Although ‘Kick-Ass’ is fast-paced and stylish, its visual effects rely mainly on 2D techniques - with interesting exceptions. It was an approach that Director and co-scriptwriter Matthew Vaugan and VFX Supervisor Mattias Lindahl agreed on from the start to stay true to the story’s origins as a graphic novel.From Digital Media World Magazine


Based on the graphic novels by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr, the script is written by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, who also wrote ‘Stardust’. After working on the visual effects for ‘Stardust’, the team at Double Negative was familiar with the director’s working style. Mattias Lindahl served as the film’s overall Visual Effects Supervisor, with 2D Supervisor Peter Jopling and CG Supervisor Stuart Farley.

Gritty Fantasy
The Double Negative team oversaw 835 shots for the film in total. As the work progressed, this number increased and some shots had to be outsourced. This included a motion comic book sequence produced at Swedish studio Fido, a sequence in a burning warehouse by Senate VFX and the panoramic view from Frank’s apartment by Lipsync.

The brief for Kick-Ass was to maintain a gritty, realistic look and feel, without straying into fantasy. Mattias explained that the aim was to capture as much in camera as possible, “Since the story is set firmly in the ‘real world’, it was important to Matthew Vaughn that the visual effects never took front seat. For this reason I made an early decision to base as many of the effects as possible on real shot elements or backgrounds. If you shoot something for real, even if it’s just one element, then it will always look a lot better to the viewer, simply because it is real.
“We did an extensive elements shoot, shooting blood hits, fire, smoke, muzzle flashes and glass windows crashing. All these elements where used in composite rather than creating CG particle and fluid simulations. This really helped the effects to blend in with the tone of the film.”

Previs Precision
Mattias was directly involved in the previs, both in his role as VFX Supervisor and doing some animating himself. “Most of the sequences that we did previs for made it into the film,” he said. “The great thing about the previs was that Matthew made sure he was absolutely happy with it before the shoot started. This meant that we could then follow it really closely when it came to the shoot. I even had all the previs sequences on my iPhone so we could always refer back to it on set or location. The shots that were prevised more often than not matched what ended up on film.
“An interesting fact about the opening sequence is that it was used as a ‘pitchvis’ to help sell the film to prospective financiers. Matthew came to us with a set of boards and a couple of script pages and asked us to create the previs for the opening sequence. That's how it all started back in mid-2008. He then used the previs piece to help him communicate his vision for the film.”

Stitched Cycloramas
Double Negative started out the sequence, in which Kick-Ass appears to be standing on top of a skyscraper looking out over New York before taking a disastrous leap into the street below. Because the original plates had been filmed in Toronto, Mattias and team spent a week in New York taking thousands of panoramic still photographs of the skyline, which were later stitched together at high resolution to create cyclorama backgrounds to composite into the shots. The panoramas were also used as 2½-D projections to create parallax.

A projected matte painting was used for the sky and additional elements like cars and road furniture were all composited together with the hero’s green screen stuntman.
“With the sky line at the distance it was, there was only marginal parallax in most of the shots,” said CG Supervisor Stuart Farley. We split the matte painting into layers and put these layers as nurbs cycloramas within a Maya scene. The layers were all positioned at their appropriate distance from the camera. With our proprietary software dnPlanelt, we can export Shake scripts that contain all this positional information of the cyclorama, as well as having the camera move contained as well. This means we can work in Shake with the raw photography, rather than rendering out the images mapped onto geometry in Maya. This ensures we retain every bit of information within the photography as long as we want it.”

Re-Timed Jump

For the jump shot, the stuntman was lowered down on a wire, while at the same time the camera jibbed up to create the sense that he was falling. In post, the performer’s legs were replaced in CG, as they weren’t moving as required. Later Kick-Ass appears to crash land on a taxi at street level.

For this, the green screen performance was re-timed, CG buildings placed in the background and the crowds were also shot on green screen to avoid any accidents with glass on impact. “The falling green screen character was a blend of many takes to create the action, comped over a live action, special effects taxi. The building in the background was fully CG right down to the ground floor where we blended it back into the plate,” said Stuart.

Living Backgrounds

The team referred to the graphic novel throughout production to keep the concept fresh in their minds. “When you’re working on something for a long time, it’s easy to forget how different it is, you get used to it,” said Peter Jopling, 2D Supervisor. “But Kick Ass is such a great idea, and going back to the comic from time to time kept us mindful of that.”

Double Negative also set up the look development for the views from the glamorous penthouse apartment of gangster character Frank D’Amico, which were eventually outsourced to LipSync to match to when the shot count for these sequences began to rise.
LipSync’s work centred on the apartment’s picture windows overlooking Manhattan. The team composited matte paintings onto the windows showing New York skyscrapers at different times of day and night, and added animated elements such as traffic at street level, cloud textures, flags moving in the wind and lights switching on and off to bring the exterior to life.

