Star Trek: Into Darkness: VFX makes it so

Visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett describes his overall approach to the effects in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness as “we want to make people feel like they’re really there.” It’s an approach Guyett, who also supervised Abrams’ first Star Trek, had adopted straight from the director. “He likes things to feel kind of tactile and believable in a fundamental way. If you look at the kind of choices we have made, we tended to err on what I would call the practical side of things. It’s not a concept art version of San Francisco or a city, it’s a working version.”

fxguide visited Industrial Light & Magic, the film’s lead vendor, to interview Guyett and other members of the Trek effects crew. We spoke also to Pixomondo and Atomic Fiction about their contributions to this newest Bad Robot production. Here’s a look at just some of the main sequences the visual effects teams worked on.

***Note: this article contains plot spoilers***

Planet Nibiru

The film opens as the crew of the USS Enterprise are attempting to save the indigenous population of Nibiru from a volcanic eruption – all the while trying not to reveal themselves and therefore break the Prime Directive. But the Enterprise is ultimately exposed to the Nibirians (in a dramatic ocean resurfacing) when Kirk decides to save Spock’s life amid a lava-spewing eruption.

The red forest

On the planet surface, Kirk and Bones narrowly escape spear-wielding members of the indigenous population by racing through a distinctive red forest, running into a native creature and then leaping over a cliff edge into the water. Early on a shoot in the jungles of Hawaii was mooted with a post process to convert green to red. “In a funny way,” admits Roger Guyett, “I wanted to make it work. I was kind of intrigued by it. The problem is of course, the jungle has many, many shades of green and it’s being lit by natural light which is not like a green highlight particularly, and it’s exterior, it’s very hot. We tried – we did a whole bunch of tests and thought there would be some mileage in there. What could work about this? Well, I felt, if you did that it would feel weird. Maybe that’s OK, because you’re in a Star Trek world. The thing is, it didn’t just look weird, it also looked very kind of false. Kind of an electronic thing and not natural.”

Bones and Kirk run through a red forest.
Bones and Kirk run through a red forest.

Ultimately the chase was filmed on a partial set with minimal foliage, with visual effects creating a digital jungle rendered in V-Ray – seen in both a long opening pan down as the heroes are being chased, and in much closer shots as they run through directly through it. In addition, although around 20-30 Nibirian actors were on set, digi-doubles were also required to show more of the population. “J.J. wanted more digital doubles in the background,” notes ILM animation supervisor Paul Kavanagh, “so I actually got in the (motion capture) suit. I’m getting a little bit old for that! You usually find someone in your team who’s a little bit more agile to do that kind of work because it is quite exhausting. I ran around the stage doing the praying and getting on my knees, which was quite funny.”

Animators perfected a CG takeover for the running Nibirians and for Kirk and Bones as they leap over the cliff. “The actors would run along the set piece and jump onto a mat and then as they were going through the trees we match-amated,” explains Kavanagh. “We take the CG model and every frame for about a second before you want to transition into your CG character, we matched them frame by frame. So we’ve got that lead up time to ramp into the takeover from the live action plate into CG. And the cloth sim – they’re wearing robes and we can blend the cloth sim from what was on set into the CG cloth.”

Behind the scenes of the red forest chase.

A brief encounter with a Nibirian creature, which Kirk stuns, also occurs before the cliff jump. It turns out that this creature was actually a re-working of one seen in Star Trek. “There was a creature in the first movie called the Polarilla and it’s on the ice planet,” recounts Kavanagh. “It’s chasing Kirk and just as it’s leaping to jump on Kirk it gets eaten by the big red creature. Well that Polarilla creature is in this movie and we re-purposed it. We took the model and gave it a shave, so it’s basically a naked Polarilla and we called it the Niborilla.”

