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October 30
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

VFX IS THE GLUE THAT SEALS THE ‘BOND’ IN ‘NO TIME TO DIE’

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of EON Productions, United Artists Releasing and Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios

Framestore digitally enhanced a scene when Safin (Rami Malek) fires into a frozen lake with an automatic rifle at a figure swimming underneath. 

Navigating through a series of personal and professional obstacles to prevent a worldwide crisis is a staple of the James Bond franchise, but this time around life was imitating art when making No Time to Die. 

Originally, Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) was supposed to direct the 25th installment, and while in pre-production he was replaced with Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre) and an entirely new script, the 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios in England accidentally got blown up by a “controlled explosion,” Bond star Daniel Craig suffered an on-set injury, and the April 2020 release was delayed to October 2021 because of the impact of the pandemic. The fifth and final appearance of Craig as the lethal, martini-loving MI6 operative has him brought out of retirement by the CIA to rescue a scientist from a megalomaniac with a technology that threatens the existence of humanity. 

Fukunaga is no stranger to adversity, having battled malaria and losing his camera operator to injury during the first day of shooting Beasts of No Nation. “The walls of the stage came down, which was a bummer because we needed that stage space and Pinewood was completely booked. Quite often, when we finished shooting a set – that was it. There was no going back two months later for a pickup shot. That created a major logistical complex puzzle for the rest of our shoot. Daniel getting injured meant that we had to shuffle around again when we were already in this complex Twister game.” 

Cary Joji Fukunaga (Director), Daniel Craig (James Bond) and Lashana Lynch (Nomi) on the 007 sound stage at Pinewood Studios.

There was no additional time added to the pre-production schedule despite the directorial changeover. “We started all over from page one,” Fukunaga elaborates. “What that meant was writing took place all the way through production. I did something similar like that on Maniacs. We knew our ins and outs, but didn’t always have the inside of it completely fleshed out. The communication involved with having five units going at the same time and keeping everyone in continuity was a major task.” 

Previs was critical in filling in the gaps of the narrative. “There were several sequences that would get rewritten in the editing,” explains co-editor Tom Cross (Whiplash). “Sometimes they would be shooting some parts at a certain time and weeks or months later shoot other parts of it. In a way, that gave us time to work with previs and postvis and try to mock up a template for how these scenes could be completed.” 

Digital augmentation was an important element in achieving a visual cohesiveness. “You know that a lot of film was going to be shot from all of these different locations at various times and visual effects was one of the glues that held it all together,” Cross says. 

A sound mix was created for the previs by supervising sound editor Oliver Tarney (The Martian). “There were certain things, like when the guy walks up to the car and shoots at Bond, that were to me as much an audio experience as they were a visual experience,” states Fukunaga. “I wanted the audience to be inside that car, to hear what it is like to have bullets hitting you from all sides.” 

“Cary is from the school of Christopher Nolan where he went into Bond wanting to get as much practical as possible,” remarks co-editor Elliot Graham (Steve Jobs). “Because of the schedule and Daniel’s injury, we had to rely more on visual effects.” 

A total of 1,483 visual effects shots are in the final cut. “It took so many man hours alone just to review shots that it would have been too much to do by myself,” admits Fukunaga. “It required an entire team whose curatorial eye had to be sharp to determine whether a shot was worthy to be brought to the review stage. Some shots were going to be entirely visual effects because those things you can’t do in real life. I found it actually quite liberating because my first films didn’t have much money for visual effects, so I was hesitant to rely on them for anything. I wanted the suspension of disbelief to be bulletproof, which meant I tried to do as much in camera as possible. As budgets have increased and allowed for some of the best craftspeople working on the visual effects, I could relax control and trust that we were going to get spectacular shots.” 

Unpredictable weather had an impact on the production, particularly on a scene that takes place on the Scottish Highlands “It was supposed to be a blue-sky chase, which it was for much of the main unit shoot,” recalls Graham. “However, while we were there with the second unit it rained the entire time and the roads were covered in mud. These were car-flipping stunts, so you have to be careful because people’s lives are much more important. They did the stunt once. We waited four hours, gave up, did it in the rain, and hoped that we could paint out the rain the best we could. 

The greenscreen was subsequently turned into a high-rise building by Framestore.

