Capital Punishment: The Making of White House Down

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 [2013]. 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 [2009] 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 signatureand 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.”

“Volker and I have known each other over twenty years and have been working together for such a long time that it’s a very natural and organic process,” explains Marc Weigert.  “We don’t have a clear division between responsibilities, because we learned from the past that a lot of times it’s a great advantage to have ‘two sets of eyes’ to look at shots or assets or any partially ready work.”  Weigert observes, “I’m also a Tekkie by choice, and usually more involved with technical aspects, like finding new software or hardware to make things possible that were not available on the last project. I’ve been working for a long time to get a game-engine-based real-time previs system together, and have tested several different on-set visualisation systems over the years.   That’s another advantage of our working relationship: I might get excited about some new tool, and Volker will be the devil’s advocate to make me think, ‘Is this really a valuable tool to further the production, or is it just a cool gadget?”  Engel adds, “While Marc was instrumental in setting up our previz pipeline with our artists I did several passes on a detailed shot-by-shot VFX breakdown of the film. After that we both supervised our previz artists.  During the shoot in Montreal I was the on-set VFX Supervisor working closely with Roland while Marc became 2nd Unit Director and was responsible for the car chase on the lawn, the aerials and a lot of different blue screen set-ups that did not involve the lead actors. During post in L.A. we’d work hand in hand again as we did for the past 14 years.”

Another White House takeover movie was being produced at the same time called Olympus Has Fallen(2013).  “We felt that it would be an R-rated movie, much more violent and with a different vibe,” states Volker Engel.  “In White House Down the father/daughter relationship was always the spine of the story and then we had the Lethal Weapon [1987] aspect with Channing and Jamie Foxx [Collateral].”  The setting had a bigger impact on the production.   “The locations dictated everything regarding the VFX in this film. You simply could NOT shoot on location, except a handful of aerial shots with a 400 mm lens from very far away. Half of Washington, D.C. is a so called ‘No-Fly Zone’.  900 shots had to be created that were partly or fully computer-generated in order to create the American capital city with all of its landmarks.  There’s surprisingly a lot of information such as floor plans on the Internet,” notes Marc Weigert when discussing the construction of the iconic building which serves as the presidential home.  “We also did the White House tour. Kirk Petruccelli [The Incredible Hulk], our production designer, did it several times. We also had advisors. Then there’s the stuff that’s totally classified, so you have no choice but to invent it.”

Few of the interior White House shots required visual effects.  “We discussed that early on, and we were thankful that Roland didn’t want to spend a precious part of the budget by putting blue screens behind windows,’ reveals Marc Weigert.  “Storywise, it was also important that he terrorists close the curtains for their protection, which helped too.”  A lot of practical effects were utilized.  “Mostly bullet hits and some explosions, fire, water [the sprinkler system] and car stunts. I shot 2nd unit stunts, where we flipped over a secret service car on the tennis court of the White House. For that, I set-up six cameras, and we shot it in several parts to achieve what was prevised. These kinds of special effects always need digital enhancements, for smoke, camera and rig removals.”  Not all of the visual effects are meant to be noticeable.  “Most importantly, the main title sequence, as three Marine One helicopters are flying over the Capitol, Reflective Pool, Lincoln Memorial, and then land on the White House lawn, is fully CG. Every wide shot, the entire city of Washington, is 100% computer generated.   When Cale [Channing Tatum], our main character, arrives at the White House with his daughter, all exteriors are digitally created, only the guard house and a piece of the fence have been built on stage. When you see the Black Hawks flying low through the streets of Washington and then arrive at the White House, all of these environments, cars, trees, and people, are 100% computer generated.”

