Trevor Hogg chats with visual effects supervisor Lou Pecora, digital effects supervisor Nikos Kalaitzidi, animation supervisor Benoit Dubuc and previs supervisor Austin Bonang about having the future collide with the past….
When returning to the movie franchise he helped to launch, filmmaker Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) turned to Richard Stammers (Prometheus) to orchestrate the visual effects for X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) where original and new cast members are united in a classic time travel tale. Among the companies recruited by Stammers were MPC, Digital Domain and The Third Floor.
“I was specifically was the animation supervisor for MPC so we looked after the future Sentinel sequences,” states Benoit Dubuc who operated out of Montreal in a newly created VFX facility. “The opening action sequence and then the end sequence as well. When we got on board all of the sequences had been previs by another company. The previs helped to direct the shoot and in this case they stuck to the previs quite a bit when they shot the film. The broad strokes of the Sentinels were already approved by Bryan Singer.” Dubuc remarks, “Richard was involved with the previs stage so he worked closely with Bryan and was in tune with what Bryan wanted. Richard has a great eye for detail, understands the storytelling process extremely well, and he has a lot of trust because he is from MPC and knows what we can produce. Richard put a lot of trust in us. As much as we used the previs as a guideline certain shots needed either a creative overhaul or were roughed out for composition sake so we had to come up with ideas. Richard was happy to let us come up with ideas and present him some work; he asked us quite a few times on the show to be as creative as we could with the shot and in keeping with the Sentinels’ character.” Also involved in the project was MPC CG Supervisor Sheldon Stopsack. “Sheldon was heavily involved with the rigging, lighting, and the technical animation process such as all of the blades flipping on the Sentinels; he oversaw the render farm and that we were able to output the shots. There were quite a few shots like Iceman [Shawn Ashmore], for example, he was a bit of a technical nightmare from a rendering standpoint. Sheldon made sure that everything fell in line.”
“It was important that the future and past Sentinels had a clear demarcation and evolution from one version to another,” explains Benoit Dubuc. “In the storyline the Sentinel was engineered with Mystique’s DNA and that allows it to be able to adapt to the mutants’ powers, therefore, making the Sentinel even more menacing. My fear getting onto this film was people would be thrown off by the initial concept design of the future Sentinel but the idea is that it’s a more evolved, stealthy, aggressive, and agile adversary; it makes so much sense from a storytelling standpoint that the design be different from the 1970s version. The goal was that the future Sentinel comes across as an unstoppable force and that the X-Men have absolutely no chance against it.” The use of motion-capture was explored during the pre-production phase the animation. “I felt that when using motion-capture that the performance of the Sentinel felt too human and instantly it made them less menacing; I steered away from that. It was important to me and Richard that the Sentinels feel slightly robotic in that they’re extremely accurate, efficient, and all of their movements are controlled. For every single shot we filmed some performance reference and key framed everything; that way we could make the animation more rigid and robotic to suit the need of the shot and character.”
“If one is fighting against Iceman and the other is fighting against Sunspot they can transfer the genetic code of the power that they absorb from a mutant to one Sentinel to the other,” states Benoit Dubuc. “In the movie we have Sunspot, Iceman, Colossus, Emma Frost, Rockslide, and Lady Deathstrike Sentinels. There was a lot of development work that went into creating those different Sentinels. From a silhouette standpoint they mostly retained the same shape. It would just be their surface that would change. The Sunspot is an obvious one. The Rockslide Sentinel gets beefier and that would affect the performance of the animation because the density of the Sentinel becomes larger.” The actors had to perform with a CG character. “That was a big challenge on this show. Because the Sentinels are 18 feet tall they had a foam replica on-set. In terms of shot composition it was never an issue. But in terms of interaction between the Sentinel and mutants that often became tricky. Let’s say you have one of the mutants landing on top of a Sentinel’s shoulders; that Sentinel would not absorb any weight at all. It would stay completely rigid. For us to be able to match the actor’s performance it was extremely challenging and we needed to find some 2D cheats to be able to accommodate that. Sometimes we had to bite the bullet and re-render the mutant and do the mutant in full CG. In a couple of cases there were shots where there was a heavy interaction and how we would proceed with these shots was we had a digital double of the actor; he would get roto animated to the performance on the plate. In our Maya scenes we would have that actor. We would do our best to match a Sentinel to that performance but often times the timings of the strikes wasn’t that exciting or the actor’s strikes were too low.”