Lining Up the View
Double Negative supplied the 270° digital matte painting cycloramas of New York, and a CG model of the apartment which established the layout and correct perspectives as the action moved around each room. The cycloramas, large matte paintings placed on a dome in Maya, enabled an almost full wrap around in a scene so the artists could place a CG camera anywhere and get the appropriate view as a render, maintaining continuity within background views out of all windows.        

LipSync rendered out the correct view via Maya and RenderMan. Tom Collier, LipSync’s VFX Supervisor said, “We would de-lens the green screen plate and line up the camera in Maya using the CG model of the apartment and the appropriate cyclorama to ensure we had the correct view out of the appropriate window for the correct time of day. A still - or a rendered camera tracked sequence if the camera was moving - would be rendered in Renderman and passed on to the compositor, who adapted and augmented them, scene-by-scene, to add more movement.”

Live Action

They applied adjustments such as sky and building replacements, day for night relighting and grading in comp to marry the live action interior with the rendered exterior. “As a facility, when possible, we will always try to use a live action element from our library first as we feel that this always looks more authentic. If we don’t have anything that suits or if something very specific is required, we will go the CG route but will invariably augment with live action elements,” said Tom.
The team found that being able to quickly update the matte painting in the scene file to render new backgrounds was essential. “Also, being able to control a lot of the lighting in comp was particularly useful during the end scene when we had to gradually lighten the backgrounds from night to dawn over the course of a relatively short sequence and didn’t have time to keep going back to 3D to render new passes,” he said.

Good Match
LipSync completed 305 shots, most of which were completed in just seven weeks with around 30 crew working on the project at its peak. Like Double Negative, LipSync had worked with Matthew Vaughn previously on ‘Stardust’, but it was their work recreating New York skylines on green screen windows in ‘How To Lose Friends and Alienate People’ that made the team a good match for ‘Kick-Ass’. The views out of the windows in the later film needed to be used significantly more, however, appearing in many scenes through different windows and during different times of day, evening and night.

Understanding how Matthew works through their experience with him was another positive factor. “Being able to quickly identify what he likes and doesn’t like enabled us to work through the shots more quickly and to be adaptable to any changes at the last minute. He likes his effects to be as real as possible, so if something works and he believes it, he doesn’t dwell on it or overwork the shot,” Tom said. “He is very open to the VFX crew suggesting new approaches to an effect to make it work. You can show him ideas, get an appropriate response and make progress on the look and style of a sequence.”

Penthouse Apartment
The brief for Frank D’Amico’s apartment was for a 1930s high-rise apartment, surrounded by later, taller buildings. Double Negative was required to digitally place the apartment on top of a building that had been shot with Second Unit and Helicopter Unit photography in Toronto. However, when the designs for the apartment came back from the art department, it turned out to be much bigger than this building, so the whole of it had to be replaced in CG for these shots. In Toronto, the team captured a full survey and enough photographic reference of the building to model it in Maya and make the changes the director wanted, including doubling the width of the building and adding Frank’s apartment on top.

On set, the team had captured the interior of the penthouse set in detail using Lidar VFX, which helped when adding the destruction after the massive gunfight that takes place there toward the end of the movie. With this extensive modelling, texturing and look development completed on the building, the team could then add the building into the helicopter establishing shots filmed in New York. Farley said, “Working like this gave Matthew the ability to pick exactly the architecture that he wanted to suit his vision of Frank D'Amico’s apartment and set it against the exact backdrop of New York that he wanted, while retaining full realism.”

Magic Hour
The live action was shot on set with green screen. CG extensions were added along with the matte painting elements in the backgrounds and window reflections. Scott said, “Reflections may not seem like much work, but when you have environmental effects such as shadows, wind, reflection of light, traffic off the street and so forth, all those little details add up cumulatively to the overall, realistic effect we are after.”

The climactic gunfight at Frank’s apartment was a very complex sequence that starts in the middle of the night when Mindy arrives in the lobby and ends just before dawn. Consequently, the lighting changed for every set up to track the passage of time. “We needed a lot of planning to pull this off. When we took our stills of New York, we had to take them at different times of the day to accommodate the passage of time,” Matthias said. “It all takes place in that ‘magic hour’. If you are ever standing on a rooftop at that time of night, you can see how the lighting changes so quickly. It’s a magical time.”

Taking Off
Kick-Ass arrives on a jetpack at Frank’s penthouse for the final showdown with Red Mist. Double Negative were involved from storyboarding through to producing a full 3D previsualised flying sequence giving the director plenty of flexibility to change shots and work the pacing of the sequence. Mattias said, “The jetpack sequence went through many iterations. An early version of the script had us following Dave's flight to Frank's apartment as he learned how to fly the jetpack, for example.”

