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Cracking 'Da Vinci Code’s' Crafty VFX

Tara DiLullo goes behind the scenes at Rainmaker UK and MPC to decipher the subtle CG work in The Da Vinci Code.

Because filming wasnt allowed inside a Catholic church, Rainmaker UK created previs, wireframe and textured CG models of Saint Sulpice. All images © 2006 Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. All rights reserved.

Because filming wasnt allowed inside a Catholic church, Rainmaker UK created previs, wireframe and textured CG models of Saint Sulpice. All images © 2006 Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. All rights reserved.

Of all the super-sized blockbuster films opening this summer, the one least likely to immediately conjure up visions of CG flights of fancy would have to be the theatrical translation of Dan Browns international bestseller, The Da Vinci Code (which opens May 19 from Sony Pictures). While the book is a brisk-paced, religious-themed, page-turner, its also a very narrative heavy story that progresses over the course of many erudite conversations among scholarly characters Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) and Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen). They spend the bulk of the novel and script talking about religious and historical events of note that end up unraveling the mystery of the true nature of The Holy Grail. Its definitely not the kind of story that lends itself to the expected summer fare of over-the-top car chases, alien battle sequences or superhero sequences. Yet Da Vinci Code utilized the varied expertise of five separate visual effects houses, including Moving Picture Co. (MPC) and Rainmaker UK, the new London facility for the Vancouver-based studio.

Mark Breakspear (left) of Rainmaker UK and MPCs Gary Brozenich created many special sequences and the bridging work for Da Vinci Code. The vfx are mainly invisible and woven into the story.

Mark Breakspear (left) of Rainmaker UK and MPCs Gary Brozenich created many special sequences and the bridging work for Da Vinci Code. The vfx are mainly invisible and woven into the story.

Director Ron Howard employed a wide range of subtle visual effects in the film, mandating the various houses (which also included The Senate, Brainstorm Digital and Double Negative), through overall visual effects supervisor Angus Bickerton, to bring it to life without overly focusing on any of the CGI sequences used to support the narrative. Mark Breakspear, visual effect supervisor at Rainmaker UK, explains, Its not your typical visual effects movie. There are visual effects in it, but they are so woven into the story that they come and go. Gary Brozenich, visual effects supervisor at MPC, concurs, adding, I think the real challenge was that it was broken down into very challenging large shots, but very small sequences. Sometimes they were so complex, you would build a pipeline around them for a large show, where here we were creating huge numbers of assets and strong rendering pipelines around single shots.

For Rainmaker UK, it was their companys subtle work on the thriller Firewall that got them the Da Vinci gig. Breakspear details, We had to build a model of Seattle and it was all filmed in Vancouver. We were filming out of Harrison Fords office and it had to be rainy Seattle. We had the rainy bit down because it was Vancouver, but to get the rainy Seattle part we had to go in there and basically rebuild the view out of his window. Its a technique of textures and combining them with CG and getting this nice in-between process. It gave us an interesting way of making something completely photoreal.

Bickerton was familiar with Firewall and asked if Rainmaker would have a look at a sequence in Da Vinci Code. There is quite a dark part of the book where Silas the monk (Paul Bettany) is killing off all the keepers of the Holy Grail. He believes that each one of them has told him where the Holy Grail is and theyve all told him the same thing, but they are lying. He goes to the church believing he knows where the Grail is buried, in a specific point in this church in Paris. He breaks a hole in the church floor and pulls out this tablet that has a quote on it from the Bible that says, Your journey ends here. He murders a nun in the church believing she is in on the ruse and obviously the Catholic Church didnt want us to do that in their church. Fair enough, he offers. So we thought a lot about using different churches, but in this sequence they really wanted to be as truthful to the book as possible. This church is so unique in the way it looks. The architecture is really unique to the church and they wanted to use it.

