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'Generation Kill': Recreating Iraq in Photoreal CG

Tara Bennett talks to Cinesite about vfx authenticity in HBO's latest miniseries, Generation Kill.

Photorealism was the goal for the vfx in Generation Kill. Previs and animatics were used for the key shots in the Superhighway and convoy sequences. All images © HBO, Inc. Courtesy of Cinesite. 

When it comes to making films and documentaries about our world's great wars and conflicts, HBO has positioned itself as one of the preeminent networks. From the Emmy Award-winning Band of Brothers to their latest miniseries Generation Kill, HBO demands authenticity in the telling of their war stories, which makes them such "must see" events.

This summer HBO shifts its focus to the present day Iraq War in the adaptation of Evan Wright's novel Generation Kill. The seven-part miniseries follows a reporter embedded with the First Recon Bravo Company Second Platoon during the first wave of the war in 2003. In order to get the realism of such recent history correct, HBO went back to their frequent visual effects collaborator, Cinesite (Europe) Ltd. In 2001 HBO and Cinesite were lauded for Band of Brothers so they worked to recapture that success again on this new project.

Cinesite Effects Supervisors for Generation Kill, Dave Sewell (episodes 1, 2, 3, 7) and Stuart Partridge (episodes 4, 5, 6) and CG Supervisor Stephane Paris spoke to VFXWorld about the challenges of bringing a current war story to the screen in an authentic way.

Tara Bennett: Obviously Band of Brothers was a phenomenal achievement in war storytelling. What did HBO express to you about what they wanted to see from Cinesite for Generation Kill?

Stuart Partridge: The whole premise of the show is that it had to be completely photorealistic. While it's a drama, it's based on real events and it's shot in a documentary style. I think the biggest challenge is that although it was historical, in the sense that it was five years ago, it's quite current. It's not like doing a WWII project where there are streams of documentation of how things looked and happened. It's all very much like working on something that's happening as we speak so it was challenging and very rewarding.

HBO have been really big on the fact that it's got to look exactly like it happened. We had a military advisor, Eric Kocher, who was actually a soldier in the real events that the program is about so he's seen everything we are portraying with his own eyes. Everything we created had to be OK'd by him. HBO said that if he approves it, then they are happy with it. Everything had to be exactly as it was. HBO was big on this realism so they also had several test screenings with large groups of Marines who also fought in the Iraq War for the purpose to ask them if this is what it's like. We only had two feedbacks that were saying we needed to change things, which we did. We were pretty happy that we got that positive feedback from people there so we are confident that people who aren't there are watching something realistic.

Dave Sewell: HBO pride themselves on authenticity in all of their productions and I know that Cinesite strove for absolute realism on Band of Brothers. In the same way, on Generation Kill we sourced masses of reference material from military websites, the BBC motion gallery, reference books, stills taken on set by our representatives and even YouTube! We needed to research the way the guns fired, the way the equipment looked and operated. Once we had done our detailed research and created the 3D, we had it approved or adjusted by U.S. Marine and Military Adviser Eric Kocher, who we worked closely with throughout the production. The most challenging aspect of our work was creating shots which look absolutely authentic and impressive without the sensationalism of Hollywood effects films. We were aiming for complete realism; reality isn't always as sensational as the audience might think.

The bulk of the vfx work was to provide a lot of CG vehicles because it's very expensive to replicate on set, and the Army would not release current vehicles. Above is Camp Matilda. 

TB: Was there a lot of pre-pro for the vfx? Did you create any previs or animatics that would help keep the show on budget?

Stephane Paris: We used previsualisation and animatics for key shots, including the Superhighway and convoy sequences. It was important to plan the vehicles' speed, positioning and configuration in advance, getting "sign-off" from both the director and military adviser before setting the shot in high resolution.

DS: In 2D, some early tests were created for the various scopes, starting with standard issue binoculars through to night vision scopes, rifle scopes, range finders and sniper scopes. We also did some range finders.

TB: What was the bulk of work you had to provide for the show?

Partridge: Basically we had to provide a lot of CG vehicles because it's very expensive to replicate on set, plus they are all current vehicles and the U.S. Army can't release those. We had to create all of those in CG -- LAVs (Light Armored Vehicles), tanks, two types of helicopters and a jet plane. We also had to recreate several Iraqi cities that feature in the story as the American army progresses through Iraq. They were created as matte paintings and enhanced with 2D elements of smoke and fire.

TB: Did the documentary style of shooting cause a lot of vfx challenges?

Partridge: It was certainly one of the challenges. For some of the shots, we put the camera shake in afterwards so then we shot locked off. Other stuff was handheld so we had an allocated tracking department to track any shots that needed it. We'd then use motion blur and all the relevant tricks to make it fit in with the others.

TB: Did the visual effects for Generation Kill balloon as the post-production process started?

Partridge: As with any show there are the shots you bid on and then the stuff that appears throughout the show. There was a lot of clean up as they did have fake, imitation vehicles, especially on the LAVs where they used an existing light armor vehicle and tried to dress it up to look like the specific one used. Unfortunately, that didn't work so we had to do those fully CG in the end. We also had to clean up the ones they used in camera and that added extra work. Instead of having a clean plate we'd have to clean out the in camera things they used too.

TB: What are your favorite sequences?

Partridge: There were probably two different aspects to that… there were some very heavy CG shots in the super highway sequence. It was absolutely fantastic. They looked completely and utterly realistic as a six-lane highway completely log-jammed with CG U.S. Army vehicles. There was a lot of 2D stuff in there and initially might not look spectacular but it had a fond place in my heart because it involves an awful lot of 2D layering of smoke, explosion and flames. There is one sequence which is a night time bombing of a town called Ash Shatrah. We ended up not using any of the elements provided apart of some bluescreen footage of some Marines and then we completely created a night time bombing using just those elements and stills.

DS: There is a sequence where the convoy is approaching the Iraqi border at night. The audience sees the action from the POV of the soldiers wearing night vision goggles (NVGs). Ahead of them are fires, artillery strikes, anti-aircraft tracer fire, attack helicopters and billowing smoke. The original footage was of an empty day-lit desert; the finished sequence gives a claustrophobic and action-packed impression of the soldiers' point of view of operating in the midst of battle.

LAVs, tanks, two types of helicopters and a jet plane were all created in CG.

TB: Did this series require a lot of R&D or the use of new tools to get the job done?

Partridge: There was a wider project level in that we wrote some color matching tools which we used to send out graded QuickTimes of latest comps to sit in with the Avid cut. But mainly it was using existing tools that were primarily proprietary within Cinesite. We used a combination of software with Shake, but a lot of our plug-ins are written in-house, as well as with Maya.

TB: How did you break up the workload and what was the turnaround time?

DS: Generation Kill had more of a film schedule than television, which meant that we had more time to spend developing the look of the visual effects. From start to finish Cinesite's involvement was about a year.

Partridge: There are seven episodes in total and we ended up splitting it into three blocks: episodes 1, 2, 3 and then episodes 4, 5, 6 and episode 7 was the final block. Pre-production started well over a year ago but there was no turnover until the start of this year. The last plates were literally just turned in a few weeks ago. There was a slow build up with a very intense end of the project trying to get the work finished. We had about 20 2D people and maybe 10 or 15 3D people as well, and then five or six production people. There are about 450 shots in total.

Tara Bennett is an East coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, SFX and Lost Magazine. She is the author of the books 300: The Art of the Film and 24: The Official Companion Guide: Seasons 1-6.

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