“We didn’t use digital doubles for our main characters,” states Marc Weigert.  “There was simply no need. Only the soldiers inside the Black Hawk helicopters are computer generated, when you see a wider shot with CG helicopters. In some shot they’re actually coming pretty close to camera. The terrorists on the White House roof are sometimes CG for wider shots and POVs from helicopters. There are one or two shots where we use a digital double for Melanie [Cale’s estranged wife in the film].”  A lot of background replacements were required.  “No part of this movie was shot with actors in Washington, D.C..  The first unit shoot took place on stage in Montreal so wherever you see ANYTHING that’s not an interior of the White House, you see a digitally created [or plate photography] background.” Three sequences were extensively prevised. “The Beast Chase [where the presidential limousine, aka ‘The Beast’, is chased on the White House grounds by secret service cars driven by the terrorists]; this scene was especially important for me as 2ndUnit Director, since I knew I would shoot many parts of it for real in a park in Montreal.  The Black Hawk attack and the opening sequence where three Marine One helicopters fly over Washington landmarks.”

“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.”

“We planned the Black Hawk Sequence in a similar fashion,” remarks Engel.  “Roland new he wanted them coming from the river, dive underneath a glass passage-way of a well-known D.C. building and also dive underneath the gate in Chinatown. But at least it was always meant to be three Black Hawks. If you are from Washington D.C., the path will not make any sense to you, but for the rest of the world it didn’t matter. It was important to implement River/Passage/Chinese Gate/White House into the sequence. Our modeller André Cantarel, our animator Conrad Murrey and our CG supervisor Marion Spades made those sequences come alive in previz. This very, very detailed previz was then edited and given to the respective companies that would work on the sequence. In this case Hybride in Montreal.  For the Marine One opening sequence we also did a top-down view on a “Google Maps” D.C. city map first and quickly found out that the flight path would never work. We then slightly relocated the Capitol, did some tricks in editing and made it work.”

“On 2012 we had a large in-house VFX unit that created some of the most complex sequences in the film,” state Volker Engel.  “We had up to 100 artists working for our company Uncharted Territory and also 14 other companies we worked with. For White House Down we did not have the time to start a complex in-house unit. We created all the pre- and postviz and our team of up to 15 people became the creative and management hub for the 12 companies we farmed the shots out to.”  Among the chosen visual effects facilities were Method Studios, Scanline VFX, Prime Focus World, Hybride, LUXX Studios, Factory VFX, and previsualization company The Third Floor. “There are always several considerations for choosing VFX houses,” remarks Marc Weigert.  “What other shows are they working on? What capacities do they have, how many shots and/or assets can they take on? Creatively, are they capable of this kind of work? Are they specializing in a certain type of VFX? What have they done before?  And from our side, we need to see how the sequences in the movie are broken down. Does it make sense to split this sequence and have two vendors work on it, or does it mean there’s a lot of double work involved?”

“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.”

“Because of difficult logistics and permits it did not make sense to shoot plates in DC so we knew from the get-go that the sequence would be all digital,” states Volker Engel.  “Full CG shots were in need of Hybrid’s new crowd system, as thousands of CG extras had to be created.”  A number of Black Hawk helicopters get shot down. “The real challenge was to keep track of the continuity of the chopper locations around the White House. We needed to know exactly where each chopper was when Channing storms the roof and starts killing terrorists, while they are shooting their RPGs.”  Even the presidential airplane Air Force One comes to an untimely demise.  “Key was the precise previz of the shot. You don’t want to start to re-invent a 30 second shot with huge render times during production. After Roland signed off on the previz, Scanline did their CG destruction magic and added more detail then we could have ever hoped for.”  Marc Weigert reveals, “We have very few shared shots, because it’s a hard thing to do. Pipelines between VFX houses are rarely compatible. Different houses have different render engines, work in different scales, and use different software or techniques for crowds or physics simulations.  We did a lot of asset sharing, simply because there was no way around it. Several vendors needed the White House and surrounding environments, so we had Method Studios create these assets and we delivered them to the vendors who also needed it.”

“We sat down and watched Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow [2004], 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.”

