Gamesmanship: The Making of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Trevor Hogg chats with production visual effects supervisor Janek Sirrs, visual effects producer Mitchell Ferm, and visual effects supervisors Adrian de Wet, Stéphane Nazé, Paul Butterworth, and Guy Williams about bringing to the big screen a spinning island, raging monkeys and a futuristic society that stages lethal survival games…

“I’d worked with Francis Lawrence a few years ago on I Am Legend [2007] and we had a productive, and entertaining relationship on that picture,” explains Janek Sirrs who won an Oscar for being a member of the visual effects team responsible for The Matrix (1999).  “Francis likes shooting photo storyboards and seems to enjoy [perhaps a little too much] having me embarrassingly play the part of the zombie, the monkey, and the frightened girl for him.  Our schedules didn’t really sync up immediately after Legend and so I ended up drifting off into the Marvel universe for a couple of shows before our stars could align again.”  The duo was reunited for the cinematic adaptation of the futurist young adult series created by Suzanne Collins about survival games and a civilian revolt.  “My teenage girl years are a little bit behind at this point in my life so I can’t really claim to have been an avid reader of the books!   Obviously, the first Hunger Games [2012] movie was such a box office hit that it was impossible to not know something of the source material though.  When I started on the project, the script was still a work in progress, as is often the case these days.   However, the book was always going to be the template for the film so we could refer to that while we waited the screenplay to be polished, and made fit for general consumption.”

“One of the primary goals of Catching Fire [2013] was to expand upon the scope seen in the original movie, not just in terms of the visual effects, but also across every other department from production design to wardrobe,” explains Janek Sirrs. “That meant we weren’t slave to anything from The Hunger Games as such, and could start with a bit of a blank slate.  The only thing we really inherited was some of the designs, such as the Avenue of the Tributes, but even then we rebuilt and expanded the scale to make things visually more impressive.  Compared to Catching Fire, the original Hunger Games visual effects were more limited in terms of budget and schedule.  Within reason, you only get what you can afford to pay for, so with more funds available this time around we could create a ‘bigger’ picture.”  Sirrs notes, “Francis is a very visual director, probably as a result of his earlier music video experience; the key thing for him was having the visual effects, and the movie as a whole, visually tie in with the Katniss’ character.    The whole film is almost always shot from Katniss’ perspective so that the audience can see what she sees, and experience what she experiences.   That was always the mandate for how Francis wanted the visual effects shots to function.  It was also important to Francis that the shots were as naturalistic as possible, to tie in with the feel of the rest of the movie.  Some fantastic things do happen, but hopefully we conveyed them in a manner that was more plausible, rather than stylized or extreme.”

Along with talking to the director of the sequel, the visual effects supervisor had conversations the production designer responsible for the entire franchise Phil Messina (Solaris), and Jo Willems (Limitless) who handled the cinematography.  “With Phil the discussions were primarily about division of labour.  Who would build what, how much of it, and where’s the join between practical and digital construction.  It’s an important balance to get right.  You don’t want to be saddled with endless digital set extension in post which could be have been easily tackled with a slightly bigger practical build.  Conversely, you don’t want build a giant practical set and end up not seeing most of it, or only seeing all of it in a tiny number of shots.  We’re often negotiating with one another given our separate budgets, but ultimately all the work on the movie has to come out of the same pile of cash, so we have to work closely to ensure those dollars stretch as far as they can.  Conversations with Jo were mostly about the style of the photography.   It’s critical that any digital camerawork, and CG lighting matches surrounding practical shots so it all flows seamlessly, and the audience isn’t taken out of the picture.  Despite the often-fantastic imagery, you never want moviegoers to stop following the story, and start questioning what they are looking at instead.”

“We only previs’d the major action sequences in the Arena [fog, monkeys, Cornucopia, and finale destruction], and the odd sequence like the Avenue of the Tributes that had logistical/physical construction issues that needed resolving before photography,” states Janek Sirrs.  “Francis prefers to work with as simpler style a previs as possible so that we all just concentrate on the important issues, and not get bogged down in the [throwaway] look of things.   For example, all the previs was deliberately rendered in a cartoon shader style.   Often ‘previs’ would simply boil down to Francis and I creating a written beat sheet or shot list; there’s no point being too specific at such an early stage in the production, if you don’t need to be.  Any actual rendered previs for the Arena scenes was generated more to get a sense of scale, or approximate shot count for the various sequences, as opposed to creating a rigid shooting bible.  Until you actually stand in a physical location, especially a jungle environment, you really don’t know what problems, or opportunities, will be presented to you.  It’s better to approach sequences with some established key beats in mind, and adapt to your surroundings as you go.  Nearly all of the visual effects shots in the movie had a readily understandable live action core so we were able to really minimize the amount of postvis work.   The Monkey Sequence was probably the only one that needed real help, as the action didn’t really make sense to audiences without something for the Tributes to fight against.”

“The Avenue of the Tributes Sequence was the only one that required an extensive green screen setup, given the almost 100% CG environment that the chariots end up riding through,” remarks Sirrs.  “After previs’ing the sequence to determine the core shot list, we studied the coverage and timed the speed of some real chariots, to come up with the footprints and corresponding runs of green screen that those shots would need.   The information was all consolidated into a single multi-purpose green screen setup that could handle all the shots, so that we could quickly move from one setup to the next without any re-rigging.  We also constructed a 360° blue screen around a rotating Cornucopia partial set piece [dubbed the ‘spinning biscuit’] for the scene where Plutarch rotates the island.   The size of the blue screen was really dictated by the size of the rotating set piece…. we just sort of worked our way out from the centre with some basic back of the envelope sketches, as opposed to any fancy previs setup.  Any other blue/green screen setups were really just taken care of with a standby set of manageably sized screens that were pulled off the grip truck as and when needed.”

“My take is that the VFX supervisor should always be present on-set these days, even for scenes that might initially appear to have no visual effects content [but then might suddenly acquire some in post],” states Janek Sirrs.  “It’s not just about making sure that material, and elements are shot correctly but also about forging relationships with the director, and the rest of the crew.   Only by being there do you truly acquire a sense of the picture that people are making, and the ideas they are trying to communicate.  And you need this information to impart to the VFX houses that will be creating shots later in the process.  Whenever possible, I try to always have facility supervisors present on-set as well for their respective sequences.  Again, it’s about them being there to absorb the ‘feel’ of the picture, and not just about making sure things are technically correct.” Successful action movies are built upon visual effects, practical effects and stunts.  “Filmmaking is an inherently collaborative process, and the best results always come when the various departments are truly working in sync with one another.  Effects in movies are a bit like magic tricks that rely on deception and misdirection; having visual effects, special effects, and stunts keep the audience guessing as to what exactly they are looking at, or how the shots are achieved.  For example, there’s no way that we could have created a full-on practical spinning Cornucopia island [at least not with our budget], so that action sequence had to be fabricated from a full-size static set, a smaller SPFX-spinning partial set piece, and a completely digital island, all working in conjunction with one another.”
Janek Sirrs

“There are only two major digital environments in the movie which are The Avenue of the Tributes, and the centre portion of the Arena that contains the Cornucopia island,” reveals Sirrs.  “The chariots in the Avenue scene were all shot in a big empty parking lot at the Atlanta Speedway, and the only pieces of physical set construction were a partial archway [and immediately adjacent bleachers] that the chariots emerge frame, and the Presidential seating area.  Everything else – the other archways, bleachers, crowds, and surrounding buildings were all added digitally.  Additionally, we only had six practical chariots so you’re often looking at digital Tribute doubles and horses/chariots in the wider shots.  All the water-based action scenes at the centre of the Arena were shot almost entirely at a waterpark outside Atlanta, where we constructed a full-size island, two spoke-like rocky paths leading from it, and a couple of the pedestals that the Tributes emerge up into the Arena on.   In the final shots, the entire surrounding ocean water, beaches, and jungle blowing in the breeze have all been added digitally.  In general, we were able to get away without using digital doubles for the action sequence as we weren’t asking for the actors to do anything ‘superhero’, or impossible, which would have been out of keeping with style of the picture.”

