Incredible, invisible effects

‘Were there any effects in that film?!?‘ – it’s something many VFX artists like to hear. With that in mind, we take a look at just a few recent releases with effects you might never have known were there – from the mystery virus spreader in Contagion, to a rooftop chase in Killer Elite, lunar landscapes in Apollo 18, blood and blinks in Drive, invisible environments in Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and rampaging animals in Water for Elephants. Warning: this article contains spoilers.


Director Steven Soderbergh filming on the RED ONE

Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion deals with the threat of a deadly disease. It’s a fast-paced thriller, with surprisingly few visual effects. Still, Method Studios, through its LA and Vancouver offices, completed just over 40 shots for a number of key sequences. “The biggest thing was the creation of a CG bat that plays a part of the back-story at the end of the movie explaining how the transmission of the virus took place,” says Method visual effects supervisor Thomas J. Smith. “The shot was designed around that – the bat gets displaced from its natural environment and goes and hangs out in a pig barn and drops some food into the barn, and that then creates the effect where the virus transmits into the pig and eventually into humans.”

The sequence is only a brief six shots, but plays a crucial role in the story. Method’s bat was made to be unhealthy looking, with matted hair and a pointy noise. “The bat comes in and lands on a banana tree,” explains Smith, “and then we punch in really close where the camera is literally 18 inches away from the bat. When you see it, you kind of go, ‘Oh, yeah’ – you get an uneasy feeling about it.”

Original plate
Final shot with CG bat

Method’s Vancouver office took care of design, animation and rendering duties for the bat, supervised by Randy Goux, with Smith responsible for on-set and overall VFX supervision. “I started looking right away at the types of bats that would be in South-East Asia,” says Smith. “The setting was Hong Kong where this transmission took place. There are giant flying fruit bats in Sydney, but by the time you spread the wings out, they can be kind of large and we didn’t think they were the best. They also don’t seem to hang out in barns…”.

“So we continued looking around at different kinds of fruit bats and found one,” adds Smith. “We named her ‘Rosie’ – it’s your standard kind of fruit bat with about a seven inch wingspan and it fit the scale of what had to work. I also purchased from a store in Los Angeles a dehydrated bat as a reference. It was an insect-eating bat, but something we could look at for how the translucency and transparency works with the wings. Texture-wise it gave us really nice detail. The wings are almost paper-thin – there’s not much to them. It was also very helpful with the bone structure in the wings.”

For animation, Method relied on Maya, which was also used to create the fur, with final rendering done in mental ray. Says Smith: “In animation we spent quite a bit of time making sure it didn’t just look like it was flying like a bird. When it left the banana tree and it picked its head up, our animator did a great job of giving it a real hard-edged movement. There was nothing smooth about it – they move so quickly and their motions are so abrupt.”

The bat shots were completed at 4K resolution, with the plates shot on the RED ONE. “Steven’s been using the RED camera for three or four movies,” says Smith, “all the way back to Informant was the first film I used it. In terms of the bat shot, Steven made only a few comments once we had blocked out our animation – he changed one of the lighting rigs to give the bat some more key light, but that was basically it and we were off and running.”

Original plate
Final shot with Chicago skyline added

Along with the digital bat, Method also completed matte painting extensions of Chicago, complete with a few helicopters, and a dynamic shot of an infected person in Hong Kong being run over by a van. “It was in this live market,” explains Smith. “The thing is, when you shoot in Hong Kong you don’t have lock-ups like you do when you shoot in LA. But in Hong Kong you’re pretty much on your own. So we were literally shooting in this market with everything imaginable. Our character walks through it feeling very sick. He comes out to the street, hesitates, takes one step off the curb and this big van wipes him out.”

“We filmed the background plate,” continues Smith, “and then we re-positioned a mechanical dummy in the same position as the guy’s last step off into the street. Then at Method we jumped over and composited everything over the the vehicle. There’s another camera angle on the street looking straight at the vehicle coming at us – we augmented that with some CG arms and added some more fluid to the movements, because it was a rigid steel dummy and didn’t really flex like a human. The shot was an interesting thing to do amongst a couple of hundred people buying vegetables.”

Killer Elite

Gary McKendry’s Killer Elite, the globe-trotting tale of a retired Special Air Service operative out to kill three hired assassins, features extensive visual effects work, with Iloura completing more than 700 shots for the film. The wide range of work is a great example of the kinds of invisible effects that can be found in many films these days. We’ve listed the type of effects here, care of Iloura, just to demonstrate the amount of work that goes into a film like this:

Jason Statham in 'Killer Elite'.