“We managed to cheat some personality into the Sentinel,” notes Benoit Dubuc. “The way the Sentinel is designed he has a ridge right above his eyes. I pushed to have his chin tucked in as often as possible in the shots; that created an eyebrow crease right above his eye. You wouldn’t see the full circular eye at any point in any shot because the ridge over the eye would break that silhouette of the eye shape. He had small eyes to begin with but it makes him look angry throughout the entire film. It’s most noticeable the first time you see Sentinel after he lands and gets up, his chin is tucked in; it makes him look more sinister and that was one of the first shots we animated.” The robotic adversaries have capabilities beyond absorbing the powers of mutants. “They can grow long spikes and drills from their arms. We see the spikes throughout the entire film so it’s the forearm that morphs into a long spike. The drills we only see during the opening sequence of the film when the Sentinels first drill through the bunker ceiling.” Dubuc remarks, “We had a LiDAR scan of all of the environments. We did have a replica of the set within our Maya scenes. There would be lots of interactions with the set. The Sentinels climbing and punching through walls; those were all realistic representations of the actual set. Every once and awhile we would add props to make the shot more exciting, to give the Sentinel more room to interact or destroy stuff in order to sell that he’s unstoppable and menacing.”
“We’ve seen portals in various films and the biggest challenge was to create something that had never been seen, felt organic and complicated but wasn’t distracting,” states Benoit Dubuc. “The whole point of the portal is that Blink [Bingbing Fan] can move spaces. We went through a bunch of iterations and put them in front of Bryan Singer before we got the approval.” The Internet was an important research tool. “The solution was based off of some footage of an explosion that was found online. Richard found this reference of an explosion and the shockwave carries dust throughout an outer rim; that became the reference of the portal opening. The portal essentially is many explosions with a ripple shockwave that pushes out until its outer edge, it sustains itself, and the portal closing is the reverse of that.” Every department at MPC was part of the creation process. “Animation would dictate the timing of the portal opening and closing. It went through a technical animation phase where they applied some cloth simulation to it. It went through the effects and lighting departments, and finally through the compositing department.” The first portal shown in the movie served as the blueprint for following ones. “There is one shot in particular that has three portals open throughout the shot and you see the Sentinel from all three angles. For us in animation that was a challenge to make sure that your animation worked perfectly from all three angles. Essentially, you want to see the Sentinel in the shot but you also want a certain performance in the portal that is in the foreground. To do that we used mostly reference but shot the performance from different angles simultaneously. It’s the first time I worked on a show that you have to be that mindful of the performance from 360 degree view.”
“The X-Jet was quite complex as well,” states Benoit Dubuc. “We had definitive designs to work to but the X-Jet model was built to a high level of detail because we get quite close to it in the film. There was a lot of man hours spent getting the X-Jet to that level.” The aircraft gets severely damaged. “The sequence in the end where Magneto [Ian McKellen] controls a whole bunch of debris and shrapnel from the X-Jet explosion, animation led the timing of the pieces coming off the ground and then slamming into the door to serve as a barricade. We did 5 to 10 big chunks of X-Jet pieces and effects took that and simulated all of the rest.” CG replicas were produced for the actors. “With the Sentinel being robots the animation doesn’t have to be perfect. It has to tell the right story. It has to have a strong composition and silhouette. But with a digital double everybody knows how a human moves and will be able to detect unknowingly that something is not right. The challenge with Colossus was getting the animation as close to human as possible.” The Animation Department assisted with the look development of the mutant Sunspot. “We were trying to determine what his output of fire would look like. We went through a bunch of iterations where the solar flares on his back would whip forward and become part of the stream that he shoots out.”