“The water-based action scenes in the centre of the Arena required a great deal of brute-force rotoscoping,” states Janek Sirrs.  “More often than not there were no sensible spots to erect any useful blue screens.  2D artists were compositing in things like fake strands of hair blowing in the breeze to eliminate the low-detail, rounded look that often comes with roto work.  In terms of the fully digital elements, the Arena jungle was probably the trickiest.    The ridiculous polygon count of all the various individual trees, leaves, and plants meant that there wasn’t enough storage on the planet to keep them all as proper geometry.  Instead, all the foliage had to be instanced at render time, which could be time-consuming to say the least.   One big aerial orbiting shot over the Arena was so dense that it proved impossible to render at 4K.  Frames simply wouldn’t finish!”  Less complicated were the desktop graphics and central hologram in the control room which were established by the original movie.  “For the Tribute training centre the virtual target technology was inspired some real-world hologram technology that exists today, albeit in a primitive form.   By firing three high-powered lasers at the same point in space, it’s possible to ionize a dot of air at the intersection point, and create glowing plasma.   Then by synchronizing the movement of those lasers beams, the illuminated intersection point can be moved anywhere in 3D space.   Move them fast enough, and you can effectively draw things in thin air.   We extrapolated where that sort of tech might get to several years from now.  As for the blocky look of the targets themselves, they were inspired by some art exhibits.   We saw the potential for the blocks to convey impact wounds without running foul of any ratings issues.”

“The design of the Capital expanded upon and outward around the core Avenue of the Tributes build that we inherited from the first movie,” remarks Janek Sirrs.  “Working with Phil Messina, we collected photographic reference of buildings and architectural styles, such as Brutalism, that we thought would be appropriate for Panem, and these become the basis for a new batch of city buildings.  Other than the Avenue Sequence, shots of the Capital were fairly isolated affairs so we could create bespoke views, rather than worrying about any sort of master city layout.  It’s easy to create digital cities that don’t have an authentic feeling layout so we often tried to reference street plans from real, modern cities.   It was also important to create a sense of grand civic scale, imaging that the Capital would have been constructed in one fell swoop, after clearing away the rubble from the previous devastating war.”  Sirrs adds, “The various Districts in Panem all had to feel solidly grounded in a reality that the audience could readily accept and recognize; their design was inspired by real-world locations, some historical, and others more contemporary.   The more primitive a District, such as D12, the more we referenced historical photos.  In D12’s case, we used turn of the century mining towns as a basis for the various structures that you see.   Other Districts utilized an abandoned rail yard, and a light airport as the basis for the live action, and we fleshed out the world sympathetically around them.  The challenge as such was keeping just the right tone in all the digital extension work.  The film is about Katniss, and her relationship to the people around her, not so much about the District environments.  They need to play as convincing but not attention-drawing backdrops.  By the way, D13 is not seen in the movie, only referred to so that’s what Mockingjay has in store for folks.”

“The Capital train was a carry over from the first movie, so the core design work had already been completed,” explains Janek Sirrs.  “However, Francis wanted to use the Victory Tour journey to expand what we see of Panem.   Not just in terms of the Districts where the train stops, but also sense of seeing more landscape outside the windows.  In the existing carriages, the windows are actually quite small and don’t lend themselves to showing passing landscape, so a rear observation car was added.   The design was based upon an art deco looking real observation car.  All graceful, sweeping compound curves that undoubtedly drove the construction department nuts!  The views through these new windows were planned to be simple process plates but they turned out to be much harder to acquire than imagined; the combination of smooth roads [to feel like a mag-lev train], complete wilderness without any man-made structures or obvious cultivation, and foliage that thematically matched surrounding exterior shots, was almost impossible to find.   Plates ended up with a bunch of digital smoothing and painting out of unwanted items to counteract the limitations.

Furthering the theatrical nature of the oppressive society is television host Caesar Flickerman portrayed by Stanley Tucci (The Pelican Brief).  “The theatre itself was redesigned from The Hunger Games to convey a bigger/wider space, as opposed to then more corridor-like layout seen in that movie.   Early in production, the intention was to shoot in an actual theatre in Atlanta but ultimately we ended up constructing our own stage and first few rows of seats.   But the desire for a more conventional seating layout persisted even if the majority of those seats ended up being digital.  All of the crowd in the audience are practical green screen sprite elements, mapped onto cards in the 3D theatre extension.   The trick was capturing enough individuals, going through all the performance moments we needed, such that you didn’t see repeats in the final audience.  Ultimately, we lost a shooting day and didn’t really capture the number we intended to, so we had to do some careful placement of the sprites and keep eliminating twins wherever they were too obvious.”  Katniss appears with Flickerman wearing a dress that transforms.  “Trish Summerville [The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo], the show’s Costume Designer, designed the blue Mockingjay dress; the feathered wings which were added digitally, and feather colours carefully chosen to mimic patterns in the dress fabric.  The hardest part of the dress scene was the transition from white wedding dress to underlying blue Mockingjay dress.   The dresses were such radically different shapes/volumes that it made it impossible to disguise/blend the silhouette during the transition.   Also, we battled with the burning nature of the dress. On the one hand, it’s obviously not supposed to be an actual dress on fire [instead a stage effect cooked up by Cinna], but on the other, if it doesn’t look like a real burn then the audience doesn’t buy what they are looking at.”

For the training room a practical set was built.  “The template for the Archery Sequence was created by having Katniss pretend shoot at stunt performers [and myself], with numbers clearly marked on our chests and stationed around the set until she had the shooting sequence memorized.  We filmed Katniss in the empty set, calling out numbers for the [imaginary] targets to shoot at.  Virtual targets and sweeping lasers were obviously added later in post, and the target deaths were all short pieces of motion capture performance.  Animating the lasers took several iterations as we also had to create motivation for Katniss to turn and look behind her at the next target, plus telegraph the same thing to the audience.”  A futuristic vehicle was redesigned.  “We all felt that the hovercrafts seen in The Hunger Games came across as too science fiction in retrospect, especially for the feel we were looking for in Catching Fire.   Working closely with Phil Messina, the hovercrafts were designed to have a much more utilitarian, military quality to them.  The propulsion system may be a complete work of fantasy, and the rear access door located in the most dangerous spot possible [below the engine!], but you can definitely see contemporary military hardware styling, and features throughout.   In the Arena we took this one step further by creating drone hovercraft variants that pick up the dead Tribute bodies, for which we referenced Predator drone type nose shapes.”

“The control room was really just a reprise of the one seen in The Hunger Games,” states Janek Sirrs.  “The only design change was a darker paint scheme [so that the graphics popped more], and the addition of an adjoining office for Plutarch.  There were fewer scenes in the control room this time around, and a correspondingly smaller number of story points for the graphics to conve so we really took the attitude of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”  Pivotal to each Hunger Gameinstalment is the construction of a new arena.  “All of the jungle interior scenes, and some dialogue scenes on the beach, were filmed at practical locations around Oahu, one of the Hawaiian Islands.  Every other jungle environment was a wholly digital creation.  Ironically, the real Hawaiian shorelines didn’t feel tropical enough to match the hot/humid environment we were trying to convey, and their look was based more upon jungles you might find in places like Costa Rica, right down to the condensation on the wet leaves, and hanging mist rolling down from the hillsides.  As mentioned previously, the challenge with creating the digital jungle was really just the sheer complexity of the foliage.  Trees had to be modelled and rigged down to the individual leaf and frond detail level so that we could get them to realistically flutter, and sway in a simulated breeze [without which the jungle would have simply looked dead].”

