The VFX Cure for Contagion
VFX supervisor Tom Smith has worked with director Steven Soderbergh on and off since The Limey. And when it comes to VFX, he says that Soderbergh understands its importance and pays attention to detail. Contagion, of course, is all about detail. It has to be: it's a frightening scientific procedural about understanding and containing a mysterious virus that's unleashed on the world like the Black Plague. It's gritty and shot with the Red digital camera; however, exotic shots of Hong Kong in flashback look opulent.
But overall it's a post-apocalyptic film about disturbing social and scientific reactions to a pandemic, the perfect metaphor for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But when it came to VFX, there were targeted areas, including matte paintings of Chicago, enhancement of an incident in Hong Kong and, most crucially, some animation involving the MacGuffin.
"Production got a freeway to use for the evening, north of Chicago", explains Smith of Method Studios and the production supervisor. "There's a convoy of vaccines coming into Chicago, and so there's lots of military hardware and they were able to get a couple of National Guard helicopters. I shot some still photography off a rooftop south of the city the same time of day and in the same kind of light. We put that together as a matte painting and put it into the plate. The camera does a full 180 following the helicopters." He used Photoshop from still photos using Nuke.
Meanwhile, there's a scene on the streets of Hong Kong in which one of the victims gets struck by a truck. "We have a shot where he's walking and get the vehicle moving and hitting a solid dummy," Smith continues. "We did the transition of the guy walking to the vehicle hitting the guy and the aftermath overlooking the truck. It's a quick, jarring shot."
First, they shot the plate with the guy walking out onto the street; and the camera stayed in the same position and they shot the dummy. Then the truck came through There was no digital double. "We augmented the second shot with the vehicle approaching because of the dummy," he adds. "We modeled the arms in CG. It was a pretty rigid dummy with metal armature inside. We wanted to give it life. The truck runs into it and we did a quick split over from the dummy to the character during point of impact. Then we look at it from the other angle.