Digital bullet hits; Digital ricochets; Digital bullet wounds; Digital blood spray; Face replacement transforming stuntmen into hero actors; Location clean up due to the era of the film – removal of any modern elements such as signage, cars, satellite dishes and etc; Muzzle flash addition for all shoot out scenes; Crew and crowd removal; Digital vehicles; Digital planes; Digital trains; Digital wasps; Digital army trucks and weapons; Digital buildings; Digital explosions; Digital ships; Digital helicopters; Digital snow scene – actors shot on blue screen – digital snow falling, digital background, digital cold breath and interactive snow; Simulated travel in all car sequences; Compositing actors into different scenes due to schedule and availability; Car accident creation; Car accident enhancement – smashing glass, digital panels denting and smoke; Crash matte removal for stunt men; Rig removal for jumping stunts; Matte paintings and set extension to transform Melbourne into London, Oman city, Oman desert, Oman airport, Paris; Matte paintings to create continuity between two disparate locations that had to look like the same location; Photo retouching to make the actors look younger; Digital dust to enhance the car chase thru the desert; Rig removal for various SFX shots; Studio set extension / blue screen out windows; Signage replacement; Monitor / tv composites; Costume fix-ups, re-coloring, etc. to help continuity; Dated tattoos on an actor had to be changed to match the era; Blind eye tracked to one of the actors for one scene; Neg repair; Opening and closing title sequence.

In one particular scene, ex-special ops agent Danny (Jason Statham) is pursued by the leader of a secret military society, Spike (Clive Owen) along the rooftops of London. Iloura was responsible for 65 shots in that sequence alone, combining plates filmed in a Melbourne car park with studio shots and additional effects. “That sequence started with a very detailed previs,” says Iloura on-set visual effects supervisor Julian Dimsey. “It was essential that we previs’d it very accurately, so that we knew what was required of special effects, stunts and visual effects during filming.”

Watch a clip from the rooftop chase scene.

On the Melbourne car park location, first and second units shot concurrently, allowing Statham, who performed many of his own stunts, to carry out a scene, and then for a stuntman to also be shot for other views. Dimsey and Iloura visual effects coordinator Pippa Sheen had traveled to London to capture period background plates and buildings representing the film’s era of late 70s and early 80s, which could then be added to the scenes whenever the action went beyond the edge of the car park.

In the chase, Danny eludes Spike by rolling under a set of pipes, narrowly avoiding gunfire and exploding gas, before jumping off the edge of the building. He then scales a slate roof before sliding down more rooftops and finally must jump to safety. “The original previs had the pipes shot much longer, in that Jason dives under the pipes, rolls, hangs off over the edge of the building, jumps off the building down to the car park and runs away – all in one shot. We ended up splitting that into two shots where we had Jason rolling to the edge of the building, then we had a stuntman rolling to the edge and over it. But that was at a different location because we couldn’t shoot Jason’s bit on the edge of a building for safety reasons.”

Director Gary McKendry and Jason Statham on set.

Statham was filmed rolling into a wall, while the wired-up stuntman performed the scene at a nearby area of the car park rolling under the pipes and over the edge of the building, jumping two stories down to the car park and running away – although in the end the scene was cut somewhat tighter with a lower angle of Danny dangling off the edge. “We still had to blend those two plates together to make it look pretty seamless,” says Dimsey. “The director then also wanted to add a bit more danger to the shot so we added the explosion elements as well, just to make Clive’s shooting at Jason a bit more interactive.”

Iloura created the resulting fire digitally. Says Dimsey: “The digital route allowed us to control the fire as much or as little as we wanted to. We had to place the fire in and around Jason but not too close to him and the timing of the fire went across the three shots, so digital helped with that and the smoke plume. “We also had a digital proxy double of Jason and then rendered that with a fire pass and the interactive light from the fire fell across Jason correctly following his contours.”

For the slate roof portion, Statham was filmed partly on an outdoor slate roof set-piece next to the Central City Studios in Melbourne. “It was important to keep it outside for that daylit feel,” comments Dimsey. “Then all the tiles that slide off and interact with Jason are digital, because the director wanted to make it look a lot more dangerous and spectacular. We also added matte paintings as he looks over the edge into the laneway before he makes the jump.”

Apollo 18

Invisible effects were also crucial in telling the story of ‘found’ NASA footage that revealed a secret mission from an abandoned Apollo landing, in Gonzalo López-Gallego’s Apollo 18. The director relied on VFX from shops including Bazelevs, Faction Creative and Image Engine to help depict the moon surface and other aspects of the horror movie.

