Hard Work: The Making of A Good Day to Die Hard

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
Everett Burrell

“I had done a film with John Moore called Max Payne in 2008 and we stayed in touch over the years,” explains Everett Burrell who served as the visual effects supervisor for the video game adaptation starring Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter) and Mila Kunis (Black Swan).  “John called about another project he was working on at Fox for development.  I couldn’t wait around for it so I did Prometheus[2012] in London, and ended up doing another film called Warm Bodies [2013]. During Warm Bodies, John called me to say he got Die Hard and wondered if I could leave Warm Bodies earlier where I was the on-set supervisor.   I left shortly after, came to L.A., and joined John Moore and the production team.”  Burrell worked closely with Dan Dorrance (Saving Private Ryan) who was the production designer for A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) and was assisted by the Screen Scene previs team in Dublin, Ireland.  “John brought me on to try to figure out some of these big beats. We went around with different ideas and concepts. We were under budget restrictions.”  Moore was able to provide his own unique spin on the fifth instalment of the movie franchise.  “John had to be true to himself and had to do what he thought was best for him and that’s how that came about.  We look at the other films in terms of a tribute but John wanted to do what John wanted to do.”

“Fox wanted somebody we could rely on and they see an Oscar winner as reliable so we hired Pixomondo first,” states Everett Burrell.  “Scanline we hired based on their pipeline for fire and destruction, and UPP [Universal Production Partners] based on their pipeline for hard surface vehicles and buildings; they did a nice job of the truck chase.  We brought Method Studios late into the game to do the Hotel Shootout. A lot of these sequences were isolated. The only time we had to split was Chernobyl which was split between Pixomondo and Scanline.”  Burrell remarks, “When we hired everybody on the show one of the big things was we had to share assets. We were clear about that because I have run into problems where that didn’t happen so well but this time it worked well.  Pixomondo shared assets with Scanline, and UPP in Prague shared assets as needed.  Everybody played nicely.  One of the key things was that everybody was based in 3d Studio Max which helped.”  There were some compatibility problems that needed to be addressed.  “Once you get into shaders and customized things like that there were certain issues but the vendors were able to fix that quickly.”

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.”

“Hotel Shootout was Method,” states Everett Burrell.  “It was a combination of what they built on the stage in Budapest and matte paintings we shot in Moscow to make a 360 degree view looking from the Hotel Ukraine.  They built an interior for the ballroom and a section of the exterior but a lot of those shots are CG buildings in combination with the real helicopter footage.”  With Moscow being a no fly zone a digital solution was needed.  “We had to build the Hotel Ukraine in CG so that we could get our aerials plates.  We have a lot of real shots of the Mi-24 flying around and had to cut between the real and CG one.”  Method Studios Visual Effects Producer Brett Dowler remarks, “Everett was clear about talking through the sequence with the director and what the director had asked him to be able to create. They had done a quite a bit of previs in pre-production so they had designed a few specific shots which they were keen on getting into the picture.  They had to make these decisions in pre-production in order to plan all of the on-set shooting.  Their biggest challenge was going to be how to get this giant ex-Soviet helicopter to do the kinds of choreography they needed it to do in order to build the tension as high as they could.”  Method Studios CG Supervisor Dan Mayer notes, “Previs helps us understand what the director is going for in terms of his visual style and the type of shooting he is doing.  We had a lot of shots anchored in the real world so if an environment was full CG we approached it as being shot from a crane or a window.”

“I remember watching the first one when it came out and you see the character evolve,” recalls Dan Mayer.  “You need to find new things and ways to convey the action.  In a number of our shots it was a matter of showing some of the dangers they went through.”  Brett Dowler observes, “The physicality of the sequence is something that Die Hard is grounded in, and the director, producer and even the lead actor are aware of having it feel not too much like he is covered with a protective bubble and nothing can hit him.  We did have a lot of cases where they wanted the danger and amount of debris to be extremely visceral but at the same time not like everything looks like it is just missing him.  It had to have some sense that the bullets are behind him breaking everything up and he is barely in front of it.” 

Adding to the sense of realism were the stunts being conducting during principle photography.  “One of the big shots that we did is when they run through the ballroom and jump out of the window,” remarks Mayer. “In this show they did takes of the actors and the stuntmen.  When the stuntmen take their fall they’re doing about 40 feet into an airbag.  They’re doing a substantial drop as they were breaking through glass.  It is definitely easier to make it feel like they are in danger when the guys are really doing the jump like that.  It was impressive to see.”  Even though dealing with an established movie franchise there was room for some creative input reveals Method Studios Compositing Supervisor Abel Milanes.  “We had some freedom in terms of creating, especially, with the matte paintings we used for several shots dealing with the cityscape of Moscow that you see outside the windows of the hotel.”