A new workflow was created for rigging at MPC. “The Sentinels are covered with blades that emulate Mystiques’ DNA which they were created with,” explains Benoit Dubuc. “As the Sentinels charge up or head blast or transform their constitution to the mutants’ power then we would use the rippling of the blades to sell that. We also used the rippling of the blades to help them to emote. In the cases that they fired we had the ripples coming from the chest and travelling up to the head and timed it with the head opening. But in some cases they were purely used as a storytelling device and to sell that they were entering a move menacing and angry mode.” Dubuc states, “The level expected for this movie was daunting and MPC setup a facility in Montreal while we were meant to be delivering the show. To have to build up a facility and departments, and be able to produce a high standard proved to be quite challenging. There was a lot of trial by fire and mentoring that happened during the show but we were fortunate enough to work on a show that we had a good feel throughout the entire production that we were working on something special.”
A signature moment from previous movies X-Men movies is the transformation of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) who is layered with feathers. “If you were a magician and laid the cards out and flipped the one on the end and they all flip over and then you flip them back,” states Digital Domain Visual Effects Supervisor Lou Pecora. “It was a perfect idea for Mystique because when the feathers are flipping up in the air from the profile you can see the leading edge of the transformation. It goes to the faces to the back of the cards and back. Anytime she would transform from one character to another it would be one flip. If she was going to transform into several characters it would flip and flip back again. The dissolve would happen on the down face of the card so you never see a dissolve. As you get to the details of the face, occasionally, the eyes and nose starts to look like stubble so with those areas you had to cheat with a dissolve.” A key aspect of achieving the visual effect was hair grooming. “You can imagine that there are feathers based on her tangency of her skin would lay flat on it,” explains Digital Domain Digital Effects Supervisor Nikos Kalaitzidis. “When she does the transformation it would reveal the feathers flipping upwards and turning over with the basis of her skin colour and texture on one side of card/feather and when it flips over it reveals the texture of the other skin of the other person when it turns over.” The whole body of Mystique was groomed. “We could start the transformation from anywhere we wanted and go in different directions such as when she is in the hotel it starts at her navel and radiated outwards which was cool. There was another version where it goes from the head downwards and another version where it goes from her bottom up.”
Various people of different physiques would be mimicked by Mystique. “The easiest way around that was you start out with a track of both sides,” states Lou Pecora. “We’ll use the Colonel Sanders [Andreas Apergis] transformation as Mystique walks away from the plane; she walks away as this stoic man and turns into the non-manly Jennifer Lawrence with only a little Mystique in the middle. We tracked her and his body, did a 3D blend shade between the two, and the skeleton grew with the feathers on it; this way you can control where that leading edge transformation was in the blend shade based on hiding it behind those feathers. The volume increases by the nature of how big those feathers get when they stand up. You almost don’t notice it because of the motion of it but if you look carefully, especially in silhouette and profile, you’ll see that the feathers start off pretty small, get longer and get shorter as they lay back down.” Pecora remarks, “There were different characteristics depending on the person. When she changes into the bystander in Paris with the giant afro, the nature of what she was doing from one character into another made it a different feel from what we got from her confident walk from the plane to the camera when she went from the Colonel to Raven. A lot of the times we took the cue from what the actors were doing. We have that great one of the thumb where she transforms into Trask only up to the thumb in order to do the thumbprint on the scanner. We knew that she was only going to do it temporarily; she wouldn’t have to fully turn into Trask. She only needed to get the thumbprint so we left those feathers hanging out open as if they could close up right behind her as soon as she was done with the thumb scan.
“Going from person to person we had to put some blue in there so you would get a sense that it’s Mystique,” states Lou Pecora. “When you go from person to Raven we wanted to put Mystique in-between.” A special rig was created which utilized a bi-cubic curved plane which resembled a Pringle potato chip to block the flipping of the feathers. “The volumes of spheres and cubes were used in real time to block the leading edge of the transformation; that helped us to iterate fast and get blocking approval fast. If we had done this in an effects approach, which was one of the ideas, we would probably still be working on it.” Nikos Kalaitzidis remarks, “We had our Compositing Supervisor Mike Maloney do all of the timing in 2D in compositing with a wipe to get it approved from the director and Richard Stammers. Once we got the approval for that then we brought it into 3D and gave it to Lead Rigging Developer David Corral and Animator Jack Kasprzak to do all of the animation based on the timing we got off in compositing.” Pecora observes, “What was great about Richard and Bryan is that they didn’t approve one thing in 2D wipe, saw it with the feathers and thought, ‘This totally needs to change.’ I don’t think they changed a single bit of transformation timing. In fact sometimes when we got other ideas and strayed, they would catch us quick on it. ‘We approved that and let’s stick with it.’ They were dream clients when it comes to not keep throwing you curveballs at the eleventh hour. They were consistent with what they wanted and helped us to focus on the finer details of these transformations. These were not shots that could turn 180 degrees on a dime at the last minute, especially in stereo.”
