Guy Ritchie is one director who doesn’t mind the odd chase sequence, and in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. he serves up three big ones. In 1963 Berlin, CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and unwitting mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) are pursued – in car and on foot – by KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) before escaping over the Berlin Wall. Solo and Kuryakin then team up and find themselves in a speedboat chase in Rome. Finally, the characters take part in an off-road chase involving a motorcycle, jeep and dune buggy. Each distinct chase included visual effects work carried out by separate studios – RiseFX, Cinesite and BlueBolt – all overseen by visual effects supervisor Richard Bain and visual effects producer Sarah Tulloch.
Chase 1: Through the streets of Berlin
Solo extracts Teller, who is the daughter of an important German nuclear scientist, from East Berlin to the West side, only just evading Kuryakin via a high speed and almost balletic car pursuit, featuring a Trabant and Wartburg, and a final zip-wire escape across the border. RiseFX in Berlin handled effects for the sequence which would involve fully CG environments, vehicles, digi-doubles and extensive compositing. “Emotionally I felt Rise would create an authentic feel to the Berlin shots,” says Bain, “and the city was on their doorstep so any architectural surveys could be done with local efficiency and knowledge. We also had shots around the Checkpoint Charlie set at Leavesden, needing extensive CG top-ups, and a full street build for additional shots that came out of the edit.”
Planning for the Berlin scenes began by considering reference for Berlin – or a time capsule of Berlin – at the time. “We referenced the stylish espionage films of the sixties,” says Bain, “notably Funeral in Berlin (dir: Guy Hamilton), A Dandy in Aspic (dir: Anthony Mann) and The Looking Glass War (dir: Frank Pierson) for the East Berlin style, and of course we trawled the internet for photographic reference of the time period. Production designer Oliver Scholl’s team were also a great help and we worked closely together on this, particularly around the Checkpoint Charlie set at Leavesden. DOP John Mathieson, James Hambidge (art direction) and Elli Griff (set decoration) were a tremendous help.”
The beats of the chase and the route the cars would take involved previs carried out by Proof under Adam Coglan, as well as looking to reference of Berlin streets adapted from Google Earth and old Berlin street maps. “Knowing we’d start at the S-Bahn overground where Gabby’s garage is,” says Bain, “passing the Gendarmen Markt half way and ending up somewhere on a roof top next to the ‘Death Strip’ in Mitte, escaping to Kreuzberg, we filled in the blanks with the main boulevard in Berlin ‘Unter den Linden’ and some streets inspired by side streets along the way.”
Filming the dramatic chase, which would take place in the UK, had to be somewhere that allowed for the stunt action, orchestrated by stunt coordinator Paul Jennings and special effects supervisor Dominic Tuohy, to be captured in wide enough streets but that were also, according to Bain, “sympathetic to Berlin so that we didn’t have to do environment top-up work on all shots.” The suitable locations turned out to be Millenium Mills in London, Chatham Historic Dockyard and Greenwich Naval College, while some additional beats were acquired on the backlot at Leavesden studios and on a greenscreen stage.
“Greenwich Naval College in London is a good double for Gendarmen Markt in Berlin,” suggests Bain. “However, the art department still needed to build larger kerb stones for the streetwalk, and distress areas with set flats. As an historic note, Karl Friedrich Schinkel who designed Gendarmen Markt was heavily inspired by Greenwich Naval College. After WW2, Gendarmen Markt was heavily bombed and the Dome destroyed, the Schauspielhaus also covered in scaffolding, nature reclaiming the space. Rise rebuilt the Dome, added the Schauspielhaus with scaffolding and generally left the foreground as dressed by the art department.”
The car chase occurs, of course, in a Berlin that no longer exists today. Since Berlin had been re-built and ‘gentrified’ so significantly since the fall of the Wall, one initial challenge was how to accurately reference the correct era of streets and buildings for digital extensions.
Interestingly, an earlier film Bain has consulted on proved helpful in determining where such streets and buildings could be referenced from. “In 2013,” the supervisor recalls, “I was asked to consult on a Polish language film called Miasto 44 for Akson Studios that was based on the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Part of the work was finding locations that would double well for a partially destroyed and ultimately derelict Warsaw. For this I worked with a Polish location manager called Karolina Zielonka and it was her we contacted for the 60s East Berlin look.”
