Getting Trippy VFX for Looper
VFX pro Karen Goulekas (Green Lantern, The Day After Tomorrow) found working on Looper to be refreshing in so many ways. First, just working with director Rian Johnson (Brick) on the trippy, time-traveling, sci-fi/actioner was creatively satisfying. Second, Looper is such a unique movie with a strong visual language that it needed top flight VFX to help pull it off.
However, Johnson came in with an anti-CG bias, so Goulekas made it her mission to turn him into a convert. But then Goulekas had no choice: she needed A-list VFX to create convincing work.
"I kind of understand where Rian was coming from," Goulekas says, "because there's so much bad CG that gets done out there and that's the stuff you notice unless it's a really good, in your face, CG character. But when it's done seamlessly, you don't notice it. That's why it was so important to me that we got good vendors, obviously for my own personal craft, but also in support of Rian's vision."
In the end, Johnson was pleased; he thought the VFX looked real. "He was even picking up the lingo," Goulekas adds. "'Hey, Karen, let's give it a little comping: Is that a halo I see?' Then we'd be comping dust and he'd say, 'It doesn't look like they comp'd it based on the luminance of the plate.' So I'd make a note of it and I'd line up all the shots and show Rian the changes and I'd follow up."
In fact, Looper was Goulekas' first indie experience and she got her first taste of globalization. She even got to collaborate with some old pals and new people she's admired that she didn't think she could afford at first. But they wanted to work with Johnson and were flexible with their prices and scheduling. Scanline VFX's Munich division handled the tricky telekinesis; Hydraulx did impressive decomposition of victims; and Atomic Fiction took on futuristic cityscapes.
"CG effects work included the initial telekinesis shockwave as it radiates out and knocks over a van, the big telekinesis effects of rising and swirling debris, telekinetically affected debris that breaks out of the soil and CG sugar cane set extensions," explains Scanline CG supervisor Ivo Klaus. "The main idea we received from the production was that the effects were going into the telekinesis shots to convey a sense of drama. There was to be a progression of ever faster flying debris until finally something important happens and everything slows down again until the telekinetic effect falters and stops."
As with everything else Scanline did, the prominent elements were developed first and then details were added. Manually animated debris pieces went together with Thinking Particles animations, Particle Flow animations and Flowline simulations used for some sand effects and dust. The most complex effects were the pieces of debris that would break through the soil and rise upwards. "We fractured the ground geometry to a high degree and then pushed bigger chunks from below ground against it so that some smaller pieces would rise but others would fall back down to the ground," Klaus continues. "We also created a version were we actually simulated a couple of million sand particles and pushed those upward with the fractured geometry."
Each shot pertaining to the shockwaves had to be treated individually because they were so different from each other: the top shot of the shockwave blasting outward, the shockwave rushing away from camera and flinging actress into the air, the shockwave traveling from left to right and flinging actor into the air, the shockwave seen from afar through the window of a van and finally the shockwave hitting the van.