Nick Bannister, a private investigator of the mind, navigates the world of the past when his life is changed by a new client Mae. A simple case becomes an obsession after she disappears and he fights to learn the truth about her. The film is set in the near future, where climate change has caused the seas to rise and flood Miami. The extreme daytime temperatures have forced most of the population to live at night. This required extensive visual effects both as it is a blend of sci-fi action and noir tech thriller. The effects were provided by Scanline VFX and RISE VFX.
Reminiscence stars Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Thandiwe Newton, and Angela Sarafyan. Filming began in October 2019, in New Orleans and Miami. The film is directed by Lisa Joy, her original script for Reminiscence was on the 2013 Black List of most liked unmade screenplays. Lisa Joy is well known for Westworld and both Thandiwe Newton & Angela Sarafyan stared in Westworld (2016), which was created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan.
The complex hologram memory device and display system were handled by Scanline VFX. The team started the work in Jan 2020, right before COVID hit. Adam Balentine and Nick Crew were the Visual Effects Supervisors at Scanline VFX. both Balentine and Crew have strong 2D compositing backgrounds. To achieve Bannister’s office in an old bank, the team needed to not only do advanced compositing but actually build a digital version of the bank. In the actual set, there was a projection device setup that provided a real image on a special screen but this was never going to be able to produce all the fully immersive volumetric hologram effects that the story needed. To replace the ‘stage’ projected area with a new hologram oftentimes required also replacing all of the bank’s wall behind the action.
The practical hologram projection device on set for the actors was built with a semi-transparent material the crew named ‘holo-gauze’. The projectors would not only produce an image but also provide some spill light onto Hugh Jackman standing on set. For a number of shots, the main performances of Hugh Jackman and Thandiwe Newton were filmed with the projector running, and these were enhanced later by Scanline. But later in the film, Jackman’s character enters the Hologram space and the audience gets to see how the film’s device uses vertically hung beaded high-tech monofilaments, which is a key story point for Nick Bannister’s final decisions in the film.
Scanline had to walk a visually complex line in allowing the audience to emotionally connect and understand that in Bannister’s mind he is kissing the real Mae, while actually just occupying space in the projection system. Scanline achieved this immersive scene using both Nuke compositing and a clever Houdini Solution that allowed for the monofilaments to be moved and even snapped off.
Given the logic of the volumetric Hologram, as the camera tracks sideways, the perspective of the hologram needs to change. Without the correct perspective shift of the hologram, the image would appear like a flat projected plane. This means any footage shot for either projecting onset or even to be used in the composite, needed to have a track or camera move that matched the master camera dolly move on set. Scanline managed to seamlessly align these two plates without the use of any motion control. While the second unit did try an mimic what was needed, the final registration came from clever Nuke projection and tracking work. This is also where the digital background was sometimes used. By replacing the set behind the actors it allowed for a new constructed move to be created. This meant that in some shots, the camera movement of the projected inside of Mae’s apartment was the master move and other times it was from the primary camera in Bannister’s bank set location. It also meant considerations needed to be made to the right matching lenses between the two filmed environments, although the team did find that having the exact same lens could be cheated a little more than they had initially suspected.
Naturally from the film audiences’ perspective, the hologram isolated the actors, but in reality, if Mae was meant to be remembering her apartment, then sometimes we would expect to see that apartment behind actress Rebecca Ferguson, and yet at others, she would be just floating with no apartment background. This isolation effect as well as the animated switching on of the hologram which built an image up over time required Scanline to commission quite a lot of detailed roto. “And that was very important to Lisa (the Director) to tell the story of gaining each memory,” explains Balentine. He recalls how the Director was very deliberate in asking “What is the key trigger of that memory? How does it progress to the building of the memory?”
Scanline rendered in V-Ray from Houdini and delivered just over 160 shots composited in Nuke for the film. The Compositing Supervisor was Robert Willis. The work primarily was done in their Vancouver office with some help from Scanline Montreal. Randy Ui was the CG Supervisor with Cameron Thomas as the Lead Lookdev artist.
Reminiscence is Lisa Joy’s first feature film as a director. After the 3rd season of Westworld, this marked the 2nd collaboration of Lisa and her production company Kilter Films with RISE. Co-founder and executive VFX producer of RISE, Florian Gellinger stepped out of his traditional producing role to be RISE’s vfx supervisor for the film. Digital work began in March 2020, shortly after RISE transitioned to work from home due to COVID reasons. The RISE team did over 120 shots of digitally submerging Miami using CG water, as well as creating CG eels, CG trains, digital stunt doubles and full CG establishing shots to start the film.
This opening shot of the film may register as only 1 shot, but the beautiful establishing shot lasted a staggering 3267 frames or 2 minutes and 16 seconds. The sequence is 100% digital until the camera arrives in front of Bannister (Hugh Jackman). The director needed to communicate a lot with the opening shot according to Gellinger. “The director envisioned the opening shot needed to build the world and to tell the audience that in the not-too-distant future that the water levels have risen and cities are half submerged. They needed to see that there are dams everywhere to keep the Atlantic Ocean from flooding downtown Miami.” RISE researched documentaries and a wide range of sources to understand what might happen as well as Google Maps and open street views to help with the building block of what the camera would see. The idea was to tell this in one long opening shot. To show “what the world had become in one big sweeping camera move through Miami beach, with waves crashing against skyscrapers,” explains Gellinger. Normally FUSE would have used LIDAR or filmed in Miami with drones, but due to COVID, none of that was possible.
The shot ends with the camera sweeps over crashing waves and seagulls, tilts up at the sunken skyline of Miami Beach, shows the submerged roads where people have built suspended bridges between rooftops and use boats for transport, fly high above the bay with a theme park on an island, and into the Miami Brickell canal, crossing a dam trying to keep inland Miami and up onto the main protagonist.
While the shot is real, and the waves move in real-time, as the shot progresses, the time of day and position of the sun is animated in a time-lapse fashion so that over the duration of the shot the audience experiences day turning into night. “It was an artistic choice because the director thought that it might look a bit silly if we sped everything up.” Gellinger comments. “It was a conscious artistic choice to have boats, people and water move at real-time speeds, while the time-of-day changes in a time-lapse way.” A lot of the city, away from the key landmark buildings, was produced procedurally. “We also had an ivy generator or vine generator that would start growing various plants across the buildings due to the humidity that one would have in Florida in that very hot sun,” he adds.
One fun aspect was the rooms seen through the window of the opening shot. The team had to have some projected interiors for the camera to see as it flew into the city. Normally this is not geometry but project HDR cube maps due to the need to maintain sensible geo and render complexity. As the whole team was in lockdown, Gellinger asks his team to submit their “own bedrooms and home offices using fisheye cameras or whatever they had.”
The final render was in Renderman. RISE is a big supporter of Renderman and since this film, the team has been working hard to convert their whole pipeline to a full USD Renderman pipeline, with significant upgrades to their asset and digital pipeline backbone. The water was primarily simulated on Houdini. RISE had a total team of about 120 people, with a particularly large modelling department, working on, coincidentally, 120 shots.
RISE also worked on a range of other shots including the Eel tank sequence, which used traditional keyframe animation. The film is now widely available on streaming services, having been initially released by Warner Bros on HBOMax.