out.”

Caesar’s theatre show was filmed with just a small set section with the audience mostly filmed on greenscreen. Method Studios extended the auditorium and also pieced together several plates for Katniss’ fiery dress transformation as it literally sprouts wings.

The Arena revealed

See some shots of the new Arena in the film’s trailer.

The new Arena is imagined as a lake area with a middle island housing the Cornucopia, surrounded by a dense jungle. “The Arena photography was split between three basic locations,” says Sirrs. “Hawaiian jungle for interior jungle scenes, a small section of Hawaiian shoreline for the beach scenes, and an Atlanta water park for all the Tribute rising pedestals and Cornucopia island work.”

Double Negative completed the Arena environments, including the jungle as a mostly digital creation. “The majority of jungle you see in the central area of the Arena is digital, with the real Hawaiian shoreline only handling some of the tighter coverage, looking into the trees,” explains Sirrs. “Wider shots, and shots looking across the Arena, or to the Cornucopia all use the digital jungle, and beach, rocks, ocean water, breaking waves, etc.”

Sirrs notes that the digital jungle “was so polygon heavy that it couldn’t actually be stored as geometry and individual trees and plants had to be instanced at render time. And leaves and branches were all sim’d to blow in the breeze so that shots never felt ‘dead’. Where possible we tried to use any practical ocean water that was visible in frame, and enhance it with a few localized digital elements to create interaction around the added island, pedestals, and radial spoke-like rocky paths. But wider shots required full on ocean simulations, complete with breaking waves and white water interaction.”

In one particular shot, a tidal wave of water is unleashed and displaces a whole section of palm trees. “We always wanted the idea of not knowing what was happening, hearing something and maybe sensing something moving – a bit like King Kong moving through the jungle,” says Sirrs. “You don’t see it at first – you see the trees moving and then you reveal the beast. It got a bit more esoteric when the waves crashed down into the arena because all of the hazards arena had been confined to that portion of the pie around the clock. So there’s an odd feeling there where we had to confine the wave that comes crashing down through the jungle to that portion of the pie. That was a bit of a stylized effect.”

Through the fog

Take a look at this behind the scenes featurette on shooting the film in IMAX.

As the Tributes makes their way through the jungle, they are suddenly engulfed by a poisonous fog and must make a dash for safety. “In pre-production it was clear that the fog would have to be so art directed,” explains Sirrs. “That means that it could only be realized digitally, as opposed to using any practical smoke, or mist machines. Ultimately, it came down to previs’ing the major beats to understand the basic blocking, and then adapting the action on the fly to fit the actual terrain, etc. on location. The cast had to imagine and react to where the fog would theoretically be, how fast it was moving, and so on.”

All of the jungle environment in the film fog shots was real, including the performers. “The actors are really barreling through the undergrowth, doing their best not to trip or fall over,” says Sirrs. “There are plenty of outtakes where folks (understandably) took a tumble!”

Although a LIDAR scan was attempted for the jungle, the leafy environment was much to complex and only provided a noisy point cloud. This meant Dneg had to embark on a brute force approach to map out the environment before they could complete the fog simulations. “Using the real jungle created masses of roto work to separate the various leaves and branches into multiple depth layers for the digital fog pass thru and around,” says Sirrs. “Proxy geometry had to be created for bigger pieces of vegetation for the fog simulations to interact with.”

When baboons attack

See Weta Digital’s baboons in this trailer.

A new hazard faced by the Tributes comes in the form of vicious baboons who attack and chase the group all the way to the beach. The design of the creatures were a combination of a drill and a mandrill made slightly more colorful and larger so that they were more intimidating. “While filming in Atlanta,” recalls Sirrs, “we did discover the city zoo actually had a drill in captivity, and we did film that for reference, albeit from a distance behind some plexiglass. Not even the handlers ever go in cage…that’s how vicious the drill could be.”

Weta Digital realized the final baboon creations using what had been captured at the zoo in terms of fur and skin texture reference, and looked to internet sources for movement and behavioral material. “Weta were able to utilize a lot of their previous work they had done for Planet of The Apes to build the basic hero monkey,” outlines Sirrs. “Although, they did write some custom fur enhancements to enable the the monkeys to do a very specific flaring/puffing up of their manes.”

To aid the performance of the actors on set, accurately sized printed cardboard cutouts of the baboons in a series of poses. Adds Sirrs: “A couple of small stunt performers in grey bodysuits, dubbed the ‘space monkeys’, were used for some of the physical interaction moments, and the odd VFX supervisor running around doing his best monkey impersonation.”

An underwater moment in which a baboon threatens Katniss was filmed with Lawrence fighting against the stunt coordinator’s hand, something Sirrs describes as a “sort of bizarre, aquatic sock-puppet fight. The original dailies are rather comic where you’ve got an over-the-shoulder moving up to the hand snapping at her. They basically covered it up with a monkey as the end result.”

A spinning Cornucopia

Now revealed to be arranged in a clock-like structure, the Arena comes to life when the head gamemaker spins the center Cornucopia island on which several Tributes have gathered. “Shots on the Cornucopia island were filmed on two set pieces – a complete island in the middle of an Atlanta waterpark (for static shots), and smaller/flatter piece of generic island rock, mounted on a big lazy Susan rig on dry land, surrounded by blue screen, and nicknamed the ‘spinning biscuit’,” outlines Sirrs.

Sirrs notes that the spinning rig was purposely built outdoors “so that we could really see the actors turning within the sunlight, and have shadows realistically move across them, as opposed to faking it on a stage which would have an inherently inferior look.” In the final shots, the ‘spinning biscuit’ was almost entirely replaced with a digital version of the island by Double Negative. But, says Sirrs, “it gave us that crucial quality of moving light, and rock-like terrain for the actors to interact with.”

Dneg also simulated water, spray, foam and mist. “The sims were a combination of ones that tried to faithfully model the physics,” says Sirrs, “and others were more art-directed to achieve the final desired look. The amount of time it takes to sim these shots, you only get a couple of goes at it so you hope you’re in the ballpark and hit it out of the park.”

All images and clips copyright 2013 Lionsgate.

9 thoughts on “<em>Catching Fire:</em> meet the real Gamemaker”

  1. As always … such amazing articles. Thanks FXGuide. Hope to take some FXPHD courses in the future.

      1. The pre games was ANA – but we believe directly from talking to Janek there was Super 35, – it is a direct quote, may I suggest you listen to the podcast where he discussed that.? .. it is on our fxpodcast on Catching Fire.

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