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May 16
2023

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

HOW CRAFTY APES DELIVERED YEAR-ROUND CHRISTMAS CHEER FOR VIOLENT NIGHT

By CHRIS McGOWAN

Images courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Santa (David Harbour) wields his hammer against mercenaries holding a wealthy family hostage during Christmas time. Director Tommy Wirkola sought to keep the visuals warm and seasonal, despite the mayhem.

Santa (David Harbour) wields his hammer against mercenaries holding a wealthy family hostage during Christmas time. Director Tommy Wirkola sought to keep the visuals warm and seasonal, despite the mayhem.

It’s a snowy Christmas Eve and a crack team of mercenaries has taken a wealthy and powerful family hostage in their luxurious mansion. Led by the self-named “Scrooge” (John Leguizamo), the criminals are well organized but have not anticipated a crucial detail: Santa Claus (David Harbour) has also arrived there while making his rounds with sleigh and reindeer. Furthermore, this is not your traditional Santa; rather, he is hard-drinking, gluttonous and tattooed, with a violent past – before becoming St. Nick, he was a Viking warrior named Nikamund the Red, wielder of a fearsome hammer. And when the night’s mayhem ensues, his reindeer flee, leaving him stranded. While there, the cynical Santa takes pity on a sweet little girl, Trudy (Leah Brady), who is among the hostages, and he decides to rescue her.

Tommy Wirkola directed the 87North Productions film, distributed by Universal Pictures. Beverly D’Angelo, Alex Hassell, Alexis Louder and Edi Patterson were also in the cast. Crafty Apes, which provided the VFX, came to be involved because “we have been fortunate to work on multiple projects with Kelly McCormick and David Leitch and their 87North shingle over the years,” comments Matt Akey, Chief Marketing Office and Executive Producer at Crafty Apes.

The self-named villain “Scrooge” (John Leguizamo) ties up Santa with Christmas lights in another upending of seasonal convention. (Photo: Allen Fraser)

The self-named villain “Scrooge” (John Leguizamo) ties up Santa with Christmas lights in another upending of seasonal convention. (Photo: Allen Fraser)

Violent Night required some unusual VFX, including a digi-double Santa, CG sleigh and reindeer, magical travel through fireplaces, Christmas weapon extensions, snow-augmented environments and an AR-like naughty-and-nice list. An action-comedy for the holiday season, the film has elements of Die Hard and Home Alone, but is over-the-top bloody and definitely not for children. Yet, Violent Night manages to achieve a cheery seasonal look despite a whole lot of gruesome violence. “The film’s director, Tommy Wirkola, was very clear in his direction and what the movie should feel like. Despite the dark tones and humor, the essence of the film still needed to be a feel-good Christmas movie. We always relate Christmas to magic. It is what gives the film a heart, and that’s what we went after. We kept the visuals bright and sparkly,” says Crafty Apes VFX Producer Neh Jaiswal.

“The film’s director, Tommy Wirkola, was very clear in his direction and what the movie should feel like. Despite the dark tones and humor, the essence of the film still needed to be a feel-good Christmas movie. We always relate Christmas to magic. It is what gives the film a heart, and that’s what we went after. We kept the visuals bright and sparkly.”

—Neh Jaiswal, VFX Producer, Crafty Apes

Santa and reindeer are on the roof, with a boost from bluescreen.

Santa and reindeer are on the roof, with a boost from bluescreen.

Santa and reindeer are on the roof, with a boost from bluescreen.

Crafty Apes VFX Supervisor Aleksandra Sienkiewicz adds that Wirkola “wanted colors to pop, be bright, red, white and magical. Same with the set design, there is lots of warmth on set coming from the fireplaces, lights and interior design to make you feel cozy and embrace the Christmas ambiance.” Wirkola and Co-Producer Leitch also wanted the fights to have some Christmas spirit, she notes. “All of Santa’s weapons involved Christmas ornaments, candy canes, Christmas stars and Santa’s sack.”

