Mac Guff Ligne handled key environmental vfx work on Transporter 3, and Alain Bielik discovers what their mission was.
With the Transporter saga, producer Luc Besson has managed to make a point: French filmmakers can deliver the same adrenaline-fueled action sequences as Hollywood. The franchise follows the adventures of top notch driver-for-hire Frank, a man whose clients often prove to be less reliable than him...
Starting with the first movie (2002), car stunt coordinator Michel Julienne has kept on designing and shooting some of the most spectacular car chases of the past decade. In Transporter 3 (opening today from Lionsgate), he once again delivers the goods... with a subtle but crucial help from the visual effects team.
The film features more than 600 vfx shots, but audiences worldwide will be able to spot a few of them only. Two key vendors were hired to create them: Mac Guff Ligne (300 shots) and Duboi (250 shots), with Éclair Numerique providing additional vfx work. At Mac Guff Ligne, Visual Effects Supervisor and Co-Founder Rodolphe Chabrier assembled a team that included VFX Producer Jacques Bled, VFX Exec Producer Delphine Domer and CG Supervisors Marie-Claire Bazart and Antonin Seydoux.
The team was challenged by an almost impossibly tight deadline: eight mere weeks to create more than 300 shots with a team of 35 artists... "We mainly worked on the climactic train sequence," Chabrier says. "All the interiors were shot on stage. The carriage set was surrounded by a white cyclorama. It created an overexposed, washed out look that accurately reproduced the look that a film camera would obtain when shooting inside a train under those light conditions. This cost-efficient approach allowed director Olivier Megaton to get his shots directly in camera. When he felt that exterior views were required behind specific windows, we would add them in."
The train sequence features the most outrageous stunt of the whole movie. Upon seeing the bad guy escaping in a train, Frank drives his car through an overpass railing and lands right on top of one of the fast-moving coaches... This miraculous maneuver required a little bit of Mac Guff's magic to be successful. "We used a succession of different techniques to make it look real," Chabrier notes. "The sequence was extensively storyboarded, and we analyzed it shot by shot to figure out what the best approach was. First, we filmed with matching angles the car driving through the railing at a safe location, and the train on its tracks. The two plates were combined in compositing. All our tools at Mac Guff are proprietary. For the following shots, we filmed a real car driving on a carriage rooftop set. We also shot a static car that was attached to the real moving train. In some shots, we extracted it from the plate and did a 2D animation to have it move on the carriage. In other cases, though, we had to paint it out as the shots were ultimately used in another part of the sequence, when the car wasn't supposed to be there yet. We did lots of fixes of this kind, due to continuity issues..."
When no practical means or 2D technique was deemed suitable for a specific shot, 3D animation was employed. "Audi provided us with CAO files of the car, which gave us a solid basis for the 3D model. We had to retouch it significantly though, as the Audi they used for the shoot was a newer model. We then matched the elaborate paintwork precisely -- no photographic texture maps were used. The paint had a very special sheen that proved difficult to match. Sometimes, it looked just like a mirror, which made our job all the more difficult! During principal photography, we shot HDRI images that allowed us to build spherical photographic environments in which we could light the CG car. It gave us very accurate reflections on the body. We had several versions of the vehicle, depending on how dirty and damaged it was in any specific scene. The car was mainly featured in the 'impossible' shots, when it is flying right at camera, or when it is seen jumping from one coach to the next."
The CG car was also used to add proper reflections on the real car. Since the vehicle and the train had been shot in separate locations and under different light conditions, the car body didn't reflect the environment in which the action was supposed to take place. In this case, the CG car was tracked to the real car, and the train plate reflections projected onto its body. The reflections were then composited on top of the real car. 3D animation was employed to fine-tune 2D composites as well. In one shot, the real car's trajectory didn't exactly match the train's path. The team extracted the car from the live action plate, projected it onto the CG version, and used the 3D model to correct the perspective.
The train sequence required extensive work on the environment itself, especially in long shots. When editing the sequence, the director noticed that the setting was sometimes too bland or that there were continuity problems. "From one shot to the next, a forest would disappear, or there was just dirt to look at..." Chabrier comments. "So, Oliver asked us to create some kind of continuity in the environment, and also to make it look more interesting. We added trees, vegetation, removed unwanted elements, etc. We had to deal with other kinds of fixes too. For instance, due to editing changes, some shots that were filmed as part of the end of the train sequence were now placed earlier, which meant that we had to put back the carriages that were then missing -- or, the other way around, removing carriages that were no longer supposed to be there. Some of these shots had been added during plate photography: it turned out that it was much more cost efficient to paint a train carriage out -- and keep shooting -- than to take the whole train back to the station for that one carriage to be removed."
