Kick-Ass, director Matthew Vaughn’s take on the graphic novels by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., tells the story of unlikely superhero Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson). Double Negative oversaw 835 visual effects for the film, ranging from city backdrops to a jet pack flight over New York. We talk to visual effects supervisor Mattias Lindahl about the work.

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fxg: There’s a real sense of fun behind the visual effects in the film. What was it like to be involved with?

Lindahl: It was definitely a new way of working for me, being an independent film with very little involvement from the studios. In some ways it was a bit of a renegade way of working where we had a lot more freedom to do what we wanted.

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fxg: What kind of approach did they take to shooting the film?

Lindahl: The first part of the shoot was in Toronto. We were out there for three weeks and did all the exterior shots, which doubled up for New York. Part of the work there was to do digital set extensions to make you feel like you’re in New York. The second part of the shoot was on sound stages in and around London, mostly Elstree with pick-ups at Pinewood. The last bit of the shoot was in New York for pick-ups. I also spent some time there with a colleague on skyscraper roof-tops taking thousands and thousands of stills to act as backdrops for the various views in the film. These were for the baddie Frank D’Amico’s apartment for any shot where there was a window looking outside.

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fxg: How did you do that first shot of the pretend superhero jumping off the building and crashing into the car?

Lindahl: After the credits, we descend on our ‘Armenian’ superhero jumping off a New York building. That was shot on a skyscraper in downtown Toronto looking outwards. We had to do a 2 1/2-D projected matte painting to change the backgrounds to make it the New York skyline. As the camera tilts up and over him, there’s a transition down to the real plate again of a Toronto street. We added in some traffic to make it look like a New York street, with your classic NY cabs and such.

When he jumps over the edge, we shot that with a stuntman on wires on the backlot at Pinewood on greenscreen. There was a plan originally to record the jump with a huge 30 foot technocrane, but we didn’t have the room for it, so we ended up doing a perspective shift on the superhero. Rather than have him jumping off, we actually did all the move in the camera. We previs’d it to work out how high the camera needed to descend and did a slow pass that we sped up and stabilised afterwards. It involved the stuntman being lowered down carefully on wires to leap and at the same time the camera shooting upwards to get the perspective change. He had to have his feet planted on the end of the rostrum he was standing on, which was a little bit restrictive, so we ended up replacing his legs in CG.

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fxg: In Frank’s apartment, there’s a huge shoot ’em up followed by the arrival of Kick-Ass with the jet pack. How was the apartment accomplished?

Lindahl: The shoot ’em up sequence was previs’d to the point of us taking a few stills and working out the size of Kick-Ass to add into the shots. Everything else was pretty much shot from the script and storyboards. When they take off together from Frank’s apartment, that was completely previs’d, both for shooting the helicopter plates in Toronto and New York and also to then plan the motion control shoot.

Some shots were done separately on greenscreen and some in situ done with Aaron Johnson hanging on wires outside the apartment set. There are quite a lot of digital set extensions for that apartment sequence. It was built as a completely digital asset. There’s five establishing shots throughout the film that include a completely CG apartment. Lidar VFX scanned the set for us to use in our digital model which we did in Maya. Shots filmed on the soundstage were extended with our asset where necessary.

What was quite a challenge for D’Amico’s apartment was that it needed to work for any time of day. From when Hit Girl arrives and goes up the elevator to when Kick Ass arrives on his jet pack, and them setting off, the day changes and basically morning breaks. It goes from night to early morning. The way the DP lit that scene was very ambitious. There was a shift in the lighting setup pretty much for every shot. The light changed quite rapidly and so we needed to cover that with our stills to go from nighttime to dawn, early morning and day.

So for all these locations, we basically had to sit on the roof and wait for the light to change. We ended up relying on grading quite a bit. The way we took the photographs was using a high dynamic range setup, with multiple exposures for every tile so that we could then handle the information for grading. That let us use, say, a nighttime shot to almost go up to morning and ‘magic hour’ because of the huge range of exposure.

The other effects included tracer fire for the gatling gun and the shells and impact holes to the glass surfaces. They had eight cameras running at the same time and they blew it up twice. Most of the debris flying around the air was all in-camera and worked beautifully, so we didn’t have to enhance it too much. Whenever we look into the apartment there are reflections added into the windows to look like we are reflecting the rest of the New York environment.

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fxg: What kind of challenges did the jet pack scenes involve?

Lindahl: For the jet pack flight, we shot all the plates based on the previs and got that sequence together and matchmoved the plates and stuck our previs characters in there to work out what we would need to shoot on the greenscreen. Because these moves were so big, we couldn’t shoot 1:1 with the camera moving around, so we used a system we refer to as ‘aim cam’, where we take out all the z-depths from the move and add that in later in the comp.

So for instance for the shot where they zoom past the Brooklyn Bridge, that was filmed with the motion control rig zooming past them as much as we could but then using a proprietary Plane-it node to get 3D data into Shake. We’d place a plane on our characters to be able to work out exactly what 2D transformations need to be done to make it work in 3D space. For the flames on the jet pack, we based this on a blow-torch approach. It’s a DNB voxel render done at Double Negative, and the smoke and steam were created with CG solutions and heavily augmented with real elements and distortion tracked in. We took a similar approach for when Frank is taken out by the missile.

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fxg: Can you talk about some of the other effects in the film, like the comic book sequence?

Lindahl: The comic book sequence was completed by Fido in Stockholm, where I’m now working. It was great fun working on it, especially with John Romita Jr., the comic book artist, and his team. The basic thought behind the sequence was that you should be able to stop the sequence on any frame and it should look like one of the paintings from the original comic book. For that it was very important to have the original guys involved. They created all the artwork for us to use as 2 1/2-D projected matte paintings.

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The whole thing was previs’d very carefully in Maya. It started off with John and his team drawing orthographic views of the characters that would be in the film which we could then get models and textures from. When the previs was approved, John checked out the framings and everything to make sure that he was happy with the look. He changed a few things around to make it even more into his styling. Then John drew key frames, as it were.

His team, Tom Palmer, inker and Dean White, colourist, then finished off these frames to be used as 2 1/2-D projections to be projected onto geometry that was modeled up with photos or from digital models of the actors. When you do your initial projection and move it around and look at it from a different angle, there will be some holes that need to be patched up, so the team at Fido did a lot of that work to finish it all off.

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Other VFX houses also contributed. The Senate did the warehouse fire sequence and the sequence in Rasul’s apartment, including the game play scene on the television that was shot with bluescreen. And they worked on the blood and gore with the guy getting his leg cut off. Lip Sync Post executed composites of Frank’s apartment that Double Negative had done the look development for. Ghost VFX in Denmark did all the monitor inserts. Finally, Wyld Stallyons did all the designs for the myspace and YouTube pages and things like the Red Mist website.

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