We talk to Look Effects and Comen VFX about creating the fractal zooms and out-of-body moments in Limitless, designed as an inside glimpse to the power of a new fictitious wonder drug.
In the film, troubled writer Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) looks for inspiration from a secret drug called NZT. Inspire him it does, as the pill enhances Eddie’s brain activity, motivating him – and others – towards seemingly unstoppable success. Director Neil Burger sought to highlight the effects of NZT by creating hyper-real scenes of those under the drug’s influence, including as out-of-body experiences and as fractal-like movements in time and space. The effects are enhanced by long zooms through the city’s New York locations, seen initially in the opening titles as well as throughout the film, and in repeating patterns as the characters discover the limits of their new addiction.
Look fabricates fractals
Look Effects visual effects supervisor Dan Schrecker, having been consulted early on by Burger, returned after principal photography to help conceptualize the fractal zoom motif and create a number of the final drug-inducement shots. Eddie’s loss of time and space is represented on the screen in ‘infinite zooms’ that were shot at 4K using a three-camera RED rig with short, medium and long lenses. One major zoom, for example, follows Eddie as he runs across New York, parties at a nightclub and ends up on the Brooklyn Bridge.
“The result of our RED camera set-up was a tableau of an environment where the centre of the frame was a higher resolution because it was shot with a longer lens,” explains Schrecker. “We would have these tableaus of different places in New York and then we would link them up using a scale. The camera’s not moving through this space so much as it’s a zoom that we would control the speed of by scaling it up. As you push into the first one we begin to bring in the second one and it goes on and on and on, without losing the resolution because we used these long lenses.”
“What was important for Neil was for us to be able to control that speed,” adds Schrecker. “Otherwise, if we were doing camera moves in these locations, we’d be moving dolly tracks around the city and we just didn’t have that equipment. In addition, we would have needed motion control equipment to make sure the move was exactly the same. This way, we control the move and the speed and no matter how fast we’re moving through the spaces, everyone in the frame is moving in normal time.”
Tests for the fractal zoom shots were carried out on Canon 5Ds to work out the best lens combinations before the RED rig was constructed. “It was a light rig on a tripod,” says Schrecker, “so we could literally drive around to find our spot, hop out of the van, shoot some stuff and go to the next one.” Look artists then used After Effects to control the speed and scale of the final zooms create appropriate seams.
In addition to the shots that involved blending multiple plates together for a single zoom, other fractal scenes were more kaleidoscope in nature. At one point, Eddie peers into a shop window and sees multiple versions of himself receiving a haircut, working at the gym, buying a new suit and completing his once impossible novel – the result of his new found motivation under NZT. “They actually shot this during principal photography on motion control but weren’t quite happy with the speed and movement of it,” says Schrecker. “So we had to pick a couple of pieces of it that we could use, almost before the camera move started in the original plate. Neil was particular about the spacing he wanted and the effect of going through these rooms. We had to build out the hair salon a little bit, so we added some people on greenscreen crossing and we also added some gym equipment.”
Eddie’s early encounter with NZT is depicted in a shot of him meeting a woman in a stairwell. “It’s a close-up of the woman he’s talking to,” says Look’s Dan Schrecker, “and as we pull back we reveal this room that he’s in, eventually revealing a full 420 degree panorama of the room. They initially shot this with three fisheye lenses, so they had it going in three directions intending to capture the full 360, but each lens was so distorted and there were gaps and blind spots because there wasn’t enough overlap between the lenses.”Watch a fractal zoom scene, with vfx by Look Effects
“It turned out the shot on the stairwell was a set that had been built and subsequently destroyed, so we didn’t have access to that,” notes Schrecker. “We re-imagined it a little bit and did a re-shoot that involved the actors on a greenscreen without any distortion. Then we took the fisheye footage, unwarped it, created a matte painting of the environment, which we then wrapped around the scene.”