“Everyone knew that the tidal wave could only ever be a digital solution given the huge scale required,” observes Janek Sirrs.  “The water simulations for the water breaking through the jungles weren’t by any means trivial but at least we all clearly understood what was desired.   Having built the jungle foliage to move in the breeze, it was a relatively simple thing to impact their movement with the water simulations.  What was more esoteric from a design standpoint was what to do with the water once it had broken through the tree line.    Initially we went with a turbulent white water wave that radiated out in all directions from the tree line, much like what happens when a portion of ice shelf breaks and falls into the ocean.  But this broke the logic of the Arena where hazards are confined to their own particular portion of the clock face.  Our sort-of-compromise solution was to have the water constricted in a wedge-shaped force field, as if between two huge plates of glass, as it barrelled toward the Cornucopia.  Only once it reached the centre of the Arena, did we turn off the force field and let the water drop and radiate outwards to the shoreline, and the Tributes.”

“Early in preproduction there were conversations about trying to achieve some of the fog shots practically, but the idea was quickly dismissed once we realized how art directed the fog would have to be,” remarks Sirrs.  “On location in Hawaii, ever-changing wind conditions would have played havoc with any SPFX smoke/fog machines.  In terms of the look and motion of the digital fog, we didn’t want it to feel anthropomorphic, or ‘evil’, as it might in a fantasy picture.  It was really supposed to be roiling fog, moving downhill under its own weight.  We still had to art direct the leading edge to have tendrils that projected out from the main bank, otherwise, the Tributes would be immediately engulfed the moment it reached them.  Integrating the fog into the [real] jungle required masses of brute-force roto work.   LiDAR scanning is less than useless in a constantly moving environment of leaves and plants blowing in the wind, so we had to resort to manually isolating the foliage into many layers for every shot, and create a pseudo z-depth map that the volumetric fog could push through.”

Jo Willems

“The hardest part about the dome destruction was probably deciding how the dome itself was constructed [so that we could subsequently destroy it],” notes Janek Sirrs.   “It obviously had to have some sort of superstructure, but then also must be lined on interior with a hi-tech projection system that creates the Arena skies, mountains, and perimeter jungle seen during the games.  The outer superstructure was based upon the type of girder roofs you might see at a modern Olympic station, while the projection panels were influenced by the look of a 9-light lighting unit with their Fresnel lenses.  Once built it was just (!) a question of running some simulations to get some convincing break-apart action.  But then any falling debris from the dome also had interaction with trees and bushes on its way down which of course meant building more digital foliage, and simulating their interaction as well.”

A unique addition to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the spinning island.  “There’s really no way that one can realistically simulate harsh daylight, especially over a large area, on a stage, states Janek Sirrs.  “From the get-go, we knew we wanted to somehow shoot the Tributes outdoors, really turning with respect to the sunlight [so that shadows played across them in cyclical manner].  Steve Cremin and his SPFX team constructed huge lazy Susan rig on which was mounted a generic piece of dressed island rock surface, big enough for the camera crew and the cast to roll around on and perform stunts, and then this whole setup located within a 4-wall blue screen.  In the final shots, the interactive rock surface was replaced with a digital version of the island, and the whole thing surrounded with the digital jungle environment, and multiple water simulations for the spray kicked up by the spinning motion.  We had initially worried about whether we could spin the rig fast enough to convey a scary enough sense of speed [without the cast and crew throwing up in the process].  Luckily, the chaos inherent in the action meant that we could cheat and do things like spin the surrounding digital world faster than we actually span the lazy Susan.”

The spinning island is not the only threat that the Tributes encounter in the jungle environment.  “To keep the monkeys grounded in reality, their design was based on a combination of a drill and a mandrill, both varieties of baboons,” states Janek Sirrs.    “We spiced them up a bit by making them a little more colorful, and boosting their size so as to be more intimidating.  We had original hoped to shoot some movement reference of a real drill that we found in the Atlanta zoo but the footage proved to be a bit of bust.    Not only did we have to shoot from behind safety glass at a distance [the drill was apparently very aggressive], but also all it did was sit around, and/or fall asleep/masturbate [somewhat counter to the whole aggressive thing].  Ultimately, we relied heavily on scads of Internet reference [thank God for YouTube], and the research that Weta Digital had conveniently already done for Rise of the Planet of the Apes [2011].  Although the sequence was initially previs’d, we still had to do a lot of on-the-fly adaption to fit the action beats to the actual jungle environment where we filmed the sequence.   Rehearsals in a nice flat empty stage tend to get thrown aside once actors have to fight on uneven/tricky terrain, and repeatedly in and out of cold water!”

“Victor’s Village was essentially a fairly straightforward 3D matte painting environment,” states Sirrs.  “On location, Phil Messina designed and built just the archway gate, the ground floors of two houses, and the pathways connecting all of these together.   Upper floors and the other 10 complete houses were all added digitally, referencing textures and details from the practical pieces.  The location was in a spot that was fairly exposed to the elements – blazing heat one day and freezing the next.  High winds also proceeded to decimate the blue screens that we tried to erect just to make things more entertaining.  Additionally, we were striving for the sequence to have a cold winter feel, with soft indirect light.   This meant a few days of frenzied shooting just as the sun was coming up, and going down, to grab all the wide shots with as few hard shadows as possible.  The robotic cameras seen in the interview moment were based on motion controls with some custom flourishes added by Phil.”

The Tribute Parade was an area of concern.  “This was one sequence that we definitely wanted improve upon from the previous movie,” remarks Janek Sirrs.  “We adopted the tactic of always shooting the actors on real horse-drawn chariots, out in real daylight, no matter what framing whether it was wide or close.   That was the way we could guarantee always preserving the inherent ‘chariot-i-ness’ of the motion, and naturalistic lighting [as opposed to shooting jiggling static chariots in front of green screen, and simulated daylight which always looks fake].   The downside, for construction as least, was a big green screen setup, but at least it meant the footage would feel authentic.  We didn’t have a clear idea about how the burning outfits should appear before we shot the sequence.  Ultimately, we took our inspiration from the ornate patterns on the costumes themselves that we imagined as radiant hot metal elements.   We added licks of gas-like orange flames, flying embers, and a hint of dirty smoke to complete the look.”

Janek Sirrs collaborated on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire with VFX Producer Mitchell Ferm.  “Janek and I were introduced by a mutual friend.  I was at a concert and got an email on my phone saying my resume had been forwarded to him.  I never thought anything would come of it, but he got in touch, we had a couple of long conversations, and he asked me to join him in Atlanta.”  The literary source material was always used as a point of reference.  “The script had to remain fairly faithful to the book, which was certainly a blessing, not a curse.  There was never going to be a last minute third act rewrite.  The mandate across the board was to expand the scope of the first movie, which meant seeing more of the places that had already been established, mainly District 12 and the Capitol, and expanding the world of Panem to include glimpses of the other districts and a bigger and better jungle arena.  Our production designer, Phil Messina, helped maintain the continuity between the two films, but there was plenty of leeway for the art department and for us to reinvent existing locations, and vehicles because Katniss’ journey is different than it was the last time around.”  Ferm has also worked on action films such as Safe (2012) and Salt(2010).  “I’ve worked on a number of projects with either fantastic elements or invisible effects, but what makes The Hunger Games universe a little different is the combination of the two.  The jungle arena could never exist in reality or be built as a practical set, so a good amount of VFX work went into creating a virtual environment for a hyper-reality that we’re hoping people would swear was shot on location.”

