Kingsman: not so secret effects

Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service is an ode to spy films, but with a fun and sometimes subversive bent. In it, young Londoner Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taron Egerton) is recruited by Harry Hart (Colin Firth), a member of a super-secret intelligence agency. Together they try to foil the plans of Internet billionaire Richmond Valentine who is intent on some major world disruption. Helping to bring Vaughn’s vision to the screen were several visual effects vendors wrangled by visual effects producer Stephen Elson, and supervisors Steve Begg, Paul Docherty, John Bruno and Kevin Tod Haug.

In this article, fxguide explores just four VFX moments from the film – the incredible exploding heads, Gazelle’s deadly bladed prosthetic legs, the lengthy church brawl and the skydiving sequence.

***This article contains spoilers***

Losing their heads

A still from a Kingsman TV spot showing the exploding heads.
A still from a Kingsman TV spot showing the exploding heads.

In one spectacularly unexpected sequence, senior Kingsman Merlin (Mark Strong) is able to trigger devices implanted in Valentine’s VIP and accomplices’ heads, causing them to explode in a fiery rainbow of musically choreographed mayhem. BUF handled the final shots.

“Within 9 shots, 216 heads explode,” describes BUF visual effects supervisor Geoffrey Niquet. “The discussions we had were primarily about the challenge of creating an amazing effect, something never seen before, with particle explosions highlighting the ballet look of the sequence while avoiding the ‘gore’ of a head exploding.”

“The brief we were given for the head explosions from Matthew and Kevin Tod Haug, the VFX supervisor/designer,” adds Niquet, “included a very eclectic mood board with an exploding light bulb, an exploding watermelon, shock waves, supernovas, and smoke rings. Also, for inspiration of the choreographic aspect of the sequence, we were referred to ‘Dance Until Dawn’ by Busby Berkeley.”

Adapting the explosions into something humorous, and suitable for the desired rating, BUF followed what Niquet says was a “surrealist, happy and festive look. We proposed inventive 2D designs such as fireworks, confetti, paint, sparks, mini mushroom clouds, and different color propositions for the blood as a means of avoiding the ‘gore’ effect (from blood-red to golden orange). Parallel to those designs, we explored versions of CG smoke simulations. In order to help with the humor, the simulations included stylized swirling patterns along with unexpected color gradations.”

Catch a glimpse of the work in this TV spot.

The performers were filmed practically, but no actual explosions were captured on film. “Given that the sequence needed to be choreographed in synchronization to the music in post,” says Niquet, “shots were filmed in multiple passes and layers with extras performing in very small groups, or ideally alone, in each pass. The performance of the extras was simply to react to the explosion and fall over dead – leaving us to place them in the correct space and in time with the music later.”

To realize the exploding effect, BUF had some clear references. The heads were to explode like watermelons, while blood projections had to be discreet and quickly pulverized. The steam and smoke from the explosion would then be multi-colored and take the form of a graphical mushroom cloud and include fireworks-like sparks. All this at between 24 and 96 fps.

BUF orchestrated a lighting-up effect near where the chip was placed in the person’s neck. A procedural texture lightened and broke up the 3D model of the head, with rays of volumetric light created through the holes. The colliding pieces of head formed a ‘solid simulation’, followed by a ‘blobby’ liquid sim for the blood trail. In addition, a 3D ring shaped model was generated for around the neck.

“Most of the simulations were rendered during the setup stage as elements to then be used within the shots,” says Niquet. “In order to provide more variety, we offered a range of versions for each of the most recognizable elements: 5 shapes of body x 5 shapes of mushroom-cloud x 5 sorts of fireworks x 5 colors = 625 variations were possible!”

Gazelle’s lethal limbs

Gazelle launches herself at Eggsy.
Gazelle launches herself at Eggsy.

Richmond Valentine’s aide Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) – actually an assassin with blades as prosthetic legs – is called upon several times in the film to fight, kill and maim. At Valentine’s mountain base, Gazelle faces off against Eggsy in one rousing final battle. Visual effects for the prosthetic blades were handled by Nvizible.

Gazelle’s performance came together from a combination of the real actor and stunt performers, with Nvizible carrying out face replacements as well as the blade inserts. On set, some shots were captured via motion control so that multiple passes – featuring Gazelle and Eggsy separately – could be performed. Since the fight scenes were high-energy, a number of rigs were also employed: high speed Phantom cams, wire cameras, 360 degree rigs, as well as the moco setup.

The Gazelle performer wore green leggins below the knee and covered in black markers. Production then also filmed shots with two additional witness cams to help with tracking later on. “We’d roto-animate all of the existing action, and that would be the basis of our animation for the legs,” explains Nvizible visual effects supervisor Matt Kasmir. “We’d have suppress a lot of the original movement and animation, and then animate subtleties within the blade to give them personality.”

B-roll from the set.

