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July 30
2019

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

DNEG TV Recreates the Allied Air War for Hulu’s CATCH-22

By KEVIN H. MARTIN

Joseph Heller’s blackly-comedic 1962 novel Catch-22 had an immediate impact on both culture and the emerging counterculture, turning standard World War II tropes on their heads. Heller’s tale follows the travails of B-25 bombardier Yossarian, whose certainty that his time is up escalates as command continues to assign extra missions to his squadron. His every attempt to escape a grim fate circumvented by the fabled piece of government doublespeak known as Catch-22, Yossarian remains ensnared by its insidious red-tape brilliance – which ensures he remains on the active duty roster. But translating the instant classic to film proved difficult with Mike Nichols’ lavish 1970 film adaptation less than charitably received, and a 1973 TV movie (starring a pre-American Graffiti Richard Dreyfuss as Yossarian) that intended to be a pilot for a series did not result in additional episodes.

More than four decades later, Catch-22 has once again been brought to screens, this time as a six-episode series from Hulu, Anonymous Content and Co-Executive Producer George Clooney, who also directed two installments. DNEG TV handled the substantial VFX effort, overseen by Co-Supervisors Brian Connor and Dan Charbit.

Having read the novel many years back, Connor acclimated to the visual possibilities by watching the Nichols film. “They had pretty much every functional B-25 that was still flyable on screen,” he observes. “Today there is only one left, and Production Visual Effects Supervisor Matt Kasmir shot tons of aerial plates of it in flight, which we could use for some plates and, more importantly, as reference in creating our CG fleet. Seeing the real aircraft in a variety of lighting conditions let us see how the specular highlights played on the sun-lit hulls and gave us a real foothold when building digital assets. I’m a big fan of hanging onto what’s real in a shot, so when reviewing our CG planes, I’d often ask to see them alongside the live-action B-25 reference. Oftentimes it was just a matter of pointing out the obvious, like ‘there’s not enough spec on the cockpit glass.’”

DNEG shot additional reference of the B-25 used on set for photogrammetry, using 5Ds to snap texture references while employing gray mirror balls and Macbeth ColorChecker Charts. DNEG used Maya to model and Mari to texture the B-25s, as well as other airships, ground vehicles, airbases and digidoubles. The build for aircraft, which had to be capable of violent jinking maneuvers used when evading attack, required extensive use of their proprietary rigging system, allowing flaps and ailerons to work just like those on actual bombers.

“In actuality, the planes didn’t dodge and weave as much as you might expect, probably because the pilots realized that regardless of how you flew, your chances of coming back were probably equally bad,” notes Connor. “We saw this after pulling archival images of how the flying formations stacked up. A lot of the stuff on Youtube is shaky 16mm footage, but it gives you so much valuable information. The onboard crews also shot 8mm out the windows – sort of like us with iPhones these days — so that gave us another perspective.”

“Our matte painters added factories, bridges and other essential environmental details to the plates while taking out modern elements. We also had a lot to do with the two American airbases. The Santa Ana training base was fully computer-generated, from tents and bleachers to barracks. For Pianosa [Italy], where the bombing campaigns launch, half of that was live-action, but the whole dispersal area from which the bombers depart was our end. We surrounded the base with ocean and made it into a whole peninsula just off the runway.”

—Brian Connor, Co-Supervisor

Original location plates were enhanced with digital matte painting of airfield and parked planes, plus CG aircraft. Maya and Mari were used for modeling and texturing aircraft and ground vehicles as well as digidoubles. (Images courtesy of DNEG © 2019 Paramount TV)

“They had pretty much every functional B-25 that was still flyable on screen [for 1973’s Catch-22 film]. Today there is only one left, and Production Visual Effects Supervisor Matt Kasmir shot tons of aerial plates of it in flight, which we could use for some plates and, more importantly, as reference in creating our CG fleet. Seeing the real aircraft in a variety of lighting conditions let us see how the specular highlights played on the sunlit hulls and gave us a real foothold when building digital assets.”

—Brian Connor, Co-Supervisor

Aerial footage of a single functional aircraft was used as a basis for the bomber squadron raids. Visual Effects Supervisor Brian Connor often reviewed his team’s efforts by running their CG craft against the plate image to check if speculars and haze matched the original. The look of their CG aircraft was built out of multiple lighting techniques that involved reflection, refraction, and edge light passes in addition to traditional key, fill and base.

