Search form

'Deja Vu': Time Tripping to New VFX Heights

Tara DiLullo experiences Deja Vu all over again in her vfx coverage of Asylum's cutting edge work on the new Tony Scott thriller.

For Déjà Vu, visual effects artists were assigned the duty of visually representing the phenomenon. All images courtesy of Asylum Visual Effects. © Touchstone Pictures.

With a title like Déjà Vu (opening Nov. 22 from Buena Vista), it would seem safe to assume that the Tony Scott-directed thriller about an ATF agent (Denzel Washington) that travels through time to save a woman from being murdered would feature all the familiar elements, including verboten chases, shadowy figures and murky cover-ups. All very "been there, done that" on the surface, but to the contrary, Scott has purposefully eschewed the expected by crafting a visionary thriller that employs state-of-the-art visual effects, in both look and execution, to take the time-traveler thriller to new heights.

Shot on location in New Orleans (post-Hurricane Katrina), Scott utilized his trademark edgy camera movements and raw, slick-looking cinematography for the film, which he also decided to extend to the time-travel aspects of the film. Using the data that is outputted by 3D digital scanning as the foundation for his time-travel transitions, Scott hired Asylum Visual Effects of Santa Monica, California, as the visual effects company on the project, and together with Gentle Giant Studios, they spent time doing R&D work on bringing Scott's interesting and challenging concept to the screen.

Marc Varisco, Asylum's vfx supervisor on Déjà Vu, explains the early days of their collaboration with Scott. "We previously had done Domino the year before with Tony and he had gotten hold of some lidar (or Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging) reference of a scan of a building and he was really drawn to the rawness of it and the ability to move around the environment." With that look as their starting point, the Asylum team worked with Steve Chapman and Brian Sunderlin at Gentle Giant in Pasadena for test footage for Scott to review.

Kathy Chasen-Hay, producer on Déjà Vu for Asylum, details, "They lidar-scanned the character of Oerstadt's compound in the Bayou. Unfortunately, that footage wasn't used in the film." Varisco continues, "We then showed (Scott) the process and the results of that. He was trying to push more and more points in the point cloud to get as much density into the lidar file as possible. After that test, we proceeded to do some tests in Pasadena again with Gentle Giant prior to shooting. We were incorporating the lidar to the time track photography, which was done with an open shutter effect through a multiple camera rig like they used for The Matrix. Then a Genesis camera was what was shooting all the hyper real points of view through. The movie was shot on traditional film, but then a lot of the scenes had that hyper real look, and so it and the night stuff were shot on Genesis."

Before shooting, scans of the ferry were taken to help build a CG model.

For the actual production of the movie, Chasen-Hay says a local digital scanning company was employed to gather the data for the scenes needed. "Production asked us to see if we could find a local New Orleans lidar company. We found a guy in Texas, Steve Snyder, of Bohannan Huston, Inc. For the first lidar scan, Steve drove with all of his equipment from Texas to New Orleans. Steve ended up staying for a week on his first stint. Steve lidar scanned Claire's (Paula Patton's) apartment, Claire's restaurant and the ATF office. This was truly exciting because this was Steve's first movie, and what a trip to work with Tony Scott. Steve even got to lidar scan Paula Patton. Steve also lidar scanned the Stumpf Ferry, which we utilized for our CG model of the ferry."

In the final compositing, Varisco explains that the mixed mediums came together, through the work of lead vfx animator Zach Tucker, to create these very striking transitions that were used as the time travel transitions. "He uses the transition to get back into the past and he uses it three or four times in the film. He's using it almost like the past is rendering. It starts off raw, and then there is a blur with the live-action image with the still camera array and then getting back into live-action, with the Genesis to get the hyper real image. The transitions in the film go from satellite imagery to lidar to time track photography and then we did some psuedo-time track and got back from there into live action.

"I think Tony's gut feeling was good because we tried to refine things and clean up the lidar and make it look perfect, but Tony really loved some of the interruptions that happened during the capture of the lidar, like people walking in front of the scanner or organic things might blow around like curtains or plants," Varisco continues. "Any other director would want it cleaned up, but Tony loves the way it was captured. Plus, lidaring from multiple angles has mismatches and variances to get the shadow side of objects. If you lidar from one side, you obviously don't get the other side. With some of the environments, we lidared from 20 angles and the overlap of putting them together, Tony loved. It worked quite well on film, the rawness. It was a long process to get that worked out and the director approving it all, but it works well in the film. It mixes so many mediums and stays long enough to give a quick look at what's going on, but it leaves you wondering and I think it's an interesting way of doing it. It goes back so quick that people are going to want to rewind it on DVD."

For the big ferry explosion, the filmmakers combine physical effects works with CG enhances to add detail to the scene.

Asylum was also solely responsible for the other vfx created for the film. With a team of 40 creating CG, compositing, roto and all the tracking work, Varisco says the project provided them a spectrum of work that used all of their talents to their fullest. "The challenges were typical in any movie and the kinds of things you face when you try to do something that hasn't been done before. Tony isn't very reliant on visual effects and he loves to do as much in camera as possible."

One major exception in the film was the opening sequence featuring a major ferry explosion. Varisco details it saying, "they did it with an empty ferry in a controlled area on the Mississippi. It took them about four hours to set up the explosion. They did it without any cars or people running, obviously, so they shot it with 16 cameras and we put back in the people and cars. Some of the people were live-action plates that we had shot and the bulk of the animated people and the stunt people were CG. Some of the close-up stuff, Tony shot up river. No one was allowed to jump into the Mississippi, because it was too dangerous, so he shot some alternative footage of stunt guys jumping off a very clean boat. It was night and day, so we had to put in all the explosions and the damage on these tight shots that he had on the wide shots, so the whole sequence looks quite seamless. It worked very well with the interior stuff they had done on the deck and the Steadicam, where we put fire behind people jumping off the boat. We had cars shifting on the deck or falling off the front side of the bow. Above water, we had close to 50 shots and there were some underwater shots that were added to it.

Real cars were dropped in the water with fire and other CG effects added afterward.

"For some of the underwater shots, Tony shot cars dropping in and we added CG and some fire as well. On the wide shots on the ferry, we put the propeller wash in to make it look like it was moving. We did a lot of compositing work on structural damage. The ferry that they shot the explosion on, they pretty much just has to sandblast the paint off and then repaint it and it was good to go again. They did the pyrotechnics very safely without structural damage so we had to do a lot of buckling to make it look like panels were melting off the sides. We referenced real naval explosions, which made it feel like it was being blown apart. The very final shot, which was like a 170 frame shot, rolls out of that sequence and it featured very residual fire and smoke, but through compositing and CG, we made it look like the back end of the ferry has already started sinking and taking on water. We added all the debris and cars and people floating in the water. There were a lot of bobbing cars and dead people and it really shows in the last shot. We composited it all on Inferno."

By the end of post, Asylum created about 400 vfx shots for Déjà Vu, including the ending sequence, which Varisco teases so as not to spoil. "At the end of the movie, we have a big underwater sequence with Denzel and Paula Patton trapped in a Bronco full of explosives. We did some CG roof replacement to make Denzel feel more trapped and right at the end of that our senior effects supervisor, shot a miniature bomb explosion underwater and an explosion plume. We combined all the miniature elements with the plates Tony shot for the impressive finale of the film."

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 and