Mystique escapes from a Paris hotel by jumping through a window. “We have in our library extensive photographs of Paris because of the first G.I. Joe  where we knocked down the Eiffel Tower,” states Nikos Kalaitzidi when discussing the sequence shot in Montreal which required distant CG background augmentations like the Eiffel Tower and the removal of modern day elements . “Environment wise the side shot of Mystique flying out of the window with all of the glass around her that was mostly a painting,” remarks Lou Pecora. “It was a normal move so we didn’t have to get crazy with the geometry. The one where you follow the bullet out of the gun into her leg there wasn’t as much environment in that as you would think. It was mostly recreating the set because you’re facing the hotel the whole time.” Following the sequence a fight takes place between two mutants. Magneto [Michael Fassbender] bends those bird statues in order to cuff and pull Beast [Nicholas Hoult] off of him because he’s drowning him in the fountain. A challenge was to get the stereo to line up on the wrists because there were practical wrist pieces that flopped around a lot. We had to get rid of a lot of that stuff, paint back Beast and put the cuffs on top of that.” Beast was placed upon a big pole. “Where his legs and arms are really moving around you have to hide where that pole is stretching so that it doesn’t look like a liquorish rope. It plants to the physical ground, has to hold him by the wrists physically, had to look strong and yet he had to move around a lot. Somewhere between the two anchor points you had to hide all of that flack so we spread it out the whole pole. When his wrist was moving you’d make the backend of it shimmy and when his leg was moving you’d make the top end of it shimmy.”
Digital Domain handled the past Sentinels. “They had to have weight to them but couldn’t look slow and lumbering,” states Lou Pecora. “We figured out a good animation trick for that. In the tight shots you move them fast and in the wide shots you move them heavy. If you only saw tights they wouldn’t feel all that heavy and if you only saw the wide shots they wouldn’t feel agile but when you intercut back and forth it gives you a good sense that they can do both somehow. It worked great. I learned that trick from Scott Farrar at ILM back in the day on Transformers.” A Marvel superhero played by Robert Downing Jr. lead to some creative modifications. “Making them fly was a bit of a challenge because they have a thruster in the middle,” remarks Nikos Kalaitzidis. “We didn’t want to make them look like Iron Man where they have thrusters on the feet and hands.” A practical Sentinel was built by Legacy Effects. “It was hard for Bryan, Richard and me to distinguish what were the lighting renders and what was the practical reference that was shot. When you get that far with it you go, ‘Now that we’ve matched it we can take any creative steps that Richard and Bryan wanted us to take to get it the rest of the way.’ As they get beat up in battle they get more dirt and dust on them and more scratched up and gouges. We added that stuff after the fact.” Nikos Kalaitzidis notes, “What made it tough was the translucency of the body parts and the swirl mark on the visors. Tim Nassauer, our lighting lead and supervisor, and texture guy Chris Nichols; they took it home with adding all of that detail to that robot and make it look better than the real thing.”
The way I saw it was their faces don’t move, they don’t have any moving parts in their faces, they have eyes that light up and have body language,” explains Lou Pecora. “That was basically what we had to work with. Phil Cramer [Senior Animation Supervisor] and I worked closely on some ideas. When the Sentinels first appear the flag comes down and you see them from the side. There is fill lighting on their faces; they don’t look like bad guys because they’re not supposed to be at that time. The mood shifts as Trask realizes he didn’t start them up. ‘What’s going on here?’ There are a couple of shots where you get vintage film stock footage where they have a more limited range in it. We used that as an opportunity to make the fill light on the faces go dark so then you only had these sinister glowing eyes. We were able to use some lighting tricks to make their faces go dark and those glowing eyes mysterious and menacing for those shots. The body language of them swinging their arms around gives you a, ‘What’s going on here?’ When the Beast is beating the one guy up and chews through the hose and knocks the fluid all over the place his face has a lot of fill light on it. You get to see all of the lines in his face and his thrashing body makes him feel panicked. The Sentinel seems more vulnerable because you’re getting to see every bit of detail in that face. That way we achieved some emotion. The last example we came up with was a brilliant idea by Marc Beaujeau who was the animator. When the robot claws towards Magneto to come get him, Magneto starts ripping pieces off of him. In the end he has this one blinking eye, his arm pathetically reaches up and his face mask is covered in dirt and mud.” Nikos Kalaitzidis adds, “One thing that was important early on was the poses; we didn’t want them to look wimpy but heroic. It was a fine line making them from one to the other.”
