Classified Material: Matt Dessero talks about Argo

Trevor Hogg chats with visual effects supervisor Matt Dessero about reconstructing period settings in Argo…

When he was recruited to help with Argo (2012) some historical research was required for Matt Dessero [Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides] in order to refresh his memory about 1979 hostage crisis where six U.S. embassy workers secretly sought refuge at the Canadian embassy in Iran after their own embassy was taken over by hostile Iranians.   “When I jumped onto the project I started reading about it, recalls Dessero.  ”I remember it happening when I was a child but I wasn’t paying attention to the news back then.”  With the visual effects already in the design process the focus shifted to making the images look better. “We did the heavy lifting.  We did a lot of CG airplanes, the giant exotic tower and all of the embassy shots.”

“The main shoot was in Turkey,” states Matt Dessero when discussing the climatic Airport Runway Chase Sequence.   “They came back and shot the airport out in Ontario.  It was about shooting flights.  They’re blank airport runway plates and we dropped our CG plane into it. There was a particular plane that we went for, a Swiss plane.  We built it, textured, made it look photo-real and matched everything to the period.”  Ben Affleck sought to maintain a sense of authenticity.  “Ben wanted it to be as true as possible.  Obviously, we made our creative license on composition and moving things around but all of our airplanes were historically accurate and built.  A good example is the Ontario runway; it didn’t match the runway in Iran so we added all of the mountains behind. We were accurate in our distant background pieces. Hangers didn’t all align but it didn’t matter.  It looked cool.  It’s about making good looking images.”  The airplanes were not background vehicles.  They’re big in frame and are building the drama in that moment.  We’re hoping these guys get out of there.”  Nuances were incorporated.  “Lots of subtle details – there are rocks and dirt getting kicked off the tires and heat distortion that makes it feel real.”

  

“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.”

“There was some 16mm footage that was around the Embassy Sequence,” remarks Matt Dessero.  “There were lots of handheld movements and what Ben was going for was that documentary feel.  Ben wanted it to feel gritty so there were a lot of moments where we were adding more contrast and punching the grain on all of our CG shots to give it a real gritty feel.”  Dessero notes, “Our plates were shot on 35mm or Alexa.  We didn’t have to work with the 16mm footage.  We had to try to match the Embassy Sequence. They were bouncing back and forth cutting the two.  We added a lot of camera shakes to make our shots feel like theirs.”  The embassy was shot at a Los Angeles VA hospital and on-location in Turkey.  “We had to match the two lighting conditions.  We ended up building our CG embassy and having to make it match in the various plates.  In a lot of the shots whenever we could get away with practical elements we did.  There is a practical flag in a couple of the embassy shots and CG flags mixed throughout; it depended on how difficult the camera move was.”  The director wanted winter time grass.  “We went more for a yellow, dingy grass that matched the actual kind he wanted.”  Producing the sequence was made difficult by the different lighting conditions found in the live-action footage.   “We went for the wide establishing shots to figure out the light direction and it ended up being back stream right across light.   But on the plate photography in the movie it’s all over the place.  We tried to go with a nice consistent bit for our CG.  Don’t sacrifice the shot for the sequence.  Our M.O. was to make the shots look good and try to keep it as consistent as possible but there was no way to ever get the lighting a hundred percent right.  Compositors would go in and tone down the keys.  We did that on a lot of the shots.  It was a harsh lighting in the L.A. shoot, the ones shot over at the VA hospital so we toned down a lot of the harsh keys and shadows, and tried to make the shadows and light blend across the sequence.  The key direction may change from time to time but our goal was to minimize that as much as possible.”

“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.