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August 24
2021

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VIVA LAS VEGAS IN ARMY OF THE DEAD

By TREVOR HOGG

Las Vegas is a principal character in the storyline, with Framestore handling the aftermath of the military bombing the city with napalm in an effort to kill the zombies.

Before hanging out with the Spartans in 300 and superheroes from the DC Universe, filmmaker Zack Snyder followed in the tradition of George Romero by depicting a zombie-infested world with his feature directorial debut Dawn of the Dead. He revisits the genre with the Netflix release of Army of the Dead which has the undead being the major obstacle for a casino heist in Las Vegas. Framestore created over 500 visual effects shots which included post-apocalyptic Sin City, a zombie tiger known as Valentine, and replacing scandal-plagued Chris D’Elia with Tig Notaro.

“There were never any specific creative directions to have callback references to Dawn of the Dead, but whether through Zack’s aesthetic some of that crept in I am sure there was some of that,” notes Framestore Visual Effects Supervisor Bob Winter. “In terms of how they communicated the creative vision to us, Army of the Dead was treated as a new property and world.”

Las Vegas is a principal character in the storyline, with Framestore handling the aftermath of the military bombing the city with napalm in an effort to kill the zombies. “I went with a team and did an acquisition in Las Vegas for two weeks which included an aerial shoot,” explains Winter. “Our whole approach was to start with a good foundation and get the correct scope and scale of Las Vegas. Early on there was concept art that did a nice job showing what Las Vegas needed to look like. Sets were built for intersections so we had a clear idea of the production design and the texture of the world. We looked at skyscrapers that had already been burned out and what areas looked like weeks or months after a bombing. Over time, the desert has started to reclaim the landscape with the dirt and dust. We had a clear visual target of the texture of the city and what we were trying to create.” The trademark neon lights no longer work. “Las Vegas is so recognizable even in that state with iconic things such as the Luxor Pyramid, Replica Statue of Liberty and Bellagio Fountain. Because of the sheer size of that world, it was necessary that we optimize our instancing as much as possible.”

Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) and Vanderoche (Omari Hardwick) have to pack some serious fire power to fend off zombies in Las Vegas.

Framestore looked at skyscrapers that had already been burned out and what areas looked like weeks or months after a bombing.

Framestore was responsible for replacing Chris D’Elia with Tig Notaro.

Zack Snyder, who made his feature directorial debut in 2004 with Dawn of the Dead, returns to the zombie genre with Army of the Dead.

“We did a lineup of Chris [D’Elia] and painted him out. We often placed our Tig [Notaro] scan model in there as well.  The two actors were substantially different in terms of stature but it allowed us to do a verification and to decide where we wanted to cheat it to make the framing or eyeline work. It kept us sane with our approach rather than trying to guess and figure it out.”

—Bob Winter, Visual Effects Supervisor, Framestore

Framestore started with a realistic-looking tiger and then added zombie features and characteristics to create Valentine.

Not only were people being turned into zombies but also tigers. “We knew from seeing the concept art that there was a lot of decay and other aspects to it that were hard to interpret on their own,” states Winter. “We had to figure out how they were going to resolve into a believable creature. We started with a realistic looking tiger and then added zombie features characteristics. Carol Baskin at the Big Cat Rescue in Florida liked that we were creating a CG version rather than using a real tiger. An elderly female white tiger called Sapphire was used as our basis because she was the right size – there is a little bit of her in Valentine.

“You learn quickly that it looks weird if a creature doesn’t have any muscle volume on their leg,” Winter continues. “We began to figure out where we needed to show that the anatomy was still intact. It was essential to have the stand-in [a stunt performer performed in green suit], especially when choreographing the stunt scenes with the actors.” Martin, portrayed by Garret Dillahunt, gets mauled by Valentine. “It was a challenging physical performance for a quadruped that had to lift someone off the ground. Tigers don’t do that. I credit our animation team for doing a good job of finding natural poses and getting the relationship between her and Martin working. It definitely turned out to be a violent scene.”

Framestore Visual Effects Supervisor João Sita joined the production to assist with the digital replacements of Chris D’Elia with Tig Notaro. “When we got the actor replacements, Bob was ramping up for another project, so I was brought in to take over the work,” Sita explains. “In many ways it was good to have the plates prior,   because for the reshoots they had a target for the lighting, props and camera angles. Framestore provided techvis so that camera moves could be recreated. The movie has a look that comes from the Canon 50mm f/0.95 ‘Dream Lens’ which has a shallow depth of field. In some instances, plates were shot with those lens aberrations, and we had already developed the recipe to create that. Due to the eyelines and height differences, there was a point where creative choices were made. When we were putting the element coverage into the shots, there were times where we thought, ‘She’s looking too small. How do we address that? We need to bring her closer to the camera.’ Or, ‘bring her to the right or left so that the eyeline matches.’”

It was important to minimize the amount of guesswork. “We did a lineup of Chris and painted him out,” remarks Winter. “We often placed our Tig scan model in there as well.  The two actors were substantially different in terms of stature but it allowed us to do a verification and to decide where we wanted to cheat it to make the framing or eyeline work. It kept us sane with our approach rather than trying to guess and figure it out.”

“You learn quickly that it looks weird if a creature [a tiger] doesn’t have any muscle volume on their leg, We began to figure out where we needed to show that the anatomy was still intact. It was essential to have the stand-in [a stunt performer performed in green suit], especially when choreographing the stunt scenes with the actors. It was a challenging physical performance for a quadruped that had to lift someone off the ground. Tigers don’t do that. I credit our animation team for doing a good job of finding natural poses and getting the relationship between her and Martin working. It definitely turned out to be a violent scene.”

—Bob Winter, Visual Effects Supervisor, Framestore

There are different types of zombies with the alphas displaying intelligence and speed.

A stunt performer in a green suit was used as stand-in for when Martin (Garret Dillahunt) gets mauled by Valentine.

Iconic Las Vegas landmarks make an appearance, such as the Replica Statue of Liberty.

The only way to get the mass of zombies needed for establishing shots was through crowd simulations.

Two weeks was spent doing LiDAR and photogrammetry acquisitions in Las Vegas, which included an aerial shoot.

“There was a lot of work in terms of interaction with the ground, like distorting the shadows to make it feel like the footsteps are going across the correct terrain and adjusting all of the metallic surfaces on her body, stuff that would give a photographic quality that we didn’t necessarily have matched with the on-set lighting. We would force a lot of that to make the shot more believable.”

—João Sita, Visual Effects Supervisor, Framestore

A mixture of techniques was used in post and editorial to allow for a seamless integration. “There were shots of Tig against a set by herself, but when you see the reverse it’s the other actors in the previous photography,” states Sita. “Then you have shots of CG Tig amongst the actors where we worked on the asset and matched to the light. There are shots where Tig was shot against a greenscreen with the camera move being mimicked. We would select sections of that to put into our shot. There was a lot of work in terms of interaction with the ground, like distorting the shadows to make it feel like the footsteps are going across the correct terrain and adjusting all of the metallic surfaces on her body, stuff that would give a photographic quality that we didn’t necessarily have matched with the on-set lighting. We would force a lot of that to make the shot more believable.”

Winter was impressed with the thoughtfulness of Snyder and Production Visual Effects Supervisor Marcus Taormina. “Credit to Zack and Marcus because this wasn’t, ‘Lets grab the actor and do it.’ They were conscious of the lighting and in choosing shots where Tig could be integrated without eyeline issues.”

Watch the Netflix VFX breakdown video showcasing how Tig Notaro was inserted into shots, replacing Chris D’Elia in Army of the Dead. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7mlj9eQkmd0


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