We all know how crucial visual effects are to telling the epic comic book tales in films like Deadpool and Batman vs Superman, or in bringing a sci-fi fantasy flick such as The Force Awakens to life. But visual effects don’t always need to be so grand even when they are still crucial to the storytelling. In our continuing series on invisible effects we look at a period and low budget film that simply would not have been possible without insightful, but still seamless, effects work.


In Race, Stephen Hopkins’ biographical drama about the Olympian Jesse Owens and his incredible success at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, visual effects were again a critical part of the production. That was not only due to the 1930s setting of the film, but also the fact that the major sporting scenes in crowd-filled stadiums were filmed without crowds and without stadiums. Crafting those environments was left to visual effects supervisor Martin Lipmann and a number of vendors, led by MELS Studios.

Stephan James as Jesse Owens.
Stephan James as Jesse Owens.

One of Race’s centerpiece sequences is a ‘oner’ Steadicam-like shot following Owens into the stadium at Berlin as he eyes the crowd, a box where Hitler is seated and up to a Zeppelin above. That shot was actually four takes stitched together with invisible cuts, including pans to the Zeppelin and Hitler’s box and a close-up view on Owens’ shoes. For the whole shot, too, MELS produced a CG stadium and a combination of 2D and CG crowd elements, using multiple techniques.

First, the entire shot was previs’d. Initially, an on-set virtual set system was considered with the idea being that the director would be able to frame shots with live compositing of the stadium from the previs. But the huge area and the harsh and changing daytime light prevented the system from working well, so Lipmann says they went ‘old school’. On the location – simply an empty field – 450 tracking poles were laid out to represent areas of the stadium. Only the track and the initial tunnel area were built, so the poles were relied upon for knowing where key areas (such as Hitler’s box or the scoreboard) would be.

In the 1930s the crowds tended to be a lot closer to the action than at today's Olympic events.
In the 1930s the crowds tended to be a lot closer to the action than at today’s Olympic events.

“We didn’t use any green or bluescreen either,” notes Lipmann. “We wanted it to be all natural light and so everything was roto’d out. In the end it meant we had all the correct reference for shadows, highlights and what we needed to re-create the lighting in the crowd.”

The crowd work began with 120 extras filmed for four days on piece of the stadium bleachers acting out different movements. “We broke down nine different angles – up close, standing up, sitting down, holding flags, looking right to left, discussing with each other, etc,” outlines Lipmann. “We gave those behaviors to separate people in the crowd which meant we could do re-projections of single rows or single people depending on our needs.”

The crowds were a combination of 2D plates and CG generated spectators.
The crowds were a combination of 2D plates and CG generated spectators.

Then a further two days of motion capture in a studio in Montreal with two actors replicating those routines was carried out. Filling out the stadium with 80,000 spectators was ultimately a mix of these 2D performances utilizing NUKE’s particle system and 3D crowd generated with Golaem inside Maya. “I think despite all these great tools we had,” notes Lipmann, “what really sells the shot was the choice of lensing – Stephen wanted to stay close on Jesse most of the time – it’s about his reaction to the crowd and the stadium.”

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