Comic effects: 21 Jump Street

Sent undercover to crack a high school drug ring, two fresh police recruits – Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum – ham it up in 21 Jump Street. The film, helmed by duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs), includes 160 effects shots by duMonde Visual Effects. The New Orleans studio is a partnership between VFX veterans Richard Edlund, ASC and Helena Packer. We talk to both Richard and Helena about working on the comedy.

Warning: this article contains some minor spoilers.

Watch the trailer for ’21 Jump Street’.

fxg: What was the nature of the work you did for 21 Jump Street?

Helena Packer: The effects had to help the story and be realistic, but because it was a comedy they were kind of hyper-realistic just to get a laugh. So we got into a lot of goofing up stuff. We worked on the freeway chase to enhance the comedy, the explosions, the doves – which are very large for comic effect – as the get out of the limo at the prom. We did a lot of fix-its. And then when the coach catches them getting high and they see ice-cream cones and cat heads.

Richard Edlund: We also had two directors, which was interesting. This was their first live-action movie.

Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller.

fxg: What was that experience like?

Edlund: It was great, but it was also both exhilarating and exasperating, which I think is the case with nearly any director. When you have two you have two ideas that have to come into focus. That was an interesting gestalt that the movie had. I’ve done a lot of movies, but never with two directors.

Packer: They worked really well together, and really complemented each other in terms of comedy. One was more verbal and the other more visual. And what I found interesting about the film was that this wasn’t just hard core guy stuff, it had some soft undertones with compassion and humanity, and some sweetness which I think will appeal to a lot of people.

Edlund: Yeah, it is a real buddy flick.

fxg: One cool scene has the guys arriving at the prom and they release some doves. What effects were involved there?

Edlund: They were CG doves – super oversized and the directors wanted them to be like that – they were like eagle-doves really!

Packer: They were huge! But they worked for the comedy.

Edlund: There was no possible way that they could have shot real doves for that scene – they’d still be shooting them I think.

duMonde added the CG doves.
The doves were purposely oversized.

fxg: What was approach to building those and getting them to work?

Edlund: Helena had done wings for Megan Fox for another movie so she drew on that.

Packer: We started out with a good model that was rigged. The rigging is tricky on a dove because of the way the wings fold.

Edlund: They’re always moving too. You’ve got to keep in mind that you’re shooting something that would normally be shot with a movie camera that has an effective shutter speed of 1/50th of a second. That doesn’t stop action, so the birds are blurry all of the time.

Packer: We actually had to prove that to the directors, as well, by taking most of the motion blur off to show them.

Edlund: We would basically wedge motion blur to arrive at it.

Packer: And everyone wants to see all the detail on the feathers, but you can’t have that detail and the motion blur – no matter how much detail may be in your texture. The other issue we had from a CG point of view is that wings always have interpenetration of the feathers – that’s enough to drive you crazy because you’re always hand-manipulating the feathers in CG.

fxg: There’s a golf ball shot too that would have involved motion blur work, I’m guessing.

Edlund: Well we cheated a lot with that.

Packer: And the balls were the size of volleyballs by the end.

Edlund: The thing is that golf balls are little white balls – we tried to talk them into making them color balls which would be more visible but they wanted them to be the traditional white balls. In one of the shots, you actually see three frames of the guy’s sunglasses cracking. That’s a subliminal thing too that you don’t really see but your brain takes it in somewhere.

fxg: The limo chase at the end of the film is a pretty big scene. What did you have to do for that?

The explosion was enhanced with practical and CG fire.

Edlund: It all leads up to the big explosion. We had a second unit shoot where we made a huge explosion. We couldn’t have done that in the middle of New Orleans. So we had to put two explosions on top of the original one. That was the mother of all explosions at the end of the movie.

Packer: We did enhance things with some fluid dynamics. The limo was looking a bit wild in its trajectory that it had to be done in CGI. We did a lot of tests and got a flip that appealed, and then we did a fluid dynamic fire that segued into live action fire. We tracked everything in PFTrack and the CG work was in Maya. The fire shots were filmed by Richard outside the city limits of New Orleans on a black night so we could key it. The limo was modeled in Maya with Photoshop textures that we had photographed of the actual limo.

fxg: In the chase leading up to the explosion, were there also a bunch of car composites and effects you had to do?

Edlund: Everything from the bottle falling out of the girl’s hand, and to the interiors which were filmed on a stage against greenscreen, and the backgrounds shot separately. We put in reflections, whether or not they were even there – they were mimicked from the actual scene. We added reflections from the actual windows just to make them feel like they were reflected. You’d get a subliminal effect by doing that – it feels ‘credible’, as one of the directors said. Compositing is a very subtle art. Here we had animation directors who were used to looking at ‘frames’ and so they were sticklers for detail.

fxg: Earlier there’s a shot where Jonah tries to roll off after being hit by the car – can you talk about that?

