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Bending Bekmambetov's Method on 'Vampire Hunter'

Method goes to new heights in tackling the climactic train fight in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is the ultimate Timur Bekmambetov movie, taking full advantage of his stylization and penchant for bending reality. Only here he has the additional fun of playing with the Lincoln myth by having him wield an axe to quell vampires from taking over the Union. But keeping up with the Russian director, who likes coming up with creative ideas until the very end, can be just as difficult as keeping up with the super heroic Abe. It can be daunting and exhausting.

Craig Lyn, the initial production VFX supervisor, came aboard Wanted at the tail end and departed Vampire Hunter mid-way, but not before helping with two of the most demanding sequences: the fight between Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) and the vampire (Marton Csokas) he's sworn to kill amid a stampede of horses, and the climactic train sequence involving clashes with vampires in and on top of the boxcars and through a bridge ablaze in flames.

"Timur had a very specific vision for the stampede, which is kind of like being on a freeway with a lot of fog," Lyn explains. "So imagine if you were dropped into a four-lane highway. And you had cars rushing out at you out of fog. And you had to dodge them. That was the original brief. With that much dust in the air, you don't have to worry about making sure that everything looks absolutely real. But once you get on top of the horses and start running that becomes a little more problematic. You start seeing more around you. The only thing we had were two green screen gimbals and a lot of green screen stage. There are no real horses in the scene but we fortunately we had Weta [under the supervision of Martin Hill] doing the sequence and we couldn't have been in better hands.

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"Just from a stylistic point of view, the stuff that Method did on top of the boxcar was the best work. It was a unique look at it was cleverly done. The train sequence is divided into two parts: a fight in and on top of the boxcar roof and then on the bridge that's on fire. Smoke comes in and out and is as much a character as the vampires, hiding and revealing the threat."

Indeed, Vampire Hunter pushed Method in new creative and technical directions. Michael Owens, who is Clint Eastwood's VFX supervisor, was called in as a consultant to work with Method in putting the train sequence back on track with Randy Goux, the in-house supervisor at Method. But Owens' role expanded when the director asked him to oversee the rest of the VFX production as well.

"Fortunately, Timur liked my methods and understood what I was trying to do," Owens explains. "He's a bit of a loose cannon as far as coming up with ideas constantly, so you have to be able to roll with that kind of a concept. It needed to be grounded so we could finish. Up to the very last minute of DI, he was thinking of editorial changes. It's truly his method of how a movie gets made and why it looks the way it does. I was very impressed with Night Watch. I'd never seen anything like that before. Cinematically, it's very, very unique and different. The art direction of each scene is very creative and that's his specialty and, in my opinion, that's his creative stamp. And the way he gets there he keeps it evolving and that's a very taxing thing on a production. Every director has a method -- and from the outside someone's going to say that's crazy. But that is how it works. Not everybody is nice and neat and organized."

Method devised a new system for fire with tricks in comp for quicker iterations. Click here for the complete 17 image squence breakdown. View a clip of the entire sequence including shot sequence breakdown on AWNtv.

Method devised a new system for fire with tricks in comp for quicker iterations. Click here for the complete 17 image squence breakdown. View a clip of the entire sequence including shot sequence breakdown on AWNtv.

For Method, this meant being far more nimble in its approach to the train sequence, which contained 100 shots. "The fight in the boxcar posed a design challenge," Goux admits. "It was filmed on a stage with two static box cars on a green screen and all the stunt guys and actors did their choreography. But we had to establish what our look was going to be. There was a three-month look dev process because we're putting it in night and placing it in an environment with a whole CG forest behind them, rushing by at 50 miles-per-hour. And we added digital moonlight to cast CG shadows from the trees onto the practical boxcar tops. We also had shadows casting across the actors, which necessitated tricks in comp to look right, fluctuating highlights.

"To top it off, they had the smoke from the locomotive flying through the scene. That was the real beast. To get this whole scene to have enveloping smoke to come in and out, with vampires appearing and disappearing to add tension. We had to think of some creative ways. It can be computationally expensive and time-consuming. So we needed to be lean and mean. Timur likes to do lots of speed ramps because of his penchant for stylization. It's cool-looking but it involves volumetric effects that are in constant flux. So we would be getting a new edit every day with minor tweaks on the speed ramps going from two to three percent changes on ramps, and if we weren't able to react to that fast enough, then our iteration time would be too long and they couldn't put our shots in the cut. We needed to be able to turn around a new speed ramp on a shot within hours. So doing a full volumetric smoke solution in 3D was prohibitive. We did some tricks in comp where we would map pre-rendered moving smoke on oblong spheres, which was a big cheat, but augmented with pieces of volumetric smoke."

Fire, which is on the other end of the spectrum, was all CG. Method did full stereoscopic renders for lots of fire shots, working in compliance with Stereo D on the 3-D post conversion.

Method also developed a new system for fire leveraging Houdini that was quick and efficient Click here for the complete 12 image squence breakdown. View a clip of the entire sequence including shot sequence breakdown on AWNtv.

"Almost all of your cheats are discarded because you can't map onto cards," Goux continues. "And so all of the fire is full volumetric fluid renders. That was in parallel with boxcar look dev. We had pretty limited fire capability and took a massive tech development in Houdini, creating a tool that was quick and efficient. You need iterations with this director and this movie."

While looking at a 3D model of the bridge, they would paint pieces of wood where they wanted the fire to come from, and then would start simulating low-res fire off of that. They would emit fire from wherever they painted. In a few hours, they got pretty good-looking fire. Two or three versions a day allowed them to pick a high-res version that would cook over night. Some of the larger shots would take longer.

At the same time, Method dealt with concepts of heat and fuel, when a beam would crash or hit another beam, which would trigger an ember event. If a beam fell higher than a certain velocity, then the chard part in the shader would glow hotter as it rose faster in the air. All of those cues were incorporated into their system.

"It is moody, gritty and messy," Goux suggests. "We hit a threshold with Timur where he told us it was just great."

Train Rooftop Fight Sequence

View a clip of the entire sequence including shot sequence breakdown on AWNtv.

Method devised a new system for fire with tricks in comp for quicker iterations. Click here for the complete 17 image squence breakdown. View a clip of the entire sequence including shot sequence breakdown on AWNtv.

Train  Wreck - Fire - Leap Sequence

View a clip of the entire sequence including shot sequence breakdown on AWNtv.

Method also developed a new system for fire leveraging Houdini that was quick and efficient Click here for the complete 12 image squence breakdown. View a clip of the entire sequence including shot sequence breakdown on AWNtv.

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Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld. He's the owner of the Immersed in Movies blog (www.billdesowitz.com), a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen and features interviews with all six actors.

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