Francis Lawrence

“Francis is a director with the perfect combination of specific vision and collaboration,” observes Mitchell Ferm.  “He and Janek had worked together on I Am Legend so there was a level of trust to their relationship that goes back several years.  We did animatics for most of our major action sequences and he shot and cut a movie that matched pretty closely without being too restrictive and limiting spontaneity.  It’s important to be responsible, but not eliminate the possibility of a happy accident.”  Janek Sirrs also impressed Ferm.  “Janek brings a level of professionalism that’s hard to match; he’s a meticulous artist with incredible technical knowledge and a great eye, but knows how far you can stretch a dollar, when you get diminishing returns, and how to balance the overall workload.  Tough but fair and genuinely interested in creative input from the people with whom Janek works; I never felt like I had to keep him honest and think I made a pretty good sounding board now and then.”  Production Designer Phil Messina and Cinematographer Jo Willems were key creative partners on the project.  “The Art Department drives so much of the look of the picture and Janek believes in grounding everything in some sort of reality, even if it’s just a reference.  There’s little in the movie that’s all CG, so we relied on Phil and the Art Department to establish the look of the world with concept art and partial sets, if not more.  Jo was accommodating to our special VFX needs, like establishing a colour bible early in post-production so we could pre-time all of our plates, and incredibly supportive of the work we did, even though we sometimes changed what was captured in camera pretty significantly.  Jo was always available to look at an image and push us in one direction or another throughout the process.”

It was critical for Janek Sirrs to have an on-set presence during the principle photography.  “He wouldn’t have it any other way,” notes Mitchell Ferm.  “Janek is as responsible as any supervisor with whom I’ve worked and that means he’s there to call the audibles that need to be called every day during production.  Double Negative’s VFX supervisor, Adrian de Wet, was on-set for a good portion of the shoot to share supervisory duties and to split the load when we had second or splinter unit work that would require Janek to be in two places at the same time.  Nowadays, everything has the potential to become a visual effect and it’s in everyone’s best interest to have a problem solver on-set.”  The amount of green screen required was straightforward. “We had two big virtual environments, the Avenue of the Tributes and the jungle arena, and both took place on huge sets.  I don’t think anyone ever seriously entertained shooting either on a stage.  It was difficult enough to find a paved area big enough for the Avenue that didn’t have light poles or concrete bumpers every few feet.  Only the actors, chariots, and a few small sections of bleachers for that sequence were real, shot against green containers stacked a few stories high.  The Cornucopia set was more problematic since almost everything on the Cornucopia island was shot on an island in the middle of a man-made lake in a waterpark.  We’d fly in the occasional green screen behind the actors when convenient, but given the distance of the island to any practical spot to put a screen, there’s a hell of a lot of roto there.  We always knew it would be the case and bid it accordingly.”


When it came to selecting the various visual effects facilities to produce the required 1200 shots for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Mitchell Ferm notes, “A lot of our work was environment dependent without a lot of overlap.  The 3D Capitol and Avenue of the Tributes made sense to break out together and the jungle arena with the spinning cornucopia split out nicely.  For us, the biggest question was whether there was a single company with the capacity to tackle the Capitol and arena or whether we needed to chop up the show more.  DNeg had the availability, the talent, and the previous relationship with Janek to take on that volume without us being concerned about putting too many eggs in one basket.  The monkey fight was pretty discreet and, if I remember correctly, always considered its own sequence that we bid out to some of the best creature people around.  We were lucky to get Guy Williams at Weta Digital, who had worked with Janek before, to supervise those shots in a nice window before their team moved on to another monkey movie.  Method Studios London was awarded most of our outstanding 3D work, including Victors’ Village, the trains, the Capitol party, and Caesar’s theatre show.  Rodeo took on the bulk of the 2D matte paintings, Fuel VFX did the Tributes Training Center [including the all of the laser targets], and Hybride came back to do control room graphics similar to what they did in the first film.”

“Shows of this size typically require you to split up the work between several vendors to get the most bang per buck,” states Janek Sirrs.  “The trick comes down to knowing which moments of the film to lavish your [meagre] funds on, and which need to be thriftier.  I’d worked with Double Negative [the primary VFX house] on several past shows, which means we have a good mutual understanding about what it takes to actually get a show done, and what work should realistically cost.   Plus their internal supervisor, Adrian De Wet [Total Recall], and I actually come from the same background/facility many moons ago, and we share a similar approach to the work.  The Monkey Sequence was originally slated to Rhythm & Hues before their ultimate demise, and Weta Digital ended up handling the sequence instead which meant we were able to neatly capitalize on all the R&D work they had done for Planet of the Apes, and save time/costs there.  They were able to use our Monkey Sequence as a ‘starter course’ for the team that was about to hit the upcoming Apessequel so there was a bit of mutual back scratching.  I’d also just worked with their supervisor, Guy Williams, on Avengers [2012] so he had some idea of the folks he would be dealing with.”

