|David Goyer and Christopher Nolan|
Unlike the brooding Caped Crusader who nocturnally prowls the criminal underworld, the Last Son of Krypton is an indestructible being who performs his supernatural feats in the daylight. “The first thing that you do is you figure out what indestructible means for this universe,” notes John DesJardin. “Zack had a whole graph or a chart of indestructibility where we guessed at what might hurt Superman or any Kryptonian. It was an interesting chart. We know that bullets don’t hurt him. But what does a RPG [Rocket Propelled Grenade] do? It may irritate him. What does a cruise missile do? That might knock a Kryptonian out but not for very long. What does a nuclear bomb do? That was the big question mark at the end of the chart. We don’t know if that could kill him or not. That’s part of the key of making the movie work is if you can limit Superman’s powers and try to be realistic about the limits then maybe you can come up with something which is a real threat to him. The other thing which helped to is that we have other Kryptonians who can go up against him. It means Superman can punch things and people which is something we haven’t seen on-screen since Superman II . VFX technology put limitations on what Superman and the enemy Kryptonians could do. It made for some goofy moments. Who could forget the throwing of the “S” shield and having it envelop something? That was wacky. Man of Steel is not about that. Superman and the other Kryptonians display just a few familiar powers, nothing extra on top of that; Superman is somewhat adept at using his. The other Kryptonians who are on Earth haven’t had thirty odd years of honing their abilities like he has. That’s the sci-fi part of it. Another part of the story is how experience and determination can maybe win the day.
|John ‘DJ’ DesJardin|
Superman being a symbol of hope was a significant creative issue for the man behind the camera. “If you look at the movies that I’ve certainly been a part of with Zack, they’re not the happiest of movies all the time,” states John DesJardin who previously worked with Snyder on Watchmen (2009) and Sucker Punch (2011). “They’re visually striking but few of them take place in the daytime in the bright sun and here we have a character who is all about that. It was a challenge to bring that to the screen and not to make it too happy-go-lucky or campy. The script was not a campy story. It was not happy-go-lucky. The serious themes occur outside in the daytime so it is the closest thing to a summertime movie as I’ve worked on. Zack and Amir Mokri [Lord of War], the DP [Director of Photography], broke it down and how he ended up shooting everything, there was a strong lighting sense of getting drama out of that daytime experience even though it was daytime, and maybe summer and sunny. Everybody was backlit, edge lit, heroic looking, and menacing; it gave a visual edge to the idea of Superman being hope and sunshine. The visual style underscored Kal-El/Clark’s dilemma of what he was going to become. Is he going to help humanity or subjugate them? Because he could if he wanted to.”
|Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder|
Contributing to the realism was the use of special effects. “We always end up shooting a whole week of smoke, fire and pyro out in the parking lot in the coldest part of winter in Vancouver,” explains John DesJardin. “It’s a targeted set of elements we felt we needed to ground the realism of some of the major FX gags in our mostly-CG scenes. Everything that we shot we used. Joel Whist [The Cabin in the Woods] had us shoot a bunch of stuff that he and I went over with each other in Vancouver. was the special effects supervisor in Vancouver. I’d worked closely with him on Watchmen and Sucker Punch. Allen Hall [Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest] was the practical effects supervisor in the United States. Allen did a great gag on the streets of Plano that had to do with the first attack by the Army on Superman, Namek and Faora. Allen placed an array of pyro and dirt down half of the street which went off in a fast sequence to simulate the 50mm A-10 strafing fire that knocks out Superman and Namek [Faora uses her super-speed to avoid getting hit]. It was so beautiful to see 40 foot tall, thin plumes of fire and dirt explode out of the street. We all thought it would be a good, powerful way to start the collateral damage that goes quickly out of control in the scene and ground it in reality. That’s how VFX and practical effects worked together to break some of these events down. Zack, Damon and I knew we were going to be tearing a bunch of stuff apart that had to be choreographed specifically and looked at iteratively over and over again; then we went the CG destruction route. If it was something we needed to get an effect in-camera and possibly build on that later then we went the practical effects route. In the case of the strafing run on the streets of Smallville, seven cameras were used to cover that event. In the case of the big destruction in Metropolis, a heavy CG simulation approach was chosen because we needed to tear things apart in such a specific, weird sci-fi manner.”
“Weta was already working on a big Warner’s project, and we had worked with DJ before, so we were already on each other’s radar,” remembers Weta Digital Visual Effects Supervisor Dan Lemmon. “When they approached us about being involved in a Supermanreboot, we were of course very excited, not just because it was a classic visual effects franchise, but also because it was a chance to work with Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan, two filmmakers for whom we had a lot of respect.” The look of Krypton was well established by the production team. “Alex McDowell’s Art Department provided us with conceptual artwork, environment studies, technical drawings and models. We used those as a foundation and then fleshed out the details with our Weta Art Department, and DJ’s and Zack’s input. Following the production that Krypton has no rulers, no straight lines, no circles, no even radiuses, we drew our reference for organic sources. We used shells and other sea life, especially crabs and lobsters, to help find shapes and textures for a city that was as much ‘grown’ as it was ‘built’. Based on the artwork and the conversations that we had with Zack and DJ, we knew that Krypton was a dying world. Our palette, our textures, even our clouds and skies, were all selected to reinforce that idea.”
