Now, that's timing! Right in the midst of the worst financial crisis in 80 years, Columbia Pictures releases an ambitious thriller in which the bad guy is actually... a corrupt bank. At a time when once-respectable bankers are considered crooks, The International (opening today) focuses on the investigation of INTERPOL agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) on the murky activities of one of the world's most powerful financial institutions.
Directed by Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run), the movie boasts some 550 vfx shots, all produced at Prague-based Universal Production Partners (UPP). The project was shepherded by VFX Supervisor Viktor Muller, VFX Producer Vit Komrzy and CG Supervisor Jaroslav Matys. "UPP had done a number of large projects for U.S.-based production companies, however The International was our first large project with Sony Pictures," Muller says. "We very much appreciated the opportunity to work on this type of project. It consolidates our position as being attractive to U.S. filmmakers. Tom Tykwer was very busy during the project and was not able to be in Prague. He preferred to have meetings during the editing process. We used CineCync conferences and FTP for daily business communication."
Being strongly based in reality, the movie required mostly "invisible" effects shots, which included crowd replication, set extensions, greenscreen composites, a 3D landing plane, 3D bats, a 3D replica of the Guggenheim Museum, a 3D chandelier in the main museum hall, gunfire in the museum, snow additions and 2D architecture enhancements.
Recreating A Landmark Location
A key sequence takes place in and around the famed Guggenheim Museum in New York City. At the time of principal photography, the building was undergoing a major renovation. The exterior of the building was entirely covered with scaffolding and tarpaulin, which was obviously quite a problem for the team -- no one wanted to see building construction on-screen. It meant that UPP had to recreate digitally one of most revered architectural landmarks in the world.
"All the CG work on the museum exterior was carried out in Softimage software -- modeling, texturing, lighting, etc.," Muller remembers. "The model was rendered in mental ray. One of the most critical issues was painting out the original building from the plates, while dealing with many people on the sidewalks and cars in the street. We had to keep a believable interaction between all these elements in the scene. No bluescreens were used in this shoot. Because the plates were shot in winter, everybody was wearing dark clothes in the scene, and they were all walking in front of the dark tarpaulin -- kind of a worst-case scenario in terms of rotoscoping! Most of the time, it turned out to be simpler to replace them with CG extras.
"Also, because of the scaffolding, the museum occupied a much larger space in the original plate than the actual structure that we had to create. Once we painted it out, we couldn't simply composite our CG building in. There were lots of missing parts in the background all around it, which we had to reconstruct via matte paintings. So, it was quite an undertaking."
The interior scenes also required heavy digital work, as the team had access to the first three floors only, and only for a few shots. Most of the sequence was shot on a soundstage in which the upper part of the museum's spiral atrium was recreated. This allowed the team to create all the mayhem that the sequence necessitated.
"We did set extensions on all the high angle shots, adding the top half and the dome on the real museum shots, or the bottom half on all the stage shots," Muller notes. "In order to create a perfect continuity between the real location and the digital extensions, we shot more than 1,000 reference photographs of the museum interior. We would like to use this opportunity to thank the museum staff for their very kind and helpful collaboration. They also provided us with plans and still photographs, which was very helpful. The reference photographs were subsequently used to build the textures for our set extensions and matte paintings work. We didn't have to render the museum's walls, as these original textures were incorporated in the model directly. We did use global illumination for the glass reflection. The domed roof of the building was built as a 3D model. All the bullet holes, debris, and blood stains were created via matte painting.
"The real challenge on these set extensions was tracking. Because of the style of lighting, the very specific curved design of the building and the limited number of shots, it was practically impossible to place and use tracking points. In addition, Tom Tykwer likes to move the camera a lot, which meant that we had to do very complicated 3D camera tracking." That task was performed using PF Track. Depending on the shot and the element, modeling, rigging and animation were carried out using Motion Builder, Massive, Maya or XSI. mental ray or Softimage XSI were the rendering platforms, while the compositing tool was either Flame, Nuke or Shake.
The Guggenheim Museum destruction sequence presented even greater challenges with the fall of a huge glass structure that is suspended in the atrium. Cornered by vicious henchmen, Agent Salinger shoots at the fictitious piece of art to get it to smash down on his pursuers. "We first had to create the chandelier, then animate its fall, smash it down on the ground, simulate the panels' fragmentation, and create a convincing interaction with the actors. The piece of art was completely created in CGI. It had to look modern, real and all its patterns clearly visible. We first prepared animatics to nail down what was required, and then built the 3D chandelier in Softimage. The most challenging part was its destruction. The simulation of the fragmentation was very demanding, as it had to be realistic down to very minute details, with thousands of glass fragments falling down and interacting with bullet hits," Muller says.
The fragmentation was created via rigid body simulation, using Softimage|XSI's deformation system. For the detail work, footage of real glass fragments was used as a reference. "The scene was done as follows: the basic shape of the chandelier was hung above the set from a small crane via a chain, then it came crashing to the ground. At this point, the plate featured some real pieces of wood falling on stuntmen. So, we really had to add all the destruction. The trickiest part was to simulate the chandelier hitting the ground, while still having the structure and the debris interact with the actors. We also found out that it was quite difficult to simulate the real texture of the material: the glass pieces had to be transparent in the beginning, but after they hit the floor, they had to appear opaque and frosted. This had to be incorporated in the 3D animation to make sure that nothing in the sequence didn't feel real. The camera angles made the simulation difficult too, as in some shots, the chandelier virtually covered the whole frame. Plus, the director wanted the chandelier to be destroyed in a very gradual process; some parts had to be damaged at one point, other parts had to remain intact longer."
The other major effects sequence in The International features the assassination of a character in the middle of a large assembly. Since the scene didn't require a huge live crowd, it was decided to use crowd replication instead of a digital simulation. "We had very limited time to shoot the plates for this scene. We did four or five passes for each shot, moving a group of extras around to capture the whole scene. Nine cameras were used, including one in the helicopter. We had to be very careful with the lights synchronization. We did have to use 3D animation in the end though, in particular to adjust the traffic in the street, and also to create the crowd for all the helicopter shots -- a 2D approach wouldn't have worked in this case."
3D animation was also employed to create a shot in which a plane was seen landing. The whole shot was CGI.
The International definitely was a very high profile for UPP, and the facility looks back on the project with a sense of pride. "For UPP, the most important thing is the client satisfaction," Muller concludes. "We know that only satisfied clients will bring us other jobs. The feedback from Sony on this project has been very positive, and we were very proud to have been a part of this team."
Alain Bielik is the founder and editor of renowned effects magazine S.F.X, published in France since 1991. He also contributes to various French publications, both print and online, and occasionally to Cinefex. In 2004, he organized a major special effects exhibition at the Musée International de la Miniature in Lyon, France.