|Trent Opaloch and Neill Blomkamp have collaborated for the last six or seven years on music videos, commercials and short films. Trent explained that they have developed a shorthand for working together that proved to be a great asset when tackling a large scale project like District 9.
“Neill can be very exacting in what he wants on certain things and then also very flexible and open to suggestion on others,” said Trent. “Our process on ‘District 9’ was organic and, more than anything, was about making sure that what we were doing felt real and alive.”
District 9 is not an easy film to watch. The settings are harsh, the subject matter is often brutal and the filming style shifts rapidly from documentary to corporate video to wide open cinematic views. The footage reveals the characters under an unforgiving light, not as likeable people the audience can readily identify with. Although portions of the movie appear to have been recorded in a cold, random style better suited to a news broadcast than a movie, doing little more than capturing events, nothing was random about the choice of cameras.
The movie’s main camera system was the RED ONE. The film crew had two cameras running most of the time and as many as nine on large stunts, and used three Sony EX-1 cameras for ‘documentary’ segments and corporate video-style shots made for the lead character’s malevolent employer, MNU. “We had a Phantom for extreme high speed photography, a couple of different Sony HD cameras in the Cineflex HD heli-mount for aerial footage, a FLIR for infrared and three small HF100s for things like surveillance cameras, in-vehicle dash cams and gun mounts. We tested a number of different systems and based our decisions on those test results,” said Trent.
“This was my first real experience shooting with the RED ONE system. I was a little nervous about learning a whole new camera and workflow just before my first big feature but very excited at the same time. We had Jonathan Smiles, the RED supervisor from the UK, working with our crew, and the team at Park Road Post nailing down our pipeline from Johannesburg to Wellington, NZ.”
The crew was often shooting in hostile environments with punishing dust and wind and extreme temperature shifts throughout the day. Nevertheless, Trent and everyone involved were impressed with the camera's performance. “We did have some minor issues early on with viewfinders and onboard monitors,” he said. “These were very early production versions, and the team at RED really put themselves out in their support. We baked curves into reference clips for each of the scenarios and sent those off with the footage to post. Overall, I was pleased with the experience.
Although the equipment posed a challenge for Trent, he was less daunted than might have been expected by ‘District 9’s’ story and script. “I was devastated like everyone else when the ‘Halo’ film collapsed,” Trent said, regarding the stalled feature film project he and Blomkamp had been scheduled to work on together. “I'd been a huge fan of that world since the game's first release and was thrilled at the prospect of being involved in realising it as a feature.
“But to have an opportunity like ‘District 9’ come out of that and for Neill to have the creative control that he did, made the whole thing worthwhile and was really the best possible outcome from that situation. I think we all realised that we were in an extremely unique situation on ‘District 9’. It's pretty hilarious to think of the whole thing starting off with Sharlto Copley, Neill and me driving around Soweto improvising scenarios in the back of a combi van.”
Drama vs Doco
At the start of the project, Trent and Neill tried to methodically plan how to record each shot to progress the story logically from beginning to end. “Our first approach was to push the film in two different directions so that the documentary stuff in the beginning felt rough and haphazard while the dramatic parts of the film were more refined and polished - more cinematic.
“The problem was that while this sounded good in theory, when we started shooting the dramatic portions of the film, they seemed like a completely different movie. At one point I was behind the camera feeling really terrible about what was happening and thinking that it just felt like a kind of lame ‘Movie of the Week’. The funny thing is that Neill was back at the monitor thinking the exact same thing.”
They got rid of the tracking base and dolly and shot the scene handheld. “It just instantly felt better, like the camera was immersed in the scene reacting with the actors rather than looking in through this 1.85 window. I'm quite happy with the transition throughout the movie because it seems to suck you in as a viewer. You start off a with a single video camera, making a lame corporate video and end up in this extremely intense action film on a completely different scale before you realise what's going on.”
Going to the Edge
Feeling almost like another character, albeit nameless and invisible, Trent described his MNU videography sequences as ‘method-operating’. “You just sort of get into this character who is trying his best to make the best corporate video he can while the aliens are flinging crap at him. We did lots of filter pops as the camera goes from a sunny exterior to a dark interior, snap zooms, focus mistakes, blown out highlights - everything that would normally be edited out of documentary footage. The dramatic portions of the film were photographed in a more traditional manner while still going for that live, reactive camera feel.”
Thus, a number of shooting decisions ended up being made on set. “I think it's like most things where you go in with a plan and then adjust from there. Neill and Sharlto had a very free flowing process to arrive at the different story moments and it was very interesting and cool to watch that develop. My main responsibility was to be ready for whatever Sharlto was going to do and light the environments rather than what you'd normally do on a shot by shot basis. That's the only way you're going to have the flexibility to pull that type of filmmaking off.”