Beast has a battle with a Sentinel. We had a big green head for the Sentinel,” recalls Lou Pecora. “At first we were wondering if it was even going to work.” The action sequence was shot practically. “It worked great. The stuntman for the Beast was awesome; that’s him in every one of those shots. There were only two shots where we had to put him on a card and animate him along with the performance that was there. The wide shot of the Sentinel throwing him from the side into the car window we ended up having to change the trajectory because it gave away some of the wire work. Bryan wanted him to look more force into the car. But even that is not a digital double; that’s the plate.” The big green head for the Sentinel proved to be an asset. “The great thing about that buck was it gave a sense of scale and weight as Beast is rocking back and forth on the Sentinel’s neck. We went with that and it seemed to work.” Nikos Kalaitzidis remarks, “I thought it was really important that our Tracking Supervisor Ross Mackenzie tracked the Beast on top of the buck so we projected the plate of the Beast back onto a 3D model and then reflected the Beast back onto the Sentinel so we could integrate him better.” Pecora agrees with his colleague. “That was key in integrating and compositing it in there otherwise there would have been no way to fake those reflections.”
Washington, D.C. during the 1970s had to be recreated. “Our second unit visual effects supervisor on the client’s side, Matt Sloan, went up in a helicopter and got permission to shoot the White House from most angles,” states Lou Pecora. “There were a couple of angles that they were unable to get. Unfortunately the one angle they were unable to get was the one of the RFK approach so we had to rebuild some of Washington, D.C.. We had to paint out the non-period correct architecture and put back in what was there.” A small green screen set nicknamed “The Hot Box” helped in producing the required visual effects. “It was a big three sided green screen set with a white silk top that was on most of the time. Montreal in the summer was scorching. It got sticky and hot in there. We had to get rid of the hot box and put in this big expansive environment. First there was a pristine White House and RFK environments, and then it was damaging and damaged fusion of the two with all of the affiliated smoke and debris. There’s a dramatic difference with what got shot.” Trees played a major role in the creation of the environment. “We had approximately 400 individual trees and bushes and 200 of those we had to simulate like low, medium, and high wind variations,” reveals Nikos Kalaitzidis. “We also had about 42 species with trees commonly having 16 to 18 variations of species. There were different elm and oak trees.”
Magneto tears RFK Stadium from its foundation and sends the structure flying towards the White House. “We had a great time with that,” states Lou Pecora. “It was a helluva challenge to make that thing believable. Luckily, we’ve done a few disaster pictures in our day so we were able to tap some of the tools and looks we had established. We went along with the paradigm that Bryan had set out for the story which was, ‘If you were going to use a rebar to lift it up what would it look like?’ We built the rebar into the model. ‘Let’s lift it up with that and see what the simulation does.’ A lot of it was trial and error with simulations. They’re difficult to art direct because simulations do what they should do. In some cases we were stuck with what they did. Luckily a lot of what we were stuck with worked well.” Debris had to be incorporated into the scene. “In regards to the simulations themselves Effects Artist Daniel Stern figured out a way based on tension,” remarks Nikos Kalaitzidis. “If the tension of the geometry would bend a certain way passed a threshold it would break and release debris. Tension would create a certain amount of debris and that would take us about 80 per cent there and after that we would start art directing it.” The flying structure casts a shadow. “Bryan wanted to see more of the dust underneath the thing so we had to back off some of the shadow underneath the stadium that would be naturally be there but truth be told dust tends to scatter light and almost becomes a soft box itself,” explains Pecora. “I felt in the end it looked convincing, that the light was coming from the right direction on the stadium and dust.” RFK Stadium comes crashing down. “The first time we dropped it it flatten out!” Alterations needed to be implemented. “It was a balance between reality and keeping that epic sense of scale. In the end there was no real gravity in that thing. It would have looked too fast.” Kalaitzidis believes, “What made it believable was having the 65,000 seats in that stadium react to the lifting and the falling or the debris that is hitting them.”
