Axe to Grind: The Making of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Trevor Hogg chats with visual effects supervisors Michael Owens and Randy Goux as well as stereographer Graham Clark about their work on Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter…

“I had hired Method Vancouver to work on Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar [2011] and was finishing that up as the team led by Randy [Goux] was working on Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter [2012], states Visual Effects Supervisor Michael Owens when explaining how he came to become involved with cinematic adaptation of the book by Seth Grahame-Smith which reimagines the 16th President of the United States as an axe-wielding killer of the undead. “Production and Method were running into some snags; they wanted to see if I could come in to consult and figure out what might help. I talked to Timur [Bekmambetov] and the editor [William Hoy], and reorganized the Train Sequence which got left behind as far as finishing the design of it. Working through all of that stuff gave everyone a more solid footing and helped to get Method and Production back on track. A little ways into that Production decided to replace Craig Lyn [Marmaduke] with myself for the overall project. These are always awkward things to talk about. Craig had been on the show for a year which is a long time and they were a long ways from finishing. Timur is an interesting and visually creative guy who takes a lot of exploration to find what he’s looking for and it can be exhausting.”

Complicating matters was the filmmaking style of the Russian director which results in him examining 10 different approaches and then choosing one. “We would first have a discussion,” says Michael Owens. “It could be as silly as, ‘Maybe the whole Stampede Sequence should be day for night?’ I could easily engage with Timur in discussing it. It doesn’t mean we’re going to be able to do it or can’t do it. Let’s discuss it. Throw it up to the editorial. Take it over to the DI and see what it looks like when we yank it. We’re spending little money and resources to do that exploration. At the end of the discussion you go, ‘Is it what we want? Can we even go there?’ I’d give Timur a barometer along the way. We couldn’t be sending the visual effects companies down some road that they’re going to turnaround and come back the other direction on and that’s what had been happening.” 700 visual effects shots needed to be created for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter with Method Studios handling the Train Sequence as well as the crowds, in particular during the famous Gettysburg Address by Lincoln. Weta Digital was given the responsibility of the Stampede Sequence which saw the New Zealand facility do a “brilliant job on the horses.” Spin VFX, Soho VFX and Bazelevs Production did several Civil War shots while other vendors included CG Factory, Factory VFX, Ivo Horvat VFX, Rodeo FX, The Base Studio, Atomic Arts, and The Aaron Sims Company. As for the 3D conversion of the period horror picture, the task was assigned to Stereo D.

“There were two equally challenging parts of what we did,” states Method Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Randy Goux. “It’s an eight minutes sequence that we worked on; the first half is a hand to hand combat on top of this moving train at night and the second half is the train going over a burning 12 story trestle bridge. It’s the climatic moment for the movie. We ended up doing 40 shots of full screen stereoscopic fire. As soon as we got the show awarded we flew down to New Orleans and met with Timur right before they started shooting. We had an existing pyro system here but it wasn’t going to handle what we needed to do for the movie. We got right into our R&D efforts. It came out fantastic. We have a system now that you can do full screen 300 foot flames in stereo. We used Houdni as our software and developed some custom tools. We would work on a low resolution fire simulation so the artist could have a model of the bridge that needed to be burned; they would paint where the fire should be and then the low resolution fire would emit from those areas. The trick is in making sure that the iterations don’t take forever. We wanted to make sure that the iterations would be an overnight thing because when you’re doing polymeric fluid effects you run the risk of treading down a path that gets progressively slower. We were conscious of that with our first building blocks of our pipeline.” The technique worked well. “The cool thing was that our high resolution simulations ended up being exactly the same performance as our low resolution so we were confident from the beginning of painting the bridge emitters to the end project that the fire was going to be true to what we were looking at.”

“Fire is one of the most random things in the world you can see visually,” observes Randy Goux. “We wanted something to have a dragon fire where it would be one of the largest flames that would go up 50 feet. You could increase the fuel but if you wanted it to curl more you’d add more heat. When a fire ended up blowing into another fire the heat would compound so you would get natural dynamics happening.” YouTube served as invaluable research tool. “It has everything; that’s where we get most of our stuff.” The Internet footage which included some burning trestle bridges left lasting impression. “You have a new appreciation for firemen I’ll tell you that much.” Goux states, “The fire was a technical challenge whereas the fight sequence was a creative one. There’s a hand-to-hand combat. Abe and his partner Will are on top of this train trying to fight off these vampires that are appearing dropping from trees and trying to stop the train which is full of silver. On-set they had two train boxcar tops on a green-screen on the stage; it was neutrally lit. What you see as the plate for the shoot and what you see as the finished product is drastically different. The whole thing is happening at night so we needed to do a night grade. The train is barreling through these train tracks in the middle of the forest so we had a full CG forest behind it. There is a pretty strong moonlight happening so now we’re introducing shadows from the CG trees onto the practical boxcar tops and the actors. The kicker was the smoke billowing out of the locomotive which makes the audience to feel like it is going 70 miles an hour. To get the tension in the scene because the vampires would be coming in and out of the smoke, we casted God rays or light shafts from the tree branches through the smoke.”