Image Engine, in particular, was tasked with extending a number of lunar landscapes. “[The director] gave us a very straight-forward creative brief which was to make our computer generated environments seamlessly integrate into the live action photography as it would have appeared at the time of the Apollo 18 mission,” notes Image Engine visual effects executive producer Shawn Walsh. “However, in the case of this film the visual effects work required to accomplish that task was complicated by a cinema verite style that was shot on Super 16 and re-formatted for HD mastering. To say nothing of the fact that we shot the footage on a make-shift stage that was dressed in forced perspective to allude to an expansive lunar environment – but was really just a few feet deep!”

Watch a trailer for ‘Apollo 18’

Artists referenced grainy NASA archival footage, which also gave clues about the right amount of exposure levels, grain, lens aberrations, depth of field and focus. “These aspects tipped us off to the answers to various creative questions such as ‘would you see the stars in the original footage?’,” says Walsh. “Or ‘how much detail would you see in the background of this frame that was shot on a fixed lens with a wide DOF?'”

Match-moving, complicated by the hand-held nature of the film and extensive grain, was carried out in 3D Equalizer, Boujou and PFTrack, with matte paintings in Photoshop, paint and roto in Silhouette and compositing in Nuke. “We were grateful to receive from production some simple Photoshop layouts when shots were turned-over that were mocked-up by the production designer,” recalls Walsh. “These went a long way towards illustrating to us what Gonzalo wanted – something subtle, that didn’t draw attention to itself and felt convincingly tied into the photography.”

Image Engine also explored some helmet shattering shots using Nuke that do not appear in the final film. Designs for the helmet shots were, aided, in part, by a NASA technical consultant and flight surgeon, who had researched what may happen if a space suit were to be taken off in a vacuum. The opportunity to work on these and the moon effects shots sufficiently stirred the Image Engine artists, who concurrently were working on much larger VFX films The Thing and Immortals, as Walsh notes: “I think the imagery of the moon is so common in our subconscious from all of the pop culture references we grow up with that it was a really dream-like process to imagine these simple environments. Who wouldn’t want to go to the moon?”


Director Nicolas Winding Refn on the set of 'Drive'.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive delves into the life of a Hollywood stunt – and getaway – driver (Ryan Gosling) as the world around him descends into chaos when a robbery goes awry. The film’s car chase scenes were achieved as in-camera practical stunts, but a number of invisible effects helped with other scenes, including some of the startling deaths.

“We did shots like the scene where Christina Hendricks is shot in the head in the bathroom,” says Ring of Fire’s Jerry Spivack, the visual effects supervisor for Drive. “For Christina’s head, we shot a bunch of pieces. We shot her in the bathroom. Then we created a blood splatter impact rig, where we positioned this pipe with a little nozzle that we filled with blood and all kinds of chunks of stuff. Then we did another B unit shoot where we built a prosthetic head of Christina, lined all that up against greenscreen and shot more blood splatter elements. It was a combination of all that stuff, all based on real elements.”

Other somewhat gruesome deaths, such as one where the character’s head is stomped on in the elevator, or when another is sliced in the forearm, involved Ring of Fire blood augmentation, re-timing and compositing. “When he slices his forearm in the auto shop,” says Spivack, “there was a blood charge, but the timing didn’t quite work out. It was: Slit. Beat. Blood splatter. In the edit the director wanted it all to happen at once, so we did a time shift, isolated the blood and re-composited onto the same piece of photography.”

Ring of Fire also completed muzzle flashes, monitor and radio display composites, speed changes and even blink enhancements, where the director wanted to maintain the intensity of Gosling’s focus. The studio worked with digital ALEXA footage, compositing mostly in Flame for the project. “None of the effects were big blockbuster kind of movie effects,” notes Spivack, “but they needed to be there to support the movie and the filmmaking. It’s a big plus for me when people say, ‘Wow, what’d you do in that movie?’ and I just say ‘Thank you very much’.”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Blockbuster films are of course no strangers to seamless effects work, none more so than the Harry Potter movies, despite the incredible magical creations also produced by several of the big visual effects shops. In Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Baseblack contributed 275 shots ranging from such magical effects as CG apparitions, to set replacements and wand battles. But the studio was also responsible for crucial and invisible effects in an important exposition scene in the film. This involved Harry, Hermione and Ron stepping out of the lake onto a hillock as the camera pans around them, all the while as they discuss their next move and change into dry clothes.

“It was originally just one long shot,” explains Matthew Twyford, who, along with Rudi Holzapfel, supervised Baseblack’s work for the film. “The camera kept going around and around, but the hook was ‘How did they shoot that?’ You couldn’t see the rig or the crew at all. It feels like a very low helicopter shot. Obviously they couldn’t film that because they were too close to the kids, but that was the feel.”

Watch the greenscreen shoot for the lake scene, and the final sequence.