The team started by searching for reference footage of people flying with jet packs - and was surprised by the results. “They just didn’t look real at all,” said Jopling. “They all looked fake! It looked really stiff and unnatural and you don’t see flames or smoke. So we thought, this kind of detail is mostly in people's imaginations. This is going to have to be about what the audience expects to see.”

Tracking Moves
Stuart said, “Mostly our previs was descriptive pieces, rather than elaborate reconstructions of areas of New York. The pilot, Mattias and the VFX DOP worked closely together when the previs was completed to make sure they all had a clear understanding of the nature of the shots. But it would be impossible to recreate the movement 100 per cent. It was more about recreating the nature of the shots. The large Brooklyn Bridge shot, however, was modelled out in Maya with a scale bridge, so that timings could be worked out and to ensure the shot was possible to shoot.”
Once the previsualised animation was locked down, the background was shot in New York from a helicopter, using the animations to inform the pilot how he should be flying regarding altitude and speed, and the camera operator about camera direction. From these plates the team tracked new camera moves and placed the initial character animation into the new environments.

The new camera moves were then used to drive a motion control rig, based on a standard 35mm film camera, used to shoot the live action of Kick Ass and Hit Girl flying on green screen. However, the team knew the helicopter would be travelling faster than the motion control rig could travel and for a greater distance than could be handled on a sound stage. Using the tracked helicopter plates and several Double Negative proprietary 'aim cam' tools, they designed motion control moves that mimicked the perspective changes.

Motion Control
From this process they also planned out the green screen stage and motion control rig layout, so that the entire flying sequence could be shot on one stage, with one set-up, to save time. Stuart Farley said, “Having the values empirically captured within Maya made it easier to liaise with other departments - such as motion control, carpenters and lighters - to design a green screen stage that met all the requirements, before we got to set.”

Once the actors were shot against green screen, they were placed over the New York plates to check that the scale and movements worked as planned while on-set, so that an additional take could be planned and shot if necessary. The occasional additional movement was added to help sell the idea that the characters were being pushed up by the jetpack and not simply hanging from wires.

For this reason it was vital that the additional CG FX jetpack flames and smoke sat into the plate realistically. The team concentrated on how a jet pack flame would register photographically. The actors were extracted from the green screen and CG flame, smoke and distortion were all added to the jetpack to give it a sense of power and energy. All the elements had been shot with motion-control as well, and the move was extended slightly in post. The jetpack effects were created in Maya with an in house fluid solver 'Squirt', and rendered in Renderman. All these elements were then composited in Shake.

Animated Blades
The Senate VFX handled some exciting sequences in ‘Kick-Ass’. In the first, Kick-Ass meets Big Daddy and Hit-Girl for the first time in a burst of violence after he confronts Rasul, a dodgy drug-dealer, and a group of his associates in their rooftop flat. The encounter spins dangerously out of control, when suddenly Hit Girl arrives and proceeds to stab, hack and slice her way through the gang.

“We had to animate Hit-Girl’s double bladed sword stabbing through Rasul and remove wires. We added blades, lots of spraying blood, a video game to the TV and scenery outside the green screen window,” said Anton Yri, VFX Supervisor. After the carnage in the apartment, Kick-Ass follows Hit-Girl to the rooftop, where he first encounters Big Daddy. This was shot on a sound stage surrounded by green screen. Similar to LipSync’s work on the Manhattan apartment, they were provided with a 3D model of the set and a panoramic matte painting of New York's skyline.
“To work out which part of the skyline to use for each shot, we put the photo on a cyclorama and, using the camera data from the shoot, placed the 3D camera in the same position on the set within Maya. We could then take a snap shot of the skyline and provide the compositors with a very accurate line-up of the skyline for every shot. There was also a lot of compositing done in Shake to augment the skyline, adding planes, flashing lights, cloud movement and cars.”
Raging Inferno

In another sequence, they needed to turn Frank D’Amico’s lumber warehouse into a raging inferno filled with roaring fire, massive explosions, choking smoke and other debris. “Mattias provided us with a huge library of fantastic fire, smoke, explosion elements that he had filmed. So we went a completely 2D route with this sequence, layering in dozens, sometimes over 100 fire elements in the wider shots, to get the level of danger and intensity Matthew Vaughn was after. Generally, the comment was always, 'More fire! More explosions! More danger!'
“This was a really challenging sequence, as there was so much space to fill with all this fire and it needed to look organic but also have some structure to it. There were 57 shots in the sequence, interior and exterior, with very few from the same camera position, so every shot had to be thought out and done individually, organising the different types of fire elements and how they’d be comped in. Thankfully,” said Anton, “the compositors did some amazing work we're really proud of.”