Spock in the volcano

The volcano setting was filmed on a greenscreen-surrounded set and shot (like many of the exteriors on the film) with IMAX cameras. Guyett had early discussions with DOP Dan Mindel about how the sequence would be filmed. “We didn’t want to shoot it inside, so he said, ‘OK, we’re going to do it as a night shoot’. We tried to, when we photographed it, build up for Zach the actor, an ambiance that you made you feel like you were part of that volcano – you weren’t standing on a green rock, you were standing on a textured surface and you had smoke and stuff was blowing through.”

Spock is lowered into the volcano.

Heat and light sources and smoke provided interaction, with ILM delivering digital backgrounds, lava sims, embers and additional smoke. These were aspects Guyett wanted to achieve with an all-CG approach having worked on the challenging Mustafar sequence in Revenge of the Sith that combined practical, miniature and digital work.

The result was a system led by effects supervisor Dan Pearson based on the temperatures of the lava and whether it would form a crust. “We wanted it to feel kind of like a crazy storm might feel on water,” says Guyett. “Every now and then I’d have visions of other movies where characters are standing on stormy rocks in the middle of the ocean and waves are splashing around them – Dan did a superb job of making that work.”

Starfleet headquarters attack

A bombing orchestrated by rogue Starfleet agent John Harrison in London is followed by his attack on Starfleet headquarters in San Francisco. The sequence was designed so that Harrison’s ship would be lighting up – and blowing up – a conference room high on the headquarters building. With that in mind, the filmmakers had a Navcam wire rig set up to replicate the intended movements of lights from the (to be added as CG) ship. “The primary light source is the lights on the ship,” says Guyett, “so you want to know roughly what the ship is doing so it makes sense. I found myself very dubious of the idea of finding myself there on the day with a bunch of electricians on a platform just wobbling lights around into the room.”

Watch the Star Trek: Into Darkness trailer.

Pixomondo handled the visual effects for the headquarters attack, including establishers of the Starfleet building, plus the ship and its destruction. “We knew we were going to try and make the ship harder to see but have the chaos of the lights to give you an indication of where it was,” explains Pixomondo visual effects supervisor Ben Grossmann. “So while we were on set we had already been modeling up the ship and getting an idea of how it was going to work in terms of previs’ing the sequence. We took one of our animators and put him right on set next to the Navcam guys. They had a three-pulley rig system going on – so our animator in Maya could make a flight path, an attack sequence and translate it into the Navcam rig and now this lighting grid with lasers and spotlights and paparazzi lights could recreate and replay that attack sequence.”

The basic conference room set was fleshed with out with CG extensions for exteriors. “But when you were inside the conference room,” notes Grossmann, “you could look out into this dark expanse of a stage and there would be this light rig that was moving around in an attack sequence that was programmed by a Maya animator. One day we had a review and J.J. would stand in the conference room and he would watch all the various attack sequences we had animated replayed on this Navcam rig, and he could say I like this one, that one, I think this should be faster, have one that hovers or darts over there. It was a very interesting and tactile way for J.J. to direct the animation.”

See the light rig in action.

A highly detailed ship was required for the final shots, along with CG interiors and digi-doubles. Pixomondo also ran fluid simulations for all the dust and debris and damage, and fluid sims for the building itself to create pools and pockets of swirling air and eddies. “We set parts of the building on fire and blew a lot of smoke out of the conference room,” says Grossmann. “As the ship is flying around, we really wanted the visibility of the ship to be in silhouette, and visible only by paying attention to the darkness was in the light. So the actual green lasers that shoot out are fully rendered in CG in the atmospheric effects elements. As the targeting laser would shoot into the conference room it was actually illuminating detailed effects smoke simulations.”

Simon Carr was the VFX supervisor at Pixomondo London responsible for the exteriors of Starfleet HQ at night, including a later view panning down to the entrance of a bar. The conference room attack was supervised by Michael Wortmann, VFX supervisor at Pixomondo Berlin, with the destruction and simulation work supervised by Pieter Mentz, Effects Supervisor at Pixomondo Berlin.


