Scott Pilgrim and VFX against the world

In Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the title character woos his new girlfriend by battling her seven evil exes in Japanese Anime-style fights punctuated with video game-like on-screen graphics. Visual effects supervisor Frazer Churchill oversaw more than 1200 shots for film. We take a look at the work by Double Negative and Mr. X.

Fight methodology

10Aug/scott/hit Based on a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, the film follows 23 year old Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) and his Toronto-based hipster musician friends who are in a rock band called Sex Bob-omb. Scott meets and falls in love with Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and it soon transpires that to win her over he must defeat seven of her evil exes. Confrontations with these exes play out in fantastical and epic fight scenes coupled with on-screen sound effects and graphics. “The main effort from our perspective,” commented visual effects supervisor Frazer Churchill, “was taking the feel of the graphic novel and turning it into something that was more physical in terms of colour and weight and all the things you need for photographic reality.”

Double Negative handled the large volume of fight sequence and on-screen graphics effects, basing the look on the original graphic novels, storyboards by Edgar Wright and his brother Oscar and a fair amount of previs. Churchill orchestrated two test shoots to nail down the look of the fights, collaborating with cinematographer Bill Pope, production designer Marcus Rowland, stunt co-ordinator Brad Allen and the director. The tests set the methodology for the fight sequences which would be captured using several film formats and shooting techniques. “We shot with a variety of formats – VistaVision, spherical, anamorphic and digital on the Phantom,” said Churchill. “A lot of the fight sequences have a slow-mo speed ramp effect on them.

The film is presented in 1:85 spherical but the look is very anamorphic so there are flares throughout and we play with film optics to present the effects. So, in a scene featuring Scott and Ramona talking with a de-focused background, for example, instead of the bokehs in the lens being circular, they were subtlety heart-shaped. Another manifestation was a hard mask on a shot. It would have a 2.40 hard mask and sometimes someone would put their hand outside the mask and cross over it. We had to integrate all these formats and aspects and make it feel like a coherent whole.”


Spinning kicks and hipster chicks

In the first fight sequence, Ramona’s ex Matthew Patel crashes through the ceiling of the Rockit nightclub where Sex Bob-omb are playing and challenges Scott. A massive kung fu battle ensues before Patel summons four identical demon hipster girls with wings who launch fireballs at the band. The sequence was shot both on set and on a bluescreen stage. “For shots of the characters spinning in the air in slow-motion,” explained Churchill, “the actors were on parallelogram rigs against bluescreen and we were shooting with the Phantom at 288 frames per second for extreme slow-mo.”

In the Patel fight, and others in the film, Edgar Wright requested a physical manifestation of punches that were being landed. “He wanted there to be lights flashing on set,” said Churchill. “Michael Cera would punch a blue pad which would trigger off photo flash bulbs that would illuminate everything at the same time. So there’s a photo flash bulb going off when they make a connection but there’s also a ‘lightning strike’ light which has 70,000 watts of power as Patel spins across the club.” Double Negative performed a morph transition between two shots in the Patel fight to create a crash zoom out as Scott punches his adversary, adding camera and ‘colour shake’ that cycled through frames of block colour for a stylised look.


A large part of the fight sequences and the film in general were the graphics – both video game references and sound effect representations. “In the Patel fight there were words like ‘Krowww’ and ‘kpok’ directly taken from the graphic novels,” said Churchill. “We’d take hi-res versions from Photoshop into Shake and split them out into different colour channels and re-combine them into slight offsets so that the edges of the graphics had a slight rainbowy aberration to them with slightly reduced opacity. You feel the set lights shining through the graphics that appear on the screen. They’re depth cued and we tried not to make it feel like they were just laid on top.”

Other effects in the fight included a shot of Patel running across the stage with the proportions of the room stretching and distorting Manga-style and the camera appearing to be locked to his running legs. This was achieved by shooting the actor on a blue jogging treadmill to capture a ‘camera locked’ aspect on the legs, with the other actors shot as stills on the Rockit set in a dolly move. A computer-generated floor and wall with anime-like zoom lines and lens flares made up the final shot. “Even when they become anime-type backgrounds, the effects were still constructed from the on-set photography,” noted Churchill. “I’d always take digital stills of the entire set in the same lighting conditions and I’d shoot plates and flares with the second unit and we’d make our backgrounds out of that photography.”

The identical demon hipster chicks, complete with CG wings and an ethereal glow, were captured by shooting just one actress on a fork rig with an array of four cameras on bluescreen in order to get slight differences in the performance. “We had her run through her routine pretty much for the whole day,” said Churchill, “and in the edit we would offset the performances using different takes.” Fireballs were created in Double Negative’s in-house Squirt software.


