Tropic Thunder

In this week’s fxpodcast, Mark Breakspear of CIS (formerly Rainmaker) discusses how Blades of Glory showed his company how fundamentally different the pipeline needs to be for visual effects in comedies. We follow up with more details and background in our online story.

Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. lead an ensemble cast in Tropic Thunder, an action comedy about a group of self-absorbed actors who set out to make the biggest war film ever. After ballooning costs and out of control egos threaten to shut down the production, the frustrated director refuses to stop shooting, leading his cast deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia for what he calls “increased realism.” Here the group inadvertently encounters some real bad guys.

The cast of the greatest war film ever

“The inspiration for ‘Tropic Thunder’ came about around 1987,” recalled Stiller recently. “I had a really small part in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Empire of the Sun.’ At that time, all my actor friends were doing Vietnam films like ‘Platoon’ and ‘Hamburger Hill’ and going off to fake boot camps for two weeks. During interviews they would say, ‘This boot camp was the most intense thing I have ever experienced in my entire life and we really bonded as a unit and as a group.'” Stiller continues, “It was funny to me that actors were talking about this incredibly intense experience when in reality it was nothing like being a soldier and going to war. That sort of self-important, self-involved thing seemed funny to me; I just couldn’t figure out a way to make that into a movie.”

Stiller first teamed up with fellow actor Justin Theroux(John Adams(HBO), Amercian Psycho (2000)) and then screenwriter Etan Cohen (Idiocracy (2006)). It would take the trio several years until their work eventually evolved into a shooting script, “about an incredibly bloated, top-heavy Hollywood production with a bunch of actors who didn’t do the work, didn’t do the research, barely learned their lines, and who are more obsessed with how they’re all going to come off in a war movie than with the actual subject matter,” stated Theroux when the film premiered.

With this concept in mind, Stiller was adamant that the film not become a spoof. “The challenge was that it wasn’t just an action movie and it wasn’t a send-up,” Stiller explained. “At the end of the day, you need to invest in the reality of the situation and care about these people or it doesn’t work. It was definitely influenced by a lot of real war movies, because I love that genre. I’m a real fan of those films. But it’s also about Hollywood and how it works on such an extreme level. As stretched as things get in this movie, there is still a basic level of reality.”

08Aug/thunder/burnsMark Breakspear, VFX supervisor of CIS Vancouver (formerly Rainmaker), who worked with Ben Stiller in his capacity as producer on Blades of Glory also worked on his earlier effects film Night at the Museum which was directed by Shawn Levy.

Breakspear discusses in this week’s podcast how Blades of Glory really showed CIS how fundamentally different the pipeline needs to be for visual effects in comedies. In the film, the lead actors had to be seen skating which led to a massive amount of face replacement. “It was not so much the shot count that impacted us,” Breakspear explained, “but rather it’s the audience screening process involved in making a comedy that does.” The Producers of the film ended up requiring 8 test screenings, each one 10 days apart with some 180 shots to be temp comped. Thus, 8 times over the team had to comp 180, 2K resolution shots in just 10 days. “If you do the math that’s 48 minutes per shot,” he points out in the podcast.

This lesson was well learned on Blades of Glory and so on Tropic Thunder both the team and the pipeline were well established for outputting rapid temp shots. Nevertheless, the shot count grew from some 108 shots to closer to 500 shots. “You aim for 108 and you allow for that growing to 150 but in the end it ballooned to 500 shots,” recalled Breakspear. He does, however, point out that a large part of those shots were just cleanup or simple fixes. (Note: not all the final sequences were completed at CIS, Canada)

Ben Stiller directs

Unlike Blades of Glory, Ben Stiller both acted in and directed Tropic Thunder. The movie opens with a major battle sequence in which soldiers are running everywhere, and helicopters are crisscrossing amidst tonnes of smoke. At this point Breakspear explained that they almost wanted the audience to feel as if they had entered the wrong theatre.

While comedy is familiar territory for Stiller, the action elements were another matter, so the writing team consulted with famed military advisor Dale Dye to make sure the military action and jargon depicted in the film’s war sequences were accurate. Dye and his company, Warriors Inc., have lent their talents to dozens of film and television projects over the years, from Band of Brothers to Saving Private Ryan, and Stiller attributes their insight to making the first part of the story so strong and credible and to continuing that authenticity throughout the production.

The movie’s exterior scenes took place at seven locations, primarily in Kauai’s northern and eastern regions, before relocating back to Los Angeles for the locales and various interiors, filmed mostly on the legendary Stage 12 at Universal Studios in Universal City, California (where, interestingly, scenes from the Kauai-based production of “Jurassic Park” were also shot).

Filmed in Hawaii

Special effects coordinator Michael Meinardus and his team were responsible for all the practical effects such as bullet hits, fire and smoke, rocket explosions, squibs and the napalm explosion in Vietnam’s Hot LZ. This explosion was created with a 450 foot-long row of explosive pots filled with 1100 gallons of a 90/10 gasoline/diesel mix that were arranged across a field lined with coconut palm trees. In one take and at the flick of a switch, 11 cameras captured the controlled explosion that created a mushroom cloud fireball reaching 350 ft. in the air. The entire staggered explosion consisted of 12 separate explosions, the full run of which was completed in 1.25 seconds.

Breakspear commented that there was a fine line to be walked between comedy and realism. Especially in this film where there is a film within the film. The visual effects supervisor was Mike Fink, Oscar winner for last year’s Golden Compass.

Rather than greenscreen, roto was used extensively throughout the film. Breakspear explained, “You just can’t fly a greenscreen in Hawaii, it is so windy – it just becomes a big sail… there is no point.” Roto was done primarily in Fusion “because they have great spline tools.” A lot of the cleanup work, however, was done using the team’s Inferno system. What Breakspear found particularly praiseworthy was the 3D tracking of Boujou. He was especially impressed with the software’s ability to track blowing grass. “All the wind was so strong that everything on the ground was moving,… and Boujou just loves to track blowing grass – clumps of blowing grass were tracked perfectly in Boujou,” he recalled.

08Aug/thunder/firesThe film was a heavy compositing show, with strong pockets of difficult 3D. CIS built a special Blow Me explosion system in Houdini. The system took some eight months of development, but was hardly used; such is the way a film project evolves. Most of the explosions in the film are either live action or composites of real explosions.

One 3D sequence was a spectacular helicopter crash. Lightwave was used for the crash, mainly for its rigid body dynamics. Interestingly, the film crew rendered primarily in Mental Ray. One other area of heavy 3D usage was the end Oscar sequence, which had been planned to be a composited sequence but in the end the majority of the crowd was achieved by 3D crowd replacement, based on motion capture done at CIS’s own motion capture stage. The team at CIS was comprised of 25 3D artists and about 20 Compositors, plus managers etc.

One of the funniest and more unusual aspects of the film was a set of fake movie trailers. Before the film starts these fake trailers for non-existent films, establish the pedigree of the ‘stars’. They range from a serious medieval gay priest film Satan’s Alley with Tobey Maguire and Robert Downey.Jr., to Ben Stiller’s own action film franchise Scorcher, a ‘drama’ Simple Jack and The Fatties for Jack Black’s character. These trailers were done by Asylum (Hollywood),CFE, Ignition (LA) and Digital Back Lot.