Thomas J. McLean jumps to the heart of previs supervisor Laurent Lavigne and Wetas work on Jumper.
Most visual effects try to look as real as possible, even when theyre creating the impossible, by drawing on any kind of real-world imagery. But when it came to Jumper, the new Doug Liman-directed sci-fi action movie about teleporters (which opened Feb. 15 from Fox), there was precious little reality to build on.
The movie stars Hayden Christensen as David Rice, who finds he can jump instantly to any place in the world. Living a life of luxury, Rice woos his childhood sweetheart, Millie, played by Rachel Bilson, and finds another jumper in Griffin, played by Jamie Bell. Pursuing them both are the Paladins, who use traps called tethers to immobilize jumpers, and are lead by Roland, played by Samuel L. Jackson.
With characters jumping not just from moment to moment but around the world throughout the film, creating a credible effect for jumping was essential for making the story work.
Previs Supervisor Laurent Lavigne helped the filmmakers develop the concept and look of the jump effect. What was asked of us was to come up with cool stuff, come up with how jumpers would fight each other and against other people and different types of jumping, he explains.
He says they developed the idea the jumpers disruption of space and time would affect the environment. The idea that they damage the fabric of space lead to both the motivation for the Paladins attempts to stop the jumpers and the idea of jump scars that allow jumpers to track and follow each other.
With a concept in place, Visual Effects Supervisor Joel Hynek and Visual Effects Producer Kevin Elam used several techniques on set to capture images for the jumping effect. Multiple still cameras were exposed at varying shutter speeds and fired in sequence -- much like the bullet time effect made famous in The Matrix -- to smear and stretch the actors image. Motion control techniques, stunt doubles and simple freeze and action techniques also were used.
Assembling the final vfx fell largely to Weta Digital. Dan Lemmon, who supervised the New Zealand-based houses work, says they were first approached last summer to prepare a clip to show at Comic-Con and maybe a few additional shots. That grew, first to 70 shots, then to a final total of about 300 shots, he adds.
A lot of time was spent figuring out what the final look of the jump and the jump scars both of which had been in look development for a couple years by that point. Theyre such abstract ideas, and theres not really any visual reference that you can pull from, Lemmon says.
Lemmon insists one of the keys was to make the effect a quick one. We settled on two or three frames, he suggests.
Using mostly Nuke and Shake, the effect was achieved using mostly a 2D solution. We ended up using several different tools from several different packages sort of layered together to try to create something that had a sense of volume and complexity, Lemmon continues. They also agreed it had to be a quick effect that could be over and done with in two or three frames-per-jump, which made it easier to do the volume of jumps in the film.
From there, they built compositing scripts for several different kinds of jumps that could be timed and tweaked to work each jump, Lemmon says.
Several scenes also called for jumps to be shot from the jumpers point of view. For those shots, the photography of the actor remains intact and the area around them changed, Lemmon explains. The sequences were shot without greenscreens, as the motion of the actors approximated in two locations and Weta using its tools to bridge the two shots together.
Complicating a few jumps was the idea that jumpers could take objects with them. In one sequence, Griffin jumps into his lair from an underwater location. Lemmon says the on-set effect used was replaced, with Weta rotoscoping out Griffin and replacing the water with other elements shot.
In another sequence, Griffin jumps a speeding double-decker bus to his desert lair, where it flips through the air and just over Roland. The production on set used a real bus that was hollowed-out, reinforced for stunt work and hung from a crane to film the scene, Lemmon says. But with the mass taken out of the bus and the structure reinforced, the vehicle looked and moved smaller than it should have, prompting Weta to correct the bus scale and mass.
As for the jump scar, it was again a difficult balance to get the right look. Initially, we were told you really shouldnt see it unless theres something in the room that its interacting with or the camera moves and you can see a bit of refraction through it, Lemmon says. Then, as we went along, people werent quite getting what it was, so we had to bring it more to the forefront.
The scars were created with some heavily modified refraction shaders based loosely on glass, he says.
One of the keys to the films appeal is the way the jumpers can go anywhere they want in the world. The script called for sequences set in the Coliseum, the Sphinx in Egypt and the top of the Empire State Building, requiring Weta to create set extensions and other environments to complement location shooting in Rome, Tokyo, Baja, California, Prague, New York and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The scene at the Sphinx, in which Christensens character lounges atop the head of the famous monument, is a prime example. Lemmon says there was no way to get an actor on top of an international monument, so Weta had to combine a background made from a helicopter plate and photographs with greenscreen footage. Shot without the benefit of motion control, getting the shots to marry up just right was not an easy task, he says.
The producers managed a real coup by becoming the first film crew in decades granted permission to film inside Romes famed Coliseum. With strict rules and a tight schedule, set extensions were required to flesh out the number shots needed to create the entire sequence.
There were three kinds of shots: there were shots where they were able to get most of what they needed in the Coliseum itself; and then there were shots on a set that needed extensions beyond the limits of the set; and then there were shots where we needed to create the Coliseum basically from scratch, Lemmon explains.
While most of the films effects were focused on the jumping, there were other effects. In the film, the Paladins hunt jumpers using a weapon called a tether, that flings metallic lassoes and nets that trap their targets and immobilize them with electrical shocks. The flying tethers and the metal lassoes were digital, with Weta applying some enhancements to the practical versions used on set, as well as creating the electrical shock.
Weta worked on the film from summer 2007 through the second week in January, with its entire composting team of 50 working on the film at its high point, with about 50 more working on other aspects of the film for various times, Lemmon says.
Other effects houses working on the project included Hydraulx, which handled the teleportation of Millies apartment. Digiscope, Digital Domain, Lola, Illusion Arts, Riot, Pixel Magic, Pixel Playground, Sandbox, Soho and Space Monkey also worked on the film.
Thomas J. McLean is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in Variety, Below the Line, Animation Magazine and Publishers Weekly. He writes a comicbook blog for Variety.com called Bags and Boards, and is the author of Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, forthcoming from Sequart.com Books.