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Cracking 'Source Code'

Modus FX raises its game for Duncan Jones' new sci-fi thriller.

Modus handled pyrotechnics along with digital environments. Courtesy of Summit Ent.

Duncan Jones follows up his brilliant Moon debut with Source Code, a sci-fi thriller with Ground Hog Day overtones starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a soldier investigating a commuter train explosion by revisiting the incident in a continual eight-minute loop.

Louis Morin, the overall visual effects supervisor, hired six facilities to create more than 850 shots: Montreal-based Modus FX, the primary vendor, which contributed nearly 100 shots in-house, including complex digital crowds, CG trains, environments and dramatic pyrotechnics, and another 60 train station assets for the other vendors; Rodeo FX, which crafted most of the greenscreen windows for the train interiors; MPC Vancouver, which handled the big explosions and crash sequences; Fly Studio, which provided key transitions; Mr. X, which did additional window backgrounds; and Oblique FX, which created bomb interiors, a virtual stuntman and a slow-motion explosion sequence.

Seamless photorealism was vital. The shots featured hundreds of greenscreen windows showing passing landscapes or train station backdrops, and the use of CG in post allowed Jones and the actors to work without outside distractions during production. Set extensions on the train station were also crucial, especially since they decided to change the parking lot. That meant more than 65 additional shots, but these also provided logistical maneuverability as well as flexibility with the storytelling. Editorial, meanwhile, was done in tandem with VFX, allowing them to be ahead of the curve, so to speak.

Modus, which previously worked with Morin on Barney's Version, began early on Source Code. "We started doing the previs for the main action scenes --how the train would explode, and where this would take place -- so we were responsible for the feel and pacing of the key effects sequence," explains Yanick Wilisky, VP of production and vfx supervisor at Modus.

Lens distortion and reflections proved challenging.

However, once these shots were roughed out, Wilisky says they were handed over to MPC Vancouver for completion because Morin wanted a more experienced touch. Thus, Modus was able to do what it does best, focusing on exteriors of the train and the station, including reflective windows and the metallic surfaces of the train. Modus also created the CG commuter and cargo train models for the team at MPC, as well as shots depicting enormous traffic jams: lots of virtual crowds and cars for plates of the superhighway in Chicago, which were shot from a helicopter.

"The action takes place in Chicago but lots of it was filmed in Montreal, so we had to do CG replacements of the environments," Wilisky continues. "So we did a mix of Google Maps and other stuff to survey the area and then we went and took lots of pictures and from there we created an accident. And Duncan would say, 'Let's try another area of Chicago.' So we did three different areas until we figured out exactly the action. At the time we were working with Paul Hirsch, the editor, and he was working with us on a lot of versioning. And the final result is 1:1 with what we prevised.

"There was a real train station built in Montreal, but there were missing pieces, including the roof. And there was an empty field surrounding it, so we had to replace it with CG cars and CG parking and the city of Chicago way in the distance. We designed the whole suburb where the action takes place because Glenbrook in the film doesn't really exist so we had to rework and redesign completely. We imagined it being eight miles from downtown Chicago, and we knew the sun was facing northeast so we did it all accurately and up to scale.

"Everything in the train station is CG except for the door step. You don't want to throw the viewer off if they notice something that doesn't look right. For the movie to work, it had to be as transparent as possible. That was the biggest challenge. The other challenge involves the mayhem. The train is about to crash and everyone is running out of the city, so there's lots of traffic and people running around so we had to use Massive isolation for crowd and car behavior. And for the CG parking, everyone has a sense of what it should look like. We even looked at the existing vegetation in Chicago to make sure that it matched in the area that we were in."

The entire train station environment was appropriately Chicago-fied.

In terms of other tools, Modus used Softimage, Houdini, 3D Equalizer, Nuke and mental ray.

Lens distortion proved to be a challenge in matching CG elements with plates. So, to make sure the distortion values were identical, Modus used 3DEqualizer in concert with a special plug-in from La Maison.

In addition, so Modus had to create reflections and shadows of the station and the characters to mirror the movements of the train and the actors in the CG environment.

"We created three techniques," Wilisky explains. "One was a full CG character, such as Jake, that we used as a reflection; the second was a reflection pasted onto surfaces from different angles; and the third was a basic texture applied to a surface of people moving back and forth. All of them were positioned in space, accordingly, so we could get an accurate reflection of the action. And the compositors not only had the layers of all the different actors but also the scene that was already built to scale accurately with all the geometry. This gave them flexibility to move stuff away or create their own map if needed."

And what does Source Code mean to Modus? "Honestly, this one for us is the first time we were the main vendor for something that's more vfx-driven, unlike The American or Barney's Version," Wilisky concludes.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.