That led Bain to consider buildings in Legnica and Wrocław, Poland for scanning and photography, a task undertaken by RiseFX’s subsidiary LIDAR company Pointcloud9. “The look of the buildings in Legnica had the authentic grime and bullet-riddled plaster intact and needed no additional VFX paint work,” explains Bain, although some top-up digital work and adhesion to Germany building standards was required from Rise.
“In the end,” says RiseFX visual effects supervisor Florian Gellinger, “we did our LIDAR scans and took panoramic photography and HDRs and built 64 houses. We then had to make them fit Berlin construction standards. For example, in Poland most of those houses had four full floors and a fifth floor that was slightly smaller in height. So we had to adjust the buildings to match the Berlin standard, which is ‘exactly’ 21 meters high – everything in Germany has to follow a certain standard and go by the rulebook. That’s exactly where the drain pipes have to be and it has to be six floors and even the window frames are a standard size.”
Each building also featured intricate rooftop tiles. These were added procedurally by Rise. “We built five libraries of 20 tiles each of different styles,” explains Gellinger. “We wrote a Houdini script that could procedurally control the rooftop riles and populate the roofs at rendertime with those rooftop libraries, make them grittier or less gritty, make them wonky in alignment or have them all straightened out. Depending upon which part of the city we were in, we could control the appearance of the buildings procedurally.”
Rise would ultimately create 12 kilometers or 7.5 miles of historic Berlin streets. “This included,” notes Bain, “CG trees in Unter den Linden and piles of rubble and road works around where the Trabant splits from the Wartburg, extensively building on to the elements that art dept achieved at the locations. Sometimes we’d take John Mathieson’s original lighting concept as a guideline for what he wanted and adapted it for the CG buildings, and occasionally when Guy wasn’t happy with how shot cars moved or behaved we took the real cars from the shoot as object tracks for the CG cars, animated in those changes that Guy wanted matching the look to what was shot. That assured us that we were working off of real world lighting and creating a good match against the non-vfx shots in the sequence.”
Many scenes in the final chase made use of the stunt driving footage, with the cars extracted via meticulous rotoscoping and then integrated into the CG backgrounds. Other scenes saw Rise develop fully digital cars – and drivers. One of the signature shots that made use of Rise’s vehicles involved some ‘fantasy’ camera moves as the camera tracks both cars and pushes in and out between them. “That was an additional beat that was added during the editorial process to heighten the jeopardy of the scene,” states Bain. “For this we had the tighter shots on the two cars, shot at Chatham Docks, but we didn’t have the wide angle of the two cars. We shot this element on the back lot against a long black backdrop about 500 feet long and John Mathieson lit the area to mimic the lighting we had used at Chatham Docks. Rise had scanned the two vehicles and had the Polish buildings as a LIDAR scanned and textured objects.”
“The transitional beat,” continues Bain, “needed to be seamlessly animated between the two live action plates and went through a few iterations, obviously. It was necessary to have the actors transition from digital doubles during the move too, and Nando Stille (CG) and Steve Parsons (comp) did a tremendous job creating this shot. In the end the wide action car plate was used as lighting cues and scale reference and we ended up replacing it as entirely CG for the wide element.”
The CG vehicles themselves began as Pointcloud9 scans of the picture cars. “First we dulled them down with dulling spray head to toe so that the shinny chrome was pure dull white,” says Gellinger. “Then we used a retopo tool and Geomagic Wrap to turn the point clouds into polygons, and then worked on them in Maya. We render everything in Mantra in Houdini. We wanted to take advantage of rendering everything in one pass in Houdini, so whenever we did something like tire smoke or water being kicked up by the cars, or the dust being visible in the headlights, it made sense making it renderable in one pass through Mantra because our FX sims were done in Houdini. We actually built a pipeline where you could arrange the proxy cars and proxy buildings and roads in Maya and then export all of that into Houdini. We would assemble the scene from the hi-res assets and then send it to Mantra for rendering.”
