Gondry-fying The Green Hornet

Michel Gondry’s signature filmmaking touches are ever-abundant in The Green Hornet, the director’s take on the masked vigilante made famous in radio serials and comics. VFX supervisor Jamie Dixon guides us through some of the the film’s key 650 effects shots.

In the film, Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) emerges from a misspent youth to deal with the death of his newspaper tycoon father and slowly learns the truth about the Los Angeles criminal underworld. Impressed by the martial arts skills of his ‘executive associate’, Kato (Jay Chou), Reid suggests that the pair should help fight crime by posing as the bad guys and calling himself The Green Hornet. They decide they need an awesome car, which Kato delivers by converting a ’65 Lincoln Continental into the signature Black Beauty, and so begins their adventures.

Overall visual effects supervisor Jamie Dixon divided the effects work up between Hammerhead, Luma Pictures, CIS Hollywood, Pixomondo, CIS Vancouver and a small in-house unit euphemistically called the ‘Gutter Band’. Hammerhead completed the bulk of the 2D compositing requirements, including shots for an extensive car chase with bluescreen comps. Luma Pictures primarily worked on a CG Black Beauty, and handled other 3D effects, environments and set extensions. CIS Hollywood developed the Kato fight sequences and time bending effects. Pixomondo did a flashback sequence where Reid puts together all the details of the story so he can see what’s led to the state of things. CIS Vancouver contributed a number of clean-ups and compositing, and Picture Mill created the film’s animated end titles. The film was dimensionalized from 2D to 3D stereo by a number of facilities including Legend 3D, Stereo D, Venture 3D and Sassoon Film Design under the supervision of Grant Anderson and Rob Engle.

Dixon’s ultimate goal was to make the effects as unnoticeable as possible. “The design of the movie was never intended to be a completely synthetic or magic-filled environment,” says Dixon. “The Green Hornet is a very real and physical character – basically he’s just a guy. It was never intended that he would have special powers – he can’t swing from a web between buildings or walk up walls. Most of the early conversations I had with Michel Gondry were about the techniques for doing things. For example, how could we shoot these guys in the car in the middle of these crazy chase sequences, but give Gondry the chance to really direct them in character and all that kind of stuff.”

Bending time with Kato

One of the film’s first major effects pieces, completed by CIS Hollywood, is a time bending fight sequence in which Kato takes on a gang of muggers. Gondry wanted to depict the scene, and other fights involving Kato, with an unusual split-time approach where Kato would move at one point in slow motion while his attackers move in normal speed, which is then sometimes reversed mid-shot. A telescoping effect on objects in the environment, such as cars, also formed part of the Kato fight scenes, along with ‘Kato-vision’, in which the character is able to slow time down and size up the threats against him.

“From my point of view, Michel’s idea was all about a transference of energy,” says CIS Hollywood visual effects supervisor Greg Oehler. “Kato would be moving at one speed very fast, hitting a villain going much slower, kind of transferring that energy to the villain. So you’d have this hand-off of a nasty punch and then the villain re-coiling and then arcing back into slow motion while Kato resumes his normal speed. There was kind of a sine wave of motion.”

The sequences were filmed on the Phantom camera at between 150 and 300 frames per second, and based on an earlier concept test created by Gondry.  CIS Hollywood carried out the mostly 2D visual effects work in Flame. Each of the characters was extracted from the scene, the environment re-created, and the action re-timed as necessary using various tools.

For a more in-depth detailed discussion of CIS Hollywood’s work on the Kato fight scenes, check out the separate fxinsider story – exclusively for fxinsider members as our way of saying thanks for your support.

The Black Beauty

The reveal of Kato’s creation in Reid’s garage was achieved as a one-shot gag. “In the middle of the garage is a car with a cover over the top,” explains Dixon. “Britt is so excited that he runs over and rips the cover off the car but there’s this old red Zephyr from the 30s underneath there and he’s like, ‘What the hell, what is this?’. It’s an inside joke that that’s actually the car that was the Black Beauty in the serials from the 40s. The other inside joke is that the car from our movie is a deep burgundy color and in the old black and white movies it would have looked black.”

Kato then nonchalantly says ‘watch your feet’ and clicks a garage door remote. The floor miraculously spins to reveal the real Black Beauty which was hanging upside down in the basement. Reid and Kato then enter the car and drive away. “It’s actually a shot that was thought up on the fly as we were watching the movie – ‘what if they had this thing where it flipped the car up from the floor?'” says Dixon. “Production went through all the machinations of how to do that practically and they would have had to dig a giant hole in the floor and do a mechanical rig that would flip the car, and there wasn’t really enough time.”