“My original conversation on the movie started a few months before principle photography,” explains MPC Visual Effects Supervisor Guillaume Rocheron. “ I got on the phone with DJ who I worked with on Sucker Punchpreviously and he was like, ‘We want to shoot the sequence called the Smallville Battle. Zack wants to be able to film the action like the characters are here.” The fighting was to unfold right in front of the eyes of the audience. “You see the characters punching each other, ripping through the ground and going through walls. You’re always close and tight to the action which makes you connect a lot more. It’s not like what you see in different comic book movies or superhero movies that go for those wide shots and you’re like, ‘That’s a big visual effects shot that they used digital doubles.’ How do we allow Zack to film something like this? There is only so much you can shoot. You can’t even shoot an actor even on a wire rig flying back 50 feet in two seconds because he just took a punch. The original conversation was like, ‘We want to be able to film little clips of live-action and do complete CG takeovers on the entire shot.’ We’re transitioning from a CG environment and CG characters so the camera could frame for the characters.” Rocheron gives an example. “When Henry walks down the street we did a CG takeover on him when he gets punched by one of the Kryptonians. We shot the clip of Superman landing at the backend of the street. We bridged the gap with a CG environment and characters.”
“On Sucker Punchwe did a lot of transitions between live-action and CG characters,” observes Guillaume Rocheron. On this one we wanted to also do it on the environment. When Superman takes off we want to transition the environment so that the camera can frame for him when he’s up in the air. That was the big challenge for us. How do we achieve that?” A practical device served as the solution. “The Enviro-cam is a motorized nodal head. We would capture a completely spherical environment using a Canon 5D Mark II so you end up with a gigantic stitch of the whole environment. Instead of being limited by the resolution of the shot camera we were having full environments that were over 50K. It gives you a lot of flexibility and the good thing with that was it was a perfectly digital concept. The nodal head was pre-programmed and our idea was to capture that by a shot per shot basis. We pre-programmed it and the capture time was between two and three minutes which is a lot on-set because you have to hold up the entire crew so that they don’t walk into the frame as you don’t know yet where the CG camera is going to go.” Rocheron continues, “We would recreate 74 cameras and re-project that on the 3D geometry of Smallville. We could move the camera anywhere. The lighting was matched perfectly so we could seamlessly transition from a piece of live-action to the virtual representation of that set.” The Shandy-cam originally used on Sucker Punch was resurrected for Man of Steel to assist with the creation of the digital doubles. “It is a grip pipe rig that we put six cameras on and arranged them so that if you have a character five to six feet away from the rig it would give you synchronize stills of what the character is doing,” remarks John DesJardin. “You’d stitch and project those stills onto the CG versions so you could go from CG to real seamlessly. It’s all captured within the context of the shoot which is what we wanted.”
MPC was responsible for developing the digital versions of Superman and Faora-Ul. “It took us half a year to build detailed high resolution CG doubles so they would hold up full-frame on the camera,” states Guillaume Rocheron. “If you look at a digital Superman and the face doesn’t look like him it breaks the illusion. We spent a long time perfecting the face and all of the formations of the face. We did a fact session where we captured a lot of expressions on Henry. We were always going back to that to make sure that when we were putting the facial expression on Superman it was absolutely like the real one.” Recreating Faora was more straightforward. “We were basing her on the real person. By design she was the only one of the Kryptonians to have practical armour because Zod’s armour and all of the other Kryptonians were too big for an actor to be able to act in. We built her to the same level as Superman.” Not all of the digital performers were based on actors. “Superman fights against an eight foot tall Kryptonian called Nam-Ek. He was a guy in a performance capture suit. As soon as we replaced the stuntman with the CG Nam-Ek we realized that Superman was punching the chest instead of the face because the character was much bigger. We were like, ‘If Superman had to fight a character like this, he wouldn’t stay on the ground. Superman can hover over the ground and punch him in the face if he needs to.’ We decided to try to make a CG version because as a character that’s what you would expect him to do. We started to block that out. We see Superman full-frame punching Nam-Ek and he is hovering over the ground. You can’t shoot that on wires.” Guillaume notes, “It took a lot of work because when you put a completely digital animated character in the middle of real actors it can’t stand out too much.”
