Method Studios artists in Vancouver and LA have developed VFX techniques that work silently behind the scenes, giving realism and atmosphere to the historical drama ‘J Edgar’ and thriller ‘Dragon Tattoo’.
|Method Vancouver was responsible for set extensions to accommodate the various time periods Clint Eastwood’s film‘J Edgar’passes through, from 1929 to 1969. While the principle shoot took place mostly in and around Los Angeles, the team’s environmental work and set extensions recreated story locations in Washington DC and New York City. Matte paintings were created for parade scenes and places in other states.
Within these environments, working under VFX supervisors Geoffrey Hancock and Ollie Rankin, Method created crowds of pedestrians and other locals, cars and traffic. In one-off shots throughout the film they provided explosion enhancements and clean up. Perhaps the greatest demand was the need to make it all invisible, unnoticed by the audience to preserve the authenticity of the historic story.
|On Set, Off Set
The Method team started on the project fairly early in production, after the project’s VFX supervisor Michael Owens contacted them during preproduction. They had previously worked with him and Director Clint Eastwood on other movies. Neither Geoffrey nor Ollie travelled down to LA, as the director and Michael generally prefer to keep a minimal crew on set. However the team did have a staff member on hand to collect essential set and camera data. Mid-way through production, Geoffrey became ill and Ollie Rankin stepped into the role of main VFX supervisor
At the location, VFX data wrangler Lorna Carmichael managed their data and after the shoot acted as their VFX editor, organising a post production library to ensure each artist could access the data they needed. This included HDRI, set measurements, camera data and photos for texture mapping for everything from location elements to crowd extras, wardrobe and actors’ makeup.
Her combined role and on-set experience made her role interesting, as Ollie Rankin explained. “Typically, the VXF Editor liaises between the production editorial and the VXF team ensuring they are working on shots for the correct duration. As changes to the cut come through, the editor makes sure their version is up to date, keeping the shots in the correct context.
“However on Clint Eastwood’s films the role can become more creative due to his trust in Michael Owens to act as a hub managing all effects and vendors. Consequently the effects edit is often determined as each vendor produces their shots. Occasionally, Method were re-editing sequences at their studio and proposing the changes back to Malpaso Productions’ editorial.”
SkyBucket 3D handled most of their LIDAR scans at the location. This company uses some custom plug-ins for their data that Method have found work well in Maya to make the data easier to work with.
Time and Place
|By working with the editorial team at Malpaso, Clint Eastwood’s production company, and looking at their initial edits they could figure out what extensions they would need to create and how important would be in the finished movie. Then, by using satellite images and maps of those locations they could start to lay out the buildings and compare the results with the LIDAR scans to make sure the buildings were lining up properly.
Deciding how to differentiate the different eras, and how to make Washington look different form Chicago or New York, was an essential part of the work. “We compiled a library not only of buildings but of building components,” said Geoffrey. “We swapped these around from place to place, building to building, keeping the ground floors separate from the upper floors so that we could stack them to create buildings of different heights and looks, and change the signage.”
“For example, the Capitol Building as viewed from a distance has changed quite a bit. Now, of course, it is a major tourist attraction in a park with a museum. But in the 1930s it was located in an ordinary civic park. We went back and looked at aerial footage in archives, looked at the layout and where the streets were running.”
Almost all extensions required 3D CG with matte paintings in the backgrounds. On shots that would only be seen from one angle, a matte painting could sometimes suffice for most of the scene. But in places they knew the story would return to in multiple shots from different angles they would build out in CG. Having that library of components made this a much more efficient process and also allowed them to customise the lighting at the same time. Models were built in Maya with Mudbox or ZBrush for high resolution sculpting. Most textures were handled in Photoshop, with the city and environment layout in Maya.
Method also needed to create some critical, all-CG shots for the production where no plates had been shot. Some had been anticipated during storyboarding but others were inserted during the edit. An example was in Broadway where the crew had captured a shot looking at a cinema from ground level, but the production wanted to start with an establishing shot that gave a high, wide view of the street looking down at the cinema. Once Method had re-built the shot at the lower angle, they could create their higher virtual camera angle based on this.
Also, for the Pennsylvania Avenue intersection shots, while the crew was able to go to Hoover’s office and balcony and shoot a reference plate, Method often couldn’t use the camera move, or images from the shot because the scene was too full of modern references, the trees were too large for the era and the traffic was completely different. So other than using reference for the street geography, the plate would have to be completely replaced with CG.
