Speed Metal Meets Tesla Coils in 'Metallica: Through the Never'

Manitoba’s Opus VFX tackles 3-D electric bolts and Lady Liberty’s destruction in Metallica’s new music-driven feature film.

Metallica: Through the Never. All images © Metallica Through the Never, Courtesy of Picturehouse.

As heavy metal rock bands go, Metallica has played plenty of high charged concerts since hitting the stage back in 1981.  But not even their most prolific performances can compare with the staged concert theatrics unleashed in their new film, Metallica: Through the Never, a 3-D onslaught wrapping a full concert around the story of a young roadie sent on an urgent mission by the band during a sold-out arena show, who runs right into a seemingly post-apocalyptic riot and gas-masked, horse-riding harvester of sorrow – the Death Dealer. 

Director Nimród Antal (Predators, Kontroll) employed 24 cameras to film the 200 foot stage complete with an extensive array of pneumatics, hydraulics, lasers, trap doors, projection LEDs and pyrotechnics, over 185,000 pounds of equipment that included 5,000 pound coffins hanging from the ceiling, as well as 4 enormous Tesla Coils.

Lighting shoots out of one of the onset Tesla Coils.

Visual effects supervisor Boyd Shermis (Poseidon, Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) brought in Manitoba-based Opus VFX late in the production to handle a set of concert footage effects enhancements and augmentations.  Opus vfx supervisor Mike Shand, along with vfx producer Brad Reinke, had worked with Boyd previously, a familiarity that along with their expertise in 3-D post-production and generous Canadian tax credits, got them the job. 

Method’s Vancouver studio handled the main visual effects for the film’s narrative scenes.  However, scheduling and commitment issues pushed the production to such a degree that there was little time to enhance the concert effects. Additionally, over time, the scope of the work increased as the producers wanted to add more effects and embellish the theatrics captured in the concert footage. Luckily, the work wasn’t so complex that it required one of the larger houses.

Pyrotechnics about through the concert footage.

Coming in at the tail end of production meant little time and a small budget.  According to Reinke, who along with Shand had worked with Shermis on Swordfish, this was a perfect project for a studio like Opus. “Being a boutique studio allowed for faster shot turnaround and greater communication.  3-D projects can feel very technical. You can get excellent, hands on work that is much more creative and artistic out of smaller boutique studios.  The beauty of being a boutique house is that we can turn around shots much faster.”

Opus handled 18 shots over a period of 6 weeks.  Their main involvement was concert footage augmentation, enhancing the onstage effects such as smoke, sparks, lighting effects, explosions and a wide range of particle effects. They were also involved in enhancing the 3-D by making the effects move towards the viewer.  As Shand explained, “This was a very large shoot, a concert shoot with a big crowd and a lot of onset practical things going on. This created opportunities for us to digitally augment the practical effects to help tell the story and tie the whole experience together in an exciting way.”

Opus' main involvement was concert footage augmentation, enhancing the onstage effects such as smoke, sparks, lighting effects, explosions and a wide range of particle effects.

The first major challenge was contending with the elaborate stage lighting. As Reinke described, “Imagine yourself sitting in a concert.  Specifically, a Metallica concert. With smoke, fog, standard set lighting flashing on and off along with added laser lighting. There is no static lighting on any of these shots whatsoever. The density of the shots changed from frame to frame because there was so much activity involved. We had to work frame by frame and match all that color and lighting.”

A large part of the project involved augmenting the four immense 15 foot Tesla Coils suspended on rigs above the stage. According to Shermis, “Massive electric bolts are flashing across the top of the stage.  For a variety of reasons, namely safety and security, the cameras didn’t get anywhere near the devices. I couldn’t even guess how many volts or amps were running through those things.  Literally, lightning bolts are shooting out of these devices. So the cameras couldn’t get near them.” 

Since you can’t control when and where the electrical arcs shoot out, Opus removed various electrical bolts and replaced them with simulated arcs.  To make them more realistic, they added sparks and smoke elements.

Opus removed various electrical bolts and replaced them with simulated arcs.

Additionally, the producers decided that for a “poke you in the eye moment,” they wanted some of these big electric bolts to zap the audience right in the eye. They identified a number of shots where they wanted to make the audience feel closer to the electric bolts.  Opus created some bolts that shot directly at the audience as well as embellished other bolts that shot around the set, making the audience feel the cameras were much closer to the action.

In creating the electric bolts digitally, the challenge was that on one hand, they had perfect reference.  On the other hand, lightning is never the same twice. So, the effect had to look exactly like the real bolt, but not like the real bolt. As Shermis explained, “Make it this. But don’t make it this!”  The challenge, he described, in creating bolts that hit the audience in the face was “making them shoot out quickly over a few frames, making it look real, making it look cool, but not so distracting that you’re hating 3-D by ripping your eyeballs out.”

Opus had no onset data to guide them in the work on the Lady Justice statue collapse.

Opus also enhanced the destruction of a statue of Lady Justice.  In the movie, a lot of the incredibly elaborate stage starts malfunctioning – sections explode, throwing sparks and bellowing smoke while lighting rigs and other equipment falls from the rafters.  Certain shots were embellished to show a greater amount of falling debris along with more smoke, sparks and flames coming from the electronics and sections of the floor that had exploded.  This destruction includes the crumbling of a large statue of Lady Justice.  According to Shand, “They don’t use real plaster and stone for the onstage prop.  They use lightweight Styrofoam or rubber.  When it came apart, it wasn’t really feeling like it was made of stone. There was no dust or debris or proper weight you’d see with crumbling stone or plaster.”

Since that work had not been planned previously, nothing was done onstage to prep for the shot. No LiDAR scans, measurements, or other captured onset information was available to help guide Opus’s team in getting the lensing correct, the lighting correct, getting photoreal augmentations done like this.  As Shermis acknowledged, “It never occurred to anybody at the time that we would ever go back and do work on that. Opus had nothing that we normally take for granted to help them get the shot right. They had zero onset data.  But they did a great job.”

Opus had to work frame by frame and match all the color and lighting on each shot.

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