To coincide with the Blu-ray release, Trevor Hogg chats with visual effects supervisors Everett Burrell, Sean Faden, Joe Farrell, and Bryan Godwin; visual effects producer Brett Dowler, CG supervisor Dan Mayer and compositing supervisor Abel Milanes about bringing John McClane back to the big screen for A Good Day to Die Hard....
John Moore and Bruce Willis
Starting off the action mayhem is the ten-minute long Truck Chase Sequence which involves a van and an armoured vehicle known as a MRAP (Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected). “We broke it down into describable beats,” recalls Everett Burrell. “We had Vitech, Gridlock Step Ladder, and what we called the Turtle. We gave them codenames so when we talked about them in meetings people would understand quickly what they were. Those beats revolved around are green screen playground out in Hungaroring. We built this 1000 foot long by 40 foot high green screen in the parking lot of this racetrack. We laid down asphalt, painted it with road lines and that’s where we built our Garden Ring in Moscow. It was too dangerous to do those stunts anywhere else and that way we could control it. You wouldn’t have a pedestrian walk in by accident and get run over.”
UPP was the sole visual effects vendor responsible for the scene. “We went to Moscow for a scout, drove around Garden Ring, took tons of photos and started getting into the vibe of what Moscow looked like,” states Burrell. “Rákóczi Street in downtown Budapest looked a lot like Moscow so we LiDAR it, and took those sections and mixed them with the Moscow buildings.” The lighting was dictated by what was shot on the day while distinguishable details were added to make the digital hybrid city a believable recreation of the Russian capital. “One of things we noticed about Moscow was that there were tons of power lines and road signs, and those helped to tie it in with the Moscow footage.” Necessity led to some improvisation. “We thought about doing it on top of a hilltop so we could do sky but there wasn’t any hilltop that would work for us so we had to do it in a parking lot. The green screen was my effort so we wouldn’t have to rotoscope so much.” The flipping taxi cab was caused by a practical effect. “We tried to keep away from digital doubles as much as humanly possible. We have a couple here and there but they’re sparse and subtle.”
“Everett and John, the director, worked with us in terms of spending time to make sure we lit it almost to the stage where it is beautiful,” remembers Dan Mayer. “It was described as watery skies and sun in order to get this iconic building silhouetted against the sky.” Brett Dowler remarks, “It is set with the lighting from the practical set. But then closer to the end of the project they started to swing the lighting around so it would be more dramatic. We started to adjust the lighting for the whole sequence. It helped to heighten the whole situation of the scene and it takes on a slight surreal side to things.” Abel Milanes adds, “The lighting we had to pay a lot of attention to what is going on in the sequence because what we got as plates from the shoot wasn’t necessarily in synch with the pictures that we got. We tried to match those as much as we could by painting lighting on top of the buildings.” Creating digital urban traffic was not major concern. “We thought it was going to be something that we would have to develop for Everett but in the end because the sequence is so rapid and dynamic that wasn’t a big issue. We did have some moving cars and people moving down the streets but it wasn’t something that you really see so in the end it was easy.”
“The first shot we had was the last one that was ever finalled,” reveals Brett Dowler when discussing the cinematic moment when John McClane (Willis) and his son Jack (Jai Courtney) run across the ballroom and jump out of the hotel window. “It wasn’t motion-control so we had to turn it into motion-control.” Dan Mayer explains, “It was shot on a wire with a Spidercam and there had to be multiple takes. They had one where the actors were running, one with debris and squids were going off, and one on a separate stage where the stunt actors jumped out the window. Because it is a seamless shot there was nowhere to place any cuts and with a Cablecam not every single take was exactly the same.” The camera tracking had to be created digitally. “We used our Match Move Department to track every single shot and once we had the tracks of the shots we could establish the geometry of the interior of the room and essentially create the different cameras.” Camera movements had to be altered. “There were a number of cases where we needed to slightly change the motion of the camera once they jump out of the window. The director wanted a feeling of vertigo and danger that wasn’t as present in the initial shot.”
“The part where they jump out of the window was something that the director wanted to be very detailed in the environmental things [amount of broken glass and smoke] happening around the characters and how dangerous it should look,” states Abel Milanes. “The same with the jump you see from outside the hotel there were a lot of elements that Everett shot to add that extra amount of debris, glass, and dust. We in the beginning did what we felt was right but the director wanted more. When you see the sequence it works great. Getting the sense of dramatic violence that the director wanted for the sequence was challenging.” Digital doubles were inserted of the escaping McClanes. “We did it for a few of the shots when they’re going down the tube in the scaffolding.” Mayer notes, “John was a big proponent of having reality grounded in the CG shots. So stuff like dirt and water could get on the lenses and tracers that narrowly miss the camerman would cause the camera to shake. Once we were done with it, it turned a fairly sterile shot into something where you feel for these guys when they jump out of the window. We were happy with the way it turned out in the end.”
