Would DaVinci Have Been Compositor or Animator?

The Da Vinci Code found the box office glory, opening at US$77 million (USA) and a record US$147 million overseas. To be successful the Da Vinci code required both seamless visual effects and detailed visualisations. This week we speak to the team at Double Negative in London about their work on the film and how they solved the visual effects.

The Da Vinci Code for Columbia Pictures and Imagine Entertainment, opened the Festival de Cannes (Cannes Film Festival) on Wednesday May 17th, and then smashed box office records in its opening weekend with one of the largest weekend openings ever. With 30 million copies of the book sold, Dan Brown’s esoteric thriller was always going to be a significant film, but directed by Ron Howard, the film is easily one of the most anticiplated films of the Summer. Double Negative was one of the companies selected to create a number of sequences to enhance the transition from page to screen.

Double Negative completed multiple sequences for the project (about 130 shots) over a 10-month period, the 30 person team started early on the project at the time of pre-vis. In order to facilitate director Ron Howard’s vision for the visual effects sequences in the film, Double Negative’s VFX Supervisor, Paul Riddle and CG Supervisor, Jesper Kjolsrud were on set during shooting at Shepperton studios, as well as in Scotland and Paris, while their VFX Producer, Steve Garrad managed the project from Double Negative’s London office.

The films star Tom Hanks

Double Negative’s VFX Supervisor on the project, Paul Riddle, explains: “Our brief was to create stylized sequences that enhance the drama and mystery of the film without straying into the realms of fantasy. We wanted to take our shots just to the edge of impossibility, but without crossing the line and being too showy. With this subtle approach, the audience can enjoy the narrative without being jolted out of the experience by an obvious VFX shot.”

While in Paris on business, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) receives an urgent late-night phone call: the elderly curator of the Louvre has been murdered inside the museum. Near the body, police have found a baffling cipher. Solving the enigmatic riddle, Langdon is stunned to discover it leads to a trail of clues hidden in the works of Da Vinci – clues visible for all to see, and yet ingeniously disguised by the painter.

Langdon joins forces with a gifted French cryptologist, Sophie Neveu, (Audrey Tautou), and learns the late curator was involved in the Priory of Sion – an actual secret society whose members included Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Da Vinci, among others. The Louvre curator has sacrificed his life to protect the Priory’s most sacred trust: the location of a vastly important religious relic, hidden for centuries. They soon realize that the society is secret namely to protect themselves from a covert religious organization that will stop at nothing to protect a secret that threatens to overturn 2,000 years of accepted religious dogma.

In a breathless race through Paris, London and beyond, Langdon and Neveu match wits with a faceless powerbroker who appears to work for Opus Dei – a clandestine, Vatican-sanctioned Catholic organization believed to have long plotted to seize the Priory’s secret. Unless Langdon and Neveu can decipher the labyrinthine puzzle in time, the Priory’s secret – and a stunning historical truth – will be lost forever.

During this breathless race, Silas – an Opus Dei operative – is seen frantically driving a car through the streets of Paris. Using a combination of live action plates with stunt drivers and blue screen motion control passes of Silas driving a partial car, Double Negative created an impossible camera move that pulls out from the speeding car’s dashboard, out of the rear window, and then around the car. A full photorealistic CG digital model of the car – a Renault Vel Satis, was placed over the live action plates, with the surrounding environment of trees, road and other traffic created digitally from live action photography.



Castle Gandolfo, the private residence of the Pope, plays an important role in the film; however, the building is not accessible to the general public. For the scenes that take place at the Pope’s residence, Double Negative created a CG structure from a variety of reference photographs and Art Department sketches. In Double Negative’s most impressive shot in the sequence, the camera starts by slowly zooming into the castle. Multiple elements, such as CG water, CG buildings and a matte painted background of the Italian landscape, were all used to create a swooping vista of the Castle. This was filmed during daylight hours but then digitally altered to give the impression of night. Riddle explains: “Filming at night wouldn’t give the same results, since light levels are too low to pick up all the small details. Turning day to night is a stylised approach, but means we can preserve the level of detail while conveying the drama of the scene as intended.”


