The VFX Tourist

Visual effects supervisor Ted Rae oversaw nearly 400 shots for The Tourist, a romantic Venetian comedy thriller starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. We take a look at how Rae simulated a critical train journey and re-arranged the rooftops of Venice for the film.

Originally tasked with just over 150 visual effects shots, Rae eventually orchestrated almost 400 with the help of multiple vendors and individual artists, all on a tight schedule. “I found myself in Venice only eight days after first hearing about the project, a mere two weeks before the start of principal photography,” recalled Rae. “My main work was to be the train sequence which covered a couple of pages of dialogue. And I thought there might be a couple of matte shots, and a few bits of CG.”

That train sequence, in which the two main characters Elise (Jolie) and Frank (Depp) travel from Paris to Venice, became 106 shots and involved eight-and-a-half minutes of dialogue over five scenes with Tuscany often visible out both sides of the carriage. “First off, there are no trains that run from Paris to Venice through Tuscany,” admitted Rae. “But what the heck, it’s a romanticized movie that begs for a romantic setup.”

Production filmed the actors on an actual Tren Italia carriage with 180′ of greenscreen rigged outside the windows. The DOP, John Seale, and gaffer, Mo Flam, employed a row of par cans on a dimmer system that chased the lights to simulate alternating patterns of sunlight and tree shadows through the windows.

For the backgrounds, Rae decided to shoot plates from a real moving train. “We worked out that the lighting pattern on the greenscreen set was at 60 miles an hour,” said Rae. “But the type of train they were supposedly on actually travels 75 to 80 miles an hour. Luckily, we found an unused North to South section of track in Tuscany that ran an old steam train and we were able to arrange for it to do pretty much whatever was needed.”

Rae enlisted VFX DOP Mark Weingartner to acquire the backgrounds because of his experience shooting the high-speed train backgrounds in Japan for Inception. “We decided to shoot on VistaVision in a three-camera array,” said Rae. “I had scouted the track first over the long Easter weekend, so we had those photos, an aerial map of the area, plus GPS co-ordinates from the location train co-ordinator. Mark and I spent a couple of weekends plotting out an hourly shooting schedule that coordinated the sun’s position with the need to get coverage for both sides of the train.”

The plates were shot over two days to allow for bad weather, shooting from both sides of the train, and the time necessary to reload an array of VistaVision cameras. “In order to rig the Vista cameras as close as we needed them to be, Mark could only use 400 foot magazines,” explained Rae. “VistaVision is eight perf, which is essentially like running four perf at 48 frames per second, so a mag only lasts two minutes. And when you reload, you have to do all three cameras at once, since they are running in sync as an array.”

“Mark ran his crew through reload drills and rehearsals for flopping his rig from one side of the carriage to the other,” said Rae. “While this may sound a bit militaristic, Mark has done this before and he knows that train time is quite expensive, and therefore very precious.”

After shooting about 35,000 feet of film backgrounds, the footage was telecined to HDSR and work began on lining it up with the foregrounds to synchronize the shadows. “That turned into a lot of work because of the shot count being almost double what was originally broken down in pre-production,” noted Rae. “So I brought in another supervisor and a second visual effects editor just to work on that. It took seven days to generate Avid lineup pre-comps for all 106 shots.”

10Dec/tour/TheTourist_TedRae_shootingplates Peerless Camera Company, in London, was awarded the greenscreen composites. “The most challenging aspect of the scenes,” said Rae, “was matching the VistaVision plates with the foregrounds which had been shot with a variety of angles, focal lengths and window sizes, including shots showing windows on both sides of the carriage. There were also many close-ups shot with longer lenses. So we wound up with a lot of perspective and depth of field cues to match to. Peerless excelled at matching the degree to which things progressed out of focus looking down the length of the carriage. They were often pulling mattes with edges that were both sharp and soft and with dynamic changes in focus when there was pull or rack focus in the plate.”

