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Reflections on ‘Divergent’ VFX

Jim Berney, Greg Baxter and Matt Dessero discuss their subtle approach to VFX.

Jim Berney readily admits he’s starting to forget some of the details of his work on the recently released sci-fi thriller Divergent.  You can hardly blame him – after a year spent supervising the visual effects, there are only so many details one person can retain.  He does, however, recall the name of the final shot completed: GF-105.  “There were some big shots we added later on just to start establishing the geography of the city and there’s this one sweeping helicopter shot where you’re going along a fence and see the outskirts and then you pan up over to the city itself.”

The city in question is the Chicago of tomorrow, where teenage Tris (Shailene Woodley) is having some trouble fitting into a society that divides everyone up into factions based on their personalities.  Berney – whose career dates back to Batman Forever and includes films like The Matrix Reloaded and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – has the disposition of someone who is used to adapting to the specific needs of any given project.  When it comes to names of sequences, though, “I’ll eventually forget what all of them stand for.  You just read the script and label each sequence something like ‘they were going to the fence’, which becomes ‘Go to Fence’ and then ‘GF’.”

Luckily, he’s not the only one who gets to keep them all straight.  Visual Effects Producer Greg Baxter (Jack The Giant Slayer, Jonah Hex) and Method Studio’s Visual Effects Supervisor Matt Dessero (Iron Man 3, Cloud Atlas) were also part of the team tasked with bringing author Veronica Roth’s vision of the future to cinematic life.  In tackling the roughly 1024 visual effects shots, however, the trio made every effort to use a light touch and keep the audience’s attention focused on the characters.

“Neil Burger was clear that he didn’t want it to be a Blade Runner-type world,” Berney recalls of his early conversations with the director.  “You don’t want your eye to gravitate towards the effects to the point where you start to really question them or tear them apart.  Nowadays, there’s VFX everywhere and people stop following the story,” he points out, hinting at the overindulgence of recent blockbusters.  “You want it to be beautiful and you want the audience to be pulled into this world but to me it’s more about tone than anything else.”

“The story in this one,” Baxter explains, “wasn’t so much the events that took place to create this society.  It’s more the society these people are in and just how they function.  So unlike some of the other more apocalyptic movies, the world that we were enhancing wasn’t really created.  It was more about taking modern-day Chicago and then aging it appropriately to the story.”

To properly tell Tris’ story, it was necessary to erase a variety of elements from the landscape entirely.  “You’re inside this walled city where there are no cars anymore and there’s probably no gasoline,” Berney points out.  “So without cars there’s no need for roads other than pedestrian traffic.  All signs of cars would be gone, so you get rid of all lines on the asphalt and the crosswalk signs or street lights.  That right there changes the tone of it.  I didn’t want there to be any signage.  I didn’t want an old decrepit McDonalds sign or an old Quiznos sign anywhere – it’s just all gone.”

“For electricity they harvest the wind of the ‘Windy City.’ There’s these large wind turbines that are attached to the buildings and these cables hung between them.  I think just between having the silhouettes of them when you look up and having a few broken buildings and all those signs of life taken away just gives it a personality we’ve never seen before.”

“You feel it’s different but you can’t really put your finger on it.  I think if you ask people when they come out of the theatre, ‘did you notice they took out all the lamp posts?’ they’d be like ‘what?  No, I didn’t notice that at all!’”  Street lights and mail boxes were physically removed from the set at great expense to try and help cut down on digitally erasing in post-production.  Green screens were erected around the corners of buildings to also make life easier for the folks at Method Studios.  Baxter is quick to point out that their efforts didn’t always pay off.   “Jim’s mantra of ‘never underestimate the city’ came true.  Every time we were shooting something outdoors in Chicago, it was endless the amount of stuff that had to be painted out or recreated because it’s just such a busy city.  All of the cars and the traffic and things happening in the background that we couldn’t really control had to be removed and there was a lot of it.”

The majority of the VFX problem solving done for Divergent focused on the ‘AT’ sequence – or the ‘aptitude test’ sequence – which begins roughly nine minutes into the picture.  “It was the biggest sequence in the movie for us.  There was a lot of VFX work with the train, the pit, the zip-line and the landscapes, but I think the thing that stands out as fairly unique is the Mirror Room,” Berney says, of the sequence that Burger repeatedly had to explain in great detail.  “It was funny because we’d act it out in the office once a week.  We’d think we got it and then it was like ‘Okay…let’s just act it out one more time’.”

