By IAN FAILES
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of two prestigious 2018 Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By IAN FAILES
It’s been a big year for big VFX blockbusters but, as most people already know, almost every film released nowadays contains some kind of visual effects work. Perhaps the best kind is when the audience doesn’t realize there’s any sleight of hand in the final frames at all, and that’s a trademark of many movies out in 2017.
With that in mind, VFX Voice dives into three films in which invisible and seamless visual effects shots were crucial to the storytelling: Baby Driver, Atomic Blonde and Detroit.
Sometimes it’s obvious why visual effects are necessary – the story calls for an alien world, aliens themselves or some kind of space battle. But for a film set on the streets of Atlanta, Georgia, that need is not so obvious. However, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver was one movie in which the heavily practical stunts and car choreography would be enhanced with visual effects by Double Negative.
“We discussed certain types of shots [director Edgar Wright] wanted to achieve, the practical challenges of shooting those shots and ways we could remove, replace or disguise any rigs, cameras, stunt performers or anything else needed to accomplish these incredible shots in camera.”
—Stuart Lashley, Visual Effects Supervisor, Double Negative
Early discussions between the director and Double Negative Visual Effects Supervisor Stuart Lashley revealed how VFX could help. “We discussed certain types of shots he wanted to achieve, the practical challenges of shooting those shots and ways we could remove, replace or disguise any rigs, cameras, stunt performers or anything else needed to accomplish these incredible shots in camera,” says Lashley. “We also discussed how we could enhance the visual synchronicity that the film has with its soundtrack. He wanted to add to the on-set choreography and have incidental things happening in the environment which are also perfectly in sync with the music. The level of synchronicity Edgar wanted would have been impossible to capture in-camera alone.”
One kind of invisible visual effect Double Negative completed for the film was face replacement of stunt drivers, necessary where intense car maneuvers would need to be undertaken by professional drivers and not the main actors.
“The face replacements were executed using still photography of the actors either comped in 2D or re-projected onto match-moved face geometry,” explains Lashley. “We knew that any face replacements would be pretty quick and small in-screen so this was the chosen method. For any more hero replacements that were planned, we decided we would shoot specific actor passes. An example of this is Baby’s 180-degree slide in the red Charger near the end of the film. For all of the shots where we are inside the cars during the chases, it really is the actors behind the wheel thanks to an impressive stunt vehicle rig that allowed a hidden stunt driver to be in control.”
An intense opening scene in which Baby (Ansel Elgort) shows off his getaway-driving skills involved the addition of a few background CG cars, some face replacement, and the digital insertion of features like lampposts and bushes to enter frame or pass by camera in sync with the scene’s distinctive soundtrack. “When Baby performs a 360-degree spin to knock a spike strip out of the way,” adds Lashley, “the spike strip itself was a digital addition. The aerial shots over the freeway were a combination of live-action road and helicopter plates with the addition of CG cars and rotor blades.”
Meanwhile, a ton of even more invisible VFX work was involved. This included camera and crew-reflection and track-mark removal, and bullet hits and muzzle flashes done digitally for safety reasons. Things like bullet hits in windshields were done in post production for safety reasons and music timing, and even rain and sprinkler water were added to windscreens.
“For all of the shots where we are inside the cars during the chases, it really is the actors behind the wheel thanks to an impressive stunt vehicle rig that allowed a hidden stunt driver to be in control.”
—Stuart Lashley, Visual Effects Supervisor, Double Negative
One of the trickiest seamless shots, says Lashley, was for the “Harlem Shuffle” coffee-run scene during the opening credits. “It involved the addition of digital graffiti to sync up with lyrics in the song as well as some reflection clean-up. What made that work challenging was the fact that the shot is a single take that runs over two-and-a-half-minutes long. We had to figure out how to split the shot up and manage the tracking and VFX work in a way that ensured the seams between sections were never compromised, even with multiple artists working on multiple versions of each section. It was one of those challenges that constantly raised more challenges the more we progressed. Once the workflow was in place though we were able to treat it more like a traditional sequence and move forward with presenting iterations to Edgar as normal.”
