Trevor Hogg chats with visual effects supervisors Marc Weigert, Volker Engel, Ollie Rankin, Jan Krupp, Alex Pejic, Christian Haas and Andrea Block; production manager Joseph Kasparian, visual effects producer Christal Wolgamott, and previsualization supervisor Roger Liu about destroying the home of the American president in White House Down...
|Volker Engel and Marc Weigert|
“My business partner Marc Weigert and I were in talks to supervise the VFX for another movie in early 2012, when Roland Emmerich [Stargate] asked us to read the White House Down script,” recalls Volker Engel who co-owns the visual effects facility Uncharted Territory. “Shortly after that the other movie got postponed anyway and we immediately started prep on White House Down . We had to hurry up as Channing Tatum [G.I. Joe: Retaliation] had a tight schedule because of another movie he would shoot that same summer. We only had little over two months prep. Normally you want to have at least four months on a film of this calibre.” A long-standing creative partnership has been established with the filmmaker known for spectacular explosions dating back to Independence Day (1996). “Roland promised after 2012  that it was going to be his last disaster movie,’ reveals Marc Weigert. “I guess it’s true. White House Down is not a disaster movie; it’s an action thriller. The screenplay by Jamie Vanderbilt [Zodiac] specified only ‘mild’ destruction [compared to some of Roland’s other films], but aside from that, Roland has a signature and that’s not really destruction but rather large scale pictures. We had lots of meetings with him discussing such signature shots. I shot some plates in Washington, to be used later for the Capitol Dome destruction, and we devised several full CG shots to show off the destruction happening at the White House.”
“All three sequences started with some very rough storyboards that Roland had devised with his storyboard artist Tim Burgard,” explains Volker Engel. “Regarding the number of shots those boards represent about 20-30% of what the sequences became during previz, but they included all major story points from the screenplay. The previz we did represented 80-90% of what you see in the finished movie. For the Beast Chase it was crucial to plan the sequence with a top-down view of the White House and its North- and South lawn. We only had two months of prep on this film, which is nothing. Roland gave us a beat sheet that he did on a weekend when we were already shooting. He also needed it for Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx when we shot them blue screen inside the car. Roland chose our actor who played Donnie, the tour guide, to be the MC and read the beat sheet with a mike over a PA, so Channing and Jamie would react to all the important beats. Parallel we devised the path for the limo and the SUVs of the bad guys. You have to be very methodical in action movies and do it ‘by the numbers’. Every beat on the path of the vehicles had a number: Here is where the first SUV hits the limo. Here is where the reporter spots them for the first time, Here is where the terrorists shoot a grenade at them from the rooftop. Let it be known that it was two SUVs in the beginning, then it became three during principal photography and it was cut down to two again in editing when everybody realized that the chase became a small movie of its own.”
“On each show we also have the pleasure of giving an up-and-coming or completely unknown company the chance to step up into the ‘VFX big league’,” says Volker Engel. “On this show it was a boutique company from Stuttgart, Germany, called LUXX. They did the all-digital 5-minute opening D.C. fly-over sequence. We supervised each step and detail closely, but they were up to the challenge and did a spectacular job.” Recreating Washington, D.C. was not an easy task. “The biggest challenge was that different companies had to create different parts and views of the city. Hybride had their specific path through D.C. mapped out via our previs, while Method had to show the views on the city blocks surrounding the White House. The challenge was that all of this is a no-fly zone and there aren’t many rooftops that are accessible to shoot reference or texture photos from. You have to be creative and improvise and hack. Method Vancouver was up to the challenge.”