Kirk and his crew journey to the Klingon planet of Kronos in order to hunt down Harrison. Here, they encounter several Klingon fighters before Harrison surprisingly helps the crew take out the Klingons, before surrendering. Pixomondo handled the approach of the shuttle carrying Kirk, Spock and Uhura down to Kronos, the pursuit by the Klingon fighters and the phaser battle that follows.

The chase

The area featured in the chase was imagined as an abandoned city on the Klingon home world, decaying and corroded. “The way J.J. turned it over to us was as a moody and atmospheric environment,” recalls Grossmann. “They had built a partial set for the battle part of the sequence. For the larger planet and the flying through it, we tried to take as many design cues from the partial, destroyed set that was there as far as textures and design angles, and extrapolate from that what a city, planet and building would look like, what the ships would look like.”

Watch part of the chase on Kronos.

That became a mix of ten mile high building spires and industrial areas existing in a dense, toxic air. “It gave us a lot of opportunities to hide the Klingon fighters in the clouds, and give them something to swoop around in,” states Grossmann. “We also knew there was a dialogue sequence at the beginning that was going to have to be interesting on the outside, and I thought what better way than flying through toxic clouds and having giant ominous silhouettes. The sequence was supervised by Adam Watkins in Los Angeles, with the look of the world and ships designed by Enrico Damm, CG Supervisor, and Dan Cobbett, Comp Supervisor. Our FX Supervisor was Patrick Schuler and animation supervisor was Sebastian Butenberg.”

“We took reference from the Burj Khalifa in Dubai,” adds Grossmann, “and from really tall and spire-y buildings, and although that had some curves on it, what I liked was when you see pictures photographed from up there, the buildings are so tall that they peek through the clouds and you have no real sense of how far you are away from the ground. That gave us the idea to build the planet Kronos in atmospheric layers. We tried to imagine what a planet like Jupiter would be like underneath all these layers of atmosphere. From above, before you really get into the soup there might be these moments of beauty in a very toxic environment, and that was one of the establishing shots we did where you see a beautiful sunset even though you’re about to descend into decay and toxicity.”

The Klingon fighters began as an original sketch by concept artist James Clyne that suggested an industrial-type fighter ship. Pixomondo heavily detailed the model and gave it a ‘bird of prey’ feel. “Not in the traditional namesake of the Klingon empire,” says Grossmann, “but more of like, you can imagine this chase scene as an unarmed trade ship and a bad-ass predator. You had this larger more predatory hawk chasing a little sparrow trying to take advantage of its size and move through little cracks and nooks and crannies and be a little more nimble.”

Watch a short b-roll clip inside the ship with Kirk and Spock.

A toolkit of building styles and architectures allowed animators to move around structures for the ship chase, often referencing well-known movie car chase scenes. “We blocked in the city and action and we then added in lots of nice secondary animation details – louvres and wing tips moving around,” explains Grossmann. “As we start to descend down through the atmosphere, we had the idea to almost give it an underwater feel. We figured that with that much humidity and moisture to create a toxic cloud, you’d imagine there’s a lot of toxic sludge around. We ran a bunch of waterfall simulations and we allowed pretty high amounts of accumulated condensation to create these toxic waterfalls that the ship flies around and through.”

Even lower on the planet surface, the lighting moved to an ‘underwater cave’ look with shafts of light scattering in the atmosphere and illuminating the environment. “We realized the most effective way to nail this look and make it feel real was by rendering as much as possible the volumes of atmosphere all in one,” says Grossmann. “Normally you just render lighting passes and let the compers dial in the balance. A pass for headlights, jet exhaust and the volume lights from the upper left hand corner. But when you’re shooting everything through a really heavy atmosphere, that technique doesn’t work anymore. So what you have to do is render the effects volumes properly lit from within and calculating the qualities of the light as they move through varying densities of atmosphere. Needless to say that was quite a render hog but gave us the look we were going for in the end.”

