Trevor Hogg chats with visual effects supervisors Jon Thum, Rudi Holzapfel and Sara Bennett about their work on Dredd 3D…
“I met Alex Garland [28 Days Later], the writer/producer and main creative force behind Dredd 3D early on and helped him out on some ‘pitch-vis’ to get the it green lit,” states Visual Effects Supervisor Jon Thum who was recruited to help bring Judge Dredd, a British comic book character who serves as a futuristic law enforcement officer, judge, jury, and executioner, to the big screen again. “Executive Producer Michael Elson contacted me with a plan to start a new Prime Focus VFX facility in London; the film allowed us to effectively build a new VFX facility from scratch, growing from a few people in a small office to over 200 in our new building on Bucknall Street.” Garland was the key figure in the pre-production. “Our Art Department, led by Neil Miller, was involved working with Alex to develop concepts and designs for the film even before Pete Travis [Vantage Point] was on board. When Pete did come on board along with the DOP Anthony Dod Mantle [Slumdog Millionaire] and Production Designer Mark Digby [Never Let Me Go], the group of us sat through all kinds of mood reels and reference that we’d prepared to nail down the look and feel of the film. It was a great collaboration.”
“We looked at a lot of reference and mood reels – slo-mo footage of every description, the scale of big buildings /objects, falling bodies, shoot-outs, tracer fire, and car chases,” states Jon Thum when discussing the visual research conducted for the project. “For Mega City One we looked at brutalist architecture, big cities like Sao Paulo, and Eastern European tower blocks.” A script-to-screen production model was adopted for the action thriller. “The film had to be made for a relatively low budget, so it had to be done in a clever way. The involvement of Prime Focus at such an early stage meant we could help the filmmakers plan Dredd 3D with visual effects in mind. We were there on recce, on set throughout production and through post. At the end of the process we had our stereo post conversion departments convert the mono shots, but they were also utilized to extract more depth out of a number of key stereo shots using a similar process.” Having one main setting made the process less complicated and expensive. “It’s cost effective in terms of budgeting the visual effects because you can reuse assets on multiple shots; it was planned that way to make the film work for our budget.”
“Alex was in regular contact with John Wagner, the comic book creator,” reveals Jon Thum. “John was aware there were compromises to be made in bringing Dredd to the screen at this budget; he understood that gritty was the way to go and was consulted regularly on our progress.” The holograms featured in the movie were also grounded in reality. “We employed logic to our technology in Mega City One which was based on the gritty realism we wanted. We figured most of the technology they had was old but still functional, so not that different from what we have now; they might have a touch screen but it would be behind thick glass to be vandal proof. The holograms would be basic and not always work. This was a world with massive poverty and unemployment. The judges however could have much better technology because they had developed it and kept it in their own hands. Production Designer Mark Digby built this logic into his sets and props. Not every visual effect was computer generated. “We used as many practical effects as possible, but there was still so much more to do in visual effects. Almost every shot needed augmenting. The destruction of the 76th floor was the hardest scene to do; we were adding tracer fire, destruction, dust, smoke, blood hits. It’s harder to blend these in stereo, so this was a tough scene to do.”
“The most challenging aspect was the fact that the film was shot in native stereo,” remarks Jon Thum. “The level of difficulty is much greater, especially at the start and end of the pipe. The camera tracking needs to be much more accurate, paint and roto is much harder; then at the end compositing is harder. The problem is that any work you do on one eye needs to match exactly the integrity of the stereo in the other. It needs sub-pixel accuracy to work. CG FX work can also be challenging because you can’t rely on 2D tricks to help them out.” An effort was made to ensure that the 3D effect aided the storytelling. “We had a creative DOP on-set and he wanted to experiment. We did a lot of research and looked at all the rules there were. We threw away that rule-book and tried some different things. We used test shoots and stereo previs to get an idea of what would and wouldn’t work, especially as we hadn’t seen this genre of film in stereo before. We knew we had some particular shots where it would be good to push the stereo and have it more in the audience from a storytelling point of view, in particular the slo-mo drug POV effect, and we spent time adding depth and layering to those shots.” 90 percent of the 650 visual effects shots were handled by Prime Focus World. “In the final days of the edit, the VFX volume grew, so we assigned some additional work to Baseblack and The Mill; they were people we knew and trusted.” The VFX facilities tended to work independently of each other. “There was not much sharing; only a few shots that Baseblack did FX work on in one of the slo-mo scenes. We applied the final look to those shots at Prime Focus.”
