James Bond’s latest film has just moved to VOD. DNEG joined director, Cary Joji Fukanaga, for the VFX in this latest Bond saga, No Time to Die. The final installment of the franchise featured Daniel Craig in the leading role of MI6’s Commander Bond. This is the twenty-fifth in the James Bond series produced by Eon Productions. Development began in 2016, but the film was delayed extensively by the COVID shutdown of movie theatres. No Time to Die was originally scheduled for release in November 2019, but was postponed to February 2020, and then again several times until it premiered at the end of September in London.
The VFX was led by Production VFX Supervisor, Charlie Noble, along with DNEG VFX Supervisor Joel Green. DNEG completed over 500 shots in total across 30 sequences, ranging from full CG shots, set extensions, digi-double shots, large environments, and huge explosive FX set-pieces.
Since co-founding DNEG in 1998, Noble has lent his skills to numerous high-profile movies, including Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban, Batman Begins, and Captain America: The First Avenger. This is actually Noble’s second bond film having done the 1995 Goldern Eye over 25 years ago, much earlier in his career, ”Goldern Eye was really good fun to work on and it was nice to work with Mara Bryan again who was also back on Goldern Eye,” comments Noble. New Zealand born Bryan was the Visual Effects Coordinator on the 1995 Bond film and the Visual Effects Producer for No Time to Die. This is also not Green’s first bond film having been a DNEG CG Supervisor for the 2015 Spectre, where he also worked with Bryan.
In the film Bond has left active service and is enjoying a tranquil life in Jamaica. His peace is short-lived when his old friend Felix Leiter from the CIA turns up asking for help which leads to the pair being trapped in a sinking ship. DNEG’s work for No Time to Die included a number of complex full CG shots showing the sinking of an old fishing trawler, rigged to sink with Bond locked inside. This involved and detailed work was essential to creating the progression of the trawler’s descent and the accurate simulation of the surrounding water and debris.
While the ship sinks at night, the team used the red ship navigation lights to provide underwater detail. The DNEG team immersed itself in reference. For the final visual effects, “I think we saw every ship and trawler sinking on the internet,” recalls Green. “Actually there is a surprising amount of footage of real ships being sunk, some of it quite scary – with the drag effect that pulls people down.” The film’s actual trawler was scanned and digitally recreated at DNEG. There was a lot of complex fluid sims done in Houdini and then passed onto the lighting pipeline of Clarrise for outputting. “It has a really nice path tracer, and DNEG has used Clarrise for quite a few years and built our pipeline around it.”
When Bond is called into action, he travels a few hundred miles to Cuba, where he infiltrates a lavish ball hosted by SPECTRE. Director Fukunaga wanted to create a fantastic party, full of extraordinary people, and production designer Mark Tildesley oversaw the construction of an old Cuban theatre, with an Art Deco feel, complete with a number of large staircases. “We’ve really condensed the design,” he says. “To create something with an intense flavor. We took all the best ideas we could find and honed them. I went to Cuba while doing the reference work. It is exotic and extraordinary but, unfortunately, all the loveliest bits are scattered around, so we tried to bring them all together.” The exterior sets were extended by DNEG, who also helped with several of the fight sequences in Cuba.
DNEG created a digital cloudscape seen in an almost completely CG sequence as Bond and Nomi infiltrate an enemy island base in a high-tech glider launched from a C-17. The island base as seen from the exterior was also a CG model built by the team at DNEG based on a real location in the Faroe Islands and augmented and adapted to suit the director’s designs.
Q enables Bond and Nomi to infiltrate Safin’s nanobot factory headquarters, on an island between Japan and Russia. For the close-up plates of Bond and Nomi flying the glider, the team created a single long take of a camera pulling out of the back of the C17 and diving down into the clouds. The sequence used virtual production, but only for interactive lighting. Behind the heads of the actors was a dynamic green screen patch which allowed for the final sky plate to be composited later at DNEG.
The work for the glider airdrop sequence required multiple complex environments and was prevized by Proof. Critical to the Daniel Craig Bond films is the appearance of gritty realism, blending in highly complex visual effects but in a very believable way avoiding some of the more outlandish Bond sequences of the Roger Moore/Pierce Brosnan eras. This poses a creative and technical challenge to sequences such as the glider drop, as they are dominated by VFX yet need to look physically filmed.