 

Fires and damage were digitally added by ILM for the action sequence that takes place in Matera, Italy.

 

Framestore was responsible for the winter environment and frozen lake where Safin hunts his human adversaries.

“We really needed a third time,” Graham continues, “because we didn’t get the shot where Bond’s car knocks into this other car. It was just raining too damn much, and by the time it cleared up a few days later we had to move on because of the schedule. That left us in the position of me asking for a plate of Bond’s car pretending to knock into another car. Visual effects could add the second car in later. Those are the practical realities of filmmaking.” 

A veteran of the James Bond franchise is Special Effects Supervisor Chris Corbould (Inception). “The great thing was having the classic DB5 back and not just in a cameo role but in full combat mode,” Corbould says. “Combining that with the wonderful town and tower in Matera, Italy was masterful. My department was responsible for putting together all of the gadgets on the cars, making the pod cars where you have a stunt driver on the roof, as well as all of the explosions and bullet effects.” 

The roads were like polished stone, Corbould adds. “We had to put on special tires so that we didn’t skid around too much. Only one road goes through Matera and thankfully we were able to shut it down on many occasions.” 

LED stages were utilized for close-up shots of actors during the car chases. “We built LED stages very much like we did on First Man,” explains Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (La La Land). “This time 2.8mm pitch LED panels connected making a 270-degree, 20-foot-radius cylinder surrounding a car, and a ceiling with LEDs as well. At one point, we used a squarish cube set up around some vehicles. For these scenes we shot plates with an array of nine cameras on a sporty vehicle and brought this footage to the stage. This way we could both shoot and light the scene with footage from the actual environment and just an added 5K Tungsten Par on a hydroscope crane working as a sun.” 

A special gimbal was produced for the interior of a sinking boat with passengers trapped inside. “It was like a rotisserie that could revolve around and then drop down on one end and completely submerge into a 20-foot-deep tank of water with one of the main actors inside,” remarks Corbould. “It was 50-feet long and could roll around 360 degrees. When we started, the engine was on the bottom of the boat, then as it started sinking the engine revolves around, and add to that copious amounts of compressed air as if air pockets are escaping. It makes for an exciting sequence.” 

Then there was a matter of a seaplane. “A seaplane is driving along the ground trying to get enough speed to take off while being chased by gunboats,” describes Corbould. “For that we made a plane with an engine driving its wheels with no propeller on so we could drive up and down to our heart’s content with a driver underneath.”

A high-flying Antonov was, in reality, grounded. “We had to put a mechanism that made it look like the glider was being pulled out from the back of the plane to allow it to drop through the air,” Corbould reveals. “It was easier to do on the ground and safer, especially when you’ve got your main actors in there. In these days of digital effects, you can easily put bluescreen or greenscreen for the sky outside of the back of a transport plane.”

Overseeing the visual effects were Supervisor Charlie Noble (Jason Bourne), Co-Supervisor Jonathan Fawkner (Guardians of the Galaxy), and producer Mara Bryan (Dark City), with the work divided among Framestore, ILM, DNEG, TPO VFX and Cinesite. “There were four prongs of attack to the action sequences, storyboarded by Steve Forrest-Smith and his team,” explains Noble. “2D animatics were then produced for certain sections using recced location stills/video and animated line drawings by Adrian Spanna at Monkeyshine. Subsections of these were then previs’d by Pawl Fulker at Proof using initial location LiDAR scans and previs or art department models. The stunt department also shot rehearsals of specific action beats. This gave Cary the ability to increase the level of detail as required for shot planning/techvis purposes to disseminate his vision.” 

Principal photography on the ice lake, when the disfigured antagonist Safin (Rami Malek) fires an automatic rifle at someone swimming below him, was complicated by the natural elements. “The opening scene in Norway on the ice was shot under varying lighting and weather conditions,” states Noble. “We needed to add snow to the trees and make the ice itself clearer with small dustings of drifted snow. One shot from the sequence was selected as the hero look for the sequence. Framestore built and lit a CG environment based on that. This then gave us a guide to aim at for each angle, retaining as much of the original photography as possible while laying in our snowy trees, atmosphere and ice surface.”