“For the main shot of the Capitol explosion we were lucky enough to be able to use one of the aerial plates that Marc Weigert shot 2nd unit, using the 400 mm lens,” states Volker Engel. “For the side angle of the security guards being blown away, Marc shot elements of those actors being yanked backwards by a cable in front of blue screen. The down angle is a complete CG creation by Method Vancouver, who did the sequence.” As for the action sequence involving the presidential limousine, Engel remarks, “The live-action part of the chase was shot 2nd unit by Marc in a public park in Montreal. The challenge was the integration of the White House and the surrounding buildings these shots. The fact that a lot of these shots are blurred helped Prime Focus London a lot, especially with the roto work of trees that became way less complicated. All wide-angle shots are either full CG or another 400mm plate shot from a chopper hovering half a mile away from the White House.”
“We sat down and watched Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow , and 2012 to remind ourselves of the scale of shots Roland Emmerich likes to see and use, and the level of destruction and the pyrotechnics we would be likely asked to pull off,” explains Method Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Ollie Rankin. “It was definitely quite daunting thinking about how far he might want to push it. The interesting thing was when Roland started thinking about this movie he didn’t see it as a big visual effects film. To him it was an action film that was going to need a few visual effects shots to be able to tell the story. But of course when breaking it down and trying to figure out what could be shot practically, they realized that they weren’t going to be able to shoot much of the helicopter stuff.” Visual research was conducted to compensate for the lack of plate photography. Marc Weigert had gone on tourist visitations to the White House and surrounding neighbourhoods, and taken a lot of photos while he was there. There were a couple of other sequences in the movie where they were able to get some footage from helicopters that flew to the edge of the no-fly zone so we used that as a reference. They also sent a photographer to the top of a few buildings nearby to get as much coverage from photographic reference as possible. The Internet is full of tourist snapshots and we found ourselves using Google satellite images quite often for figuring out the relative positioning of all of the buildings and trees around the White House.”
“There were 10 or 12 shots that went from the missile lock through to the crash that involved some of the most close-up CG helicopters we did in the movie,” remarks Rankin. “There were a couple of shots where they did have plate photography for the terrorists on the roof as the helicopter spins out of control towards them. They duck down. The helicopter flies over and smashes into the flag pole of the White House and continues spinning into the ground. While it was quite a dramatic sequence it involved a lot of fairly bread and butter techniques. By the end we figured how to get good looking smoke trails from both the missile and the flaming helicopter using two different pre-sets in our pyro system. It was a case of working up the detail and lighting to make the helicopters and CG crew in the helicopters look photoreal.”
Black Hawk Two crashes into a fountain. “The instruction that we had from Roland was that the audience needs to be left in no doubt that everybody in the helicopter dies but it needs to be in a PG-13 kind of way,” states Ollie Rankin. “We tried a few different approaches in animation to see how best to sell the impact of the helicopter into the ground and yet have enough momentum to carry it forward into the fountain. We looked at a lot of footage of helicopters going down in ponds, lakes and at sea. It’s incredible the amount of water that the rotor blade kicks up so we definitely used that as a guideline. But of course we also needed to simulate the interaction between the crashing helicopter, the ground and hedge around the fountain. All of those were dynamic simulations.” The water element posed a different set of problems than dealing with smoke and fire. “We used Houdini to simulate the water and because this was the only shot with water interaction in the movie we didn’t develop a full pipeline for it. It was treated as a one-off. What we found was that it was quite difficult to get a simulation that conveyed the scale of the fountain in relation to the Black Hawk. The scale of a splash is intuitively induced from the size of the water droplets so while we used a water simulation for the large scale interactions of the water surface and the plume of water being thrown up, we needed to create a lot of fine particles and a misty spray which is what tells the eye the scale of the splash.”
