VFX supervisor Nordin Rahhali discusses the challenges of rebuilding the hero of José Padilha’s new film.
In José Padilha’s Robocop reboot, Method was brought in near the end of production to take on several key areas of the film: a virtual holographic news set with various UI elements for Samuel L. Jackson’s “Novak Element” TV show, a pivotal dream sequence where our here first wakes up as Robocop after he’s nearly killed in an explosion, and a final “rebuild” sequence where our hero, alive and repaired, is once again reassembled to hit the streets of Detroit.
I recently had a chance to speak with Method VFX supervisor Nordin Rahhali about the project. He shared his insights on the pressure faced coming in fast and furious late in a production as well as the challenges of working on shots started by other studios, where any useable asset thankfully is one more thing you don’t have to rebuild yourself.
Dan Sarto: Tell me about the scope of your work on the film.
Nordin Rahhali: We were awarded just over 280 shots and had about three months to complete them. It was a very quick turnaround, “911” work that we’re becoming too familiar with. But it was a really great project. I had the chance to watch an early, early cut of film and I really enjoyed it. And I’m a huge fan of the original.
DS: I am as well.
NR: This film stands on its own. It’s unique. The director was trying to pay homage to the original while putting his own vision into it, as opposed to just trying to remake it similar to Paul Verhoeven’s original style. José [Padilha] has his own style and look. He comes from a documentary filmmaking background. So the differences in this film are very much evident. And I liked it.
With 280 shots in such a short time frame, what’s nice about Method is that we’re able to reach out to our different facilities to see what their bandwidth is like. This is my third time working with Vancouver, working on a show across facilities. Every time we’re getting better and better. But even though we’re all working on a similar network, it comes down to personnel. Regardless of having a common backbone and similar tools, if you don’t have great personnel and if you don’t know what a crew’s strengths and weaknesses are, it’s very difficult to organize and divide a show up between facilities.
The more you get to work with your other facilities, the more you develop a rapport with other supervisors. It really becomes like they’re in the building just across the street as opposed to in another country.
DS: I imagine it helped having them in the same time zone.
NR: I would say “Yes” because we were able to turn things around pretty quickly. But I had a project last year working with the London office. You get into a grove. They’re ahead of you in terms of clock so it’s not as ideal. You can’t just get on the phone at any point and call them. But you find your grove for each show. It really wasn’t as big of an issue as you might think. It’s just about finding that rhythm with the team.
The VFX supervisor in Vancouver, Bruce Woloshyn, is awesome. This is the second show Bruce and I have worked on together. This is what I mean. Regardless of the backbone and tech you have, if you have a team of people that all see eye to eye, it makes these types of splits very easy.
Here’s how we split it. We had a lot of assets coming in from other vendors because it’s a 911 show. We had assets coming in from Modus FX and Framestore, which had done a lot of the Robocop dev on other shots. In addition, we picked up some additional shots that were brand new.
Unfortunately they [the other vendors] all work with very different pipelines, very different renderers. The level of detail that we had in our shots in terms of how close we were [to the characters], we’re working a lot closer than anything that they had in their shots. So there was quite a bit of remodeling, retexturing and uprezing the detail that we had and in a lot of cases, just filling in blanks that they never had to worry about.
So those were things we spent a lot of time with. We kept the heavier CG shots local [Los Angeles] just because we had immediate access and a quicker turnaround for the director and VFX supervisor. We sent a lot of the comp work up north. If the show had run longer we definitely would have split the work differently. But it worked for what we needed on this show.
DS: Did you develop any new tools or pipeline innovations for this show, or did the work pretty much fit right into your production sweet spot?
NR: I wish I could say that everything always fits right in our sweet spot [laughs]. Every show has its own unique challenges. We have a good base toolset structure that allows us to be fairly flexible. To me, Method’s strength comes from the fact that we are a quick turnaround house. We’re known for doing high end commercials. We’re known for doing quick, high-end VFX work. So because of that quick turn around, we have a really flexible base toolset and it allows a certain amount of customizing, being able to adapt and be a little bit more extensible.
So with this show, a large part of the work was design oriented. We have a Method Design wing that’s in the house, which normally works on things like main titles. They’re a really creative group that’s done many other types of work in the past. This show was different in that we had over 230 shots or so that needed customized UI or designed elements that the design group was pushing through their pipeline. So it was different for the VFX end because usually there’s a lighting front end or just comp work. In this case our design team was a little bit like the lighting front end. They needed to provide elements for comp to finish. And they also needed to time those elements and animate those elements and make them interesting so comp could finish.
