Here at fxguide we don’t always get the opportunity to discuss the incredible advancements in practical special effects, but lately we’ve come across a number of innovations in special fx that interested us. Here’s a look at just a few – from the practical rain in Noah that was controlled by an iPad app, to how New Deal Studios incorporates 3D printing for its miniature work, to the ‘rise’ of inflatable greenscreens, and award winning car flipping tech.
Bring the rain
The climatic battle sequence in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah represents perhaps one of the finest collaborations between practical and digital effects. In the scene – in which an army look to take over the ark built by Noah and his new found supporters, the Watchers – a huge battle takes place amid a growing rainstorm.
It was always the intent for visual effects studio ILM to add to the catastrophic deluge and flesh out the scene with digital Watchers, people and water simulations, but to capture the appropriate chaos and storm imagery on film, an unprecedented rain shoot was required that was not only one of the biggest practical rain effects setups ever filmed but also one that incorporated lighting, since it was filmed as ‘night for day’. We find out from special effects supervisor Burt Dalton how the shoot was achieved.
– See how Burt Dalton and his crew brought the practical rain effects for Noah all from an iPad…in this behind the scenes video, which fxguide made with our media partners at WIRED.
The first challenge in drenching the battlefield with rain was the size of the location. An ark set was established in a clearing at Planting Fields Arboretum in Upper Brookville on Long Island, New York. “We had an acre and a half to two acres that had to be fully engulfed in rain, about 150ft x 250ft,” says Dalton. “It had to have continuous massive rain running through it, non-stop for long shots. So we counted out what it would take to do that – it’s about 5,000 gallons a minute of rain to cover that whole area.”
To cover that area, Dalton’s team built three enormous rain bars made up of 50 rain heads each. The rain bars, which were 100 feet long and 40 feet wide, were suspended with three 300 ton cranes. Special two and a half inch pumps maintained a force of 150 psi on a 12 inch line over 3,000 feet of pipes.
The most important part of the rain bars was being able to control them to ‘look’ like rain – otherwise a downpour can become too much like fog. So each of the rain heads was computer-controlled via an iPad app. “I could turn them on or off when I wanted,” says Dalton. “I could make it thick or thin as I wanted to because of where the light is.”
In fact, ‘lighting’ with water was another crucial element to constructing a convincing deluge. As Dalton told fxguide, “in visual effects, it’s the old adage, backlight rain, frontlight snow. If I backlit all the rain everywhere it’d just be a fog, you couldn’t see anything or anybody. And other times where you want it to fog out to hide the fact that there’s no forest back there.”
The solution was also to mix the rain heads between large ‘goose drowners’ which produce big drops and a lot of water with smaller mist heads. “So when they wanted it to fog out a background, all I had to do is turn on the mist head and you get a fog, hit a backlight on that and you can’t see anything,” describes Dalton. “You can’t see past that – it’s like a giant scrim. So I could block out whatever they want, whenever they wanted.”
Then, since the rain bars would obviously be rigged from above, a solution was required to light the fighting action during the storm. The scene actually takes place during the daytime, albeit with heavy cloud. After much discussion, the filmmakers realized that the scenes would have to be captured with nightshoots, since that afforded the most flexibility and minimal impact from a changing sun position. “We shot it all at night as day, so we didn’t get any shadows,” explains Dalton. “We had balloons hanging from my rain bars, running cable up to those lights, on the same line that I had the rain bars on, so you could have this massive field lit with balloons with direct top light as if it was the sun, with no side light which wipes it out until you want to side light it.”
Feeding the rain bars with water as Dalton’s next big challenge. “I took those big water containers that they use at construction sites, and I plumbed them altogether. And then I ran a 12 inch main. If you go to a main in LA, say, a big main in a city would be a 10 inch or maybe a 12 inch main. I ran 3,000 feet of 12 inch around the entire field with a manifold every 150 feet with two four inch and two and a half inch outs.” This allowed Dalton’s crew to move the cranes around the set as needed.
The end result was continuous and adjustable rain for what became a 15 day night shoot. “We probably used between 100,000 to 200,000 gallons of water a day in the rain scenes,” recalls Dalton. “We used well over one million gallons of water in the movie.”
Because of all that water, drainage on the site was also something that had to be solved by Dalton. He ensured that the area was graded a couple of degrees to slope to one side and that areas where cranes would need to be driven consisted of ten inch compacted road made 12 feet wide around the set – so they wouldn’t get ‘stuck in the mud’. The crew also made a permeable scrim layer under the set so that water would run off adequately, and then created their own creeks and weed area for proper drainage and pumps to enable re-use of the water.
For Dalton, crafting the storm was easily his biggest water gig. “We’ve done more expensive and other giant mechanical things,” he says, “but in the world of man-handling water and rain over a crowd of people, it’s by far the largest – maybe the largest.”
The digital design behind 3D printing
New Deal Studios is one of the standout studios in the practical and miniature effects worlds. You’ve seen their work in the collapsing hospital for Inception, the Batmobile in The Dark Knight and the crashing locomotive in Hugo. Over time, New Deal has been a continual innovator and today it commonly adopts very much a digital half to its practical work – from previs to 3D modeling and compositing in bringing the studio’s special effects photography and miniatures to life.
One particular area New Deal has been focusing on in recent times has been 3D printing for prototyping miniature parts or special pieces that form part of the molding process. We spoke to digital effects supervisor and technical lead Jeff Jasper about how New Deal uses 3D printing in its workflow.
