Visual effects supervisor Ted Rae speaks to Bill Desowitz about the intense challenges of creating effects for Apocalypto, Mel Gibsons ambitious action/adventure about the decline of the Mayan civilization. Includes QuickTime clip!
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After his phenomenally successful The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson decided to switch gears and make a high-velocity action/adventure chase film. But wanting to shoot something vital as well as visceral, Gibson went for another challenge: the backdrop of the waning Mayan civilization. Collaborating with first-time screenwriter Farhad Safinia, Gibson came up with Apocalypto (Buena Vista, Dec. 8), which explores the coming-of-age of Jaguar Paw, whose idyllic world is torn apart when fierce hunters capture him and hes nearly sacrificed to the gods. Miraculously spared, Paw makes a heart-racing dash to save his life, his family and his dying civilization.
Using a cast of indigenous performers, Gibson and his crew shot for several intense months on location in Mexico, including the lush rainforest of Catemaco. Visual effects supervisor Ted Rae was recruited once again to provide seamless effects in support of Gibsons naturalistic vision. Meaning: lots of wire removal, creative compositing and minimal CG.
Bill Desowitz: How many vfx shots do you have in Apocalypto?
Ted Rae: I had originally estimated we were only going to have 75 shots because Mel didnt want to do an effects picture. He wanted to shoot as much as he could for real and hes darn good at that. However, my crew and me in the visual effects department were part of production. Its not like subbing it out from the outset to a company where you have to niggle over every dime spent against what was bid, etc. We were an integral part of the live-action crew hired by Mel to make his film.
BD: How many shots did you end up doing?
TR: We turned over 398 shots, 372 of which are still in the picture. Seventy of those were fix-its, which leaves a total of 302 vfx shots, including some heinously difficult wire removals. The film is about indigenous people and theres a lot of action so, of course, theres going to be wirework. Indigenous people from Mesoamerica wouldnt wear much, so where do you put a stunt harness? How do you hide the wires? Removing them involves visual effects. Since weve got to get the shot, weve gotta get the stunt, it doesnt matter that I can see a buckle thats right on top of a bum cheek. Were going to have to paint it out. Were going to have to track in a new section of butt cheek. It doesnt matter that the guy is running through the jungle, is supposed to be bare foot and is really wearing running shoes. The actor has to wear shoes. He doesnt have feet like leather the way the character really would. We knew we were going to have to remove the shoes.
Now in post, I still subbed things out to seven different companies, which is my inkling anyway to go to companies that I know: Asylum, Svengali VFX, Luma Pictures, Zen Haven Studio, Look Effects, Filmworks FX and Radium. I think that Asylum did over 150 shots for us. Quite a variety of kinds of shots as well. They did a lot of really tricky wire removals. Theres a sequence with a live jaguar in it. What Asylum had done in the teaser, helped me to rethink how we approached the jaguar sequence. They are really tough shots. Its a real jaguar chasing the actual actor and it isnt that far behind him. It was laborious but it really shows the audience something that theyve never seen before. Youve got a 180-pound jaguar running eight feet behind our actor guy running full out. No motion control, no repeat passes. Its all live. Svengali also did a couple of really tricky shots where we have the jaguar up a tree. They painted out the platform and its collar and warped the fur back up to fill the space, painted back in branches: tracking it all back in to the camera move. They put in the jungle floor, which wasnt visible. And they animated leaves and vines, and I made sure the tail looked like it was bumping a vine the way it did in the real piece. All throughout the project, we put a lot of effort into putting things back into the effects that were there in the original photography. There were bugs everywhere. If a fly went through the matte line, it got painted right back in. So much so that in some of the matte shots we added flies. There was always something flying through the shot. There was always water dripping off things in the jungle
BD: Who were some of your matte artists?