A practical approach helped to make it look like that Superman could actually fly. “A lot of that came out of the style of the photography,” states John DesJardin. “We knew that we were going to have this handheld approach.” Operatic camera movements were cast aside. “If Superman is going really fast he’s going to run into a certain amount of air friction. We could probably add contrails off of his cape. We could have him generate sonic booms whenever he reached Mach speeds. We took some artistic license with that. But we did look at a lot of footage of jet planes at air shows going through Mach 1 and 2, and getting those nice condensation cones; that was a lot of fun to play with. At the same time we looked at comic book positions of Superman’s body when he’s flying and also looked at what Damon did in some of his stuntviz for the flying and fighting. We extrapolated from there how we would make the CG version of Henry move as if he was in flight. A lot of photographic elements of Superman flying were done with Henry in a belly pan. Wire rigs were also used but kept to a minimum. In any simulated flying situation, Henry really sold it. You hear that story about Richard Donner shooting the first Superman movie and having Christopher Reeves in the wire harness in front of the projection screen; he would act as if he was flying with his shoulders, arms and his eyes. I saw the same thing happen with Henry and those are the things we emulated in the CG body as well. While Henry made us believe, we also made sure that photographically we were thinking about how we were capturing him in flight.”
Implying speed while allowing the actions during the fight sequences to be perceived by the audience was part of the initial testing handled by MPC. “We need them to be able to throw punches in some cases that are faster than the speed of sound,” states John DesJardin. “What we did was to keep the action on the edge of being not perceived but it would still be there. We layered in glows on the leading surfaces of the fist and arm. We put in some Mach cones to give you a visual cue that, ‘This fist must be going super fast as I can see that condensation right there.’ Sometimes they move so fast that we can’t see them from Point A to Point B but we can see moments, a couple of frames where they’re slowed down enough to read their poses; that’s the case especially for Faora who faces off with the Army in the Smallville Battle. There is one particular shot where she takes out seven to nine Army guys in the space of just a few seconds. You see Faora at the point where she takes each soldier down and in-between you see the soldiers firing and not her. Sonic boom effects keyed to her quick body movements make her perceptible.”
“We did a lot of destruction and fire, smoke, explosions,” states Guillaume Rocheron. “It’s a superhuman fight which is intense,” states Guillaume Rocheron when addressing the Smallville Battle Sequence. “When the characters punch each other or crash they always make a crater in the ground or see the impacts or go through buildings. There are a lot of destruction effects which is a lot of after effects and fluid simulations where everything is dust, fire, smoke. For destruction we used our own tool which we did a lot for Zack’s movie Sucker Punchwhere we did a lot of the destruction tool call Kali. Unlike most destruction tools that are based on digital simulations this is slightly different. It is a finite element holder and the concept behind that is to be able to simulate materials properly and accurately. Originally we did that on Sucker Punch because were doing that Samurai Sequence where we had to get the wood to bend and crack. It has become part of our standard tool kit. We used that to program all of the different materials we would have to destroy for the film – a concrete wall wrinkles, and metal doesn’t break but bend. Our effects team had a difficult challenge because not only were we destroying buildings but we were destroying vehicles. The Army doesn’t know who all those guys are. They don’t know yet that Superman is friendly. They send A-10s over Smallville and shoot everything down the street. Superman manages to dodge the bullets and crash into a building. Nam-Ek gets hit by one of those bullets and crashes at the other end of the street going through lampposts; he looks at the A-10s circling back for a second round and decides to jump on one of them. Nam-Ek rips off the cockpit. The A-10 crashes and spills over the entire street. It was a huge simulation because of all of the heavy metal, and engine parts cratering into the ground, and a huge trail of fire that was one block long.”
Camera placement was essential making the flight into the outer stratosphere believable. “Guillaume and MPC did that shot,” recounts John DesJardin. “The way Kyle [Robinson, our previs supervisor] and I prevized it, the camera was more stationary as if it was mounted on a weather balloon. Superman was still rocketing upward the way he does in the final shot. But Guillaume and Daryl [Shawchuk, MPC animation supervisor] came to me one day in post-production with a proposal. ‘Let’s say we’re in a Lear jet and we’re cruising around at 20,000 feet.’ I thought it was a great idea so we built the camera around that premise. So to continue, the camera is looking out the window and we suddenly see this object coming straight up passed our flight level and it keeps going. We try to lock our camera locked as best as we can to the object and zoom in to try to get detail; it is shaky. We have some air friction that is causing shake and the velocity. We try to tilt up with Superman as high as we can go with exposure corrections as the blue sky colour fades to the black of space. There is a lot of energy in a shot when we’re actively searching for the point of interest or composition during the shot. We did run into moments during post production when the shot design for some of the flying didn’t work. There were a handful of shots which were a lot like the Richard Donner 1978 Superman: The Movie-style flying shots. There’s one, for example, where we’re 20 feet away from Superman when he’s flying but we’re tracking with him. The camera is lazy even though we’re supposed to be moving fast and Superman does a simple roll and the camera pushes in, right up to his face. We shot the plates with Henry against green screen, did postvis of the environment around Henry, rotating the earth smoothly to get this perfect hybrid move to work. When David [Brenner, the editor] cut this postviz into the movie, we realized it didn’t fit the visual style of the other flying shots in the movie. We couldn’t answer the hypothetical question of how we were able to one keep up with him and do a smooth dolly in on him. Are there occasions to break these CG camera rules? Yeah, we break them a few times, especially when Superman and Zod start fighting because the flying and fighting action dictates that we break a few logical camera rules in order to magically keep up with the hyperactive nature of the fight.”
