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.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By IAN FAILES
These days, whenever we see a raging fire, or a plume of smoke, or a muzzle flash on the screen, there’s a high chance this has been added to the scene with visual effects. And, of course, it might be something added to the shot care of a particular stock effects element.
Effects elements have long formed part of visual effects studio libraries, and can now be purchased as pre-filmed and pre-canned elements from various providers. But how are those particular elements typically captured? Here, two visual effects studios – Rodeo FX and Mavericks VFX – and two stock effects companies – ActionVFX and The Light Shop VFX – explain how they shoot and utilize effects elements.
RAIN, HAIL OR SAND
In the time of analog and optical effects, many VFX studios had their own ‘space’ to film effects elements. Generally, those days are long gone, but Rodeo FX is one studio that has retained a dedicated 4,000-square-foot stage in which element shoots can take place. The space in Montreal, which is also set up for bluescreen/greenscreen, motion capture and LED screen filming, enables crews to shoot elements in a controlled lighting environment.
One element shoot conducted at Rodeo’s stage was for helicopter rotor wash and rain for the film Pacific Rim. “We created cut-outs of silhouettes and propelled vapor stream against them to simulate the blade wash of the helicopter on people, melted lead with a blowtorch, and filmed it macro and high speed on greenscreen to mimic melting metal in the cockpit,” recalls Robert Bock, Visual Effects Supervisor and Director of VFX Photography at Rodeo FX.
“We also built a small tabletop pool and put a vibrator underneath to create ‘fractal’ waves/textures. For water drops on the helicopters, we filmed milk and water on black screen sliding down glass. In our parking lot, we set up rain towers with sprinklers we got from Home Depot on stands, a black backdrop for showers and a collecting pool for drop textures – all filmed at high speed to help with the scale.”
Bock believes the value of these shot-specific elements – another example was a shoot on the Rodeo stage of a stand-in dressed in black, spitting out ‘sand’ to composite into a desert scene in Aquaman – is the benefit of being able to match the lens and lighting from the principal photography. And, he says, some of the element shoots are directly referenced when the final elements end up being done in computer graphics. “A very important part of our work is lookdev. We often design and experiment with abstract practical effects in order to give the director an artistic direction before going into FX and simulations. That’s a great time-saving tool.”
FIRE ON A TENNIS COURT
Mavericks VFX Founder and Visual Effects Supervisor Brendan Taylor certainly agrees with that time-saving assessment. “Shooting something for 20 minutes is way better than trying to shoehorn an element in for two hours that might not work,” Taylor says. “We’ve got the lights, we’ve got the cameras, we’ve got everything. Honestly, it’s put up two lights, set up the camera, lensing works, we’re good to go – boom!”
For the film A Dog’s Purpose, for instance, Taylor oversaw a moment that required significant fire and smoke for a front landing setting. An initial CG fire effort proved unsuccessful, so Taylor turned to the special effects company Dynamic Effects to help with a practical fire element shoot. “We rented out a space that was meant for firefighter training, built a porch and a roof that could be lit on fire at night. It was all raised up so that we could get the cameras at the same level and so the flames could be keyed against the black sky. We then took the actual roof plate and just composited those flames right in.”
It was so successful that a similar approach was repeated for a panning shot featuring the film’s star dog as it runs past fire up some stairs past a fire. The same firefighting space was not available, so instead, Taylor found an abandoned tennis court near his family cottage to capture the fire elements at night.
Another time, fire elements for a person-on-fire shot were filmed at the tennis court location on a plastic mannequin. It’s all part of Taylor’s desire to find a quick practical solution wherever possible. “A further example is for Fahrenheit 451, where we had to show a weird laser effect,” he adds. “So we rented a laser machine and a smoke machine, and we shot something and gave it to our compositors as reference. Then on The House with a Clock in Its Walls, there was a shot where acid needed to start burning through a desk. If you put acetone on Styrofoam, it gives the same effect. We just shot a bunch of elements that way.
“I don’t come from a compositor background,” comments Taylor. “I don’t come from a CG background. I come from a set-shooting background, and that stuff is really exciting and can produce amazing results, fast. I find it really, really fun.”