“We would usually meet with Jon [Thum] once or twice a week and discuss what he was looking for in our particular shots,” states Baseblack Visual Effects Supervisor Rudi Holzapfel. “As most of our shots had to do with fluid simulations, blood, and spittle, we usually looked at other shots where real fluids were used on set to talk about how things were to look.” The task was more shot oriented. “We didn’t have a specific sequence to work on; instead we had various shots that involved quite violent, slow-motion blood and soft-body simulations when Dredd [Karl Urban] shoots some of the bad guys that are under the influence of ‘slo,’ a powerful drug that makes you experience everything around you in slow-motion. On top of that, we did some blood pools and blood smears during some of the shoot-outs and also some very slow muzzle flash for Dredd’s gun.” The Internet assisted with the visual research. “We had a look at a lot of real blood, mostly photographs, but some videos or film references; we also had a look at videos of muzzle flashes, but most of those were actually already CG. They might be what we think a muzzle flash looks like in super slo-mo, but they weren’t the real thing. We did eventually find something on a ballistics expert site in the US that was helpful.”
“The biggest challenge was building real-flow into our pipeline, getting it to work properly with our then Maya-Mentalray pipeline,” says Rudi Holzapfel. “We had lots of problems initially, but we did eventually solve them, probably through sheer persistence. The other challenge was making a soft-body behave the way we wanted to. There was a scene when one of the guys, a rather big fellow, gets shot by Dredd and when the bullet enters his naked upper body, the whole thing was supposed to wobble and react in a specific way to the impact; that took a lot of trial-and-error until we figured out a way to control the simulation to the degree necessary.” Holzapfel remarks, “We didn’t so much replace backgrounds as we did marry several plates together. Sometimes this was based on green screen, but a lot of it was roto. On some of the blood-simulation shots we had three layers, distant background, mid-ground with some poor victim and some special effects guy creating wind, smoke, sparks etc. and finally a foreground. To compose the shots we also mirrored backgrounds and mid-grounds at times, re-sped things and dramatically resized the foreground to fit with productions redesign of the final shot.”
“This depended on the individual shot,” states Rudi Holzapfel when addressing the difficulty of working with 3D. “Sometimes it was no problem at all; our blood smears or pools would be projected onto a card and placed in depth to sit with the rest of the plate. Other times, because of severe resizes, we had to change the i-o for each layer that we put together to create a new depth. With imperfections in the plates, mainly different focus, this sometimes meant to create a new eye from one hero plate. These things wouldn’t have happened on a non-stereo film.” No new technology needed to be invented. “Nuke does provide a lot of the stereo functionality already, so for us it was mainly integrating real-flow into our pipeline and setting up our 3d pipeline to render for two eyes eventually.” Two particular shots in the comic book adaptation standout to Holzapfel. “The first one is where Dredd is in the background and shoots a guy through his mouth and cheek with blood, teeth, tissue flying everywhere, eventually out of frame and into the audience. The second one would be where Anderson [Olivia Thirlby] shoots a guy’s head off at a close range. This was created in mono to be converted and one or our compositors literally ended up almost painting the shot frame by frame, because Jon had so much specific feedback for this shot.”