Dixon called on Luma Pictures to help achieve the shot. It was filmed as a motion pass / motion control scene with a repeatable motion control track and boom arm. “The sheet that we were pulling off the old 30s version of the car was really pulled off a real version of the car,” says Dixon. “So Seth could touch that real car and the sheet and then we would rewind the motion control back to the starting point and shoot another version of the shot with the modern Black Beauty in it.”

Utilizing a digital scan of the practical Black Beauty, Luma modeled multiple versions of the vehicle at different damage levels in Maya, using the real car photographed in the scene as reference. “We have some in-house plug-ins that make hard surface modeling a little bit easier to deal with inside of Maya,” explains Luma visual effects supervisor Vincent Cirelli. “We also created our own custom shaders to replicate the photography and a very specific clear coat you see on the Black Beauty that gives it kind of a sheen that differentiates it from most other cars on the road. Then we built out some rigging for it that allowed us to trip out some different weapons.”

Luma’s proprietary car paint shader was used to render the car, which was completed in mental ray. “What we ended up doing was coupling a few different car paint shaders into one shader so that we could have that deep coat reflection that you see on the screen,” says Cirelli. “You end up with multiple layers of reflection and multiple layers of specularity but they all have different attributes. For example, the car will have a very tight specularity, and then in addition one will be more blurry and a softer roll-off on the specularity and then we’d have a very broad roll-off one.”

To help sell the digital car, Luma added a break-up pass for the Black Beauty’s surface. “The interesting thing we found was when the surface was physically accurate and it matched the car perfectly, it still seemed a little CG,” says Cirelli. “So we went in and added additional dirt and grime to break up the reflections and the specularity on the car. So sometimes you have to enhance reality!”

In compositing, several control layers were able to influence the beauty render. “For example,” says Cirelli, “if we needed to pump up the lighting on the wheels or hubcaps, we could do that. We could differentiate between the pieces of geometry and control them independently. But most of what you’re seeing on screen is a beauty render. That’s kind of unusual for us because we tend to be comp-centric. But we found in terms of metallic look, it was best to have it come straight out of the box and dial it in lighting.”

For the film’s climax, Luma also handled shots of the Black Beauty crashing into a newspaper office and perching on a printing press, and a subsequent ejector seat escape by the two heroes. The printing press scenes were filmed at the real location of the LA Times press in Downtown Los Angeles – a building one-and-a-half football fields long with a 50 foot ceiling and six high speed presses. Production also built a small section of the printing press that a physical Black Beauty could be placed on for action scenes. Luma used its 3D Black Beauty to augment those shots and built complicated whole sections of the printing presses in 3D for set extensions.

Chasing cars

Reid and Kato take to the streets of Los Angeles in the Black Beauty to stamp their authority on the crime world. Initially this does not always go according to plan, and the pair find themselves being pursued by either the bad guys or the police. Using the Black Beauty’s tricked out gadgets, missiles and their own ingenuity, Reid and Kato are able to elude their pursuers.

Dixon and Gondry decided to shoot most of the in-car shots for the car chase with the actors against bluescreen and compositing them into the environment. “It’s not necessarily the way Michel wanted to do things,” says Dixon. “He’s a very visually oriented director and his experience and preference is to be more physical about it. His personal preference would have been to be out doing a tow-rig on the car and film the actors in the scene and really do it for real. The problem was that that was impossible in terms of the schedule and it meant he wouldn’t be able to direct the actors as easily. In the end, when he started seeing the results of it, he was quite pleased with how it worked out and he recognized that that was the way to get the best combination of things of what he was looking for.”

The film’s second unit, under the direction of Vic Armstrong, staged the car chase over a couple of weeks at nights, deriving the scenes from the script and mapping it out to fit certain locations on Los Angeles streets. “Our visual effects department had a unit attached to the second unit,” explains Dixon, “but we had our own camera car, our own cameras and our own camera crew. We got into this rhythm with them that worked out really nicely. They would basically set up this crazy stunt, and then they would go do it. Immediately following that, we would do the same stunt again, but we would place a camera car where the Black Beauty had been.”

The camera car had cameras photographing forward, backward, right and left to allow for a collection of background plates that exactly matched the action occurring in the regular wide shots. “When we shot the bluescreen,” says Dixon, “we basically shot from the same angles that we knew we had backgrounds for. In editorial they cut those scenes together, knowing that the backgrounds would be replaced with the scenes that matched whatever the other scenes around it were. Because we had taken the effort to put that other unit together to be on set and capturing the backgrounds, they could use any piece of footage against the bluescreen that had the appropriate look or line or action and we could put that into the exact right moment of the chase scene, as far as seeing out the window was concerned.”