“We were approached by Visual Effects Supervisor Janek Sirrs, having worked with him three times previously,” states Double Negative Visual Effects Supervisor Adrian de Wet. “It wasn’t really that established when we started! Francis Lawrence had taken over the reins from Gary Ross, so in a way it felt like a fresh start. There were a few things we took from the first movie, such as the layout of the Avenue of the Tributes, but we only really used that as a starting point, and developed ideas from there.”  Getting access to the director and the production visual effects supervisor was not a problem.  “We were fortunate in that we had a lot of face time with both Francis and Janek, so it always felt collaborative. Janek is very good at providing reference for what he and Francis wants; they would allow and encourage us to come up with our own ideas.”  Background replacements, CG augmentation and digital doubles were all part of the shots that needed to be completed. “Absolutely – this was the majority of our work. The scenes that took place at the Cornucopia were all filmed either at a waterpark near Atlanta or on a beach in Hawaii. Whichever location it was, either the suburban Georgia background had to be replaced with moving CG jungle vegetation, or the cornucopia had to be replaced with a CG version, or the water and the beach had to be replaced with CG water and beach; often, all of the above. Sometimes digital doubles of the Tributes were required, meaning that there are some entirely CG shots.  The Avenue of the Tributes shots were all filmed in a parking lot at the Atlanta Speedway. We put up a few hundred feet of green screen fixed onto shipping containers to create a sizeable run for the avenue. The only things that were actually filmed for real were the principle Tributes in their chariots pulled by horses. The background Tributes/chariots/horses are CG. All the Capitol buildings, details, road surface, skies, and mountains are all digital. The cheering, waving crowd in the bleachers are a mixture of crowd elements shot over a couple of days of second unit photography, and motion captured digital extras. And of course we created the fire effect on Katniss and Peeta’s costumes.  The Capital features in some more aerials throughout the film, such as in the shots where Katniss flies off in the Hovercraft. From this arose the need to design and lay out a city.
Adrian de Wet
“The aesthetic of our world is futuristic but not overtly hi-tech,” remarks Adrian de Wet. “Out in the districts we tend to keep things fairly rustic looking, but the underlying technology is there in the form of floating futuristic hovercrafts, speeding bullet trains and video projection screens: something that is obviously high tech but has an analogue, ‘glitchy’ feel to it.  The Capital has more of a modernist, Brutalist vibe. It’s absolute, corruptible power made manifest in architecture. It’s meant to be more a planned space rather than an organic sprawling city: more Brasilia than Manhattan. Lots of concrete, with some deco detail. The idea was to visually get across the point that the Capital has ultimate power over the districts.” Lighting, compositing and rendering issues needed to be address.  As mentioned above nearly everything that we shot in the Atlanta waterpark or in Hawaii, or in the parking lot of the Atlanta Speedway had to have the backgrounds entirely replaced. We managed to cover most of the action in the Speedway with green screen, but nearly all the footage shot at the waterpark was composited without greens. They would have had to be moveable 100 foot greens to get us the coverage we needed, which was impossible so that increased the workload in post considerably.  Mags’ hair, for example, was impossible to roto so we had to rebuild parts of the character from stills. Fortunately, we had some expert compositors who were up to this task!  Rendering was also a real challenge on this project. Probably the most render intensive shot was the establishing shot of the ‘clock’ when Katniss is explaining how the spinning island and the rocky ‘spokes’ form the face of a clock. It is an entirely CGI aerial shot which features 75,000 trees, of which there are 20 types and 3 variations of each; it means in this shot alone there are about 20 billion polygons. It was all rendered in one pass and all of the trees were procedurally animated, because they all had to be blowing in the wind. To get this shot through the render farm required some very smart working practices indeed: the ideas of scene optimisation and good memory management really came into their own here. Certain high profile renderers simply couldn’t handle it, so we had to alter our pipeline to use whatever renderers would work.  Like all of our jungle renders, the shaders had translucent leaves and the lighting was physically based with indirect diffuse. And that’s not to mention the CG water, island and beach that also feature in this shot.”
Visual research of vegetation was conducted when constructing the arena situated in a jungle.  “We built a library of trees and plants,” explains de Wet.  “The trees in the Hawaiian jungle are mainly Monkeypod [Albizia saman], which have the parasitic ficus [Ficus benghalensis] growing around them. It is the ficus which throws ‘vines’ [more accurately, aerial roots] down to the ground, creating these massive and hugely detailed trunks, which people often refer to as ‘banyan’. We built some variations of this tree and used one of them for the lightning tree. We built our trees and plants from reference photography taken while on location; our digital trees really came into their own in the end sequence when Katniss is lifted out of the arena. Most of the jungle canopy in this sequence is digital, and it all required FX simulated animation as the Arena structure comes apart and comes crashing through the canopy.”  There was also the creative mandate to have a land mass that does not stay stationary.  “The most challenging effect in the Spinning Island Sequence was the water. All that water is CG. As always with CG water, it usually comes down to this one thing: scale. Not just the size of particles – although that is part of it – but the size of the details in the white water churn. For some reason it’s always really hard to get digital water to not look like it’s shot on a miniature. What I always maintain is that it needs to be cheated: make everything a bit more detailed and intricate than it should, and make those details a bit smaller than they would be if it were real, and make the effect of gravity slightly less than what physics says it should be, and then you’ll have something that looks bigger and possibly more ‘dramatically correct’ rather than just physically correct.”
“The tidal wave was a challenge not only from a technical standpoint but also from a storytelling perspective,” remarks Adrian de Wet.  “Originally the water was to flow down from the hills, crash through the trees and then move en masse past the cornucopia, reducing in size, and fizzle out at the feet of the Tributes. But it was felt that because the tidal wave spread across the whole lagoon, that somehow it did not adhere to the same rules as all the other hazards in the arena, in that it was not contained within the ‘pie slice’ defined by the spokes. It was decided that the wave should funnel into a point at the cornucopia, as a result of the force fields over the spokes. So with a few weeks left to go we had to go back to layout and redesign the shot, and add another aerial shot, and re-simulate the entire wave with invisible force fields. Other than some reference of waves that we shot in Hawaii, in terms of visual research there isn’t anything really that can provide reference for this, except perhaps water against glass, which isn’t that exciting, frankly. We ended up making something up which looked big and interesting, and added in loads of detail from splashes, spray, and debris.”  The jungle and the dome get destroyed.   “This was one of the more complicated scenes in the film. We were limited in what we could actually shoot, in that we couldn’t really drop tons of debris through the jungle canopy to land inches from Jennifer Lawrence. Also, the canopy itself wasn’t really thick enough; it only had one layer of branches, and our jungle had to be more like a classic rainforest, with a much more layered, deeper canopy. It was decided that we’d go the CG route, which meant building trees, and rigging them for destruction effects, as well as simulating the prop wash on all the leaves due to the hovercraft above. The arena dome itself also had to be built, but first of all we needed to figure out what it was supposed to actually be, what it was made of, and how it could fall apart. Near to our Singapore office was the New Singapore National Stadium, which, at the time, was heavily under construction, with huge trusses exposed; this became inspiration for the dome superstructure. Next we needed to figure out how the images of the jungle environment and the night sky were projected inside the Arena, and after some R’n’D and conceptual art, we arrived at the idea of images being projected onto hexagonal screens suspended below the superstructure. When Katniss fires the arrow at the sky she is actually firing at the dome which is projecting a false sky on to the hexagons, which means that as the dome collapses it lets in the real, daylight sky beyond. The trusses and the hexagons provided enough visual interest to make the initial collapse dramatic, and then also provide material to form the debris which crashes through the trees.”

“I’m not sure what the biggest challenge was, to be honest,” reflects Adrian de Wet. “Perhaps it was the Fog Sequence, which was one of the film’s showcase IMAX sequences. The extra resolution meant that what was already a challenging FX simulation became an extremely detailed and demanding effect, where we really were testing the capabilities of our simulation software. But, again, it was also a challenge story wise, because the scene was shot with the actors running through the jungle without any fog, and then a scene was cut together, into which we had to place the fog. It soon became apparent that the placement of the fog was something that you couldn’t easily change in one shot without affecting lots of others, and it was quite difficult to create a sense of consistency in the speed of travel of the fog. For instance the, actors slow down halfway through the chase and are seen talking to each other, and Mags walks away to her death.  We had to hold the fog back but make it appear to be travelling at the same speed throughout the sequence, without having it overtake the actors. We ended up going around a few times blocking out the sequence with a checkerboard plane to represent the leading edge of the fog, until we got something that felt consistent and was in the right place; that was before we’d even simulated or rendered anything at IMAX resolution.”  Generally, the sequences were handle separately by the different visual effects vendors. “The only shared shot was a jungle environment shot in the Monkey Attack Sequence.  We put in the cornucopia, lagoon and environment, and Weta did the Monkeys. Other than that, we did share assets; we created digital doubles and weapons which went out to other facilities.”  A particular cinematic moment was memorable.  The Avenue of the Tributes, featuring the fire costume, was the sequence that surprised me. It was the sequence that I was most worried about, at first, because it featured in the first movie and those shots are really hard. They’re full on digital environments, harshly lit, and need to look real. I love showing people the befores and afters of that sequence. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly those shots came to life, and how early on in the process they began to look great. This is all down to our great team in Singapore.”

“In the beginning Method L.A. was supposed to work on this film and at the end they decided to involve Method London,” explains Method Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Stéphane Nazé.  “Two shots in particular were quite hard [the burning dress transformation] and we requested some help from Method L.A. to finish the show in time.”  The principle photography kept on being pushed back.  “We received a full package of the sequences in March and April for delivery in the end of June and mid July.”  155 shots needed to be created which included the Victor’s Village.  ‘What they did on-set was to build the basement of the first two houses, one on the right and one on the left.  The idea was to extend completely the village.  Between the different takes the light was a bit different.  It was not possible to create a digital matte painting for each angle so it is a full CG asset.”  A technique called photo geometry was utilized.  “From photos you build geometry, you project the texture on it, and relight on top of that.  It’s a mix of different technology.  The difficulty was to be photo realistic in terms of light to match with the plate and we added some CG snow and trees.  On-set it was not winter so it was green trees and grass everywhere.”  Nazé remarks, “One of the challenges was to change the sky and make it more wintry and white.  The problem is when you start to do this quickly it does not look natural.  We tried a lot of different things. The key was to have natural colours so we had the shot working realistically in the framing.” Creating the CG snow was assisted with footage captured on-set.  “They shot one shot in the film with real snow so we were lucky because Janek Sirrs sent us this plate.  We wanted to have exactly the same snow. If you don’t have the perfect reference it quickly becomes complicated and tricky.”

