VFX fighting hard to look invisible: The Fighter

For The Fighter, director David O. Russell called on Comen VFX to provide major invisible effects for the boxing film, including processing video for key boxing scenes, crowd replications, other enhancements and even a shot involving a phone number and a bar napkin.

Beginning work in November 2009, Comen VFX completed a total of 383 shots for the film. 292 of those shots were for the boxing scenes, with 23 requiring complex crowd replication. The remaining 91 shots included monitor burn-ins, HBO on-screen graphics, fix-its, blood enhancements, some ‘headlight’ shots, the napkin scene and the main and end titles. All of the shots, worked on by a crew of around 14, had to be invisible effects work. “I think just in general,” says visual effects producer Josh Comen, “for any of our shots, there was actually more pressure on us than in other more noticeable visual effects work, because if anyone knows that we did anything it’s no longer authentic.”

Shooting in video
That invisible work was perhaps most apparent in the boxing scenes, where Comen was required to process video footage and provide crowd replication. The film’s three big name boxing set pieces were shot over the course of three days as if they were live multi-camera set-ups on video cameras. “The director really wanted to capture the authentic mid-90s HBO boxing TV feel,” says visual effects supervisor Tim Carras. “So they actually hired an HBO multi-camera crew and shot the scenes in standard definition NTSC interlaced for material that would then be blown up to the big screen and in wide screen.”

The scenes were acquired in anamorphic widescreen which gave a 1:78 ratio to work with, which was then cropped down to 2.40:1. “Given the interlacing and everything else, the effective resolution by the time we were ready to start matchmoving was 720×180 !” says Carras.

Comen VFX was tasked with developing a pipeline to convert all of the video material to 24p. “It had to be in such a way that it looked good on the big screen but also so that it retained some of that signature quality of video,” says Carras. “We didn’t want it to blend in exactly with the rest of the movie. We wanted it to have its own special look and make people feel like they were watching this on TV.”

“We did a lot of different demos and looks,” continues Carras, “and settled on something that had a little bit of that feeling of videoness to it, but also didn’t have scanlines all the way through the frame. The overall theme was that we had to do a lot of high tech solutions to make the low tech look work for the film.”

The challenge for Comen was to initially deal with the motion blur and be able to adjust that to suit the boxing scenes. “When you first convert video you’ve got that 120th of a second shutter,” notes Carras, “so everything feels very choppy and stuttered. We’ve got a lot of people swinging punches and cameras panning back and forth and zooming in and out.”

“The director was very interested in taking an unconventional low-tech approach to giving the film a distinctive look, rather than the theory of capturing everything as pristine as possible and dialing everything in post. He was interested in letting that randomness and letting the artifacts that result from doing that drive the look.”

Ultimately, Comen established a 60i to 24p conversion process. “We ended up having a pipeline in After Effects,” says Carras, “starting with the Magic Bullet Frames plug-in. We used that to get a 24p out of the 60i, although certain shots worked better than others. For about a quarter of the shots we did something a little different where we pulled the fields apart and did an optical flow re-time – we made a 60p out of the 60i and then did a re-time to turn that into 24p.”

Comen retained some of the horizontal line nature of the video look in order to signal to the audience that the boxing scenes were like watching on live TV. Once the footage was in 24p, they then carried out a sharpening pass to give the scenes an enhanced edge. “We dialed that up and down for different shots,” says Carras. “When you see lights in the ring, the director wanted that to feel hazy, blinding almost. We’d lose some of the sharpness for those shots but ramp it up for people’s faces and boxing gloves. On top of that we did a pass with ReelSmart Motion Blur to restore that 48th of a second feel of the shutter to make it look fluid.”

Crowd replication
For almost two dozen of the boxing scenes, Comen also had to do crowd replication work. “When they shot the boxing,” says Carras, “they had about enough extras to fill half the stadium. The original intention was to only shoot in one direction at a time and move all the extras around. But because they shot it with 12 cameras, sometimes the angle that worked was the one that didn’t have enough people in the background. So sometimes we had to paste in crowds in the background, and for some low angle shots we’d paste in the lights and the box seats just to give it a bit more sense of space.”

The crowd footage to be added was pulled from outtakes as a number of panning shots had been filmed for general purpose use. “We had to painstakingly stabilise those and then build layers and layers of cards that we comped in a two-and-a-half-D environment in Nuke to get the parallax right,” says Carras. “We managed to find sections where the camera was relatively stable but because of the fast shutter of the video camera even when it pans a little bit the motion blur’s not too bad. But that was a consideration.”

