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Keeping 'The Fighter' Authentic

Comen VFX tells us about the creative invisible effects it made for David O. Russell's boxing triumph.

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Comen had to control motion blur and other artifacts yet remain true to the HBO vibe. Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

David O. Russell's Oscar-contending The Fighter required some fancy VFX finessing from Comen VFX. There were 383 total vfx shots, 292 of which consisted of boxing video fixes. There were also 23 shots devoted to crowd replication and the remaining shots were monitor comps, the beginning and end title sequences, blood enhancements, a nifty napkin shot and camouflaging Christian Bale's Dicky Eklund.

"One of the decisions made early on was to shoot the boxing scenes in a way that was not quite congruent with the film footage for the rest of the movie but had the feel of a mid-'90s HBO boxing style presentation," explains Tim Carras, Comen's visual effect supervisor. "And so both to help create that look and help facilitate the shooting schedule, they did all the boxing stuff over the course of three days in a big ring in a soundstage with a live HBO video camera crew. They shot standard definition, NTSC, interlaced footage. So our first challenge was finding a way to convert that so that it could be projected on a big screen at 24 fps while still retaining enough of that video characteristic to maintain the feel. We did a lot of different tests and conversion processes and suites of plug-ins and screened them all for the director to see where he was going with it.

"The main factors we isolated for that were to be able to control the motion blur because that 120th of a second shutter on the video ended up making it look very choppy and run at the wrong frame rate," Carras adds. "So we settled on ReelSmart Motion Blur in After Effects to simulate that normal shutter speed you would have with film footage. From there we played around with different interlacing methods and for the bulk of the shots we used the Magic Bullet Frames plug-in, which has some settings you can dial up or down so there are no lingering artifacts remaining in the footage. We didn't want it to look pristine but keep some of those horizontal lines to preserve that video feel. From there we did a couple of sharpening passes, which, again, we'd vary from shot to shot. If Mark Wahlberg [as Micky Ward] got hit in the head, we wanted that to feel more hazy and blinding. But when you have fast, hard-hitting punches, we wanted that to be much sharper. "

Comen also made CG lights and did roto and comping for crowd replication.

Because the flashbulbs were going off and some of the cameras had star filters on them, there were a lot of optical artifacts that Comen roto'd out and comp'd back over on top of the crowds after they put them back in to have the optical feel of all the shots match.

For matchmoving, they had to pick the one system that worked the best for each situation and so they used SynthEyes, 3DEqualizer and Maya Matchmover. "It seems to be a trend for us as a company -- and The Fighter is a perfect example -- that when we have a multitude of similar shots we address them on a shot-by-shot basis," adds Josh Comen, owner and visual effects producer.

Comen additionally used Nuke for compositing. For the set extensions in the boxing ring, they ended up generating some CG lights and box seats up in the rafters, which were comp'd in a foggy, smoky distance. And then for shots that were actually looking down at the crowds, they repurposed some crowds from outtakes, which they stabilized and cut up into cards and placed into the background in 2.5D.

The idea with the napkin is that Ward asks Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams) for her phone number at a bar, which she gives him on napkin. It's a big moment for him and we see the napkin in close-up. "So the shot is all about this napkin, but the problem is we can't use real phone numbers on screen, so we had to change the number to something nondescript without the audience knowing this," Carras continues. "We ended up going through a couple of different takes to conceal the number. We tried masking it with motion blur and defocusing it, but that didn't work. So we ended up redesigning and re-photographing a napkin that was very strategically creased and the number was hidden in the folds of the crease and then on top of that we put in some motion blur and other stuff to finesse it so it looked believable."

Comen creatively redesigned and re-photographed a napkin to hide the obviously fake phone number.

There's also a sequence in which Eklund impersonates a cop and Russell wanted to play the scene so that in the beginning you don't know whether it's him or the real cop. "So they shot the night for night exterior scene of him in the headlights of a car, but it was still a little too obvious that it was Christian Bale," Carras relates. "So we went through those shots and rotoscoped out all the people in the foreground and background and then created some layers of fog and mist to make it more of an atmospheric, hazy backlit scene, and then digitally enhanced the lens flares and other artifacts off the headlights so you ended up with God's rays/projector beam of light enveloping Christian Bale in different directions. It made it so he looks like a shadowy figure for the first three or four shots of the scene. And then we dialed that down progressively through the rest of the scene until the gag becomes apparent. It helps to sell the narrative of the scene and enhance the look."

One of the trickiest parts of the scene was the roto, according to Comen. "Since we were relighting the scene, we wanted to make sure that both the roto and compositing were top notch and believable," he adds.

"Again, this isn't the kind of effects movie where you like to behave in a weird or otherworldly way -- it had to look very authentic and real," Carras concludes.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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