For the train's fiery demise, the director didn't want a mere series of explosions. He wanted to have complete control on the pyrotechnic events that were going to rip the carriage apart. To this purpose, Special Effects Coordinator Philippe Hubin rigged five different practical effects in the carriage set: windows blowing up, seats being blown away, fireball, etc. Each event was filmed individually in a separate pass by several cameras running at different speeds. Mac Guff was then able to combine the various passes, playing with the speed and timing of each event to create a larger than life explosion. "There were some elements that were shot at 125 frames per second, and that we slowed down up to 4,000 fps! Being able to manipulate each layer individually allowed the director to create exactly the action he had in mind. It was almost like he could 'direct' the explosion."
Mac Guff also contributed vfx to several car stunts, removing rigs and replacing the stuntman head, and to the underwater sequence. "This project was very interesting in terms of its logistical complexity," Chabrier concludes. "We had an enormous amount of shots to produce in a very short amount of time. Yet, we were able to be both creative and efficient. This was important at a time when deadlines are getting increasingly shorter and when facilities have to respond extremely quickly to any demand from productions."
While Mac Guff Ligne focused on the train sequence and on several stunt shots, Duboi tackled interior shots featuring the characters in vehicles, along with some additional shots. In-house Visual Effects Supervisor Thomas Duval oversaw the project with VFX Producer Annabelle Troukens, VFX Coordinator Nicolas Lacroix, Compositing Supervisor Cyrille Bonjean and Scene Supervisors Cecile Peltier and Sebastien Rame.
Director Megaton designed a specific approach for the car interior shots. For practical reasons, the plan was to shoot them on a greenscreen stage. "Olivier didn't want the camera to be inside the car with the actors, and have us add the environment," Duval explains. "He thought that these types of shots never felt quite right, that it didn't look real. Doing car interior composites sounds easy: you shoot the actors in a car on a blue screen stage and you add the background. But it is actually extremely difficult to get the exact same lighting conditions on both elements. So, Oliver said that he wanted to try a technique that had made a great impression on him when he saw it for the first time in Tony Scott's Man on Fire. In that movie, the camera was always outside the car, filming the actors through the windows. The foreground glass was covered with lots of reflections of the environment, but the result felt real. Olivier had been surprised to realize that it didn't bother him to watch the action from outside the car, while listening to the dialogue inside. Somehow, the moving reflections on the foreground led us to believe that this car was really moving. We applied the same approach to the driving scenes in Transporter 3, and the results turned out to be extremely convincing indeed."
The car and actors were filmed on a soundstage, surrounded with a bluescreen and mounted on a rig. Duboi then created a three-layer composite for each shot: the environment in the background, the car in the mid-ground, and the reflections on the foreground. "For the environments, we shot plates using the same camera angles and the same lenses that were used to film the car on stage," Duval says. "We then had a hard time trying to balance the lighting in both plates. But the trickiest aspect of those shots was the color grading. Due to the ultra tight deadlines, we had to start compositing the shots before they had been graded. It meant that, once the director had a final cut for a scene, many changes were required in the color palette of our composites. For instance, most of the car interior shots were photographed with a warm light, but when Oliver asked us to add colder reflections on the foreground, the composites no longer worked. We had to retouch the other elements too and find a new color balance, which was very delicate. Any modification on one of the layers meant that we had to retouch the whole shot."
These late color-grading issues led Duboi to dramatically expand its work force on the project. "Initially, we had planned to create all the composites on two Flame workstations with two of three artists," Duval concludes. "But we ended up having to add 13 additional artists working on our proprietary compositing package Dutruc, only to deal with the color grading. The last couple of weeks were really intense..."
Alain Bielik is the founder and editor of renowned effects magazine S.F.X, published in France since 1991. He also contributes to various French publications, both print and online, and occasionally to Cinefex. In 2004, he organized a major special effects exhibition at the Musée International de la Miniature in Lyon, France.