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More VFX than Meets the Eye in 'Olympus Has Fallen'

Senior VFX Supervisor Evan Jacobs blends explosive action sequences with a complete Washington DC re-creation, all done in Louisiana.

Though the majority of the film takes place in Washington DC, the film’s producers chose to base their production in Shreveport, Louisiana. All images © 2013 Olympus Production, Inc. All rights reserved.

The action-driven realism of Director Antoine Fuqua’s new film, Olympus Has Fallen, should come as no surprise, given his track record (Training Day, Brooklyn’s Finest) for gritty, urban-centered dramas. The practical realities of making this film, however, precluded cordoning off sections of city streets while rolling cameras. Though the majority of the film takes place in Washington DC, the film’s producers chose to base their production in Shreveport, Louisiana.  The “good ol’ South” was going to have to double for the capital of the U.S., which meant senior visual effects supervisor Evan Jacobs would face some significant challenges as the film’s VFX shot count and sequence complexity continued to grow.

The continually expanding scope of VFX work, coupled with a tight post-production schedule, further added to the challenges Jacobs faced.  The shot count grew to 1,300, all to be delivered just four and a half months after completion of principal photography.  To ensure deadlines were met, Jacobs split the work between four facilities.  WorldwideFX, with offices in Bulgaria and Shreveport was the lead facility, handling the vast majority of the work.  BaseFX in Beijing, China and Ghost VFX in Denmark split the remaining shots.

Senior VFX Supervisor Evan Jacobs.

Looking for ways to jump start VFX production, Jacobs first focused on an aerial attack sequence.  “While still in pre-production we tried to identify any VFX work we could start right away, even before one frame of film had been shot,” recalls Jacobs. “The C-130 attack sequence was one of the sequences we focused on early.”

This complex aerial sequence involved a surprise attack by a modified Lockheed C-130 cargo airplane.  When the C-130 is intercepted by two F-22 fighter jets, it shoots them down utilizing hidden Gatling guns in its fuselage.  The plane then flies right into the heart of DC, causing considerable damage and leaving tremendous destruction in its wake.  The C-130 is finally brought down by a third F-22’s missile, crashing into the Washington Monument on its way down.  The Monument, badly damaged, gives way moments later, collapsing onto innocent tourists below.

The C-130 attack sequence was one of the first sequences the production focused on.

Ghost VFX handled most of the shots in the icy road accident sequence.

As Jacobs explained, “We determined early on that we were not going to be able to shoot aerial background plates, or plates of the planes for that matter.  Since much of the sequence would be CG, we could start most of the work long before a director’s cut would be available.  This allowed us to make the most of the little time we had.”

Pixomondo (Hugo, Oblivion) handled previs for the sequence, sending a team to the production offices in Shreveport to handle the work.  This allowed for quick revisions and close editorial collaboration. Upon sequence approval, the C-130 attack shots were split between BaseFX, responsible for the majority of the aerial shots including the Monument collapse, and WWFX who worked on the scene’s “ground-based” shots.

The movie’s opening sequence proved quite challenging as well. Set around the snow covered presidential retreat, Camp David, located in Maryland, the Presidential motorcade is involved in a tragic accident while driving on an icy mountain road during a blizzard. The President’s limo teeters precariously over the edge of a bridge.

“While planning the sequence, it became clear that we were going to have to approach nearly every exterior driving shot as entirely CG,” recalls Jacobs.  “There was no viable way for us to even shoot elements for those shots given we were shooting in the South, in the middle of summer with temperatures over 100°F on most days.”

Ultimately, Jacobs brought in Ghost VFX for the majority of the shots in the sequence, while several matte paintings were created by WorldwideFX. “The reality is that in these extreme weather conditions you wouldn’t have much visibility,” recalls Jeppe Nygaard Christensen, VFX Supervisor for Ghost.  “We had to strike a creative balance.”

As the story jumps forward eighteen months to July 5th, the White House and its DC surroundings become the focus of attention, front and center, for rest of the film. Production Designer Derek Hill and his team located an empty field in Shreveport and recreated the North Lawn of the White House including the lower portion of the main house, the circular drive, guard shack and fence.

Though the film’s art department built an extensive live-action set, a significant amount of mostly invisible VFX was employed to bring the White House to life.  This included adding the portico and roof of the main White House building, both the East and West wings, all the trees on the North lawn, all the surrounding buildings, and Lafayette Park across the street.  Most shots also required additional action enhancements such as blood, smoke, production fixes and clean-ups.

Though the film’s art department built an extensive live-action set, a significant amount of mostly invisible VFX was employed to bring the White House to life.

Black Hawk helicopters attempt a counter-attack that ends with a huge explosion that destroys much of the White House.

As the story unfolds, the crash of the C-130 proves to be just the beginning of the full terrorist assault. The main action begins with a full-scale ground attack on the North lawn of the White House.  Soon, the President and his cabinet are taken hostage in the nuclear-hardened underground bunker.  Every secret service agent in the White House is dead, except our hero, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler – 300, Law Abiding Citizen).

“Antoine often described the scene as something akin to the landing on Normandy beach in WWII,” recalled Scott Coulter, Visual Effects Producer for WWFX.  “He wanted lots of chaos and action and almost every shot in the sequence required VFX.”

With the White House secured by the villain Kang (Rick Yune – The Man with the Iron Fists, Die Another Day), the film moves inside. “Both the Pentagon Crisis Room and the Presidential Bunker had a very large monitor wall and both rooms were filled with smaller monitors as well,” said Jacobs.  “All those monitors needed content.  We produced some generic loops which played for background shots but the vast majority of the content was added in post.”

Later in the film, the Pentagon tries to retake the White House by launching a mission using six Black Hawk helicopters.  Kang and his terrorists, anticipating the assault, have installed a next-generation anti-aircraft weapon on the roof of the White House.  The Black Hawk choppers quickly find themselves engaged in a tremendous battle over the South lawn of the White House.

Live-action plates shot by the production included the helicopter interiors, shot in front of a blue screen using a fiberglass replica of a Black Hawk on a six-axis hydraulic motion base.

Persistence of Vision handled the initial previs, which was then further refined by the animators at WWFX in Bulgaria.  Live-action plates shot by the production included the helicopter interiors, shot in front of a blue screen using a fiberglass replica of a Black Hawk on a six-axis hydraulic motion base.  “Once again, we were forced into a situation where we couldn’t shoot practical elements for much of the sequence,” said Jacobs.

The Black Hawk sequence ends with the last remaining helicopter crashing into the White House and creating a huge explosion, destroying a large portion of the White House. “We were able to shoot some large practical explosions in Bulgaria to help with the realism,” recalls Jacobs.  “Still, almost the entire frame is CG.”

As Jacobs notes, his mission is to transform the director’s vision into a final film that entertains the audience, capturing their attention without distracting them with visual effects.  As he noted, “Our goal with the film was to support Antoine’s storytelling and only take the focus when the script demanded that kind of spectacle.  Probably 60-70% of the visual effects in the film are invisible effects.  If the audience doesn’t stop to think about how we did it, we’ve done our job.”

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Dan Sarto is the editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.