Everyone involved had an equally hard time wrapping their heads around what needed to be done.  “I’ve never dreamed of anything that complex, to be honest,” Dessero agrees.  With its multiple mirrors and infinite reflections, “it’s an impossible shoot – there’s no way you could shoot that in the physical world.”  Successfully accomplishing it required careful preplanning, according to Berney.  “The previs was different than usual.  Usually you create the sequence to tell the story and then you ask the studio for money by showing them how cool the sequence will be.  And then, you go shoot something else.  This had to be exactly what we were going to shoot.”

“When Jim first showed us The Third Floor’s previs for it,” Dessero remembers, “I was ecstatic but I knew it was going to be tough.”  Though their first idea was to “go the easy route” and generate CG reflections of Tris, Berney insisted on filming the actress’ reflections live and then repositioning them digitally.  “I remember him saying, ‘Well, I don’t want the first reflections to be CG because it won’t look as photo-real as it needs to.’  He knew how he wanted to approach it, and we obviously agreed.”

To successfully accomplish the sequence – in which Tris finds herself surrounded on all sides by mirrors and interacting with her own reflections – Dessero’s team relied on the previs to chart a course for their cameras in the 100 by 80 foot green screen stage.  A central origin point in the space was decided upon and then the team began reverse-engineering things to mimic their mock-up.  “We’ve never gone the route of taking something out of the computer and putting it back in the real world, but it saved time.  We did four shots in the test shoot and we had to plot 24 cameras basically and it was tough.  We were manually out there with tape measures trying to mark all these camera positions.”

“From there we exported all of the camera positions into our robotic survey head.  We actually plotted every camera position, which was something we had to write some custom code to do,” Dessero recalls.  “It’s ridiculous!  I don’t know how anyone can wrap their head around this because it took us six months to figure it out!”

Special attention had to be paid to Woodley’s height and position within the space, to ensure she wouldn’t stray from her marks.  “It was such an exacting shoot that if she walked off a camera – one of the six reflection cameras out there – then we wouldn’t have the data.”

Additionally, the team had to plan out how to best light each shot given the complicated camera movements.  “We had a couple of meetings with Alwin Küchler, the DP, and Len Levine, the gaffer, just on how we light it and what Alwin’s visions were for it.  He wanted everything to be shot anamorphic and Jim and I preferred to shoot spherical just because we had a lot of data to unwrap.  The anamorphic lenses have a lot of curvature to them so we didn’t want to lose information on the sides of the frame.  We shot everything just slightly wider so that we had a little bit of range to adjust in post…but a ton of planning was needed on everybody’s part.  Len and Alwin put together this beautiful light rig that was this grid system on the ceiling that could be adjusted.”

Following the grueling two-day shoot, Method Studios took the footage of Tris and all her various reflections and spent months perfecting the final look of the sequence.  In addition to the Mirror Room, however, they also created the CG dog Tris wrestles during the aptitude test, the flock of birds who attack her in another sequence and digitally reconstructed Chicago’s famed L Train. 

“The software we used included Maya for modeling, rigging and animation. Lookdev of solid surface objects, including the mirror room, digi doubles, and our Massive crowd simulations, was done in Maya and rendered through V-Ray," Dessero details. "DFX Supervisor Blake Sweeney worked with the Chaos Group (V-Ray) to write a custom build of the renderer that allowed us to selectively eliminate undesired reflection bounces. Houdini was used for environment and character FX and rendered in Mantra. Texturing was done in MARI with Zbrush for displacement. We used Nuke for compositing. 3D Equalizer, Boujou, and SynthEyes were used for tracking and Photoshop for matte painting.” 

If trying to keep the effects work “invisible” still somehow led to some of the most complex challenges they’ve faced in their careers, the trio maintains that they were well aware of what they were walking into.  “We knew there was a lot riding on this one and it had to be a really successful first piece in order to get the franchise going,” Baxter points out.  “But the rule of thumb is that they usually don’t put too much money into the first one just in case…so we had a somewhat limited budget for what we wanted to accomplish.”  With plans for sequels already underway in spite of the underwhelming critical response to Divergent, the teams are relieved they gave some thought to what would come next.  “We did always have an eye towards the future and how what we were doing on this one would affect the next ones.  The next chapters do go into other parts of the environment that we haven’t seen yet, but certain things like the Abnegation neighborhood and the Dauntless pit are going to be part of future stories too.”

Given that Divergent just surpassed the hundred million dollar mark at the box office, they should rest easy.  It’s a safe bet they’ll have a bit more budgetary wiggle room the second time around.

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James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.

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