Digital storytelling: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

In his latest film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, director David Fincher once again brought digital filmmaking tools to the fore to help tell the story of a man’s search for the truth about a 40 year old murder case. Fincher shot Dragon Tattoo on the RED One MX and EPIC, and relied on more than 1000 visual effects shots throughout the film. We talk to Method Studios and Digital Domain about their effects contributions, and to Blur Studio which was responsible for the startling main titles.

Opening in abstract

The title sequence for David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) set a pace and style so strong, it’s influence was felt in design cicles for a decade. This film again delivers a driving visual feast that is bound to be similarly copied and emulated. This time Dragon Tattoo opens with some incredible titles by Blur Studio in which characters and elements from the film perform rapid-fire transitions and are dominated by a black ooze, all set to a cover version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’, produced by soundtrack composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. “From a story perspective the goal was to illuminate the key moments of all three books as well as the most relevant personality traits of the two main characters,” explains Blur creative director Tim Miller. “But to do it so abstractly that it would take several viewings to really understand the visual metaphors. Conceptually it was supposed to feel like a dreamscape, a nightmare of Lisbeth’s (Rooney Mara), dark horrific, beautiful and covered in what David called ‘dream ooze’.”

Watch Blur’s making of video for the ‘Dragon Tattoo’ titles.

To create the titles, Blur began by identifying the key moments from the trilogy and then established the abstract ideas in written form. “We wrote several different concepts for some of the more important beats,” says Miller. “We then simultaneously began storyboards, 3D animatics and visual development and each of those phases informed the others as they progressed.”

Still, it required a different approach to the regular “storyboard driving the animatic,” notes Blur editor and layout supervisor Frank Balson. “Some mood boards were created for each vignettes depicting the general feel. We created ‘3D scenes’ where each vignette was animated as a whole. We then dropped in multiple cameras, framing the actions with as many angles as we could think of. Once we had those ‘3D rushes’, we edited the whole piece like a music video, the soundtrack driving each cuts, and choices of vignettes.”

For animation, Blur relied on Softimage XSI as its primary tool to keyframe most of the action. “We created some elaborate custom rigs for things like the growing vines to achieve the thickening branches,” says Blur animation supervisor Derron Ross, “with leaves growing from the vines as the move. Some assets, like the blooming flowers, were animated with morph targets in 3ds Max.”

“The vignettes with Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Salander (Rooney Mara) had a base of motion capture for the body performances and then were enhanced bia keyframing,” continues Ross. “The performance capture helped us get the subtle nuances of realistic movement. The character’s facial animation is morph targets driven by performance reference of Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig which we shot here in LA during additional filming, it allowed us to capture them still ‘in character’.”

The slow motion and timelapse moments in the titles were achieved by baking out the mesh geometry into point cache data, with curves applied to slow down or speed up the animation. This matched what Blur had done “down and dirty in our edit”, as Ross describes. “That edited curve is also applied to the CG camera as well as the FX to insure everything stays in sync.”

Both Craig and Mara had been scanned by the production for use in other scenes. Blur carried out some minor additional modeling to suit the titles, including modifying the hair to make it look like it was covered in oil. “There were also vignettes that contained characters both in the film, like young Harriet and her father,” says Blur lighting and modeling supervisor Jerome Denjean, “and we were able to scan those actors here in LA. For the characters we needed that were not in the film we simply cast actors that looked right for the parts and scanned them. Lisbeth as a child is actually the daughter of our producer on the project, Tobin Kirk. Our character modelers then cleaned and textured the scans and prepped them for the animation team by modeling additional facial expressions. The digital scanning here in LA was handled by Nick Tesi at TNG Visual Effects.”

The ‘dream ooze’ effects were created as fluid sims, primarily in RealFlow, but also using Lagoa in XSI. The fluids were meshed in Frost inside 3ds Max and cached using XMesh on Blur’s renderfarm before final rendering. “We had a short period of initial look development for a couple weeks while we were waiting to have shots ready for the FX artists to work with,” comments Blur FX supervisor Kirby Miller. “Once we had the general look of the black ooze, we still had a lot of trial and error, mostly because of the abstract nature of the shots. There was a lot of variation in the scale and thickness of the fluids. Some sequences had fluids that felt more like an ocean or a river and others were very small in scale like drips or droplets of blood, even though the geometry the fluids were interacting with was relatively the same size.”

“It’s a funny thing with fluids,” adds Miller, “that some shots we expected to take a lot of time looked nearly perfect in the first or second sim, while other shots which seemed should be so simple went through what felt like dozens of iterations before they finally looked right. Fluid dynamics can be a tedious process, especially since the shots on this project were so quick, and a lot of the sims were only seen for 10 frames. However, those 10 frames still have to look right.”

