Mr X provided invisible effects for the exotic sci-fi thriller ‘Hanna’, giving the young lead character her extreme strength and endurance and heightening the sense of danger and mystery. VFX supervisor Brendan Taylor led the team on 200 shots, handling lighting and compositing to subtle matte paintings and cg environments.

‘Hanna’ begins in deep snow in a remote forest setting in northern Finland. In late January 2010, Brendan did some location scouting around Bavaria, Hamburg and Berlin, the intended area for production, where they found beautiful conditions and powdery snow, but the shoot was planned for March when it seemed unlikely that enough snow would remain.

Cold Crew
Brendan was consulted about post production options, but he and the DOP Alwin Küchler concluded that not much could be done that wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive. The production opted to move the shoot to Finland, where Brendan worked on location throughout. Work started early each day in temperatures averaging -35° C. “The river nearby would churn out steam because, at only -2° C, it was much warmer than the air. Fortunately we had several Finnish crew members who shared tips on working in these conditions and warned us to keep our gloves on, which made reloading the cameras pretty challenging,” he said.

Though Brendan felt sure the production would have benefitted from previs, they didn’t have the time or resources for it as both the script and the locations were still constantly evolving. “Previs generally has to be geared to a specific location. One sequence that I really would have liked to previs was the chase in the container park chase sequence. I explained to Joe that It would have helped us understand better what could be done practically and what should be digital, and helped the Art Department prepare the site.

“But on films like ‘Hanna’ with so many locations, everyone is on the go. Also, much of the sequence was improvised because Joe and Jeff Imada our fight choreographer couldn’t organize early enough exactly where the containers would be positioned, only that Hanna would be running across the tops and jumping from one to the next. They only planned the scene a few days ahead, which probably helped give it that edgy quality.”

Across the Wilderness
Hanna grows up in the Finnish wilderness and at the start of the film we see her hunting a reindeer, stalking and shooting him with a bow and arrow. “We needed to add a cg arrow, which required placing tracking markers on the reindeer for the shoot so that the team could both track the arrow and derive realistic muscle movement data to improve the animation of the arrow bouncing as he tries to run off across a big snowfield.”
The animation and tracking lead provided a diagram of effective marker locations, but the most difficult task was persuading the reindeer to give any performance on camera. To induce him to run they ended up positioning a female reindeer across the field, which did the trick. Back in the studio, the team combined the tracking data with hunting video reference to create the animation with enough authentic movement in both the muscle and arrow.

C-130 Hercules
Later in the story, Hanna looks up and watches a C-130 Hercules plane fly past overhead, created in cg by Mr X. “We had good reference for this including extensive texture stills, having modelled similar aircraft for ‘Resident Evil’, and we knew the basic dimensions. We also had experience from other projects with airplanes to help with rigging and knowing how they should fly. The animation on aircraft like this, getting them to bank correctly, is surprisingly difficult.”

The live action was shot with the camera on a 30 foot Technocrane. It follows her out from under the trees and swings around to her point of view, but the crane was so large and heavy that they couldn’t make the camera move fast enough to match the speed the plane should be moving above her. The speed of the footage here had to be increased a little, which caused some artefacts in the image to clean up. For 3D modelling and texturing, the pipeline runs on Maya and Photoshop, rendering in V-Ray and compositing in Nuke and some Flame.

Berlin Windkanal
When Hanna’s role suddenly changes to one of a fugitive, she is captured by intelligence agents and held at a military establishment with a giant wind tunnel through which she makes a dramatic escape. The sequence was shot at the Berlin Windkanal, a decommissioned aerodynamic testing wind tunnel built shortly before WW2. It is essentially a huge duct about 30 feet in diameter with very powerful fans blowing air in a circle to test airplane wing structure.

The Windkanal had the right looks for the story but lacked the necessary holding cells, which were built on a set at the Berlin film studio at Babelsberg. Joe also wanted to convey the drama of Hanna’s escape by giving her a long perilous run toward a massive steel door that she just manages to slide under before it falls shut. The Art Department had built a significant set at the location to try to accommodate this, but it wasn’t going to produce the look Joe wanted. To build further would have been too costly so, initially, Mr X were going to extend the set walls but eventually built a complete cg tunnel, including the steel door.

