For Orphan, overall visual effects supervisor Richard Yuricich called on Image Engine to realise several sequences in the film, including a burning children’s tree house set alight by a seemingly evil girl with her adopted brother still inside. Image Engine visual effects supervisor Robin Hackl and visual effects producer Steve Garrad discuss their work with fxguide.

fxg: How did Image Engine get involved with Orphan?

Garrad: I’d worked with Richard Yuricich some years ago on Mission: Impossible II when I was at Cinesite, so we’d kept in touch. When the opportunity came along for Orphan, we grasped it. We ended up doing about 120 shots, including the treehouse fire sequence.

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fxg: What were some of the other shots you worked on?

Hackl: We did a wide variety of other 2D treatments. In one scene the sinister girl goes into a bedroom. She’s holding an Exacto blade to the boy’s throat. On set they used a rubber blade but we did some digital enhancement to make it look reflective and shiny. We also did some matte paintings for exterior views. Some shots required us to do some snow enhancement. We’ve developed some tools in-house to for particle systems. One shot involved a daytime plate that we turned into a nightime scene with a blizzard added and lightning.

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fxg: How did you approach the treehouse sequence?

Hackl: The setup of the scene is that the girl sneaks into the treehouse and sets it alight while the boy is actually in there. So we establish the boy inside the treehouse and some practical flames were shot inside the scene to establish he’s in danger and he has to get out. We then cut to the exterior of the treehouse where a lot of the work was in the blocking of the flames. The story point we had to deliver for the sequence was that the boy gets up on the roof and he quickly runs out of options as to how he’s going to escape this event. The first go in regards to working with the director was really quickly temping in the flames so we could get all of those actions established. For example, he gets up on the roof and we had to establish that two of the walls were completely engulfed in flames, so now he only has two options in regards to his escape. Then through the camera work and the flames, we then establish that he has only one option left and one direction he’s able to escape in.

Garrad:The shots were part of assisting the narrative, to make it more intense. So when the boy falls off the roof you believe why he’s fallen off.

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fxg: How were the flames accomplished?

Hackl: The flames themselves were all lock-off elements shot at various angles. We had about three to five angles of practical flames that were filmed. That’s where taking advantage of Nuke’s 3D capabilities came into play. All the shots were moving shots. We had to track all the camera moves in 3D and then, by placing two-dimensional cards in the scene, we started layering up these practical flame elements that were shot. Of course, just adding the flame elements doesn’t sell it, because it just looks like 2D flames on top of a plate. So the other aspect that were quite comp-heavy were integrating the flames into the shots, adding light interaction into the scene, for example. Then we added CG smoke, heat haze, burning embers and melting snow within the context of the shot.

The integration of the flames was the most time consuming work after we agreed on the blocking of the fire – the size of the flames, the positioning of the flames, how much flame was actually on the roof. There was a lot of back and forth with the client. We would send them a rough blocking and they might say: ‘Oh, those flames are too tall. Why would he walk towards flames that are four feet high?’ So we had to massage the elements to the director’s liking.

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fxg: What were some of the things you did to make the shots realistic?

Hackl: We were lucky to be using Nuke. Without Nuke’s 3D capabilities, it would have made it extremely complicated, given how much tracking any one particular artist would have to do. So the artists could focus on positioning and placement of the flames and light interaction. If you have a big dollying shot of a house in flames, you’ve got to add light interaction of the trees around the building. We also had to fake the look of burning wood through colour correction, through travelling mattes and animated mattes, giving the illusion that the flames are growing. Not only did we have to do all this blocking, we had to establish that the flames started from a central point and quickly establish that they spread and engulfed the entire treehouse.

Garrad: We used lots of flame elements. It’s the combination of everything – layering up the flames, smoke elements, CG embers. This isn’t a big creature – it’s a child on a treehouse and had to be believable.

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fxg: I suppose the other half of that is the sequence couldn’t have been filmed for real given it’s so dangerous?

Garrad: Yes. Actually, to get off the treehouse, the boy tries to jump off the treehouse, so he lands on the side of the treehouse. They did that with a stuntwoman, and we ended up hiding her, basically.

Hackl: Yeah, there were two shots in particular where the stunt double was dressed in the same costume, but we had to add additional smoke elements to hide the fact that it wasn’t the kid jumping off this plank.

Garrad: In these days of Blu-rays you can see people stopping the frame and going, ‘That’s not the boy!’

Hackl: What ultimately happened was we ended up having to match to the last shots of the sequence which had a practical burning treehouse after it explodes and collapses. The nice thing about doing effects of this nature is that we had something to match to. Given that we had this plate of the treehouse collapsed in flames, we had a very tangible result that we had to match to. In some ways that makes our lives easy in that we’re not guessing what the client wants, but on the other hand it can be difficult because it had to match and be completely believable.