Packer: They had a stunt guy who we transitioned into Jonah. One issue was that they didn’t do the same motion. So there was a lot of re-animating of the limbs. The stunt double had a pretty different body so we had to morph changes to his body.

fxg: What sort of blood additions did you have to make for the shoot-out scene?

Edlund: We actually did blood, and oil shoots, for the movie. And used the blood stuff for that scene. We were pretty much using teriyaki sauce for the blood. For Johnny Depp, he had a little make-up on his neck, so we had to add to that. Also, Johnny wears what looks like hearing aids in his ears – but he actually has a disc jockey who plays music for him and gives him messages. It’s his way of keeping busy on set. But we had to remove the ear phones for a couple of shots.

Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller with the ARRI Alexa on set.

Packer: And we had to do splattering blood that was all shot live action. We had to keep the carpet that they had on set to match it for our shoot. And then a lot of that was manipulated in 2D in Nuke.

fxg: Another fun scene is the hallucinations after the guys have taken the new drug. They see the coach with a cat head and an ice-cream cone, so how did you do that?

Edlund: Well we actually went out and bought some ice-cream cones and we wound up shooting them. Robert Skotak from 4WARD Productions had a collection of eyes and so we stuck them on an ice-cream cone. That finally settled the issue for the directors, because originally it was going to be a panda head. And then they found this goofy cat head, which had been made for a promotional film, on the internet, so they went with that.

Packer: For the ice-cream cone shot, we filmed it and it became textures. The mouth and eyes were created. We used a texture that we shot for the eyes, but they were re-created in CG as well as the animation from the eyes down to the jaw where the cone was.

Edlund: And in one shot, the coach’s eyebrows also migrate down to the mustache which was something we animated. They were a 3D creation and animated on. They built a 3D version of the face so that the eyebrows could go over contours and matched exactly.

fxg: What kind of additions did you also make for the freeway chase?

Packer: The motorcycle crashes were all CG-enhanced. When the guy skids on his motorcycle and hits the propane tank, they shot that but we removed the motorcycle as he touches ground and put a CG one in. From then on it’s a CG motorcycle bouncing around.

Edlund: It bounces off the truck and hits the chicken truck. And then bounces off the wall near the semi. It’s a CG double of the semi when it runs over it. The truck was re-timed into another plate for when it runs over him.

Packer: We shot a physical dummy for reference and replaced in CGI. Smoke coming off the bike is CG, but the sparks are shot sparks comp’d in.

Watch a clip of how they fimed the motorbike crash.

fxg: Tell me about the shooting of the film and yourselves being in New Orleans.

Edlund: Well, we came down here because the 30 per cent rebate you get in Louisiana was a good hook. We thought New Orleans was such a great city – people were nice and polite and everyone loves making movies. One night there were four different movies filming at the same time, within a couple of square miles of each other. It’s just humming with movies and the crews are extremely good.

We actually met our landlord who was for many years a body guard for Jim Carrey. He was an Israeli special forces guys and he worked for Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor. And he tends to meet people you don’t normally meet, and he was instrumental in us getting us our first gig. He bought a building just about the time we were deciding to move to New Orleans. He fitted out a 2,000 sq foot facility in a very short time for us. And he also helped us get the job because I was flying down to New Orleans and I was next to the 1st AD, and it turns out he was a buddy of our landlord. And then we found out the executive producer, Ezra Swerdlow, was a friend of his and who I had done Alien 3 with.

Final motorbike shot.

fxg: As you were saying before, the effects obviously had to be seamless but they also help the comedy. Was that an interesting part for you?

Edlund: Yeah, and you know, the audience is very sophisticated. I used to call the 10 year old our most sophisticated critic. At 10 years old you’ve already seen a million feet of film at the movies and on TV, so if something looks funny they’ll notice, and we’ve lost him. But it’s interesting – I’ve noticed that the young filmgoer of today has kind of lost the ability to suspend disbelief – they couldn’t go and see King Kong and appreciate it as a story, because it’s funky and stop-motion shuddery and all those problems are not acceptable to the eye of a young filmgoer. So the demographics have shifted as a result of the abilities we’ve come to have.

fxg: Just finally, were there any unexpected shots on this film?

Edlund: I think the hallucinations were pretty funny. They also threw the girl from the car at the end – they threw her onto a mat and we had to roto her so that it looked like she landed on the road. There were a lot of fixes. It turned out to be a split screen when you cut back to her because she’s at a different speed to the car tearing down the street.

Packer: Do you know what the hardest thing about that shot was? It was her high heels – sinking into the mat, so we had to create a new high heel for her basically.

Edlund: Yeah, you know, how would you know at the start of a movie that a shot like that was waiting for you to do as a visual effect?

All images and clips copyright © 2012 Sony Pictures.