TR: Rocco Gioffre, Mark Sullivan and Michele Moen of Svengali and Ken Nakada of Zen Haven Studio. They were my dream team and Ive wanted to get them all together on the same project for years. And then Marc Andre Samsom of Svengali and Shannan Burkley of Asylum also were aboard to add some really nice work. Most of it was painting over existing elements, including photography of a miniature city. Something that production designer Tom Sanders and I discussed in pre-production was the idea of never making a point of revealing the Mayan city in the background. Id rather do three times as many shots and have all of them shorter so that the city doesnt call attention to itself. Its just there, just thrown away. We also discussed that we didnt want to leave the design of the city to artists in post who hadnt been part of the productions art department or the live-action shoot. It needed to feel like it was real. Tom designs his sets by building models anyway, so once he had all his main sets finalized, the model makers in the art department rolled over into building a 60' x 80' model of the Mayan city. For everything that we shot from the top of pyramid number one, which is where most of the action takes place, we recorded all of the camera data. And then toward the end of principal, after they built the city model, I shot BGD plates of the miniature city, finessing the lighting and sense of distance as much as possible. During post, Rocco, Mark, Michele, Ken and Shannon touched up the elements and blended them into the foreground plates
BD: What is CG in the film?
TR: Theres three digital doubles that are CG. I think people will know where they are, since no one is really going to think that we killed anybody at the waterfall. And there are arrows and spears being thrown at, and piercing, people. Theres a sequence where the bad guys get attacked by a hive of hornets, which was done by Asylum. And theres a CG butterfly created by Luma and composited into a background plate.
BD: How did you handle crowd replication in the Mayan city?
TR: Mel and I agreed early on that we didn't want to do CG crowds. Not that they can't look great, but we were making a concerted effort on all fronts during production to keep as much real as possible. Real just feels, well, more real. For the Mayan city shots where we needed to have some fairly large crowds, up to 5,000 people in our widest shots, so we bit the bullet and decided to do our crowd replication shots with multiple passes of costumed extras. Several of these setups were done with moving cameras and motion control. First ad Adrian Grunberg and I spent the better part of a Saturday walking 650 extras through what we doing and plotting out the sequencing of the groups of extras, which we rehearsed moving from section to section. The first rehearsal took almost three hours to plot out, but the second rehearsal took a mere eight minutes to essentially "shoot" eight different passes.
The movement of the sun during the time that would elapse between the first pass and the last was also a major concern. I decided to eschew the use of greenscreen on each pass and save ourselves the cumulative time it would take to reposition those as well. I'd rather have lighting between the passes that matches and have a larger amount of roto to do in post then have greenscreen mattes for a shot that was made up of elements that would never look like they were shot at the same time. Since these scenes were shot in May in Southern Mexico, the light was coming straight down for a large part of the day anyway, which really helped with blending the crowd sections together. The extras shadows were all at their feet and didn't fall onto the persons in front or behind them. For city shots where we extended the live-action set with elements of the 60' x 80' city miniature that Tom Sander's art department had built for us, the crowd that extended onto those miniature pieces were also live-action bluescreen elements that were shot in post then reduced and composited at Svengali and Asylum onto the miniature.
BD: Why did Mel Gibson make Apocalypto?
TR: I think he had wanted to make a chase film. But a modern day chase film is going to involve cars, so he had a bunch of ideas about things that he wanted to do in a foot chase. Theres a lot of emotion to it, but I cant comment on how well it works emotionally because Ive only seen it straight through, all at one time, just three hours ago. But he found a context for a chase film in the Mayan culture. And Mel is in that rare position to make the movies that he feels passionate about. Its an exciting and entertaining movie.
BD: But theres also the subtext about the decline of a civilization.
TR: And there are things that we did with visual effects to help support that idea. Theyre chopping down trees to build fires, to burn rocks, to make limestone, to build cities. The Ceiba Tree was sacred to the Mayans. There werent any Ceiba Trees around where we were shooting. And theres a scene where one is chopped down and falls over. There was a lot of discussion about how were going to do this tree. Why not CG, which is the pat answer to everything. So the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it would limit the amount of coverage, which is not the way Mel likes to shoot. He likes to shoot with multiple cameras and set things up where almost everything plays as a master, which is not as wasteful as it sounds. Its Mels money and the way he likes to work. Its why he makes such good movies: he leaves himself open to how he wants to tell a story and gives himself as many choices as he can get. So knowing how he likes to work with cameras, when I was roughly budgeting things out with Ned Dowd, the exec producer, he asked me how much I thought these shots were going to cost. I suggested we build a full-size tree. Sounds expensive, I know, but I can tell you that it cost less to build a full-size tree and have the physical effects supervisor, Chucho Duran, rig a crane to drop if for real than it would be to do one visual effects shot. So they asked me how large a tree I wanted, and I said 65' since we werent talking actual numbers anyway. And it turns out thats exactly what we did, though we bookend the sequence with two matte shots of a 1/4 scale miniature tree.
Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.