“We had several briefing meetings at the edit suite,” states The Mill Visual Effects Supervisor Sara Bennett. “Alex [Garland] was clear about what he wanted to achieve visually for the film which was great as it made the process smooth.” The British VFX facility handled a dramatic 3D moment. “The Zwirner Face [Jason Cope] Melting Sequence was definitely our biggest challenge; we had quite a quick turnaround on the sequence so we had to work in a methodical way. What we needed from the clients was sign off of the key effect stages so that we could move ahead with the complex work without having to keep making changes throughout the process. We achieved this by doing a postvis of the sequence and choreographing all the key points and getting sign off on this before moving ahead to the point of no return!” A pre-production tool was essential in making the visual effect believable. “Creating previs was essential for this sequence; it gave us timings and direction which was needed for the shoot. This gave the actor something to work with and helped us plan ahead with what we needed to create the effect.” Practical and digital effects had to be seamlessly augmented. “We quickly realized that to make this work we would need to do a full CG takeover at some stage during the sequence so we had a 3D scan done of the actors head as well as taking a lot of hires stills. Luckily the action was localized only his head so the CG never went below his collar line. We then mimicked the lighting from the scene using HDR’s from set.” The visual effect needed to be accommodated for the 3D cinematic environment. “There was so much going on in the shot that we kept the 3D subtle. What we did do was push the depth on the burn through. We achieved this by creating a lot of skin/fat and muscle layers right through to the skull, which gave us the ability to push the 3D depth.”
“To be honest we didn’t do a lot of visual research for this,” answers Sara Bennett when questioned about the Mind Control Effect. “It was based on a discussion with Alex and throwing a few ideas around. We were given free reign on coming up with different looks and presenting them different options.” The telepathic power had to be unique but understandable for the audience. “We were conscious of not covering the performance with anything to distracting but we also had to make sure the effect was telling the story. We kept the effect heavy around Anderson but kept her face as clear as we could.” CG blood, gore and muzzle-flashes had to be integrated into the various scenes. “The CG blood and gore enhancement was achieved by match moving the plates and then creating CG blood using Fume FX; we also used a lot of 2D elements and muzzle flashes.” She notes, “We didn’t do a lot of background replacements; it was mainly gore enhancement and blood hits.” The 3D requirement did not over complicate the process. “We were careful about the pipeline at the start of the project.” No new technology had to be invented. “We developed some in house plugins in Houdini to create the face melting shots.” When asked about what sequence she finds to be memorable, Bennett replies, “For me it would be the slo-mo scenes they shot; I thought they looked beautiful especially in 3D.” To commemorate the project, The Mill commissioned Simon Bisley, a renowned comic book artist for 2000 AD, to paint a picture of the team in a Dredd style “which we thought would be a fun thing to do.”
“Good visual effects service the story, and when I watch films I like to be immersed in the experience,” states Visual Effects Supervisor Jon Thum. “A badly conceived visual effect takes me out of the story. For me, a great visual effect needs to have been brilliantly conceived and executed. In Dredd I think people will like the slo-mo in the film, and some of those shots are beautiful, but a large part of that comes from Anthony the DOP. Personally, I’m proud of the whole; the conception and design of Mega City One and Peach Trees, the atrium and interiors, the unity of the whole aesthetic which hopefully makes you believe you’re in a real place.” Dredd 3D has been embraced by movie critics and fans of the comic book receiving a 7.7 rating on the IMDb; however, the $50 million production has struggled at the worldwide box office earning $23 million after two and a half weeks of being released . Perhaps a better financial judgement will be achieved when the contained action thriller starring Karl Urban (The Bourne Supremacy] as the helmet-wearing and gun-toting title character arrives on Blu-ray and DVD.
Production stills © 2012 Lionsgate Entertainment.
VFX images © 2012 Lionsgate Entertainment. All rights reserved. Images courtesy of Prime Focus World, Baseblack and The Mill.
Visit the official websites for Dredd 3D, Prime Focus World, Baseblack and The Mill.
Many thanks to Jon Thum, Rudi Holzapfel and Sara Bennett for taking the time to be interviewed.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.