“Volker and Marc commented to us when we were trying to recreate the White House that one of the hardest things about making the White House look photoreal is that it doesn’t look real in all of the photos,” states Ollie Rankin.  “If you pay close attention to it and look at the surfaces and shadows and the way that it reflects the light it has this preternatural quality to it partly to do with the way it was constructed.  We did a lot of research into the construction of the White House to try to understand this. They used this type of plaster and paint combination to try to simulate the subsurface scattering that you get with marble. They were trying to make the White House look like it was made out of marble but using cheaper materials which gives it this slightly unnatural quality. What we were trying to do was walk that fine line.  On the one hand our target was to make it look like the real White House but where the real White House doesn’t look real we had to dial back and make it more like what the mind expects a white building to look.”  More dirt and shadows were added to the iconic structure.  “We created a lighting set-up for the White House which simulated all of the bounce light that comes onto it from the surroundings and trees.”

Complicating matters was the number of trees surrounding the White House.  “They were certainly underestimated when we started working on the film,” admits Ollie Rankin.  “It was all the way from our clients on down that we thought of the trees as a secondary challenge.  We knew that the photoreal White House and helicopters were going to be difficult.   We knew that all of the pyro and effects of smoke and fire were going to be a challenge.  The trees were an afterthought.  But what we realized was that in a lot of the shots they take up half to three quarters of the frame and because trees are something that are so ubiquitous in our day-to-day life the observer unconsciously easily detects when something is wrong with a CG tree.  One of the main things which are a giveaway is if the trees aren’t moving.   Even though the movement might be subtle when you look at a tree even the gentlest of breeze would cause the leaves to flutter and the branches to sway slight.  When you have an environment like the White House gardens which have a couple of hundred trees in it having all of those trees moving all of the time was quite a logistical challenge.”  Rankin notes, “The different thickness and density of the branches would cause them to move in different ways.  Whenever a helicopter comes close to a tree we needed to do a hero simulation of the downdraft from the rotor blades interacting with the trees.”

“For certain sequences there were previs and postvis done, particularly for the Helicopter Attack Sequence because it was important that the timing of that was played out in a particular way,” states Ollie Rankin.  “But for the specifics of the helicopter crashes Marc and Volker left that up to us to design and choreograph.  That was another great thing about working with them and Roland as they allowed us a lot of creative input into it whereas some other clients and directors will meticulously finesse the previs and by the time it gets handed over to the visual effects facility to work on there’s almost no room for creative involvement any more.  It’s a matter of making a photoreal version of the previs.  In this case, especially with the helicopters crashes and all of the big explosions and destruction shots throughout the movie, it was left to us to drive that creatively based on certain guidelines we had been given from Roland.  For instance, there is a top down shot of an explosion going off in the rotunda of the Capital Dome and the only guidance we had for that was an explosion from the original Star Wars [1977] movie of a TIE Fighter blowing up which Roland really liked.”


“We needed to recreate the interior [of the Capital Dome] in a fully CG form for one shot,” remarks Ollie Rankin.  “The Art Department had built a set of about half of the rotunda with low walls.  We had a few shots where we needed to extend those walls.”  The initial idea for the top down shot was altered.  “You would see this entire room full of people reacting to and getting engulfed by the explosion. As it worked out when editing the sequence together they had the starting of the explosion happening in close-up shots.  We needed to push our pyro simulation system quite hard to get the explosion to look photoreal right up in front of camera.  That was definitely a challenge where we took some of the work we had done on such films as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter [2012] to expand the capabilities for fluid simulations within Houdini.  We built upon that in White House Down to get that high frequency detail into the fireball.  When the explosion expands to blowout the outside windows of the dome they had shot a nice aerial plate.  We already had the Capital Dome built as a model from J. Edgar [2011] but when we tried to line that up with the real dome we found there were some quite major discrepancies.  The dome was built a hundred years ago so it was constructed with less exacting construction methodologies than what we have currently.  In the end, we removed the dome from the plate and put our CG version in. What that meant was that the explosions and glass shattering, and the smoke and fireball we line up perfectly with the windows of our CG dome. It also allowed us to cast interactive light back onto the dome from the fireball.  There’s a flag flying in front of the dome which we replaced with CG so it could be blown by the explosion and react to it dynamically.”