“Once we had the animation correct and approved by the client then we would start running all of the simulations through that,” states Nikos Kalaitzidis when discussing the Bunker Bust Sequence which required getting the right speed and trajectory of the bunker coming out and dropping down. “The thought was that the bunker comes up and out at us,” explains Lou Pecora. “Richard had this nice idea of the lanterns wiggling around while Magneto is lifting it up and while he is changing the magnetic field to pull it the lanterns come straight up and point at us; a nice bit of detail that probably a lot of people aren’t going to notice but I’m so happy that it’s there. It foreshadows and tells the story for those who are paying attention.” The only part of the practical plate used featured Magneto standing on a lawn. “As the bunker lands it crashes into CG chairs,” notes Kalaitzidis. “We used another rigid body dynamic with the chairs being pushed along and displacing the dirt and grass on the ground.”
In regards to look of the Sentinel Vision, Lou Pecora states, “Our Concept Designer Nick Lloyd start with some still concepts of to figure out the graphic, the resolution, how much solarisation on the colour we were going to get, what we were going to see and what do the outlines look like? A lot of times these motion graphic things can be a nightmare but once we got the mind set of old school Bryan liked it. I’m something of a nut for old Atari computers and video games. I know how things move and look so I thought it would be fun to take the challenge on myself to do the moving parts of those graphics with the flashing, blinking and text scrolling. I remember how my Atari computer used to scroll text so I matched that cadence and flicker and refresher as I remember when I was a kid and sent that over. Version one of that stuff Bryan liked and thought it felt period correct because it was based on old Atari computers.” The Charles Vision and Mind Projection incorporated more practical elements such as a long exposure and the camera moving around fast. “A lot of those were green screens shot in-camera. We had the challenge of putting in all of the backgrounds, environments and trees. Then you get those moments where it freezes for a second and keeps going. Trying to get all of that matched up was key frame intensive on the compositing side of things. We would have to add that motion blur after the fact and dial it up or down on a frame by frame basis.”
“We had a big stadium ripping out of the ground, flying and landing so that asset we had a lot of attention, focus and muscle on that,” recalls Lou Pecora. “Mystique we had a lot of attention focused and muscle on that. You have one shot of a concrete block crumbling for 30 frames with rebar popping out of it and wrapping around a guy. It’s amazing how much you have to put into something that’s only in there for literally 60 frames tops of that concrete block cracking and the rebar coming alive inside of it. I was pleasantly surprised on how that worked out because we physically did not have enough muscle to put into that early on. We were so busy with all of these other assets that we going to have for 20 to 60 shots. That was a one off and we had to bring it up late in the game.” Nikos Kalaitzdis enjoyed working on X-Men: Days of Future Past. “One of the biggest challenges was time and the delivery of the thing. We put in a lot of hours but we had a great team. All the way to the end we could not help laughing in the screening room. The sense of humour saved us.” Pecora agrees with Kalaitzdis. “I’ve never worked harder on a project but also never had so much fun on any show that I’ve worked on before.”
“Bryan would initially pitch us specific ideas he wanted to see,” explains The Third Floor Previs Supervisor Austin Bonang. “We would collaborate with visual effects supervisor Richard Stammers to discuss the best way those ideas could be achieved. Bryan used previs a lot to flesh out his ideas and approaches to key scenes. We were also working to help figure out the technicalities of how the scenes could be shot and produced. In addition to seeking Richard’s input, we also worked closely with 2nd unit director Brian Smrz and 2nd unit visual effects supervisor Matt Sloan to make sure we incorporated any specs they needed to see in the previs and to allow them to explore the scenes virtually before they created them. We also had input from the film’s producers and editor John Ottman [Jack the Giant Slayer] to name a few! The director reviewed the previs regularly throughout pre-production. Once shooting began, we would often get input on set. Work was often reviewed in the context of a previs edit, which our previs editor initially put together and then we shifted that work over to John Ottman and his team in editorial once they came on board. Having the previs shots cut together with dialogue, music and other elements made it close to having a theatre experience, which allowed Bryan to gauge how the sequence was coming together.”
