In The Way Back, a group of prisoners escape a Siberian Gulag camp during World War II and trek many, many miles through Mongolia, China and over the Himalayas to India. Director Peter Weir called on Rising Sun Pictures to create 200 visual effects shots to complement the harrowing journey. We talk to visual effects supervisor Dennis Jones.
fxg: How did Rising Sun get involved with The Way Back?
Dennis Jones: Peter Weir wanted an Australian visual effects studio to be involved. We had a meeting with Lee Smith, the film’s editor, and he recommended us for the job. About a month or so later, we went to Peter’s residence and looked over the project and talked about our take on it and what he was looking for. Our visual effects supervisor Tim Crosbie went on set during filming. I picked up the film on the production side.
fxg: What was the scope of the visual effects work?
Jones: It evolved slightly. The crux of it is that they shot in Bulgaria and Morocco and they had to make it look like the Gobi desert and the Himalayas. So we did a lot of matte painting and environment work initially, but the thing with The Way Back was that there were a lot of fun miscellaneous shots as well as the big hero ones.
There was a shot that was going to be the opening of the film – it was a satellite-like shot flying over the earth. It would have been a big venture for us, so I was pretty keen to mock that one up quickly to make sure Peter was really into it before we went too hard on development. But it got dropped because it clashed with what Peter imagined it could be, and didn’t quite fit the film he wanted to make.
fxg: How many effects shots did there end up being in total?
Jones: At one point there were nearly 400 shots because of things like bush removal and green suppression on desert plates. We managed to convince them that DI could handle that equally as well, so that’s where the DI house picked up a bunch of that work. So we ended up with about 200 shots in total, with about 50 being quite complex shots.
fxg: Let’s talk about the environment work first. What kind of approach did you take to the matte paintings?
Jones: Well, firstly the show was a 4K show. At the time, we were still on Shake and exploring transition to 64 bit. The matte paintings were going to be 6K. They were the long term work on the show. We had some reasonably straightforward period work which involved removing anything too modern from plates, or having to suppress foliage in the desert so that it would look more arid and dangerous.
fxg: Would there be a signature environment shot you can tell me about?
Jones: The shepherd’s hut as they hit the Himalayas was probably my favourite. It’s a purely CG shot with a snow storm and matte painting but I think it feels very natural. They had a stand-in in the edit which was from a BBC documentary. It was a pretty misty vague rocky outcrop. Peter said he wanted a path on this and a shepherd’s hut on the edge of this chasm. So we looked at the BBC doco and got a pretty good sense of how to achieve it. Then we blocked it out in Houdini. Traditionally here we’ve done a lot of Photoshop into Nuke projection work – I was pretty keen to push a little bit more of that.
There are basically three planes of action in the shot. There’s a near plane which is just a nice foreground rock that gives you a sense of scale, then a mid hill with this hut on it and a distant valley to ease your eye off into distance. As it evolved, Peter wanted to get closer and closer to the hut. And just as we were pretty happy with what was going on, the shot was moved to later in the edit. And because of that we had to add in horses and people. So we actually decided to organise a shoot with actors and horses, which was kind of nice – I like exploring practical solutions, especially with the size of our crew which was only about 22 people.
Once we established the layout and the feel of the move and the pace of the move, it became more about dressing the matte painting. We sourced a lot of reference of Tibetan villages. Peter was completely on it – he had National Geographics from 1920 he’d be bringing in. We had conversations about shrubbery and what kind of tree structures were there. That attention to detail was great to be amongst and to have that feeling that it had to be right.
We did a matte painting at 6K so we could just push in on it. We ended up over-painting it luckily, so we could go even closer, at the last hour. We then had to do the snow, but we didn’t want to overdress it and make it look too fast or repetitive. So we looked at pretty large, soft falling flakes. That seemed to match the kind of pace – this a moment when they get a break and are almost over the last hurdle.
fxg: What about the arrival at the lake – was that a matte painting as well?
Jones: My other favourite is that arrival at Lake Baikal. You see the backs of Ed and Jim standing on the brow of the hill and it cranes up above them and you get this misty, shrouded lake. The plate shot was a fairly polluted valley in Bulgaria, so the sense of the mist and the quality was there, but we had to get the sense of vastness. Lake Baikal is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world so we needed that endless scope. That was the thing with this movie – every time there’s a sense of getting somewhere, there’s also a sense that there’s so much more to come. That was always a challenge – trying to keep that open-endedness to a shot as opposed to trying to resolve this whole picture in one shot.
fxg: What other kind of environments did you create?
Jones: Very early on in the film, there’s an approach shot flying over the Siberian forest, like a helicopter shot. It looks down and pans up and you see a little search light and that clues you that here is the Gulag. That was a completely CG shot. They were referencing a lot of Planet Earth from the BBC, so we had some awe inspiring placeholders in the edit. In the edit this was going to be two shots, but we discussed it and thought we could resolve it into one shot for a continuous travel and reveal at the end.
That then led to the fact that we had to create tens of thousands of trees. The CG side of that was pretty much a one man effort. One of our senior guys here is an all-rounder but also an XSI guru. Luckily in his spare time he looks at scattering algorithms which look kind of fruity at first until you want to use it, and it was perfect. We had a basic L-system for the creation of the trees. The system would allow us to scatter, clump or guide them so you could have clear patches, for example.
fxg: Can you talk about the Tibetan Palace scenes?
