Hiding THE seams
Ian Failes takes a look at a new wave of incredible invisible effects being used across film and television
Ian Failes takes an in-depth look at more incredible invisible VFX in recent films and television shows, including Big Little Lies and Adrift
“We used Only 300 real PEOPLE, SEATED in THE first ROW. THE rest Of THE CROWD Behind Them Were CG” Pavel Bezborodov, visual effects supervisor, CGF
Afew issues ago, 3D World examined several recent projects where invisible visual effects were relied on in unique ways. Far from being ‘simple’ effects, invisible VFX involve significant attention to detail in order to hide the fact that they are effects at all, which is certainly the case in the new projects being showcased here.
They include water simulation work on the lost-at-sea adventure Adrift, seamless green-screen compositing in Big Little Lies, fabricated basketball stadiums and crowds in Three Seconds, a duplicated Burt Reynolds for The Last Movie Star and a raft of invisible effects in Sicario: Day of the Soldado.
Rocking The boat
Baltasar Kormákur’s Adrift, a true story of two lovers who suffer a major catastrophe on board a yacht in the open sea, required both stormy ocean shots and other out-atsea composites. Production VFX supervisor Dadi Einarsson tapped Milk VFX as one of the studios to handle visual effects for the film. Some of Milk’s shots are likely to go by completely unnoticed by the audience, while others that relate to the larger storm sequences and its aftermath were highly complicated, lengthy-frame challenges for the studio.
“The most complex VFX sequences both technically and creatively were the storm shots,” outlines Milk visual effects supervisor Sara Bennett, “which included a terrifying bespoke 100foot wave that hits the yacht and ‘pitchpoles’ or capsizes the boat, ending with the character Richard underwater disappearing into the depths of the ocean. Leading up to this complex ‘finale’ shot, we created 40 CG storm shots, which were a mix of live-action and full CG as they pass through the developing cyclone.
“We approached the pitchpole sequence in stages, starting with the open sea. We used a procedurally generated ocean layout as a base, created by our animation team. This included 21 individual hero waves that were placed by hand and then simulated to sync with the key moments in the shot to sell the intense drama of this pivotal moment in the film.”
Milk animated the main wave by hand, but also used Side Effects Software’s Houdini for ocean shots. The pitchpole sequence involved piecing together several different live-action elements and adding in CG ones. In recent times, too, the studio has moved to rendering in the cloud, via both Amazon and Google solutions. “The project would not have been possible to render without the cloud – 140 shots of which 70 were stormy ocean,” says Bennett. “During processing we peaked at around 130,000 cores so we needed to be able to scale up as required.”
big EFFECTS lies
If you watched the first season of Big Little Lies, the HBO television series about three troubled mothers in Monterey, California, you might not have noticed any kind of visual effects at all. Which is exactly what VFX supervisor Marc Côté from Fake Digital Entertainment hopes. He oversaw a multitude of seamless work on the show, much of which was to flesh out locations that needed to appear as if they were along the coast. Several dramatic moments, including a car crash and a dream-sequence cliff fall, also fell within the invisible effects approach.
Côté suggests there were two kinds of VFX work done for the show. The first he calls ‘advanced cutting’, “where you’re creating elements that give you the right emotion, the right timing. These are things like split-screens, time warping and clean-up. More storybased effects work.”
Côté adds, “The second was more classic visual effects with greenscreen to bring the actors into different locations and to enhance the locations they shot at. One was the location of the Blue Blues, the place where all the characters go and talk together, which was a marina cafe but it was actually shot on greenscreen. And there’s also the house that’s right on the ocean, but it was not shot there.
“There’s even another kind of editorial effects type of shot where, because of the production schedule, the actors can’t all be there at the same time or place, so we will shoot them separately and just put them together in the same shots. It solved schedule issues and problems where we could end up paying a lot of money to make it happen.”