One particular shot that ended up making use of Rise’s digital cars – and digital passengers – was a scene of the Trabant and Wartburg spinning around together. The action beat was captured initially as a practical effect with the cars welded together on a stunt rig. “They gutted the smaller car, the Trabant,” says Gellinger, “took the engine out and everything that was heavy and gave all the weight to the Wartburg, so that when it does the 360 and spins around then it drives the Trabant along with it.”
“That looked great and it gave us priceless reference,” continues Gellinger. “But the thing that Guy didn’t like in the cut was that the cars just looked like they were rigged and welded together. They just looked very stuck together and he wanted to detach them. We thought one way to detach the cars would be in comp only as a 2D trick. But it still wouldn’t have looked right because then we would start messing with perspective and lighting. In the end what we ended up doing was we matchmoved the cars and put in CG cars which we placed over the real cars, ensuring that the weight and suspension was right. The additional advantage that we gained through that was that the lighting on the cars was harmonizing a lot more with our CG environment than the real cars would have ever done. We always took the DOP John Mathieson’s lighting as our absolutely 100 per cent foundation, but when you add more lights around the cars, it has an impact and you get point light reflections and other things.”
In delivering the visual effects for the Berlin scenes, Rise matched the look of the original anamorphic plates which often required extensive flare and distortion effects. “For instance,” outlines Gellinger, “we looked at the practical car headlight flares and re-created those as NUKE flares in a custom script. We roto’d out every single disc and ray that was in the real plates and turned them into little 2D sprites that we could manipulate in our custom flare and track them onto our CG cars. That really paid off. We had four re-created practical flares in our NUKE gizmo that we could apply depending on what lens was used.”
Another aspect of the Berlin scenes that Rise was able to incorporate into its finals, given that a significant amount of digital extension was taking place, was an increased viewing distance. “This is something that does not really exist in the real world,” says Gellinger, “but in the movies we can fake it a little bit. To get the right lighting reference, we went up on a Berlin roof-top and we did HDR long exposures at night. And we did a proper white balance on those and had a look at what the city looks like and how bright things like the apartment lights would be when you have a camera that has a sensor as sensitive as that. We also matched the blue purplish tone that you get from the moonlight. Interestingly the opposite of that is this orange light from the apartments, and in fact some apartments we left with a pretty cold white light assuming they were lit by a flickering black and white TV that may have been on.”
The chase is finally over when Solo leads Teller to a zip-wire hung across the Death Strip, which they ride down to a waiting truck before Kuryakin can stop them. The principal actors were filmed on a partial rooftop set at Leavesden, with the final shot expanded in post to include a wider pull-back. “That was something Guy wanted as a ‘trailer shot’, so we had to go to fully digital doubles,” notes Gellinger. “We started off animating them like the real actors who were shot at Leavesden, but we wanted to show how big the danger was, so we upped the ante of their actions to show just how much danger they were in.”
Chase 2: They’re on a boat
Solo and Kuryakin must soon join forces in the hope of spoiling the imminent construction of a nuclear weapon. On a reccy in a supposed satellite plant, the pair evade several security guards before launching a speed boat. Solo takes an amusing rest-stop inside a lorry while Kuryakin continues to be chased, with Solo then using the lorry to put a final stop to the action. Cinesite, under visual effects supervisor Richard Clarke, handled effects for the sequence.
To help establish the choreography of the boat chase, Proof was again enlisted to previs the scene. This determined how a hybrid of environments – Pozzoulli outside Naples and a CG Vinciguerra marina environment built by Cinesite – could be achieved with a location shoot at Millenium Mills in East London. It also helped determine which areas Oliver School’s team would need to dress and what would be a CG build.
Scouting the locations, too, enabled early decisions to be made about what would be accomplished ultimately with visual effects. “In the initial scout of the location at Pozzoulli outside Naples, for example,” says Bain, “it was evident that the dividing wall down the center pier would become the transitional point between shooting locations. When Solo breaks from his dingy up the harbor wall, this would be set dressed in Pozzoulli with the addition of CG steel fencing added by Cinesite, with some environment fixing. Once over the center wall, we would be on the back-lot at Leavesdon with some CG set extension to encompass the environment of the marina at Pozzoulli and the Vinciguerra HQ building.”