Encapsulating the variety of visual effects created for No Time to Die is the Norway safehouse escape that goes across moors, through a river and into the woods. “Largely in-camera with a lot of cleanup of tire tracks, stunt ramps and some repositioning of chase vehicles for continuity, which involved removing in- camera action, replacing terrain and adding CG vehicles, bikes, and any dirt or water sprays as required, but leaving the majority of the frame untouched.”

Most of the sets and locations required some degree of digital augmentation. “We took a dedicated LiDAR scanning and plate/photo texturing team with us wherever we went and sent them to places where we would need to capture environments to integrate into principle photography,” states Noble.

A greyscale model of the gilder containing Bond and Nomi along with the final version created by DNEG.  

 

ILM handled a signature action sequence involving Bond spinning a DB5 around while firing built-in machine guns.

“For example, for the Cuba street scene we had a huge set built on the Pinewood backlot, which required buildings to be topped up and streets extended. Art Director Andrew Bennett (Skyfall) provided us with an excellent layout for what should go where, and we sent our team out to Havana and Santiago de Cuba to scan and texture the desired building styles for street extensions. Building top-up plans were provided by Andrew and realized using set textures and extrapolated set surveys. At the end of the scene, Bond and Valdo Obruchev (David Dencik) escape using Nomi’s (Lashana Lynch) seaplane, moored in the port of Santiago. The foreground was shot at a small wharf in Port Antonio, Jamaica, the mid-ground port cranes were constructed from plates and surveys of Kingston port, and the background skyline came from our Cuba stills.” 

A set extension of the submarine base was created by DNEG to replace the bluescreen.

 

Greyscale modeling and final shot of a boat sinking into a burning and watery grave courtesy of DNEG.

Both greenscreen and bluescreen were deployed depending on the scenario. “Exterior work is always a bit trickier with the wind to contend with,” notes Noble. “We often used telehandlers carrying 20-foot x 20-foot screens outside, either lined up to make a wall or to top up existing fixed screens [on the backlot for example]. It was really handy to be able to dress them in shot-by-shot as opposed to building acres of green for every eventuality. They came into their own on the Cuba streets set – we had six on the perimeter of the set, and they maneuvered themselves into place to give us as much coverage as possible on top of the 30-foot-high fixed screens that we had surrounding the build, which had some complex elements to contend with: overhead power cables, telegraph poles, wet downs, vines, and explosions towards the end of the scene.” 

A broad range of simulations needed to be integrated into the live-action photography. “Huge dust/concrete explosions to match real SFX ones, fireballs roiling down corridors, fire, smoke, mist, foliage, masonry hits, crowd, water, ocean, bubbles underwater, shattering glass, clothing and hair,” remarks Noble. “For the most part we were matching to in-camera special effects, surrounding shots, and other takes where we were needing to slip timings or separate reference elements. 

“The trawler sinking required some complex simulations that all had to interact with one another,” Noble comments. “While patches of oil burn on the water surface, pockets of air are released from the submerging hull along with foam, bubbles, floating detritus, and sea spray from all the activity. Other simulations needed were volumetric passes for light scattering under the water, in particular for the boat’s lights, as well as interactive simulations on the trawler’s nets as it submerges and all the props such as crates, buoys, life raft, and more oil spewing from the damaged engine room.”

Digital doubles were used sparingly because of the success of the stunt department led by Lee Morrison (The Rhythm Section). “Digital doubles were mainly utilized to massage stunt performer body shapes and posture to match surrounding shots on the cast,” reveals Noble. “Face replacements were also required for the principal cast at various points for either scheduling or safety reasons. Some limbs were replaced where actors were required to wear stunt padding over bare skin. A good example would be the fight scene in the Cuba bar where Paloma (Ana de Armas) takes out a few goons with high kicks and flying kicks. Digital limbs and stilettos were used to replace padding and trainers.”

The usual adversaries made their appearance in post-production. “The challenges of volume and time were greatly eased by bringing in Jonathan Fawkner as Co-Supervisor and we divided the vendors between us,” says Noble. “My profound thanks to Mara Bryan, Jonathan Fawkner and Framestore, Mark Bakowski at ILM, Joel Green at DNEG and Salvador Zalvidea at Cinesite for their lovely work.”


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