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'Drag Me to Hell': Tippett Enjoys the Ride

Matt Jacobs of Tippett Studio divulges what it was like opening up hell for the new Sam Raimi shocker. Includes major spoiler images.

Tippett used every trick in its arsenal: set extensions, CG train, rock simulation with Maya nParticles, CG demon hands and creative matchmoving and comping. All Images: Tippett Studio / Universal Pictures © 2009 Universal Studios.

Beware: Major Spoiler Images Included Below

There was no kicking and screaming to entice Tippett Studio to work on the two hellish set pieces for Drag Me to Hell, director Sam Raimi's return to horror about a loan officer (Alison Lohman) cursed by an old woman after not getting her an extension on her mortgage.

"We did not have much direct contact with Sam Raimi (Bruce Jones, the overall visual effects supervisor, served as liaison), but this was a lot more fun to work on because I'm such a fan of Evil Dead and Army of Darkness and horror overall," admits Matt Jacobs, Tippett's visual effects supervisor on Drag Me to Hell. Thomas Schelesny, another Tippett visual effects supervisor, also worked on the project.

"And now that I've seen it, I realize what a return it is to those pictures," Jacobs offers. "But Raimi is particular about what he wants and has a real sense of where he's going. I'd say one of the more interesting aspects of it was editorializing the effects: the beats that we knew to hit…"

The "drag me to hell" sequences Jacobs refers to consists of a floor opening up at the beginning and a child being grabbed by demonic arms; and a train mowing someone down at the end and, again, the person being pulled down by the same demonic arms.

"The most interesting thing we did on the show," Jacobs continues, "was we built a miniature for the shots where we're looking in hell instead of using a digital approach because of the resources we have here at the studio, and we incorporated the help of some of ex-ILM model builders. So we went about building a small prop -- these stalactites looking down into hell and it went underneath the train track. We also used it for the opening sequence when this boy is dragged into hell. And it was a good approach. We used the RED camera and we shot it here at the studio. And it actually made getting the hell look a lot more direct and a lot faster, I think, than going through the usual computer CG pipeline because when you shoot a miniature, you're a little more locked in to what you're doing -- it's more of a calculated approach."

Christine's fate is sealed in the end.

When we shot the miniature, we pulled out our smoke machine and our lights and we dramatically lit it, we backlit it, we ran multiple passes of different types of smoke and then we relied on old comping tricks and brought those different passes back in and mixed them, moved them against each other and tried some remapping to reinforce the scale. And we used different elements to create this hell hole."

Of course, CG also figured prominently in the two sequences. It can be seen in the opening encounter with the creation of fissures in a marble floor along with some fire and ember elements. The whole aspect of opening hell up with the fissures, according to Jacobs, was so you would see the face of the rock underneath. Then there was a miniature shot down into hell. The opening of hell was subsequently blocked out in animation.

The end sequence, meanwhile, was comprised of everything in Tippett's arsenal. "We did a lot of set extensions shot on a greenscreen stage with a small bit of track. We used photographs of a train station that were provided to us, we created a CG train, train track extension, background, the other platform, photographic elements of other people on the platform that were provided to us, which we had to comp into the shot, and then there was this whole aspect of hell breaking open. For that, we did pretty extensive dynamic simulation of the bed of rocks that lay around the ties on a railroad track. And those had to be pouring into hell the entire time, so we used Maya's nParticles for that. We created CG demon arms that looked like the rubber arms used on set.

"One thing we did also to augment the rubber arms used on set because they looked truncated. So we went in and matchmoved those arms, we did some color correction to bring them down and look more demonic and then added a glowing stump to give it some visual interest and make it blend more into the background."

Oh, yes, Tippett also created a rather bothersome fly in CG: "Those were a little more complicated matchmoves and getting the fly to look right was a challenge. We did one shot, in particular, where the fly actually comes in and lands on the camera and we rack focus to the fly and rack away. It was fun to bring down the wall and see the fly interact with the camera."

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Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.

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