“They wanted the iconic geography of Moscow to be in a narrower frame than what you would normally see it,” states Brett Dowler.  “There was some doctoring here and there.  Google Earth was used to get our bearings as to what things we could ask the photographer to go out and shoot as backgrounds.  They had also shot plates around a practical dome that was in Hungary and they needed to tie that into the Moscow skyline so we had to add that in there.”  The creative team at the Vancouver facility acquired some visual reference material.  “We had a specific set of photographs and videos we wanted them to take so that the artists working on it would have a feel for the environment and the nature of the type of stone, glass and brickwork in it,” explains Dan Mayer.  “They had the location for the Hotel Ukraine which was where they wanted to put Moscow University.  We could go from the photographs of the actual location where Hotel Ukraine was, and use that through matte paintings and CG work to give you a feeling that when you’re inside the building you’re looking out at Moscow.  When you’re outside building that’s when it becomes a full CG shot.”  Some nearby construction in Vancouver proved to be useful.  “We had three buildings across our street which were under construction so we had the artists out there every day looking at the type of netting and scaffolding which is used and what kind of stuff to fill it with.  A lot of times in reality things are dirtier than it is in CG.  Everything from work boots to concrete or plaster all over the scaffolding helped.”

“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 original intention was they could combine the photography [of the Mi-24 helicopter] with our CG building,” states Dan Mayer.   “But as quite often what happens over the course of production there was a need to make the shots more dynamic.”  Having to match the real footage of military aircraft contributed to the digital realism.  “It means it’s harder but it means we have a goal to shoot for and is a great way to push ourselves to make our CG look more real.”  Close attention was paid in getting the details correct.  Even little things like the movement of the weathervanes on the tip of the helicopter match the real one.  They gave us a great goal to shoot for and helped us realize the final thing.”  Not everything was straightforward.  “The paintwork those helicopters have is strange because in different lighting conditions it would look one way or another,” points out Abel Milanes.  “We had our CG supervisor who is also an aircraft expert and he was explaining a lot about the properties of the paint job.  Sometimes we would get a strong and sparkly highlight from the helicopter but other times it would look flat.  Some of it was hard to emulate and compositing developed that by using some of the passes the CG team had rendered.  In compositing we were able to dial the combination of the passes we got in a way that would get more or less highlights for a different look depending on the lighting conditions.”

“Dan had a good team of artists working with him on this,” states Brett Dowler.  “They were able to piece out the dynamic simulations of the concrete or of the wood splintering would be in one person’s domain and the smoke and interactive effects which would be another person’s.”  The pivotal element in determining the destruction was the Mi-24.  “We first identified the helicopter position and that gave us an idea of where the bullets needed to go,” says Dan Mayer who had to simulate construction netting.  “It turned into a full dynamic simulation by the end where they were having debris hitting the netting and causing ripples, and also some rotor wash causing ripples.”  Abel Milanes remarks, “Certain aspects of the helicopter like heat distortion and some shots where we had to integrate live-action plates of the characters inside the helicopter were challenging.”  The task was to integrate extra detail in the scene.  “I would say about 10 per cent of the destruction that you see especially the smoke and bullet hits were all done in compositing.”  Nuke was the computer software used which allowed access to the geometry and elements in the full CG environment.   “When you’re putting a bullet or spark hit or puff of smoke, being able to look at that in a 3D environment was great.”  The destruction accumulates.  “In some of the shots at the end of the sequence we go from big environmental and ambient smoke, and then we keep going with smaller smoke clouds that are beginning to form.”

“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.”

“We were approached by production VFX supervisor Everett Burrell and VFX Producer Amber Kirsch, both of whom were familiar with our work and felt we would be a great potential fit on several sequences,” states Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Farrell who works for Scanline VFX.  “Ultimately, given our schedule and availability, we ended up focusing on about 20 highly complex shots that cap off the film’s Chernobyl Sequence finale. These shots feature Mi-26 helicopter destruction and a Bank Building ‘Sea of Fire’ series of explosions.  The work required extensive CG RBD destruction effects, debris, smoke and fire simulations, and it included one of the longest shots we have possibly worked on: a slo-mo jump off a rooftop, through a glass roof, and into a swimming pool.”  Farrell remarks, “Everett went over how John Moore the director was shooting very complex real stunts and as much practical pyro and destruction as was possible. They wanted our work to blend in perfectly to these amazing plates that had been shot. Everett wanted the physical dynamics to be based on real life simulations when possible.”  The setting of the story allowed for some creative freedom.   “The film is set in a very different environment to the previous films. We worked on the Chernobyl Sequence and so our ideas for what things should look like were not limited by what had been done before.”

