Fight & Flight: The Making of Man of Steel

Trevor Hogg chats with visual effects supervisors John ‘DJ’ DesJardin, Guillaume Rocheron, Dan Lemmon, Chad Wiebe and Max Ivins about bringing The Last Son of Krypton back to the big screen…
David Goyer and Christopher Nolan
“I heard a rumour it was during the time Christopher Nolan [Inception] and David Goyer [Blade: Trinity] were coming up with the script for the third Batman movie [The Dark Knight Rises] and it was something that David had been thinking about,” recalls John ‘DJ’ DesJardin (Watchmen, Sucker Punch) as to the origins of the latest cinematic rendition of Superman and how filmmaker Zack Snyder (300) came to be involved with the project.  “I don’t know who floated the idea for Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder to team up, but it seems like a pretty formidable match.”  Looming over the production was original 1978 movie which spawned three sequels with Christopher Reeve (The Remains of the Day) donning the signature red “S” glyph and cape.  “We didn’t go to the Richard Donner [Lethal Weapon] comic book Metropolis.   We went to a gritty, realistic Metropolis. It is more of a sci-fi story.  I don’t know if I would call it hard sci-fi but it tries to be a first contact type of story about an alien on our planet, how that whole situation comes to light, and how the human race reacts to his existence.  It ends up being a stronger story for the character because then Superman can figure out who he is in the context of the real world.”
When asked about the trend for comic book movies to be given the realistic treatment and whether it has been the key to their box office success, John DesJardin believes, “it helps to anchor these fantastic characters and stories in reality – real world references or style – and treat them seriously. The Marvel Universe comic book-wise has always taken place in our real world.   Spider-Man, The Avengers and Tony Stark, exist in New York and L.A..  DC comics created duplicate cities that their worlds take place in.  Superman and Batman don’t call New York City home, although I get the feeling that NYC exists somewhere in the DC Universe.   Metropolis is Superman’s comic book home. But you still can ground that fantasy with a more realistic visual portrayal of what that city is.” DesJardin adds, “Maybe if there’s a trend at all, it’s that these superheroes in film are treated seriously. I think Christopher Nolan deconstructed Batman’s mythology, brought him into our world and made him more believable. Batman is also a man, which I think goes a long way to us accepting him as a believable concept. Superman is probably a tougher nut to crack as he’s a god-like alien from an exploded planet who is often portrayed as a flawless, morally incorruptible being. It’s difficult for us flawed humans to find a connection to that unbelievable concept.”

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 [1980].  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
“Zack has a good head and feeling for science fiction themes,” remarks John DesJardin.  “In terms of articulating the material, it comes easily to him and to his credit there are a lot of things in the original script that were detailed and maybe too detailed and techie at first; he was able to rein them in to keep the integrity of the logic of the story and to be able to tell the story cleanly and yet keep all of the story beats from the script in the movie.  Zack handled this movie like he does all of his movies.  Zack drew his own storyboards, had Damon [Caro] do his stuntvis, had me do a lot of previs on top of the stuntvis which is where Damon and I would work closely together.  We built the world with Zack the way we normally build these imaginary worlds. We just didn’t take as much license in fantasy as we did in the other movies.  Watchmen is an alternate reality New York so there were some artistic licenses we took according to the graphic novel source material.  Sucker Punch was four different fantasies, technically five, so we created distinct stylizations for each one to indicate that these worlds were the defence mechanism of an abused girl.  Zack’s vision for Man of Steel left no room for that kind of fantasy look; he made a wilful decision at the beginning of the whole project.  ‘Get ready DJ I’m going to shoot this whole thing 24 frames per second handheld.’”

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.”

“I had previously worked with production designer Alex McDowell [Charlie and the Chocolate Factory] before on Watchmen,” states John DesJardin.   “Alex, Zack and I would talk about what sets we had the resources to build practically and what was going to end up as either a completely CG environment or CG set extension. Defining the action with Zack and Damon quickly revealed what needed to be practical sets or locations versus what needed to be green screen. Krypton was mostly a green screen set because we had to build the whole world. However, Smallville was a location that we wanted to keep the integrity of so that became another visual effects problem for me because I knew that we were going to have to do a lot of CG takeovers not just of characters but of the location itself. The destruction of Metropolis was a hybrid solution, combining location work for the first part where we needed people in the real environment running away from something terrible happening in the distance with green screen for the second part, where everything surrounding our camera was irreparably destroyed, therefore totally CG. And of course, when we got to the final Superman versus Zod scene where our main characters were fighting and flying through a world where a good deal of the city had been torn away, we combined green screen work with all-CG animation and simulation.”