Dramatically bringing A Good Day to Die Hard to a conclusion is the Chernobyl Showdown which required the work of two visual effects vendors. “That was based on a couple of different locations,” states Everett Burrell. “One was way about an hour outside from Budapest at an abandon Russian military base where they built the foundation and structure of the buildings. Then we had the rooftop set was a back lot of the studio [Raleigh Studios] where we were at. When we were on-location we had to build the buildings up and when we were on the back lot we had to extend the buildings down. It was a big set extension and matte paintings. That was all Pixomondo and they did a good job of sharing those assets with Scanline because Scanline had a lot of the shots. It was a big challenge to integrate all of that stuff and get the helicopter flying around. We only had the Mi-26 for a couple of nights on-location so we had to move fast getting the footage we needed because once that thing left we would never see it again. We LiDAR the Mi-26, got tons of reference of it, and made sure that Pixomondo paid attention to the physics of it all.” Burrell remarks, “The big slow-motion jump at the end where McClane and his son jump into the pool, we shot that with a big stunt rig on-location with two stunt guys on cables and in front of the camera so it is all connected. The camera dropped at the same rate as the stunt guys, fell through a hole in the window and went into the water like a member of an Olympic diving team.”
“Everett was great,” states Pixomondo Visual Effects Supervisor Sean Faden who started talking about the project with Everett Burrell at the beginning of June 2012. “He was already out in Budapest at the time. We had a lot of great reference that Everett had compiled for the Mi-26 helicopter as well as Chernobyl and the city of Pripyat.” Filmmaker John Moore is a big fan of the aircraft. “Our brief in the beginning was that the helicopter was going to be a hero character in the sequence. It was not going to be eye candy in the background. We spent a great deal of time building and assembling all of the reference whether it was the ripple of the metal or how the guns fired or how the cockpit glass behaved or the speed of the rotor blades.” HD video was taken to make sure behaviour of the military vehicle was realistic as well as LiDAR scans. “The overall shape is accurate but getting the buckling of the panelling is not going show up on a scan. A lot of that had to be hand created. But having access to the real thing is so much better and having the ability to do what we call the Pepsi Challenge.” Real footage was placed side by side the digital version, and presented to Moore and Burrell. “They were going to shoot everything with the real helicopter, cut the real one out and replace all of the backgrounds. Thankfully we sold them on the idea that the CG helicopter was looking as good and would be able to do the manoeuvres that were required for the sequence.”
Being able to capture High Dynamic Range images of the helicopter in a controlled environment without the pressure of principle of photography was a major asset. “If you can do the Pepsi Challenge you know for sure that your textures are the right values and colours, your shaders are performing close to what they should be doing, and your model is as accurate as it can be. When you get into the shot production when the helicopter flies across the screen if it looks too dark you know it isn’t because of your textures but the lighting. Those are the type of things you do otherwise you’ll end up chasing your tail during production which is the worse time to be doing it. You might have to do minute adjusts, like, ‘We’re doing a close-up on this shot. We need more dust or dirt on the tail of the helicopter or more speck kicks on the tailgate. There has been some damage because the truck has fallen out.’ You add some textures or shader work which at that point is icing on the cake.”
“95 per cent of the shots we see the Mi-26 flying are CG,” reveals Sean Faden. “Interestingly enough most of the footage of when the helicopter was on the ground helped to develop the look. There was a giant 50 foot by 50 foot light box hanging from a crane above it to provide a moonlight feel. When the helicopter is flying around that box had to be gone. A couple of the real ones you see flying around are dark on the top because there is no top light. Initially, all of our development was to make the helicopter look like a moonlit top lit look but as the edit developed we realized there were a couple of moments where we had to intercut with live-action helicopters flying over the set. We had to remove most of the top light and play up more of the light specs on the helicopter. Once all that top light was gone all of those subtle reflections and kicks played up a lot stronger. It made a huge different. They started to intercut nicely with the few live-action helicopters which were there.” An intriguing discovery was that that tips of the blades go upwards as the Mi-26 rises. “There is so much weight down there that the blades bend; we added subtle details like that which is difference between the helicopter looking like a good CG helicopter and one that causes people to go, ‘I wonder how they shot that?’”
“We took a lot of photographs of the set from a lot of different cranes and helicopters,” remarks Sean Faden. “We had a lot of luck too because the days I was shooting a lot of the textures was a perfect overcast day so we got a lot of neutral shadowless textures. We created these High Dynamic Range textures of all of the buildings. In the background we had a lot of great reference of Pripyat city from the Internet. There were some interactive views. We took a lot of the material of the distant horizon. The hero shots where you see the buildings those are matte paintings inspired by Pripyat footage. You couldn’t just grab a nice image and place it in there. There was a lot to do in designing how and where each building was laid out and the relationship of the bank to Chernobyl itself. With movie magic we cheated it by making Pripyat a mile away instead of ten miles away.” The principle photography took place at Kiskun, Hungary. “It was an old Russian Air Force base which was built during the 1970s [and abandoned in 1989]. It was the same period of concrete architecture. We got some great textures. At Kiskun, I had a lot of time before the production got there to go up on the roofs of the buildings and shoot the heck out of the whole area. I shot not only the hero essential area but also a lot of the surrounding buildings. That helped tremendously to give us material to populate the other buildings.”
