By IAN FAILES
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
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By IAN FAILES
Director Scott Cooper’s Hostiles, a western that follows a U.S. Calvary officer who escorts a Cheyenne war chief and his family to their home in Montana in 1892, at first seems an unlikely candidate for nearly 700 visual effects shots.
But that number simply represents the extent of VFX work required to help tell Cooper’s period story. These included adding burning buildings, a dramatic scalping, gunshot wounds, and various environment extensions and enhancements. Heading the effort behind these shots was Visual Effects Supervisor Jake Braver, who runs down for VFX Voice how these sequences were achieved.
VFX Voice: This is clearly not a “VFX film” but there are a lot of VFX shots. What was your mandate going into this film from the director and other filmmakers?
Jake Braver: From my first meeting with Scott Cooper it was clear he was willing to rely on VFX to help tell this story, as long as the work could be seamless enough that it never betrayed the reality of the story he was telling. From the start of prep we also talked about avoiding green and bluescreen except for when absolutely needed. Not only would it have been very difficult to build greenscreens large enough for our locations, it would have changed the tone on set. The 671 visual effects shots in this film are 100% in service of the story and characters, and we were all very careful not to inject any more artifice then absolutely necessary into the photography.
“In the opening of the film, the Quaid family cabin is ambushed by the Comanche, and then set on fire. Due to the dry environment in New Mexico where we shot this scene, we were limited by the kinds of fire and smoke we were able to use…a burn that was out of control would have started a wildfire. So while all of the fire is real, most of it was shot on a half-scale black-box version of the cabin at the end of the shooting schedule.”
―Jake Braver, Visual Effects Supervisor
VFX Voice: How did you approach the burning building shots – what kind of mixture of real fire and smoke versus any simulations worked here?
Braver: In the opening of the film, the Quaid family cabin is ambushed by the Comanche, and then set on fire. Due to the dry environment in New Mexico where we shot this scene, we were limited by the kinds of fire and smoke we were able to use. The chosen location was also near the edge of the woods, and a burn that was out of control would have started a wildfire. So while all of the fire is real, most of it was shot on a half-scale black-box version of the cabin at the end of the shooting schedule. Tony Cutrono [Director of Photography: Plate Unit] came down and shot that stuff with me. All the shots leading up to the big burn have real fire composited in, with a mixture of smoke elements and CG simulations. Both approaches were necessary to achieve the same level of wind movement in the smoke and dust that was evident in the plate.
VFX Voice: Can you break down that scalping shot, not just in terms of how it was done, but also what discussions were had early on about ‘how’ it could be done and how VFX could help the process?
Braver: The film doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to depicting the violence of the west. In the scene where Wesley Quaid is scalped, Scott always wanted to show the scalping, and show it from the point of view of Wesley’s girls who are watching from afar. We first discussed doing this with layers of a makeup appliance. The tough part about that was that makeups are, by the very nature of them, additive―and a scalping is subtractive. So we decided to handle the scalping 100% digitally.
“It’s the performance that sells [the scalping shot] and makes it so brutal to watch. Phosphene, who did this shot, did a great job maintaining the reality of the scalping. This was always a hard shot to watch in reviews. There were lots of people taking notes with their eyes half covered!”
―Jake Braver, Visual Effects Supervisor
I spoke with our Comanche advisor who gave me very detailed information about how Comanche scalped – the method, the depth of the cut, the size of the cut. On set, the Comanche was holding a bloodied piece of scalp rolled up in his hand even before the scalping happened, which would later be painted out. The Comanche had a rubber knife which he used to ‘scalp’ Wesley. After ‘cutting,’ the Comanche then pulled back on Wesley’s real hair – ow! – and unfurled the scalp at the same time he raised it up into the air. So the entire wound, blood, and the cut itself were all CG.
Honesty though, I really think it’s the performance that sells it and makes it so brutal to watch. Phosphene, who did this shot, did a great job maintaining the reality of the scalping. This was always a hard shot to watch in reviews. There were lots of people taking notes with their eyes half covered!
VFX Voice: There are some horse crossing river shots in the film that required VFX. Can you talk about what effects were necessary to complete these shots?
Braver: We really wanted to show the different challenges that our gang faced crossing this sort of territory, and that some of those were struggles from mother nature. The river crossing was a great and beautiful way to do that.
What you can’t do is put nine actors and one young boy on horseback and ask them to ford a river with class three rapids a few times while you shoot coverage. So we shot the scene in a pretty languid river runoff. On set we were careful to make sure the actors weren’t moving too easily through the water. We shot a lot of reference and did a scan of the river environment.