“My producer Josh Jaggars [Fast Five] and I broke up the work on the film with an eye towards playing to VFX teams’ strengths. Most of those decisions were based on work he and I had done before at various facilities,” states John DesJardin when discussing how the different visual effects facilities were chosen to produce over 1500 shots. “Krypton was easy because I had worked with Weta in the past; their work started out as just doing the entire opening of the movie and ended up branching off into other parts of the movie. I’ve worked with MPC ever since Watchmen. Guillaume Rocheron [MPC supervisor in Vancouver] and I had worked together before. We have a good rapport, easy quick conversations and we always agree on technology. Guillaume and MPC were the team I initially did R&D with, to test concepts I felt we needed to be clear about during preproduction in order to get through the shoot effectively. My main R&D priority dealt with Kryptonians fighting on Earth with their superpowers and how we were going to capture that with cameras operated by humans. We shot a test in May 2011 at Damon Caro’s stunt facility in L.A.. MPC put the test together in June. It was successful and from that MPC went on to prototype our digital double Superman, cape effects, the first flight, and the Smallville Battle. The basis of all that would be handed over to Double Negative which we engaged to do 33 square miles of CG Metropolis, and all of the flying and fighting that would happen there. We had Scanline, a group known for difficult fluid dynamics simulations of fire and water, do the Ocean Oil Platform Rescue Scene and also a Tornado Scene in the movie.” Also recruited was Look Effects which handled the School Bus Rescue Sequence.

“When people think of Krypton, they think of the version in the 1978 RIchard Donner film which is a look and mythology even the comics adapted as the bible for Kal-El’s home planet,” states John DesJardin. “Alex McDowell wanted to take that and turn it into something more original and reflective of our own planet; he wanted to show a Krypton that was being used up. The Kryptonians were trying to ignite their own core to be able to create a new energy source and that is what makes the planet blow up.  It’s a lot different than the original version where Krypton’s sun Rao is a red giant and it starts to swell causing Krypton to explode because it engulfs it. In the Richard Donner movie both the star and planet explode at the same time. This time around we said, ‘Maybe it’s not that. Maybe it’s a Red Dwarf star.’  I started reading about Red Dwarf stars and found out those are the most plentiful stars in the universe and they’re so low energy burning that none of them have ever burnt out yet.  They’re all going strong from the earliest days of the Big Bang. I also read that planets orbiting such stars might not rotate on their axes. Maybe Krypton stays the same orientation throughout its rotation around Red Dwarf Sun Rao. We took license with that and put Rao only ten degrees above the horizon in the sky from the point of view of the particular city where we’re setting our story. When it came time to blow up the planet I said to Zack, ‘Let’s do a different kind of explosion. Maybe when it explodes [since they have been trying to compact their core and increase the Density] maybe it turns the middle of Krypton into a neutron star. When it explodes there is an initial push out but the debris gets held in place by its own gravity field. It doesn’t go anywhere.’  That’s what you see in the movie. It is a story point later when the Black Zero gets shunted out of the Phantom Zone because of that explosion, and Zod and his crew see the debris of Krypton strung out in front of them. The destroyed planet hasn’t gone anywhere.”