“It’s crazy what you can do these days,” marvels Sean Faden. “I would have my Budapest iPhone which I had a cellular service so I could do live Skyping with the L.A. office while I was there and at the same time they would send me an email on that phone. I would run into the production office where I had Wi-Fi and would email my personal iPhone which has this AutoDesk SketchBook on it. My team was developing the look for the bank. We were going back and forth a lot with the production designer. The production designer was working with Everett and me, and would say, ‘What about this? What about that?’ The guys would send me an image, I’d put it on my iPhone, and would fool around with it. I would present two different versions. I thought it was quicker to do that. We would be sitting at lunch and I would pull out my iPhone and they would review it there. It was cool and helpful to involve the production designer in that because he had an idea of what the building should be but they never built a full building. They built the bottom two floors and the top floor and a half. The building itself was six stories tall so there was a lot in-between which had to be figured out. Because of the dimensions of the rooftop where a lot of the action takes place was slightly different we had to get creative into how we would bridge the two. It was good to collaborate on that. It made John Moore a lot more comfortable knowing that his production designer had a say in the design and what it looked like, and also it got us there faster.”
“John Moore is a big fan of tying things together by mixing in some occasional flares, dirt on the lens, and camera shake,” observes Sean Faden. “There were a lot of shots with action in the background with the bank only a couple of stories. We would add the bank, sky, helicopter, dust, debris and leaves. All of these things added to the shot. It wasn’t until we added those flares and extra shake that it began to feel like long lens footage of the helicopter. We would screen the shot without any camera shake on it. I would go on my iPhone zoom in or out, and add a natural handheld motion; they would take that footage of the green grid overlaid and track the motion and zoom.” Incorporating the green screen footage of John McClane dangling from the Mi-26 was a complicated process. “They had a cockpit on the gimbal and the truck on the same motion base. The gimbal motion was more generic left to right. It was up to us to make the camera feel like it was moving against the truck or helicopter.” Some digital face replacements were required.
“The scan was helpful because once we tracked the stuntman’s head we were able to do some projection of Bruce’s performance onto that geometry. It was still a lot of brute force good compositing involved to work through the odd moments where you’re not sure why it doesn’t look right but it doesn’t look right. There is little you can do in that situation other than iterate until it feels right.”
Pixomondo altered the exposure of the breaking glass when John McClane swings through the window. “That was one of those final things we figured out that helped the shot feel more realistic,” states Sean Faden. “We had a stuntman on a trapeze flying through breaking the real glass and landing in the dirt. We added the background behind him but in addition we had to extend his travel through space. The only way to do that was to create a digital double of John McClane and the extended performance of stuntman back about another 50 or 100 frames.” The trajectory of the falling stuntman had to be changed. “In reality the stuntman was hanging from a rope and at the end of the shot he has an upswing into the glass. In order to counteract that we had to paint out all of the window dividers on the stuntman leading up to his impact, reposition him so he is following more of a falling trajectory and then add a digital double. In addition the all digital John McLean had the ability to start the camera even closer to the glass. We re-projected the foreground and pushed the camera closer to the glass and ramped the camera backwards in space with the digital camera before transitioning to the actual stuntman. The reason we did that was because John Moore wanted to feel more of the parallax between the edge of the roof where Jack is standing across the way and the glass. There is definitely a 50 foot drop there. The only way to we could do that is with the camera move. By starting closer and moving back you feel that openness. It was a big shot. We added a lot of broken glass, the helicopter and the buildings in the background. The background ended up as an asset being shared with Scanline with the shots that they did.”
Helicopter footage was used as visual reference material as well visual effects shots had to be shared with Pixomondo. “Most of our shots were in the climactic final sequence and included adding a CG cannon, glass windscreens and debris to the green screen helicopter cockpit shots. We also created several set extensions in that same sequence.” Godwin states, “I think our set extensions after the helicopter crash look fantastic, we had a great time extending the building and even the rotors of the helicopter, adding fire, debris and smoke.”
Production stills © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox.
VFX images © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved. Images courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox, Everett Burrell, Method Studios, Pixomondo and Scanline VFX.
VFX images © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved. Images courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox, Everett Burrell, Method Studios, Pixomondo and Scanline VFX.
Many thanks to Everett Burrell, Sean Faden, Joe Farrell, Bryan Godwin, Brett Dowler, Dan Mayer and Abel Milanes for taking the time to be be interviewed.
Make sure to visit the official websites for A Good Day to Die Hard, Everett Burrell, Method Studios, Pixomondo, Scanline VFX, shade VFX and UPP.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.