“We did a lot of research on the Mi-26,” states Joe Farrell.  “It’s the biggest flying helicopter in the world and creates an enormous amount of air displacement. Working in the confined environment in the film created interesting visual challenges that we needed to art direct so as to help tell the story. We photographed both the Mi-26 and other similar vehicles to help generate the detail needed to stand up to viewers’ keen eyes. Our shots were mostly shot and played back at 120 fps and therefore needed a high level of texturing and twisting dynamic metal destruction for realism.”  Farrell observes, “One of the challenges was the length of time and the complexity of the shots. Our time from plates to final shots was about four months. We had most of the departments working simultaneously, models, rigging, texturing, and animation working in a tight communication with each other. This enabled the FX team to run dynamic simulations and hand the finished result to the Flowline artist for complex natural destruction simulations. Having a great production team and keeping close tabs on where each piece of the puzzle definitely helped make everything smooth.”

“Two things are critical to success in integrating digital with practical effects,” notes Joe Farrell.  “The first is the artist generating the dynamic animation with simulation. If it does not move or react like the real elements then no amount of work will solve it. You need great artistry from people that understand what the director wants to see. The second key ingredient is compositing artists that understand what the film camera would have captured on the set, and sleight of hand tricks that are created to blend the two worlds together. The movie was shot on film and really helped us make our elements sit into the plates using careful compositing optical techniques.”  Background replacements and CG augmentation had to be incorporated into the footage.  “Our sequence has the Mi-26 crashing into the top floor of the Bank building and ripping out the whole side wall. Production shot a practical set that we then carefully rotoscoped out what we needed to keep and added a complex dynamic building destruction with the helicopter buried within it. Some of our shots were all CG shots that needed full fireball and dust, debris elements to match practical shots cut back to back.”

“We had fun coming up with an interesting explosion sequence called the ‘Sea of Fire,’” reveals Joe Farrell.  “The bank foyer becomes filled with a toxic gas that hangs in the air. Our heroes detonate a grenade that lights this toxic gas on fire. John wanted it to look like a rolling fire wave rapidly snaking across the room with lots of ensuing destruction. We had to write some custom simulation tools and shaders to match the practical pyro and also animate that in a way not seen before. As if the air itself is igniting into these fire tendrils. It was a fun sequence and John really liked the look we established early on. Scanline’s fluid simulation software, Flowline, made for quick turnarounds and a highly iterative production cycle which makes all the difference in the world, especially, on a tighter schedule!”

Also making a contribution to A Good Day to Die Hard was boutique studio shade vfx based in California.  “We have previously worked with both VFX Producer Amber Kirsch and VFX Supervisor Everett Burrell, on Fright Night [2007] and Battle Los Angeles[2011] respectively. We had a great time on both of those shows, and it was a natural fit for us,” states shade vfx founder and owner Bryan Godwin who served as a visual effects supervisor on the project.  “Everett is a detail oriented supervisor with in-depth technical knowledge of the process. Everett and I speak the same language which made it easy to get shots to completion.”  There was room for some artistic interpretations.  “I like to think there is always a certain amount of creative freedom in the details of visual effects, even when you are trying to make something look photo real and invisible to the viewer there are many roads to that end result.”  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.”

“The biggest challenge was the schedule,” states Everett Burrell.  “By the time we got back to L.A. and John met us from Dublin, we had three months to do all of the visual effects.”  LiDAR scans were taken of every vehicle, truck, airplane, and helicopter featured in the movie.  “I’m from the philosophy that you can never have too much reference because you never know what is going to become a plate or if you need a CG model of a certain thing.” Communication was key aspect in being able to manage the tight deadline.   “We had to have a good hold on the vendors.  We ingested everything in our hub in L.A..  All the plates and data went through us first and we dealt it out like playing poker to the vendors.  We would deal out certain sequences as soon as we got them and we were right next to editorial and worked closely with the director, editor and studio.  It’s a big franchise for them so they were definitely around.  We had to keep everything for them and had to be on budget and schedule. There is the weird spider effect you can’t just turn shots over.  You have to turn shots over which are on budget and if there is a conflict between the director and studio they have to resolve it before you can turn the stuff over.  We picked a handful of things that we knew were going to be in the movie trailer.  If you think it is going to be trailer stuff and they used it for marketing then the studio would go for it.”  Burrell has a great admiration for the stunt team led by Stunt Coordinator Steve Davison (From Dusk Till Dawn) and Second Unit Stunt Coordinator J.J. Dashnaw (Avatar). “I don’t jump out of helicopters or set myself on fire.  I had so much fun working with J.J. and Steve, and they made me so proud.   This is a part of the film industry that I really like and like to be involved with.  It’s the great handshake between practical effects, visual effects, and stunts; there needs to be a unity between the three foundation cores of big action filmmaking.”

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.

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.

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