By MATT HURWITZ
Images courtesy of Warner Bros.
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By MATT HURWITZ
Images courtesy of Warner Bros.
Watching director Jaume Collet-Serra’s Black Adam, audiences are easily convinced that the Warner Bros./HBO Max saga was shot in a Middle Eastern city, nowhere near the Atlanta, Georgia set on which it was filmed. “We’re always most proud of things no one ever thinks are visual effects,” notes Oscar-winning Visual Effects Supervisor Bill Westenhofer (Life of Pi). “The goal is to work yourself out of any recognition.”
The film was lensed by DP Lawrence Sher (The Joker) with production design by Tom Meyer. Its primary visual effects producer was Wētā FX under the production supervision of Westenhofer in tandem with Wētā VFX Supervisor Sheldon Stopsack. Additional VFX work was by provided by Digital Domain, Scanline VFX, DNEG, Rodeo FX, Weta Digital, Lola Visual Effects, Tippett Studio, Clear Angle Studios, Effetti Digitali Italiani (EDI) and UPP. Special Effects Supervisors were Lindsay MacGowan and Shane Mahan for Legacy Effects.
The story takes place in fictional Shiruta, the modern-day version of Kahndaq, where 5,000 years prior, Teth-Adam (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), the people’s hero with great superpowers, had been imprisoned in the Rock of Eternity for apparently misusing his powers. He is released by a rebel (by utterance of the word “Shazam”) and brought back to battle the people’s modern-day oppressors, the Intergang. While he initially also battles the four members of the Justice Society of America – Doctor Fate, Hawkman, Atom Smasher and Cyclone – they end up fighting Intergang together, eliminating the threat posed by not only that group, but Sabbaq, who also arises from the darkness of old Kahndaq to attempt to claim his throne. By the end of the film, he has succeeded in eliminating the threat, and the hero is renamed Black Adam.
“[S]ince [director] Jaume [Collet-Serra] and [DP] Larry [Sher] were actively participating in creating the previs, they felt ownership. So, when we got to set, they knew that the previs was theirs and that was the path they were going to follow, as opposed to getting there and going, ‘Oh, there’s that previs – forget that, we’re gonna do our own thing.’ It’s amazing – you can look at the previs and look at the shots and they’re incredibly close.”
—Bill Westenhofer, Production Visual Effects Supervisor
Development of Black Adam began in 2019, with Westenhofer being brought on not long after Collet-Serra came on to helm the project. By that time, the director had worked with storyboard artists to flesh out his ideas. Then, they met to decide the best state-of-the-art methods to create the imagery the director had in mind. “LED walls were hot at the time, as was volume capture, and we ended up dabbling in all of them,” Westenhofer remarks. The production was intended as a full-scale virtual production, developed initially by Tom Meyer in ZBrush. “We had a motion capture stage setup and had motion capture performers, and we had real-time controls,” Westenhofer adds. “We were due to start on March 17, 2020 – and then the world closed down.”
Over the pandemic hiatus and through Fall 2020, L.A.-based Day For Nite continued work creating previs for the scenes, importing the Maya storyboard files into Unreal Engine. “Right away, we can see things that are working and ones that are not,” Westenhofer states. What read in the script as “He comes out, they fight, he flips over a tank” was soon developed into fully-realized scenes.
At the same time, DP Sher began setting cameras and lighting, working with Day For Nite and Collet-Serra via Zoom. “It was great because since Jaume and Larry were actively participating in creating the previs, they felt ownership. So, when we got to set, they knew that the previs was theirs and that was the path they were going to follow, as opposed to getting there and going, ‘Oh, there’s that previs – forget that, we’re gonna do our own thing.’ It’s amazing – you can look at the previs and look at the shots and they’re incredibly close.”