Ultimately, the scene was cut up into five shots but still contained the dizzying, fast and long camera moves around the actors (one shot was 954 frames). These had filmed shot via a cable-cam on a greenscreen set outside at Leavesden studios, complete with a mock hillock and pond for water.

To accomplish the complex effects for the sequence, Baseblack looked to reference plates of mountains and lakes gathered by production in Scotland. A team of artists, led by CG Supervisor Fred Sundqvist, stitched the plates as panoramas, which were then re-projected in Nuke onto CG geometry to sell the parallax of the shots.

A second challenge was the necessary views of the lake as the camera pans around, something that was initially to be solved via CG water. “But [overall visual effects supervisor] Tim Burke had mentioned that he had shot some moving water in that Scottish location,” recalls Twyford. “We weren’t sure if the resolution would be good enough, because we were looking at something 16,000 to 24,000 in resolution size. But they had actually shot multiple plates all together, so we stitched them as well and came out with a 16K moving water plate, which we then cut and re-projected onto our flat water geometry. It looked fantastic because it had the same lighting, it was in the same place and all the reflections and shadows matched up to the environment.”

Along with the environments, Baseblack compositors also had to contend with a relatively murky outdoor greenscreen, a green grassy hillock and actors even with green clothes. “It was a very complex tracking job with difficult keys,” notes Baseblack visual effects producer Kate Phillips. “The kids are also changing clothes during the shot so their colors are changing too. It would go from from set piece to water to actor, but in that final shot it pushes right into Harry at the end with a completely digital environment behind him, which we had to blend seamlessly.”

Water for Elephants

Visual effects house With A Twist Studio, run by David Burton and Pam Hammarlund, has extensive experience with invisible effects. They recently wrapped on Machine Gun Preacher and The Thing, and are working on Hugo. They’ve also contributed to Knight and Day, Fast Five and Water for Elephants. That latter project, which involved working for Paul and Xina Graff and lead facility Crazy Horse Effects, required mixing real (and dangerous) animals in a crowd stampede under a circus tent.

A VFX breakdown of With A Twist’s work on the circus stampede.

“Our first step was to start blocking in animals and get a buy off on basic placement, scale, and timing,” explains With A Twist VFX supe David Burton. “This was a fairly quick but important step early on. It allowed us to identify not only animal blocking and spacial relationships but also exact rotoscoping needs. There was a lot of articulate rotoscoping done, further proving that rotoscoping is an art form and not always an entry level position.”

After the initial blocking phase, Paul Gaff shot additional animals where necessary, using three cameras to provide multiple angles and footage. “[Our] shots were all match-moved so we could composite in 3D space,” says Burton, “allowing our compositors the option of re-projection techniques to nudge the animals a bit especially when the camera was moving. On the CG side of things, we created or enhanced the destruction of the circus tent using our toolset in Houdini. In the end that all fed into Nuke allowing the entire composite to be assembled in 3D space. Dust and straw elements were added to each of the animal’s footsteps as well as contact shadows.”

Watch another clip from the VFX breakdown.

“Because the animals are running through the crowd,” adds Burton, “we had to be aware of size and scale. Once we had established a physically correct scale, we were then able to deviate from that for dramatic effect. The giraffes went through a few revisions until we felt they not only looked right, but added to the overall performance.”

Burton says the ‘little stuff’ was the biggest challenge, including aspects such as the color palettes between the ‘big cats’. “Tigers and leopards have especially subtle coloring,” he notes. “The dark spots of the leopards are tricky to dial in just right without looking too contrasty. Balancing a black and a white horse shot separately, but composed next to each other took some finesse as well. Getting these elements to live in the same world and keep the audience ‘in the movie’ is why we call this a craft and not a job.”

Invisible yet visible

Framestore added reflected cars and period neon signs for this Wimpy Bars scene in 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'.

Other recent releases, too, featured heavily the kinds of story-driven effects discussed above. Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy includes many subtle enhancements from VFX shops such as Framestore and The Chimney Pot, including CG portions of the film’s 1973 MI6 Headquarters, along with other digital city work and composites for period London and Istanbul. For a scene with an owl emerging from a classroom fireplace, and then startlingly beaten to death, Framestore combined plates of a real owl, schoolchildren and actor Mark Strong. Artists tracked smoke, fire, embers and feather elements to the owl, with Strong striking only a dummy. For Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller, Rhythm & Hues created vast crowds for the baseball stadium shots (see our upcoming coverage for this film soon on fxguide). And even The Help received some VFX assistance from Pixel Magic and Digital Domain. You may well not notice them, and that’s probably the point.

2 thoughts on “Incredible, invisible effects”

  1. Contagion is a really great movie. The cg bat is indeed seamles. Very impressive work. With all these vfx blockbusters we sometimes forget the first goal of vfx, that is being totally invisible.

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