“There is a big shot flying over the Azadi tower. We wanted it to feel alive, like a bustling town at the time, states Matt Dessero of the Iranian landmark which is located in the centre of Tehran. “They couldn’t film there [but did] get a helicopter there nonetheless. We had plenty of photos, and references of the Azadi tower. We built, modeled, textured, and lit it, and built the grounds around it. There were trees blowing in the wind, and leaves were blowing off those trees onto the cement in the park there. It’s a complex shot. For the cityscape off in the distance we had to build the mid-ground and background buildings. We did some buildings as matte paintings and the sky was all painted. Around the park and the tower there is a road and to make it feel congested we had to build all of the traffic and the people who are walking around. [The scene involved] lots of crowd and traffic simulations. We ended up modeling 12 variants of cars and each of those had about three to four passes of colour variations on them, taxies and buses. Ben wanted the whole thing to feel polluted, in the 1970s, I remember back here in L.A. cars were putting out a lot of emissions so we had to build up that smog and put that throughout so there was another whole layer of smog and atmosphere.” The scene took place in the late afternoon so long dramatic shadows were integrated into the setting.
A CG American flag had to be created for the opening shot. “They lit one on the day and it was a nylon flag that burnt fast,” says Matt Dessero. “We timed the flag animation and the burn rate to some of the 16mm footage that Ben had there.” The task was a tricky one. “We ran a base simulation for the flag to get formation. For each stripe there was another high resolution simulation which was run and that gave us a complicated look for the wrinkles on the flag. A lot of time went into getting the fabric textured right.” Dessero adds, “Once we had the flag simulations down and had the base animation done, we had the control go in there and articulate by hand some of the curves. Our final animation came from the simulation and bits of hand animation to get the right choreography on the flag. Then we went in and added fire on top so yet another simulation on top of this flag. We had fire and around all of the holes burning and charred edges. It was almost steel wool burning little ember bits and also ran embers off of it, smoke and heat haze. It was a big shot.” Internet provided a lot of reference material. “We knew how big the flames needed to be and were matching to another plate. It was easy to get a look for the flag, get the flames doing their thing but when you had to match to another plate it made it more difficult to get the timing to work across the edit.” Natural elements were also simulated. “We added a bit of wind. One of the other challenges was a flame over a light blue sky doesn’t show up. There was some practical fire that was in the plate we had to remove from the original flag. We removed all that and put our flames on top which we gave a beefier feel. Ben wanted the fire to look nice and substantial.” The crowd was not a digital creation. “We shot multiple plates and the crowd was duplicated off into the distance. We also had some CG trees and the embassy was all CG.”
“I liked working on this project,” remarks Matt Dessero. “Ben Affleck and the DP [Rodrigo Prieto] put time into adding the right amount of camera shake to give a grittiness to the film. Graining it up to make it feel gritty and in that time in that era. Not everything was pristine and perfect.” Dessero notes, “The big challenge on the visual effects side was the Azadi tower shot. It is another one where we continued to add detail: trees in the background, smoke coming out of restaurants, and people waiting at the bus stops and mulling around. Adding that level of detail was a challenge; however, without that detail it doesn’t look photo-real.” Costing $45 million to make Argo is considered to be a major Best Picture contender at the 2013 Academy Awards. “At the end of the process Ben was happy with all of the work; he especially liked the plane. Those shots came out great.”
Production stills © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Many thanks to Matt Dessero for taking the time for this interview.
Make sure to visit the official websites for Argo and Method Studios as well read Stranger Than Fiction: William Goldenberg talks about Argo.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.