Let the Games Be­gin

How the vfx team of The Hunger Games: Catch­ing Fire de­liv­ered the brave, new world of Kat­niss Everdeen. by Thomas J. Mclean

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How the vfx team of The Hunger Games:

Catch­ing Fire de­liv­ered the brave, new world of Kat­niss Everdeen. by Thomas J. McLean

The games are back on and fans anx­ious for a deeper look at the world of Panem are go­ing to get a feast for the eyes cour­tesy of vis­ual ef­fects in The Hunger Games: Catch­ing Fire.

Based on the sec­ond en­try in Su­sanne Collins’ block­buster young-adult novel tril­ogy, Catch­ing Fire picks up the story of Kat­niss Everdeen, played by Os­car-win­ner Jen­nifer Lawrence, as she is forced back into the deadly Hunger Games amid grow­ing po­lit­i­cal tur­moil in the dystopian fu­ture na­tion of Panem.

— Catch­ing Fire’s vfx su­per­vi­sor Janek Sirrs

For this film, a se­quel to last year’s hit The Hunger Games, di­rec­tor Fran­cis Lawrence picked up the reins from Gary Ross and turned to vis­ual ef­fects su­per­vi­sor Janek Sirrs, whose re­cent cred­its in­clude Mar­vel’s Avengers, Iron Man 2 and Lawrence’s pre­vi­ous film I Am Leg­end, to get this more am­bi­tious se­quel and its 1,200 ef­fects shots done on a tight sched­ule.

“Our man­date was to ex­pand upon [the first film], to show more of the world, but also be mind­ful of where we came from in the first place,”

“Our man­date was to ex­pand upon [the first film], to show more of the world, but also be mind­ful of where we came from in the first place. It’s big­ger in scope, not just in terms of the range of ef­fects, but also

big­ger in terms of the world we see.”

says Sirrs, who tapped stu­dios in­clud­ing Dou­ble Neg­a­tive, Weta Dig­i­tal, Rodeo FX, Fuel VFX and Hy­bride. “It’s big­ger in scope, not just in terms of the range of ef­fects, but also big­ger in terms of the world we see.”

Among the ven­dors Sirrs con­tracted for the movie was Method Stu­dios, whose Lon­don crew put to­gether 155 shots over sev­eral key se­quences, start­ing with the Vic­tor’s Vil­lage in Dis­trict 12, where the movie’s story be­gins. The vil­lage was a CG ex­ten­sion of footage shot on lo­ca­tion near At- lanta, with the gloomy weather, bar­ren veg­e­ta­tion and fall­ing snow all added dig­i­tally, says Stephane Naze, Method’s vis­ual ef­fects su­per­vi­sor for the film. Method also helped de­sign and an­i­mate the ro­botic TV cam­eras for the se­quence, which in­cluded both day and night ex­te­rior shots.

“The chal­lenge was to be com­pletely trans­par­ent—not to have it look CG or fake,” says Naze.

Catch­ing Fire of­fers the first real look at many of the 12 dis­tricts that make up Panem and that each pro­vide tributes for its an­nual Hunger Games. The glimpses of each are brief, but made dis­tinct through Method’s set ex­ten­sions and 3D matte paint­ings.

In stark con­trast to the dere­lic­tion of the dis­tricts, the Cap­i­tal is a col­or­ful and grand mod­ern city built from the ground up. Sirrs says the de­sign of the Cap­i­tal was meant to be grandiose with a to­tal­i­tar­ian edge to ex­em­plify its power. Bru­tal­ist and mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture styles were used to sug­gest the city was built from scratch with no re­gard for what was there be­fore, with omi­nous large struc­tures and open spa­ces.

“It is a bit of a mish­mash of styles, there’s a few deco flour­ishes here and there as well, just to con­fuse the is­sue,” says Sirrs.

With a short prep time, get­ting as much done in cam­era as pos­si­ble was im­por­tant. For the Av­enue of Tributes se­quence, in which the tributes ride be­fore the crowd in char­i­ots, the se­quence was shot with the ac­tors on real mov­ing char­i­ots in a large park­ing lot with a few strate­gi­cally placed green-screens. In ad­di­tion to get­ting re­al­is­tic move­ment, the qual­ity of the nat­u­ral light in­formed how the dig­i­tal el­e­ments were de­signed and lit. “By mak­ing our­selves shoot it as if we were do­ing a real, live event, that in­formed how the se­quence came to­gether,” Sirrs says.

Stage Busi­ness

Method han­dled another key se­quence in the movie, cre­at­ing the the­ater and stage from which Stan­ley Tucci’s Cae­sar Flick­er­man in­ter­views the com­peti­tors—com­plete with gi­ant back­ground mon­i­tors with lo­gos and mo-

tion-graphic ef­fects. The heart of the se­quence though is Kat­niss’ wed­ding dress, which dra­mat­i­cally trans­forms via flame ef­fect into to a sleek mock­ing­jay dress com­plete with wings.