Sienkiewicz continues, “We started look dev early in pre-production to ensure we set up the tone and look with Tommy while we were on set. We had our team back in [our] Vancouver and L.A. studios working on early FX sims, led by FX Supervisor Andrew Furlong and FX artists Jaclyn Stauber and Árni Freyr Haraldsson, while we were shooting back in Winnipeg. That was great to have constant feedback early in the game before we got all the plate turnovers.”

Crafty Apes’ CG team led by Jon Balcome was in charge of generating eight reindeer. Industrial Pixels was responsible for scanning the reindeer.

Crafty Apes’ CG team led by Jon Balcome was in charge of generating eight reindeer. Industrial Pixels was responsible for scanning the reindeer.

Crafty Apes’ CG team led by Jon Balcome was in charge of generating eight reindeer. Industrial Pixels was responsible for scanning the reindeer.

Crafty Apes’ CG team led by Jon Balcome was in charge of generating eight reindeer. Industrial Pixels was responsible for scanning the reindeer.

“[Director Tommy Wirkola] wanted colors to pop, be bright, red, white and magical. Same with the set design, there is lots of warmth on set coming from the fireplaces, lights and interior design to make you feel cozy and embrace the Christmas ambience. All of Santa’s weapons involved Christmas ornaments, candy canes, Christmas stars and Santa’s sack.”

—Aleksandra Sienkiewicz, VFX Supervisor, Crafty Apes

Sparkly CG magic dust had to be created for Santa’s fireplace entrances and exits. Sienkiewicz recalls, “Back on set, we made sure we scanned all the rooms in the mansion, as there were several chimneys that Santa was escaping from. Our On-Set Supervisor, Adam Wagner, did a fantastic job doing photogrammetry that helped us with tracking and proper particle interactions. Industrial Pixels was responsible for Santa scans that were used to create the Santa digi-double, which we used to emit the particles and integrate with plate Santa. All the simulations were done in Houdini and composited in Nuke with the help of Point Render and Nuke particles by our amazing team led by Mark Derksen, Compositing Supervisor.”

Reindeer – practical and CG – posed a special challenge. The VFX team brainstormed several shots with reindeer with different levels of complexity.

Reindeer – practical and CG – posed a special challenge. The VFX team brainstormed several shots with reindeer with different levels of complexity.

Reindeer – practical and CG – posed a special challenge. The VFX team brainstormed several shots with reindeer with different levels of complexity.

Reindeer – practical and CG – posed a special challenge. The VFX team brainstormed several shots with reindeer with different levels of complexity.

Reindeer – practical and CG – posed a special challenge. Sienkiewicz explains, “After our first meeting with the pre-production team, director and producers reviewing the script and storyboards, we tried to figure out the logistics and the most cost-effective yet visually good-looking approach. There was lots of brainstorming involving several shots with reindeer, with different levels of complexity. From the beginning, we knew we needed two or three real reindeer. Time was pressuring us. Little did we know the reindeer were going to lose their antlers in February, so we needed all reindeer scenes to be scheduled as soon as possible. Since our main unit was shooting in Winnipeg, the only place in Canada to accommodate our request was Calgary. We decided to have a second unit in Calgary led by Wagner, who was responsible for shooting all the reindeer elements, reference photos and videos, textures, HDRI and light studies for all the shots we broke down earlier in storyboards.”

Compositing Santa and sleigh against the moon.

Compositing Santa and sleigh against the moon.

Compositing Santa and sleigh against the moon.

According to Sienkiewicz, “This material was very important to us, especially for the animation team led by Burke [Roane] and Trey Roane, to have visual references of the reindeer movement, walk cycles and overall body and head movement. Industrial Pixels was responsible for scanning the reindeer to help us with the CG models. Crafty Apes’ CG team led by Jon Balcome was in charge of generating eight reindeer, reins, sleigh and a Santa digi-double, which was fairly challenging,” explains Sienkiewicz.

“We started look dev early in pre-production to ensure we set up the tone and look with [director] Tommy [Wirkola] while we were on set. We had our team back in [our] Vancouver and L.A. studios working on early FX sims, led by FX Supervisor Andrew Furlong and FX artists Jaclyn Stauber and Árni Freyr Haraldsson, while we were shooting back in Winnipeg. That was great to have constant feedback early in the game before we got all the plate turnovers.”

