For ILM visual effects supervisor Bill George, Angelina’s Jolie’s Unbroken proved to be chance to implement cutting-edge effects work in a story-driven tale. The film required complex plane battles, crashes, environments, crowd extensions and even sharks to help tell the story of bombadier Louis ‘Louie’ Zamperini imprisonment in a Japanese POW camp after his B-24 Liberator crew crash in the South Pacific.
“When we come onto a project, each project is different and we adapt our sensibility to whatever we’re working on,” George told fxguide. “It was really important that when we did our work, when it was finished it would fit into what was happening in the film. Angie and also Roger Deakins, ASC (the DOP) were the driving forces – the people we looked to for how the film is going to look and feel.”
We talk to George, who with producer Steve Gaub, oversaw work by ILM, Animal Logic, Rodeo FX, Hybride, Ghost VFX and Lola VFX, about ‘fitting in’ Unbroken’s effects shots. Taking on the lion’s share of the work would be ILM and Animal Logic. ILM dealt with many of the plane and ocean shots, outsourcing to Rodeo, Hybride and Ghost, with Animal Logic completing several prison camp extensions, the bomb to Tokyo sequence and some wide establishing matte paintings. Lola came on board to complete emaciation effects on the camp prisoners.
Zamperini, as bombardier, and his fellow crew of the U.S. Army Air Forces B-24 Super Man meet a barrage of Japanese Zero fighter planes. The sequence showed the cramped situation inside the aircraft and only occasionally revealed the aerial action. “Angelina wanted to stay with Louie’s perspective,” notes George. “It’s his story, mostly see it from inside the plane. We did go outside the plane occasionally – it’s necessary and complements the shots – a wide shot with air and then back inside where it’s more claustrophobic.”
The Third Floor handled previs for the gunfight, with Deakins guiding camera placements. He also worked closely with George’s visual effects team on how the interior shots of the ‘Super Man’ shots would be acquired. Ultimately this would be via a large inside set that avoided blue or greenscreens. “I went to one of our supervisors here at ILM, Craig Hammock, who supervised Red Tails, which was similar work. I asked him, ‘What is the one thing at the end of Red Tails that you wish you had done from the beginning?’ Without hesitating for a second he said ‘Do not shoot the cockpits bluescreen.’ He said it’s because it’s like shooting a car – the inside surfaces are super reflective. There’s lots of shadows going on – the interaction of the light coming through the window that’s reflecting onto it. If it doesn’t look right, you have to end up replacing it.”
“So when it came time to talk about the setup for this,” continues George, ‘I said to Roger we should put the set inside a giant silk and have white out the windows. The disadvantage is when you want to extract out the windows and put something outside, you’re going to have to use luminance mattes and roto. But the advantage is, there’s light pouring in from every direction, and the inside will look correct – it will look like it’s outdoors. Roger was all for it – because bluescreen changes everything. It changes the color. It should be bright out the windows – it shouldn’t be dark.”
For the B-24 itself (both the Super Man and the plane featured in a watery crash), visual effects artists looked to a range of photographs of actual aircraft for reference. Interestingly, significant work had to be done to ensure the paintwork matched the style done at the time. “The paint they use back then was different,” says George. “They have this one plane called ‘Witchcraft’, which I think is the most complete and the most pristine version that’s out there. It’s painted very dark green, glossy and smooth, but back then the paint jobs were pretty crappy.”
The ocean and island environments over which the battle takes place were a mixture of real photography and CG enhancements. “We did go out and shoot from a helicopter off of Airlie Beach in Queensland and get the ocean and coast and clouds,” describes George. “We couldn’t quite go as high as we could in the helicopter, but we did use those plates. And if we didn’t use them directly we’d use them for reference. It’s always nice to give the editor something to cut with, rather than just a storyboard.”
Badly damaged from the air to air combat, the crew of the ‘Super Man’ make a crash landing on an island airstrip. “We filmed this up at Airlie Beach, where there was a very small runway,” says George. “On the side of it were houses but instead of garages they had hangers. It was almost like a small private airport.
