In The Adjustment Bureau, two lovers played by Matt Damon and Emily Blunt find themselves kept apart by mysterious business men in hats. Visual effects supervisor Mark Russell enabled several portal door transitions and a signature ‘Escher stairs’ sequence to reveal the Bureau’s secret world.
fxg: Although this isn’t a big visual effects film, what were some of the early considerations you had in terms of how some of the doorway transitions and repeating stairs could be achieved with visual effects on this film?
Russell: Well, this was actually George Nolfi’s first time directing, although he’s been a writer on some big Hollywood movies. When we first started out on the movie he was very adamant about not using visual effects and trying to do all of it in-camera, but knowing that the script contained a lot things that were visually impossible. John Toll, the DP, and I certainly tried to do everything in-camera where possible, and we really only used visual effects to just create the seamless environment that looped back on itself, like the doors and the impossible stairway, what we called the Escher stairs. For the doorways, in particular, we talked early on about wanting them to evolve like the story arc. So at the beginning you don’t really know what’s going on with them, but by the end you’re going through these doorways and you’re really feeling it with the characters.
fxg: How did you approach the doorway transitions? Was there one particular method you adopted?
Russell: The door transitions were generally handled by what was then RhinoFX in New York but is now called Gravity. There’s one where Matt Damon is being chased by Richardson (John Slattery) and his aide and they run through a restaurant cloak closet and end up somewhere else. The space was so small that we decided not to go with a greenscreen at all. It was also such a brief moment that we literally had the actors run into this tiny closet and stand there off to the side. When the actress comes through at the end, the others are literally standing an inch from her face. That was one where, like most of the film, the majority of our effects came out of necessity by shooting in New York. Either the locations were too small or they weren’t conducive to us getting in and pre-rigging anything.
fxg: There’s a grand transition to the Statue of Liberty later on. How was that achieved?
Russell: That was actually done in three different pieces. We shot Matt and Emily on a bluescreen set on a soundstage parking lot, then we shot a background plate at the Statute of Liberty, and another background plate on Sixth Avenue without people in it, and then additional one with people in it at a different frame rate. Wildfire Post handled that work.
fxg: Let’s talk about the Escher stairs shot, where Matt Damon and Emily Blunt’s character go up the stairs and keep finding themselves on the roof of the same building. How did you plan that shot?
Russell: I think we skipped ‘boarding that scene and went straight to a previs. We had Ron Frankel and his team at Proof in LA previs that scene for us. That gave us basically a 3D animation that showed more or less what the action should be. We took it a bit further and did a test where we built a completely exposed stairway. We brought in a 50 foot Technocrane and we had our actors run up and down the stairs to see how much of a logistical problem it was for our crane operators to follow them. It had to be slow enough so that you could see what was happening but fast enough to keep the action of the scene.
fxg: So the previs informed the test?
Russell: Yes, actually in doing that test, it was a funny experiment for me. I’ve been on jobs where you do the previs and that stands as the law, and then everybody builds up on that. But here it was very much the other way around. The previs was a tool that got us to the discussion and the discussion led to a physical test. John Toll is a very hands-on cinematographer and he really wanted to get the camera there and see what it did in reality.
fxg: How did that then help with planning out the final shot?
Russell: So we followed the actors around on the stairs and then we could figure out what we needed to build and what we could get away with doing digitally. What we learned from this test was that the Technocrane really wasn’t able to drop in as much as we liked. So we only built one side of the stairway up to the handrail. It was about two and a half to three feet high, and the rest was a CG extension, which was done by Phosphene.
fxg: What were some of the challenges of blending that live action with the digital work?
Russell: As you can imagine, the tracking and the merging of the digital and the physical was quite a challenge. The whole goal of the scene was to be able to do it in one continuous piece. George really wanted to throw one in the audience’s face and say ‘Ha! How did we do that?’. We came up with a shorthand which said, ‘Here’s where we want the audience to be looking while we do the effect behind their back.’ So we would try and make them think we’re going to do it in a traditional sense, but then actually do it in a way that nobody would be anticipating.
fxg: How were the backgrounds for the rooftop part of that scene acquired?
Russell: We shot the foreground plates with a Technocrane. We tracked them in 3D and then we brought a motion control rig up to the top of the Rockefeller Center on two different days. The first day was rained out but on the second day we got a perfect match to what they had shot up there with First Unit a couple of weeks prior.