The camera work in the main shoot had a slightly rough quality that they aimed to emulate in their virtual shots. Their camera work might also serve special purposes. In the shot just preceding their establisher in front of the cinema, a forensic scientist is examining a piece of wood presented as evidence. Knowing that the viewers’ eyes would be on the scientist’s face as the edit cut to the street scene, the director wanted the focus of interest to remain in the same spot. “We worked back and forth several times redesigning the camera move of the digital shot and also modifying the framing of the preceding shot to make a smooth transition,” said Ollie.
In a Crowd
|For example, along a sidewalk, they can specify the number of people, variations in density, different clothing for the 1930s and ‘60s down to coats and hats, and so on. On any project, they can produce crowds rapidly, rendering through Houdini’s renderer Mantra, and find it’s an effective way to bring extensions to life.
They also had a good library of 1930s cars, again, from working on Eastwood’s ‘Changeling’, and re-built some of these to create further models. Much of the car animation was done with Craft Animations tools which allowed them to simulate the suspension dynamics, acceleration and braking. “As we laid out their paths, we had them driving over bumps, turning corners, slowing down and speeding up, and they would react realistically,” said Geoffrey. “We set up a rig in Maya to do the rocking, springing and bouncing, and the Craft tools have settings for fine-tuning stiffness and the relationship to acceleration, braking and bumps.”
They researched the ages of existing buildings to determine which era they should or shouldn’t appear in and checked how high and large the trees should be, but also had to make some educated guesses about the streetscape and provide appropriate buildings with contemporary architecture where necessary.
All up, Method created six to seven main environments but had been anticipating about a dozen, and had populated their buildings library accordingly. Later on, it turned out that the footage shot for some locations only required a matte painting to complete. But most street extensions were so long that the library was completely exhausted by the end of the production.
Using Maya and mental ray for modelling and city layout, and Houdini with Mantra for crowds and cars, sometimes brought them to an interesting crossroads. “A typical way we work on environments for some shots is completing everything in mental ray, in which case the lighting would need to be done in Maya with a similar lighting set up in Houdini for the crowds. Then it only remained to devise a way of sharing lighting between the two packages,” Geoffrey said.
“Early on, we always test our assets such as people, cars and buildings side by side under the same lighting conditions so we know that whatever lighting we use on the buildings will also fit with the cars. In this case we checked all of those elements both in Maya and in Houdini so that we knew, depending on the shaders and the lights we used, that the assets would look similar in both packages. This meant that when it was time to actually do the shot, we could convert between the software using a script based on where the lights are, their rotation and intensity. It takes a bit of adjusting but it works pretty well!”
Gathering the content for this montage and handling it to work with their visual effects was an unexpected but interesting part of this project. “All of the footage had to be sourced from various archives and then unified to playout together without jarring the viewer. Some footage was 35 mm film, 16mm or different types of early video,” said Ollie.
“A de-saturated, high-contrast colour grade was applied later, and this helped lend an overarching consistency to the imagery that we could fit our visual effects into, while making the different formats work together. But we had a number of steps to work through first.”
After the content had been researched and selected, editorial sourced readily available versions from online or elsewhere as stand-in footage to use while refining the cut, despite the different resolutions, aspect ratios and frame rates. Meanwhile, the production staff sought higher quality versions of the footage, but didn’t fully understand the qualities a VFX team needs to work with imagery.
Search and Repair
Some of the film footage had deteriorated to such an extent that it was noisy, blotchy and lacked colour range. “We weren’t trying to recreate a pristine condition but simply bring all the footage into a common enough realm to look as though it came from one source – as well as support our effects.
The restoration work took a couple of weeks and hadn’t been planned. With no time to source specialised tools, the artists used the software they had to hand, Nuke, and developed some custom techniques. Because the grade had quite a high contrast they had to make sure their repairs weren’t visible – in one instance the grain applied to the digital work showed after the grade, so these shots had to be re-grained at the last minute.
As Hoover and Clyde Tolsen jump to their feet to celebrate their race horse’s victory, the camera looks down past them over the stadium full of people, revealing the horses crossing the finish line. The foreground actors were shot on a blue screen on a small partial stadium built in a Warner Bros back lot in LA.
The horses had been shot at a race track north of LA on a different day to the actors, with different weather conditions and sun direction, and needed to look as though it was taking place in the era and location of the story. A matte painting was added to the background to show low lying hills, painting out palm trees and modern fixtures including the large digital scoreboard in the centre of the track. This plate, with the matte painting, was tracked into the foreground plate, which included a camera move.
“So, we had to take the appropriate perspective from the vantage point of the camera as it moves over the foreground actors, and apply that to the racetrack in the background. In between the race track and foreground actors we then fleshed out the full CG stadium and thousands of digital extras. A camera move in such a shot adds complications in one way – it’s easier to apply effects to a locked off shot. But a stationary shot surrounded by moving ones will simply stand out too much.”