Proof’s previz work actually finished work on the project almost two years ago, due to the COVID delays according to Pawl Fulker, co-owner at Proof London. “The interesting thing about the Glider is that it had to ‘work’, we built it in 3D so if it could have been real, it 100% would collapse and work correctly…The scissoring action was not fantastical, it conserved mass and the pieces actually could fold up” he explains. In fact, Proof came up with a number of different scissoring configurations before landing on the one used in the film. The actual shot design matched very closely to original storyboard designs that were initially made. Fulker worked very closely with VFX sup. Charlie Noble to final the previz.
Proof found that it was vital to have clouds in the shot to place the glider, the first few passes that sequence artist Stewart Brown did of the glider drop did not have clouds. Given there is no other reference points, especially before the glider gets close to the island, the sequence just looked wrong, and the movement odd, but once Brown added very simple clouds the sequence came together and suddenly felt dynamic. “We just used an off-the-shelf fluid sim tool, and we weren’t so concerned about interacting with them, as much as they were there and the clouds had volume,” explains Fulker. “It really enhanced the shots and I don’t think we could have shown the sequence to the director without them, – otherwise it seemed like you were looking at a static plane on a blue sky.”
The film used a combination of IMAX and 35mm aspect ratios, so both the previz team and the DNEG team need to block and design the shots so that they would work for both, and support reframing for later streaming or VOD re-framing.
The DOP was Oscar-winning Cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who joined the team for part of Previz, “he afforded us quite a lot of time in pre-production to come and sit with Charlie and I, to digitally lens various sequences, which was really useful,” recalls Fulker. “You don’t always get that, but it was brilliant and he has such a great eye, and he was very particular about what lens to use – which was great.”
The film features Project Heracles, a bioweapon containing nanobots that infect like a virus upon touch and are coded to an individual’s DNA, rendering it lethal to the target and their relatives but harmless to others. In the film these are stolen from a London Lab with an elaborate attack and explosive escape.
Proof also Prevized the Project Heracles building attack. All of their work on this project was done in “Maya viewport with a little bit of comp work in AfterEffects or Nuke,” Fulker outlines. “But the AfterEffects is just adding a bit of a look, it is mainly in Maya.” The previz of the explosions at the lab were done as fluid sims in Maya, and in the wider shots, the team used explosions from their 2D library. The backgrounds in the exterior were reference shots the team already had of London.
The agents descending on ropes to the Heracles Lab building was shot with plates at Canary Wharf and then on a set in the studio. The team had to enhance the laser gun sights and follow the robbery, blowing up the lab. “Which was a pretty huge SFX explosion actually,” comments Noble, ”The lift shaft was a practical set for about ten feet, which we then bridged with CGI to connect with another set-piece at the bottom of the lift well.”
The bioweapon is at the center of an elaborate plot that leads Bond to the deadly Island factory set at the end of the film.
It would not be a James Bond movie without an elaborative and explosive finale, and DNEG engaged in a fulfilling collaboration with the filmmakers to design and simulate various explosions. The FX-heavy set-pieces, simulations, and environment work come together seamlessly to create the iconic finale and a historic moment in the Bond saga.
Special Effects Supervisor Chris Corbould “went to Salisbury Plains and shot some huge explosions, some of the biggest I have ever seen,” comments Noble. These were laid out as per the CG missile silo set that had been designed for the end. “This gave us great scale and detail to blend in with our CG silos. We had to re-sim the explosions to follow the contours and forms of the CG silos and interact with the set, but Chris’s amazing explosions were used as much as we could.” The CG fluid-sim-based explosions can be better simulated to craft around null objects to contextualize the fireballs and volumetric explosions. “The Salisbury Plains explosions were great, but they were off the surface, whereas we had these deep silos that the explosions were supposed to be shooting out of, after the precise targeting hit,” explains Green. ‘It was the greatest reference of all time, and especially where the real cameras were engulfed in fire and for the flames warping around Bond, we could take really good elements from those”. In the end, the Salisbury Plains, explosions informed the detailed work of the talented 3D fire sim team and DNEGs skilled compositors.
“The way I view all our work in VFX is that we extend and build on each of the great other departments, stunts, Chris’s team, production department – each of those teams took it to the max and we then extended that and taking it beyond there to where it needs to be, but our work is an extension of their craft.” Noble finishes by explaining.