In order to print objects with 3D printers, New Deal has integrated its digital effects department and art departments. The studio is able to work with pretty much any kind of digital 3D model – from Maya files, to CAD and SketchUp files. “We turn those into actual models that are designed for our build process and whatever mechanical or special effects that we’re going to be building with the model,” explains Jasper.
New Deal often brings existing models into The Foundry’s MODO to carry out any necessary re-topology work and make the models watertight. “We’re comfortable in MODO and we find that MODO works really well with our CAD programs,” says Jasper. “If we get stuff from CAD that we are going to use for digital, we have a couple of different routes for bringing files into MODO, and we’re big fans of the modeling tools within MODO itself. We find that it’s a pretty fast modeling program. We can generate pretty clean parts rapidly in it. Since it started out as a modeling program, it tends to play well with other applications.”
“We are using MeshFusion in MODO to start to build parts now,” adds Jasper. “It’s amazing having the live boolean tools as well which are really good at generating watertight models.”
Oftentimes, artists will use the NURBS exporter plugin for MODO to bring a model into a program like Rhino or Solidworks. This enables New Deal to fashion models into pieces that will form actual production or assembly parts ready for 3D printing, hand-fabrication, prototyping, CNC cutting or laser cutting.
Jasper says New Deal actually had an early start with 3D printers, beginning with a wax printer. The studio has several 3D printers – from small desktop “maker” versions to larger desktop SLA printers such as the Form1. “Anything we need larger than that,” outlines Jasper, “we’ll actually outsource to really large industrial printers. We’ll prep the files for them and send them out to companies who specialize in manufacturing parts.”
The parts New Deal prints are done via resin materials that enable them to be strong enough for the studio’s needs. “With the desktop printers, we can take it out to the artists and we’ll do some cleanup on the parts and build molds off those parts and then replicate that part as much as we need to,” says Jasper. “It’s a lot more cost effective than having someone fabricate a part from scratch and build them all from that fabricated part.”
Resins and other 3D printing materials range in price. Jasper says for the Form1 printer, a liter of resin can cost $150, while the spool of material for a desktop ‘maker’ style printer is much cheaper.
The benefits of 3D printers are, of course, being able to accurately model something and see it very quickly. “Some of the stuff we do in-house,” says Jasper, “we fire it off at the end of the day and by the time we come back in the morning the parts are ready for us. They range from a few hours to, well, we’ve had prints that have gone as long as 20 to 30 hours.”
A 3D printed model will typically be printed in a natural color such as gray or white by New Deal (although some 3D printers allow for printing in just about any color). “We send models to our paint department who actually does the finished paint work,” notes Jasper. “They’re adding in all the weathering and detail and making it look like a real part, because generally what you get from a colored part off a printer is going to be something that’s really clean, solid and not really useable for our type of work where we need something that looks natural.”
Watch the final Vizio commercial.
Ultimately, New Deal will incorporate 3D printed parts with parts made in any number of other ways. Explains Jasper: “So we might have a CNC fuselage with 3D printed details, then vinyl graphics applied to that and then paint department paint on top, and laser cut windows – there’s a lot of artistry that still goes into it. The 3D printer has just become another tool that we can use that actually lets our artists focus on making the models as beautiful as we can.”
As light as Air(wall)
Greenscreen photography is of course an integral part of visual effects production. But as shots became more grand, heading outdoors for example to capture battle scenes against large greenscreen structures, time and safety issues can arise. Enter the Airwall, an inflatable greenscreen (or bluescreen) solution that has already had use in the production of Gareth Edwards’ upcoming Godzilla.
So how does it work?
The Airwall from Aircover Inflatables was invented by Dave McIntosh, Mike Kirilenko, Steve Smith and Mike Branham. It was initially developed to be erected as separate container-based units. In this configuration, the Airwall is 24ft tall, 8ft deep and 20ft long and stores and ships in a 4x4x8ft crate. Once in position, the Aiwall takes 12 to 15 minutes to inflate. The wall is filled to 5lbs per sq. in. and rated to withstand 70km/hr winds.
The Vancouver company has also recently completed a portable unit trailer which is 53 feet long and 32 feet high. “It can pull up to set and be ready to shoot in 4 hours,” says Kirilenko. “This also gives you the flexibility to line them up beside each other for additional length with very little extra set up time. We always use one single screen for every straight run and at this point have been as long as 400ft on a single screen inflating.”
On Godzilla, the largest configuration of the Airwall was 720ft in a horseshoe shape with two sides at 200ft and one at 320ft. The system has also been used on Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland. “There is so much flexibility with this system,” notes Kirilenko. “On Tomorrowland we went into a sensitive university location and built it on water barrels because there was no time to build scaffold and no vehicles could get to where it was required to be built.”
Award-winning car flipping
Another area of special effects expertise that we felt deserved highlighting was ‘car flipping’ – a stunt now seen in many action films. In fact, this year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored one such car flipping innovation, the Pneumatic Car Flipper. John Frazier, Chuck Gaspar and Clay Pinney received a Technical Achievement Award for their work on the device which, as set out in the award, “safely launches a stationary full-sized car on a predetermined trajectory. The precision of operation enhances the safety of performers, and the physical design allows a rapid setup and strike.”
Bloomberg recently caught up with Frazier to discuss the Flipper, used on such films as Armageddon and Transformers: Dark of the Moon.