Strobe Lighting
Recreating the tunnel's cement textures to look authentic meant spending time setting up their shaders to respond to the light realistically. Brendan explained, “Cement doesn’t only reflect light, but absorbs and scatters it as well. To get the right response needed work both in shading and compositing. Moreover, getting the surface looks to react to the strobe lights, installed in the tunnel as aircraft anti-collision lighting, correctly and appropriately was a huge challenge, and quite interesting.

“It meant juxtaposing two quite different lighting scenarios in quick succession. The bright UV light produces a basic white fill light, which switched on and then off again in big staccato strobe effect. The compositors created both set ups and flipped between them at the required speed. I collected a lot of photos in the Windkanal of the strobes, which they could use to match but it remained a challenge. The two-day shoot under those lights was pretty gruelling.”
The edit of the sequence is striking as well, changing point of view many times, and from wide to close. The team coordinated closely with the editor Paul Tothill and Joe, and made many suggestions to help make the cut work with the lighting.

Perfect Punching
Brendan and the fight coordinator Jeff Imada talked over ways to make the slow motion fist fights look more authentic. “Jeff had been working on Green Hormet, which also has several slow motion fights. At a test shoot at 300fps, a stunt actor threw a false punch another actor who reacted to him. Shot at 24 fps, it looks great, but at 300 fps, it’s apparent that the second actor’s face only starts moving when the fist is well past it,” he said.

“Slowing the frame rate for the slow motion makes the problem more obvious. They tried on set to improve the punches with camera position and composition but because Joe wanted to shoot the sequences in long continuous takes, many of the best dramatic angels needed some adjustment to the timing in post.” In the Flame, compositor Barb Benoit rotoscoped out the character receiving the punch and shifted him closer to the one delivering the punch. A slight time warp slowed the action down for a few frames just as the punch was delivered and sped it up again on impact.

Because these fights had been shot with long lenses against green shrubbery, Barb could use a soft roto where the softer edges allowed blending.  Edges were typically away from the face and no lighting or colour correction was needed, which eased the process. Recreating sections of background was easier than try to do a tight roto on a fast fight sequence. Flame was chosen for this composite because of its editing tools.

Cold Hamburg Night
In another exciting sequence, Hanna is pursued across a container park at night. The production had 200 containers to work with on loan from the shipping company whose yard they had hired in Hamburg. Jeff Imada, the Art Department and Joe composed a clear plan of where to place everything within a 100ft by 300ft working area. All high shots would require extension indefinitely into the night with matte paintings of more containers.

Brendan watched the shoot on set. “Whenever the camera position rose enough to reveal the wider area, or if there was an actual scripted VFX moment, I’d get into a lift to the camera’s height and capture numerous stills to use to build the matte paintings. A few of the bright yard lights were real, positioned by Joe or Alwin Küchler, but we took some time designing further lights, carefully choosing the location, the lights’ colour and level of flare. I was keen to create a feeling of a cold Hamburg night. Saoirse did a surprising amount of her own stunt work, sprinting and jumping across the containers. She and the other actors needed harnesses attached to a high line, requiring removal later.

Brendan captured all of his reference photos for the cg containers at the shoot to ensure the lighting was the same. As soon as the crew finished their shots and moved on to a new point of view, he would follow up with his camera. All of the distant background, plus the haze over the scene, was created at Mr X by matte painter Milan Schere.

On the Road
Other important matte paintings were made to support the multiple locations of Hanna's travels, in particular changing some driving shots captured in Morocco to Spain, where Hanna and a family who befriend her are followed by an agent. When the plate had been shot in Morocco, Joe hadn’t realised that the background would need changing until well into post to show the progress of the journey.

On his trips to the UK to work with Joe, Brendan travelled through Segovia to capture photography for these paintings, which Matt Schofield put together. Brendan had shot at midday but the light had to be changed for the story to resemble sunset.

The exterior of the CIA building needed specialised matte paintings as well. The plate was shot outside the Velodrom in Berlin. They wanted to enhance the existing trees but due to the lighting angles, they couldn’t make the elements work across the shot. “We tried quite hard to make this work, but trees always demand correct lighting angles to work convincingly in a composite. Eventually I had to shoot some tree elements later in Toronto with the same vantage point and piece together a shot. Sometimes, you just have to change your approach to save time in the end.”

Words: Adriene Hurst
Images: Courtesy of Mr X and Universal Pictures
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