Search form

'Tropic Thunder': Doing Funny VFX

Vfx Supervisor Michael Fink and CIS's Mark Breakspear talk about walking the fine line between the photoreal and the funny in Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder.


VFX Supervisor Michael L. Fink had to figure out what was funny and realistic in Tropic Thunder. All images © 2008 DreamWorks LLC.

"Comedy is serious business," deadpans Michael L. Fink, visual effects supervisor on Ben Stiller's outrageous new comedy, Tropic Thunder. And Fink should know. An Academy Award winner for his work on last year's The Golden Compass, Fink has supervised everything from X2 to Wargames, but Tropic Thunder was the proverbial glass of cold water in his veteran's face.

"It was really interesting because it was the first out-and-out comedy that I've worked on," Fink explains. Tropic Thunder documents the exploits of a group of egocentric actors (Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., etc.), who assemble in the jungles Vietnam to shoot a big-budget war film. In order to "get real," they hike off into the forest with the director and inadvertently get attacked by real rebels. It's Platoon by way of the Three Stooges.

"It was a lot of fun, but there were times when I was going for reality," Fink says about the challenges of making a war film that's funny. "There are visual effects that should be real, but Ben would look at it and say, 'Well, it's pretty good, but it's not funny.' I've never done effects to be funny! I really understood what it was he wanted, but it was difficult to articulate because what he was looking for was something that always helped him to tell a joke.

"So quite often there were times I was going for 'real,' and he would say it didn't look real. Then I would say, 'I don't know what to do because it looks real to me.' He would explain it to me and then I would offer, 'Well, how about if I make that highlight brighter? It will change the contrast and make it more punchy, but real.' It was all about nuance around the focus of reality.

"I thought it was great fun," Fink continues. "There were times when it was not fun because you were working with artists and they were saying, 'This won't work!' I would say, 'I know it won't be right. Do what I am asking and try it.' We would try it and Ben would love it and we would be OK.

"When I first started on the show and met Ben, I realized, because he is a comedian, [he works with his] material over and over and over again. Ben will shoot a line reading and do it again with a different line, and then they cut it and figure out which one gets the best laugh. There is a lot of back and forth, give and take on cuts and jokes, and I could tell that's the way it would be with the visual effects. He would apply the same approach to the effects as the comedy, where you work hard to polish the jokes.

"So I would always show him three versions. I would never show him just one. Well, I would here and there, if I really loved it, and sometimes he would like it and sometimes he wouldn't. But most of the time, I would show him a little bit, and a little bit more, and then the 'oh my God, what were you thinking!' Sometimes the [last one] would be perfect, so it was fun to do that. And the artists started to have fun and give me over-the-top stuff. I would show it to Ben and sometimes he would say 'too much' and sometimes 'it was great.' It was a different process."

But even with the "funny," supervision is the same monster from film to film. Fink took over the supervision reins for Tropic at the post phase. "The supervisor for the shooting was Michael Owens. He is a very good supervisor and used to be at ILM. He started with production and then went onto another film."

On the set in Kauai, Hawaii, Mark Breakspear of CIS Vancouver (formerly Rainmaker) was present to help create plates for post. "We joined the project really early on [for] the visual effects [used] in the main war. At the time, the opening war movie was the only place with visual effects," he explains. "We flew out to Hawaii, which was a lot of fun. We went out to supervise the types of visual effects, like helicopter crashes and gory scenes from stabbings. They wanted it to be photoreal and that continued throughout the production.

"But comedy has a completely different way of doing visual effects. We had to give them photoreal scenes that were ridiculously funny, like the helicopter crash which has Robert Downey Jr. running through this destroyed jungle. It's absolute chaos. It's not Saving Private Ryan crazy, but it's chaos. The 15 minutes of the movie is like a serious war film. People will think they are in the wrong theater. But, literally, you hear a 'cut' and the suspense is broken and you realize it's a hyper-surreal take of the movie they are making."

So at its heart Tropic is a brutal, gritty war film, and that's where Fink says the team started their research. "Thank god for YouTube," he chuckles. "When we had to do the helicopter crash, Mark Breakspear and I did work on that and we both foraged through YouTube and found helicopter crashes people had shot. When we did jet airplanes, we found reference there. But the best reference was some stills I shot at the airport when I happened to see a little Czech fighter plane that looks like an F-4. It was freshly rebuilt at the Van Nuys airport. I took pictures and it became our guide for what the plane looked like. We also did a huge amount of research on the missiles because none of the missiles, and the pods that are hanging, are real. They aren't on the helicopter. We looked at a lot of video to see what the missiles did and even the color of the smoke. Those were the opening scenes of the movie and Ben wanted that to feel really real. Those took a huge amount of research."

The vfx team did their research for helicopter crashes on YouTube, as well as with some stills Fink shot of a Czech fighter plane that looked like an F-4.

Balance became the name of the game as they moved through post and Stiller shaped the film through the visual effects. "There were times we wanted things to be absolutely real and times when it was a little over the top, to sell the jeopardy of an explosion or a crashing helicopter," Fink explains. "We worked really hard to make the CG crashing helicopter in the hot landing sequence look real. Ben was adamant about that, but at the same time he wanted the explosion to be huge. When you see it hit the ground, it was like it was filled with gasoline! It was the same thing with Ben's sergeant character, who almost intercepts a hand grenade... Now, I was in the Army for three years and no hand grenade would make an explosion like that. They don't exist. But it was a big dramatic moment and it looks really cool... and feels kind of real.