Deciding which locations seen in the previs would be practical sets and which would be CGI was an important step. “You can look at the previs,” Westenhofer explains, “and you can see if Jaume wants to be looking in a specific direction most of the time, in which case we would build that part as a set. But as soon as that set has more than one story to it, construction costs start to go up. So, for things like the city, Shiruta, I told Tom just to focus on, say, the first story, store level, and we’ll take care of the rest.” The same goes for which characters would be digital and which would be captured in- camera. “I always try to favor scenes where there are people – humans not flying around and who aren’t superheroes. But we have a movie where there are five superheroes and four of them fly in some form. So, they’re going to be mostly digital,” Westenhofer declares.
Building a City
When filming finally began, Meyer constructed the ground-level set of Shiruta on the back lot at Trilith Studios in Atlanta, notably its Central Market or the “Sunken City” where a great amount of action in the film takes place. “It actually doubles for many places in the city,” Westenhofer explains. “We had a roundabout area and several cross-streets, and if you look in one direction, that would be the area around Adriana’s (Sarah Shahi) apartment, and if you look the other way, it was where the palace would be. And when they’re seemingly driving through town, they’re really going in circles, but by changing the set extension it felt like you were traveling through the city.”
Wētā’s Assets Department, which includes its Art Department as well as modelers, texturers and shading specialists, were responsible for crafting the city, rooted in Meyer’s design for the practical set. “Tom did a magnificent job of fleshing out the tone and feel of Shiruta,” Stopsack states. “So, a lot of the groundwork was done already. We engaged with Tom quite early. Then we spent a fair amount of time designing the architecture and the whole feeling of the city square.”
“[Black Adam] not only flies, he floats. In the comic books, he says he doesn’t want to share the ground with lesser beings. So, he feels like he should float. But we wanted Dwayne to be in the scene, and we didn’t want to have him always be bluescreen, having to shoot him looking at tennis balls. [Director] Jaume [Collet-Serra] wanted it to be super smooth, not having to expend any effort, just floating.”
—Bill Westenhofer, Production Special Effects Supervisor
The look established by Meyer, Stopsack notes, “as he often described to us, was like Middle East meets Hong Kong. It needed to be dry, somewhat monochromatic and reasonably high. A lot of chaotic streetlamps, wires and air conditioning units everywhere.” Much of that was introduced to Wētā early in concept art, and then it was up to them to flesh out the environment. Adds Stopsack, “We had the luxury of photography of Tom’s set on the backlot, which gave us a starting point via plate photography, which we then extended.” That task required extension to show the entire city of Shiruta, to allow creation of high wide shots, which would include the Central Market and Palace in the extended terrain. “We knew whatever we would start building around the Sunken Street ultimately would be utilized for propagating the wider city.”
The Asset Team’s approach was to essentially create modular building blocks to create different architectural levels and stories of each building. “We had to interchange them, dress them differently and stack the buildings up to a height that Tom deemed necessary,” Stopsack explains. “For each building we would ask, ‘Would you like this to be 15 stories high? 10 stories? Is this a round building? Do we see filigree here?’ So, we had a lot of engagement with him to make sure that the look and feel was what he envisioned.” They took advantage of any assets the Art Department had available, including packages of art, signage and other items, to lean into the same language Meyer’s teams had developed. “It’s an endless chase of getting the level of detail that you’re after.”
Wētā’s attention to detail translated to a construct that looks like a true city and not a visual effect. At the same time, constructing the entire city digitally – including the entirety of Meyer’s Sunken City area sets – gave Wētā valuable flexibility for creating scenes of mayhem which otherwise would have required destruction of the practical set. “The beauty of approaching it that way,” Stopsack observes, “is that we were left with an all-digital representation of the practical set pieces that were built. So, in the fight between Black Adam and Hawkman, if Black Adam is punched and smashes down the side of the building, those shots could be created fully digital. The entire environment was fleshed out, so we could inject these all-digital shots in between.”
In order to develop a true city grid seen in high wides, Wētā’s layout team utilized Open Streets map data, accessing real-world locations as the basis for Shiruta’s street layout. Comments Stopsack, “We looked at Middle Eastern cities around the globe to look at each’s city grid to study the general density of population and buildings and the buildings’ heights. A lot of data can be sourced, and we used that to lay a foundation for what Shiruta became.”