There were some interesting challenges that you can sort of foresee but you can never really guess the extent of them. The big one was that the motion control rigs that are available aren’t always fast enough to match a Steadicam. You can set up a camera in the right position, but you can’t do it at speed. So we shot our backgrounds at a much slower rate than our foreground plates. We shot the foregrounds at 24 fps, or sometimes 48, while the backgrounds were shot at 10 fps at our fastest.
Where that potentially runs into problems is anywhere where you have smoke or traffic or people in the background. They have to be replaced because they’re moving much faster than you want them to. The rooftops weren’t too much of a problem – we had a few smoke stacks which were easy to fix – but the scene that became an issue for us was the entry into the Statute of Liberty from Sixth Avenue, which we shot in three different pieces.
fxg: Were the markers and things on the greenscreen rooftop set to help the actors know where to look?
Russell: For this scene in particular, we actually made green cut-outs of the Empire State Building and Central Park, that we placed in the middle of the greenscreen. The Central Park cut-out even had a little perspective built into it from the art department. The tricky part of that was, depending on where you camera is in relation to your actors, that perspective could be totally wrong. So we placed it where it would be if the camera was right in the centre of the platform, but each time the camera came out at a slightly different place, either in front of or behind the actors. Their perspective relative to where the buildings were was a crapshoot as much as anything else. We had to do a number of takes but it all happened so quickly that it didn’t make a lot of difference.
You can plan and plan and plan, but one of the most important things that I think a lot of visual effects supervisors and production crews forget is that if your actors don’t put it out convincingly, then it doesn’t work. If you can’t communicate to Matt Damon and Emily Blunt what they’re supposed to be looking at, where it is and how it feels, the idea never gets solved. So I think we did just enough to get their attention in the right places and the right mindset. And fortunately we were working with two very capable actors.
fxg: I wanted to ask you about some of the other visual effects in the film. What kinds of other work, like greenscreen composites, were there?
Russell: A lot of things we ended up shooting on greenscreen were location-dependent shots. We’d only be allowed into buildings say for six hours at night, and there were times we needed to add shots but could no longer shoot at the location. One of the warehouse sequences was shot at the Javits Center in New York, which is a big conference center. We literally got in at 5pm and had to be out by 5am the next morning. They shot this entire scene and a lot of what they wanted to get out of the performances wasn’t captured. They asked me what they could do and I looked through everything that had been shot and knew we could re-create the background if we had a small piece of foreground to shoot on. So we built a couple of columns that matched what was there on the day and we comped in the background completely.
The bus scene, where Matt is chatting to Emily, was a four and-a-half-minute scene that we didn’t want to shoot on a real bus for continuity reasons. So it was shot on greenscreen. Big Film Design did the comps for that. We also did a lot of window comps – any time you’re in an office looking out of a window, the Adjustment Bureau in particular. It was usually shot on the ground floor or second floor of a building in Manhattan, so we greenscreen’d all of those, which also allowed us to shoot them at odd hours, which happened quite a bit. Brainstorm Digital did the window comps and they also worked on the amazing planbooks in the film.
For a couple of the sets, we worked with Kevin Thompson, the production designer, to design office spaces within larger areas. There’s a scene in Terence Stamp’s character’s office – that whole window behind him is a fabrication of the set within a beautiful lobby space. In doing a lot of those types of sets, we would put half a set with a greenscreen behind it. Similarly, there are scenes in the Adjustment Bureau where you’ve got Matt and Emily running through the plan rooms, with books surrounding them. We wanted it to extend longer into the background and have it so that you could be looking in either direction and not know where you were. But one side had the physical architecture and one side didn’t, so we just shot the completed side and comped that back onto the other side so that it was a double-ended capsule.
fxg: What was the final shot count and what was some of your favourite work in the film?
Russell: The final count was around 310, which wasn’t huge but certainly bigger than when we started. I tend to be drawn towards these movies that are more story-driven. But the effects still had a real place in The Adjustment Bureau – they just don’t really jump out as being effects, they’re just part of the world that you never previously noticed.
The bus sequence was the one we spent the most time worrying about, but actually it was the one that we shot in the cleanest way possible. The stairs were the big headache and reward – the shots that kept me up at night – but ended up looking beautiful. We’re all really proud of the doorway transitions, especially the way they integrated into the movie. What we ended up with was really a nice flow from the beginning of the story to the end, as the transitions get increasingly more exciting.
Images and clips © 2011 Universal Pictures.