Skateboarding to victory

Scott’s next adversary is film star Lucas Lee (Chris Evans) at the Toronto landmark Casa Loma, standing in as the location of one of his movies. Lee immediately punches Scott out hurls him into a castle turret. “To shoot this,” explained Churchill, “Chris Evans picked up a dummy set of legs dressed with Scott’s costume to provide a realistic prop with believable weight resistance for Chris to ‘spin throw’ across the set. The dummy was later replaced with a digital double and animated Tex Avery style in a long throw up into the castle turret.” Scott’s fall from the turret utilised a stunt performer on a descender rig combined digitally with a partial repeat of Michael Cera doing a body roll on cement bags.


As the fight continues, Scott faces and dispatches five members of Lee’s stunt team in a sequence co-ordinated by Brad Allen. It was conceived as a long tracking move and shot in three parts. “The three pieces were shot VistaVision so we could add ‘hand-held’ camera operation and digital zooms in the final composite,” noted Churchill. “Clean plates, digital stills and Michael Cera face elements were shot to help glue the three pieces together. A CG smashing skateboard, comic book style animated impact graphics and visualised sound effects were all added in the final comp.” Scott and Lee continue to face off in a Manga-like fight featuring zooms lines and a digital contra zoom, achieved by shooting tracking plates on set, slow-motion plates of the actors running on bluescreen and the addition of CG environments, 2D graphic sound effects, hand-drawn speed lines and flare elements.

Scott then challenges Lee to a skateboard grind down a long staircase with rails near the Casa Loma. Earlier previz with a digital Lucas Lee and a model of the staircase environment helped with the bluescreen shoot for the exaggerated moves. “The final sequence,” said Churchill, “has matte paintings of the Toronto skyline, CG steps, CG trees, CG snow flurries, CG sparks, lens flare elements, 2D graphics, bluescreen stunt performers, bluescreen actors, CG coin explosions, and CG and photographic smoke elements. Chantelle Williams created the CG environment using Maya and RenderMan amd Steve Tizzard oversaw the creation and compositing of the action sequence.”

Roxy lady

At an after-party, Scott meets the next ex – Bi-Furious Roxy Richter (Mae Whitman) – who wields a metal razor belt. Shots with the belt were filmed with both the actors and stunt performers using a stand-in ribbon that was replaced by Double Negative and augmented with lens flares, a CG hammer, breaking disco ball shards, CG smoke and sparks. “There are also a number of bluescreen shots in the sequence,” added Churchill, “as Roxy has the ability to PAF, which means she disappears and re-appears in a cloud of smoke. Serena Lam and David Furher composited the sequence.”

Dragons, yetis and dancing fur

The next battle takes place at a battle of the bands competition in a huge warehouse, with Sex Bob-omb facing the Katanyagi twins (Keita Saitou and Shota Saito). Sex Bob-omb play a track written by Beck called ‘Threshold’ as the twins on the opposite side release a devastating sound wave from their speakers, knocking the band members over and blowing a hole in the roof of the venue. The band recomposes itself but then faces two giant snow dragons summoned by the Katanyagi twins from their speaker stacks. In response, Sex Bob-omb conjure a sound yeti from their amplifiers and these creatures have an aerial battle as the two bands continue playing. Ultimately, the yeti bashes the snow dragons’ heads together, which fall and destroy the twins to turn them into coins.


Double Negative previz’d the sequence, which was shot on a set using weather balloons as reference and eyelines for the creatures based on measurements from the animatics. Moving on set lights followed the creatures planned paths for interactive lighting. Colin McEvoy hand animated the dragons and yeti, with Markus Drayss and Lucy Salter designed a particle system in the Dneg’s DNB software for the look of the dragons. “Also, with the roof torn off,” noted Churchill, “snow falls into the warehouse and literally dances in time with the music – an effect created in Houdini and Maya by Alexis Hall, who also defined soundwave effects coming from the Katanyagi twins.”

The sound yeti’s fur also moves and reacts in time with the music. At Double Negative, CG supervisor Andrew Whitehurst wrote a tool – coined Waveform Generator – that converted data from audio files into animation data and shapes to drive the amplitude and frequency of the bristling yeti fur as curves in Maya. Also used for visualising music in other parts of the film, the generated shapes could be altered by hand to produce the most interesting and dynamic result. The crash of the snow dragons was realised as a mix between a practical explosion and CG enhancements utlitising the Dneg’s Dynamite rigid body dynamics software with coin particle simulations provided by Chris Thomas and Federico Frassinelli and composited by Keith Herft in Shake.

Absolute Chaos

10Aug/scott/fight_endThe final fight pits Scott against Ramona’s evil-ex Gideon (Jason Schwartzman) in the Chaos Theatre nightclub. This fight features flaming swords and showers of coins as Scott defeats hordes of hipster attackers. On set, Michael Cera wielded a plexiglass sword containing red LEDs for interactive lighting. Double Negative replaced the plexiglass version with a CG metal blade engulfed in CG flames produced by Mick Harper and Federico Frassinelli in Squirt and rendered in RenderMan, with coin explosions done in DNB and compositing by Jim Steel in Shake.