“When we do a fluid simulation of an explosion and run an algorithm that creates a surface on that fluid,” explains Ollie Rankin.  “We can use that surface as a light source.  Because of the way an explosion works where there are hot and dark spots within the fireball we’ll often project the render of the fluid back onto the surface so that it gives us that variation in light intensity.  Something that takes a lot of people by surprise is as well as casting light explosions also cast shadows.  Compared to the sun an explosion is still an opaque object so you’ll still get the shadow of the explosion as cast by the sun.”  Rankin remarks, “Looking at video references is definitely our primary form of research.  A lot of the projects we have worked on have involved shooting practical explosions and we’ve built up this huge library of different kinds of explosions. Gases explode differently than solid materials so depending on the nature of the explosion we expect to see a different evolution of the fireball.”

Concept art was developed by Trixter in Germany of the Capital Dome collapsing.  “They worked with Volker and Marc getting approval from Roland for all of the still images showing various stages of the collapse,” recalls Ollie Rankin.  “We took those images and did a combination of custom hand modelling and procedural fracturing to be able to recreate those kinds of shapes and breakages.  We used a rigid body simulation to trigger things to break in particular areas and times to choreograph the collapse.  The primary simulation had been run and we ran a secondary simulation that meant when large pieces broke off and hit each other they would then shatter again into smaller pieces.  We ran additional simulations to create little bits of grit and debris at the fracture points and then puffs of dust and shards of glass and smoke.  All of those needed to interact with the rigid body simulation so as the roof collapsed it created a downdraft which would then push all of the finer debris and smoke outwards.”

“Roland wanted the three helicopters to crash in unique ways and worked through the possibilities that were available within the grounds of the White House,” states Ollie Rankin.  “He wanted one of the helicopters to crash into a tree; that turned out to be the biggest shot we worked on in the movie in terms of the shear number of render layers and the complexity of the interacting elements.  Even though it was on a smaller scale than the collapse of the Capital Dome it involved the helicopter, ground, trees, all of the dirt and debris being kicked up from the ground, the branches and leaves being chopped out of the tree by the spinning rotors of the helicopter, fireballs, smoke, dust, and blades of grass flying around in every direction. The shot had a team onto itself and it was the last one we finished.  We employed a number of techniques to try to ensure against changes needing to happen upstream in the pipeline because we knew that Roland wasn’t going to be able to evaluate or approve the animation of the helicopter until he had seen it with all of the additional layers of pyro and effects added on top.  We used deep image compositing renders in order to allow us to be able to change layers independently of each other.  We used an Alembic pipeline back and forth between Maya and Houdini to allow all of the different things to interact with each other.”

“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.”

“We had cineSyncs with Marc Weigert and Volker Engel on a regular basis, where they gave us precise feedback on our work,” states Scanline Visual Effects Supervisor Jan Krupp.  “With the help of references which could be from the current edit, previs, mood pictures, set references or production paintings they showed us what they were looking for.”  Krupp remarks, “All the shots we worked on were pre-visualized either by Uncharted Territory or by us.  Since all our shots were Full CG shots, postvis was inevitable.”  The major task was the destruction of Air Force One.  “We sighted lots of footage of real plane crashes and crash tests done with planes and plane parts to get an idea how the structure and the different materials of the plane would react to an explosion.  We identified what kind of destruction should happen to which parts of the plane, and what kind of extra action should happen, like a F18 launching flares so that the shot remains visually strong over the whole length. We staged the light so that it would give us a nice shading on the AF1 and the clouds throughout the whole shot.”