—Aleksandra Sienkiewicz, VFX Supervisor, Crafty Apes

Sienkiewicz adds, “Seeing all the characters coming to life and matching our on-set reindeer was very satisfying. In terms of Santa’s sleigh, the production team designed it, but we built our own CG sled asset based on the photogrammetry and LiDAR scan used for our in-air flying shots. Tommy always had a specific mindset about how the reindeer should move; he always described it as the reindeer threading in the water instead of flying in the empty void. That was always our biggest challenge – not to make the animals look cartoonish.”

Crafty Apes’ responsibilities included buildings and environment extensions, and augmenting the cabin fire in the final act.

Crafty Apes’ responsibilities included buildings and environment extensions, and augmenting the cabin fire in the final act.

Crafty Apes’ responsibilities included buildings and environment extensions, and augmenting the cabin fire in the final act.

Violent Night was filmed in Canada in the dead of winter, with temperatures ranging mostly from -15°C to -40°C. “Most of the movie was shot in cold Winnipeg,” Sienkiewicz says. “Interior shots were shot on stage at Manitoba Film Studios [in Winnipeg]. We had several rural locations in the middle of nowhere around Winnipeg and Calgary, which were pretty cold and miserable, but we still managed to have so much fun.”

The snow was mostly cooperative. Sienkiewicz comments, “I must say we were pretty lucky with the locations during the shoot in Winnipeg, so lots of the snow was practical. The sequence that required the most VFX was the end act, where Santa and Scrooge fight in front of the cabin ruins.” Due to extremely cold temperatures, “we decided to replicate the cabin in the studio and do set extensions behind the cabin where the snowmobile crashed. Adam Wagner took reference photos and plates that we stitched together and created a panorama that we re-projected on several cards in 3D space to create the environment behind it.” Jaiswal recalls, “We did a good amount of barn and mansion extensions, but most of the wintry landscape was scouted and on set. As nature intended, there were some no-snowfall days during the shoot period, and some days had a fair amount of snowfall. We had to add in falling snow in a number of shots at the end sequence to maintain continuity.” Cold weather was also a factor in other ways. “Having iPads and cameras dying all the time, tracking markers not sticking to the bluescreen or our feet turning into icicles was a struggle,” Sienkiewicz explains.

“From the beginning, we knew we needed two or three real reindeer. Time was pressuring us. Little did we know the reindeer were going to lose their antlers in February, so we needed all reindeer scenes to be scheduled as soon as possible. Since our main unit was shooting in Winnipeg, the only place in Canada to accommodate our request was Calgary. We decided to have a second unit in Calgary led by [On-Set VFX Supervisor Adam] Wagner, who was responsible for shooting all the reindeer elements, reference photos and videos, textures, HDRI and light studies for all the shots we broke down earlier in storyboards.”

—Aleksandra Sienkiewicz, VFX Supervisor, Crafty Apes

Santa’s naughty-and-nice list looks like an ancient scroll equipped with AR. The art team incorporated Santa’s ancient Viking roots, and utilized runes, old-style calligraphic lettering and lots of magical particles to bring the scroll to life.

Santa’s naughty-and-nice list looks like an ancient scroll equipped with AR. The art team incorporated Santa’s ancient Viking roots, and utilized runes, old-style calligraphic lettering and lots of magical particles to bring the scroll to life.

Santa’s naughty-and-nice list looks like an ancient scroll equipped with AR. The art team incorporated Santa’s ancient Viking roots, and utilized runes, old-style calligraphic lettering and lots of magical particles to bring the scroll to life.

