Union created the dramatic VFX for WWII thriller Operation Mincemeat. The film represents Union moving more heavily into 3D animation and set extension than ever before. The company recently employed a new head of CG and CG technical supervisor Rob Hopper (former MPC). The VFX Supervisor was Simon Hughes. Union did 63 shots in the film. The company has been busy on a range of high-profile projects in addition to Operation Mincemeat, such as The Irregulars, Wheel of Time, and more recently The Sandman and Moon Knight.
The story dramatizes the successful British deception operation in the second world war to disguise the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. Two members of British intelligence obtained the body of an unclaimed cadaver, Glyndwr Michael, dressed him as an officer of the Royal Marines, and placed carefully detailed personal items on him identifying him as the fictitious Captain (Acting Major) William Martin. The body also contained correspondence between two British generals which suggested that the Allies planned to invade Greece and Sardinia, with Sicily as merely the target of a fakeout or ploy to confuse the Germans.
The film is set in 1943 as the Allies are set to break Hitler’s grip on occupied Europe and it follows two intelligence officers, Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) as the dream up the most inspired and improbable disinformation strategy of the war – centered on the most unlikely of secret agents: a dead man.
Union worked on the film from script to delivery to recreate key moments in the story and place the action into the correct visual period. The VFX work included a fully CG submarine and numerous matte paintings to create environments of a war-torn London, stretching from Horse Guards Parade to Whitehall. The material was shot in 4K / Alexa. “Digital assets for the ocean sequences were built in Maya, then lookdev-ed in Houdini before being rendered in Mantra,” explains Hopper. “This was because the ocean toolkit and fluid simulations were built inside Houdini and we needed our vehicles to reflect in and be refracted-by the water.” The shots were then lit and rendered in an ACES-CG pipeline, in Mantra, for compositing in Nuke.
The Union team, led by VFX Supervisor Simon Hughes, worked closely with The director who commented, “I valued the collaboration on this immensely, and the skill, patience, and imagination Union brought far exceeded my best expectations. The shot of the submarine surfacing which begins the film is very cool and truly thrilling, establishing a narrative confidence that challenges the film to match it. The best thing is that you don’t even think about how we got the shots – they just did their job so well. Judgment throughout was spot on, and I was really grateful for your endless willingness to adapt while we figured out exactly what we wanted.”
The HMS Seraph submarine scene was shot at Twickenham Studios on a partial set built against green screen and the submarine was added in post, along with complex water simulations in the rain. Simon Hughes was on set for the production aided by Taskin Keenan and Noel O’Malley. The same submarine was also used in a series of full CG shots, from the opening scene with the vessel in stormy waters, to the re-emergence at Huelva beach at night. HMS Seraph became a character in its own right.
All of the water simulations were contained inside Houdini with animation for the watercraft imported from Maya. “We used the Houdini ocean toolkit to get the right behavior of the sea for each sequence,” comments Hopper. “Then, depending on the shot, we would run localized FLIP fluid simulations for the interaction of the various vessels with the water.” On top of these the team would also simulate separate layers for the foam, spray, and mist created by the interaction. The meshes, particles and volumes were combined and rendered together in Mantra.
For the USS Shubrick approaching Gela, the real HMS Cavalier was filmed at Chatham Dockyard and then partially replaced with the CG USS Shubrick and added into a CG stormy ocean as it powered towards Sicily, requiring wake and ocean creation as well as a flotilla of ships. An additional number of shots were created showing the troops’ final arrival and the storming of the beaches with CG landing craft and destroyers in the oceans.
Once the battle was complete, a final shot was created showing the aftermath, set the following morning. This is a 600-plus frame shot that reveals the full scale of the battle that had occurred the previous evening. The shot was achieved using a combination of CG crafts, vehicles, props and a number of plates of soldiers marching on the beaches, all with a view to historical references gathered to create an authentic feel. “All the additional soldiers were from a tile shoot at the location, the cars/ trucks were plates and the ships were all CG,’ outlines Hopper.
Operation Mincemeat is in cinemas across the UK currently and will open in the USA on May 6th.