The fluid sims were created in Naiad, with volumetric effects such as swirls from wing tips rendered in FumeFX. Says Grossmann: “To help give a sense of scale to these volumes we ran blowing air debris and bits of ash and detritus as fluid sims rendered out with Thinking Particles. And we used Krakatoa too. The ships the and buildings rendered in V-Ray.”

Ground battle

More fighters appear, forcing Kirk and crew to the ground and attempt to speak with the Klingons. A long tracking shot combining live action and digital elements shows the Kirk ship landing, reveals the master Klingon ship and others, weaves past ground elements (including tattered pieces of fabric done as cloth sims) as the door of the transport opens to show Uhura, who was filmed only in a small interior set piece. The shot was rendered in fully native stereo except for the portion with the actress (Stereo D handled that footage and packaged it into Pixomondo’s comp).

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch on the Kronos set.
Actor Benedict Cumberbatch on the Kronos set.

Uhura’s attempt at negotiation proves unsuccessful and a phaser battle ensues. “We knew there would be set extensions,” says Grossmann, “but while shooting it J.J. said well, we have these light rigs that were stand-ins for Klingon fighters that were cable rigged controlled Navcam style platforms and they can move lights around, so let’s make sure we are establishing hovering Klingon fighters overhead. Then as J.J. got into shooting the sequence, he thought, let’s open it up a little bit so that it’s not all about medium claustrophobic shots of people running around in a maze shooting at each other.”

Pixomondo established different phaser blasts depending upon who was shooting who – the Klingon fighters had a sonic lighting bolt that resembled an audio waveform, with a more traditional bluish hue for the Starfleet pistols. When Harrison joins in the fight, a whole different kind of weapon was imagined. “J.J. one day ran up on set and said he had this great idea for this new gun,” recounts Grossmann. “Imagine if there was a gun – a really bad-ass gun – for Harrison to use – he has to take out these giant Klingon fighters now. So imagine there’s this big gun that’s like a Gatling gun and when it goes off it’s kind of like the sound of God clearing its throat – just like ‘raaaaaaaaaahh’. The ‘boolean gun’ development and execution was spearheaded by Look Dev Supervisor Max Reiss.”

“It turns on like a flashlight, it doesn’t have a projectile – whatever it touches just disappears – it’s just gone,” continues Grossmann. “Not like burns through but literally, it’s gone. I think J.J. even said it was like a boolean gun, true/false. If it’s on and it hits it, it’s gone. So we mixed in the work of the special effects team and we did CG takeovers for a lot of that stuff. But we can get some pretty awesome shots where Harrison has a rifle and does a lot of regular shooting and then has this giant boolean gun that can take out Klingon fighters and Klingons, and burn holes in set pieces if you need them to.”

On set, Pixomondo would show the stunt performers the effect of Harrison’s gun on proxies. “We would have a CG character as a Klingon running through the set and then the Boolean gun would hit him in the legs, and you see him ragdoll and his body parts start tumbling around,” says Grossmann. “In the intensity of the action, I don’t even think you’re conscious of it happening. You just know that there’s a big bright gun.”

To depict Harrison’s gun taking out the Klingon fighters, Pixomondo suggested stitching both live action and planned CG shots. “J.J. really likes to have that tactile interaction that either starts from or results in a tangible close-up of an actor that people don’t question,” comments Grossmann. “So there’s a shot in there that starts on Harrison tilting up and there’s Klingon fire going on around him and he tilts up to shoot something – the cameraman tilts up to see what it is – this is all post-operated. He realizes that one of the Klingon fighters has swopped in to take him out – he hits it with a boolean gun which causes the cockpit to fuse.”

“The ship spins out of control and the cameraman whips up and follows it as the ship spins out of control and then goes off into the distance. In the course of following the ship down you pick up that Kirk is running around and so now you start to follow Kirk again. So we have all these shots filmed separately that are stitched into one sort of 180 degree narrative.”