“We developed a system for all three helicopter crashes which involved custom animation rigs that allowed us to switch out the simulated damaged as the helicopter goes through the various stages of destruction or crashes into various objects,” remarks Ollie Rankin. “The Black Hawk Three Crash is a fine example of that where it gets hit in the tail and goes from being this pristine intact helicopter to now being in two parts with the tail separate from the body. As the main fuselage spirals down towards the White House its rotors starts hitting the pillars and balustrades which causes additional damage to the rotor blades and causes pieces to fly off. Our animators were figuring switches on the animation rig which represented those stages of accumulated damaged. The first few shots of the helicopter breaking apart we needed to include live-action footage of soldiers who were repelling down from ropes and then falling off those ropes. It constrained us a little bit because we needed to maintain the relative camera orientation that had been used to shoot those actors on blue screen. For the subsequent shots where it became fully CG in the end we were able to have more licence. Because the Art Department had placed a wrecked helicopter on-set for some subsequent sequences which were filmed practically we had to match the end position of the helicopter as well as the intermediate collisions it had had with the White House. But how it got there was a reverse animation puzzle for our animator to solve.”
“As that the third helicopter comes to rest in front of the White House somehow the tail section which had blown off earlier has landed on the roof,” states Ollie Rankin. “Because the tail rotor is still spinning it’s cutting through the ceiling and comes done into the Blue Room where the hostages are being held. Several of these shots were shot practically using a set piece from the Art Department had built of the tail end rotor. We had the end point that our CG rotor needed to reach and it needed to make a dramatic entrance as it bursts through the ceiling. We did similar rigid body destruction techniques for the ceiling that we had for the dome of the Capital building. We constructed our ceiling out of multiple layers of framing, wood panels and plaster in order to simulate all of the different building materials that would be getting chopped up by the spinning rotor blade. The other complication was there’s a giant chandelier hanging from the ceiling and we modelled the rigid parts of that in Maya. The crystal hanging in chains on the chandelier we generated procedurally in Houdini, attached them to the rigid framework, simulated the movement of it reacting to the tail breaking through the ceiling, and the chandelier breaking. It was nice work in lighting to get all of the light refractions through the crystals.”
“Our biggest challenge would probably be going back to that first helicopter crash,” notes Ollie Rankin. “A key to our approach to that shot was to make everything as procedural as possible so that if an animation changed that animation was an input into the next process and that next process didn’t need to be completely reconfigured from scratch. It was a case of some minor tweaking to the parameters and the simulation would run again based on that updated input.” It was important to make the farfetched destruction grounded in reality. “Even though it’s completely unbelievable and over-the-top on an intellectual level you can’t allow people to find a fault with rendering of it or the dynamics of it or the lighting. It needs to be true to how it would really happen.” Rankin reveals, “My favourite shot in the movie is the exterior shot of the Capital explosion. The dynamics of the explosion and rendering of the fireball and smoke I completely believe it whenever I look at that shot.”
“It was important that we accurately build Washington city’s four main locations,” states Hybride Production Manager Joseph Kasparian. “We had to keep in mind that we could change some of the cityscapes in order to suit the helicopters’ trajectory, which had already been specifically defined at a previz level with the Director. The lighting aspect was an important issue for Roland. The sunlight could change from one direction to another just as long as the look development was consistent. However, having just one lighting set-up for the entire shot was not an option. Also, since the helicopters fly very low, the amount of details required at street level was very important. Consequently, hi-res geometry such as vehicles, vegetation, characters and props, including atmospheric effects like smoke, dust and debris, were essential to consider in our production pipeline.” Being part of an international video game company came in handy for Hybride. “Considering the amount of assets we had to build in such a short period of time, we called upon another division of Ubisoft, located in Montreal, to model specific vehicles and street objects such as signs, lampposts, fire hydrants, newspaper boxes, bikes and bike stands, food stands, and bus stops which allowed us to maximize the use of our own in-house resources on the project.”
“It was important to be able to instantly feel the difference between each neighbourhood so we could fully understand the fly-through path,” states Joseph Kasparian. “In order to do so, we shot thousands of reference pictures in Washington that allowed us to define the look and visual complexity we needed to attain for each location seen in the sequence. Colourful Chinatown, for example, was a lot busier and had a lot more colour saturation than 16th Street, which comprised a lot more vegetation and landmarks. We studied footage of helicopters flying over building at a very low altitude and to recreate the effect of down drafts and rotor washes on surrounding tress, and we also used clips of helicopters landing in different environments, such as city parks. Since the main action of the story takes place in real time with the movie beginning in the early morning, it was important for Rolland that we get a sense of that ‘early morning light and shadows’ which come to mind when you imagine a perfect autumn day.”
