Creating a Virtual Washington for 'White House Down'

Uncharted Territory stepped up its management skills for Roland Emmerich's latest terrorist action/adventure.

Method used still and aerial photographs to stitch together the White House shots. All images © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.

Check out a special VFX progression pictorial gallery provided by Uncharted Territory's co-founder, Oscar®-winning visual effects supervisor Volker Engel.

Talk about a ticking clock scenario: With only 12 months to deliver 1,000 VFX shots for Roland Emmerich's White House Down and with limited access to the White House grounds and the Lincoln Monument thanks to a no-fly zone, Uncharted Territory focused on management and quality control rather than creating in-house VFX.

"We're very fortunate that we already came up with this process many years ago and we are able to do it in different ways depending on the project," explains Uncharted's Volker Engel. "On 2012, we did a third of the movie in-house because it made sense and we had the preparation time. On Anonymous, it made sense because it was a contained number of shots (300) and it was all London in the 16th century. But on this movie we didn't have much preparation and setup time and to hire artists just from the infrastructure."

However, the production was able to take lots of stills and some aerial photographs, which were then used by Method and Hybride to stitch together the White House and surrounding DC environment in its entirety in the most authentic-looking CG ever.

Method - DC streets with Capitol burning in background

"The main part of the asset building was done by Method in Vancouver," adds Uncharted's Marc Weigert. "They built the White House, the grounds, the East Wing, the West Wing, the Capitol, the Black Hawks. Then we had Hybride in Montreal, which shared the Black Hawk scene with Method. Hybride did the beginning with the helicopter flying over the river, then through the buildings in the streets; they built entire streets of Washington, thousands of people, cars. Method took over when we get to the White House and the first helicopter gets shot down. Method's models were then shipped to the other vendors. We had Prime Focus, Image Engine [which contributed to the aerial view of the White House burning and people running away and cars stuck in traffic] and Scanline [which did the limo splashes into the pool and the whole Air Force One destruction sequence with plenty of fire]. LUXX from Stuttgart built everything in the opening for this one-off fly over except for the White House. Crazy Horse did the first approach of Channing Tatum and his daughter, which is the first time you see the White House up close."

Prime Focus - SUV chase

Image Engine - Burning White House flyovers

LUXX - DC flyovers

The highlight for Method (under the supervision of Ollie Rankin) was blowing up and collapsing the Capitol dome as well as blowing up and crashing three Black Hawks into the grounds of the White House and even into the White House itself. The challenges involved multiple interacting dynamic simulations, along with keyframe-animated helicopters and digi-doubles. But the most underrated aspect was the trees in terms of complexity, given the substantial portion of screen space they occupy and the large number of shots.

For the Capitol exterior explosion, Method ended up replacing the entire dome in CG to allow for better interaction and integration between the shattering windows, the fire and smoke of the explosion and the light cast by the explosion onto the building. All of these were simulated in Houdini and rendered with Mantra. The flag that reacts to the explosion was simulated in Maya and rendered in V-Ray, while the plate cleanup was projected and rendered through the camera in Nuke.

One major sequence for Method was blowing up and collapsing the Capitol dome.

Method modeled and textured the rotunda interior based on reference photos of the real thing and also on a set that was used to film the live action shots in the sequence.

For the interior Capitol explosion, Method modeled and textured the rotunda interior based on reference photos of the real thing and also on a set that was used to film the live action shots in the sequence. The explosion was simulated using proprietary extensions to the Houdini pyro toolset.

Meanwhile, Method did some R&D for the Black Hawk One crash: they experimented with using nCloth in Maya to represent the ground being torn up by the helicopter body and rotor blades, with the torn-up sections of cloth being transferred into Houdini to be procedurally extruded and displaced to give the soil thickness and dressed with grass. Method settled on instanced nurbs surfaces for the grass.

Another major Method sequence was a Black Hawk crash.

Hybride's main challenge (under the supervision of Philippe Theroux) was recreating a vibrant, realistic virtual city environment down to the smallest detail. The complexity of shots allowed Hybride to raise the bar on its technical expertise. The team developed innovative tools that facilitated the creation of an entirely virtual city -- traffic lights, street lamps, bicycle racks, road signage and advertising panels were automatically generated to maximize production time. Hybride also developed special tools to create and populate scene elements, including vegetation and vehicles, as well as a cutting-edge tool to populate trees and simulate their movement.

Due to the high level of shot complexity, Hybride used deep image compositing techniques to manage the sequence and maintain quality without compromising the level of detail desired. This new procedure helped overcome machine limitations experienced in the past.

One new tool that proved invaluable to Uncharted was the Ncam system, which enables virtual production through real-time camera tracking. This was used not only by the director and camera operators for the framing of virtual sets but also editorial for onset composites as a starting point for final shots. Weigert even used it for animating objects inside virtual scenes to cue extras and give correct eye lines to actors.

Scanline took care of the Air Force One destruction sequence.

But Engel found Ncam indispensable for assisting with the White House rooftop attack shot on a stage. "Immediately instead of seeing a bluescreen, Roland saw the actual background of a fight on the rooftop. That way he could look at his monitor and decide to crane higher, say, for better composition."

But Uncharted couldn't resist doing some VFX shots when the right opportunity came along. "While doing the postvis, our guys put in the limo and the SUVs and knowing that they were not going to do final shots, they made them look so nice with all the reflections, that we let them work on the finals," Weigert admits.

Uncharted understands as well as anyone how to integrate VFX holistically into the process.

"We learned from Anonymous that a lot of things that happen very late are better served if world building assets are done early on," Weigert continues. "For example, if textures and shaders on buildings aren't done right, there's no time to redo them. By the time you notice it, it's too late. Our quality control unit looked at everything. We also got away with 400 fewer visual effects shots by not having so many bluescreeens behind windows. We did this by shooting the whole movie slightly overexposed."

It's all part of excelling as a production management company and staying ahead of the curve in these turbulent times.

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Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld and the owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com). He's also a columnist for Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and contributing editor of Animation Scoop at Indiewire. Desowitz is additionally the author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen, featuring interviews with all six actors.

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