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Director Sam Mendes fully embraces CG to bring zip to
By Bill Desowitz.
With the return of James Bond’s arch nemesis Blofeld and his terrorist organization in SPECTRE, Daniel Craig’s fourth mission as Agent 007 takes the franchise back to a more playful tone — with a lot more VFX.
Things start off with a bang in a thrilling pre-credits sequence that recreates a Bond version of the Day of the Dead festival, shot in Mexico City with 1,500 costumed extras, where Bond kills an assassin (Alessandro Cremona) and two accomplices before they can blow up a stadium. The sequence was handled by ILM’s new London office and it represents a first for Lucasfilm.
“(Director) Sam Mendes was nervous about VFX on Skyfall and he had such a good experience that he completely embraced it on SPECTRE,” says Steve Begg, production VFX supervisor. “In fact, the use of virtual environments for the SPECTRE base in the crater in Morocco would not have been possible without such trust. And also the helicopter fight, which is entirely CG in wide shots.”
It begins with a very long tracking shot following Bond through the festival with an escort (Stephanie Sigman), into a hotel, up the elevator and into her room. In fact, it’s actually six shots in different locations (Mexico as well as Pinewood in London) seamlessly stitched together by ILM and including lots of crowd replication and set extensions.
The building where the shooting and explosion take place was entirely CG, complete with rigs by special effects supervisor Chris Corbould and a collapsing floor.
A Hybrid Approach Then there’s a fight between Bond and the assassin on an out-of-control helicopter that takes off in Zocalo Square. “It’s a hybrid of different approaches,” says Begg. “When the helicopter takes off, initially, that is all real with a crowd of 1,500 extras around. But the moment the camera goes higher than 6 feet, the CG extensions start to kick in.
Daniel Craig’s fourth turn as Agent 007.
And they used digital doubles of the actors at higher altitude shots.
“Then, when they get into the crazy aerobatics, we shot that 100 miles south of Mexico City at an aerodrome. Sam insisted that it had to be a real helicopter because you could tell by the camera work and lighting that they’re CG. So when you see the really wide shots, it’s a genuine helicopter with a CG Zocalo Square and crowds underneath. There are a few shots where the helicopter actually buzzes the square at the location with an entirely CG crowd. There is, however, one shot we had done amongst the crowd looking up as this helicopter swoops over camera dangerously close. That was a one-take wonder.”
The Austria chase involving Bond in a plane and Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) was very involving for MPC Canada. “You had a CG plane, the moment it gets beyond the tree line,” Begg says. “We had a fullscale rigged but it wasn’t animated enough for Sam. It didn’t fall around as much and he wanted to imply that Bond was struggling to keep the plane down at that altitude. So MPC created a photorealistic snow plane, as we call it. Then when the thing crashes onto the ground, it’s a full-scale prop with a Ski-Doo bike inside it and we added CG propellers and plumes of snow coming from that part of the plane.”
Going Big on Set Meanwhile, in Morocco, there’s a sequence of explosions that were rigged by Corbould — purportedly the biggest ever in a movie. These were done in-camera and ILM did the virtual environments of the missile base. Even the walk up to the villa was all CG by ILM.
London Double Negative did the demolition of MI6 as a CG model. “We started with a miniature, but unfortunately Chris and I were uncomfortable with the fact that we’d only have one go at it because we had so much work elsewhere on the film,” Begg says. “We shot the thing, nonetheless, and it wasn’t as successful as we’d hoped. In parallel with that, I commissioned Double Negative to build a CG model and that’s what you see in the film.”
The climactic boat chase in London and shooting down of the helicopter are pretty much in-camera. “But we did work on the embankment. Because we shot in summer and it was very green, Sam wanted to keep a wintery look. So all the trees and the buildings behind the trees are CG constructs by Double Negative. The helicopter crash was scaled but done on a partial set of Westminster Bridge with a huge amount of set extension work of London environment by Double Negative,” says Begg.
Yes, the adorable mouse that Bond converses with in Tangier is CG (by Cinesite), as is Blofeld’s torture machine (by ILM) that he tries to lobotomize Bond with.
“Daniel Craig is particularly good to work with for us,” Begg says. “He’s very helpful, very understanding of what we want and was actually responding to nothing there. And that made our job easier when we had to put the (drill) in his head.” Bill Desowitz is owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com) and a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood and Animation Scoop at Indiewire.