Method VFX supervisor Nordin Rahhali talks about the whirlwind of visual effects his team whipped up for Steven Quale’s new disaster pic.
New Line’s latest disaster flick, Into the Storm, is a bold attempt to walk the fine line between a low budget found footage film and a big summer VFX-driven tentpole. The $50 million movie sees an Oklahoma town battered by an onslaught of tornados, and like many films in the found footage genre, Into the Storm is ultimately more about spectacle than substance. The movie is bookended by a tedious set up and conclusion, populated by human characters who are cliched and boring, and threads to the story that do nothing to further what little plot there is. However, the film shines during its nail biting scenes of mayhem, brought to the screen by impressive visual effects. There’s no doubt that Into the Storm is a thrill ride. Director Steven Quale, who has previously worked with James Cameron on Avatar and Titanic, certainly brings a sense of spectacle to the relentless action sequences that make up close to an hour of the movie.
Into the Storm was one of the many casualties of of the Rhythm & Hues bankruptcy. New Line lost several million dollars when R&H went under, and turned to a number of VFX vendors to fill the void. Method Studios was brought into to handle one of the larger sequences, which consisted of the the entire climax of the film. I caught up with Method’s VFX supervisor Nordin Rahhali and discovered that tight budgets and short timeframes don’t always have to mean sacrificing quality and attention to detail.
Paul Younghusband: With the bankruptcy of R&H, this movie had a bit of a rough ride with regards to its visual effects…
Nordin Rahhali: Yeah, when R&H went bankrupt, a lot of the work they had on their plate was bid out to a number of other studios. And this all happened pretty late in the game. At Method we were really happy to get the large tornado sequence at the climax of the film. We were really excited to work on that.
PY: So there ended up being quite a few vendors on this show?
NR: I believe Method, Digital Domain and Hydraulx and came on board after R&H went under, but there were a number of other vendors involved too including MPC, Scanline, Cinesite, Prime Focus, and Svengali.
PY: And when you’re working with a number of other vendors, how closely are you collaborating with each other? Are you sharing assets to help maintain a consistent look across the movie?
NR: On this particular show we didn’t have a lot of time to get going. As much as we could share, we did. But the mile wide tornado sequence we were responsible for wasn’t something anyone else was working on. We pretty much created it independent of any other vendor. Also, everyone has their own pipeline and way of doing volumetrics, especially with something on that scale, so there wasn’t a whole lot that could be shared on an effects level. Most of the collaboration was just looking at the shots other vendors had been working on, and trying to pick out anything that might be applicable to our shots. So for example, MPC might have had some shots with a forest being destroyed by their tornado. So the client would give us those shots or the components of the shots that might be worth looking at. But it was more to be used as reference as opposed to us getting the physical assets.
However we did work quite closely with Hydraulx, who had a couple of shots right in the middle of our sequence. We were sharing some rudimentary animations of where the tornado would be in physical space, matte paintings and layouts of our environment for them, and even some renders of our tornado itself that they used in some of their shots.
PY: I understand Steven Quale [the director] was very involved in the VFX process?
NR: Oh yeah. That’s Steven’s background. He’s a very savvy, very technical director. He knows a lot of the lingo, he’s very familiar with a lot of the software and the procedures and approaches to solving the problems and challenges associated with visual effects. So he was more involved with defining the look of the visual effects than the director would be on most other films. Steven really adopted the role of the overall visual effects supervisor as well as the director. And it worked well because he’s comfortable communicating directly with us on what he wants. There’s no middle man.
PY: That must have made things easier?
NR: Definitely. And one of the things I really liked about Steven was the fact that because of his background he was very thorough when it came to collecting lots of reference, and sharing that with us to communicate the look he was going for. It was a very collaborative process where we’d sit down with him and talk through the footage, along with footage we collected ourselves. We’d show him things that we thought were good and he’d say yes, let’s use this as an example of overall atmospherics, and let’s use this reference as a good example of what a tornado does to the ground. So we had a number of pieces of reference footage we were using as benchmarks, until the shots themselves took over and became the benchmarks. And we’re also expanding upon this reference footage and adding a level of extravagance, because this is supposed to be an event that nobody has ever seen before. So we needed to make it bigger than life but at the same time feel real. It was nice working with him directly on that.
PY: And were you working from previs?