“Our sequence didn’t require many practical effects, but we did have some elements of practical dust and smoke that were used in a few static shots,” states Joseph Kasparian. “The effects that can be seen in our fly trough sequence were essentially atmospheric CG SFX, rendered in the actual scene. Other effects include helicopter thrusters and smoke, falling leaves, debris flying off the ground, as well as dust and atmospheric clouds.” Outside of the flight over the river everything else was entirely CG. “The lighting on the sequence was done by taking into consideration what had already been established as lighting for the river section. Although the plates were shot live, we tweaked them quite a bit in compositing to add more contrast and volume. For all of the other CG shots, we had another live plate of the helicopters as they enter the city, which was also used as a reference for color timing and sun intensity. In the fly-through sequence over the streets of Washington, not all shots are full CG since many static shots were created using a mixture of hi-res pictures and moving CG elements, such as characters, dust and trees. Moreover, colour correction consistency for every type of background, from live plates to pictures, to full CG environment, was crucial before we could start integrating the helicopters in the shots.”
“We did a lot of background replacements for the river section so we could achieve the desired look for the sequence,” states Joseph Kasparian. “We added intense sun & reflections in the water and we also added volume to the forest using backlights and rim lights on the trees. In order for the helicopters to interact with the river [reflections, rotor washes, splashes], we needed to replace the actual river with CG water; to make that believable we had to create CG surroundings that would affect the lighting and reflections on our CG river. For some shots, we ended up replacing the bridge for better integration. Other scenes required that we insert crowds, vehicles and moving trees into the plate so we recreated the entire street to better manage shadows and integrations. CG augmentation was crucial to add life to the shots made out of hi-res pictures. We achieved this by adding vehicles, dust and debris, moving trees, crowds and animating reflections onto the windows of the surrounding buildings. These types of details were all essential to make these shots believable.”
“The Visual Effect Supervisors oversaw the look and feel on all visual effects shots to assure consistency between the sequences,” observes Joseph Kasparian. “This combined to the fact that we shared the same assets, generated backgrounds and the same time of day, enabled us to seamlessly integrate we shared the Black Hawk Helicopter Sequence with the one created by Method.” Kasparian reveals, “Each and every one of the full CG shots turned out to be a pleasant surprise for me because of the amount of detail they all had with each of them having a different style because of their location. The shot of the Black Hawks flying towards the White House is my favourite because it contains everything we developed: the shot’s slow enough for us to see the movement of the crowd and we can also clearly see the interaction with the surrounding elements.” The assignment was creatively satisfying. “White House Down is definitely the type of project that helps us push the limits of what we usually do. Several tools were created in-house, which enabled us to solve certain issues we encountered. With the amount of work we needed to complete in such a short period of time, it’s thanks to our team’s dedication and hard work that we were able to deliver this show.”
“Mark Weigert and Volker Engel were precise and highly professional in every way,” recalls Christian Haas who is the Co-CEO of the Germany VFX facility LUXX Studios along with Andrea Block. “They had prepared the previz in house in close cooperation with Roland Emmerich, so we received animatics for the scenes with the 3D flight paths in a previz set. This way we could start off easy with a clear timing and setup based on shots approved by the director. They immediately send us updated versions of the Sequence whenever they changed something. Before we started working on the shots we delivered some VFX moods on explicit shots to talk about the overall lighting situation, detail in shadows, morning haze, and depth perception over the city, especially metal textures and heat ripples of the helicopters, and water interaction on the reflection pool. During this process we got closer to the final look Roland wanted to have. We usually had cineSync sessions to discuss the progress of the shots and they gave us feedback on how they would enhance a shot on photorealism or solve a technical issue.”
