Ron Howard’s Rush is, essentially, an independent film with an essentially non-Hollywood budget, around $US38 million. Yet the 1970s Formula One pic – which details the rivalry between British driver James Hunt and Austrian champion Niki Lauda – traverses multiple countries, contains grandstand scenery, shows off car-to-car battles and features several crashes. Visual effects supervisor Jody Johnson from Double Negative tells fxguide how they made an indie film look a whole lot more.
For more on Rush, listen to Mike Seymour’s interview with DOP Anthony Dod Mantle on fxguide’s rc podcast.
Planning and previs
Making a dramatic movie about a pivotal moment in Formula One history and in the 1970s was always going to involve working out, according to Double Negative visual effects supervisor Jody Johnson, “how much was going to be CG and how much was going to be live action. As is often the case, we came up with a hybrid approach.” In fact, it was almost more than hybrid, as final shots were often made up of principal photography, archival footage and digital effects by Dneg. The work was shared between the studio’s London and Singapore offices, with Pixomondo also contributing effects shots to Rush.
The main area to deal with was environments; re-creating tracks from around the world that included England, Germany and Japan in the period setting. But there were also dangerous driving stunts and crashes that VFX would have a crucial role in creating. Dneg helped orchestrate the planning for the hybrid approach by previs’ing all of the races shown in the film, led by previs supervisor Brad Blackbourn.
Following the major action beats of five races, the previs resulted in 25 minutes of footage. “We either sourced or built rough models of the tracks – the same goes for the cars – and we set them up as a kind of Scalextric,” explains Johnson. “And then we blocked out the choreography of the cars for each story beat. In a race ‘this’ happens, then this happens and each point furthers the story. So we blocked those out and then we could put cameras in wherever we wanted.”
The previs continued to be refined as production took place; the result was that for each race editorial could cut with principal photography, digital animatics/previs, archive material and material from elsewhere that could be used as a stand-in, such as generic shots of commentators and scoreboards.
“I believe in previs being a very broad brush to work with,” continues Johnson. “I don’t want to be too prescriptive. It’s not about detail as such, it’s much more about the ideas and the kind of shots we can use. It’s a research exercise, really. A development exercise. So we could try out helicopter shots, camera mounts on various parts of the car, we could try out speeds of drive-bys. We could try out positions on the track. We had a thing called driving on the edge – so what’s the visual style for when we’re trying to convey that the drivers are really pushing it. We could try out panning on foreground stuff and develop a visual language to take forward into the shooting of the film.”
Going back: archival footage
Helping to instil an authentic feel for the look of Rush, and at the same time help reduce the number of complete CG environment and car re-constructions, the filmmakers embarked on a research mission to find archive material from the time. “The architecture and the design and the energy of that time in Formula One was very exciting,” says Johnson. “It’s such a rich palette to work from that we tried to start from reality as much as possible.”
But it wasn’t just to reduce the cost. Many of the key tracks and locations no longer exist or are in a state of disrepair and could not be filmed. In that regard, DOP Anthony Dod Mantle and the film’s editorial team, together with Dneg, led an effort to track down ‘useful’ archive material. “We had to build the whole film on existing – substantially appalling but existing – archive material,” Mantle told fxguide. “We had to dig around the world literally for months, find the relevant elements of the race around that time and if we didn’t have exactly the right cars then we’d get the materials and approved it technically.
With the chosen archival material in-hand, Mantle says he based “the whole visual palette of the film” on what they had uncovered. Each track shown in the movie also had a particular look and feel – Brazil for example was considered to be grand while Nürburgring was tight and twisty. To ensure these aspects were properly replicated, Johnson accompanied a team including Howard, Mantle and Lee Grumett (First AD) reccy’ing all the tracks.
Then, with most shooting occurring in Britain, local tracks were chosen for the similarity of their corners to a film-featured track, such as Interlagos in Brazil, and dressed by production designer Mark Digby accordingly. Dneg then contributed key digital set dressing.
Racing action came together in multiple ways – via the archive footage, scenes filmed on the British race tracks using an array of cameras and Dneg’s digital handiwork. “With the stunt guys we’d work out choreography for what was going on with Niki and James – who they were supposed to be overtaking and all that kind of thing,” says Johnson. “We employed racing car teams to build eight replica cars – we took all those to the tracks. We’d typically be running four at a time and we’d shoot the main action with Niki and James and maybe a couple of the surrounding cars. Then we would complement that with extra cars.”See the many cameras used in Rush.
DOP Mantle looked to the archival footage as inspiration, but then brought his own rough and vibrant style to the production. “Because racing is bold it allows you to use different formats,” comments Johnson. “And the nature of racing is very frenetic, so continuity wise you can get away with a lot more. We did a lot of testing, cutting the archive material back to back with Alexa and Red footage.”