That was new to them at least in terms of the project scope. There was a lot of pressure because of the amount of time we had to complete the work as well as smooth out the pipeline from design to the VFX. It was a little bit of a first in terms of the scale, scope and timeframe. We had to develop tools to smooth out our pipeline as much as possible and allow the artists to concentrate on creating art and not get bogged down with all the back end technical details. So there were a number of tools we wrote to do that.
We had to create a system where the compositors were creating UV maps that were coming from tracking, then map these things out in 3D. Then they’d give them to design so that they could see exactly on this UV map grid where the interactions needed to be, so the fingers [actor Samuel L. Jackson] touched and moved exactly where they needed to be. Then they’d go back and animate what they needed to in After Effects and provide those elements back to comp. Now comp could get those interactive elements knowing they were going to work properly. Those are the types of things once you figure out you try to create a pipeline to accommodate.
DS: These holographic UI and set designs, are you working from previs or concept art or are you creating them from scratch?
NR: For the designs, we completely started from scratch. Part of the reason that this came to us was that another vendor had been doing work on a lot of the holographic sets. That was referred to as the Novak set, from Samuel Jackson’s character, and was a good chunk of the work we needed to do. It’s a holographic virtual news set. We started with a lot of shots in a rough state or at least close to a state of completion in terms of what the other vendor had done. But, the overall design and aesthetic wasn’t to the director’s liking. We ended up redoing the design from scratch.
There was some tracking data we could use. But more importantly, we had the timing cues down. They had already figured the insert footage, what the flips needed to be and roughly where everything needed to be on stage. What we needed to animate up to. And so we threw our own flare on, changed it where appropriate, But at least we had a base that everyone had seen and we knew was working. So we really just needed to adjust the look and not so much the timing.
That was helpful. On a 911, you try to get anything that can help you.
DS: Anything you don’t have to recreate or start over on is a big help.
NR: Oh yeah. Anything you don’t have to recreate you hold on to.
DS: Hold on dearly. Now from a design standpoint, who are you guys interacting with on the main crew? Are you working with the director? Who’s your go to person with regards to finalizing these designs?
NR: That’s a good question because normally, with something design oriented, you would think the art department would have something to do with it. But at this point in the game, they already had their go. The art department wasn’t [involved]. Jamie Price [overall VFX supervisor] wasn’t [involved]. Dean Wright came on as a VFX producer for the graphics and he kind of became the supervisor for this as well. This was treated slightly separate from the vfx even though it falls under the vfx realm. Ultimately though it was Jose’s call. He was the one that either liked the look of something or didn’t. He was very much involved. The whole reason a lot of this got kicked back to begin with was because he was unhappy with it.
We would pitch to him and he would tell us if he liked it or wanted something changed. We’d go from there. After we got the broad strokes all locked down and he was good with everything, then it started going to either Jamie or Dean to sign off on things as we moved along.
DS: Tell me about the two big vfx sequences you guys handled.
NR: The two big vfx shots were huge challenges. For the first particular sequence of shots, what was really tricky, again because of the time crunch, was just coming up with the entire visual. It was a beast of a shot. It was the revealing of Robocop. It’s the first time that you see him as Robocop. What he now is. It’s almost a 2000 frame shot. It starts off with him in a dream in the backyard of his house. He’s at a party with his friends. Frank Sinatra is playing in the background. He starts dancing with his wife and then it shows Gary Oldman’s Doctor character saying, “Let’s wake him up.” They basically invade his dream and force him to wake up.
We pitched an idea through some concept art about how to change from one environment [the party] to the next [the lab], which they liked. So in the end we just completely took over this shot. We came up with a visual element that was interesting and grabbed your attention…the idea that his dream is being invaded by reality. So instead of just being multi-point dissolves and some wipes, it became extremely complicated. It’s all in your face. It starts very slow. People start disappearing in the background, they’re almost digitized off. You start seeing people in the lab, in the windows of the house. It’s like, “What’s going on?” It starts becoming ethereal in terms of the overall nature of the framing and some of the flaring. His wife walks off. It looks like she becomes particulate. He’s like, “What the heck is going on?” The lab starts to invade the reality. He ends up standing under a spotlight. Gary Oldman comes, wipes the frame and now we have Robocop. It was a huge hurdle to figure out because there were so many elements in there. It’s an important shot and it needed to look perfect. So that one was on my holy crap list [laughs].