For the approach shots, helicopter plates served to reveal the water, runway and surrounding palm trees, with visual effects removing the modern runway and replacing it with a WWII-era version. “The material they made the runways out of back then I think was called macadam, like a compressed granite. It wasn’t alphalt. So we knew that would have to be replaced and paint out the existing runway. I also sent one of our digimatte artists out with a camera and I said go shoot some rocks, go shoot some palm trees. They all exist and they’re all there and rather than sitting at our desks trying to come up with the solution, go out and take some photographs. That really helped us.”
The final scene, completed by Rodeo, also included the fully digital plane, dust, debris and rocks, plus CG environments.
The crew are then sent on a search and rescue mission in a different B-24 – the ‘Green Hornet’ – which malfunctions and crashes into the ocean. ILM completed the complicated rigid and water sim effects based on previs by The Third Floor.
“Third Floor came up with a trajectory for the crash,” outlines George. “They work so quickly that we can try different things. We didn’t want it to be a single event – it needed to skip on the water, mostly because Angie wanted to have some shots of the water rushing in and bursting the bombardier bubble, then cockpit and following Louie the whole time. That drove the choreography of the plane, the wing ripping off and skip up and arc down so it could nose first into the water.”
“When I looked at the shot,” adds George, “I thought, this is a shot that marketing’s going to want for the trailer. I thought if ILM does it, they’ve got a broad bench and they could turn it on to get it done. Ultimately I was wrong, they didn’t want it for the trailer but we still made the right choice since they’re really complicated shots.”
In the water
Drifting at sea, the remaining crew must survive in two safety rafts and also combat the ocean swell, sharks and a strafing run by a Japanese plane. “Originally,” notes George, “they wanted to shoot out on the open ocean or a bay where they could shoot off into the direction of the open ocean and have it all in-camera. We tried doing that and unfortunately the water was too rough. Part of the problem was it was hard for them to keep the actors in frame. Even a foot and a half up and rising down you want to see their emotions and faces, and it was a real challenge.”
The decision was therefore made to film most ocean scenes in a tank at Village Roadshow Studios surrounded by a bluescreen. These scenes then became water and environment extensions, utilizing plates from a live action shoot off Catalina Island where the water was more calm.
Several sharks prowl nearby the lift rafts – CG creations from ILM. The studio also augmented a practical blue shark that Zamperini hauls from the water to kill and eat. “It was designed to grab around the mid section,” relates George, “and then the head and tail would flail around, but Jack O’Connell decided he wanted to grab it by the tail, so it didn’t quite work the way it was supposed to. In the cut, Angie also thought it was a little too big to pull it in. So the first part was a practical shark and then at some point we switched out to a CG version that’s flipping around.”
Zamperini’s achievements at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin are re-visited during the film in several flashback sequences. Production film stadium scenes with minimal extras at a sportsground near Sydney, with visual effects transforming the stands into the crowd-filled Berlin locale. Interestingly, Hybride had carried out similar crowd replication effects work for the film Jappeloup, so George entrusted them with the shots – and shooting methodology – here.
“They sent me a breakdown of how to shoot the people for their bank of elements they needed,” says George. “We had two cameras, one up about 20 feet in the air and one 3 feet high pointed at a bluescreen. Then there were 12 apple boxes spaced far enough away that even if they waved their hands they didn’t cross over each other.”
A four and a half minute series of actions was pre-recorded by George for the extras to perform that would then be replicated by Hybride via their sprite system. “All I would have to do is play it back on the computer and it would say ‘3 2 1 Stand, 3 2 1 Wave your hands, 3 2 1 sit down clap et cetera,” explains George.
“You end up with this selection of footage of what you would see up in the stands,” he adds. “Then the people would rotate 45 degrees and we would do it over. We did it over 6 times and in two different lighting environments. We shot so much film it would make your head spin! But we only had 12 people – some would go and get re-costumed half way. We had just a few CG characters, such as the Nazis going up the sides of the stands, but everyone else was created with the sprite system.
The film’s original visual effects budget was around 600 shots, which doubled by the end of production. George is extremely satisfied with the final work. “It was a very different sensibility,” he says. “There were a lot of tricks they weren’t interested in using. It’s a more adult tale, it’s more sophisticated. And it’s a period piece. I don’t think it would work with some of the more modern filmmaking techniques – crazy camera moves, camera shake, flares – I just don’t think it would have worked well with the story.”