Off the Map
An actor had already been shot pointing to a spot on a map of the Bronx, so Method repainted the map to show a spot at the edge of the built-up area instead. In the footage, they provided matte paintings for the backgrounds with just a few low buildings and others under construction.
|Mikael is travelling by train. The shot starts with a high wide view showing the train in the distance moving along the track through a landscape covered in deep snow with mountains rising in the background. The world looks frozen and formidable. Director David Fincher wanted to ensure the scene looked harsh, not like a picture postcard snowscape.
Method’s VFX art director Wei Zheng had been discussing looks with the director some time earlier, when the production hadn’t realised how many shots across the entire project would need effects work. The shot is based on extensive photography and comprises a series of matte paintings that are all projected and blended over the course of a camera move panning across the scene and forward, following the train.
“A single matte painting wouldn’t have sufficed in this case,” Sean explained. “They were all projected onto the terrain geometry and blended together. This work gave us the base for the shot but only took it so far. It looked right on a still frame, but when the camera started moving the edges of the mountains, for example, looked too ‘perfect’. We needed to introduce an organic, irregular tree line.”
A Bigger Toolbox
|Another aspect of the shot was the layers of atmosphere and snow. Some of this was also created in Houdini, with a number of volumetric elements. Other atmospherics were created in Nuke, using the 3D camera. Multiple layers of snow were also rendered out of Houdini – foreground, mid-ground and extreme foreground plus volume passes flowing past the camera.
The track and the train itself, created in Maya and rendered through V-Ray, had painted textures over the top and sides plus effects elements to tie the train into the environment. “First, we took care to get the lighting correct. Once this was perfected we considered ways to add realistic activity to the train, like snow sluffing off the roof and catching in the wind or swirling up under the wheels. These effects were all created with Houdini fluids,” said Sean.
“Wei created the camera in 3ds Max and then exported it as an FBX file to bring into Nuke, Houdini or Maya. We had to reach into many techniques for this shot and worked on it throughout the post schedule.”
Typically, to begin on each of their sequences, Wei would create a matte painting and hand this off to the compositing supervisor, who mocked up a look frame for the director to make notes on about level of detail, focus and colour before they actually completed any of the shots. Because David was able to say, in advance, just how he wanted something to look, understood what he was asking for and expected it to happen, this was an efficient process.
“David is a precise and demanding director. This is our sixth project with him and I’m finally starting to get better at it,” said Sean. During the first period of post production on the film, David Fincher was reviewing their work using Pix so that both he and Method could add notes to the shots. Towards the end they would meet face to face once a week and then twice a week.
As Mikael runs into the building to escape the rain, they not only had to place the office into the second floor window, they had to remove and clean up other windows in the building that the director simply didn’t want in the shot. They needed to clone other sections of the building from behind the rain, composite these into place to remove the windows and then restore the rain. For a night shot as well, near the end of the film when Lisbeth and Mikael stand outside this building and his girlfriend looks down from the window above them, Method composited that illuminated office interior into the night time exterior.
Extreme contrasts in interior and exterior lighting in the same shot, as when a bright interior like the office has to be composited into a night shot of a building exterior, can be balanced to an extent by following background clues but they often just have to be tweaked visually in post to look natural.
Tiny animations such as flickering lights enlivened the views further, and richer animation was added to the daytime harbour views from another important set, the boardroom of Lisbeth’s employer Milton Security, where we first meet her. Apart from the working dock itself they added boats, cars and buses, flags, shimmering water. Many of the shots are long while the characters are talking inside, and the views behind them need to look alive.
In most situations, they could work with the natural reflections in the windows, enhancing or reducing them to work with the live action. For the Milton Security shots at night, the windows had no glass during the shoot so reflections were added, mainly through experimenting with looks from reference photos of the night time reflections at their own offices.
Sean took advantage of foggy mornings outside his own house to capture images of how objects outside a window look through fog, to give the matte painters a feeling for what would be just enough detail to look realistic but not distract.
Nuke was the main compositing package for the train shot and Millenium sequence. But on the Vanger house sequence, for example, they used Flame. “Due to the white background, element edges were a little harder to work with and David wanted some specific colour correction,” said Sean. “We only had six compositors, two on Flame and four on Nuke. Nuke was really efficient for repeated camera angles and set ups, copying set-ups from one scene to another, and sharing settings. It’s harder to do this in Flame, which is better on the one-off situations.” www.methodstudios.com