Rounding out the sequence were additional CG shots of Klingon reinforcements rappelling from their craft, and plenty of background pieces of action. “There’s so much going on in these shots,” says Grossmann, “and I gotta tell you, even as the visual effects supervisor I would always find something new that the artists would put into it. It really became a labor of love.”

Ships in space

Having helped ‘reboot’ the Trek lore and in particular the USS Enterprise in Star Trek, Guyett felt that “part of the fun of coming back to it is you get to go a little deeper and go a little further with ideas.” That included, for example, showing different aspects of the way the famous ship operated. “Last time you’d seen the interior of the hangar of the Enterprise but you hadn’t really got to see inside it very much. Now you could see, instead of them just walking into this ten foot corridor that we had last time and we were cheating it all over the place, we built more corridor and that would open the ship up.”

Watch this featurette for several Enterprise space shots.

Another significant change was ILM’s rendering pipeline itself, which for the Enterprise has moved to Arnold from RenderMan (several sequences in the film also relied on V-Ray). “In the last movie, what I loved about lighting the ship was I would always use the excuse of it being a very single point source approach to lighting, where you’re relying very heavily on the bounce light of what the ship is doing,” says Guyett. “The light hits the ship and it bounces around. A lot of the time in the last movie we were cheating that and we’d use point clouds and all sorts of things to get the global nature of the lighting working. In this movie, Arnold kind of did that for us.”

Lighting the Enterprise was also, of course, crucial to telling the story. “I like it going dark,” says Guyett. “In fact that’s a tool we always use for the Enterprise. I think if you really look at the way the Enterprise is lit, it’s always nice and bright when they’re starting out on their mission and the contrast ratio changes drastically when we get into dramatic scenes and the ship becomes darker. That was a tool I used in the first movie just to emphasize the situation they are in.”

Yet another challenge was the mix of 35mm anamorphic and IMAX footage in many of the Enterprise scenes (and in fact, the entire film). “What we did was take advantage of the larger format and that was primarily the main goal – being able to present the audience with something they hadn’t seen before,” says co-visual effects supervisor Pat Tubach.

Much of the Enterprise bridge was filmed on 35mm film with anamorphic lenses in the 2:35 format. “The anamorphic lenses didn’t present too big a challenge,” notes Tubach. “The concern going in when you’re shooting on multiple formats is, how are we going to transition comfortably between formats? There were a couple of shots where we had to think about how are we going to get to the outside of the ship where we’re enjoying a really large IMAX screen and then into the ship where someone’s standing in front of the crew – you want to get down from the wide view to the 2:35 view without too much confusion or making the audience feel it. So having some graceful transitions between those things was sometimes a challenge.”

Finally, a revised look was devised for the famous ‘dolly zoom’ warp effect of the Enterprise, something that this time took advantage of the film’s stereo release. “I loved this weird abstract art project thing we’d done with warp,” says Guyett. “I thought OK, what can we do now that’s part of that. The fact that the movie is in 3D means you can engage the audience a bit more in those things.”

A massive Starfleet craft, the Vengeance, is revealed as Admiral Markus’ newest warship. The audience is given a glimpse to its construction when Scotty finds the enormous hangar in which it is being built. The black structure proved tricky to light in space. “Working with our art director Yanick Dusseault we came up with some concepts where we would pass him something and say what do you think we should be doing, how should we light the black hangar, where do we put the light?,” explains Tubach. “We know where the sun is, but that doesn’t really provide a very interesting frame, and you would get back images that were almost like models or miniatures lit in space, and you start to realize that’s what looks cinematic and good and meets with your expectations about the way you should be lighting something.”

The Vengeance.
The Vengeance.