10Aug/scott/end_swordScott and Gideon’s final clash in Anime-style was realised by shooting two stunt doubles on trampolines using the Phantom camera at 288 fps, with VistaVision backgrounds and tighter shots of the Chaos Theatre LED panels amd the faces digital replaced with those of Michael Cera and Jason Schwartzman. “The plates were combined to create an abstract Manga background that retained the favour of the photography,” said Churchill. “I think this fight was a good example of the variety of techniques and film formats that we used to achieve our design remit – a Japanese Anime-style animation with a 16-bit video game aesthetic – and a little bit of photographic reality.”

Stylising Toronto

Scenes shot at real locations in and around Toronto for the film were augmented with a stylised and snowy look by Mr. X, which completed 211 shots for the film under the overall supervision of Frazer Churchill, including graphic text composite shots, split-screen wipes and some previs. “About 6 months before pre-production started, the production designer came to town to begin pre-scouting some of the locations,” said Mr. X visual effects supervisor Aaron Weintraub. “Because Bryan O’Malley drew a fair number of his exterior location panels while actually looking at real Toronto locations like Wallace’s Apartment and Wychwood Library, we were fortunate enough to be able to use the actual places that were represented in the book. We shot some stills that precisely matched the angle and composition of the panels in the books. From there, we put together a package that showed each of the locations with varying levels of simplification ranging from the photograph all the way to Bryan’s cartoony style, and with Edgar’s guidance, netted out somewhere in between.”

Mr. X worked in Photoshop on some preliminary designs, taking the original photographs and painting successive layers to remove more and more detail and flattening out colours and surfaces to achieve a more graphic style. Artists also added CG snow piles, aerial snow and ‘de-greened’ much of the environment, since shooting had taken place in the mi Canadian summer. “We spent the winter between the design phase and principal photography shooting reference of every type of snowfall and accumulation,” said Weintraub, “and every type of barren deciduous tree species native to the region so that we could include these elements in the eventual shots’ yet-to-be-photographed plates.”

A ’20 foot rule’ with production was established early on, where anything within 20 feet of the camera would be dressed by production using freshly made snow and dressed in snow blankets, while anything beyond that boundary would be handled by Mr. X. Most of these environment simplification shots were done with a 2 and a half D projected matte painting approach. “We first matchmoved the shots using mostly PFTrack, but also some Boujou and 3D Equalizer, and modeled stand-in geo for the shots in Maya, representing buildings, cars and roads,” explained Weintraub. “If the shot was locked off or otherwise essentially shot from a single perspective, we would paint a single layered painting that covered all the areas where simplification was required. If it was a moving camera, we would either create a larger oversized painting that encompassed the entire camera move, useful for mainly nodal pans, or select key frames throughout the shot for a multiple painting approach. In Nuke, the various layers in the painting were projected onto the stand-in geo from the matchmove, and then everything was blended together in the final comp.”

Falling snow was realised using a directable 3D snow particle system in Houdini that controlled the amount, speed and wind affect. “Early in preproduction we presented Edgar with a range of possibilities for the snow performance,” said Weintraub, “treating it almost like its own character in the film, going from a perfectly photo-real snow system all the way to a very whimsical, artificial, cartoony version inspired by some of the panels in the books. Edgar changed the character of the snow when the mood called for it. This is especially apparent in the park scene where the snow builds up from light wisps to a heavy whiteout as Scott and Ramona get to know each other.”

One shot in particular of Scott and Ramona walking up the stairs toward camera into the park on their way to Casa Loma was particularly challenging for Mr. X. “The camera was at the top of the staircase with a wide view all the way down to the street at the bottom and even further out across the road,” observed Weintraub. “As they made their way to the top, the camera pushed in and craned up to end on a tight two-shot. We had dressed in practical snow at the bottom of the stairs and along the sides on the way up, but there was no dressing at all in the deep background across the road, and the sides of the staircase were lined with green foliage that needed to be either covered with snow or removed and replaced with dry branches. Overhead, practical trees hung down, but because this was shot in the middle of spring, the branches were budding with small leaves that needed to be removed. Because of the extreme perspective shift and multi-layered nature of the shot, we created several matte paintings for each zone of the background and midground. The deep background was almost entirely replaced, with some practical background tree trunks rotoscoped back in, casting shadows over the painted snow dressing.”

“Once the practical foreground branches were cleaned up,” added Weintraub, “they still needed to be completely rotoscoped to allow the background paintings to come through. Scott and Ramona needed similar roto for when they crossed over the painted areas, as well as all the practical street lamps, traffic lights, and power lines that were in the shot. The foreground stair railings were modeled and tracked into the scene so that we could pile-up CG snow on them. To finish it off, we added a light dusting of aerial snow, with flakes strategically placed exactly where Edgar wanted them.”

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