A 'Passion' for VFX

Bill Desowitz sits down with Ted Rae, the visual effects supervisor and 2nd unit director on The Passion of the Christ, to discuss the digital challenges of Mel Gibsons surprising biblical blockbuster.

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The filmmakers placed an enormous amount of trust in Keith Vanderlaan and Ted Rae (above left) for the make-up and visual effects. All images © 2004 Icon Distribution Inc. All rights reserved. A New Market Films Release. On set photography: Phillippe Antonello; Post images: Chuck Zlotnik.

Ted Rae (Beetlejuice, Nixon, Idle Hands) had side lined vfx supervision a while back to concentrate on cinematography when his old pal, Keith Vanderlaan, called to recruit him for The Passion of the Christ. After having collaborated with Mel Gibson on several previous films, Vanderlaan got the directors approval to branch out into visual effects with his Burbank-based company Captive Audience Prods. As the only company contracted by the production for vfx, the challenge appealed to Rae, the son of a minister, who also shot and directed the films 2nd unit.

Bill Desowitz: So what was the experience like working on The Passion?

Ted Rae: This is certainly my best project yet concerning effects as pure filmmaking. The visual effects supervisor is still not yet as embraced or understood as say, the cinematographer, but more and more they are being included as part of the core process right from the beginning.

BD: You obviously worked very closely with Mel?

TR: Yes, Keith and I both did. And since I was on set in Rome the whole time, I was even free to ask the production designer [Francesco Frigeri] to make accommodations in the sets for things that I knew we were going to be doing later on. Keith and I were invited along on all the location scouts with Mel and Caleb [Deschanel, the cinematographer] as well.

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In order to make the temple earthquake seem dynamic, Rae used a two-camera rig, which moved each camera independently during the shot. Those two angles were then pre-composited together with a constant infinity in the center. To complete the illusion, a miniature of the stone floor splitting was inlaid in the center.

BD: Of the 135 vfx shots, how much CG work was there?

TR: There were only three CG elements. There were no full CG shots at all, only CG elements that were part of shots. Theres lots of digital. Every shot that we did in the visual effects end of things is digital and the whole film is a digital intermediate done by EFILM.

BD: And since Captive Audience was the only effects company contracted, there mustve been a lot of trust involved.

TR: There was a great amount of confidence on the parts of both Mel and [producer] Steve McEveety to give Keiths company the visual effects in addition to the makeup effects. In turn, the amount of trust that Keith placed in me was extraordinary.

BD: What was an example of that trust?

TR: Where the Temple splits during the earthquake. As far as I know, no one had done before quite what I proposed. It was just an off the cuff idea I threw out in a meeting, and then later said to myself, Oh, crap, I hope we can work out all the particulars. In theory, I knew that it would work I just didnt know if we would nail down all of the noodly technical details. For me, an aspect that is always missing in shots of buildings shaking and falling down is they just shake the camera and everybody reacts but theres no perspective shift in the set and you dont physically see things move... it doesnt have the kinetic energy. So I thought, Whats one of the ways that we could get something to move really fast? What was done in order to get the shot is a rig was built carrying two cameras that were configured where one camera is shooting the right side of the set and the other is shooting the left. Then, taking a clue from traditional motion control, the rig would physically separate the cameras right and left by six feet and up and down by four feet. The perspective appeared to shift on the walls as they suddenly moved away from each other very quickly. Those two full frame spherical plates, in a pre-composite, were split screened together while retaining the center of the far end of the set in a constant infinity position. It became a very large 8K frame that we then down rezzed to 2K anamorphic. That pre-composite was essentially our plate from the set to which we added the miniature splitting floor in the center, a full scale greenscreen element of the jiggling tapestry, additional falling debris, rocks, dust, smoke and light beam elements.

BD: And they had faith that this was going to work?

TR: I mentioned before how cooperative the art department was and that I had asked for accommodations in the set that was built [in Italy]. They made a whole large section of stairs removable because I knew that we were going to need to put the camera rig right in the middle of the Temple door where the stairs were. As the main unit was off shooting other scenes, we set the rig up and tested it. Mel and everyone came by at the end of their day and I showed them what I was planning. [Visual effects line producer] Josh Logan had drawn lines on the floor to show where the fissure in the floor would appear and the stunt coordinator and I walked through our proposed blocking along with what the physical effects crew had rigged for us. Everyone seemed happy. So we got around to the day of what was kind of a big deal with stunts and physical effects and this camera rig and so forth. 1st Unit walked in with it all having been set up, rigged and rehearsed. An hour-and-a-half later, the shot was in the can. We got it on the first take. Steve McEveety then asked if I thought we should shoot lock-offs in case the moving cameras idea didnt work? I confidently, or maybe foolishly, stated, No, its going to work. Two days later, after we got dailies, we quickly did a low-rez temp composite in my laptop, showing them the two plates stitched together. From that point, everyone seemed exceptionally confident in our collective abilities.