The normal procedure of sending versions of previz and explanatory emails back and forth was not required with White House Down. “In this case this was all done before in-house and delivered well prepared and approved,” remarks Andrea Block. “We could concentrate on filling in the extra details to make the shot look better. After the first months of modelling we could literally start from the first day working on the shot. This saved so much time, money and frustration. We could spend this on improving the quality of the visual effects. For us it was the first time to experience such professional work from the client side. We had lots of documents for each aspect, delivery formats, name conventions, colour spaces, 3d modelling, workflow and pipeline wishes.” Visual research needed to be conducted for the opening sequence. “First we searched for reference images all over the Internet to find out all about the National Mall in Washington, D.C.. We concentrated on mood images to define the light situation, the fall colours of the plants, and different skies. We searched for all the landmarks of Washington we had to rebuild, typical Washington signs, Trash can, streets, and fences. Additionally we spent a few days in Washington, D.C. to take thousands of pictures of the area: The Capitol, the many different Smithsonian Museums, The Art Museums, the National Mall, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Ellipse Park, Lafayette Park, The White House and Park, and all neighbour blocks and buildings like the Treasury Building and many typical streets. And of course with our main ‘actor’ the Marine One Helicopter we collected videos of the landing, how the trees moved in the near of this helicopter and how water reacts to the rotor blades.”
Few practical shots needed to be integrated. “We had one shot with a jogger in front of a blue screen and all the indoor helicopter shots with blue screen outside the window,” remarks Andrea Block. “A few shots were settled on the roof of the White House, shoot in the studio in front of blue screen. All other elements are fully digital.” In regards to background replacements and CG augmentation, Block states, “The shots where you see the president looking out of the window were enhanced by our full CG city for the BG and when the girl looks outside her bedroom window. But for those shots we only had blue screen with tracking markers to start with.” A key element was creating an iconic U.S. military aircraft. “First we started with modelling of Marine One. This process took a few weeks, Volker and Marc looked closely at all the details; it was important to them to get a very realistic shaded look for all the reflections, small bumps, and construction rivets. We had some shots when the helicopter was landing where we cut from the CG helicopter to the construction model at the set. We needed to be exact in terms of shape and light. At the end, we had to remove some details from our model, because the set helicopter model did not show it. For the existing set model we had to add moving rotor blade reflections on the helicopters body as effects.”
“We shared many environment models and our Marine Ones models via fbx and 3dsmax files and received the White House model from another vendor,” explains Andrea Block. “We delivered our Marine One Helicopter, the Washington Park and Ellipse Park to the production to be shared by other facilities with some explanatory lists on where to find all textures and how the shading was set up. For the White House we used the detailed geometry done by Method Studios, but we had to rework the shaders and textures for our Vray 3dsmax pipeline. We had this big shot when the three Marine One Helicopters approach the White House. For this we had to render the White House with all the surrounding park elements in one pass to get all the reflections in the windows right. We tried to get all the scene elements optimized to be rendered effectively on our Farm. On this shot everything is 3D, the building blocks behind the White House, the cars, the moving trees and even the water fountain is simulated with Realflow.” Block reveals, “The first time we saw this great composting by our Comp Supervisor Max Stummer of the three Marine Ones approaching the White House was really a cheerful moment. Roland recognized that shot in particular and declared it to one of his favourites. From this point on up we knew we could do it on a higher level than expected. We can deliver this project to be enjoyed on big screen without drawbacks; that was a great moment for us.”“We’ve worked with Marc and Volker on 2012, Anonymous  and now White House Down,” states Factory VFX Visual Effects Producer Christal Wolgamott. “Marc and Volker always have a great team of staff to work with. For White House Down we were mainly in charge of difficult paint shots with some vehicle removals, sky replacements and bullet hits. We did lots of wire, reflection and debris removals on this project. Whenever perspective changes and/or explosions happen it becomes tricky to ‘just’ paint things out, but our skilled artists did an exceptional job of keeping costs down and delivering shots on time and budget.”