A scene of the Enterprise and the Vengeance in battle – and inside a warp tunnel – brought with it even more challenges and meant that the animation team took the blocking of the shots to a far greater level than they normally would have. “We knew what the warp tunnel looked like from the first movie and we definitely wanted to upgrade it in 3D and make it have more dimension,” says Kavanagh. “So we tried to create that warp tunnel in animation, we’d play with lighting cues because we’d flash from negative to positive – the Enterprise would for a couple of frames be just black and then it would pop back to being white. All those things could play into the timing of the shot and the animation, so we definitely would play those cues and render those warp tunnels in Maya, put some R&D time into that just to give J.J. an idea when he looked at our shots exactly what we were going for.”

At one point, Kirk and Harrison must zip through space from the Enterprise to the Vengeance – through a debris field – in a sequence dubbed ‘ship to ship’. Previs was relied on to block out the sequence and show the actors on set during filming of their close-ups and reactions, with digi-doubles playing a large part too as the sequence grew in complexity.

See how some of the practical photography for the ship to ship sequence was achieved.

The swirling Enterprise

Crippled by the battle with the Vengeance, the Enterprise begins an uncontrolled descent towards Earth. ILM handled exterior shots of the swirling craft, with Pixomondo delivering several interior corridor scenes (part of many other interior ship extensions the studio created, including the earlier Vengeance bridge take-over with a phaser battle supervised by Thomas Lautenbach, VFX Supervisor at Pixomondo Beijing).

The crippled Enterprise.
The crippled Enterprise.

Atomic Fiction also worked the sequence for shots of Kirk and Scotty dashing to the Enterprise’s damaged warp core but first find themselves hanging from a walkway. “We called it the ‘roly poly’ sequence,” says Atomic Fiction visual effects supervisor Kevin Baillie. “The idea is that the Enterprise gets stuck in Earth’s gravitational field and starts tumbling around.” Scenes of Kirk and Scotty running through the engine room were filmed in a Budweiser factory in southern California, which was also LIDAR’d and photographed, but then heavily embellished by the visual effects artists. A connecting hallway in the top corner of the brewery for an establishing shot of the engine room was made to look like the Enterprise, with the remaining shots mostly digital environments and actors filmed on a catwalk set against greenscreen.

“The real tanks are all scratched and beat-up after years of brewing beer,” says Baillie. “We cleaned all those up, added little digital read-outs and signs. Everything was modeled in a combination of Modo and Maya, then lit and rendered in V-Ray in the cloud via Zync. You’ll see a lot of pipes that are bursting and steam – those were all elements created in 3ds Max through FumeFX. It also allowed us to show which direction the gravity was going in. So it was a tool we could use to reinforce which direction was up.”

Watch the ‘roly poly’ sequence.

“Even though all the extreme foreground elements in the roly poly sequence were 3D modeled, textured, look-dev’d, lit and had moving reflections on them,” adds Baillie, “at the end of the day our art director Chris Stoski had about a week of time left over and went over single frame paint overs to add little details and scratches and just that little fine, fine level of detail. He painted it on a still and we re-projected it through the camera on that same frame and rendered it.”

Atomic Fiction also took advantage of flares and flashing lights to help sell the integration between foreground and background. “Light interaction can be your worst enemy or your best friend and in this case it was a friend,” states Baillie. “We could take light cues of what was happening on this very small set piece and if there was a red light that flashed on the catwalk onto our characters we could use it as an excuse to flare up and flash in the background. There was something subconscious about having that cause and effect reaction with our characters and something in the foreground and background just helped tie everything together.”

Kirk makes it to the warp core and successfully re-aligns its components in order to regain control of the ship, but suffers from radiation poisoning after doing so. The core environment was a set with only minimal props that the actor touched – the rest was added by Pixomondo. Its design was based on a real laser chamber at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. This sequence and the look development was supervised by Sven Martin, VFX Supervisor at Pixomondo Frankfurt.