Rae had a personal attachment to making the nail-in-the-hand effect look convincing. He greenscreened the elements and personally composited the shot.

BD: Lets talk about how you achieved the nail being driven into Jesus hand?

TR: The nail through the hand is an effect that Ive wanted to do since I was a teenager. As I became aware of movies, I always felt that this effect had been cheated. I would be sitting in church while my father was preaching a sermon thinking, You know, theyve never gotten it right because I really want to see the nail go right into his hand no cuts, no apologies, just all right there on camera. And that was one of the first gags that Keith called me about. I looked at the storyboard and said, Alright, you know, we could do this on set with a fake hand and really drive a nail into it, or shoot it as a greenscreen with a real hand and then shoot the hammer and nail element separately. But since there was the desire to do it on set, we went through a bunch of tests. We tested the gag at Captive by filming it twice before we even went to Italy.

BD: And since it ultimately wasnt realistic enough, you convinced them to let you come back here and shoot it as a greenscreen.

TR: Its such an iconic image; Keith and I both felt that it had to be as invisible as we could possibly make it. I composited it myself because it was just too important to me personally and it was a shot Id wanted to do for so many years.

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Rae used a crane to shoot the live-action plate for Satans defeat, which was then composited into a miniature landscape designed and constructed at Captive Audience.

BD: Now tell me about the Satan Vanquished shot at the end.

TR: That was a concept that Mel added while shooting because he wanted to pay off the character of Satan. As we were shooting, Satan had became more and more prominent. Where Mary and Satan are pacing each other in the crowd sent chills up my spine the first time I saw it in context. Its so effective and, if you think about it, Mary is the only one in the whole film who makes eye contact with Satan. Jesus never even does. So, since Satan was becoming more of a character, Mel expressed a desire to pay that character off. We needed to see that Satan is angry that its plan has backfired. Josh did a piece of conceptual artwork and I asked Francesco Frigeri to make up a small sample piece of ground of this cracked dry earth,then I ran both of them by Mel for approval.

BD: Then what happened?

TR: On 2nd unit, I shot a plate a 115-foot crane move. The camera was pulled upward, away from the art departments full sized section of dry and cracked earth. Caleb offered good ideas to help stabilize the camera and keep it from spinning. I wasnt really worried about making it dead smooth. The intent was to then take that plate and do motion tracking on it. At which point I wanted to take that tracking data and translate it to a motion control system, do a matched pull out on a miniature version of Joshs design and then marry the two of them together digitally. We did do a 3D track in Boujou, but we never used the data. Once we started crunching the budget numbers in post, we realized we couldnt afford to do it with motion control. And since I hadnt gotten quite the level of intensity from Rosalinda [Celentanos] performance that Mel wanted, the shot was kind of left on hold. We even discussed re-shooting the whole thing over here in the States, but once we took the original 2nd unit plate into Flame and did just a little bit more stretch and contortion of Rosalindas face so she appeared even angrier, with just a bit of supernatural rage, Mel seemed to feel that it worked dramatically. Then, we proceeded to finish the shot by adding the rest of the environment outside of the full sized set. As we pull back on the desolate landscape, we go through a thin layer of CG cloudy dusty murk so one should know that its an unpleasant place to be.

BD: What are the other two CG elements?

TR: The maggot in Satans nose that was done in Maya and then the CG water droplet Gods tear was done in LightWave. In the follow-up shot, after you see Gods tear drop away, you are looking up at the cross and the teardrop comes toward you. That second drop is a photographic element shot at 400 frames a second. 85,000 watts illuminating an area 5 inches square. Even at that shutter speed the drop only lasted 12 frames so we resized it, looped it and then morphed it to extend its length.

God's tear added a touching dramatic punctuation to the films message.

BD: And that final water droplet, Gods Tear, was another post-production addition by Mel to provide more dramatic payoff?

TR: I think it was more a matter of punctuation than payoff. It was very difficult to get the shot to work dramatically. This film, more than any other project Ive been involved in, has been especially challenging. It was a marriage of visual and makeup effects as pure filmmaking. In most cases, the difference between what worked dramatically and what didnt work was very slight. Of course, that in itself is a double-edged sword. If the work just disappears into the story overall, then nobody knows that we did all of this [vfx] work. Interestingly, I found myself going through the same process as an audience might. I thought one day while looking at a batch of vfx film outs, What took us so long? I was aware of every step involved but still I found myself reacting as if I didnt know any of that, just like an audience member. If one can get the work to a sufficient level of transparency, then the task thats been accomplished just doesnt seem to be any big deal, like it was really there all along and we just shot it.

Bill Desowitz is the editor of VFXWorld.

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