With the wealth of elements needed to achieve verisimilitude during the bombing raids, the early part of DNEG’s thrust focused on strategizing their workflow to optimize efficiency. “Something we learned here, and will probably be employing on future series, is to get things automated as much as possible, so you don’t spend too much time trying to make any single shot work,” Connor says. “So we’d write code enabling a Lighter to drop clouds into a scene without too much help from Effects, and have Layout render playblasts for a flak field so we could see right away how the choreography and volume worked before committing to the hours-per-frame full-res render. Development on many different areas could have turned into a bottleneck, so by working up approaches ahead of time, elements could then be plugged into the frame.”

A good example of these ‘canned’ effects was the flak encountered by the bombers. More than two dozen types – created in Houdini — could be sprinkled into these skies by the Layout division, with the density of elements art directed according to the dramatic beats of the scene. “We generated this flak in a kind of spherical formation, and if it occurred close to specific points, it would explode,” Connor explains. “Or we could explode it off-camera, and you’d then see the black blast going by. Our Effects department addressed some of the choreography during these attacks, so when an engine exploded, you’d see debris tear through the fuselage. By handling things in as modular a way as possible, we could do smoke, fire and debris from hits on the planes discreetly. The other advantage to getting so much of the work done this way is that it permitted us to have time left over to do hero one-off shots with a more traditional methodology.”

One of the company’s longstanding policies is to focus on compositing as a key aspect. “With that in mind, Compositors and Lighters work very closely,” Connor states. “Our Lighters perform a ‘slap comp’ first – using a raw render over the background plate. We render things out in multiple passes: base level, specular, reflection, refraction, key light, fill light, edge light. Plus there are utility passes that can be employed as needed. Figuring out which of these passes to use was key when putting together a particular sequence. This was important to our workflow, as we’d strip out the extras to improve render times.” All lighting and rendering was done in Clarisse, with Nuke used for compositing.

Production’s aerial plates provided a basis for the extensive matte painting effort needed to fully realize period environments. “Our matte painters added factories, bridges and other essential environmental details to the plates while taking out modern elements,” Connor acknowledges. “We also had a lot to do with the two American airbases. The Santa Ana training base was fully computer-generated, from tents and bleachers to barracks. For Pianosa, [Italy] where the bombing campaigns launch, half of that was live-action, but the whole dispersal area from which the bombers depart was our end. We surrounded the base with ocean and made it into a whole peninsula just off the runway. There are strafing runs from German bombers featured here, and Matt, who is old-school like me in that we like blowing stuff up, made sure production shot plenty of practical pyro [courtesy Special Effects Supervisor Renato Agostini]. Production’s stuff was very blown-out, with less detail than you might expect, so matching that while expanding upon it was actually a bit tricky.

Connor got the chance to watch an early cut of the series before DNEG’s work was cut in, and found it lived up to expectations. “It was just utterly hilarious,” he chuckles. “Knowing what our end was going to add in terms of imagery to Catch-22, knowing how it would work to support the story made this feel like a truly worthwhile project.”

“We generated this flak [encountered by the bombers] in a kind of spherical formation, and if it occurred close to specific points, it would explode. Or we could explode it off-camera, and you’d then see the black blast going by. Our Effects department addressed some of the choreography during these attacks, so when an engine exploded, you’d see debris tear through the fuselage. By handling things in as modular a way as possible, we could do smoke, fire and debris from hits on the planes discreetly.”

—Brian Connor, Co-Supervisor

Flak bursts are encountered during the raid. DNEG TV was able to streamline production of elaborate element-heavy action through custom code that allowed review of scene choreography prior to lengthy full renders.

Closer views of the bombers even included CG characters appearing to pilot and operate the aircraft. DNEG’s layout division was able to art-direct the flak for the highest dramatic result.

Views from onboard the bomber included foreground elements shot by production combined with CG exterior environments ranging from a bomber going down after being hit, to a panorama of flak-induced mayhem.

“There are strafing runs from German bombers featured here, and [Production Visual Effects Supervisor] Matt [Kasmir], who is old-school like me in that we like blowing stuff up, made sure production shot plenty of practical pyro [courtesy Special Effects Supervisor Renato Agostini]. Production’s stuff was very blown-out, with less detail than you might expect, so matching that while expanding upon it was actually a bit tricky.”

—Brian Connor, Co-Supervisor

It’s a hit! Allied bombing raid takes out a bridge. While background plates were sometimes used with little enhancement, others served as reference for digital matte paintings.

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