David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde is another film that dives heavily into real stunt action, including some long fight scenes and car chases. Visual effects studio Chimney helped bring some of those ‘oners’ to the screen, and they re-created Alexanderplatz in 1989 Germany just before the fall of the Berlin wall.
Perhaps most memorable is an almost 10-minute take of Charlize Theron’s MI6 character, Lorraine, taking on a group of enemies in close-quarters, full-contact fights. The injuries shown during the fight involved practical make-up effects, but Chimney’s visual effects team handled blending of plates to bring separate takes together.
“The scene consists of several shots that had to be made into one seamless shot using a bunch of different techniques,” says Chimney’s Sebastian Leutner. “Besides that there were mats and nets in the open voids of the staircases that had to be removed by Chimney and replaced with final walls. There were also close-range muzzle flashes and blood splatters that had to be added in post. One artist was leading the sequence and putting all the stitches together. A bunch of additional compositors were working on the blood, guns retouches, bullet holes and other retouches to match the individual segments.”
“Around 350,000 agents were used in the [Berlin] scene [in Atomic Blonde], which is actually close to how many people were at the rally in 1989. Period cars, birds and chimney smoke were added to the shot to enhance the transition between CG and plate. The final shot is extremely close to what Alexanderplatz actually looked like on that day in 1989.”
—Sebastian Leutner, Chimney
“Chimney VFX supervisor Michael Wortmann and [additional VFX supervisor] Jan Adamczyk worked together closely with Elisabet Ronaldsdottir, the editor of the film, to ensure each take could be stitched together to make the angles work,” adds Leutner. “For the seamless blending of the takes a lot of techniques were used. From simple cuts to rotoscoping to some extensive methods. There was no motion-control rig used, only a hand-operated Alexa Mini. The nine-minute sequence consists of around 36 individual segments.”
To re-create 1989 Berlin, Chimney began with plates filmed in Budapest and re-created period-correct geometry. They also used crowd-simulation software Golaem to populate the area of masses of people. “The agents were created with period-correct costumes for weather and time,” says Leutner. “In the end, around 350,000 agents were used in that scene, which is actually close to how many people were at the rally in 1989. Period cars, birds and chimney smoke were added to the shot to enhance the transition between CG and plate. The final shot is extremely close to what Alexanderplatz actually looked like on that day in 1989.”
Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit required some similar period reconstruction work to tell the story of the racially-charged events during the 1967 12th Street riot in Michigan. Image Engine took on almost 200 invisible effects shots, adding in specific Detroit locations and extra blood, fire and smoke effects as the riot unfolded.
One of the major challenges the studio faced was the documentary or hand-held feel of the filming, which not only meant meticulous camera tracking but also close attention to detail in re-creating the actual buildings and locations.
“There was a lot of background checking, reference gathering and YouTubing,” says Image Engine Digital Environment Supervisor Damien Thaller. “It wasn’t like we were just making stuff up. It needed to be based off as close to what actually happened. Even right down to the type of air-conditioning units you would see on the outside of the architecture.”
“It’s about realism, it’s not a visual effects show. [Detroit] is very story driven. But when they were missing key buildings and features, that’s when we come on board. They were throwing questions at us like, ‘Are you guys able to do this? Can you rebuild this whole street?’ And of course we did. It’s what we do.”
—Damien Thaller, Digital Environment Supervisor, Image Engine
Image Engine created most of the necessary buildings in CG. The important locations for the story were the Algiers Motel, where a police shooting and bashing incident takes place, and the Great Lakes Mutual Life Insurance building. The studio’s CG models were based mostly on black and white photography from the time.
“It’s about realism, it’s not a visual effects show,” adds Thaller. “It’s very story driven. But when they were missing key buildings and features, that’s when we come on board. They were throwing questions at us like, ‘Are you guys able to do this? Can you rebuild this whole street?’ And of course we did. It’s what we do.”