FILMING STOCK EFFECTS ELEMENTS
Rodeo and Mavericks tend to film elements in response to required specific shots they are working on. Productions themselves might also carry out bespoke shoots. Then there are a number of stock effects element solutions, such as elements available from ActionVFX. The company offers many element collections – fire, explosions, smoke, muzzle flashes, bullet hits, blood hits, weather effects – that it produces out of dedicated shoots.
“For one of our collections, Forest Fires, we had to source and work with large logs that were 10 feet tall and weighed close to 800 lbs. each,” details Zac VanHoy, Head of Product Development at ActionVFX. “We tested multiple accelerants to find out how to get the fire to burn long enough while also getting that deep orange flame that looks so great on camera. Since we have the ability to film at resolutions higher than 4K and also utilize the wide dynamic range of the RED cameras, we can plan for these unexpected things much better and get great takes even when something doesn’t go exactly as planned.”
ActionVFX typically keys out the background of any effects element it shoots to produce an isolated element, as well as carrying out paint work and rotoscoping to remove extraneous details. “More than likely an element needs to interact with the environment in a shot,” notes ActionVFX CEO Rodolphe Pierre-Louis. “A fire doesn’t simply float in midair; it needs a horizontal ground plane, a wall, or a tree to burn off of. So we capture all these varieties at multiple angles, on various surfaces, to ensure that the artist has all they need to comp a realistic shot.”
One recent production that utilized ActionVFX fire elements was Don’t Breathe 2. Here, visual effects studio VFX Legion used the elements to enhance existing in-plate flames, add fireballs to rooms and rooftops, and to show entire structures engulfed. There were nearly 40 VFX sequences where the elements came into play. “Due to time constraints and the sheer amount of shots, using simulated fire wasn’t a realistic option for them,” says Pierre-Louis. “Our extensive fire library helped them achieve the most realistic results.”
A new entrant in the stock effects elements arena is The Light Shop VFX, established by visual effects artist Tyler Kindred. This marketplace currently specializes in fire effects elements, live-action explosions, sparks, smoke and larger scale fire, acquired with ARRI cameras on anamorphic lenses.
Kindred recounts a shoot for some Light Shop VFX elements involving C4 explosives. “This took place on a ridge overlooking a clear blue sky, where we then had a sniper in position to shoot the explosive into detonation from a safe distance. This allowed us to key for transparency and still have this authentic earthy feel to the billowing smoke. We rely largely on veterans from the military and navy to assist with explosives, fires and firearms. This same crew also works in the film industry, and have a very safe and dedicated protocol when handling these more dangerous procedures.”
How do artists, then, use these stock effects elements? One thing that’s consistent among the shooting of these pieces of footage by the studios and companies is that VFX artists are generally also behind the actual filming. This means they tend to understand the next compositing steps of those elements.
“For example,” advises Kindred, “for fire elements, the standard process is to use blend modes, typically ‘screen’ to composite. Smoke is added separately with the same process, as well as sparks and any debris. Most compositors add some kind of glow effect, though I often refrain because I like the sharpness of the flames. You know, digital explosions have largely taken over as the go-to asset for effects, but we believe there is still a place for live-action explosives and elements.”
On Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, Rodeo FX was called upon to help realize a shot where the main protagonist (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) walks into a room to find a huge iconic spider against the back wall.
“This was the final shot of the film and was quite important,” states Rodeo’s Robert Bock. “We analyzed our options and budget and decided to go ‘old school.’ We hired an animal wrangler and did a casting of spiders. We sent casting photos of the different spiders to Denis – it’s fascinating how there is quite a range of looks in spiders – and he chose a very scary looking tarantula.”
Rodeo then built a miniature greenscreen room with painted foamcore using a scan of the actual set. Details Bock, “We cut out a window, put in diffusion and pumped 10,000 watts of lighting through it. We had to do so since we had to film at 300fps and with an f-stop of 16 to make the miniature work.”
A small ramp against the back wall for the spider to use was also built. And then the filming could commence, as Bock further describes. “As we cajoled the spider and delicately sprayed it with compressed air, it backed away in the corner of the miniature room. In order for it to be comfortable, since it was getting quite hot in there, we rented two portable air conditioners and streamed in cold air to cool the set. It worked wonderfully and the final product is quite a success. After the shoot, a member of our team even adopted the tarantula. Her name is Rosy.”