Ultimately, main unit filmed on ARRI Alexas, with several other cameras used to acquire other shots from on the ground, on cars and via helicopter mounts. The Canon EOS C300 became floating C and D cameras to “catch happy accidents,” says Johnson, while IndieCam GS2Ks were mounted on all the cars and Phantoms used for slow-mo shots.
“I would always try and shoot something for us to use as a base,” adds Johnson. “So say for the crash at Monza, we knew that Niki had to come through unscathed – it was his moment of redemption and we’d choreographed that beforehand, and we figured out we could shoot just Niki’s car, and that would give the cameraman and everyone enough to work from and then we can add all the cars. We worked out what key elements we needed and then built around that.”
In order to produce grandstands, rumble strips, different types of tarmac, for example, Dneg used the track reccys and additional survey expeditions to photograph, survey and record the necessary ‘track furniture’ that would feature in wide shots, aerial views as well as trackside action. This was carried out with LIDAR scans and photogrammetry. “We mounted two Canon 5Ds on the top of a mini-van and set them to film once every tenth of a second and we drove around at 5 miles an hour,” explains Johnson. “The boys took those image sequences and used some photogrammetry software to generate rough geometry and textures that we could then use for reflection maps going past the cars. It was not always specifically for lighting as such as they weren’t for high-res, but more for separate reflection passes. It had a big impact on how the cars were sitting in their environments.”
Digital environment supervisor Antoine Moulineau led the track environment re-creations, participating in on-set surveying and photography. Grandstands, for instance, were unique to the tracks. To fill them, Dneg conducted a sprite shoot with extras on greenscreen. “In the 70s people got very close to the track,” says Johnson. “It was a very kind of involved experience before safety became an issue. So there’s always hundreds of people dotted around the tracks.”
A lot of the action in the film takes place around the pit lanes. These shots were accomplished by production taking over an airfield and shooting all the pit lane material in one build. “Mark Digby built 100m of pit lane set which he would re-dress for each race,” says Johnson, “and we would extend it out and add to the elements to hit home the aspects of the race.” The compositing work for the pit lane builds and the other 2D work was led by 2D supervisor Andy Lockley.
The hybrid approach continued, of course, for the Formula One racing cars. Again, a major effort was involved in tracking down the historic F1 cars including James Hunt’s original McLaren. Dneg visited museums and private collections to scan and photograph original cars, shooting them covered with tents and using polarizing filters to provide a suitable base before creating CG models. Mark Hodgkins was Dneg’s CG supervisor.
Significant research on the way the F1 cars behaved and handled was also carried out, including the driving techniques of Lauda and Hunt. “When you’re in that top echelon of race car drivers, you’re driving style is noticeably different from everyone’s else,” notes Johnson. “So we studied a lot of archive footage for driving techniques and behavior of cars. We went to Lotus and filmed some of their classic F1 and F3 cars from that period, and we worked with some Formula One teams to work on some simulators based on existing hardware and software to nail characteristics of the cars and their drivers and also allow a fast versioning and simulation of those characteristics.”
The races feature several crashes, with Johnson and Dneg animation supervisor Robyn Luckham referencing ‘loads and loads’ of incidents. “We went through frame by frame and looked at what kind of effects were coming off the car for real,” says Johnson. “There was black smoke, white smoke, tire smoke, there was dust. There was rubber from the tires, there was heat haze. There was dust and debris from the track. There were all these little elements that added together.” The effects of car and engine pieces breaking were overseen by FX supe Nathan Ortiz, who also dealt with other atmospherics such as the water ‘roosters’ from the wet track and tires at Fuji.
Lauda’s crash at Nürburgring, in which the driver hits a wall before being caught in a fiery inferno, was obviously a critical moment in the story. Reference footage of the crash existed as 16mm film shot by a young boy through a clump of trees and was directly used as the basis of the incident (so much so that in reverse shots, Mantle included a shot of a boy and film camera). The moment of the crash and the resulting fire were Dneg creations – made up a digital car, smoke, debris and fire – with backgrounds captured as tiled plates. Howard and the filmmakers also shot the aftermath at the actual location at Nürburgring.Watch a featurette on Nurburgring.
Perhaps one of the key reasons Rush looks like a much bigger film on the screen was that the visual effects team was involved from the first day right to the end. “We’re another department within the filmmaking process,” says Johnson. “We have to sit on top of everything else that’s going on and complement that and bring another dimension to it.”
“Visual effects is like a cake,” Johnson adds, “and if you start with good ingredients it’s easier to make a nice cake. We had the beauty of the cars, the dynamic and slightly abstract nature of the photography and the wonderful environments. By starting with those rich ingredients it’s easier to get to and understand what Anthony was shooting. When we didn’t do that we suffered.”