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'Bangkok Dangerous': Visualizing the VFX Hits

The Pang brothers follow an elite assassin in the

bangkok01_BangkokDangerous-.jpg

Watch as the Pang brothers remake their 1999 action flick for their second English-language production, Bangkok Dangerous. All images © Lionsgate.

After The Ring, Dark Water and others, Hollywood is once again turning a hit Asian movie into a big budget, star driven feature film. Opening today from Lionsgate, Bangkok Dangerous is the remake of a 1999 Thai movie directed by Danny and Oxide Pang. It follows the footsteps of elite assassin Joe (Nicolas Cage) on a series of contract hits in Bangkok, Thailand.

The remake was helmed by the Pang brothers themselves -- their second American effort after The Messengers. The two movies share the same Visual Effects Supervisor, Bruce Jones, whose career dates back to Star Trek -- The Next Generation in the 1980s. "I worked with Danny and Oxide on The Messengers, so we had already developed a pretty fair form of communication utilizing pictures, references and sketches I would often mock up for feedback. And, of course, it helps that they both speak English fairly well. Also, every shot in the film was storyboarded, and they were very open to my suggestions as we proceeded through preparation.

"When I got involved, they were planning for about 40 vfx shots only. That's one of the reasons we did not assign an effects producer to the show originally. Later on, I regretted not having a producer as the shot count continued to grow… we ended up with over 200 shots. But once we were into principal photography, the train had already left the station... So, I handled the vfx producing myself, with the help from my assistant, Ekarat Srathana."

The various sequences were assigned to four key vendors.

  • CINESOUP: 60+ shotsVFX Supervisor John GrowerArm Removal: limb removal, blood enhancement, etc.Cross Hairs: cross-hair element, lens aberrations, etc.Flash Back: plate effects treatments.Floating Market: split screen comps, pyro elements, etc.Joe's condo: blue screen comps, pyro, effects animation, CG debris, etc.Surat's Office: background greenscreen comps.
  • MICHAEL KAELIN & ASSOCIATES: 80+ shotsCompositing Supervisor Michael KaelinMuzzle Flash: muzzle flash elements and plate enhancement.Helicopter Footage: plate stabilization and extension.Intersection Hit: adding reflections to windows, muzzle flash, bullet holes, CG blood, etc.
  • CURV STUDIOS: 40+ shotsLaser Beams: CG laser beams.Prague Extension: plate extensions and matte paintings.Prague Hit: greenscreen comps, CG bullet and debris, etc.Russian Hit: greenscreen comps.Bad guy blown in half.
  • REALITY CHECK: 20+ shotsVFX Supervisor Aaron KaminarParade Extension: crowd replication.Prime Minister Hit: bullet shot to the head.Miscellaneous

A Communication Challenge

Unlike on The Messengers, which had been shot in America, Jones faced the tough challenge on having to deal with a mainly Chinese and Thai crew. "Communicating with the DP through a translator to shoot plates in Bangkok took a lot of 'visualization' to ensure they were shot properly," Jones recalls. "In some cases, I had to mach them later on in another country with a completely different crew. I previsualized a fair amount of the work, though more often than not, I also filmed video versions of the shots ahead of time, and then comped up temps to better explain the requirements.

"The parade extension shots were the most critical in terms of planning. First, we had to create a scene showing our Prime Minister character riding in a convoy behind a marching band, elephants, etc., and surrounded by an adoring crowd of 10,000+ people, while Joe gets into position to assassinate him. Second, the country was dealing with a pending coup at this exact same time, and the real Prime Minister had had an assassination threat on him already. Consequently, we had a narrow window that we were allowed to get the scene, with no second chances. I considered using Massive for the crowd replication, but in the end, chose to move our crowd of 1,500 extras into eight different positions throughout the day, involving costume changes and different performances. We shot the scene with multiple cameras and then composited the plates in post."

The Money Shot

The spectacular Prime Minister's assassination shot involved shooting a series of plates that were later hooked up in order to create the illusion of having the camera and CG bullet travel the nearly 1/4 mile between Joe and the Prime Minister's forehead. The team matched the tilt angles of each plate and used a 12-to-1 zoom (24mm-290mm), zooming from wide to tight from each camera position. The first plate was shot from a four-story building, the second plate from a tall crane, and the third plate from a Technocrane on a dolly, so that it could be pushed in as close to subject as the lens would hold up to.