The initial break-out from the plant into the marina area was a location shoot at Millenium Mills. “We surveyed the entire area at Millenium Mills,” states Bain, “to enable Cinesite to complete CG replacement of the surrounding environment with the Vinciguerra Marina buildings. The boat chase takes place after dark, which was a consideration for the visual effects crew. They had to replace parts of the background marina water to reflect the CG dockside building lighting. In the final sequence, everything above the waterline was recreated under the 2D supervision of Helen Newby to actualize a believable Mediterranean Marina environment. The dockside buildings, cars, trees and nautical crane around which the chase would navigate and even the animated steel lock gates to prevent the duos exit were all recreated by Cinesite digitally.”
The lorry crash, where Solo literally drives the truck onto the pair’s adversary’s boat, was previs’d also, aiding Dominic Tuohy in working out what kind of rig would be required. “We decided early on that the stunt should happen full scale at the location,” notes Bain, “as there was so much water interaction involved. Dominic’s rig enabled the lorry to be pulled at speed along a track before engaging with the arm that would pull it down onto the boat. Obviously the rigs would have to be removed in post but we could be sure that the impact and post moment would not require an entire CG water build. Still, the lorry was scanned and textured to enable a CG replacement to increase the time of the approach and impact speed.”
Subsequent underwater and water level shots featuring the principal actors were filmed at a tank in Leavesden. “SFX had a second lorry placed in this tank on a scissor rig,” says Bain, “and the surrounding area was blue-screened to allow for water extension from plates shot on the night at Millenium Mills. Cinesite added CG particulate and debris in the water, removed the rig and again added the CG environment of the marina.”
Chase 3: Going off-road
After infiltrating a compound where the newly built nuclear weapon is being held – and discovering that Teller is herself an undercover MI6 agent – Solo and Kuryakin again find themselves in a chase off the Amalfi coast. The Russian takes to a motorbike and the American to a dune-like buggy as they pursue agent Alexander Vinciguerra (Luca Calvani) who has Teller and what turns out to be a secondary bomb. BlueBolt, under visual effects supervisor Angela Barson, delivered a wave of environment visual effects for this chase including signature zoom-in and pull-out shots.
The sequence was devised by Ritchie with second unit director Paul Jennings, based on storyboards drawn by Dave Allcock. “We didn’t pre-vis the sequence this time,” explains Bain, “as a lot depended on locations and what would be possible to shoot at these places. Having said that, we still devised a map to tie the chase together so that it made sense geographically even though the entire environment was a concocted jigsaw piece. Baia Castle in the harbor of Bacoli was also part of the jigsaw that was to dominate the Vinciguerra Island, an island that doesn’t exist except in the script.”
The action begins inside an island tunnel, which was actually based on a road joining Ichia – where the compound is location – to the mainland. “Our fabricated piece was much longer,” says Bain, “and needed a couple of arches to reveal the vehicles leaving the island via the tunnel – a live action element that we shot at Leavesden. Once out of the tunnel exit we are into a landscape that was shot in Hankley Common near Aldershot, Pike’s Peak in Wales and the Italian Appenine Mountain range around Abruzzo, but required a ‘Google Earth’ style zoom out and punch in to establish where Illya, Solo and Gaby (with Alex) were in relation to each other.”
The zoom out narrative device was devised by Guy and editor James Herbert, requiring a series of helicopter shots to glue the various locations together. Bluebolt then contributed a substantial CG build based on the aerial photography to re-animate the camera moves and pickup into the live action again. Bain notes that “Angela Barson (VFX supe), Raf Morant (CG head) and Stuart Bullen (2D head) and the team at BlueBolt were instrumental in pulling these shots together.”
“We were unable to film the helicopter shots with the exact vehicle action and key landscape features required as the environment was a combination of different locations and the aerial moves needed to be quite extreme,” adds Bain. “Therefore a combination of live action, tiled stills and CG elements were used as a basis for a set of 2.5D environments to tie together the ground based locations, with CG animated vehicles to give control over the action required. Light direction was matched where possible when shooting the aerial plates but environmental differences between the locations and we had to battle against the elements that shooting at such diverse locations would give us, as it needed to look like a real-time chase. BlueBolt gathered additional still photography of the environment at Hankley Common as we had weather-matching issues here and had to maintain the overcast rainy feel that had been established at the climax of the scene.”
All images and clips copyright 2015 Warner Bros Pictures