Rather than replace the river fully in CG, we created a more intense displacement of the surface of the water in all shots. On top of this we added some procedurally-generated currents and splashes. Lastly, we added CG froth, spray and mist to all these shots. Upon looking at an initial displacement test that was done by Phosphene, we realized the thing that really sold this effect was seeing the splashing water interacting with the horses, so we dialed that in to taste.
VFX Voice: How would you tackle a typical gunshot shot with a wound or blood spurt? How would it be filmed and what elements would also be acquired?
Braver: Due to shooting the film in sequence, the fast nature of the shooting schedule, and the fact that 90% of the film was shot on location in the elements, we quickly realized that the reset time for squibs and blood bags would have been untenable. So all the muzzle flashes, squib hits and blood were added in post. In prep, I worked closely with Doug Coleman, the Stunt Coordinator, to determine where each person was shot. So going into production, we had a chart that listed wounds, wound location, and other pertinent body damage.
As the actors were rehearsing, Doug worked with them to come up with a reaction that made sense for how and where they were shot. I really can’t overstate what a huge part of selling shots like these lies in the actor’s performance. For most shots the actors had a few tracking markings affixed to their wardrobe, not solely for tracking purposes. We found that giving an actor a visual representation on their body for where the wound was [located] was helpful.
At the end of the shooting schedule I shot a variety of squib elements, blood, bone and dust elements matching angles for key gunshot wounds. I’d say that 90% of the blood is a filmed element. There were a few cases where the size of a gunshot or wound was re-conceptualized in the edit, and for those we sim’ed a CG blood hit.
VFX Voice: The film also includes several matte paintings. What was the process of scouting for reference and imagery like?
Braver: We had a couple of key locations. For Fort Berringer, my first day of real prep was spent in a room with Donald Graham Burt, the Production Designer, figuring out that tricky balance of how much set he could build and how much set we could extend.
The set that Don ended up building was actually pretty massive when you were walking around it. What Don did that was so smart was he didn’t build anything the camera wouldn’t see from most of the routine coverage. This saved us countless VFX shots.
What that did mean for VFX was a lot of roofs and chimneys needed to be added, fences completed, walls extended, and in wide shots, whole buildings and areas of the fort added. We did a pretty extensive Lidar scan of the practical set, as well as a texture shoot, to capture as much of the detail as we could of the amazing work the art department did. Again, we didn’t use any green or bluescreens for any of these shots, so it was all essentially roto, except for the few wide shots that had pretty clean matte lines.
“We did a pretty extensive Lidar scan of the practical set, as well as a texture shoot, to capture as much of the detail as we could of the amazing work the art department did. Again, we didn’t use any green or bluescreens for any of these shots, so it was all essentially roto, except for the few wide shots that had pretty clean matte lines.”
―Jake Braver, Visual Effects Supervisor
Then there was Fort Winslow, a place we wanted to be at the base of the Colorado Rockies. In reality, it was shot in New Mexico. Again eschewing greenscreens, a lot of detailed work went into the rotoscoping of the actors and horses here. Luckily, a lot of the actors wore hats, but the whipping horse tails – that’s another story!
To capture the backgrounds for the scene, I had a little unit when we were shooting other work in Colorado, and I made it our mission to make sure to get some great plates of the Rockies. We ended up using those plates along with a bit of matte painting to bring the practical location a bit more in line with the plates.
Another location is a place called the Valley of the Bears in Montana. The whole journey of the film leads us to this sequence. We ended up playing a location on the border of Colorado and New Mexico for Montana. We decided that about 180 degrees of the Valley location would play practically, aside from some non-period removals, and 180 degrees would be augmented with a rather large matte painting that Double Negative made. The layout of the mountains was influenced by some of the scout photos that were actually taken in Montana.
I did a few concept photoshops for Scott to sign off on a look, and passed the winner off to DNEG. The sequence was a challenge because it was shot over a week with all natural light. That meant that the lighting of the matte painting had to be just adjusted almost shot to shot, to match the ever-changing light in the foreground plate. Luckily, we had the chance to get a lot of great lighting reference during the shoot.
VFX Voice: What was your toughest shot to pull off?
Braver: I don’t know that there was one ‘toughest’ shot. Since the film is so naturalistic and real, a lot of work went into matching the photography as closely as possible. We did switch from finishing the film in 2k to 4k with about six weeks left of post. We swapped all our scans, re-did a ton of matchmove and roto, and added more detail to a few DMPs. That was an insane thing I hope to never, ever do again.