ZERO VFX Breaks Down Invisible VFX for ‘Black Mass’

Zero vfx BM 4 After

Zero vfx BM 4 Before

Set in the 1970s, ‘Black Mass’ is the story of Whitey Bulger, the brother of a state senator and one of South Boston’s hardest criminals. ZERO VFX, which runs one of its two studios in Boston, was called on to recreate those days and set the stage for a drama of crime and violence.

ZERO’s visual effects work on the project, affecting 375 shots in total, was pervasive and diverse, ranging from crowd shots and violence augmentation to changing seasons, plus period enhancements and shot correction throughout. Above all, their work had to remain indistinguishable to the audience’s eyes.

“We managed to carry out our effects by working directly with the plate photography,” said Sean Devereaux, VFX supervisor for ZERO on the project. “The director, Scott Cooper, wanted the film to be totally true, in every way possible, to the time it took place. That meant shooting on location in Boston, and sometimes in front of buildings that wouldn’t have existed in the time period. It was up to ZERO to remove those buildings from the plates. It was challenging, but I think 99.9% of the people who see it will never know we touched a single frame.”

Zero vfx BM 2 After

Zero vfx BM 2 Before

Realism was the critical factor. Because the shoot was scheduled in late spring while most scenes in the story take place in the much colder late winter, swapping seasons was one of the team’s main tasks, requiring them to create CG snow and remove the thick foliage from the trees visible in each frame.

“Any time you see snow in the film, it was added by our artists,” Sean said. “Also, there’s really no way to just take off leaves from a tree – you have to replace the entire background. A lot of our shots became over 80 per cent digital to achieve that, changing full backdrops of green foliage to snow-tipped branches.” Such looks and effects were developed and created with Photoshop, Maya and NUKE.

Sean’s team created all of these changes without using green screens. He said, “I want to give a director as much time as possible to figure out how he wants his shots to look, and as soon as you put up that green screen, you’re limiting his freedom to make his own decision on the approach. Avoiding green screens means devoting time to rotoscoping, but it gives the director more freedom in editorial.”

Zero vfx Black Mass car

The most VFX-intensive shots ZERO handled for the production were those taking place inside moving vehicles. “We had to replace absolutely everything outside of the windows, as well as the reflections inside, which typically need a lot of meticulous work from the artists. Fortunately our VFX supervisor Paul Linden had a chance to go on set, where he gathered data to ensure that the transition between on-set shooting and post-production was as smooth as possible,” said Sean.

Aiming for maximum authenticity, crowds were extended with a 2D approach. “No CG people were  involved in Black Mass’s crowd extensions,” he said. “It was a case of duplicating extras from multiple takes, using assets from other shots captured at the correct angles to make unnoticeable additions to the plates.”

Zero vfx BM 3 After

Zero vfx BM 3 Before

ZERO also increased the realism of practical effects used on set during extremely violent scenes, essential to this gangster story, making them look more real while enhancing the impact of the violence. The artists augmented the blood effects for dramatic arterial wounds, for instance, and removed the smoke caused by the tiny explosive squibs used to emulate bullet strikes on the actors.

A Evening with ZERO VFX

ZERO's VFX supervisor, Rob Nederhorst is giving a talk at Gnomon School of Visual Effects called ‘An Evening with ZERO VFX: The Art of Invisible Visual Effects’ on Wednesday 6 April 2016. In this presentation, you will take a leap into the hidden world of unseen visual effects. From set extensions to environment transformations, he will show the methods and challenges involved in the complex and meticulous work required to create effective, invisible VFX. Examples from the movies ‘Black Mass’, ‘Southpaw’, ‘The Equalizer’ and ‘Hardcore Henry’ will be shown.