“Alex had all of his artists illustrate a world that was a mixture of biology and hardware, an idea which mostly went by the wayside for story clarity,” states John DesJardin. “Jor-El’s flying creature called the H’Raka is based on a dragonfly and for a while it was an organic beast that had these mechanical wings grafted to it. But Zack said, ‘Let’s get away from that and make it all biological so we can make it as a more sympathetic living creature.’ It does get hit by some fire during the fire fight; you want to be able to care about it for at least for those few minutes of the movie. There are a lot of great production illustrations Alex made like monorails that were crab-like things people could get in. The rail cars were living creatures transferring people on a rail system. That wasn’t able to make it into the movie because we didn’t have a good place for it, especially, with the big Zod gun battle going on [Zod trying to keep Jor-El from getting the codex]. The action dictated how much background detailing we needed to layer in. But there is still a strong design purity that Alex did lay out. The Kryptonians have strip mined their planet. There are these large grooves that are in hillsides that reveal to an underground city. We don’t know what’s going on above ground too much but the environment hints that Krypton is growing inhospitable. You can still live there but it is not a friendly place. Kryptonian civilization is old — over 100,000 years old — and used to be spacefaring but they don’t go out into the cosmos anymore. They’ve shrunk into their home planet and have these bad ecological problems. Kal-El being shot off into space is his parents’ hope of sending something better than them out there to keep their species going even from a distance.”

Dan Lemmon

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.”

“Like much of the comic book mythologies, the details of Superman’s origin story and universe have gone through several re-imaginings over the years,” notes Dan Lemmon.  “Some ideas have been well-received by fans with others being less so. I know Zack and Christopher worked hard to respect the canon while trying to figure out what Superman might mean to this generation; they made a deliberate decision to omit Kryptonite, for example, and to instead look to more psychological challenges for Superman to wrestle with. While keeping true to the ideals that define Superman and his universe, however, they gave themselves license to update some of the more cosmetic details.”  Lemmon remarks, “Krypton was visually distinct and unique from anything we’d built before. We used many of our time-honoured environment building-processes to create the rugged landscapes and soaring arches of the City of Kandor.  But we also had to develop new techniques to accommodate new visual ideas. We laser-scanned basalt cliffs on the South Island of New Zealand to get exactly the kind of sheer-faced rock we needed, and referenced strip mines and quarries and used some of those visual ideas to build a husk of a world, stripped bare of its natural resources.”

“We did have some set pieces for many scenes, but we obviously were heavily extending those sets,” explains Dan Lemmon.  “And then much of the aerial battle and space sequences were completely digital. It’s always helpful to have pieces of reality to tie your shots back to. Even when we are creating completely digital shots, we are always looking back to nature and to photographic reference, hunting for the details that make things look ‘real’, and figuring out how we can fold those details into our work. That is especially important for ‘alien’ worlds and objects. We are often taking liberties with scale or shape to try to make things look unusual and new.  Because we are taking artistic license with reality it becomes critical that we work as many familiar and ‘real’ details into our creations as we can.”  A pivotal cinematic moment is the destruction of the planet.  “Earlier in the film Jor-El explains to the Council that the planet’s core has become unstable. We latched onto that idea and put a bit of thought into what that might mean visually, and what might happen if a cataclysmic event caused a planet’s core to collapse. We played the collapse and subsequent explosion circumferentially around the planet’s magnetic axis, as if the planetary magnetic field, which is created by the circulation of a planet’s molten core, affected the shape and path of the destruction of the planet. The equator of the planet fell in on itself, briefly creating a shape not unlike and apple core. At that point we blew the planet back out along that same plane of destruction and spun a disc of debris out into space.”

“A number of spaceships needed to be created such as the Fortress of Solitude,” states Dan Lemmon.  “We worked from a number of concept illustrations and design drawings from Alex McDowell’s team, states Dan Lemmon.  “We stayed true to those templates, refining the shapes and adding detail, and also borrowing some forms and design language from the sets of the interiors of the ships.”  John DesJardin was happy with the end results.  “Fortress of Solitude is the coolest looking ship in the movie.  I also liked the idea that’s it not a big piece of architecture that gets built on Earth through some kind of memory chip.  It’s cool that it’s actually a scout craft from Krypton; a vestige from their spacefaring days.  A lot of good concepts came from that and a lot of big ideas about what Superman, humans and Kryptonians mean in the universe; the whole first contact story helps to add weight to all of that.  It’s one of the best designs that Alex and his guys came up with.  It was a lot of fun to make and build, especially, from the exterior and blend it into the Arctic environment.  It was also a lot of fun to see it fly later on in the city and then of course wreck it!”