Similar out-of-body shots included scenes of characters turning to see themselves repeating their own actions, like walking up stairs. “The very first time Eddie takes the drug,” notes Schrecker, “he looks down the stairs and he sees himself coming up, and then the camera comes around and finds the first Eddie. That was done with a motion control rig, and greenscreen’d for one element so we could key that one out for a clean pass.”
Another type of effect involved slightly jump-cutting or altering shots, such as for a scene of Eddie and his girlfriend kissing while both of them are under NZT’s influence. “That was shot with three 35mm cameras on an array,” says Schrecker. “It was a dolly or Steadicam move as they’re going through the kitchen to the living room and then falling on the couch. It was shot from three different angles simultaneously and the idea was to go, as the camera’s moving, more from one camera position to the next one. It’s a morph and a transition, and then a lot of roto to isolate them from the background.”Watch the apartment kissing scene, with vfx by Look Effects
As Eddie discovers the power of NZT, he starts seeing the world differently. To show that he is no longer struggling with his novel while on the drug, Eddie powers away and soon graphical letters begin falling from above, eventually turning into whole phrases. “Neil showed us a piece of interactive art he had seen,” says Schrecker. “It was some kind of augmented reality where the letters were falling and the people could stand in front of a camera and catch a digital letter on the screen. He liked that and ran with the idea.”
3D artist Shawn Lipowski built a rig that adjusted the speed of the letters so that one side of a phrase could fall faster or slower to create a waterfall-like effect. A CG approach was also used for a scene in which Eddie begins to play the stockmarket. “He looks up at the ceiling and the tiles start to flip like a railway or airport sign listing,” notes Schrecker, “and these letters flip around until they settle on the stock pick that he should buy. Basically, Neil was looking for innovative ways to show the inspiration coming from this drug and the effect the drug has on Eddie.”
Comen VFX opens with some fractals
Limitless begins with a scene of Eddie perched above a New York street, announcing what seems to be his imminent death. The opening titles play as the camera travels down the side of a building and into the windshield of a taxi cab on the street. The camera then switches to the perspective of that cab, flying past – and through – other vehicles, along New York streets, within MRI brain scans, up into the sky and back down into New York before settling on Eddie as he strolls along the road.
These street-level zooms for the opening titles were realised by Comen VFX, with the camera passing through block after block, designed also as representative of fractal patterns Burger hoped to re-create. “Neil sent us a lot of references of those patterns where you keep zooming in on swirly shapes,” says Comen visual effects supervisor Tim Carras. “Inside the fine details of the shapes there appear similarly constructed shapes within those details, and when you go through on a macro scale you see even more details.”Watch the ‘Limitless’ main titles by Comen VFX
Apart from the falling camera shot down the side of the building, no real CGI was used in the entire sequence. The zooms were realised by combining 4K plates shot on the three-camera RED rig. “That allowed us for each set-up to start on the widest angle and digitally zoom in until we started to run out of resolution,” explains Carras. “Then at that point we’d hide a switch to the medium angle and keep pushing in and hide another transition to the close-up angle. We’d go in as far as we could on that until we moved into the next block and continued with the new camera set-up. With that technique we ended up going down miles and miles of city streets.”
Initial animatics were created in Final Cut Pro with rough seams to help with the overall design. At the same time, artists at Comen developed a short part of the title sequence in Nuke as a proof of concept, testing things like motion blur and presenting the work to the director and the studio for sign-off. “We did some early tests that involved a lot of motion blur,” says Carras. “This involved anything from the normal 180 degree shutter motion blur that you would have in a real zoom like that to an exaggerated burst of radial blur coming in, partially to hide transitions and partially to give it a stylised element. But Neil was very specific – he didn’t want any blur in the sequence. The overall visual aesthetic on the film is that when Eddie is on the drug, things come into clearer focus and have more vibrant colours and have a more pristine feel to them, and he wanted to extend that for the title sequence as well.”