"And toward the end of the movie, when Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo) blows up the [Rocket Propelled Grenade], that is way over the top. RPGs have a lot of heat and flame, but they don't make huge fireballs that engulf a helicopter. But we needed it for the jeopardy and drama and it looked cool. So we shot elements for it.

"There is another time when Ben is running across a bridge and it's exploding -- that was practical photography. Ben was shot separately from the bridge, which we shot later exploding. A lot of the explosions were put in by us in post because, when you blow up something real, what happens is that the exploding object covers up the explosion itself with a cloud of dust. Ben wanted to see more to get a more exciting shot. I shot separate explosion elements and then we painstakingly composited them into the existing footage, along with Ben.

"In my first pass at it, I went over the top and I put explosions everywhere. I thought it might be funny if all that stuff is going on behind him and it looks completely ridiculous. I showed it to him and he said, 'Um, no. Can you take some of those out?' That's why I did it, because it's easy to start out with a lot, but it's really hard to add more and more. I knew if I started out with less, it would inch up to the final, so I just started with the crazy.

"Yet at the same time," Fink adds, "we're also doing effects that you weren't supposed to see. We always went for invisible, seamless effects. But in some of the war scenes, we would heighten effects in color or scale to help punctuate the moment for the joke. It was a setup for the joke to come later. We were always going for photoreal and then enhancing that, but never to be so crazy that it drew attention to itself. When it did, it was only as a funny moment.

"There is a scene that is a play on the William Dafoe sequence in Platoon. Ben is being shot up and there is big, blobby blood, and we went nuts. He liked it because I think he thought if we went too real, it wasn't going to be funny. Yet it looks real with the setting and the battle. There was a lot of accuracy in the military footage. I saw the raw footage and I screened it with Ben and it looked real. He was delighted, and I think a reason he liked having me around was I could verify," he laughs.

Laughs were the goal, even during war scenes. The vfx team's challenge was to go for the photoreal, but then enhance it to get the funny moment.

A variety of vendors with whom Fink likes to work put all the sequences together. "The selection of three of the vendors was already decided before I came on: CIS Vancouver, CFE (Custom Film Effect) and Hammerhead," he details. "One of the things about a comedy that I was not ready for is that they screen these movies every week to get the audience reactions and to hone that cut. That meant every week we had to have new temp versions of shots. We were running around like crazy in January, February and March to get new temps done. And then new shots came into the movie, so we finished with close to 500 shots.

"Whole new sequences got added and new ways to look at sequences got added. Then I added new facilities, as we had very little time. Ben wanted to keep the cut open and not locked for a long time, so it was then easy to bring CIS Hollywood into the mix. The opening Scorcher sequence was done by them because Vancouver was socked with work. Ben likes to have the people working on the shots close to him, so I moved that sequence down here."

Breaking down the work, Fink says, "The guys at Vancouver did most of the battle scenes. A few more were done at CFE and Hammerhead. Helicopter stuff was added to the shots because there were no spinning rotors. A lot of the shots were helicopters that were just sitting there with no rotors and we added everything else. They did all that in Vancouver."

Helicopter details were added because in the originals there were no spinning rotors, missiles and pods.

The effects within the vignette trailers that pop up to give Hollywood context to the characters were handled by a variety of companies, including CIS Vancouver, CIS Hollywood, CFE, Ignition in Santa Monica, Asylum and Digital Back Lot. "Each actor had a historical biography of their previous work," says Breakspear, who was there for the shoots. "[There's] one with Robert Downey Jr., with a movie called Satan's Alley with Tobey Maguire. It's about two monks exploring homosexuality in a 10th-century church. [In Ben Stiller's] film called Simple Jack, he's a mentally retarded stable hand [who] chases a butterfly in a field and crushes it with a hammer. And then [they] did a play on Eddie Murphy's Nutty Professor movies called The Fatties for Jack Black. They all sit around a table farting. It's a lot of split-screen composting."

Fink continues, "There are some people I work with that do such great work and I wanted to give them some opportunities to do some shots. In the end there were six or more companies added. Hammerhead was reduced because they were already committed to another show and couldn't ramp up for us."

In the end, CFE handled The Fatties, with the title animation done at Ignition, while Asylum took on the segment in which Brandon T. Jackson's character Alpa Chino performs in a rock video to sell his drink, Booty Sweat. "They built a CG environment and composited to make that all look cool," notes Fink. He also praises Digital Back Lot and Robert Stromberg, who worked with a number of matte paintings. "They are perfect for photoreal stuff. There is a shot that establishes the hotel in Ho Chi Minh City and everybody loves the shot. Ben saw it as a temp and said 'wow,' so he was real excited." CIS Vancouver did the butterfly in Simple Jack and Scorcher was done at CIS Hollywood with the pre-viz accomplished at CIS Vancouver.

Tara Bennett is an East Coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, SFX and Lost Magazine. She is the author of the books 300: The Art of the Film and 24: The Official Companion Guide: Seasons 1-6.