“[The look established by Tom Meyer] as he often described to us, was like Middle East meets Hong Kong. It needed to be dry, somewhat monochromatic and reasonably high. A lot of chaotic streetlamps, wires and air conditioning units everywhere. We had the luxury of photography of Tom’s set on the backlot, which gave us a starting point via plate photography, which we then extended. We knew whatever we would start building around the Sunken Street ultimately would be utilized for propagating the wider city.”
—Sheldon Stopsack, VFX Supervisor, Wētā FX
Moving Black Adam
As lead effects vendor, it fell to Wētā to develop the character animation models and movement, which were then shared with the other vendors for creation of their own scenes. “We were engaged fairly early on, when Bill asked us to start doing motion studies – even before building any of the Shiruta environments,” Stopsack explains. “These were done, in part, to inform how they would be shot on the practical set, like how they engaged in flying action or how Hawkman would land.”
Hawkman actor Aldis Hodge did quite a few stunts himself, such as his dives into the Central Market on a wire, touching down. “We had him rehearse with counterweights attached to his costume to give him a sense of what the wings would feel like, informing his performance,” Westenhofer notes. He was also given lightweight cloth cutouts of the wings to allow the set team to get an understanding of their size, how they would articulate, and allow DP Sher space to plan for in his frame and allow for the future-digital wings to have a home.
The motion studies also helped, working with Costume Design and the Art Department to nail down costume design and motion. Says Stopsack, “Some characters that were not completely digital had costumes that needed to be practically built, such as Hawkman and Black Adam – Hawkman’s wing design, for instance, looking at their mechanics, how do the wings unfold? Things like that.” Other designs, like Dr. Fate’s costume, were completely digital, requiring more creative input from Wētā.
A key part of Black Adam’s motion involves his simple floating movement within a scene. “He not only flies, he floats,” Westenhofer explains. “In the comic books, he says he doesn’t want to share the ground with lesser beings. So, he feels like he should float. But we wanted Dwayne to be in the scene, and we didn’t want to have him always be bluescreen, having to shoot him looking at tennis balls. Jaume wanted it to be super smooth, not having to expend any effort, just floating.”
Special Effects Supervisor J.D. Schwalm was tasked with offering practical methods to accomplish the float. The main mechanism was provided by an industrial automobile robot used in car manufacturing. “That was the coolest one,” continues Westenhofer, “which we had mounted on the set and could be programmed to pick him up and float him and move him around,” with Johnson standing on the rig’s platform, his legs being replaced later and the rig removed. “It allowed him to act. When he’s floating down the stairs, passing the kid, he could do back and forth banter and actually be in the scenes with other characters. That was really important.”
For simpler shots, Schwalm provided a small robotic cart about 2½ feet by 2½ feet, with a robotic hydraulic arm containing a saddle and a small foot platform, allowing Johnson to be raised or lowered up to four feet versus the industrial robot, which could lift him as high as 15 feet. “These sorts of things could also be done using wires, but Dwayne found this really comfortable, and it allowed him to interact naturally,” Westenhofer notes.
“[The Central Market on the set of Shiruta] actually doubles for many places in the city. We had a roundabout area and several cross-streets, and if you look in one direction, that would be the area around Adriana’s (Sarah Shahi) apartment, and if you look the other way, it was where the palace would be. And when they’re seemingly driving through town, they’re really going in circles, but by changing the set extension it felt like you were traveling through the city.”
—Bill Westenhofer, Production Visual Effects Supervisor
For his flying sequences, the VFX team made a volume capture system provided by Eyeline Studios, a division of Scanline VFX. The system once again allowed Johnson’s performance to be captured in a method quite a bit different from motion capture. The actor would lay flat on the rig, surrounded by an array of hi-res video cameras (versus infrared, as would be used in mocap). Eyeline then processes the data in its proprietary system and provides an extrapolated mesh and a set of textures. Explains Stopsack, “When the data comes to us, we then have the geometry of his performance, of his head, and we have the texture that maps onto it.”