On Fire
In another of The Senate VFX’s intense fight sequences, Big Daddy and Kick Ass are held hostage in a junk yard and about to be executed live on camera. “We had to set Big Daddy on fire, again using 2D elements shot specifically for this. A dummy was set on fire and filmed and we were able to key off the flames and fit them onto Big Daddy. It sounds easy but because the dummy wasn’t sitting in just the same position, it proved a little tricky to get the fire to line up correctly and integrate well with the plate.”
LipSync followed up these shots with a realistic smouldering effect, for which Tom Collier’s team again took several live action elements from their library and applied them in comp. Their main challenge was setting the levels to ensure the effect wasn’t too obvious.

Night Vision Goggles
When Hit Girl arrives to save the day, the sequence turns into a sort of first person video game. The viewer finds himself peering into an eerie scene through night vision goggles. Anton Yri said, “We laid the goggles graphics, supplied to us from Wyld Stallyons, over the footage, and we added a green filter with a video feel to it to create the look of the night vision, then comped in elements of Hit Girl stabbing and shooting the gang, still in first person mode. Along with this were muzzle flashes, bullet hits, the web cam look and plenty of blood splats and sprays.
“As the project was so 2D based, our main compositing tool was Shake, supplemented with After Effects and Photoshop. It meant we didn’t have to worry about figuring in lengthy 3D render times, and gave us some flexibility to come up with new techniques and ideas along the way. We have a lot of experience with blood, fire, explosions after work on ‘Band of Brothers’, ‘Batman Begins’and ‘Rome’, but we had to push the boat out even further with some of the shots in Kick-Ass. All the 3D work and animation was done within Maya.”

Hero’s Tale
‘Kick-Ass’ is the story of an oddly charismatic New York teenager and comic book fan Dave Lizewski who decides to try his hand at vigilante justice, superhero style. Once disguised in his livid green suit he calls himself Kick-Ass and takes on the local underworld. Completely without superhuman powers, of course, he gets repeatedly beaten black and blue, but somehow inspires a groundswell of fans across the city.
His luck changes when he encounters a ruthless father-and-daughter duo of fellow crime fighters, 11-year-old Hit-Girl and Big Daddy, and meets another would-be superhero Red Mist – with thrilling results.
Comic Relief
The Kick-Ass character and story maintains its graphic novel origins throughout the film. A key sequence that reinforces this link is composed of a series of 3-dimensional moves through the comic book world of John Romita Jr. Artists at VFX and 3D animation studio, Fido, in Stockholm handled the sequence.

A 2.5D technique was used throughout to realize this sequence. “From the start, the goal behind it was to be able to stop the sequence on any frame and it should look like a frame from the graphic novel. So it became apparent early on that we had to work together with John Romita Jr and his team,” said Mattias Lindahl, who also works at Fido.

“John created a set of storyboards based on the lines from the script. We then took the boards and created an animated previs. A lot of work went in to the storytelling and the use of 3 dimensional moves through the comic book world. When the previs had been approved by Matthew Vaughn I flew over to see John in New York. Final tweaks where done to the compositions of each frame together with John.

“Once John’s team had finished the artwork, the Fido team tweaked the geometry around to fit John's drawings. The artwork was then projected on to the 3D geometry to allow us to travel around it in 3D space. The software used was Maya, Photoshop and RenderMan, and it was all comped in Nuke.

Mattias said that Fido doesn’t have a specialty in the comic book style – other than reading lots of them! - but traditionally works with photorealistic creatures. “It was a nice change and a great challenge for the team to work on this sequence. This has never really been done before and the sequence was originally what got me really excited about working on the film. The whole piece really pays homage to John Romita Jr and we had to make sure at all times to keep true to his fantastic artwork.”


LipSync handled the green screen driving sequences, making sure that the exteriors blended with the foreground interiors. This required extensive retiming, smoothing and stabilising of plates to match the movements of the car, adding reflections in the windows and correcting lighting for the car interiors, using Shake and the Furnace plug-ins. Tom believes the key to good driving scenes is good green screens and lighting. “In one of these sequences, the team also needed to match footage from the original shoot with material that was reshot six months later. There was some different lighting within the shots that had to matted, keyed and graded out to ensure absolute continuity with the shots around it.”

A complex rather nasty scene saw the team composite an unfortunate character into a car, from several angles, as it gets crushed in a car-crusher. “As we would always recommend,” Tom said, “live action plates were used of the man in the car, which were static, and we applied movement and warping in comp to match this plate into the live action plate of the car being crushed – absolutely no 3D/CG was utilised.”

Words: Adriene Hurst
Images: Courtesy of Universal Pictures International

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