Trent estimates that about 90 per cent of the film is handheld. The crew used dollies, vehicle mounts, tripods and linear tracking bases at times, mostly for long lenses, but always held a loose, breathing frame to provide continuity across the scenes. “I think there is a time and place to use a camera in just about any way you can imagine, as long as it suits the subject matter. Aside from a few guilty pleasure moments like the gun cams and sweeping aerials, the camerawork in District 9 was about creating a head space for the viewer to buy everything they saw as being real.”
Park Road Post Production finished the project including the foley, ADR and sound mix in New Zealand. The team there has designed a proprietary RED workflow, and managed the footage from the grade to the deliverables, including a full digital intermediate. By the time the DI took place, Trent was back in Vancouver, not an ideal situation from his point of view, but also fairly typical. However, the main change he noticed after the DI was an overall lift in the blacks and brightness from what they had originally shot.
Pros and Cons
One of the effects companies working on this project was The Embassy in Vancouver. Their team had only worked with RED footage on commercials before. In terms of effects work, on the plus side were lack of grain in the footage and the speed with which they could generate plates. “The R3D RAW footage was great for getting 4K plates to work with – for zooming in, cropping the shots in more interesting ways or showing different aspects of a scene, without rescanning or losing quality,” said Compositing Supervisor Stephen Pepper.
“A disadvantage was loss of dynamic range compared to film. You can only go a few stops under or over the recorded setting.” Stephen thought he also noticed some compression artefacts in the footage but is not sure if this was simply an issue with the particular camera used. “Rolling shutter effects created problems in several shots, but because the footage was handheld and full of movement anyway, we just learned to be more careful during compositing and tracking - to remove vehicles and other objects from the foreground, for example - usually making at least a 4-point or warp track.” Their tracking was done with SynthEyes from Andersson Technologies.
The Embassy’s principle job was to key-frame animate, render and composite a massive piece of alien weaponry, a mechanized suit of armour controlled by its wearer, aiming for seamless integration into the film's climactic battle sequence. The sequence the team were working with was shot mainly with handheld RED cameras. They tracked and dropped the robot-like ‘exo-suit’ into the plates and used HDR lighting to match the hues on set. The CG in the scene was animated and rendered in Autodesk Softimage and composited using Shake.
The focus on action, involving a lot of interaction between the CG armour, the actors and the props made it a complex sequence to composite. “There were soldiers shooting, and each shot has composited bullet hits, dust on the ground for the suit's feet movement, and smoke added into the environment on top of the hero CG," said Winston Helgason, VFX artist and co-founder at The Embassy. He had gone over to supervise the sequence shoot in a Soweto shantytown.
They had previously worked with 35mm film for their feature film projects, which was reflected in their pipeline. They had been using Softimage XSI since getting to like it for ‘Iron Man’ and various commercials, and were able to continue using it for this movie. modo was added for modelling and rendering tools, with mental images mental ray. The surfacing and texture painting was done in Zbrush and modo, and compositing in Apple Shake, as mentioned.
Genarts Sapphire plug-ins were added for some effects. LensFlare was applied to enhance some of the muzzle flashes from alien weapons. EdgeFlash helped integrate CG robots into the background plates by creating a light spill of the separate elements to blend them together. Sapphire JpegDamage was applied to certain CG elements to match the digital compression on the plates, created by the Sony EX-1s, and Glints and Glows imitated sunlight flashing off the suit of armour.
Incidentally, this project had a strong element of collaboration with WETA Digital and Image Engine, which The Embassy hadn’t had to deal with to such an extent before. It worked out a bit better than they anticipated. They decided early in the project which team would final each shot, based on whose work was more significant in each one. In other words, The Embassy was able to follow through on their own work to completion. There were a few scheduling issues – WETA were over in NZ while Image Engine and The Embassy were neighbours in Vancouver - so they often worked at different times but the cooperation was a success.
Some of their work involved models that WETA had already created, while some of it involved ground-up modelling. They used modo for UV setup and organising some UVs they had been supplied. In the battle scene, smoke and dust were important features and were nearly all real elements, shot specifically for the movie on RED or borrowed from The Embassy’s shot library. The shantytown shoot location was extremely dusty, and the few instances of CG smoke or dust were created, again, with XSI. modo was used to set up shaders and occlusion maps that helped simulate gritty, dust effects on parts of the exo-suit. They built some simple shaders and test-rendered it before moving it over to XSI.
One reason that the Embassy particularly enjoyed getting involved on this movie was the chance to work again with Neill Blomkamp, who had contributed to The Embassy in its early days. As a VFX person himself, he had few problems defining and explaining what he wanted from the team and how he thought a scene or effect should look and work.