Jamie Dixon reveals the mastery of VFX for Michel Gondry's mysterious take on the superhero movie.
With Michel Gondry, you never quite know what you're going to get, but it's bound to be an adventure in nature and science. So, when it came to making The Green Hornet, the vfx folks were part of the adventure, too. Jamie Dixon, owner of Hammerhead Prods., was the overall visual effects supervisor, who collaborated with CIS Hollywood, CIS Vancouver, Luma Pictures, Pixomondo, among others, in pulling off Gondry's vision for The Green Hornet.
There were 650 shots, a topsy turvy production schedule, some fancy visualization of time and space, lots of bluescreen and plenty of mayhem to roto & comp, not to mention 3-D conversion.
"Instead of finishing last summer, it was pushed to the end of the year," Dixon recalls. "Then about half-way through the extension they made the decision to do the movie in 3-D. So all of a sudden, instead of having six months too many, we had six months too few. There was a big period running around to get stuff finished so it could get into the 3-D process [with several companies involved, including Stereo D and Sony Pictures Imageworks]. Luckily, we got a lot of amazing work from everybody, but we spent a lot of time managing expectations and trying to maintain everyone's enthusiasm so we could get the best work out of them."
Hammerhead did the bluescreen driving in the Black Beauty and used stunt car footage to shoot plates that allowed them to have every moment covered. That gave the editorial department a lot of flexibility. Hammerhead also did the green gas, which works as one of the funniest gags, thanks to the antics of Seth Rogen as Britt Reid/The Green Hornet.
Luma Pictures did most of 3D work: the flipping of the Black Beauty, set extensions in the printing press melee and the backgrounds for Reid and Kato popping out of the ejector seat with the floating parachute.
CIS Vancouver provided 80 shots, including greenscreen driving comps, re-speeds and paint clean-ups in a major car chase. In addition, they helped out with some roto work for Stereo D's dimensionalization.
But the most challenging and fascinating work involved Kato's unusual fighting abilities in three sequences by CIS Hollywood (under the supervision of Greg Oehler), which Gondry dubbed Kato Speed & Kato Vision.
"It's a crazy split time where everybody's going in different time frames," Dixon suggests. "And Michel Gondry was trying to illuminate that this guy had special powers of perception, and the idea was that Kato is like a hummingbird: he sees the world a little bit faster than us so he can react faster, and also has the ability to size up the threats, process what it means and then react to each threat in a very efficient way.
"The trick was showing that visually, and the first step was a fairly on the nose view of what he sees and how his brain works. There are red lines that snap into each of the various threats at a given moment, and then we go into this split time, Kato Vision thing where he dispatches everybody. And the other common way to do that is that you have the guys getting beat up in normal speed but the guy doing the ass-kicking is like a little blur zipping around between them. And what Michel wanted to do is switch that so that Kato would be going in realtime but then the people around him would be in slow-motion. It's effectively giving the audience to have Kato Vision themselves. "
All of that fight footage was shot with a Phantom camera at 300 or 150 frames-per-second and then laboriously converted into realtime. According to Oehler, CIS' challenge with the 85 shots was to break apart several interacting actors during a sequence, individually re-time them in accordance to the action, re-choreograph and integrate them back into a new scene. Because it was important to Gondry to maintain the performance of the actors and stunt performers, there were no individual plates shot. For CIS, this meant deconstructing the whole shot, rebuilding gaps in the background and in the actors themselves and reconstructing the pieces. In some cases, this entailed creating entirely alternate performances than what was shot.
"In addition, CIS developed shots where Kato's abilities were telescoped and took on a more graphical interpretation, as much at home in a graphic novel as a movie. Specifically, these included echoing techniques, where Kato's abilities affect not only his assailants, but also the environment. One shot has Kato kicking an attacker over a car and the car is pushed off into the background along with the attacker. To prevent the moment from being interpreted literally, the car spreads out like pages beneath the assailant.
Kato Vision depicts another of his skills and shows the POV environment from within Kato's eye as he assesses the fight before him. For this, CIS designed a retinal pathway into his eye so Kato's attackers could be seen as Kato sees them. Again, a stylized avenue was designed where a graphical overlay of Kato's eye tracks to the objects of danger and maps them in red. CIS built a stylized but dynamic eyeball overlay that lends a graphic interpretation to the processes in Kato's mind, and fired bright red bolts from behind camera onto the objects.
Meanwhile, at the last moment, Gondry came up with an idea for Britt Vision: a visual montage in which Reid recounts the murder of his father in flashback. "It was a very mysterious spectacle and even I had no idea what was going on at first," Dixon admits. "But it was a weird combination of science and visual storytelling that was done by Pixomondo. That was another one of these interactive flame sessions where Michel took a bucket load of pieces (including roses spinning and wigs burning) and sat there and mashed it together. As with the Kato Vision, we did an editorial pass to narrow the takes, but that really didn't come together until Pixomondo started forcing all the pieces together with Michel pushing these things around."
But it took a lot of trial and error to figure out how to visualize what Gondry wanted. "None of us really knew how we were going to get there, and I don't think he knew how we were going to get there either," Dixon concludes. "He has a way of finding things and it wasn't a straight path. But in the end, I believe we came pretty close to achieving what he was imagining. "
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.