Robotic cameras needed to be inserted into the scene where Caesar Flickerman interviews Katniss and Peta on his television show.  “We received the design at the beginning but we were thinking, ‘It was not working so well.  We can do better,’” recalls Stéphane Nazé.  “We sent different proposals and one was approved by the director.  The design had to be futuristic and the metal used for each part of the machine had to be defined as well how it moved.  “You have to be efficient because you don’t build an asset for seven shots the same way for 100 shots.  In the film there is only one close-up but we did more.  The idea was to be robotic but at the same time come with up something that has a smooth movement.  It also had to fit into the framing of the shot.  The most important thing in the framing was Peta and Katniss.”  Nazé remarks, “We did a lot of research with the automotive industry and motion-control cameras to have realistic movements and mechanisms.”  There were a lot of different metals required to assemble the robotic camera.  “Sometimes they’re completely reflective and sometimes not.”  Alternations had to be made for cinematic reasons.  “If you have two parts, one is darker and one brighter, sometimes it won’t work in the framing so you adjust the two parts because you want to have a good balance between the metals.”  The machines had to interact with the performers.  “We put some shadows coming from the robotic cameras on the actors to help with the integration.”

“We designed the theatre ourselves,” reveals Stéphane Nazé.  “With the theatre it is two elements.  It is mainly on green screen.  You have Caesar with Katniss and Peta and you have the stage; that’s it.  You have the foreground live footage on the crowd which is a few rows on green screen.  Afterwards we duplicated 5000 people in the audience.  The first thing is you go on the Internet to try to find some references of real theatres with different atmospheres. The director can come with other references and afterwards it is a mix between, ‘I like this design but I like this atmosphere.’  The main idea from the director was to play with something funky and a lot of different colours.  We did a lot of tests with different colour spotlights and animation.  We simplified the animation of the spotlight because it was too much or obtuse. The main idea was to have a lot of spotlights moving in the framing but if the spotlight animation becomes more important than the action then you reduce or change it.  We did a test on the full sequence to put in the place the spotlight animation.  Afterwards we started to work on the look of the different shots and angles.”  There are a wide variety of theatres.  “It is quite amazing because when you start to do some research you have the feeling that the theatre is always like that.  Afterwards when you have a different reference it is like, ‘Wow!  It looks completely different.’  The problem was for the theatre it was suppose to be a mix between something Baroque and futuristic.  Theatres generally are quite small and high.  The idea was to have something gigantic.”

“The transformation of the dress is done in three shots,” explains Stéphane Nazé.   “Before the transformation you have the white dress so we’re not CG at all.  We’re using the white dress coming from a plate.  Afterwards you have the black dress which was also used from a plate.  For the three shots with the transformation we mixed the different plates.  On-set they shoot the same action with no motion-control which was why it was complex.  The idea was to fit the two plates into one.”  The plan was made difficult as the two dresses were physically different.  “The black dress was very light so you can do the movement you want. The white dress was quite heavy and huge so it was tricky for Jennifer Lawrence to move and be fluid in her movement.  That’s why we did the compositing with Nuke. We wanted the two dresses to have exactly the same framing and speed.”  Pieces of dress fabric served as references to assist with the texturing and shading.  “We used CG only for the transition.  On the top parts you have the white dress from the plate. Between this part and the bottom part where the dress is burning it’s full CG.  On feet of the bottom part we were using the black dress plate.  The idea was to maximize the use of the two plates and just use the CG one when you have an effect.  When the two plates were fitting perfectly the idea was to do roto animation of the black and white dress.  Afterwards we put textures and shadows, and used the lighting on-set to light the theatre to light different things.  Then we put on the effects.  On top of the effects you have smoke, sparks embers, and the fire.  It was possible to do that because the fire is quite visible in the framing and is covering a big part of the CG dress.  Flames were done completely CG in Houdini and we are logical in the space and movement because it’s done on the CG dress.”  The burning attire was not to terrify moviegoers.   “It was to be magical and realistic.  The most complicated part was to find the balance between those two parameters.”

“The shots before and after the tunnel are full CG in terms of background,” states Stéphane Nazé.  “In the beginning we were using a plate before and after the tunnel and it was not working.  We completed the plates with CG trees and landscape. For the tunnel it was not a question of choice because it did not exist on-set.  We received a texture with the Mockingjay logo of the film.  What we did mainly was to have the side of it painted.  The idea was that a guy painted this logo before so we did a lot of research about how it looks when you want to paint a big logo on a big wall.  On-set they played with the lighting.  Before the train accesses the tunnel you have light inside and after they switch off the light on-set when we are in the tunnel and when exiting they did the contrary; that was helping us a lot with the integration.  We did some design and in-depth research into existing tunnels. The idea was to find which mood and what kind of tunnel that they wanted.  We changed it a lot.”

Stéphane Nazé
“You always have an interaction between the background and foreground,” remarks Nazé.  “It’s done in CG with the carriage.  The idea was to render a layer of light and reflection and to play with it in compositing so to be more realistic.  Without those layers it looks boring.”  The transport vehicle had to be recreated.  “The idea was to reuse the train done in the first one and to improve it.  One carriage did not exist in the first one, the observation car.   We built it completely from scratch and afterwards added more details and rebuilt all of the textures. We found some references from existing trains. The engine was not possible to match with an existing one but in terms of shaders and textures the idea was to match with existing ones.”  A security wall is featured in the scene.  “We received shots to have reference for the trucks, of what kind of dust and atmosphere we would have with the cut.  We built everything in CG so you have a CG crowd moving in the framing and big scaffolding on the wall.”

“For the mansion we extended the building itself so it’s purely a matte painting,” states Stéphane Nazé.  “The building was too small for them and the idea was to have something huge. We extended the building on each side.  It’s at the beginning where the characters are following the AV to the mansion.  It’s a 3D DMP [Digital Matte Painting] and we put in place some CG fountains in three shots and you have one shot of big fireworks in full CG because the idea was to add some more chorography.  For the big fountain they came with a reference.  It’s a big fountain.”  Nazé explains, “You get more of a feeling of parallax on a 3D matte painting than a basic matte painting.”  The most complicated effect was the fountain.  You have a shot with the fireworks and afterwards you have three shots with the fountains.  It’s always the same problem.  It’s to be efficient when you have a complicated asset to do only in two or three shots.  You have to be clever.  It’s not like you build an asset in full CG and can put the camera where you want.  You have to find a lot of ideas to have something work within the framing.  We put in place some development to build the fountains and to have control in terms of dynamics, speed, and design.  For the object itself we did it in a 3D DMP so we projected some texture on it.  The water is a mix of a fluid simulation and particles in Houdini.”

“They sent us a lot of different references about existing fireworks,” remarks Stéphane Nazé.  “We put in place some basic motion-capture.  ‘We can use this and this part at the beginning.’  Afterwards we started to think in CG as the idea was to be consistent in terms of light and depth.  It was not possible to do it only in compositing.  The 2D approach was only at the beginning just to define the look, timing, and design.”   The fireworks had to look real.  “It’s not to create some big explosion with all of the different colours because quickly you have a nice reel.  To be realistic with fireworks it’s to have a connection between the fireworks, the explosion and smoke.  If you have a big red explosion you need to light your smoke with exactly the same colours.  It needs to be consistent in the space.  This part was quite tricky because quickly in terms of the explosion itself and colours quickly you have something sexy.  ‘It works!’  But the gap between having something quite nice and realistic is huge.”

“Fuel had worked with VFX supervisor Janek Sirrs on Iron Man 2 [2012] and The Avengers; he was kind enough to ask us along to be involved in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” states Fuel VFX Supervisor Paul Butterworth.  “We were never asked to specifically reference any work from the first film but Janek was certainly briefing us regarding what looks he thought were right for the world of Panem.”  The futuristic elements had to be relatable for audience members.  “While the world of Panem is certainly futuristic it’s not all sleek and polished, and the totalitarian nature of the state is reflected in its architecture and technology somewhat. By referencing 1970s ‘retro-futuristic’ design cues [such as Brutalist architecture and films like The Man Who Fell To Earth] we developed looks that had some relatable connection to our world; the holographic characters, the set extension and the graphics are all influenced by that.”

