The Book Thief is Brian Percival’s adaptation of the Markus Zusak brilliant novel, following the touching story of Liesel Meminger in Germany during the break out of World War II. RISE FX visual effects supervisor Florian Gellinger oversaw the film’s VFX work, hand in hand with RISE in-house supervisor Jonathan Weber and producer Kerstin Kensy. We asked Gellinger about some of the key shots.
fxg: Since the movie is based on a novel, how did you use the book to guide the visual effects?
Gellinger: When we started on the show, we definitely had more elements of the original book still in there. For example, the original air raids where you would see the airplane. But then it was decided early on that this movie was not about the Second World War fighter pilots – it’s about the people who live in Himmel Street. Because the whole story is told from the point of view of the children, you have to stay where the children are and narrate the story through their eyes. So it would not make sense to make a huge spectacle out of it and show 24 bombers. In the end, the only thing you see is the bomb bay opening at the very end.
fxg: The film starts in the clouds and there’s narration there from Death – what visual effects work was involved?
Gellinger: We did the opening and closing shots of the movie – both incredibly long. They are Death’s POV flying through huge cloud vistas until the camera catches up with the train and Liesel inside. At the end of the movie we end up in New York 2013. They were shots that had around 3,000 frames each and we did all that in 2.8K to stick to the native resolution of the ALEXA. I was very cautious about keeping the same look and feel about everything else in the movie.
fxg: Is that train real?
Gellinger: The train and smoke are real! Once we’re inside the carriage, this is shot on stage with a Russian-arm camera dollying down a rail on the ceiling of the train, with the whole thing on a gimbal to get the right shake. We always loved that shot of the train because it looked so surreal, especially the smoke coming from the engine. It almost looks fake CG! But it’s all real.
fxg: Did they shoot that fly-in sequence with a UAV?
Gellinger: No that’s just a crazy helicopter pilot! He did a couple of other shots, another shot flying towards the train and diving into the smoke – that was all real too.
fxg: How did you approach the environment shots in the film?
Gellinger: We did establishing shots of the village, and also tied the village and the bridge location and mansion together. Those locations were all LIDAR scanned, and then we matte painted the shots. Those locations were actually 100 kilometers apart but we needed to make it look consistent when we walked out of the village – you see the bridge and then you see the mayor’s mansion, and vice versa.
There’s the scene where Rudy goes in the river and tries to get Liesel’s diary back that’s been thrown in there by their nemesis. Part of that scene was shot in late April. We shot the beginning of the scene in February, and it was minus 15 degrees Celsius in Berlin. So there was no way the kids, even in scuba suits, could go into the water. They did a shot with the stunt double but it was not used. So the only thing we could do was capture a couple of HDR bubbles of what the whole location looked like when it was covered in real snow. Then when shot everything with special effects-dressed snow on black to keep the reflections in the river clean. And by the time we shot it again the kids could take a swim in scuba suits. We then just had to replace the environment around them, and fix the river banks and snow covered bushes and trees.
And there’s the book burning sequence – half of the crowd you see is a card-based crowd setup that we did in Nuke. We actually shot the extras with fire flicker lighting in their face from various angles, so we could pick the extras with the correct lighting for each position around the huge bonfire where the Nazis burn the books.
fxg: What kind of destruction work did you end up doing for the bombing?
Gellinger: We did do some subtractive makeup on Himmel Street for the end by removing some of the top floors of the buildings and made light shines through the window so you see that walls and ceilings have collapsed behind them. We shot these mostly without greenscreen. Florian Ballhaus the DOP put some special effects smoke in that we extended further later when the top floors were removed. I think that just gave it this authenticity when you saw the children in the rubble of Himmel Street and that meant all the shots tied together well.
It was all about these little hints where you look through destroyed buildings where the roof is missing and behind it you might see a collapsed spire with smoke in the sky – just a hint of what must have been going on around Himmel Street.
fxg: Were those environments also LIDAR-scanned?
Gellinger: For when Himmel Street is bombed and the buildings blow up, we did an entire LIDAR scan of the street and built some custom tools for this. The LIDAR scan only scans the facades of the buildings. If it’s plaster, and behind the plaster is brick, and then a wooden frame, then of course the LIDAR scanner only gives you the surface of the plaster. So we built custom tools that can pretty much automatically build what’s behind the wall, so when you blow it up and you run your rigid body sim in Houdini, you actually see the plaster staying together in huge chunks holding together the bricks behind it, and then you see the wooden frame breaking apart. By the pressure wave of the explosion you see the roof tiles rocketing into the air. Then on top of that we were running our fluid sim for the explosions themselves.
It was the same for the truck exploding that’s flipped up by a grenade right next to it. We did have a special effects trigger and explosion on set which gave us some debris. In the editing process it was decided that there had to be a much bigger explosion to justify what the truck was doing. The truck had a C02 cannon welded to its chassis to rocket it upside down and flip it. We used Houdini to render an explosion with debris parts, earth and grass flying around.
All images and clips © 2013 20th Century Fox.