The plates were then hooked up and treated in post by Reality Check. "Jason Howey was the lead artist on the shot," Jones continues. "They started off by examining all the reference stills taken on site, grabbing about 20 of them as well as three good frames from the 2K footage. Next, they brought the photos into RealViz Image modeler to find out camera positions of all the images, then took the cameras into Maya to build the geometry of the buildings, making sure that the corners of the walls lined up in all camera views. Dave Abuel took over most of the detailed modeling once it was blocked in. They then started extracting textures from the photos that were projected onto the geometry, trying to use almost completely the textures extracted from the three frames of real film scans, and only use parts of the reference stills when there was no other shot of that view.

"Since they were shot as zooms and our final shot was a flying camera, there were a lot of occluded objects that ended up needing painting in Photoshop. The entire street was removed of all people and then new shadows were hand painted for each person. The people were cut out separately onto cards with alphas. Only the closest motorcycle cops, Prime Minister, wife and car were created in full 3D, the rest of the people were just cards. Most of the street closest to the sniper was completely blocked by a building, and had to be rebuilt with no reference. Lines on the street and oil stains were added where appropriate. They also found the satellite image of the city block using Google Earth, which helped them see where things were laid out.

"In the original footage, the Prime Minister and his wife were occluded by the car windshield from the shoulders down, so their bodies and the car interior had to be hand painted in Photoshop. There was also a bit of animation added to the environment. The bike lights flashed (animated textures), cars in the background driving by (animated cards sliding in 3D) and the Prime Minister's subtle hand waving. The last step was adding the bullet and barrel, by creating a bit of a smoke trail and air refraction using particles. The muzzle blast was done with a fluid dynamics. The final shot was composited using After Effects."

The coup that took place during principal photography had a significant impact on another aspect of the visual effects. The crew had always planned on enhancing some gunshots with muzzle flash elements. However, due to the coup, they were forced to stop shooting with blanks about half way through principal photography. Consequently, Jones was asked to enhance nearly 100 shots with muzzle flashes. "Because so many different types of guns were used on the film, we spent an entire day shooting elements in order to get each guns a unique muzzle flash signature. At the end of the shoot, the entire floor was covered in casings an inch deep!"

A great deal of greenscreen and stunt work was used to pull off the action sequences.

Stylized Hits

"The movie features other assassinations from Joe," Jones continues, "notably in a flashback sequence where the character remembers all his hits. The directors wanted the images to have a specific stylized look. At Cinesoup, Bob Engelsiepen used selectively placed and animated radial blurs and vignetting in Shake that modulated the distortion in and out, depending on what needed to be enhanced or obscured in any given shot.

"The first assassination occurs in the opening sequence. Joe has to eliminate a character that is being interrogated by the police in Prague, Czech Republic. He does so by shooting through the window from a tower facing the police building. In reality, the tower didn't exist. "We scouted a location in Prague where the tower would live in "theory", and from this, determined where the line-of-sights needed to be. Our production designer, James Newport, had a three-story tower built on stage in Bangkok. After it had been built, I shot a number of stills of the set piece, both from the outside of the tower as well as the inside. Then, using the stills from our initial scout, I mocked up all the line-of-sight angles we'd agreed to from the Prague scout. This became our primary guide for camera angles when it came to shooting Nicolas Cage on the tower set with a large curved greenscreen behind the tower.In Prague, I shot 360º tiles from a clock tower, as well as numerous specific angles. Curv Studios put the composites together, which involved some set extension and matte painting work, as well."

Elaborate Split Screens

During the course of the action, Joe narrowly escapes several massive explosions. The shots were accomplished by combining a clean plate of the actor -- or his stunt double -- on set, and a plate of the explosion alone. One shot required a much more elaborate set up, though. "It is the scene where a bad guy is blown in half," Jones explains. "We created it using a number of plates. The first pass was done with the character and Joe miming the action as if an explosion had gone off between the door and the bad guy's chest, blowing them back. Nicolas Cage did this action so we could clearly see his face. Next, our stunt coordinator Eddie Yansick did this exact same action, but extending it to a roll across the floor, as if being somewhat blown back from the explosion. Later on, we blended Nic's face performance to the action that Eddie provided.

"I then shot another pass with a dummy whose stomach cavity had been filled with practical guts and rigged with pyro to explode. The dummy pass was aligned to the bad guy action as seen in the first plate with the two characters. We yanked the dummy with wires and detonated it on cue. It was pretty gruesome, but gave the effect I was after. Lastly, I shot a day of "blood and guts" passes on stage against green screen to enhance the effect, and we composited the various plates together."

Eventually, almost all the film's visual effects were "invisible" effects, except for one single hero shot: the Prime Minister's assassination. Jones confirms, "This is the only shot where the vfx take the front row, but hey, we had to have a little fun…"

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 Musee International de la Miniature in Lyon, France.

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