A sequence involving Santa and a snowmobile flying through the air and crashing into the snow was “super fun to shoot,” Sienkiewicz says. “It was a mix of a location shot in rural Winnipeg and an in-studio shoot, since we couldn’t shoot a snowmobile crashing outside due to logistics and freezing temperatures. The team wanted to shoot as much as possible in the camera, so the special effects team was responsible for flipping the snowmobile and the Crafty team was in charge of CG Santa flying across, set extensions to the cabin ruins and snow enhancements. Firstly, Industrial Pixels scanned David Harbour and the snowmobile, providing us with textures and reference images. Our CG team was responsible for building a Santa digi-double that was used in several shots. We object-tracked the snowmobile and passed that to our animation team, who did the magic!”

While a lot of the fight scenes were shot practically, there were significant CG components for some scenes, according to Jaiswal, who comments, “The fight sequence inside the barn involved a lot of CG blood, a CG blade for the snowblower as one of the mercenaries gets pulled in it, [and] there are a couple of shots with a CG icicle during the scene where Linda is fighting off the mercenary, along with other sequences. Mark Derksen, our Comp Supervisor, did an amazing job leading the team to make it look seamless.”

The mansion had an impregnable vault, and it was necessary to replace and animate its doors. The CG team led by Jon Balcome and Sean Richie had to match CG to practical vault rings.

The mansion had an impregnable vault, and it was necessary to replace and animate its doors. The CG team led by Jon Balcome and Sean Richie had to match CG to practical vault rings.

The mansion had an impregnable vault, and it was necessary to replace and animate its doors. The CG team led by Jon Balcome and Sean Richie had to match CG to practical vault rings.

Sienkiewicz adds, “We had an amazing prop team, and most of the weapons were practical, but we needed to augment them in some cases whenever it was not safe for the actors. We were responsible for knife extensions, flying weapons, candy cane extensions and adding CG nails to Gingerbread’s mouth in the Home Alone sequence. We were in charge of lots and lots of blood and wound enhancements. Tommy Wirkola was very particular about how the blood should look, so it was very important for us how we approached it.”

Crafty Apes was also in charge of buildings and environment extensions and augmenting the fire in the cabin ruins in the end act, according to Sienkiewicz. In addition, “the Viking environment shots were built from scratch. Tommy wanted to include his Norwegian roots in the movie, so with the help of our amazing DMP artist, Karlie Rosin, and the compositing team led by Mark Derksen, we created a mountainy Nordic environment. All the environment is DMP reprojections in 3D space, with lots of practical and FX embers, fire and smoke composited by Aragon Pawson.”

For Santa’s naughty-and-nice list, which looks like a high-tech ancient scroll, the production aimed to create something simple-looking and aesthetically pleasing that incorporated Santa’s ancient Viking roots, says Sienkiewicz. “Firstly, we developed several concepts to help establish the look with our talented DMP artists Katrina Chiu and Ivo Horvat before we started doing any FX work, which was done with Houdini. Tommy was going for the magical, warm, organic see-through look that would tie seamlessly into the plot and other effects visible in the movie.  We decided to introduce runes, old-styled calligraphic lettering and lots of magical particles that bring the scroll to life.”

Bluescreen gives way to flaming destruction surrounding St. Nick in a flashback, to when he was a Viking warrior named Nikamund the Red, wielder of a fearsome hammer.

Bluescreen gives way to flaming destruction surrounding St. Nick in a flashback, to when he was a Viking warrior named Nikamund the Red, wielder of a fearsome hammer.

Bluescreen gives way to flaming destruction surrounding St. Nick in a flashback, to when he was a Viking warrior named Nikamund the Red, wielder of a fearsome hammer.

Sienkiewicz adds, “Lastly, the [house] vault – there were two shots where we needed to replace and animate the vault doors to spin and lock them in place. The CG team led by Jon Balcome and Sean Richie did an amazing job matching CG to practical vault rings. We were lucky to have all the data from the set and art department sketches to help us match the vault 1:1.”

Violent Night as a show grew in size for Crafty Apes. Jaiswal recalls, “The VFX segment almost doubled in terms of shots and potential complexity. So from the VFX standpoint, time was definitely a challenge. We had but a few months to deliver the show. There was constant communication with clients about upcoming deadlines and targets. But the team came through, and we were able to deliver all of our 300+ shots in a timely manner.”



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