Trains, rain and moody terrain

Method Studios visual effects supervisor Sean Faden oversaw 110 shots for the film, including several matte paintings and enhancements for the Swedish harbor, Milton Security building, van composites for the London shots, along with an entirely computer generated flythrough across a mountainous Swedish landscape following the train to Hedestad.

Watch Method’s making of clip for the train shot.

For the train shot (Method also worked on another earlier fly-through that does not appear in the final film), lead matte painter Wei Zheng created a series of mountain matte paintings that were stitched together onto CG geometry, with a camera move generated in 3ds Max. “Knowing where all that geometry was we then created the tracks and the train in Maya, rendered through V-Ray,” says Faden. “We had reference for the train from other shots in the movie and production reference, but we had to create the large shot from scratch.”

Train render with environment.
Elements combined.
Final shot with extra ice and atmosphere.

To help sell the terrain, Method added CG snow and atmosphere created in Houdini and rendered in Mantra, along with volumetric snow interacting with the train. “We also did a lot of trees on cars and fully 3D trees for the hero ones,” adds Faden. “Some were rendered as cards out of 3ds Max and some as geometry from Houdini. The shot was put together in Nuke.”

“The tree cards in general helped break up the edges of the projected matte painting,” continues Faden. “The procedural trees helped break up the tree cards where they fell apart, just to give them extra randomness, say with extra branches crossing the edges of tree cards helped sell the shot. One of the final details we added was getting the sparkles and specular hits on the snow and the ice surface to help add scale which helped the shot in its scope.”

Method’s work extended to rain, snow and atmosphere enhancements for shots of the city streets, the Swedish harbor and the Milton Security building. “For many shots we had a lot of material from production of Stockholm streets and the harbor, and some from one of our compositors who is Swedish. He actually took pictures and brought them back for us, and even sent his sister out to get images for us of things we were missing!”

“In one shot,” says Faden, “they’re all discussing what to do if Henrik doesn’t pull through. The background is all very foggy but there’s subtle evidence of trees and bushes just barely making their way through that. Some of that sequence they shot just against white, so we knew there’d be a whiteout out there, but on the medium shots we kissed in foliage just outside. I actually took pictures from my house for reference because we get a lot of heavy fog in the morning.”

Additional work included clean-ups of the Millenium magazine office building, seen in the pouring rain. “It was a tough task,” admits Faden. “First, it was raining and the blacked out windows didn’t seem to match the rest of the building. We had a compositor who figured out a way to clean up the building but maintain the rain – he used a lot of creative duplication.”

Head replacements and crashing cars

David Fincher called on Benjamin Button visual effects collaborator Digital Domain to complete 245 shots on Dragon Tattoo, supervised by Eric Barba. DD’s main work included the bridge sequence which called for CG head replacements for the motor-cycle ridden by Rooney Mara and the Range Rover crash. The studio also completed shots of Daniel Craig being stitched up in the bathtub, ‘autumnized’ scenes to create the look of fall, added-in snow for other winter shots and completed various other set extensions and augmentations.

Final shot.

“David originally called me about a specific sequence – the bridge crash,” recalls Barba. “David couldn’t shoot it the way he wanted to, he certainly couldn’t blow up a Range Rover the way he wanted to, so he asked me about doing those shots in CG with digital cars, dust and debris.”

Head replacements were necessary for Mara riding on the motorcycle since the scene called for her not to be wearing a helmet, deemed a far too dangerous stunt. Fincher co-ordinated a previs of the bridge scene, while production shot various elements including a stuntwoman with markers on her helmet along with greenscreen car interiors, which were then turned over to Digital Domain. Later, Mara was filmed on a motion base for tighter shots to be incorporated into the sequence.

“David was obviously very savvy with head replacement work after taking us on that journey with Benjamin Button,” says Barba. “But here we weren’t going to be on set and have the benefit of a controlled environment and witness cams. We also had a much smaller budget than we had on Button or TRON, so we kind of streamlined our approach and made it a lot more cost effective.”

Wireframe of crashing car.
FX added.
Final shot.

Digital Domain still adopted a completely digital approach requiring scans of the actress and a similar pipeline to modeling and animation. “We just had a lot less data,” notes Barba, “but of course we didn’t have a talking character like the other films. We still had to do all the paint out work and make her hair work. We streamlined where we could and not having to do dialogue work was a big benefit.”

All images copyright © 2011 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. Images courtesy of Blur Studio, Method Studios and Digital Domain.

4 thoughts on “Digital storytelling: <em>The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo</em>”

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