Image Engine are (no) losers

Director Sylvain White’s comic adaptation of The Losers tells the story of a vigilante CIA black ops team hell-bent on uncovering a double-crossing plot against them. Under the overall vfx sup. of Richard Yuricich, Image Engine completed 147 shots for the film featuring no less than planes, buses, bullets & explosions. We talk to Image Engine visual effects supervisor Simon Hughes & visual effects producer Steve Garrad.

fxg: What were the main Image Engine contributions to The Losers?

10Jun/losers/BUS_490Steve Garrad: There were basically three big scenes. The opening sequence featured the bus explosion and also involved a CG plane and a background matte painting by Deak Ferrand at Hatch. Then we did a big explosion made up with elements, with the ‘Losers’ running away with the kids they’ve saved. Then there’s the Miami heist. They’re flying in their helicopter and steal ‘the package’, which turns out to be an armored vehicle. Some of that was a CG helicopter, but it’s mostly practical. The magnet is all-CG and the armored car is as well. The finale is the jet runway sequence where the bad guy is killed as he flies into the engine. You’ve got to have your bad guy dying badly. It’s a CG plane, explosions and a CG digi-double. Good boy’s fun, basically!

10Jun/losers/BUS_470fxg: I suppose even though it’s an action film, the effects seem most just part of that action, rather than stand-out pieces?

Simon Hughes: It was kind of even mix, because when we get to the CG plane and the guy going into the engine, it did start moving into a slightly comical feel and we had to push it. Beyond that, everything had to be photoreal and well integrated. So it was a nice mix between photoreal and slightly ludicrous by the end of the film.

10Jun/losers/JET_103fxg: How was the opening sequence with the jet realised?

Garrad: The very first shot where you see the jet is an interesting one. The framing the director wanted was based on a still in the comic where you’ve got a top view looking down. Eventually, we were able to get him to do a little camera move. It is one of those things where it’s great that it’s from the comic, but it can touch on the ‘it doesn’t look real’ kind of thing, so there’s always that balance.

Hughes: With the opening sequence, one of the biggest challenges was that they didn’t do an element shoot for this, because of time constraints more than anything. It was a combination of sourcing elements we had here in our library and flavoring it up with effects elements that were designed for different specific needs. It was quite a challenge just trying to get that explosion nice and believable and dangerous to make us feel like we were inside of it.

fxg: What kind of tools did you use for the plane?

Hughes: Once the plane was defined, it went into an asset build which probably lasted one or two months along with the other assets. Then we do the textures and check everything on turntables with different lighting environments to make sure everything holds up. The CG was done in Maya and rendered in 3Delight, with compositing in Nuke. The effects elements were a nice combination – if we had specific hero pieces of debris flying towards us, we did those in Maya, but if we had generic passes, pipes, and cables and smaller pieces with smoke trails, we did those in Houdini.

Garrad: We could have gone down the CG explosions route, but we didn’t really have the time or the budget. So it shifted the job from what could have been a major CG one to using 2D, and using Nuke really plays into your favour.

10Jun/losers/LAP_610fxg: For the Miami heist sequence, what kind of challenges did adding a CG magnet and vehicle give you?

Hughes: Actually, out of all the sequences that was probably the most straightforward. The biggest challenge was making it photoreal and we spent a long time on the textures. We had some good on set references and there weren’t too many iterations on the animation.

Garrad: We had great HDRIs from out on set, which our on set supervisor Jesper Kjolsrud took. There is one shot which is entirely CG. We added a building and the bottom of the truck hits the building. The interesting thing about that shot was that the client was worried the building wasn’t real, but actually it was a real building we’d taken photos of in San Paulo. We had to work out in that shot how much damage do we do. We always start quite subtle but they wanted more and more. So we pulled down half the site. That’s the sort of film it was and once you get into that kind of mindset, it’s great. There is no such thing as less!

10Jun/losers/JET_106fxg: Then there’s the runway finale with the shipping containers. Can you talk about bringing that together?

Hughes: It was very challenging to start with because we had three different shooting locations. Apart from the CG plane, we also had to do quite a lot of environment work. Where it was shot was an active port, so all the containers kept moving about. The cranes were moving so we had to do builds of the containers, the cranes and other pieces of ‘port furniture’ as we called it.

We had to do extensions of the road and bring all that stuff into line with each other for consistency. Because of the different locations and because some of the shots were filmed at different times of the day, there was a lot of variation in the lighting of the scene. Even the angles of the shadows needed to be augmented. Then we get into the jet and the explosions, which were the lionshare of the work.

Garrad: For the port location they had in Peurto Rico, the original plan was to actually get a plane in there and shoot it, but in the end they couldn’t do that. So they shot the location empty and Richard Yuricich and his crew marked out the physical area of the plane. For all the shots where Clay is walking away from the explosion, they had reference of where the plane would be but there was nothing on set. Then they came back and at Van Nuys they did shoot some reference of a jet there.

There was a big texture shoot of that plane for our reference. For some of the big explosion shots, only the road and Clay are real and everything else is a matte painting, CG or an element. And for the shipping container shoots, I remember being on the phone with Richard at one point and noticed he was a little distracted. What was happening was they were moving the containers from the corridor they’d created for the plane as they were shooting!

fxg: How did you comp those explosions?

Hughes: We have a pretty good explosions element library, but none of those were shot for this film. So there’s a lot of displacement and warping in Nuke to set the explosions in. Through the lighting of the jets, we would block in a good guide of what we would do with the explosion elements and then we would take the explosion elements and pass them on to the effects artists for a guide for timing of the debris flying out of the engine. Then the lighters could also incorporate interactive lighting from all the same elements that ultimately get used in the final comp. Then it was a matter of combining them all with smoke and more and more debris.

10Jun/losers/JET_107fxg: When the jet blows up, a whole lot of cash is blown into the sky and some 100 dollar bills come right at camera. How was that done?

Garrad: They had shot some money. It was film money which was slightly larger than real money which was sent over to us for reference.

Hughes: The CG renders were done in Houdini and then to get them on fire was a mix of Houdini and compositing in Nuke. We also had some ember shoot elements where we had some embers flying around on bluescreen.

10Jun/losers/MIA_790fxg: Were there any other effects shots you worked on?

Garrad: We did do a shot that all the guys here liked immensely – a reflection showing Zoe Saldana’s character. In the film, the guys find out that Zoe’s character is really working against them so they shoot her and end up breaking some glass. There’s one nice shot of Clay in the background and pieces of mirror falling from frame and in the reflection is Zoe with very few clothes on. That was just a nice stylish shot. Oh, and then there’s also the Houston shot where the bullet travels over the cityscape.

Hughes: Yeah, that was actually one of the biggest shots. There’s Cougar at the head of the shot where we fly over his shoulder and he’s doing an OK symbol and you fly through his finger, threw a plate of glass, over an entire CG environment being Houston to the barrel of a gun. From the start it was a very popular one with the client. A lot of time was spent on the environment. It was a mix of locations in Vancouver and Miami, with some Houston references. We did a lot of research on the look of glass as you’re flying through it with the cracks and chromatic aberration.

Garrad: It’s funny – we were cutting some reels here at Image Engine and that shot was put in as a speed up/ramp up shot and we all thought, ‘Don’t do that! It’s months of someone’s life!’