The solution? Using CGI modeling to recreate the insides of the churches, using the techniques they created in Firewall. Breakspear offers, Angus really backed us the whole way and really wanted Rainmaker to work on it. Angus gave us a few pictures of the church and we created a test to show him the kind of things we were thinking of. He showed it to Ron Howard and [exec producer] Todd Hallowell and they were like, Great! We did the entire job in our London office. We crewed up for that and I went over to London and supervised the job.

Rainmaker built the main church set, which helped the filmmakers with framing and overall composition. The digital team created visualization stop-gaps and quick, on-set previs. 

Rainmaker built the main church set, which helped the filmmakers with framing and overall composition. The digital team created visualization stop-gaps and quick, on-set previs. 

We also went up to Paris to the church and went in there and had a look around and took a few pictures for reference. We got a general shape and idea of the church and there is lots of data online about the church. We built a model of the church in two stages. We had one team building a very quick version because we were awarded the job and we had about 10 days to be on set with a previs model. The B team was building the main church, which was taking a lot longer. We turned up at Shepperton Studios and they had built a 15% smaller version of the church on the set. It consisted of the church floor, about 200 chairs and then they built about four columns on both side to use in reference to where they were in the church. They also built the altar and one little corner with frescos on the wall. Around the entire set was a 360-degree greenscreen that was about 40-feet high. Working on-set also allowed the team to help create visualization stop-gaps for the filmmakers to help with framing and overall composition. For Salvatore Totino, who is the dp, and Ron Howard, we devised a way of giving them a very quick [previs] in the lens look at what it was they were looking at, so they could angle that up and get it looking like they wanted.

Rainmaker immediately encountered their share of challenges that were incorporated into their workload. Breakspear continues: They planned on the shoot for columns that were 10-feet high, but they were about 30-feet high in the real church. They only built those first 10 feet and we were going to link into them and connect with the CG. What happened was the on-set models were 15% scale and our models were based on 100% scale, so we had to cheat it. We ended up replacing them with our own because they werent lining up. There were also a lot of candles on the set, lit around everything, so when we painted out the real columns we had to replace the candles. One of the fun jobs you get to do as a supervisor is to sit in your apartment in London with a DV camera and church candles filming them for hours on end blowing on them to make them appear to be flickering. I really learned how to direct a candle. Im very, very good at candle direction, he laughs.

Smoke element was used to add extra candles to the church interiors. Breakspear became an expert at getting the proper flicker when he filmed church candles in his London apartment for many hours.

Smoke element was used to add extra candles to the church interiors. Breakspear became an expert at getting the proper flicker when he filmed church candles in his London apartment for many hours.

And the other kicker in the whole thing was that we were only able to get into the church during the day to see what it looked like, but the problem was the entire scene was set at night, Breakspear adds. Salvatore had lit the set for nighttime and put areas where moonbeams would be hitting and we had to go in and adjust our CG model to take those into account. We had to make all those adjustments and Les Quinn, led our CG team. He along with Jose Burgos and Dan Mayer were the test development team. Our comp team was led by Mathew Krentz and they put together a way of taking daylight rendered CG and turning it into the night look. You hear the term day-for-night, which is a basic, not very useful technique that never looks very real. We had to throw those all away and look at how we could combine comp and CG in a very sensible way to convert it. We used a lot of Photoshop to convert textures from CG and try to light it how we wanted it to be and then comp would re-grade our CG based on different layers.

Detailing the technicalities of their production, Breakspear adds, It was pretty much 10 or 11 months to complete. We decided to test in May of (2005) and it went into further tests, then budgeting and bidding and shooting. We did all of the shoot and 60 different setups, of which they extracted about 39 shots for us. We then did temps so they could see what they were looking at for their screenings. We used Digital Fusion to do our composting. We also used it for rotoscoping. Our CG was created in LightWave. We are a big Maya house as well, but LightWave was perfect for this. We did a massive use of Photoshop and Starbucks.