DS: That sounds like a holy crap shot.
NR: Yeah. It was [laughs]. It’s the type of shot that if you had six months to do, on a normal schedule, you’d think, “This is going to be an amazing shot. It’s going to be beautiful. We just need to keep plugging away, have a small team keep working on it.” But we didn’t get awarded that to begin with so we didn’t have the luxury of time. We finished that in under two months.
NR: It was a massive shot. But we knew we broke the back of the shot at one point and just kind of got over the hump when we all stood there and said, “All right. This is pretty cool!...All right we still got work to do but let’s show this shot and hopefully they’ll feel the same.” The first time they saw the sequence with our new ideas put in, they said, “Awesome, keep going.” Then they started talking about these other elements that we hadn’t hit yet, which meant good, they’re going to like this.
DS: In a 911 situation, with your back against the wall, it must be nice to get positive feedback. Do you get to relax a bit at that point?
NR: Oh, it’s a huge relief…for a second [laughs]. You feel slightly less stress, then you leave [the meeting] and go, “Yeah great…we still got the rest of the show to do.” But you need those positive moments sprinkled throughout because it’s so go, go, go, go. You know there’s really no time to do almost anything else. So even when you sit back for a second and just appreciate that you’re all working on something really hard, you’re coming up with something that’s cool and you all feel strongly about it internally, until you show it to the client, especially on a huge shot like that, you can’t relax. When you’re putting all this time and energy and the client reacts really positively, it just feels fantastic. You feel like you know where you need to go. They’re happy with where we’re going so let’s just keep going there, keep polishing everything.
As soon as you get that, you figure, “All right, let me concentrate on the other fires. This one is going to be OK.”
DS: At least one has been reduced to smoldering embers.
NR: Our other big sequence was the rebuilding of Robocop. This is what I ended up shooting in Toronto in October with Jamie Price. At the end of the film you don’t know if Robocop is dead or alive. But you know, he’s Robocop. They’ve got to keep making these. He’s in a warehouse, a military compound and there’s ED209s dressed along the set in CG, all the way down this deep military bunker. In the foreground center of the shot, you have Robocop, just his bare minimum. His head, his lungs and his apparatus. Gary Oldman comes up and they have a little conversation. The whole time they’re having this conversation, it’s just Robocop at his bare minimum. Everything is CG pretty much. The CG lungs inflating and deflating inside his lung container. You see his heart beating, pushing up against all this stuff.
All of these shots by themselves would have been a challenge. Framestore did some great work on the disassembly of Robocop on another sequence that we had to use as reference because we know that’s what the director liked and there was no point reinventing the wheel. But we didn’t have their rig, we didn’t have a lot of the textures. The angles and lighting environment again made us alter things to get the look right. But it was very helpful to have. It’s something that they’ve already done.
So we have a 600 frame shot where Robocop is being re-put back together. We have a tight camera that starts in the floor. Now you’re seeing where all the pieces are coming from. This is brand new so we had to imagine what this whole environment underneath might be. As that starts lifting up you see arms and an intricate abdomen piece rising up. The camera is following all this. Everything has been placed into position. Then finally his chest plate comes over. His neck protectors rise up guarding his neck. Last is his brain, which gets covered up by a thin piece of glass. All of that happens right in front of your face. There was a lot of modelling, lighting and other additional work that needed to be done. That was another one where we said, “OK, what are we going to be doing here?” They shot this 600 frame shot and they want both to speed it up and slow it down. That took some time trying to figure out how we were going to pull that off.
DS: Looking back now, what was the one thing on this project that gave you the most personal sense of satisfaction?
NR: For me its two things. Obviously it’s creating really cool work. The work that we did on Robocop, in the time we had, I’m very proud of. I’m a perfectionist as are a lot of people in my position as well as in this industry. You always have some shots where you feel, “Oh, it’s not my favorite you know” but overall, the body of work we did is very strong and empowering.
But I get the most personal sense of satisfaction when I have a crew that’s running well. Even on a 911 where you know the hours are going to suck and people are going to be sacrificing family time, it’s just the reality of our industry, to have really good morale and to have a crew that’s still having fun and enjoying their time, that’s what I strive for. It was a great crew. We have great people at Method. There are people that really care about the art and about doing a great job. So it’s the quality of work and having a good time doing it. You know if you’re going to go into battle and you know it’s going to hurt, you might as well do it with people that you’ll have fun doing it with.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.