“Each scanned VistaVision background was 4x6K,” continued Rae. “So Peerless was dealing with one or two VistaVision plates on either side of the train plus the 4K foreground plate. In the first class carriage, they were also contending with the reflections of windows in glass partitions. All the reflection elements were sourced from the HDSR dailies, but because they all had some percentage of transparency to them or were a little soft focus, that resolution gap didn’t really hurt us at all.”

Rae reviewed the Peerless work and other visual effects shots at Filmworks/FX, the project’s lead VFX vendor, in Los Angeles. “They have their own DI room,” said Rae, “and Company 3 gave us their lookup table so we could review shots at Filmworks in the same colour space that Co3 was using for the whole of the film’s DI.”

In Venice, Frank finds himself the target of Russian mobsters and is pursued across the city’s famously tiled rooftops. Since production was not allowed to shoot stunts on the fragile tiles, Rae realized the sequence through a combination of stage blue screen set pieces, location plate photography, stunt double elements filmed atop a warehouse on the mainland, and miniatures blended with connective matte paintings. “Our chase follows a fantasy configuration of the rooftops along the Grand Canal,” said Rae. “The hotel window that Johnny Depp supposedly jumps out of is not right next to the roof that we needed him to jump onto. In reality, they are on opposite sides of the Grand Canal and about half a mile apart.”

10Dec/tour/TheTourist_boat Rather than produce a number of individual matte paintings for each of the angles of the building along the Canal, Rae chose to shoot elements of miniature buildings from the various perspectives required for each shot. These were constructed by New Deal Studios, who still had molds of Venetian architectural details from a previous project. “We re-purposed some of those details but designed completely new buildings,” explained Rae. “Even though one of our miniature buildings was very similar to what is in the original plates, it was still more cost effective to replace the entire building, while retaining the original roofline, than it was to try to replace only the facade that faced the Grand Canal.”

“The miniatures were all photographed as HDR digital still elements,” said Rae. “This was the first time I’d done a miniature shoot where we figured out what elements we needed, designed and built the models, got everything together for a shoot, and then the camera crew was just four guys with digital still cameras. It somehow felt anti-climatic. However, it was really nice to immediately have access to the material, and the HDR technique gave the digital format the latitude needed to marry those elements into the 4K film plates.”

Rae also filmed a couple of stunt elements at New Deal, including a shot of a stunt double for Depp jumping the gap between two buildings. “We shot that element around 7am one day,” remarked Rae. “Then we daylight processed the film and, by 8am that evening, Filmworks had a 4K comp done that we dropped into the edit. It wasn’t the final but, in less than 15 hours, we’d filmed an element, developed the film, scanned the element at 4K, and done a comp.”


A number of visual effects shops and individuals also contributed to the final canal shots. “Between the 1st Unit photography and plates I’d shot along the Grand Canal, that took care of about 85% of the shots in the rooftop sequence,” said Rae. “Then (VFX Producer) Tom Ford and I got Filmworks and Wayne Shepherd working on composites, and individuals like Mark Sullivan, Ken Nakada, and Rocco Gioffre doing the connective matte painting work – those three guys are my matte painting dream team.”

The film’s final visual effects shot count hit 375, including reflection clean-ups, actual tourist removal, stunt rig and wire removals, plus some late greenscreen composites for the final scenes of Elise and Frank sailing into a sunrise. “Adam Kowalski did some heroic compositing on those shots,” said Rae. “For the final shot of the boat sailing away, which I shot on my last day in Venice, Filmworks added its sail being raised in CG. When (Editor) Joe Hutsing first asked about adding it to the shot, I thought, ‘Oh no, anamorphic plate, lens flare, CG cloth backlit by the sun and tracked to the mast’, but Filmworks did a terrific job. Even on their first iteration it was immediately apparent that it was going to work. And, you know, no pressure or anything, it’s only the final shot of the big romantic ending of a movie featuring two of Hollywood’s biggest stars.”