Hammerhead then handled the compositing duties for the car chase and added gadgets, guns, tracer fire and other elements. A 3D version of the Black Beauty was sometimes matchmoved along with the bluescreen car, with reflections moved over the surface of the car. Often the Black Beauty was shot without a windshield which would later be comped in. “We also added camera shake and lens flares and touches like that that I think convincingly added to the realism of those moments in the scene,” says Dixon.

“One of my measures of successful work,” continues Dixon, “is that I always challenge the actors to remember when they shot a particular shot. True to form, Seth Rogen came up to me after screening some of the shots and said ‘That’s super-cool, when did we shoot that?’ He couldn’t for the life of him remember being near that, but I reminded him it was bluescreen material we had shot. So not only are you pulling a fast one on the audience, but you’re also pulling a fast one on the actors when you’re shooting the scene.”

The gas gun

Hammerhead also completed a number of shots involving the Green Hornet’s gas gun, a contraption Kato manufactures for Reid who isn’t quite up to his associate’s martial arts skills. “The idea is that you’ve got a superhero, a guy who’s doing good, so you don’t want him going around killing a bunch of people,” says Dixon. “So they gave him this gun that basically had knock-out gas in it. I had a sneaking suspicion before we started shooting that we would need to solve the gas in visual effects. So about a year and a half ago we started doing R&D on what the green gas should look like.”

On set, a prop gun was used that would shoot out little capsules. The green gas effect was ultimately achieved using FumeFX as a plug-in to Autodesk’s 3ds Max. “We spent a bunch of time working out the details to get the smoke to have the exact right consistency,” says Dixon. “We could make it hit perfectly when we wanted to and make it miss, too.”

Sewing up the plot

As the film edges towards its conclusion, Reid finds himself in a bar opposite one of the bad guys piecing together the plot so far. This sequence was realized in typical Michel Gondry-fashion as a split-screen, graphics-filled flashback completed by Pixomondo in LA. “There are basically all kinds of crazy images that relate to various beats in the movie put together in a collage of images that build into one visual statement to identify what all of the different actions have been building to,” explains Dixon.

“This was for me probably the most challenging part of doing the visual effects on a Michel Gondry film,” continues Dixon. “It really was not something that any of us had a real idea of what Michel was trying to do, to be honest. He was off shooting all kinds of crazy things – rose bushes against bluescreen and people standing there cheering, bicycles and hedges and the Black Beauty, images of Cameron Diaz talking repeatedly over and over again.”

This footage was then provided to Pixomondo who built the two minute progression up in Flame. “Michel had done an element shoot for the sequence where the various pieces of the puzzle were added one by one,” says Pixomondo Flame artist Sam Edwards. “Our main task was to create visual links using transition that would enhance these elements coming together in Britt’s mind. So we created CG versions of most of the things in the frame that we could fly in, or grow onto the set.”

Pixomondo began by post-vising the sequence at half-resolution in Flame. “The ideas were coming too fast and furious for long renders and we wanted the freedom to just create without worrying too much about the technology,” says Edwards. “Michel would get an idea and draw a picture on a napkin and we’d shoot it with the iPhone camera and import it into the Flame to test the concept. There was nothing linear about it. Comps would be built front to back to get the key element working first. Then a new concept would ripple through the next five transitions. A visual idea would require a new voice over from Seth (Rogen).”

Post-vis 3D animations were completed by Paul Taylor, with the final sequence finished, animated and rendered using Pixomondo’s 3D Studio Max/V-Ray/Nuke based pipeline. Gondry had crucial input throughout the process. “Michel is really a new kind of director who extends the creative process all the way through visual effects,” says Edwards. “He’s also a true gentleman: when things don’t work he blames himself and when they do he congratulates you. It was an amazing experience.”

For Jamie Dixon, The Green Hornet was a rewarding collaborative experience with each of the film’s departments and a chance to feature invisible effects in a comic book picture. “The producer, Michael Grillo, said to me right at the beginning, ‘if there are no visual effects in this movie, you will have done a good job,’” says Dixon. “But they did know going in that there were a tremendous amount of things that were impractical to do to for real – not necessarily impossible to do – just in terms of the level of expectations in modern filmmaking in the action scenes and the logistics of things. That really dictated that they needed fairly substantial visual effects support.”

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