Jones: That was actually interesting from a workflow point of view. In thinking about the technology and how we’d approach the realism of establishing the geography of these locations, we wanted to use satellite technology, elevation models and Landsat images, which are all public domain. You can basically get 18K satellite imagery free off the internet.
We originally looked into that especially when we were going to do the flying over earth shot. We had ideas about building a planet, putting the camera somewhere and figuring out what satellite imagery to grab. That was looking pretty promising but we ended up going for a much more direct matte painting route with layout, blocking and the rest.
The Potala Palace was one area we really wanted to get right because it had very distinctive geography. You’re in a big basin amongst these high valleys, with just a little peak for the Palace. So for that one we blocked it out in 3ds Max, because my 2D supervisor was an ex-architect and he had a lot of Max experience. He was the perfect guy for working out the ‘city plan’ of this area. We previs’d it all up using the imagery and geo details off the internet and used the satellite imagery to give some context to what features were around, like a nearby river. So that was really cool because it wasn’t arbitrary – it was driven a lot by the realistic data. Luckily enough, we managed to find a high altitude image of the city from around 1940. Since then it has sprawled heavily and it was hard to find authentic reference for the layout of that city.
fxg: The characters encounter a sandstorm in the desert at one point. How did you achieve that? Did you take a similar approach with the snowstorms in the film?
Jones: Well, while they were shooting that, a real sandstorm hit so we had perfect reference. We did a few supporting shots. The majority of the close-up shots were filmed practically with big dust tippers and we did a couple of the wider establishing shots showing the dust storm approaching. We did the particle effects in Houdini using a rolling fluid sim. They would be picked up and streaked via plate projection. At the last minute we had to warp the shape of the wave a little and make it more bottom-heavy.
fxg: What were some of the other visual effects shots – the miscellaneous shots, as you called them?
Jones: There’s one shot where they had a wolf enter frame. Peter wanted two wolves to be there and there wasn’t any take around it. So we had to take that wolf, re-time and warp it and completely change its performance just from that one take. That was actually a lot of fun getting my compers to liaise with my animators as to how to cut and paste animation.
We also did some work on the Great Wall of China sequence. That was an early dawn so we did some work to add some foggyness to it. There were a few practical snow shots to be accentuated, but mostly that snow was practical. And there’s a CG snake where it crawls up the guy’s leg and he chases it up the hill. That’s a mix of live action and CG in there, which was good for reference.
fxg: What about the desert or mirage shots – how were they augmented?
Jones: Some of the mirage work, where they’re running towards this tree that turns out to be a well, were visual effects shots. We had to make it a little more hallucinogenic. We were putting out early versions of that and Peter and Lee were basically telling us to take more drugs to make it more surreal!
We made some displacement maps in Nuke. You have to drive it by warping data and doing a screen space grad. If you try and do any re-po or translation, you don’t get that flow or ripple effect. It had to have that look of going off and swishing back. It was a hard one to get the right feel for – actually some of the early tests we did felt quite digital and very noise driven.
We had a few strange elements in Houdini which played out quite well. We had general heat haze which was ripples coming up from the desert floor. Then we had this rotating tube in Nuke which had little peanut shapes and we used a normal pass of that to drive this shimmery rising heat. I like that kind of gear that’s very abstract but it delivers the result. It’s interesting when you can engineer it back to some random element that delivers. Then on top of that we delivered big, guided undulations so that people and trees would stretch and would do strange amorphous shimmering. So it was a good balance of getting it technically right and then also visually interesting.
fxg: Were there some other CG animal effects or enhancements?
Jones: We worked on the deer in the mud scene, which was just an on-set thing where you could see the pit they had dug and some fresh footprints in this mud that weren’t fresh. Originally it was about softening the line but turned into a whole re-projection of the mud. It was interesting in how it evolved from 2D patches to 3D projection. In that shot where they run up to the deer, Peter wanted to see some birds hanging around waiting for it to die. They had about two or three on set and really needed ten. So we digitally rotoscoped some takes of the birds, which luckily were very dark ravens.
We also did some lice and made a lice crowd system for one shot. That was full image-based light set up in Houdini. We worked on the mosquitos too. Those shots became very subjective in terms of the density amount and ferocity. Originally we were doing match moves and camera tracks per shot and it was going to be very individually tailored. Then Peter resurrected a bunch of shots and the mosquito count went from 12 shots to maybe 30, so we went a little bit more for an element approach. We rendered cycles of mozzies near, mid and far and dressed those in on planes in 3D. It came down really to how you perceived them, in terms of contrast ratio in the shots. We had pretty good elements and they needed to be played up on faces but played down in the background when they were a bit distracting. A lot of that was dealt with in comp.
fxg: How did you work with Peter Weir on the film?
Jones: There was a time when Peter and (his partner) Wendy came down here to Adelaide. Wendy is Peter’s art and costume director, and she stayed for a week sitting with the artists. Otherwise we worked with Peter using cineSync while he was working in Sydney.
fxg: It seems to me that he is such a meticulous and careful filmmaker and seems comfortable, to some degree, with visual effects.
Jones: The way he shot things was always done in support of the story. So things were just grungier – they weren’t framed perfectly and not necessarily steady, which was great. You could feel what was required. A lot of discussions we had with Peter were about dialling back and hiding things, taking contrast out and pushing things further and further back into a plate, which really was a good education for us.
All images copyright 2010 Siberian Productions LLC. Courtesy of Exclusive Films.