“We planned to do the clouds as a layered matte painting, but getting footage with the right perspective and lighting turned out to be quite difficult,” remarks Jan Krupp. “We tested volumetric clouds created with Flowline and those looked so promising that we switched to create all the clouds with this technique. We were then in full control of the lighting and structure of the clouds, and also the rendering was surprisingly fast.” Air Force One needed to appear as if it was disintegrating.  “Complexity, lots of different elements with different behaviours in terms of movement and structure. From big breaking hull parts with a complex interior structure down to dust like debris, splintering glass from the windows, decompressing air, complex simulations of the burning fuel and turning into thick smoke reacting to and driven by the debris, and the disassembling wing and hull of the plane.”


Scanline VFX also produced the Splash Shot featured in the Limo Chase Sequence.   “Since this was a full CG shot and the limo needed to come flying through the trees and land in the pool, we had to build the whole pool environment according to references from the real set,” remarks Jan Krupp.  “The trees that were affected by the limo were built with a rig that allowed us to simulate the impact of the limo on the trees, and control which branches should break or bend and where leaves would come off.  For the splash, we searched for references to get an idea how the water would get displaced by the limo and how the water affects the limo’s movement. It’s amazing how many people out there actually drive their car over some sort of ramp into lakes, rivers or mud pools. The pool water was then simulated with Flowline, and tweaked until we had the desired result. To fill the shot up, debris from the prior RPG explosion was simulated that would interact with the trees, the limo, the pool furniture and the pool water. The pool furniture gets also kicked away by the limo; this was first roughly simulated and, based on that, key frame animated.”

“Our collaboration started in August 2011,” remarks Prime Focus World Visual Effects Supervisor Alex Pejic.  “We discussed what would be the best sequence or sequences for Prime Focus World. Marc Weigert and Volker Engel are both hands on and always knew exactly what they wanted giving a clear brief of what and when they expect it.”  Pejic states, “All the on-set data was collected by Mark and Volker’s in-house team. We were provided with hundreds of texture references and surveys for all asset builds that we have completed on the show. The pool house explosion was mainly done through Houdini which included destruction, smoke and fire and was rendered through Mantra. It was a full CG shot where we worked closely with Mark and Volker to choreograph the shot. The White House roof explosion was also done in Houdini but debris was rendered in Arnold.  The rest of the White House was also fully rendered in Arnold. The close-up shots of the Limo Sequence were a bit easier to handle due to less background to composite whereas the wide shots were difficult because we had to replace a lot of the background to make it look like the White House garden.”

“There were a lot of background replacements for the Limo Sequence,” remarks Alex Pejic.  “We approached military troops as digital doubles and crowd agents depending on how close they were to the camera and the animation cycle Roland wanted to see in the shots. Both digital doubles and crowd agents were rendered through Arnold. For the digital doubles, animation was completed by animators, but as for the crowd agents we were supplied hundreds of different animation cycles created with motion capture data by Marc and Volker.”  Pejic reveals, “The CG F22 Raptors were some of the hardest shots on the show because if you look at pictures of them they don’t actually look real. In order to get the photoreal look we were looking for, the artists had to concentrate on subtle things like refraction of light and shadows. The planes were built with reference to image references and blueprints, built in Maya and textured in Mari. In order to cover all possible scenarios, we discussed with Marc and Volker, the resolutions we needed to achieve to allow Roland to bring his camera in for close-up shots of the F22s.”

“For such an iconic and recognisable building as the White House it’s difficult to have any artistic freedom,” observes Alex Pejic.  “Getting it as close as possible to reality was the biggest challenge across the whole show.”  Maintaining a unified look was not problematic.  “The collaboration with other facilities was handled through the production/Unchartered Territory. They had their own team of people making sure that all shared assets were always delivered in the appropriate formats used by other facilities. Specifically for Scanline, we delivered the presidential limo known as ‘The Beast’, modelled and textured and ready for use.”  Pejic remarks, “The fly-over shot was my favourite, probably due to the challenges we faced in order to create such an enormous fully CG shot. As much as you have to match reality, there was more artistic freedom here to add elements to help make the shot photoreal – traffic, crowds, trees, birds, and water.”