NR: Really the previs we did was used to very roughly define where the tornado would be in terms of scale and rotation speed. It was pretty crude. To get the look of the tornado, you need to render it in volumetrics and texture it in order to get a clear idea of how it is acting. I use the term previs very loosely, because really we’re just putting wireframes and scale references into the plates to mark the progression across shots and to understand what the framing was going to be. A lot of what defines the speed and the wind in these shots is actually beyond the realm of what previs is able to do. You need to see the visual effects animation of the debris and leaves and everything in the destruction path that gets picked up and starts swirling around to give the tornado its character.
But there were a few shots that we did previs more extensively. In particular for the sequence where the titus gets picked up and rises up inside the eye of the tornado. We prevised that whole sequence because it was pretty much all CG, and we wanted to get a clear idea of camera angles and placement, the position of the titus and the other cars that appear in those shots. But we didn’t really previs that much of the tornado itself. It was more just scale and size and placement.
PY: So what would you say was the biggest challenge?
NR: Well, we had around 180 shots, and only about 4 months to complete them. Remember, that includes all the R&D and development work. And, we also had quite a few fully CG shots. So that really was the biggest challenge. It was a lot of work to do in such a short timeframe.
PY: And what was the scope of that work?
NR: We had to develop the mile wide tornado with all the atmospherics that entails. We had to build an entire tree and forest simulation system to replace a lot of what the plate photography had, because you need to make sure the trees are being affected by this gigantic tornado. We had full building destruction simulations. A lot of the shots we had, even if they don’t necessarily have the tornado in them, they have all these layers of atmospherics which are really important. Each one has a particular aspect of the wind, the rain, the mist, the leaves, the debris and the contact layer on the ground. All these things add up to really making you believe that there’s this incredible wind system in effect. And then we had the closing sequence, where the tornado finally breaks up and dissipates. I think that consisted of around 30 shots. Then a lot of the shots had animation, particularly with the titus bouncing around in the tornado.
PY: That’s a lot of work to do in 4 months!
NR: It was a huge volume of work and it was really only possible with the amazing crew that we have here at Method. A lot of very talented people came together and worked their tails off to pull this off in such a short space of time. A lot of other studios, to do this kind of work, they would need a much longer run of R&D in front of it. But we just jumped right into the fire, and came out with something I’m very proud of.
PY: Did the fact this was a found footage movie present any unique challenges from a VFX standpoint?
NR: Yes, there were a lot of different camera formats to contend with. And nothing was stable. Everything was hand held, rolling shutter, which of course has to be tracked. So it was challenging in that regard. But also there was a lot of attention to detail with regards to weather effects and water on the lenses. Steven was very keen on keeping everything grounded in reality, and that would mean blooming and halation and water droplets on the lens. But depending on the size of the lens and what kind of camera it was, it would change the look. For example, the video footage that’s meant to be from the construction yard security camera, that would have a different kind of weather effect on the lens than say, a GoPro camera that’s mounted to the side of the titus, and that would be different again from the more professional cameras that they’re using inside the tunnel. So we had to keep track of all these different cameras and give them all their own unique look that would be appropriate for the type of camera it was supposed to be.
PY: Many people are going to compare this movie to Twister. Is that something you thought about when designing the tornado sequences? Was there a conscious effort to make sure you took what we saw in that iconic movie to the next level?
NR: It’s interesting that there aren’t a lot of tornado movies, even though there are a lot of disaster movies. But it’s not something I personally thought about too much, because they’re two completely different stories. They just happen to share the same weather phenomenon. And you know technology has changed so much since that original film. Obviously at the time it was groundbreaking, but now we have the ability to do things very differently. For Twister everything was done with particles and sprites to try to cheat volumetrics because the technology that’s available now just wasn’t around then. Now we can run fluid simulations and volumetrics that give our tornado’s a much improved look. But the studio was definitely aware of it and I think they even paid homage to Twister by having their own version of the cow scene.
NR: Yeah! They didn’t have actual cows flying around like in Twister, but they definitely wanted to tip their hat to it. At one point they were talking about us having a billboard with a cow on it spinning around in the inside of the tornado. I believe in the end they did it in one of MPC’s shots. Right after the helicopter goes down they’re driving towards a tornado and there’s a dairy truck with a picture of cow on it that rolls across the road.
PY: [laughs] I must have missed that part!
NR: It’s in there!
PY: You really did a great job on this one, even more so given the budget and timeframe! Thanks for taking the time to talk with me about the film.
NR: No problem, thank you!
Paul Younghusband previously served as editor of Visual Magic Magazine and has contributed to publications such as Animation World