At MPC, Brozenich says they also had their share of church challenges. We did (Sir Isaac) Newtons funeral flashback sequence. There is a part in the story where they describe the funeral, which was supposed to take place in Westminster Abbey. Due to certain issues, there were unable to film in there so they had a transition sequence where Langdon and Sophie are walking up towards the Abbey and as they walk up things begin to change and the people and landscape around them transitions back to 1727. There was one shot in the Newton funeral sequence where you are up high looking down the façade of Westminster Abbey at a crowd below and it was full CG. You fly through a full CG bell tower, with bells ringing, and then you transition to a motion control move that we did at Lincoln Cathedral, which was playing as the interior of Westminster Abbey. It was one of the biggest aesthetic challenges to pull off.

One of MPCs biggest challenges was creating a CG-filled exterior shot of Westminister Abbey, circa 1727, in the Sir Isaac Newton funeral flashback sequence.

One of MPCs biggest challenges was creating a CG-filled exterior shot of Westminister Abbey, circa 1727, in the Sir Isaac Newton funeral flashback sequence.

Detailing how MPC was brought onboard to the project, Brozenich says, We were associated well before they started shooting primarily because the other work we had done on Kingdom of Heaven was relevant to one of the sequences they were looking at doing They were doing a flashback to the beginning of the first Crusade, so we had just done a film about the end of the Crusades, so we had the knowledge and experience.

MPC also had the responsibility of creating the special mechanism that lies at the heart of the mystery of the story the cryptex. It has a glass vial on the interior, which is filled with vinegar, and the idea is that if you try to pry it open it will break and dissolve the papyrus. They wanted to explain the inner workings of the cryptex and they were trying to find ways to get the camera inside of it to have a look around. We got into discussions about how that might work and what it might look like. We had good long chats with Giles Masters, who was the art director in charge of the practical cryptex in the film. We ended up designing the mechanism here for the way that it functioned and all the aesthetic design as well. Sophie is holding it and describing to Langdon how it works and you fly inside. One idea that we had and played around with Angus, was the idea that in order to make it feel real we needed to make it like an endoscopic camera. There are a lot of lens artifacts that we tried to imbue into the shot and Angus fought to keep that look in the film. It really softens the transition when you go inside of it and makes it feel like a smaller space and good sense of scale.

MPC had the responsibility of creating the cryptex, which is the heart of The Da Vinci Code mystery. The vfx house designed the mechanisms practical and aesthetic design as well as the look inside.

MPC had the responsibility of creating the cryptex, which is the heart of The Da Vinci Code mystery. The vfx house designed the mechanisms practical and aesthetic design as well as the look inside.

Overall, Brozenich says, We did something like 140 shots in the end. They were varying in complexity. There were a lot of set replacements and clean-ups. They built a partial Louvre set at Pinewood Studios and we did a lot of the extensions. We also did a bunch of shots looking down through a glass-vaulted roof and watching Jacques Sauniere getting chased through the hallways by Silas the monk. We did full 3D replacements of the whole interior and exterior of the Louvre based on some plates and photos Angus took. We did a bunch of shots by the river, which were full CG boat replacements. As for software, we used Maya and RenderMan and then RealFlow for the interior of the cryptex, as well as some internal proprietary stuff.

Both supervisors agree that their work on The Da Vinci Code provided them with very pointed challenges that helped push their teams in new directions. Breakspear enthuses, Its really revolutionized how we are currently doing CG. A lot of companies will jump straight from this complex approach, believing it will give them the best results, and thats not always the truth. We understand our craft [much] better. Weve become very good at combining different CG approaches in a way that will benefit the quality of the shot and also work into the budget and a pipeline that can get done on the clients timeline. This project has shown we can really deliver fantastic quality!

Tara DiLullo is an east coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI-FI Magazine, Dreamwatch and ScreenTalk, as well as the websites atnzone.com and ritzfilmbill.com.

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