The helmets worn by the Kryptonians feature a technology which shielded them from the atmosphere on Earth.  “The trickiest thing with the energy membranes was dealing with Lois Lane’s long hair,” explains Dan Lemmon.  “When we were shooting the picture, pieces of her hair kept falling outside the boundaries of where the energy membrane would be, so we had to come up with strategies to either keep her hair closer to her head or clean up the problem strands later in post.”  A unique Kryptonian computer display system had to be produced.  “The biggest challenge was designing and executing the History of Krypton Sequence where Jor-El teaches Kal-El where he came from and why he is different. That sequence was primarily one very long shot and involved literally billions of levitating silver beads. Those beads combine to form animated bas-relief sculptures that tell the history of Superman’s home planet through stylized friezes. Figuring out exactly what those friezes would depict and how to transition from one vignette to another was a significant creative challenge.  But figuring out how to simulate and render all those beads was a technical problem on a whole other level.”

We did a little interactive lighting gag on some of the weapons – basically a ball of LEDs that attached to the end of the guns and provided a blue-white flash of light onto the set and the characters when the gun was fired,” reveals Dan Lemmon.  “That practical effect gave a great foundation of interactive light onto which we added digital plasma beams. We did a few other small things – enhancing some stunt work through creative retiming, adding additional sparks and pops here and there. But most of Weta’s work on Krypton didn’t have a lot of practical effects.”  As for making ‘invisible effects,’ Lemmon laughs, “Haha! This wasn’t really that kind of movie! Speaking for Weta, there was very little of our work that could really be called invisible.”  A particular scene stands out.  “We had a lot of fun with Jor-El’s flight through Kandor city. We really enjoyed that environment. I thought the space ballet of the ships around Krypton and orbiting Earth was pretty cool too. And the ‘liquid-bead’ Kryptonian display technology was a great technical and visual problem that I thought looked pretty great once it was fully realized.”

We shared a few shots with other facilities, but they were surprisingly few,” remarks Dan Lemmon.  “We DID share quite a few assets, however, and keeping those assets looking consistent between the 3 primary vendors was a challenge. Zod’s Earth armour was the biggest shared asset, and we had a few conference calls between New Zealand, Los Angeles, Vancouver and London to hash out the details.”  3D did not complicate matters.  “We did all of our finishing work, especially our compositing, with a mind toward the 3D post-conversion process. We had meetings early on with the 3D conversion vendor and worked out a strategy of layers and passes to help them as much as we could with the conversion job. It forced us to be a little more buttoned-down about how we finished our shots and how we separated the various components, but once we established the process most shots were pretty straight-forward to prep for conversion.”

Guillaume Rocheron

“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.”

“When Superman flies we wanted to get away from is an actor flying on wires which is not comfortable or stable so it doesn’t look natural,” states Guillaume Rocheron. “We used something called a Belly Pan Rig which is a little platform the actor can stand on.  It helps the acting as it is a lot more stable so you can get a lot more tension and movement into the shoulders.  Because the rig was hiding a lot of his body we had to replace Henry’s body with a digital version.  That was part of the initial test we had been doing.”  Rocheron adds, “We were building a full-screen digital double anyways so it was easy for us to add the body back and the cape.”  In regards to the iconic part of the Superman costume, John DesJardin states, “Here’s the thing.  We knew from the Bryan Singer movie that most of the capes in that movie ended up being CG because they wanted to be able to choreograph the movement specifically.  Even though Zack and I talked about how we were trying to ground the movie in the real world, we also needed to have ‘cape acting’.  On a given set-up someone would ask, ‘Real cape or no?’ The answer was usually, ‘When in doubt leave the real one out.’  We had a real cape and we did use it in a few shots along the way and it was good.  We kept that.  I don’t think we ever painted a cape out and put in a CG cape.  MPC did a lot of work R&Ding the look of that cape in the wind and how we dealt with it especially in flight because we didn’t want it to look strange even though it had to move somewhat quickly.”