“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, hires 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 hires 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 hires 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.”

“Method generated the helicopter asset in regards to modelling and texture,” remarks Joseph Kasparian.  “Once we received it, we prepared it for our animation and rendering pipeline. Pilots were shipped with textures, but they were rigged and animated in-house. Overall the Black Hawk helicopters worked very well in our structure.  The city of Washington was created as accurately as possible since it was important that we recognize the landmarks characterizing the streets found in the helicopters’ path. Early in the process, we identified the buildings that needed to be modelled and textured along with their surrounding vegetation. We then used our Urban System software to populate the streets in the background with buildings.”   Kasparian states, “The biggest challenge was the amount of detail we needed to integrate into every shot. After evaluating the camera’s movements along with helicopters’ interactions with their surroundings, we came to the conclusion that Matte painting was not an adequate solution for us. In order to manage the data required in the scenes, we created a stand-in pipeline and modified our in-house crowd system to better suit the requirements for the sequence. We then created a vegetation system using force fields generated by the helicopters to animate and create interaction between the trees, leaves and debris. Since some shots had billions of polygons to render, we developed a deep image compositing pipeline to better manage and control the entire output.”

“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 sameassets, 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.”

It was critical for the CG aerial shots appear to be believable.  “First we created a big 3D asset library of all needed elements in Washington style: benches, bushes, trees, fences, garbage can, info boxes, manhole covers, spotlights, street and traffic lights, cars, and water dispensers,” explains Christian Haas.  “The most work went into modelling of all the buildings. We took an aerial map of the flight path, set up different blocks of streets and buildings and distributed this work between our 3D Artists. Special detailed work went into the main buildings, in our case the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Capitol and the famous surrounding buildings of the White House. The White House itself was delivered from production side; we retextured and reshaded it to fit in our rendering pipeline. Then we used the delivered previz scenes as a starting point and filled the scenes up with all the assets.   We added grass fur, set-up the lights and decided on all of the different passes we needed for tweaking in compositing. At this stage our 3D Supervisor Alexander Hupperich worked closely with our Compositing Supervisor Max Stummer to find the right setup.   We spent a lot of time to set-up a few hero shots.  It took weeks to find the right mix and finalize the first few main shots. When the client was happy with those shots, we pushed the other shots faster through this pipeline.”

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.”

“The project was full of challenges for us,” notes Christian Haas.  “The short time compared to the scope of work, the massive amount of full CG area which had to look exactly like the real existing counterpart, and the fact that in this sequence we have plenty of time to look at the environments in full detail without distraction.  On top of that we were asked to deliver all shots in 2880 resolution which is around 40 per cent more than the usual 2K Resolution. This was a challenge for our artists and Render Farm, because we had to add even more detail than we would have needed on regular 2K images. We learned so much every day solving the problems and extending our in house pipeline tool called ‘Project Explorer’. We custom tailored many parts of the pipeline for this production and implemented suggestions from Volker and Marc to further improve that tool for future productions.  The water interaction and heat ripples were other important challenges. We ended up doing ‘flat’ Fume FX simulations and used this top rendering for displacement on the existing water rendering. For the heat ripples our Compositing Supervisor Max Stummer developed a sophisticated 2.5 D solution to add the photorealistic feel to the area around the helicopters. The moving trees in the rotor blade swirl were challenging to do too. In this case we used Grow FX to generate procedural trees and the plugin developer programmed some new features for us which allowed us to control the wind and falloff from the passing helicopters much better. Our Technical Director Bjoern Mantelars did a great job on all the elements like water simulations, fountain, moving leaves, helicopter heat and smoke elements.”

“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 [2011] 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.”

