How James Bond met the Queen, and other Olympics effects

The London Olympics and Paralympics are not only showcases for athletes and sports broadcasting – they also heavily feature visual effects and animation work. We take a look at how effects teams aided the Olympics opening ceremony – including the creation of the Queen’s grand entrance – and a number of affiliated Olympics and Paralympics shows and TVCs.

Union’s unique Olympic efforts

In a rare collaboration between live production and visual effects, the Olympic opening ceremony director Danny Boyle called on long-term collaborators Union VFX to help with various aspects of the show. First, the team at Union helped previs the actual ceremony, and then also worked on the opening video, plus sequences in which Daniel ‘James Bond’ Craig meets the Queen, and a Chariots of Fire homage with Rowan Atkinson.

“In July 2010 we were asked to be part of the creative team with Danny Boyle,” says Union co-founder Adam Gascoyne, who had also been a visual effects supervisor on Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. “Danny created a brainstorming environment and people would throw into the hat what should be in the ceremony. After that there was a storyboarding process, where a lot of the show was drawn out by Brendan Houghton. We turned that into a 40 minute previs film made up of clips from TV shows, films, music and some CG elements.”

“The whole thing was completely unique for everybody,” adds Union co-founder and visual effects producer Tim Caplan. “You’re trying to represent something that’s not just film – it was a live stage show. But there were actually lots of similarities to previs for a film.”

– Above: watch Union’s breakdown for the Isles of Wonder sequence.

The Isles of Wonder

Union’s centerpiece effort was the opening ‘river zoom’ along the Thames to the Olympic stadium, a mix of real photography, animation and CG elements. “We shot most of the film using a Canon 1D Mark IV,” says Gascoyne, who was also credited as the DOP. “The Canon was in stills mode shooting three frames a second, a technique we’d been developing for Slumdog and 127 Hours. It’s effectively like a stop frame animation that we seam together, cut the elements together in Avid and then stabilize them in Nuke and re-project them where necessary onto geometry.”

– Above: watch Isles of Wonder (unfortunately this may only available for UK readers).

The Canon stills were preliminary used for ground or river-level shots, which then transition into aerial views. These were shot via helicopter on an ARRI ALEXA in an Eclipse mount, with Union transitioning between the two using basic geometry to create the seams. Bridges made good transition points but artists also took advantage of the speed the camera was traveling to make switches between the views work. “Interestingly enough,” says Caplan, “further up the Thames outside of London we were able to drop buoys to hit the moment that the boat and the helicopter could try and match that same point. In central London it was more difficult to drop buoys so we’d have to place a boat in a certain position and then paint out elements to make sure the whole illusion was kept.”

Cultural references, such as animated characters from The Wind in the Willows, and the Pink Floyd ‘Animals’ pig flying over Battersea Power Station, were comp’d in by Union, along with a CG dragonfly at the start of Isles. Further CG work was required to green trees and for sky replacements (since the scenes were shot in overcast London conditions) and for views through the Blackwall Tunnel and London Underground – the tunnel shots were fully digital while views inside the train were shot on the 1D.

As the river zoom reaches closer to the city, Union produced several re-projections for the flight down the Thames from Putney Bridge to Tower Bridge. “We had to reproduce a lot of Westminster here because we had to go quite close,” explains Gascoyne, “and they couldn’t fly that close by helicopter. We did quite a bit of detailed modeling and re-projections using the ALEXA footage and extra textures we shot.”

“Nobody’s shot the Thames more than we have!,” says Caplan. “I think we’ve got four terabytes of CR2 files somewhere.” In fact, there was one day that the Union team took over 25,000 stills. “At one point when we were doing the central London shoot, we had two people on a boat with Canons, someone in the chopper with the ALEXA, someone at the Thames barrier with underwater housing, someone else shooting HDRIs and then someone in the London Eye in one of the pods shooting the helicopters coming towards them,” says Caplan. “It was an absolutely crazy day. We would all re-convene at Tower Bridge – at one point myself, Adam and Danny were all lying on the floor shooting upwards at the ‘copter.”

Meeting the Queen

In a surprising twist to the opening ceremony, one video segment featured actor Daniel Craig as James Bond meeting the Queen and bringing her via helicopter – and then parachute – to the Olympic precinct. Production designer Mark Tildesley conceived and storyboarded the idea, with Union picking up several of the VFX elements required.

– Above: watch the Bond and Queen segment (unfortunately this may only be available for UK readers).

