Jon Farhat tells us all about the post-apocalyptic VFX for the latest movie by the Hughes Brothers.
It's been nine years since The Hughes Brothers (Allen and Albert) made a movie -- and they've only made five -- but The Book of Eli has certainly tapped into their artistic sensibilities. Like a post-apocalyptic graphic novel, in which Denzel Washington plays a lone warrior on a religious mission, the world is dark and decimated.
And achieving that precise look was the primary vfx challenge, according to Jon Farhat, the production visual effects supervisor, who oversaw 500 shots spread out among six vendors, including Soho VFX, Hydraulx, Lola Visual Effects, Hatch, Luma Pictures and Hammerhead Prods.
"One of things we realized early on when we met mostly with Albert, who is focused like lasers on the visuals, is that he didn't want any vegetation in the movie at all until the very end," Farhat explains. "And even if you shoot in the bleakest parts of New Mexico, you're bound to find tumbleweeds because they're just there. And all the skies had to be replaced, which meant every exterior shot was an effects shot. And then, of course, you have to add to it in varying degrees of things happening, in addition to that background. So that was really a big challenge because you had a lot of what could be very simple, straightforward things, if you planned it out and got all the cloud shot. The other thing is that the clouds had to move faster than normal and we had to shoot clouds and skies for everything and they all had to match the scenes."
Farhat says Albert had a real defined look he was going for: graphic imagery inspired by comic book artists Tommy Lee Edwards, Chris Weston and Rodolfo Dimaggio for the color template, characters, sets and locations.
"He was one of the most prepared, visually, I've seen of any director, in that he did a lot of stuff on his own -- he and his storyboard artist," Farhat adds. "They did it Photoshop comps and photographs and photographers he liked. He made it really clear that he wanted a stark, silhouette, dark as possible movie, with skies that were acidy and strange. But even with the original art he was still searching and wasn't finding what he wanted and we settled on this "take the skies and neutralize them to black-and-white and then go back and have this acidy green wash." Now on a still that's easy, but if you do it in a DI, it's going to look like a DI. So after everything was done, we added this color in the DI and we came up in the DI with a way of using existing channels and offsetting them and moving them around and giving him a selection set that would move with the clouds and blur and create that kind of haze in front of the light.
"Then on top of that, you've got these single take shots at George [Michael Gambon] and Martha's [Frances De La Tour] house that's 4,461 frames of pure fun. That [shootout] was a real tough challenge, but we did an animatic of that with Albert again, who was very involved with the planning and the blocking and we did it until he liked it. And then the camera crew would rehearse it. We just took a giant crane and hung a giant bungee cord upward from the crane and mounted it on the camera and just let the camera crew run around that thing, according to how it was choreographed. And when they came up to a window, all the hook ups were going through windows or bullet holes. Albert was going for that John Woo style and wanted to see fur ball everywhere. And the challenge was to give him what he wanted. You want those real dark scenes, but we wound up shooting a lot in broad daylight with no clouds, no shadows on the ground and tons of vegetation, so there was a tremendous amount of cleanup work. And we thought we'd work around that until five weeks before the due date of the visual effects when everyone decided to do another 250 visual effects shots."
The Brothers have a definite way of collaborating intuitively. One does a cut and then the other does his own version, so when you're turning over vfx shots during shooting, it can be challenging. "So what we agreed to do is take long takes and make them shorter as we go," Farhat continues. "But every shot we started with was at least 2,500 frames. Shooting with the RED camera was great and having access to the footage instantly was good. We did all our own debayering. I've been very involved with the RED folks since the beginning, so that was an advantage."
There was quite a bit of gory CG work, mainly arms, legs, heads, blood and guts." It was really interesting to do this much CG and this much 2D and 3D mixture and then dumb it down so much," Farhat adds. "Because Albert said upfront, 'I'm going to turn all that to black and make it look like 16mm film grain.' On the one hand, it breaks your heart. Then again, we had to supply a negative that was like the original photography without the extensive DI he was going to put on it because the producers didn't know they were going to go that far with the look yet. So if you look at the original stuff that we turned over, like the scenes in the underpass, it's full of detail in the carcasses, signs, bodies. You don't see them in the final look, but I'm not complaining -- the look is good. But we had to put it all in there, just in case. It was tough working to that intense of a look. Now, if somebody had said upfront that this is the look and you only have to work in a color space to hit this, it would've been lovely. But it worked out well."
Hammerhead did the entire gun battle at George and Martha's, along with most of the arrow shots going through necks and out crotches and impaling birds and a lot of the wasteland imagery. Soho did portions of the San Francisco shots at the end and the 360-degree bar fight and the first arrow at the beginning. Hydraulx took on a lot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Luma did some 50 shots in the underpass silhouette fight. Lola did essential cosmetics and the last shot of the movie, which is very lovely one walking into the sun. And Hatch did essential matte work.
"If I were to pick a star out of all of this," Farhat suggests, "it would be Deak Ferrand of Hatch. He took on about 80 shots but they set the tone for the whole movie. I brought Deak in right away and with Albert we pretty much defined the look. Deak also did some matte paintings for the distance inside the boat ride to Alcatraz. It wasn't his sequence but it seemed like a good idea to bring him in to tie all those tones together."
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.