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'Vantage Point': Old School Meets New School

Tara DiLullo Bennett gets the scoop on Vantage Point: a low-key political thriller in which the vfx melt into the background.

For Vantage Point, Rainmaker Visual Effects needed to melt the visual effects into the background. All images © 2008 Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. All rights reserved. Photo: Courtesy of Rainmaker Visual Effects. 

When you think of political thrillers, intricate visual effects sequences really arent the first things to come to mind.

Yet in todays age of filmmaking, that doesnt mean an old-fashioned, political pot-boiler cant use the help of some well-constructed vfx to help the story along. Take director Pete Travis new film, Vantage Point (opening Feb. 22 from Sony) Its an old-school style thriller jam-packed with an astounding cast, including William Hurt, Dennis Quaid, Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver and Matthew Fox, which uses a Rashomon-style narrative to document the failed assassination attempt on an American president in Spain. On the surface that seems like a pretty cut and dry thriller blueprint, one that utilizes a standard in camera shooting style to get the story told, but Vantage Point Visual Effects Supervisor Paddy Eason reveals that if you peel back the layers, there are plenty of vfx surprises.

Eason explains that Rainmaker Visual Effects, with studios in Vancouver and London, (now CIS Vancouver and CIS London) initially approached him to work with them on the film. Rainmaker had a good relationship with Sony, most recently from work for The Da Vinci Code. I was looking for a good show to get involved with, and Rainmaker approached me and asked if I was interested. I read the script and thought it was amazing. Plus, Rainmaker seemed to be going places, and so I jumped at the chance.

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The God's eye view shot in Vantage Point came up late during pre-production, in a last minute script revision. Rainmaker did a full-CG build based on stills shot from a helicopter over Mexico City and Salamanca. 

Initially, Eason says there were two issues that needed to be smoothed out early on with Vantage Point. One was the fact that it is a low-key political thriller in theme and tone, so visual effects needed to melt into the background. Second was the fact that first time director Pete Travis wasnt even very keen on integrating visual effects into the film at all. The initial vfx breakdown of the script was driven very much from Rainmaker, Eason explains. We offered [Travis] a kind of vfx shopping list, but at that point, I think he wasn't too focused on the vfx. It was his first major feature and I think he was feeling his way in terms of what was possible practically, and what needed to be done digitally. Most, if not all, of the vfx in the film are there for budgetary or safety reasons. It's not a movie that needed any rampaging monsters or spaceships. So if the budget had allowed, I think Pete would have shot everything practically -- the huge crowds, the lunatic car chases, the bombings, everything. It was when he couldn't do something for real; then it went from the shopping list onto the actual vfx budget.

Travis was pretty apprehensive and initially not at all open to using vfx, Eason continues. In fact, early on he told me. 'CGI: I don't buy it. I can always spot when something is CGI,' which left me a little dumbfounded. It's moments like that that make you wonder why you are there at all. But I figured that everyone would be happy if we could just prove to him that we could do work that was utterly invisible. After all, it's only the bad CGI that you can spot in a movie. If it's good, then it should be completely seamless. And that was the name of the game on this show.

Because of Travis focus on the practical, Eason says he and his team had to really work in the moment to set up what they needed for the eventual post-production process. I don't think Pete had ever really had to deal with vfx before in any significant way, so the slant of the whole show was very practically driven. So we had to dodge in and out of the needs of the other departments, just keeping the options open for vfx, so that if they were needed, we could be there to help. To be honest, most of our planning revolved around talking to the heads of the other departments, camera, production design, locations, physical effects, stunts and so on, and seeing how we could potentially help them realize Pete's vision. But it wasn't made any easier by the fact that from the outset, vfx seemed to be viewed with some suspicion. This, however, became less and less of an issue as we progressed through pre-production, the shoot and then into post. By that point, everyone realized how much vfx can help.

Because of Travis initial issues with vfx, there was never a comprehensive tally of total vfx shots needed for the finished product. The vfx elements really evolved and developed as the film moved through production, but Eason says Rainmaker did have a general understanding of the work they would need to provide. We always knew there were some big ticket vfx items on the list. Crowds, the car chase, the explosions, the fact that we were shooting Mexico for Spain, these were always present in the breakdown, but the balance and shot count changed due to the trials and tribulations of the shoot.

Maybe more than other films that embrace the vfx process, Eason says Vantage Point did shift and morph quite a bit in terms of its vfx needs. He says they prepared like they would for any bid, explaining, First, you do a vfx breakdown, and you guesstimate the shot count based on the script and maybe some conversations with the director, producers etc. You come up with a figure of, say, 250 shots. Then the producers and the studio hammer that shot count way down to fit their budget -- say, 150 shots. Then you shoot the movie, with all the unpredictability that entails, and each day you distribute a regular memo of what's in the can from that day's shooting: listing planned-and-budgeted-for vfx shots, and also new, unexpected shots invented on the day. Then it goes up to 900 shots. But then they do a rough cut of the movie, and you count the vfx shots actually in there -- 600 shots. They re-cut, you whittle the list of shots down to fit a revised budget. And finally, you end up with... 400 shots. And that's pretty well what happened on Vantage Point.

