Thomas J. McLean finds out what happened when ILM and CafeFX were enlisted to bring some gory effects to M. Night Shyamalan's first R-rated film, The Happening.
M. Night Shyamalan has built his reputation on mind-blowing twists, and gut-tensing suspense. But his new film The Happening (opening today from Fox) is like nothing the director has attempted before.
In The Happening, the world and nature get their revenge for decades of pollution and mistreatment, and within a span of hours puts the future of mankind at risk. Unlike the director's previous films, The Happening is R-rated, which freed Shyamalan to go for broke when it came to creating disturbing images.
Famously skeptical of digital effects, Shyamalan did as much as possible in frame, using wind machines, mechanical special effects and on set pyrotechnics whenever possible during the film's 44-day shoot last year in Pennsylvania.
For effects that couldn't be created on set, Shyamalan turned to VFX houses such as ILM and CafeFX, which created a number of memorable and gory sequences for the film.
David Ebner, vfx supervisor for CafeFX on the film, says Shyamalan's overriding goal for visual effects is that they be as convincing as possible.
"He's very critical of visual effects movies in general, Ebner observes. He has a discerning eye and he wants everything to look real."
Accomplishing that took a lot of work on what Ebner says was CafeFX's most difficult sequence: a scene in which a group of zoo lions turn on their tamer and rip his arms off. The scene was short but complex, requiring previs and planning with the special effects and prosthetic effects crews to figure out how best to shoot it when safety requirements won't allow an actor to be alone on set with more than one lion at a time.
"And then we found out we couldn't actually use fake blood material either, because that would just get the lions going crazy, even if it wasn't real, Ebner adds. "So we started planning that all that would be done in computer graphics as well."
In the shot, the lion tamer offers his hand out in friendship to the lions, only to have them attack. On set, the actor was offering the lion a prosthetic arm on a rod that he was controlling with his other arm.
"The part that gets ripped off is fake, but what we had to do then is patch the fact that you could see his other arm not doing the right thing," Ebner continues. That involved removing his arms, the rod and replace the actor's shoulders and back. That was probably one of the harder parts of the job, was to cover him up.
CafeFX had to add all the details of the lion's attack, showing the skin ripping off the arm, the internal structure of the arm and then the arm coming off at the elbows. When the actor falls to the ground, bloody stumps had to be added, as well as the spraying, pooling blood.
Ebner says some of the blood was painted on the ground and then covered up and revealed slowly in compositing. Live action blood elements were filmed at CafeFX's studio and asome CG fluid simulation was used as well to get the right look.
The result turned out to be a bit much for a film that at the time had not yet gotten studio permission for an R rating. The amount of blood pouring out or dripping out of his stumps was kind of tamed down a bit by the director, says Ebner. It was an aesthetic choice.
The color of the blood was matched to the small amounts of blood painted onto the actor's shirt, which was allowed.
Ebner suggests they also had to work more lions into the shot, as the script called for as many as six. Ebner says they figured out during the live-action where the lions would go and shot lockoff plates so they could later shrinking the images so they fit into the background and track them into the shot.
"Once we did that, then the client wanted to change where they were located, Ebner says."They had to rotoscope out the lions more carefully and color corrected the images to get them to match the new locations."
The final version of the sequence also had some shots seen up close through a video screen, which required a treatment to the original image.
Ebner says the sequence was tracked using boujou and SynthEyes, with matchmoving, animation and textures done via Maya and fluids in a ThinkingParticles for 3ds Max. All compositing CafeFX did for the film was done with Digital Fusion. Ebner estimates between 15 and 20 vfx artists worked from November to March on about 85 shots CafeFX did for the film.
And the gore didn't end there. Ebner says another fun sequence came in two shots where a character is shot unexpectedly in the head. The makeup effects company covered a part of the actor's head with a patch of wig that had a packed of blood underneath it. A practical effect then blew what looked like a chunk of hair and blood out of the back of the actor's head.
For the second half of the shot, Shyamalan wanted to see into the wound. Ebner says CafeFX rotoscoped around the practical footage of the hole effect and used Maya to do some 3D modeling and texturing to add the internal matter and composited it in with Digital Fusion.
"It was pretty much standard animation, modeling, lighting and composting, Ebner offers."That was kind of a cool shot to do."
Another short sequence involved a scene in which a violinist takes the bow of his instrument and pushes it all the way down his throat. Ebner says it was shot on set with the actor putting the bow in his mouth and then sliding his hand down the bow, with the idea being that the bow itself could be manipulated to match the movement of the hand.
But there was a problem, Ebner recalls. "It just smoothly goes down; there's no struggle," he says. "A digital hand was created that was made to wiggle and look like it has to struggle a bit to force the bow down the violinist's throat. They ended up replacing or doing digital work on the neck, hand and bow to create the final effect."
The second most-complex shot CafeFX worked on for the film involved a crowd running away from a wind. One group was filmed on location, and CafeFX used Massive to add a second group of fleeing people. They also added a wind effect to trees and water.
The sequence also sees an outsider leave the group, walk over to and turn on a tractor lawnmower that runs on its own up a hill and turns around. The man then lies down on the ground and lets the mower chop him.
The original footage featured a driver operating a mower from which all the blades had been removed. The actor moved partially inside a specially built catch bag as the mower continued on its way.
CafeFX added blades of grass being cut and blown by the blades, as well as removing the driver and adding the blood and meat that shoots out as the mower chops up the main.
Ebner says he was lucky when he was on set during that sequence to have clear access to the mower in overcast conditions that allowed him to get the kind of flatly lighted photos that make for excellent photo reference.
Half the job was removal of the driver, but tracking the mower itself was tricky too. "It had a vibration to it, so the match move had to be really tight," Ebner says. "The blood and particle work was again done in 3ds Max and ThinkingParticles."
Ebner thinks the lion sequence stands out just a little bit ahead on this film, based mostly on the cool factor. "I think they all turned out good, they're all on the same level, but, yeah, it's probably the one we'll show off."
Thomas J. McLean is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in Variety, Below the Line, Animation Magazine and Publishers Weekly. He writes a comicbook blog for Variety.com called Bags and Boards, and is the author of Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, forthcoming from Sequart.com Books.