“Speed ramps were constantly changing,” states Randy Goux which discussing a signature technique used by Timur Bekmambetov during action sequences. “We would get a new cut everyday where instead of something slowing down to 30 percent it would be slowing down to 32 percent. We had to be prepared to handle that stuff and not slow down editorial when they needed revisions for our shots. How do you solve that kind of problem? You start thinking of efficiencies. What we decided, and came up with a slick method of using a few different techniques but our main one was rendering long sequences of smoke at 250 frames per second so we could map that smoke onto an oblong sphere using Nuke. Most of the smoke that you see in the sequence you can hardly tell that it’s mapped onto a sphere. It feels fully volume metric.” Goux remarks, “We didn’t use too many practical effects. There were times where we had to go with the more expensive and intensive smoke techniques to get those peekaboo smoke moments.”

“Method has done some fantastic crowd work with our previous movies like Invictus [2009],” states Randy Goux. “We took on a handful of crowd shots. One of the cooler ones was we had to reenact the Gettysburg Address, one of the most famous speeches in US history. There were only 40 extras on the day and we had to finish that off with the crowd by adding 5000 CG characters. It was neat to redo that shot, to bring that historical shot to reality for me.” Photographic research was conducted. “I’ve looked at every single photograph that was taken in 1865. The reason I’ve looked at every one is because there’s not very many especially of Abe Lincoln. There are only two or three photographs that have survived the Gettysburg Address. We analyze those things and there are a few shots of his. We also did a crowd shot of his inauguration speech in front of the US Capital Building and the Capital Building, the dome was half constructed and there are a few photographs of those that exist.” How close the CG characters are to screen is always an issue for crowd scenes. “With the Gettysburg shot was that there weren’t enough extras to fill out as deep as we wanted them to be so our extras were closer than we were used to. We had to take our crowd system and do a lot of up resolution for our geometry and textures, and render the highest quality we possibly could.” Goux believes, “There are going to be a lot of people this movie may not be their thing but these shots will tickle them.”

“I went down to meet with Timur in his office at Sunset to discuss some of his early ideas about vampires, 3D and storytelling,” states Stereo D Head of Stereography Graham Clark. “We went to New Orleans to do some test shooting and converted some of that material before they even started shooting and showed that to him. That was mainly done because of concerns about conversion and what was possible.” The biggest creative task came from having to deal with experimental nature of the filmmaker. “We discussed, for example, monocular depth cues which are things that tell you how faraway something is such as shading, lighting and perspectives. We showed Timur you can add blur or depth of field in post. You can add saturation of the foreground and desaturation in the background in post. We thought he might augment it slightly in DI but he went to town with it. The biggest challenge was trying to keep up with Timur’s creativity and always having ideas for him and new tools for him to tell a story.”

When asked about the scene transition between the map and the train, Graham Clark replies, “That was fun. The sequence changed as Timur developed his own language for 3D. It started out as Abraham Lincoln pushing a silver watch across train tracks on a map and dissolves onto the train on the track. The camera cranes down to the front of the train so it goes from one shot to the other smoothly. Originally we had the train miniaturized and smoking on the map. Timur didn’t like that; he wanted the train to be properly sized. We had to adjust, reverse the stereo space with the map scaled up and the transition worked that way instead. There are a lot of those where you would go from one environment to another whether it’s through a dissolve or some other type of an optical we would have to match the stereo spaces. Something else that we did in collaboration with Randy’s team at Method is that they gave us the ember rig they used to create all of the embers from the front of the train so we were able to help Timur with his vision for doing something called element bridges; that’s where you carry the effects from one shot and they spill over the next shot. There are a few shots where the rain, for example, will start raining in one shot and continue raining in the next shot even thought it’s not there. On top of the train we used it to smooth out all of the shots stereoscopically having the embers float around and draw your eye into the next frame of the next shot.”

In regards to dealing with Michael Owens, Clark remarks, “Michael came on-set later in post so a lot of the effects later on were discussed, specifically the sequence on top of the train which Method was developing some of the stereo on their own with our guidance and our numbers. Randy Goux did a wonderful job with his team compositing everything together – beautiful lighting and a great action sequence.” Owens is proud of a particular 3D effect. “It’s where Abe Lincoln the young man is being chased by the vampire who killed his mom. Abe shoots him, the gun misfires and he gets chased into this shed. The vampire is outside trying to break in and Abe is inside reloading his powder and ball thing. Finally, Bam! The door is open and you think that Abe hasn’t had time to reload. Abe pulls the gun up and points it right at the lens as the true point of view of the vampire and he fires it. The projectile in semi-slow motion comes right at the lens. What’s the coolest thing is at the end they flip the convergence of the right and left eye. It literally feels like you’ve got hit by a ball in one of your eyes. You can tell it’s the right eye which got hit. There is a bit of red flash at that point. It’s absolutely cool.”

“We’ve been looking for a project like this to sink our teeth into for the last couple of years,” states Randy Goux who enjoyed the assignment of creating stereographic fire. “The thing we’re most proud of is that it was an experimental film,” notes Graham Clark. “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was not just putting a film in 3D; it was trying to do things that haven’t been done before.” Michael Owens, who has frequently collaborated with Academy Award-winner Clint Eastwood, remarks, “I’ve always enjoyed a director I haven’t worked with [before] because it’s a neat experience to see different methods of filmmaking.” Owens clarifies, “I always love those experiences assuming that the filmmaker is not insecure and is willing to collaborate with me about what he needs. Clint does that completely. Timur does that completely. I had to earn my way in but they’re collaborative filmmakers who are trusting and believe in the process.

Production stills © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox.

VFX images © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved. Images courtesy of Method Studios Vancouver, Stereo D and Weta Digital.

Visit the official websites for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Method Studios and Stereo D.

Many thanks to Michael Owens, Randy Goux and Graham Clark for taking the time to be interviewed.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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