Mercenary Effects: The Expendables

In The Expendables, director Sylvester Stallone harks back to the gritty and explosion-filled action films of days gone by to follow a team of mercenaries helping to overthrow a South American dictator. We talk to visual effects supervisor Wes Caefer about the practical and digital effects work in the film.

fxg: When I was watching this film, it really brought back nice memories of 1980s fun action movies. Is that what you were going for, as far as the visual effects were concerned?

Caefer: Yeah, definitely. I think the word we used for the entire film was ‘badass’. The good guys should be badass and the bad guys should be badass and the weapons should be badass. Whatever was in the film had to be badass.

10Sep/expend/10_72dpifxg: Worldwide FX did more than 1000 visual effects shots on the film, but you wouldn’t really notice it, I think. How did you make practical versus digital decisions for shots?

Caefer: My preference has always been real is better. You can’t really do any better than real. So where possible, I pushed for practical effects. Even where the dock is blowing up, we had practical elements that we drew from and embellished with enhancements. But there was only so much planning that could happen because Stallone is the kind of director who would let things evolve. If a good idea occurs to him he wants the flexibility to go in that direction, even if he only thought of it five minutes ago. Modern technology allows that. In the old days you had to plan way ahead and you were stuck with that, but in the computer age you have that flexibility.

fxg: Let’s talk about some the shots that were augmented.

Caefer: For the palace, for instance, they had some front doors, steps and windows for the Brazil shoot but we knew we’d have to replace it. For the New Orleans part of the shoot we only had the steps. We used a giant bluescreen for that whole courtyard battle scene. Similarly, for the initial attack on the ship with the pirates, we shot most of this on a stage, which wasn’t big enough to accommodate the height we needed. So it was built in two sections. Everybody up top looking down had to look at a bluescreen and then we combined things later.

fxg: What kind of things did you add to the island in the film?

Caefer: That was a coastline in Brazil that was shot practically. In editing, Stallone decided that it looked too busy and well-developed. It was supposed to be a very poor country. We took a lot of the boats out of the water. There were powerlines everywhere where we shot and Sly thought they would be so underdeveloped that they wouldn’t have electricity, so we had to take them out of every shot. We turned tar roads into dirt roads and changed the signs from Portuguese to Spanish and put up posters of the dictator.

10Sep/expend/01_72dpifxg: How about the dock where Stallone and Jason Statham return in their aircraft to blow it up?

Caefer: Well for a start the plane didn’t have guns on it. That was something Sly dreamed up on the day. He was like, ‘Hey, we should shoot up the dock.’ There were practical hits on the vehicles. We added the blood effects and make-up effects on the stunt people in post. The vapour trail behind the plane was digital. The plane itself isn’t in a lot of those shots. There was an actual plane, but in editing Sly wanted it to be much closer to the action, so we would cut it out and put it in much lower. Stallone knows what he wants and he’s very imaginative and flexible. So hardly any shot didn’t have some kind of improvement added or embellishment.

fxg: Can you talk about the effects for the car chase?

Caefer: This was shot in pieces. The bullet holes in the windshield were added afterwards. Sly thought you didn’t get the feeling it was bulletproof glass unless you saw the slugs stuck in there. The red car that gets smashed into didn’t seem violent enough so we added in the glass smashing everywhere. All the interior and reaction shots were done on a soundstage against bluescreen and what we had to shoot was some background plates. I got some little HD cameras and hid them on the truck so that we were getting live plates as we shot the scene. That saved us having a whole second unit tied up doing plate work, and it worked well.

fxg: In that final fight sequence it seems, again, like a broad mix of practical explosions and some enhancements?

Caefer: I tried to get everything I could here practically. There were real explosions going off all over the place, which was generally where we pulled elements from to enhance the existing explosion. It was good to use the same lighting, the same chemicals and interaction. The palace scenes as I mentioned were shot with a bluescreen. When it collapses we decided to do that as a miniature, built by Fantasy II Film Effects. It was originally conceived as a controlled demolition like construction people do, where there’s very little flash and there’s lots of dust clouds. But after Sly saw the footage it didn’t look as interesting as he liked, and decided it needed fire. So we then had to go in and add flames and fireballs and debris into those shots using Maya particles. So while the miniature was a very nice base to work from, there was an awful lot of manipulation going on on top of that.

We also did our explosions as separate passes so as not to endanger the actors. So we’d shoot an explosion then the actor in a separate pass and then it becomes a fairly straightforward comp, which was done a lot in the final battle.

fxg: How was that death shot of Steve Austin being wrapped in fire achieved?

Caefer: Well, we went there expecting to hit him in the head with the tail rotor from the helicopter. But Sly said, ‘No he should burn, that’ll be more fun.’ And fire is not traditionally the easiest thing to do in CG. So I suggested a practical burn of a man in a suit. I had this idea to replace the face with Steve Austin’s face digitally. In editorial, Sly felt that dramatically it wasn’t working in terms of what the stuntman was doing and the way it was shot didn’t do justice to the moment. Luckily, the editor found some pieces of the fight that hadn’t been used and pieced together what he thought would look good on fire. So Steve Austin is not really next to the other guy, Randy Couture for those shots, but we comped him closer to him and took pieces of the fight and moved it to where it used to be. We made a digital copy of Steve Austin to follow his movement and then covered that with a Maya fire particles system. Once it was re-edited, it looked so much better dramatically.

10Sep/expend/06_72dpifxg: Were there any other stand-out shots for you?

Caefer: The one shot that really thrilled me was more of an unimpressive scene of Sly and Jason Statham walking across the town square when they first arrive at the island with the ocean in the background. That shot works so nicely but it’s a shot cobbled together from two different locations – the square is in one part of Brazil and the ocean and everything else is miles away and weeks apart. I was watching that in the cinema thinking, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot we did that.’

Watch Worldwide FX’s Expendables making of reel