Alain Bielik interviews visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer about the CG modeling and digital transitions performed on Blade: Trinity.
It may not be as highly regarded as the Spider-Man or X-Men franchises, but the Blade film series actually is one of the most successful adaptations of a comic book to the wide screen. The saga owes a large part of its success to David Goyer, who wrote the first movie before being promoted to writer and producer for the second one. For Blade: Trinity, the writer-producer makes his directorial debut and helms what will probably be the final installment of the saga. In this new adventure, Blade confronts the mother of all vampires, an ancient creature that was once known as Dracula and who now goes by the name of Drake (Dominic Purcell).
New Line turned to supervisor Joe Bauer to oversee the visual effects work. They asked me to do Blade: Trinity right after I had finished Elf for them. Originally, there were 270 effects shots planned, but this number ultimately grew to 540. So, our workload exactly doubled. In order to be able to handle these extra shots, I augmented the number of facilities that worked on the show. Personally, I dont feel comfortable giving too many shots to any single facility. In my opinion, fewer shots per company means more time for them to fine-tune the work. In the end, I enlisted no less than 17 different companies, the lead ones being Digital Dimension, Giant Killer Robots and CaféFX.
While the previous two movies had relied heavily on digital doubles to obtain spectacular shots, Bauer tried to use live-action elements as often as possible. This approach was put to the test with a scene in which Blade jumps out of a window several stories up and lands in front of the camera all in one shot. The production thought we were going to do the jump in CG and transition to Wesley Snipes, but I was not keen on the idea, Bauer recalls. I dont like the look of CG stunts on film. Instead, we shot the empty façade of the real building and did a tilt down to Wesley doing a small jump on location. Back at the studio, we photographed a stuntman performing a 50-foot tall jump with a descender rig in front of a green- screen. We did several takes and every time, he tried to match Wesleys landing position as close as possible. Then, Digital Dimension took this element and composited it in the original plate. A digital transition between the falling Blade and landing Blade created the illusion that it was Wesley performing the stunt all the way. The effect was later enhanced with CG glass and a digital camera shake.
Another spectacular stunt that seemed to call for CG animation was actually shot live. Blade performs in glorious slow motion a somersault above a car and shoots the driver from the air. The action was performed by a stunt double on a wire rig that was digitally removed. The rest was all captured in camera. For the climactic fight scene between Blade and Drake, most of the flying shots featured the real actors, photographed in front of a greenscreen. Although they appear to be flying on screen, in reality, they were on static wires and didnt move across the stage, reveals Bauer. Its the camera move that created the illusion of the characters moving in space. A very accurate previsualization allowed us to plan a motion control camera move that created a convincing flying effect. When the required move happened to exceed the speed limit of our motion control system, the actors simply performed the action at a slower speed. Once again, the effects were completed with the addition of CG debris and glass.
High Tech Body Scans
Although Bauer tried to minimize the use of CG doubles for stunt work, there were shots for which no other option was available. These included a spectacular fall from Blade and Drake. Fighting on a high-rise balcony, the two characters fall over and land violently on a granite floor several stories below, generating a shockwave that shatters the pavement. Since the impact would have seriously injured stunt performers, Bauer elected to realize the action with CG animation. The first step was to cyberscan the two principals, explains Bauer. On Elf, I had used a laser scanner, but on Blade: Trinity, I decided to try a new system designed by Eyetronics. Instead of laser scanning the actors features, they use two still cameras positioned side by side on a hand-held rig. They take hundreds of photographs, which are then assembled to reconstruct the actor in 3D. The result is a CG model of high quality, but with fewer polygons than with laser scanning.
Bauer convinced Goyer that it would be cost-efficient if Blade could remove his trademark coat before the final showdown: It saved us a lot of time by eliminating the need of rigging the dynamics of a CG coat billowing in the air. For the high fall shot, the actors were first photographed on stage leaping over a railing onto a green pad three feet lower. The move was later extended with the CG doubles at Giant Killer Robots. Then, CG artists generated the dynamics of the pavement being ripped open and added several layers of smoke, debris and dust elements to put the shot together. The company also tackled Drakes transformation into a spectacular creature called The Beast. Designed by Carlos Huante and realized in make-up form by Spectral Motion, the character was first introduced via CG animation. We did a cyberscan of Dominic as Drake and another one of him made-up as The Beast, notes Bauer. Giant Killer Robots match-moved the CG doubles to Dominics action in the plate, and then created a progressive transition between both forms of the character. My idea was to duplicate the effect of a squid changing color in successive waves. We also tried to suggest the movement of muscles and bones moving under the skin. The spikes were animated to appear at the very end.