“On movies like this one, there’s usually not one single big challenge,” observes Marc Weigert.  “It’s usually a massive amount of many different challenges. An unforeseen one was the White House itself. The way it looked in different lighting situations, there was something odd about it. Having dealt with CG for so many years, we’re used to the ‘usual suspects’ of problems in texturing and shading such as shadow density, reflectivity, and highlights. You need to make sure that concrete doesn’t look like plastic, for instance. Windows shouldn’t be too clean or too even; that’s normal. But the White House, for some unknown reason always defeated those notions in reality. We always joked that they must use some kind of top secret Pentagon-developed paint for the White House, because when you would expect to see shadows, there would be none in real photographs, bounce light would be more extreme and hard to achieve. When you look closely, the White House looks fake in a lot of real photographs and video footage; that’s an interesting challenge to overcome.  On top of that, we don’t usually make it easy for ourselves because we try to be innovative and find new technologies that weren’t available on the last project.   For example, we used two different prototypes on this movie: One to create partially real-time previsualization with a game engine based software, and the other one was an on-set live compositing system, so the camera operators, DP and director could see the CG background [that would later be added] in a lower resolution LIVE while shooting with the actors in front of blue screen.”

“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 [2012]. We were lucky to have him. It’s all teamwork.  Marc and I were in good hands.”

“I was wary of using a full CG environment for the opening sequence, but we knew that was the only way to do it,” admits Marc Weigert.  “Everything in the screenplay, everything that Roland wanted to see, was in the no-fly zone in Washington. There was no way to shoot aerial plates for these. LUXX Studios in Germany did a fantastic job with that sequence, we’re very proud of it. I also love the Black Hawk Sequence. Same problem there [in the first part, flying low through the streets], it was impossible to shoot. In that case, we could possibly have gotten permissions to shoot that but budgetary, to close off several city blocks, have thousands of cars, thousands of extras, and safety measures that would have been impossible. This was done by Hybride in Montreal, and the part around the White House grounds by Method Studios Vancouver. There are also great shots in the ‘aftermath’ sequence, done by Image Engine Vancouver.”  A couple of shots stand out to Volker Engel. “The Scanline shot of Air Force One being shot down was one. It’s a 30 second shot and with a length like this you can’t hide anything. We had it already finalized by Roland and the Scanline artists kept on working on it for several more days to make it even better. Another 30 second shot was done by Hybride in the Black Hawk Approach Sequence. The camera flies in front of the lead chopper and it’s all 100% CG. We saw grey-shaded versions of the shot for quite a while and I had tears of joy in my eyes when I saw the finished version for the first time. I live for moments like this.”

Successful action movies are a combination of visual effects, special effects and practical stunts.  “Yes, that is true,” believes Marc Weigert.  “Especially in this case as I was not only a VFX supervisor, but also the 2nd Unit Director.  I was shooting stunts and Special Effects scenes [the Beast chase and parts for the Black Hawk sequence], so I worked very closely with the Stunt Coordinator, John Stoneham, Jr [Star Trek Into Darkness] and Special Effects Supervisor Cameron Waldbauer [X-Men: Days of Future Past], always keeping VFX in mind. We’re happy to do something for real rather than, say, in CG, if it’s possible and if it fits in the budget. We’d always try that first, and for that we need to work closely with these other departments, to get their expertise of what can be done and what is involved.”   Volker Engel adds, “Marc was working closely with the stunt unit during the beast chase and I collaborated with special effects for the tail of the Black Hawk breaking into the Blue Room; it was a beautiful mechanical gag Cameron Waldbauer and his crew that was then augmented with more debris and sparks in post. In most cases Roland tries to stay away from practical FX, as it does take a long time to prep them and there is a certain failure rate involved that very often leaves us fixing shots in post. We decided from the get-go that the limo splashing into the pool, for example, would be fully digital [by Scanline in Germany].”

“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.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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  • Lee

    It’s ‘hybride’, not ‘hybribe’.