Rainmaker created a nice wide range of CG and compositing work on this film, including a CG presidential helicopter. 

In the end, Eason says those 400 shots really fit Travis mandate of using but not seeing the visual effects at work. It was a nice wide range of CG and compositing work on this film; not a one-trick pony at all. With the vfx we created crowds, car chase greenscreens, explosions and matte paintings, bullet hits, blood cleanups, rig removals, smoke additions and a lot of news truck monitor inserts plus a few other miscellaneous items like a CG presidential helicopter and one crazy God's eye view shot. That was a shot that came up quite late during pre-production, in a last minute script revision. It's a God's eye view of a traffic intersection, and the camera starts up in the sky, and dives down towards the traffic, and dives into the back of an ambulance. The only way to do that was with a full-CG build based on stills I shot from a helicopter over Mexico City and Salamanca. Our artists Mark Harrison and Jon Opgenhaffen did an amazing job there.

Speaking of which, helping to smooth out the rough edges of making Mexico look like Spain in the film was another big responsibility of the vfx team. Eason explains, Most of the film is set in a plaza in Salamanca, Spain, and the Production Designer, Brigitte Broch, came up with the most amazing set, built in a disused quarry in Mexico City. Overall, this needed no vfx enhancement at all (other than the addition of some very large crowds). The rest of the film is shot in and around the streets of Mexico City and two other Mexican towns, which are what they are. In a couple of cases, we did a little bit of environmental enhancement, such as Spanish buildings around the presidential hotel, or a Spanish skyline behind the president's helicopter.

It all came out very well, Eason says of their work, despite the difficulty of what they had to create in order to make the visual effects completely unobtrusive in the film.

The most challenging shots overall were certainly the crowds. The fact that in some cases the CG people needed to be quite large in frame, in full sunlight with a steady camera, and the CG people were standing right next to real people, all that was quite a serious challenge for the team, but they totally pulled it off in shot after shot. When doing crowd work, with plates filmed amid the rough-and-tumble of a film shoot, most plans to get greenscreens behind people fall by the wayside. So, in terms of nightmares on this show, I should probably mention the rotoscoping of many shots of flag-waving extras, he shares.

Vfx was used to make Mexico look like Spain. Most of the film is set in a plaza in Salamanca, Spain, but the set was built in a disused quarry in Mexico City. Large crowds and a bit of environmental enhancement were needed. 

And another big challenge was the hotel explosion. The location was this very glamorous glass-fronted building, which we obviously weren't going to be allowed to blow up. So we built a 20% scale miniature of the ground floor of the hotel in green-painted wood and glass. We discussed the kind of explosion that Pete Travis wanted, and we videoed some test detonations to get the scale and the character of the flame and smoke right. Then we shot effects plates of explosions on the miniature, ready for compositing on to the plates of the actual locations. Now all this worked fine, and the initial test comps were very promising. But somewhere along the line, the intention of the shot evolved, so that what originally was discussed as a moderate sized, single suicide bomber explosion because something rather more flame-filled and Die Hard-esque. This was quite hard to achieve in the end, because we simply didn't have many large, fiery explosions shot from the right angles. But somehow, Mike Pope, one of our lead compers, pulled it out of the hat.

During the post-production grind, Eason says he worked in London for the convenience of the director and Stuart Baird, the editor, and his cutting room. But the day-to-day work emanated from Rainmakers then vfx house in Vancouver led by Digital Effects Supervisor Geoff Hancock where Eason says a large team of artists, modelers and compositors used Shake, Fusion, Maya, Massive and RenderMan to bring the elements to life.

As for the sequence that ranks as his personal favorite in Vantage Point, Eason says, I think the car chase in this movie is excellent, and there's quite a lot of greenscreen driving shots in there, inter-cut directly with fantastic real in-car driving shots. The shot count of greenscreen vs. real location shots went up quite dramatically, when the production realized just how difficult, dangerous and time-consuming it was going to be to shoot car chases with actors in the center of Mexico City. When we went into the greenscreen studio with Dennis Quaid and Matthew Fox, and I suggested to Pete that we have a good look at the video-assist tapes of the location shots to make sure the vfx shots matched the lighting, camera style, etc. He looked at me as if I was mad and said, Well, they're never going to match, are they? Several months later, we screened a mixture of greenscreen-based driving shots and real driving shots and Pete couldn't tell the difference. That was a good moment, Eason smiles.

Tara DiLullo 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.

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