Janek wanted the targets to be stylized humanoids that would be animated with real human physics, and when hit by an arrow, would break apart in a spectacular way,” explains Butterworth. “The first challenge was to design them. Janek was interested in the look of Antony Gormley’s sculptures, some of which involve human figures portrayed with cubic and rectangular shapes, and how they would look as holographic projections. Once we had a look there was quite a bit of R&D by the FX team to determine how the cubes would handle the compression and stretching of the humanoid volume as the character animates and also how the characters might be made to shatter. This was complicated by the need to have the holographic characters made out of laser beams that sweep across the arena from different angles and converge to create the holographic volume. The look development needed to include the lasers, as well as the caustic patterns that they leave on the floor where any point of light not being used to form the hologram would be hitting the floor. This made for really interesting lighting interaction with the set.”

The scene was filmed in a carpark and while the ground level was dressed there was still quite a bit of work to do to ensure the set did was transformed into a believable futuristic space,” remarks Paul Butterworth.  “The plan was to always keep the ‘bones’ of the location but to add further architectural details to it, as well as create the background walls as per the ‘retro-futuristic’ brief.  The key was to create a realistic proxy set, including textures, of the location. This meant that we could re-shape the on-set lighting if needed to help the overall lighting once the CG elements were added.  The back walls of the set extension ended up having these large baffles that Janek liked which provided a good opportunity to create some interesting lighting in the set.”

Paul Butterworth

“We probably spent the most time on working out the look of the shattering effect when an arrow hits a hologram,” remarks Paul Butterworth.  “This was more about exploring options than overcoming any technical difficulties. We explored whether the cubes break up into smaller cubes or not; how long they exist for once released from the character; whether they bounce against other objects or not.”  Butterworth notes, “An interesting continuity task involved keeping track of the arrows in Katniss’ quiver.   Whilst Jennifer sometimes had a number of real arrows in her quiver on set she could never actually fire a real arrow for safety reasons, so all of the arrow firing was mimed and CG arrows added. We always needed to make sure she had the right number of arrows in her quiver at any point in time, always accounting for ones that she had fired along the way. You’d be surprised at how long it took to lock the arrow counts down!”

“The production came to us and asked us to help them out with a handful of shots,” recalls Weta Digital Visual Effects Supervisor Guy Williams.   “I loved the first Hunger Games so on a personal level it was fun to be part of it and I was pleased to see the effort they were putting into the second one.  Janek is a fantastic talent which was plus for me also.”  The Williams household is familiar with the source material.  “My wife and kids have all read the books.  I know what is going on but at the same time I’m enjoying exploring it on the screen with all of the rest of the people in the world.”  The last time Williams teamed with Sirrs they received an Oscar nomination for The Avengers (2012).  “Janek doesn’t get lost in the details; he’ll insist on everything being excellent but at the same time has a great ability to look at the emotion and pacing of what you’re trying to do so the visual effects serves the theme of the movie not just the shot.  Janek tells you the idea of what the shot is, lets you go off and craft something to show him as a first pass as a stepping stone to build the conversation upon, and from there on out its refinements.”

“The monkeys weren’t seen in the first movie,” states Guy Williams.  “They’re described in the book so there was design we had to head towards and excellent artwork that had been done before we came on to the project to define what the monkeys looked like.  At the same time if we wanted to make it more believable or fierce or the right size in relationship with the kids there was always room for discussion and collaboration.”  Under the instructions of Francis Lawrence, two different species of monkeys served as the basis for the creatures which are a lethal threat to the Tributes in the Arena environment.  “We had a good visual target and a limited scope of research we needed to do between mandrills and drills. We looked at faces, the way the fur sits, the colouration of the fur, and the length of the hair.”  Williams believes, “The Internet is finally the repository of all the knowledge of man.  The hardest part of using the Internet is trying to sift through all of the ignorance of it at the same time.  You type in mandrill, set the search for a large image, and you’ll find hundreds of pictures of mandrills.  As good as the quality of YouTube the majority of videos are captured on cellphones and not all of them are created equal as they have a lower resolution.  Anytime we saw someone dealing with a mandrill we looked at that footage.  There are surprisingly few long documentaries on mandrills.  We ended up using some documentaries on baboons because mandrills are part of the baboon family.  One of the things they were keen on was not to have it feel we’re on a stage floor which was flat.  It had to feel like we were in a jungle so everybody had to move unevenly.  The research was relatively straightforward.” 

“A baboon has really fine hairs so their hair density count was high,” states Guy Williams.  “There was a lot of complexity with the shading of the fur.  The fur wasn’t a solid colour.  There were patches of fur that had what we called a ‘raccoon stripe’ where down a single length of hair we would alternate between black and white.  We wrote some new tools into our fur system to handle the bands.  It wasn’t too hard to get that stuff setup.  We used our tissue system to do all of the muscle and skin simulations.  The logic being that fur dynamics alone wouldn’t be enough.  You have to simulate the skin dynamics first, attach the fur to that, and then turn on the fur dynamics.  There was a lot of effort to get the underlying muscular, skin and fascia simulations going right. The fur was going in and out of water so we had to add extra forces into the simulation so that when the hair got wet it stayed down.  It changed the clumping state; that was relatively straightforward.”  A number of monkeys end up getting killed by the Tributes.  “We did some high resolution fluid simulations for the kids and monkeys to splash around in so we could layer the monkeys properly into the water.”

“We have done a lot of water work in the last couple of years so we have some excellent tools for that,” remarks Guy Williams.  “The hair solver would take the hair which was below the water and would let it drift.  The hair that would be on the surface of the water would stick to the surface.  Adding to the believability was the reflection and refraction of the light in the water.  “As they’re thrashing around in the water the water will start to change value based on the aeration of the water, the amount of small bubbles that are too small to simulate but large enough to affect the light contribution so the water starts to go white instead of brown.  That stuff helps in getting the water to look right.  We raytraced everything so as the monkeys went down into the water you could see them defusing down into the murk of the water.”  Hardly any motion-capture was utilized for the project.  “We didn’t use any crowd solvers so each monkey was key frame animated by hand.  There were no cycles used extensively.  We had a cycle for running and jumping but for the most part they had to be changed.  The thing that helped the monkeys to be unique was the terrain.  The monkeys are not all sitting on a flat surface looking at the kids; they’re on tree branches or climbing down the side of a trunk or jumping off of a tree branch to the ground or running along the ground or jumping into or back out of the water.  The difference in action made it so you would never see a monkey doing a similar thing as another monkey.  That helped us to keep it fresh and alive.  Since each one of those monkeys were key framed they were naturally treated as if they were a hero character.”

Guy Williams

“They shot most of this on-location in Hawaii,” explains Guy Williams.  “A lot of the times they mimed the actions so the kids would learn the fight choreography and do it.  We would have to put the monkeys in such a way that it felt like they were interacting with the kids.  The plates were shot well.  If a monkey jumped into the water they would throw a sandbag into the water so the kid would have a splash to react to even though we would end up replacing the splash with a digital one.  For the most part the kids do a successful job of keeping the monkeys at arm’s length.  The monkeys have teeth that are very large so if they get close to you you’re in trouble.  One time Katniss gets pushed under the water by a mandrill and it tries to bite her while she is under the water.  For those shots someone grabbed Katniss’ bow and pushed her underwater.    Another time is when one of the kids tackled by a monkey he mimed it.  Small performers wearing grey suits would wrestle with the kids so you got good physicality and interaction with person being attacked.”  The jungle got digitally enhanced.  “The thing I took away from Avatar [2009] in regards to this project is not to be afraid to put down digital jungle to make it better,” states Williams.   “If it is a CG monkey going through a practical forest we would put in CG forest within two plants in every direction of where the monkey is going.  As the monkey is going through he is brushing against plants and the plants are moving out of the way.  Those plants are also brushing against the plants which are next to them.  You get this ripple effect in the forest.  We ended up building some unique plants and using some from our library to flesh out the rest of it.  When the monkeys get into the more open areas you can do things like sand, dirt and leaves simulations.” 