“The cape is a direct extension of Superman’s body and amongst everything that is what gives him the iconic silhouette,” notes Guillaume Rocheron.  “We used a lot of references from Alex Ross who does all of those beautiful paintings, covers and illustrations of Superman.  The first time you see Superman in his costume is when the doors open and you see a silhouette; he’s walking in the Arctic environment with the cape flowing into the camera.  There was no way you could shoot a cape which would flow that well with a nice composition.  We used a digital cape to make it elegant and iconic.  The second usage was literally during the fight because everything is high powered so the Kryptonians and Superman are moving fast. Superman takes off and lands. When you transition to the real live-action Superman with the cape it is going to rest behind him without any movement inherent from his landing.  We use a CG cape so when Superman would land we would be able to play with the cape and give it a nice flow and pose.  It would literally be the extension of his action which was cool. Superman crashes into a wall the cape envelopes and wraps around him; he takes off and the cape streaks behind him.”

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.”

“There’s that whole sequence where it is called the Escape Pod Rescue Sequence where Superman surrenders to the Kryptonians and they take him into custody in the Black Zero located above Earth,” recounts Guillaume Rocheron.  “Lois comes with him and a whole lot of things happen in the Black Zero that Lois manages to escape and boards an escape pod.  One of the wings breaks so the escape pod starts to free fall, literally rushing from space onto Earth.  Superman sees that, gets out of the Black Zero and chases the escape pod to rescue Lois.  There were a lot of interesting challenges in this.  There were all of the digital tiles and characters, the escape pod as it breaks into the upper atmosphere creates a compression of air, and there’s a huge trail of fire behind it.  How do we stage that action?  How do we film this?  We’re going from space back to something on Earth.  The first few shots the camera is static and moving around Earth like the camera was in a satellite.  As we get into the upper atmosphere the camera is on a HALO jumper which frames the action.  When you get low enough you have a jet or helicopter camera.  We always used that approach to have everything grounded in that reality.”

“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.”

“The Kent Farm Illusion is interesting because it is the only stylized sequence we were doing,” remarks Guillaume Rocheron.  “Superman gets drugged so Zod can enter his brain and tries to get him on his side.  Superman enters dreams where he’s not in the Superman costume anymore.  We could have shot all of this at the Kent farm location back in Illinois.  Zack’s idea was to have a blue sky with all the clothes blowing slowly in the wind and the clothesline blowing gently in there.  Try to bring that hyper reality to it and show that you’re in a dream.  It was all shot on the green screen stage with a bit of grass and a practical clothesline.  We shot photo reference back at the Kent farm and a couple of Enviro-cams captured the whole environment.  We recreated the barn, Kent farm and did the CG cornfield that extends up to the horizon.  We found some beautiful sunset skies that we used to achieve that stylized look and at some point the World Engine crashes down into the cornfield and generates that huge shock wave that extends toward the Kent farm.  The sequence finishes as the shock wave extends to the characters and destroys everything.  The barn and Kent farm being torn to pieces, the trees getting ripped up off the ground.  It was a huge simulation to generate the big shock wave.  We used our tool Furtility to groom the cornfield so we could do dynamics.  It would not only react to the wind but also to the shock wave.  We used Kali our destruction tool; the barn and Kent farm are made of wood so we used it so that all of the planks would bend, splinter and exploded into a lot of pieces.”

“There are a couple of shots I really like,” reveals Guillaume Rocheron.  “The A-10 crash I’m happy with.  There are some shots that I liked on Nam-Ek as well because you see his face full-frame, the background is CG and he’s there.  We cut around a couple of live-action shots and you don’t question it.  The Nam-Ek/Superman Fight, I enjoyed those shots because there is that sense that it was filmed like it was there.  We used all of our technology [Enviro-cams and CG characters] in the background to make up those shots.  They feel real in the sense that they’re in the middle of a couple of shots with live-action actors and it cuts flawlessly.  When you think about it there is a huge amount of CG in the Smallville Battle.   A lot of it integrates seamlessly into the sequence and even though you’re like, ‘Superman is going through a building or an A-10 is crashing there is a consistency throughout the sequence that works nicely.  The shooting style, shot design, and virtual and real cinematography all blend together.”

“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.”

Chad Wiebe

“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 [2009], 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.”