The Da Vinci Code filmed at a number of locations throughout Europe and at Pinewood and Shepperton Studios, where several sets were built. Although the production did shoot at the Louvre in Paris, it was essential to rebuild the Grand Galerie in a studio so that a majority of the action could unfold in a more controlled environment, and away from the masterpieces at the actual museum. To this end, production designer Allan Cameron constructed sections of the museum on the “James Bond” stage at Pinewood Studios just outside of London. “I knew from the very beginning that we were going to build a small part of the Louvre on a stage,” Cameron says. “But when we went to the Louvre, we were worried about damaging the floors, as well as any of the priceless paintings.

After a couple of visits to Paris, we decided to build even more of the museum on the stages at Pinewood, which from my point of view was much more fun than shooting on location. My scenic artist, James Gemmill, had to paint 150 paintings that required careful measurement at the real Louvre. We even had marble samples created to match the marbles around the skirtings and around the windows. Finally, floor boarding was constructed by my carpenter using wood veneers to approximate the floor inthe Grand Galerie. They were then photographed and printed onto plastic sheets and laid on the floor.” Cameron explains that all the paintings that were reproduced were digitally photographed, then blown up and painted over, sometimes projected on the wall and painted by Gemmill. “James painted them all like the original paintings. He knows all about glazes and crackle techniques. So the actual surface of the paintings looks pretty realistic.”

Adds James Gemmill (Head Scenic Artist) on the texture of the painting reproductions that he created: “I tried to pay attention to all the textures of the paintings. We can’t paint using the exact techniques, but the textures are important. That’s the difference between looking at a movie and seeing a painting on a wall and realizing that it’s a print rather than a painting. When the light is reflected off it, you can see the texture, so it’s important to get it right.”

In a central scene set in Westminster Abbey’s Chapter House, Langdon and Neveu are forced at gunpoint to decode one of the key puzzles of the story. The scene, actually filmed at Lincoln Cathedral in Lincolnshire, U.K., gave Double Negative the creative licence to explore Langdon’s famous puzzle-solving mind on film. Desperately searching for a solution to the cryptex, Langdon uses his eidetic memory to recall the exact details of Newton’s tomb in an adjacent room in order to solve the riddle. To visually represent this thought process Double Negative used a combination of multiple motion control passes of the full size Newton’s tomb model and a digital replica of specific parts of the tomb, which appears before Langdon.

This enabled impossible camera moves through the tomb. As Langdon stands alone in the Louvre, working towards a solution, Double Negative created an otherworldly animation of stars and planets to symbolize the information unfolding in Langdon’s imagination. The sequence was enhanced by chromatic aberration to give the final highly polished yet dramatic look that signifies to the audience that this is all occurring in Langdon’s mind’s eye. “The key here was flexibility,” says Riddle. “It’s a sequence where it’s difficult to know exactly what is needed – so we were on hand to constantly refine the scene until the filmmakers were happy”.

Towards the film’s climax, Langdon is excitedly following a series of brass plaques in the streets of Paris that lead him to the Louvre. On his realization that the essence of his quest lies in a hidden chamber beneath the famous glass pyramid – the camera swoops from Langdon through the glass and down into the chamber below. The immediacy with which this moment of epiphany strikes Langdon requires this swooping shot, yet without actually dismantling the glass pyramid, it would have been impossible. Double Negative’s team stepped in to create a full-CG realisation of the inverted glass pyramid that was matched into the shot. In fact, the only filmed element was Langdon himself; the rest is entirely digital. After the camera has plunged through the glass pyramid and entered the smaller marble pyramid at the base, the shot combines into an interior environment that was a combination of motion control camera passes.


Langdon and Neveu find themselves travelling just South of Scotland’s capital to continue on the path of discovery to Roslyn Chapel. Quite at odds to the picturesque Scottish highland, Roslyn Chapel has actually been enclosed by industrial scaffolding since 2000. As an important location in the film, Double Negative’s task was to restore the chapel to its former glory by digitally removing the scaffolding and restoring the building to it’s state prior to the beginning of the restoration work. Double Negative’s team created a full CG model of the chapel and digital matte paintings for exterior shots, which were used in conjunction with a 1/5-scale miniature (which was provided by Mattes & Miniatures).

Angus Bickerton, the VFX Supervisor on The Da Vinci Code, had this to say about the facility: “Double Negative are filmmakers. They understand how things change and evolve during the life of a film. Paul, Steve, Jesper and the team accommodated those changes with grace, were great to work with, and delivered in excess of my expectations.”

Note : other effects companies on the film included The Senate, MPC, Brainstorm Digital, Rainmaker, Artem, Altered States and Effects Associates.