Nave says the trans­for­ma­tion in­volved meld­ing four plates: one for the wed­ding dress, one the new dress, one for Kat­niss and one for Flick­er­man. Those shots were done with­out mo­tion con­trol, mak­ing it a chal­lenge to get them to match up cor­rectly.

“The wed­ding dress was big and the move­ment of Kat­niss with the white dress was dif­fer­ent than with the black one,” says Nave. It also was dif­fi­cult to get the fire ef­fect right so it looked like a trans­form­ing ef­fect in­stead of a real, burn­ing fire that would evoke panic in the au­di­ence.

Sirrs says the Hunger Games arena was the ma­jor vis­ual ef­fects chal­lenge for many rea­sons. As in the novel, the arena is a cir­cu­lar jun­gle cov­ered by a high-tech dome and with a small is­land pro­trud­ing from a lake in the very center with spoke-like rock for­ma­tions that make it look like a clock.

The story al­lowed them to shoot the arena three dif­fer­ent ways, with lo­ca­tion film­ing in Hawaii used for the mon­key at­tack se­quence and the beach scenes, and a com­plete dig­i­tal en­vi­ron­ment cre­ated by Dou­ble Neg­a­tive for ev­ery­thing else.

“We re­ally liked the look of the mist-filled jun­gles we saw in Costa Rica, so that re­ally was the ba­sis for the type of fo­liage and the gen­eral feel­ing of what a jun­gle should look like,” Sirrs says. “We started build­ing a va­ri­ety of dig­i­tal plant life based upon that and then also build­ing a few more to tie into the footage we shot in Hawaii.”

The re­sult­ing jun­gle re­quired so much data to ac­count for ev­ery leaf that it was too large to be stored on a server, Sirrs says. So they had to ba­si­cally re­plant the jun­gle ev­ery time a shot was ren­dered. “It was a bit hair-rais­ing on some shots be­cause it was like, we aren’t go­ing to get two gos at this be­cause we don’t have enough time to ren­der another,” he says.

Pre­par­ing the Pri­mates

The mon­key at­tack fea­tured most of the an­i­ma­tion seen in the film’s ef­fects. Sirrs says they de­cided to de­sign an orig­i­nal pri­mate based on a ba­boon with some ex­otic fea­tures and col­or­ing added, and turned to Weta Dig­i­tal to bring them to life. Sirrs says he chose Weta be­cause of the work they had done on Rise of the Planet of the Apes and its up­com­ing se­quel, which of­fered essen­tially a short­cut to the fi­nal prod­uct.

Sirrs says plans to film a ba­boon at the At­lanta zoo were scrapped be­cause the an­i­mal was too dan­ger­ous to get close to and film­ing him from a dis­tance proved prob­lem­atic when he was less than ac­tive. Most of the ref­er­ence for how the an­i­mals should move came from ex­ten­sive in­ter­net re- search into how real pri­mates be­have, Sirrs says.

“We didn’t want them to be an­thro­po­mor­phic in any sense,” says Sirrs. “We didn’t want mon­keys that look like they’re think­ing. I think as soon as you do that you im­ply a dif­fer­ent type of crea­ture, you im­ply a fan­tasy crea­ture.”

The film had a short prep that re­quired some “wing­ing it,” Sirrs says. But even with a tight dead­line the film ben­e­fit­ted from be­ing an adap­ta­tion of well-known source ma­te­rial. “We’re ad­her­ing to a book that’s very pop­u­lar, so you’re not go­ing to be in­tro­duc­ing new char­ac­ters or a dif­fer­ent third act, and that gave a cer­tain amount of clar­ity to it,” Sirrs says.

The Hunger Games saga will wind to its con­clu­sion with a two-part adap­ta­tion of the fi­nal book, Mock­ing­jay, with the first part due out Novem­ber 21, 2014.

Sirrs says he tries not to look for­ward too much when work­ing on a se­ries like this. “I like to think movies have to stand by them­selves, but go­ing for­ward I’m sure Mock­ing­jay will use some of our as­sets,” he says. “But we knew in this movie, the arena it­self, which is the bulk of our work, is unique to this movie.”

Lion­s­gate’s The Hunger Games: Catch­ing Fire is cur­rently play­ing in the­aters around the world. The pic opened at No. 1 and made $158 mil­lion dur­ing its open­ing weekend at the box of­fice alone.

Mon­key Busi­ness: Weta Dig­i­tal used a lot of the pre­vi­ous work they had done for Rise of the Planet of the Apes to cre­ate the ba­sic hero mon­key for the ba­boon at­tack se­quence.

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