“The fire simulations required some customization of Scanline’s Flowline software,” remarks Chad Wiebe.  “Oil fires have an identifiable look so matching that was our main goal and the focus of our Flowline developers. When Clark is on fire we also had a slightly different look and type of fire, so in addition to matching what was shot practically in the oil rig interior set, we also had to art direct it so that we would keep certain areas free from fire, and other areas completely engulfed in flames.”  Wiebe states, “For both the oil rig explosion and the tornado sequence, we did extensive research into many natural disasters that have been recorded in recent years. We received reference from the client in addition to researching online reference of tornadoes. For the oil rig we gathered reference from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster which really proved to be the foundation of the look we were going for.”

“Developing the tornado was one of the biggest challenges,” states Chad Wiebe.   “The way we approached it was to simulate numerous individual elements which would then be deformed along numerous splines to wrap around the funnel volume. Basically we were patching together a wide variety of different fluid simulations from a library we created which allowed us to get great variation and depth into our funnel while at the same time gave us much more control and the ability to art direct the funnel.”  The Oil Rig Sequence features a burning Clark Kent.  “It’s one of the first times you see Clark exercise his power to save these guys,” remarks John DesJardin.   “Chad and I went over questions like, ‘How smudged up is he? How much fuel does he have all over him that would burn?’ We decided to keep the look fairly clean because we wanted to see his musculature, and this ripped dude who is bigger than life ripping open a bulkhead door. The fire is not hurting Clark and the oil rig guys give him a look like, ‘What the Hell are you?’” Wiebe adds, “The key was being able to specify where fire would emit from, and what areas would remain clear of fire. Our simulation artist was able to use the match moved mesh of Clark along with texture maps to spawn fluid emission only in areas needed.”

“The goal of all visual effects is to fool the viewer into thinking it’s a real element and not something generated on a computer, but not many of our shots were on the subtle side,” states Chad Wiebe.  “Getting the lighting right was key. For the Tornado Sequence, since it was shot on location over the course of a few days, the natural lighting changed throughout the day.   At times we had to replace many of the cars which were shot with digital versions as well as painting out shadows or lighting direction so it could be added back in as needed for continuity. For the Oil Rig Sequence we had to make sure that any practical elements such as the actors or set pieces were matching the fire and explosions added digitally. So adding interactive lighting and fire lighting was needed to ensure everything sat in the same environment.”  There was not much in overlapping work.  “We only had a couple of shared shots in which we added our x-ray vision effects to a shot shared with another vendor. Overall it did not pose any challenges in terms of continuity.”  Wiebe concludes, “I think that in both of the main sequences we worked on there was much to be proud of.  I was fortunate to have an amazing team of artists who really pulled off some amazing work.”

“LOOK did work with visual effects producer Josh Jaggars on Fast Five [2011],” remarks Look Effects VFX Supervisor Max Ivins.  “Plus Josh, DJ and I worked at VIFX many moons ago so when the bus sequence came up Josh thought of us. It’s all relationships and working with people you know can get the job done. Relationships give you up-front assurance. DJ knows I will go the extra mile. Knowing how to work with someone is half the battle.”  Ivins states, “We did a video conference, went through the shots and DJ described what he was looking for. We had separate sessions. Some things were straightforward and some things needed a little pre-visualization. We would shoot them things. They would get back to us. That back-and-forth, giving them something they can see, that’s what gets the job done.”  There was room for some artistic license.  “Our scene did give us some creative aspects for making it work, for getting it right.   For example, we used some stock footage that we found that helped them get what they wanted without having to do a reshoot. There are always creative ways to approach shots.”

Max Ivins
“We researched water, vehicles crashing into water, footage from different sources [YouTube and stock libraries],” states Max Ivins.  “As a result, we found stock footage that worked really well, which was not our original intention. This ended up saving the production considerable time and money.”  Ivins explains, “The bus was remotely driven. There were cameras attached to the bus and in the water. The scene was shot with POV from the bridge to the bus. The bridge and the bus were shot separately at different locations. The interior was shot on a soundstage with green screen.   We did rig removal and we did a lot of traditional clean-up – the cameras on the bus, the rigs on the bus, the cables dragging it from the bridge.  As for the POV of the bus in the water we did CG replacement of vents on the top of the bus, and replacement of the splashes. For the shot of the bus in the water, we found stock footage, as I said, that worked well and was pretty straightforward to do.  The interior was much more challenging. We couldn’t actually sink the bus because there were real kids in the seats. We had to make the outside water look like it was two feel higher than the inside water and make it believable. We had to do this looking out the front, back and side windows. We used lots of 3D bubbles. This was the most challenging and the most fun.”