“We did a lot of flying shots with a digital Superman because we wanted to frame the action for the character,” explains Guillaume Rocheron. “For example he is flying through a canyon in Utah. We went there. Took a lot of helicopter footage but we ended up doing an entirely digital canyon and used Terragen as the base tool to block the geography and lighting. We used all of the reference footage that we shot, re-projected photographic details to everything. We did the same thing when he flies over Tanzania. We shot a plate of a plain, and added Mount Kilimanjaro in the background and a herd of zebras that Superman flies over. It’s a homage to the Superman: Birthright comic book where he did the same thing. For everything that is upper atmosphere we did a lot of work on our cloud system. We were working on a project at MPC at the time and built up upon that tool which allowed us to do full 3D volumetric clouds. We can sculpt them and the geometry, and translate it into volume so we can get that realistic cloud shapes. At the same time because it’s all volume base you get nice shading, subsurface scattering, and light absorption that clouds have.”
“We shared two or three shots with Double Negative but each facility was tasked with depending on what they needed to do on the buildings and digital characters,” states Guillaume Rocheron. “We would exchange that back and forth in our pipeline. MPC shared the digital doubles of Superman and Faora, and the full CG character Nam-Ek with Double Negative and Weta Digital. Weta Digital built a couple of additional Kryptonians who were not featured a lot in our sequence. We used them for background characters and Double Negative ended up building Zod’s armour which we factored into our pipeline and integrated. We were exchanging pre-renders back and forth to make sure that all of the renders were consistent across the board so everything looked seamless through the film. It was based on whoever was using the most of each character. For us we used extensively our digital Superman, Faora and Nam-Ek. Double Negative was more centred on Zod and Superman so it made sense for them to build Zod. That’s how we split the work but in terms of shots themselves we didn’t have to share that many shots. We shared two or three shots on the Kent Farm Illusion where Double Negative gave us an element for the World Engine crashing into the cornfield and we did all of the interactive elements.”
“Scanline first met with VFX Supervisor John ‘DJ’ DesJardin and VFX Producer Josh Jaggars in Spring of 2011,” states Visual Effects Supervisor Chad Wiebe who works for the VFX facility. “Bidding was just getting underway, so the timing was perfect. We’d worked with Josh before, on Roland Emmerich’s 2012 , and that was a fantastic experience. Though we’re big fans of DJ, we hadn’t yet worked with him. We were excited when they eventually proposed having Scanline VFX handle the Oil Rig and Tornado Madness sequences, in addition to the Primary School Sequence.” Wiebe remarks, “One of the great things about working with DJ is the ability to collaboratively discuss ideas and methodologies. When it came to our shots on Man of Steel, he had a clear vision of what he was looking for, which we discussed while going over various reference material they had collected, and ideas sort of evolved from there.” A realistic approach was adopted. “Most of the shots we dealt with focused more on environmental effects in which Clark was situated. But there were a few shots where we had a digital Clark for super speed and the goal was to give the action real world physics as opposed to some sort of supernatural abilities that were not obeying the laws of physics.”
Reflecting back on the effort to make Man of Steel, John DesJardin remarks, “The movie has a satisfyingly huge scope. You’re on another planet in the first 20 minutes of the movie. Then you’re on present day Earth where normal everyday stuff plus amazing sci-fi stuff converge.” DesJardin observes, “I can say after having seen it we put everything on the screen. It seems to be like that with every Zack movie. By deciding on his best ideas early, Zack keeps our efforts very targeted so we never waste time and can deliver the biggest VFX bang for the buck.”
Man of Steel production images © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures Funding, LLC.
Photographs of Guillaume Rocheron, Chad Wiebe and Max Ivins provided by MPC, Scanline VFX and Look Effects.
Many thanks to John ‘DJ’ DesJardin, Guillaume Rocheron, Dan Lemmon, Chad Wiebe and Max Ivins for taking the time to be interviewed.
Make sure to visit the official websites for Man of Steel, MPC, Weta Digital, Scanline VFX, Double Negative and Look Effects.
Attirely Appropriate: A conversation with costume designer Michael Wilkinson
S for Krypton: Alex McDowell talks about Man of Steel
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.