The final 1.25 minute sequence came together with compositing in Nuke. “All of our plates were placed on 3D cards in Nuke, but they were all the same plane, the same depth,” says Carras. “We wrote an expression for the focal length of the camera that was based on an exponential function so that the speed would be a constant for the entire sequence and the focal length would just double say every 28 frames. From there we had a camera that would reliably stay at the same speed and we built a slider into it so that we could ramp the speed down very slightly at the beginning – because we start with that very fast plummet down to the city streets – and then ramped it down to a steady speed by the time we were 100 frames in.”
“One thing that worked in our favour,” continues Carras, “was that there was no perspective change in the sequence, other than when you’re combining cameras that were placed at different blocks of the street. We were treating it all as though the camera was on one tripod and the focal length on the zoom worked out to 25mm – 10^36th mm!”
Artists at Comen created Axis nodes in Nuke that could control each of the 3D cards, scaling down the camera information from each block to the next to save on the amount of data that had to be dealt with. “What got really tricky with that,” notes Carras, “was that once you get past the first three or four hundred frames, you’re dealing with such small values. You’re essentially zoomed in on what would have been the size of one pixel. If you move a plate by say a thousandth of a pixel, it’s the equivalent of jumping half way across your frame, because the camera’s zoomed in so tightly by then. So we’d add in more and more Axis nodes that did nothing more than reduce the order of magnitude of the translations we were doing on these images. There was a point where we were butting up against the mathematical limits of how precise Nuke could be in moving an image.”
Once the zooms were established, a outer roto matte and inner roto matte for each plate were created that would line up with architectural details in the buildings that could be used as seams. “We would animate the various plates coming off and on as the camera went further down its zoom,” says Carras. “Also we’d make sure we got rid of them once we were past the previous plate, otherwise we’d be compositing 30K images with things that were already outside the camera.”
The next stage was to add the actual opening credits. “Actually, one of the first questions we had to address here was, ‘how does the text move?’,” recalls Carras. “It was tempting to try and place it in the street and zoom past it the same way we were zooming past everything else. The problem with that would be that it wouldn’t be on screen long enough to make out what was going on.”
Comen settled on a subtle push-in for the text, initially using Blair as the typeface but then turning to a taller, skinnier font to fit the director’s wish that the titles be bold and confronting, but allowing for long names to fit on the screen. “We switched to Franklin Gothic Condensed, which is actually the font used in the book ‘The Dark Fields’, which the movie is based on,” says Carras. “There are certain points in the titles sequence where the frame is almost entirely full of really, really big text, but on top of that we did some interesting glows and erodes and treatments to make it feel a little bit more like a burned in old fashioned optical type text overlay.”
Ultimately, Comen VFX contributed 212 shots to Limitless, which also included the film’s end titles and several greenscreen and monitor comps. Eddie’s apartment, which he takes once flushed with success, had spectacular views of New York. Production filmed the apartment with greenscreen in the windows, with Comen compositing background plates shot separately. “We spent a lot of time creating depth in those comps,” notes Carras, “and avoiding what Neil referred to as a translight look that you might have if you shot with just a big matte painting or cyclorama in the background. Almost any time we see out the windows, we’d add flocks of birds or steam coming out of the smoke stacks or planes or helicopters, office workers or ambulances going up the street and lighting up the sides of buildings – just to always keep something lively happening.”
Scenes of Eddie watching TV broadcasts while at a restaurant or at his apartment involved monitor inserts completed by Comen. “What made them interesting,” says Carras, “was the desire to use real television networks. Originally they were shot with the intention of creating a fictitious local news programme that we could just create and not have to worry about clearing, but when we looked at those temps, in a movie that is otherwise very hyper-real it, it somewhat stuck out to have something fictitious on TV. We got in touch with CNN and WNBC and had them send us their graphics packages. So we got all these After Effects and Illustrator files and got them to sign off on letting us use their logos.”
Images courtesy of Look Effects and Comen VFX. Copyright 2011 © Relativity Media.