“The bubbles were actually not that difficult because one of our 3D artists came up with an elegant solution to create the bubbles in Maya and then we composited in Nuke and Flame [lots of time on the Flame],” states Max Ivins.  “The real difficulty was lighting the interior with the water depth changing the lighting. Generally that is always a problem, changing lighting.”  Ivins notes, “Our biggest challenge was to get the work done on time to the client’s expectations without being a problem. On big shows like this, there are always multiple VFX houses doing the work. We frequently come on board later in the production, when everyone is scrambling to get everything done, more shots have been added and all the current shops are full up and can’t take anything more. The supervisor needs a facility that understands what needs to be done and gets to it without a lot of hand-holding from him. We do that very well and we did it on this show.” 

“There are a couple of shots from Clark’s childhood where he’s standing in the farmyard with his dog wearing a red ‘cape,’” recalls Max Ivins.  “The production wanted a speed change on these shots, which normally wouldn’t be a big deal. Not in this case. The whole scene is back-lit, including the laundry flapping on the line in the background. Clark’s hair is blowing in the wind and backlit. The clouds are moving. And, to top it off, in the front of the shot, blurred beyond recognition is a waving dandelion puff. So these shots were a bear and we’re very proud of how well they came out.”  Ivins adds, “The primary thing I would like to reiterate is the importance, especially on these big blockbusters, is being a facility that gets the job done without creating any extra hassle for the production. The ability to do this comes from years of experience and working with the same people again and again so that you know how each other work. When you get down in the trenches and time’s running out, just getting the job done can be invaluable.”

“As far as heat vision goes, we all agreed that the effect should be invasive,” states John DesJardin.   “It’s probably something you don’t want to do a lot because it seems to take a lot of energy.  The details of the skull, and the veins and skin come out around the eyeball to give it a sense that it comes from deep within.  We also aren’t entirely sure that Kryptonians can see through the effect other than when they first line up their target.  We don’t know if they can see where the heat vision is going.  It comes pouring out of their eye sockets and it seems like something that would impede your vision.  You need to direct it as best you can and maybe you can see where it’s going once it’s on.  Maybe you can’t.  We think no matter what you have to really work to turn it off and it looks like it’s painful even for a Kryptonian.’  Two different heat vision styles are featured in Man of Steel.  What we do is Superman’s heat vision is a thinner beam; it’s a little redder and more controlled in terms of the frequency, width and detail of the beam.  Zod’s is crazy.  It’s barbaric. He doesn’t know how to control it that much.  Zod gets a handle on it by the end of the movie but it’s still wilder than Superman’s.  It’s got crazy details that slip off the axis of the beam and it’s more orange than red so you can tell them apart.  Zod’s is more brutal and Superman’s is more elegant.”
The final showdown between the US Air Force, Black Zero, Superman and Zod leads to massive devastation. “Metropolis was a different nut to crack because it starts out as this intact city,” states John DesJardin. It gets progressively destroyed. We have to fly around the city, fight in it and punch through it. With our Chicago location as a reference for the look of Metropolis, our VFX team brought all of our data gathering tools to bear. We used the Environment Camera, a ground-based LiDAR unit, helicopter-based LiDAR for rooftops all the way to the street, and a Double Negative team that went into buildings and photographed other building details from many floors up and from across the way. This location was also used to shoot plates of people looking up at the descending Black Zero as well as people running from distant destruction. Once the action at ground zero occurs where whole buildings are demolished and flattened by a big gravity wave we needed to move photography to our green screen stages in Vancouver. The results of our before mentioned Chicago data-mining effort were used to create highly detailed CG city backgrounds and destructive effects related to Superman and Zod’s war of the gods.

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.

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  • SuperDuperChrisCooper

    Great article. Really enjoyed reading up on the details and getting a look into the fx teams thoughts and ideas.

  • SuperDuperChrisCooper

    Great article. Really enjoyed reading up on the details and getting a look into the fx teams thoughts and ideas.