Sporting films now heavily rely on invisible effects to tell their stories. That’s because it’s expensive – and logistically difficult – to fill stadiums with cheering spectators.
Achieving this via digital allows filmmakers to not only widen the scope of the story, but also control what is happening in the crowd itself. Visual effects studio CGF carried out virtual stadium and crowd augmentation for the film Three Seconds (also called Going Vertical), about the stunning USA versus USSR basketball match-up at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
The Olympic stadium and others seen in the film were re-created by CGF in CG, down to the finest details. “We were looking for real prototypes for each of these gym halls,” says CGF visual effects supervisor Pavel Bezborodov. “All of the gyms have a vast number of small different parts: wiring, switches, and interior finishing. In order to make everything trueto-fact and easy for the artists to work on textures, there were thousands of elements like locks, labels, switches, door handles, wooden panels and other numerous details.”
The game-play scenes in the film were generally filmed
in a pavilion surrounded by bluescreen. CGF then inserted its CG stadium pieces where necessary. For crowds, a 3D approach was considered but it was realised early that this would require the creation of more than 20,000 virtual people. Instead, a ‘sprite’ solution was used where crowd members were shot separately with a six-camera setup that then allowed them to be placed on ‘cards’ and positioned randomly in the stadiums.
“We used only 300 real people,” notes Bezborodov. “They were the audience who were seated in the first row, and the rest of the crowd that stand behind them were CG crowd. We changed their clothing and we made them act with different behaviours.”
Meeting your younger Self
Sometimes, invisible effects are aimed at just being a whole lot of fun, such as in the film The Last Movie Star. Here, Burt Reynolds plays an ageing movie star in the throws of realising that he is no longer the attraction he once was. The film called for scenes of Reynolds appearing in some of his previous key movies, including Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance. The invisible effects work was handled by Trick Digital, which typically took green-screen footage of the actor and composited it into the original films.
“The biggest challenge,” outlines Trick visual effects supervisor Adam Clark, “was that these original films were not shot with the intention of having the actors removed from them, and the process to cleanly remove Sally Field and Jon Voight from these shots required the removal and replacement of more in the frame than you might expect.”
The studio utilised Blackmagic Design’s Fusion Studio for the compositing – a lot of this was simply grunt work to make the shots feel seamless. “From a technical standpoint, the biggest impact was on tracking,” says Clark. “We had separate node branches that blurred, de-grained and re-coloured the image upon which we would then track and then use that tracking data elsewhere. We opted to retain the original grain and match, versus removing the grain across the shot and then re-graining the entirety.”
enhancing a border STORY
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is the sequel to the 2015 film, Sicario, and traverses locations on the border between the United States and Mexico. The invisible effects work, crafted by Rodeo FX, ranged from adding in military vehicles in various scenes to altering landscapes and even enhancing
make-up wounds. “From day one,” says Rodeo visual effects supervisor Alexandre Lafortune, “we knew our mandate was to produce invisible effects that would enhance the story told in Day of the Soldado. To keep our work as realistic as possible, we had to do a lot of research, especially for muzzle flashes and guns. The director had something specific in mind for these shots and we did everything necessary to match his vision.”
Rodeo’s list of military vehicles crafted for the film was extensive, and included a drone Predator, Black Hawk and Seahawk helicopters, Humvees, Ospreys, as well as Mexican police vehicles and other cars. But these were all made simply as dressing for airport or army base shots. That kind of ‘in the background’ work is the ultimate in invisible effects.
Another kind of invisible effects ‘staple’ in the film are shots that go by without many realising that any kind of intervention was involved at all. One of these is a car pile-up that involves a small explosion. Rodeo assembled three separate plates into one for the final scene. “We extracted the characters and the action, following the timing we were given,” explains Lafortune. “To ensure the continuity, we added smoke and shadows on the walls of the buildings with compositing. We also did matte painting to show the alteration of the ground, and broke the rear window of the car. This is a clever mix of assembling details!”