“[The industrial automobile robot was] mounted on the set and could be programmed to pick [Johnson] up and float him and move him around [with Johnson standing on the rig’s platform]. It allowed him to act. When he’s floating down the stairs, passing the kid, he could do back and forth banter and actually be in the scenes with other characters. That was really important.”
—Bill Westenhofer, Production Visual Effects Supervisor
Wētā took the process a step further to retain Johnson’s natural head motion. “We took Eyeline’s mesh and tried to incorporate that into our full-blown Black Adam digital double,” Stopsack remarks. “We could then take their head motion data and combine that onto our puppet so that the head motion would track perfectly with our digital asset, with our digital head motion. But volume capture gives you limited body motion. If you have pretty intricate body motion, your head motion can quickly go off what the volume capture would allow, such as if the head goes backwards and you want an extreme that it won’t permit. So, our animators would then see those constraints and work within them to see how far we could bend the head back without going beyond what volume capture could support,” preventing the bend from appearing too rubbery, unlike a real person’s movement. Stopsack adds, “We used the technology for a small number of shots, but it was great when you needed the unmistakable like of the actor.”
In addition to Eyeline’s cameras, the actor was surrounded by LED walls playing back material created in Unreal, working early on with Scanline and Digital Domain, which provided interactive lighting on Johnson’s costume. The backgrounds, of course, were replaced later. LED walls came in handy for other sequences, such as filming the cockpit scenes in the Hawk Cruiser as it crashes into the Central Market. “The cockpit set was too big to place it on a gimbal,” Westenhofer reveals. “Instead, we had the content playing back on the LED screen, which was designed as being from the point of view of the cockpit so they could see themselves flying through space and crashing, and it gave them enough inspiration to sway and move as the craft was bucking in space.” For lighting, he says, “It worked really well inside the cockpits. We did replace some backgrounds, but the interactive light worked really well.”
Using LED walls is not something to do frivolously, Westenhofer notes. “A lot of people come to this and hope to get what they call ‘final pixel,’ meaning you film it and the shot is done. There needs to be a fair bit more work done to get LEDs to the point where that’s really successful. You need a lot more time in prep to build these CG backgrounds, but then no one can change their mind afterwards. If you do that, it’s baked into the sauce.”
Towards the end of the film, we see Teth-Adam’s backstory in a flashback revealing the death of his son, Hurut, before he became the “The Rock”-sized superhero. For those scenes, a much slimmer double (Benjamin Patterson) was used onto which Johnson’s face was later applied. “We’d have Dwayne do a pass just to get the performance, and then the double would come in and repeat the same timing and performance. So it would be his body,” Westenhofer explains.
Later, after the scene was cut together, Johnson’s head and face were captured by Lola Visual Effects using their “Egg” setup, a system somewhat similar to volume capture. “Dwayne would sit down in a chair surrounded by several cameras,” Westenhofer describes. “Lola had studied our footage and setup lighting timed to replicate interactively the way the light on set interacted with the double throughout the shot, using colored LEDs. They could tell Dwayne to ‘Look this way’ or ‘Get ready to turn your head over here,’ and they would time the playback so he’d give the performance and move his head, give the dialogue matching what we captured on set from the other actor. Then, that head is projected onto a 3D model and locked into the shot itself, so you have Dwayne’s head and the skinny actor’s body.”
For Pierce Brosnan’s character, Dr. Fate, it was the opposite case. Brosnan’s own performance was filmed on the set and his body was replaced. “When he’s flying, it’s all CGI,” says Westenhofer. “But when he’s on the ground interacting with other characters, his costume has more life than a practical costume would have, so the costume is digital.”
Instead of using motion capture where Brosnan would have been filmed alone on a mocap stage, a “faux cap” system was used. Brosnan appeared on set in a simple gray tracking suit. Explains Stopsack, “It doesn’t have a full- blown active marker setup as a motion capture setup would have. The suit is simply peppered with optical markers, which are not engaged with any computer system but simply photographed with witness cameras. Our Match Move Department then uses some clever algorithms to triangulate their location and extract motion. We needed to see Pierce’s performance, his persona as an actor on set engaging with all of these characters. Then the superhero suit followed after.”