“Some of the close-ups were the hardest shots we had to do because they bare no fault,” remarks Guy Williams.  “When you’re working on a project like this there is always going to be a shot that ends up being cool.  We have these backlit monkeys walking along branches in the foreground looking down on the kids which made for a beautiful shot.”  The biggest challenge was the beach scene.  “It should have been the water against the fur but it ended up being sand.  The problem was it never looked like there was enough so we kept adding more layers of sand simulations to get it to look right.  There’s a lot of sand on a beach.   We had all of the stuff that was in the sand like twigs and leaves; that stuff worked out well but the real challenge was trying to get the sand to do the right thing.  Sand is specific when you put your hand in it and push forward it doesn’t move like a mound.   It moves, dissolves and erodes away in front of your eyes.  The grains of sand are all sliding together and revealing more sand.  To do it right you have to put all of those layers of sand in there.”  Williams notes, “Janek has an excellent sense of humour and a dry British wit; he’s fun to talk to just on a social level.  To actually get to work with Janek was a blast.  The whole team had a fun time.”

“There was actually remarkably little sharing of shots between facilities… maybe two or three at most,” reveals Janek Sirrs.  “Part of that comes down to successfully internally dividing up the work between the facilities, but in this case the visual effects sequences as written in the script were modular in the first place.  We did try to impose a consistent look and image quality across the entire show.   All of the visual effects material was scanned at the same, at consistent facilities, and every visual effects shot was pre-timed [with the DP’s and/or Colourist’s input] before handing over to the vendors; that way we could feel safe that every facility was working on material as we intended it to look on final release, or at least as close as possible to that goal.”  As for the biggest challenge he encountered while making the sequel, Sirrs states, “Catching Fire wasn’t one of those shows that required a break-thru eureka solution.  It actually had a relatively short prep period so the goal was to hit the ground running, with known technology/solutions so that we could be sure of making final delivery.  From a shooting perspective, the Monkey Sequence was probably the most taxing/tiring.  It was many days of imagining the missing components [the monkeys], and keeping the cast’s pantomimed actions in line with that while they concentrated on their dramatic performances.”

In regards to managing the budget and production schedule, Mitchell Ferm observes, “Like a lot of movies today, we had to balance the best people for the work with an international marketplace and tax incentives to help us fit the budget in a box.  To the studio’s credit, we were always encouraged get the work done right and never forced to take anything anyplace because they had the lowest bid.  We ultimately employed about 1000 people at nine facilities in six different countries.  We posted in LA, but actually did the fewest shots in the U.S., not including the fixes we did with a small in-house team.” Ferm adds, “Aside from a few establishing shots, the challenge in the Capitol was making the Avenue of the Tributes parade for the opening ceremonies bigger and better than the first movie,” remarks Mitchell Ferm.  “The arena jungle environment was huge because it needed to be 100% believable, but there are also a number obstacles the Tributes face including a tidal wave, poison fog, Jabberjays, and the dome destruction, each with it’s own concept and R&D hurdles.  The monkeys needed to feel real and scary, with natural behaviour that wasn’t too anthropomorphic.” 

“We opted to shoot in IMAX for select portions of the Arena to create a more immersive experience, and to heighten the difference between the artificial game construct vs. the reality of Panem,” states Janek Sirrs.  “The [relative] lack of grain in the IMAX material added a hyper clarity to the imagery that tied in thematically with the story.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough money to film the entire Arena Sequence in IMAX.   Or days in the schedule to shoot with those huge, unwieldy cameras!   We had to be selective about which scenes would be benefit from IMAX the most, and intermix with a more standard 35mm format that could also match the IMAX 1.43 aspect ratio.  IMAX material was scanned at 4K [compared to 2K for the rest of movie], and once it had been digitized there was really no difference between it and 4K 35mm material in terms of workload, and VFX pipelines, merely grain size.  We just had to get the Arena vendors used to composing shots for a squarer than normal aspect ratio.  As Katniss rises up her tube into the Arena for the first time the picture opens up top and bottom to a much taller aspect ratio, going from 2.39 to 1.43.   Unfortunately, the only place moviegoers will see this to full effect will be in the IMAX film theatres, of which there are now fewer and fewer.  They’ll still see a reduced version of the same effect in the digital IMAX theatres though.  Folks might be intrigued to hear that many movies shoot IMAX sequences often for financial, rather than creative reasons.  If a production shoots a specified minimum number of minutes in IMAX, then the IMAX Corporation will guarantee a longer run in their theatres.  The higher ticket prices then outweigh the increased production costs but not necessarily the pain and suffering of shooting in that format.”

Catching Fire was never really ever thought of as a stereo release,” reveals Janek Sirrs.  “3D would have clashed with the very naturalistic tone that we were striving for, and would have been a distraction for the audience.  I’m not personally a great fan of stereo movies period, but I can still see the format is more suited to some projects rather than others.   Gravity [2013] is a great recent example where stereo adds to the movie-going experience, and the picture feels more immersive for it.   But simply releasing a more ‘traditional’ movie in stereo, purely for financial reasons rather than aesthetic ones, has zero appeal to me.” There were some pleasant surprises.  “It’s best summed up by those sequences that seemingly start so far removed from the final imagery.  Not so much all-CG shots, but those that start from visually humble beginnings.   For example, the action at the centre of the Arena was primarily filmed at a waterpark just outside Atlanta.  It takes a bit of will power [or perhaps ignorance] to continually overlook Katniss running past childrens’ water slides, and ornamental fountains, for many weeks, until the real jungle environments finally start to show up in shots, and the sequence becomes what was originally intended.”

“This was a show without a lot of drama,” states Mitchell Ferm.  “There were a lot of hard shots, but not a lot of nail biters.  We struggled to meet early trailer deadlines because, even when you try to anticipate what the needs are going to be, there are always a few surprises that even acceleration money can’t fix.  Our goal was always to lock things conceptually as early as possible, in some cases while we were still shooting, so that when it came time to execute the volume, we weren’t still haggling over creative issues.  And even with a pretty hefty head start, there are usually those few procedural shots that just take time.  I’m talking the few all CG jungle shots that take forever to render. Less iteration means more compromise so you back into a drop dead delivery and give it a couple of tries knowing that you may not get all your notes in before you have to pull the plug.  On this show, I don’t think there was anything Francis or Janek felt needed more time in the oven.”

Janek Sirrs will be passing on the visual effects responsibilities for concluding two films in the franchise.  “Mockingjayactually started prep while we were still finishing the post on Catching Fire, and it was more important for us to continue handling the final delivery of shots, freeing up Francis in the process so he could escape to production meetings and location scouts.   I’m sad that I couldn’t continue onto the next project, but I suppose I can take some solace in that Francis trusted us to finish the picture with his reduced presence.   Charlie Gibson is heading up the new Mockingjay crew so I’m sure Francis will be in good hands there.  Creatively, I think the underlying brief for Mockingjaywill be similar to that of Catching Firei.e. show more of the world that Suzanne envisioned.  With Catching Fire’s performance at the box office, I don’t think anybody will under pressure to cut back on the scope so hopefully we’ll get to see some great-looking imagery.”

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire images, concept art and video © 2013 Lionsgate.  All rights reserved. Photo credit: Murray Close.

Many thanks to Janek Sirrs, Mitchell Ferm, Adrian de Wet, Stéphane Nazé, Paul Butterworth, and Guy Williams for taking the time to be interviewed.

To learn more visit the official websites for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Double Negative, Method Studios, Fuel VFX and Weta Digital.

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

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