“It was presented to the Queen who said she would do it straight away,” says Gascoyne. “We came up with a few plan Bs but we didn’t have to do them. We had two days shooting at the Palace and a couple of hours with the Queen, and then Daniel Craig was with us for a few hours. We shot the Queen in one take – she was brilliant, a true professional. I was in charge of the ‘Corgi unit’, which we shot with the Canon-cam – that was fun chasing the Corgis around Buckingham Palace. It was a bit of a surreal day really. You couldn’t tell anyone what we doing – I had to go to work in a suit for the first time in my life.”

Union’s visual effects work for the Bond and Queen segment included a couple of CG helicopter shots, a CG Winston Churchill statue brought to life and a number of sky replacements. However, the shot of the helicopter flying through the Tower Bridge was actually accomplished for real.

Chariots of Fire

Whilst play-acting piano on stage at the opening ceremony, performer Rowan Atkinson imagines himself re-creating the beach scene from Chariots of Fire – a video sequence also enhanced with Union VFX work to match the original film with new material shot at the same beach location.

“We were involved quite extensively for the planning of that shoot and involved in replicating the original film,” says Gascoyne. “We were in touch with Hugh Hudson who made the original. He gave us as much information he could remember that he’d scribbled on his script. We shot 36 frames per second on film – the original film speed – which was a novelty. And we shot on the same stock, and had roughly the same weather conditions.”

Union also completed body replacements – with complicated roto work – for Atkinson as he runs through the pack. “We set out to do a head replacement on one of the original characters and put Rowan Atkinson’s head onto them,” notes Gascoyne, “but it became quite apparent that his physical comedy was very important to the joke, so we did full body replacements on some of the original cast, and then added our cast for continuity behind him.”

Having worked at the stadium for the previous five to six weeks before the ceremony, Gascoyne and Caplan were able to view their work – and the work of hundreds of other creatives – there on the night. “It was an amazing experience watching 62,000 people excitedly joining in and enjoying your work,” says Gascoyne. “I think it’s testament to our long-term creative collaboration with Danny that he wanted us to be involved with his team.”

Stadium effects

The Olympics opening ceremony on July 27th was punctuated with a ‘human-powered’ video screen displaying graphics throughout the show. These were actually screens attached to audience members’ chairs displaying pre-rendered animations. The 70,500 screens, from Tait Technologies, were full color Pixel Tablets with a resolution five times that of HDTV and a height of 413 feet. The animations were created by Crystal CG, and included scenes of digital flames and various graphics – even one depicting the birth of the internet. Check out the video below demo’ing Crystal’s work for the opening ceremony. Crystal also created several other pieces of digital imagery for the Olympics, including venue fly-throughs used by the television networks, and futuristic visuals displayed at Olympic locations.

TVCs and shows

Like the Superbowl, the Olympics gives advertisers a focused window to showcase their products, both from official and non-official supporters. Here’s a couple of TVCs with notable visual effects work that ran during the Olympics broadcast and will also be featured for the Paralympics.

British Airways ‘Olympics – Home Advantage’

To show a Boeing 777-200 traversing through the streets of London, Framestore helped develop a previs of the spot and then shot a real plane for reference. Using Boeing CAD data and the reference photography, artists recreated a CG plane. Background plates of London streets were augmented to remove extra details. The final stadium shot and crowd was fully digital. Viewers could also use an app to create a Google Street View scene of the plane amid their neighborhood, a feat achieved by Framestore’s digital team. Watch the ad below.

MPC’s Paralympics spots

To help promote Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics, MPC contributed VFX for two spots – ‘Meet the Superhumans’ (watch here) and a ‘Thanks for the warm up’ promo which can be viewed below. For both TVCs, MPC built views of the Olympic stadium and added crowds, as well comp’ing greenscreen plates of the athletes.

Watch ‘Thanks for the warm up’.

BBC – ‘Stadium UK’

Passion Pictures is behind the BBC’s Olympics opening titles, achieved first via hand animation before being completed in CG. The animation WAS directed by Passion’s Pete Candeland and the campaign was devised by executive creative director Damon Collins and a team of creatives at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R. The full version is below.

Blind Judoka

Blind Judoka is a ‘TakePart TV’ YouTube show which tells the story of blind athlete Jordan Mouton and how she has qualified in Team USA for the Paralympics. Cinematographer Jim Geduldick contributed to the show filming slo-mo scenes on the Phantom Miro. Watch the trailer below.

On the shoot.
The hand-held Phantom Miro.

Above are some images from the shoot – look out for more with the next episode of the rc podcast where Mike Seymour talks to Jim about the shoot.

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