“Our challenge was, how do you show radiation as a threat?,” outlines Ben Grossmann. “You can’t really photograph radiation? You can photograph the consequences. It’s hard to get the sense of jeopardy from a radioactive room. We had an idea to run an ‘eye of the hurricane’ fluid simulation for the entire room. It was a heavy calculation but we ran this simulation as if he was in the eye and it was all swirling around the central warp core. We rendered it with lighting passes from all these different angles and layers so we could use all the fluid sims just to drive a very subtle distortion. Just a hint! JJ didn’t want a 2D comp effect – you never see it unless you really scrutinize but you feel it as you watch the sequence.”

Ships on earth

While the Enterprise narrowly escapes crashing on Earth, the Vengeance, piloted by Harrison, crashes straight into San Francisco. It takes out several buildings along the way in what was a large scale digital construction of the city based initially from an actual San Fran CG model (a similar digital build was also required for parts of London). Shots were rendered in both V-Ray and Arnold.

“It’s a big thrill for all of us living and working here in San Francisco to be able to predict what the city is going to look like many many years into the future and bring as much realism into the film,” says Tubach. “We’re not just throwing future-tech at something for the sake of doing that, but building the city in a believable way – so this is a city that you recognize and this is a city people live in, and it hasn’t gone so far off the deep end in terms of technology that you can’t believe that this is something that can actually resist.”

Catch a glimpse of the crash into San Francisco in this Into Darkness TV spot.

Apart from significant rigid body simulation work, ILM also relied heavily on deep compositing in Nuke for the San Fran crash sequence. “There are shots where there are maybe 50 or 60 sim elements,” explains compositing supervisor Jay Cooper. “It’s obviously computational heavy to run those, and even more computationally heavy to run them together, so what you end up having to do is take different pieces of sims and takes and put them altogether. There’s no notion of the hold-outs of one another, so you need to find one place where they all sort – and that happens in the comp.”

“Deep compositing allows us to change things and not settle until really the last minute,” adds Cooper. “We can keep pushing on animation, on sim, on effects – whereas in the old way, we’re done with animation, we’re done with sim, now we have to do effects – you’re locked.”

Garbage barge fight

After the Vengeance crash, Spock pursues Harrison on a hovering garbage barge where they fight as the city passes underneath them. Plates for the fight were filmed with the actors on a representation of the top of the barge against greenscreen, which were incorporated into a digital city and the moving craft. Wider shots and additional views made use of digi-doubles crafted from stuntperson mocap performances.

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch on the garbage barge.
Actor Benedict Cumberbatch on the garbage barge.

“The stunt performers had practiced that fight on the barge for a couple of months and they got the moves down,” says Kavanagh. “As soon as principal photography had finished, we wanted to get those stunt doubles back straight away and we got them on a stage in LA and they remembered the fight, which was unbelievable, because the sequence is quite long. They remembered every move like it was done yesterday. We put them in mocap suits. Giant Studios did the mocap. We gave them a CG model of the barge and they reproduced it on the stage with the correct elevation, angles and size for the actors. Basically we shot that whole sequence as mocap in half a day.”

The barge fight made particular use of the stereo nature of the film by incorporating pieces of buildings and structures flying and wiping past camera. “One example is we had some gates that the actual garbage barge flies through,” notes Tubach, “and as you fly through these you get an opportunity to bring a lot more things closer to camera and furthermore the set dressing of things on top of buildings or other air conditioning units or things you’d consider mundane, we also added so we had foreground things passing through and adding depth.”

Behind the scenes of the barge fight.

Final frontier

Certainly, Into Darkness benefits from a huge number of digital visual effects shots. But, as Roger Guyett explains, the live action aesthetic – and the notion that these characters feel as if they existed in the real world – drove all of the effects work. “One of things I loved about the first movie was that despite all the futurization we were doing, quite often I would try and shoot anything I could. The last thing I wanted that movie to turn into was just a bunch of greenscreens and there wasn’t anything you felt physically associated with – the real world. Especially when you’re on Earth. So I was happy when J.J. said he felt that was the right way to go.”

All images and clips copyright © 2013 Paramount Pictures.