The compositing for the crowd replication, set extensions and also some blood and bruise continuity was actually carried out before the 60i to 24p conversion, aided by extensive roto and a proxy model of the boxing ring. “We needed to do that work on the interlaced footage,” explains Carras, “because part of the look of the conversion was the specific artefacts that happen during the conversion process. And then when you do composites on it, the elements that you composite in wouldn’t have the artefacts pattern in a consistent way.”

“So we were doing all this compositing at a 60i video resolution and going through the process later,” continues Carras. “We built a routine in Nuke that would pull apart the fields, turn it into 60p and offset every other frame by a pixel vertically so you don’t have the vertical jitter that comes from that. And then we would do all the work and reverse that process. Then it went into After Effects where we used a bevy of plug-ins to convert everything to 24p.”

Some of the other challenges of the boxing scenes included not only the limited resolution, but also flashbulbs and lights in the shots. “There were star filters on all the cameras which meant the lights have all these shards coming off them as X shapes,” says Carras. “Any crowds that we pasted in we put on top of the stars and then went back and rotoscoped them and re-created the stars over the top and gave it that layer of blending in. It was also probably the most difficult matchmoving we’ve ever had to do.” Comen used SynthEyes, 3DEqualizer and Maya MatchMover for that work, which not only had to deal with hand-held swish pans but also two-and-a-half times the number of frames.

Slow-motion was utilised in parts of the boxing scenes, either for an instant replay look or to highlight shots where Mark Wahlberg’s character is being decisively beaten. “60i was our best friend for the slow motion shots,” remarks Carras. “We kept getting notes back from the editor saying, ‘The slow-mo is so amazing, what plug-in are you using?’ and we had to say it wasn’t a plug-in at all, it was the way the footage was shot. There were certain slow-mo sequences where they wanted it to look step-printed, too. Sadly we discarded all those extra frames and gave it a four frames per second step-printing that you might see in an older film.”

The napkin
There’s a moment in the film where Amy Adams’ character gives Mark Wahlberg her phone number on a bar napkin and he proudly shows it off to the camera, which is the POV of his buddies sitting back on the table. This shot became one of Comen’s most challenging. “Unfortunately we couldn’t use the phone number of the napkin that was written because you can only use certain numbers on screen,” explains Carras. “The nature of the problem was that we needed to put a number on there that would be generic, like a 555 number, but the director didn’t want to actually show an (obviously fake) number like that on screen.”

To solve the shot, Comen experimented with a ball-point pen and real napkins to fold and crease them so as to hide the number but make sure it looked like a number. “Once we had a look that worked,” says Carras, “we photographed that and turned it over to our compositors who warped, matchmoved and lit it to get it to match what was happening in the original scene.”

“We tried some obvious things first like blurring it out, but then you would have this object in the foreground – why is it out of focus? So then we played around with changing the motion blur as it’s moving through the frame and combining that with cleverly hiding it behind creases in the napkin. Eventually we got it to work and feel natural.”

Hiding in the headlights
Later in the film, Christian Bale’s character poses as a police officer to try and scam someone out of money. Back-lit by headlights, the filmmakers wanted to make it ambiguous as to whether the person on screen was a policeman or Christian Bale. “The way it was shot meant that it was probably too easy to tell it was Christian Bale,” says Carras. “We were tasked with coming up with a look that would enhance the atmosphere and mood of the scene but also let us play it so that he was more of a silhouette.”

Artists roto’d out all of the characters then created a number of layers of fog and atmosphere, tracking in some bigger and more blinding lens flares on all the lights in the scene. “We created some God rays / projector lights going past them so we could play with the direction of the shadows,” says Carras. “The rays and shapes would crisscross the screen and block out Christian’s face. So the end result was, not only could you not tell who it is in the first three or four shots of the scene, but it is also gave it a bit more of that dreamy atmospheric quality. We set this up in Nuke and basically used the God ray node and hand animated the sources of that to create light beams moving past the characters.”

For Comen VFX, the invisible effects work certainly suited the authenticity of the story sought after by the filmmakers. “They played very close attention to the fact that this film was set in Boston, shooting it there and everything down to the commercial vehicles to the licence plates were clearly from Massachusetts,” notes Josh Comen. “In terms of our work, we were able to give the director and the editorial team the complete latitude to adjust this footage that we’d create – to dial it in and dial it down on a percentage basis.”

“At no point did we want to say to them, ‘Guys this crowd you put in is breaking our algorithm, can you cut around it?’” adds Tim Carras. “It allowed them to use everything they had in the edit to tell the story.”

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