“There actually weren’t any complete CG environments on the film,” remarks Austin Bonang. “The sets were either real locations or partial sets built on a sound stage. When they were shooting on a sound stage set, they were of course limited by the square footage of the stage. For example, the Monastery set was immense. In the film, the Monastery is built into the side of a mountain in China but on the sound stage only so much could be physically built. The rest was extended digitally by use of green screen to be able to cover the scale of Bryan’s vision.” The X-Men cinematic franchise was referenced to fill in any visual gaps. “We had concept art and set schematics for most everything. If the designs were still in progress, we sometimes built assets based on the previous films to get started on the previs scenes and those assets were later updated. For example, our initial asset for Bobby ‘Iceman’ Drake was that of the baby-faced Shawn Ashmore from X2  but this was changed in the previs when we received the designs for his older, more bearded appearance in X-Men: Days of Future Past.”
“We worked on about 10 sequences, including the opening Moscow and Monastery sequences, the Pentagon Breakout, Mystique’s escape, the 1973 Cargo train and finally the large inter-cut Washington, D.C. and Monastery Sentinel attack scenes,” reveals Bonang. “The real challenge of this last sequence was balance. One time period [the future] primarily depicts the action and stakes of what is taking place in the dramatic climax of the past. We get to see both the 1973 sentinels as well as the future sentinels in action in a battle against the mutants in both time periods. Previs provided a way to explore how to tell those stories both visually and dramatically. Another challenging sequence was the Pentagon Breakout. It was important to figure out the right frame rate to animate to because this would determine which camera they would need for the shoot. We wanted to make everything that was happening interesting as well as possible to physically shoot with live actors rather than digital doubles while always thinking about how Quicksilver’s speed would affect the environment around him.”
Our previs team worked very closely with many departments,” states Austin Bonang. “Production designer John Myhre’s [Chicago] offices were right down the hall so I would go over daily checking out the designs on the walls and getting an update on designs coming down the pike. John was normally the first person I went to whenever a big change was happening so the adjustments could be reflected in his designs. Tom Sigel [1st Unit Director of Photography] and Larry Blanford [2nd Unit Director of Photography] used our virtual camera setup on many occasions, which helped in planning a lot of the big shots in the movie. The virtual camera volume also allowed them to start exploring the angles they wanted to shoot on set. Editorial was also key to the success of our previs. John Ottman and his team cut all of our sequences together once they joined production and added theatre-quality sound and music that really amped up the previs. We were also handing shots and edits back constantly. If editorial was cutting a scene together and needed a simple reaction shot of a character we would even sometimes previsualize that and give it to them to fill in the blanks until they could get the live-action shot.”
“We did quite a bit of postvis,” states Austin Bonang. “Once shooting began, we would be given plates into which we would place the digital elements that were required for specific shots, mostly digital characters like the Sentinels. This greatly helped when presenting dailies to Bryan and other Fox personnel so they could gauge how the sequences were shaping up.” The visuals featured intricate lighting and texturing. “We always make our assets look as good as we can within the realm of previs. The animation for the most part was also very detailed. We used motion capture on a lot of the action scenes so the animation was very believable. But we occasionally also used more of a blocked animation style if we needed to get something in front of someone right away before the shoot.” The previs was constantly being altered. “As on many productions, things changed on a daily basis so we were turning around new previs frequently, sometimes the day before or the day of shooting the scene we were working on. A lot of great ideas were being iterated constantly, along with the requirements for achieving them on set, so we really had to be ready to change, revise and create new work on the fly.” Bonang concludes, “Working on X-Men: Days of Future Past was an amazing experience. There were so many talented people involved and it was incredible to be able to watch it all come together.”
Images and videos © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox, MPC, Digital Domain, and The Third Floor.
Many thanks to Lou Pecora, Nikos Kalaitzidi, Benoit Dubuc and Austin Bonang for taking the time to be interviewed.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.