One effect that had been established in the previous movies was the vampires burning to ashes when exposed to ultra-violet light. We tried to come up with a look that was even more realistic, says Bauer. Most of all, we had to find techniques that allowed us to generate this effect in a very efficient way. This movie featured more ashing effects than the previous two combined! Initially, we had about 20 or 30 shots planned, but it grew to basically three times more. The effects were realized at Digital Dimension by match-moving the motion of each actor with his digital double. The process entailed cyberscanning some 40 different performers. Once body language was matched in CG, Digital Dimension generated a transition with particles systems and dynamics that removed layer after layer of the digital characters skin. The final step featured a separate CG model that represented the interior of the body bones covered with ashes.
If you thought that UV light and silver weapons were high tech enough, Blade: Trinity introduces us to the ultimate vampire killer: biotechnology. During the climactic fight, Drake is hit with a virus-tipped arrow. The virus bonds with the vampires blood cells and is expelled through his mouth. Once airborne, the virus is inhaled by the other vampires, ultimately causing their spectacular demise. Executed at CaféFX, the ambitious sequence was designed as one continuous shot, but filmed in separate plate elements. David wanted the camera to follow the virus inside Drakes body and go out through the mouth, comments Bauer. In order to do that, CaféFX had to reproduce body organs in CG. When Drake expels virus-infected blood, the shots start racking focus back in forth between macro photography of the viral blood cell overtaking healthy ones and regular footage of the actors on set.
The macro photography was completely simulated in LightWave. CaféFX developed a look that reproduced the effect of zooming through a chain link fence in a stadium: when you zoom in, the foreground fence disappears and when you zoom out, the fence comes back into focus while the field behind disappears. Viral cells were created via a particle system with hero cells being key-framed. The vampires death effect bulging eyes, cracking skin was computer generated and painstakingly match-moved to the actors body. No real make-up was used for the scene.
In a rare non-urban scene of the saga, Blade: Trinity takes us to a giant pyramid located in a remote desert. The pyramid was actually a 15-foot tall miniature built and photographed by Cinema Production Services, explains Bauer. The actors were shot on a partial set representing a portion of the staircase. During plate photography, we had a one-foot tall pyramid model positioned in front of the camera. It allowed us to frame the shot properly and also provided the editor with temp composites that he could use to cut the sequence. Then, we matched camera angles on the large-scale pyramid and the two elements were combined by Pixel Magic. They also added lots of dust elements that CPS had shot for us. Yet, when we reviewed the final composite, we found that it didnt work from an artistic point of view: the pyramid was just sitting in the middle of a desert and we realized it didnt make much sense So, we enlisted Hatch FX to add ruins all around the structure in order to give the scenery a more realistic feel.
For Bauer, the lengthy seven months post-production time turned out to be no luxury at all. New shots kept coming in till the end, he recalls. The most dramatic change was the last minute addition of a new CG animation on the Beast character. Although it had approved the design, the studio thought that the character wasnt scary enough on screen. They asked us to develop a new Reaper maw effect specifically for The Beast. The effect was originally designed for Blade 2 and had the Reapers stretch-opening their [CG] mouth in a spectacular way. The new animation needed to be integrated in live-action plates that were never meant to be effects shots. Fortunately, we had anticipated some kind of digital enhancement and shot reference balls and gathered data on the set. It gave us a starting point for attacking the shots. We asked several facilities to submit tests for the effect and Giant Killer Robots came up with the best design. They ended up creating all 25 CG maw shots.
Alain Bielik is the founder and special effects editor of renowned effects magazine S.F.X, published in France since 1991. He also contributes to various French publications and occasionally to Cinefex. Hes currently organizing a major special effects exhibition that will take place early next year in Lyon, France.