“So we could achieve the best results for previsualization, we were in constant contact with Visual Effects Supervisor Volker Engel and VFX Producer Julia Frey,” states The Third Floor Previsualization Supervisor Roger Liu. “There would be conference calls and cineSync meetings where shots would be reviewed and critiqued. Getting feedback by showing our work in progress was instrumental in producing the results that the client was looking for. All of this was then shown to the director for his approval.” Liu remarks, “The primary role of our previs on this show was planning for on-set shooting and support for VFX. We previsualized two action sequences where the client needed to see how these two shots would work in relationship to the environment for the scene they were shooting in, mainly the White House. We had had a helicopter crashing through the ceiling of the Blue Room and an SUV driving into the Oval Office. Planning these actions in advance using previs was very beneficial in selecting shots and angles to best show the action in that space. We had many iterations of the same actions but with different cameras set up to show what would look best for the sequence. It was challenging due to the constraints of shooting space but with previs it was all planned ahead of time to make the filming process easier.”
“Our asset creators created to scale CG environments, so we were working directly to scale with our previsualization,” remarks Roger Liu. “Knowing the space we had to work with, we could then see what was achievable with the action that was planned. For instance, the helicopter that crashes through the Blue Room was a tricky sequence because logistically the size of the helicopter and the rotor was immense in comparison to the size of the room and the people within in. We used different lenses and angles in previs to make the shots work for the action, always keeping in mind that the room would only be so big to place your camera in an area open enough to show all the action.” Liu adds, Our biggest challenge on this project is always trying to make the best previs possible given the time we have.”
“It was actually impossible to shoot and post the film in the little time we had [12 months from reading the script to delivery],” explains Volker Engel. “The only solution was to build up Uncharted Territory and have its 4 main artists [I mentioned three of them but did not mention our in-house art director Greg Strasz, yet] working closely with all 12 vendors as the VFX hub. You need a solid pipeline and people who know their craft to do this. You need an overall VFX producer like Julia Frey who is level headed while dealing with the logistics and monetary challenges of all vendors. During postviz the daily challenge was to provide editorial with dozens of shot updates, most of which were expertly [and incredibly fast] done by our in-house compositor Ryan Smolarek. Last but not least you need a VFX editor who rocks, and that was Mitch Glaser who had just come off Prometheus . We were lucky to have him. It’s all teamwork. Marc and I were in good hands.”
“Having an on-set presence was critical,” believes Volker Engel. “If you don’t want to spend twice as much money and have to ‘fix it in post’ you’d better be there every single day of the shoot and do your job as an on-set supervisor. This was a four month shoot and I was present 80% of the shooting days.” 3D was not an issue. “We were lucky. The topic never even came up.” Marc Weigert explains, “Sony recognized that this is not really a movie that lends itself to 3D, and then there was the time frame, too.” Engel concludes, “With only 2 months prep, and a post schedule that was 4.5 months shorter than originally planned [when the release date changed from early November 2013 to end of June] this 900-shot film became the biggest challenge of our career. We can only succeed because of the close collaboration with a director like Roland who knows how to deal with VFX.”
Production stills © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.
VFX images © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. Images courtesy of Uncharted Territory, Method Studios, Scanline VFX, Prime Focus World, Hybride, LUXX Studios, and The Third Floor.
Many thanks to Marc Weigert, Volker Engel, Ollie Rankin, Jan Krupp, Alex Pejic, Joseph Kasparian, Christian Haas, Andrea Block, Christal Wolgamott, and Roger Liu for taking the time to be interviewed.
Make sure to visit the official websites for White House Down, Uncharted Territory, Method Studios, Scanline VFX, Prime Focus World, Hybride, LUXX Studios, Factory VFX and The Third Floor.