Boutella was scanned on stage, with the cyberscan also assisting in roto-animation. Some more fine-tuning was required owing to a bouncey floor used for the final fight in order to gain height and provide for more agility. “The clean-up was quite huge,” notes Kasmir. “We had the floor, extras on the ground which are missing their heads, interactive light from a dance track and disco, and then the legs. What helped was a projected environment from a scan of the set to fill in the gaps. We were able to midi sync the light to our motion control so 9 times out of ten the light did match the moco passes – but we ended up having to replace a lot of light – so we had a whole bank of CG volumetric lights that we would pepper in when the lights weren’t easy to marry up with clean up and multiple layers.” Some shots were also shared with Peerless, which had been called upon to add in numerous headless bodies following the explosions.

Gazelle’s blades were designed to fit into carbon fiber black cups. “We were using HDRIs of every shot to reflect the environment,” says Kasmir. “Sometimes it was interacting with a character she was fighting, there would be a body double in there reflecting just to bed them into the shots – it was nice to have other characters’ reflections moving over the cup.”

Nvizible’s work on Gazelle’s legs proved so successful that the studio’s renders were also used to create some of Kingsman’s signature poster imagery.

Church show-down

Harry mid-fight at the church.
Harry mid-fight at the church.

Earlier, Harry is lured to a hate group church in Kentucky, where everyone suddenly becomes uncontrollably violent – thanks to the activation of a SIM card that Valentine has made freely available around the world. The resulting melee leaves Harry as the only survivor. Prime Focus created visual effects for the sequence ranging from blood hits, re-times and transitions, to face replacement work.

“The entire ‘Church Fight’ sequence was fully previs’d before the shoot, and was very precisely planned and set-up,” outlines Prime Focus visual effects supervisor Marc Jouveneau. “It was filmed in South London over two or three weeks, and it was originally going to be up to 6 minutes of fighting, as one continuous shot in the film.”

Brad Allan served as both stunt coordinator and second unit director for the fight, earlier recording some stuntviz that would then transform into previs and animatics.

B-roll from the church fight.

“We had to make sure that the fight exactly matched the story and that all the transitions to make it look like one long shot were seamless,” adds Jouveneau. “Sometimes we had stunt performers, because Colin Firth couldn’t be expected to do all of the things required, so we had a some face replacements which were quite challenging. It was very bloody, but designed to be like a cartoon per the director’s wishes, and this is very well understood by the audience.”

The sequence was filmed with a 45 degree shutter angle in order to provide a sharp, crisp and choppy look. A major challenge was working with sometimes long takes and making them cut together. “There ended up being some cuts because the edit was changed, but we still have three long sections at over 1000 frames each, each containing face replacements, blood, muzzle flashes, fire, sparks, animated chairs etc,” says Jouveneau. “On-set I was ensuring that we were very accurate on the transitions from one shot to another, and making sure that this would work with the retiming also. We also had to ensure that the framing was the same for these smooth transitions, despite the fact that a lot of the sequence was shot handheld.”

Skydive close-call

Catch a glimpse of the skydiving shots in this TV spot.

Proving their wares, new candidates for the Kingsman, of which Eggsy is one, go through several layers of training. A skydive jump test becomes more precarious when the candidates are told – mid-jump – that one person does not have a parachute. The sequence was previs’d by Nvizage, with final effects by Baseblack.

“We were given some storyboards and created animatic from that,” say Nvizage previs supervisor Martin Chamney. “Interestingly when we saw what real footage looked like, we realized it had to be more cinematic. In previs it’s hard to make it feel realistic without real footage, and judge the speed without clouds passing by and what not.”

“We observed some shots from the film Captain Phillips,” continues Chamney, “and this footage provided reference to help choreograph the types of angles that worked – there’s a certain look you get from filming those types of jumps, and Matthew wanted it to feel very real and credible rather than having impossible moves. We worked with 3d fluid tanks in Maya and had those ripping past the camera so you actually feel like you’re descending through the body and that gave great parallax for the shots. And we used long lenses to make the ground speed feel fast as they get closer and closer to the crunch point.”

B-roll of the skydive team in action.

The real Red Bull sky dive team performed jumps, filming the action as they went. “They were all professional parachuters which meant that all the actors were replaced,” says Baseblack’s Stephen Elson. “The final shots were a mixture of multiple camera 3D projections, fully 3D heads and additional shooting of 2D heads and tracking it in and matching the lighting and moves.”

“We were originally looking at doing it with a three camera shoot and matching the lighting in 3D for the head replacements,” states Baseblack 2D supervisor Joss Flores. “This is a process that doesn’t really hold up for the lighting changes in the skydive. But once we knew what the edit was we were able to look at the individual shots. We matchmoved them and then based on that we could pin the face right into the middle of the screen and we could take the camera move out of it and really see what they were doing with their faces and heads. Then we could essentially build a rig on set that was able to swivel with the camera on it or off it, and match the lighting. We would turn them in or out of the lighting. Then had to put CG visors and sky reflections over the top, and adjust backgrounds with matte paintings and CG clouds to match between shots.”