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DNEG Visual Effects Get Airborne in Sony's ‘Uncharted’

VFX supervisors Sebastian von Overheidt and Benoit De Longlee delivered 739 shots, including a 90-second sequence of heroes Nathan Drake and Chloe Frazer falling from a C-17 cargo plane flying over the South China Sea, in Ruben Fleischer’s action-adventure adaptation of the Naughty Dog videogame franchise.

In 2008, a year after the game Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was released by Naughty Dog, film producer Avi Arad was discussing a possible cinematic adaptation, with Nathan Fillion expressing an interest in portraying Nathan Drake.  Directors came and went from the project, starting with David O. Russell followed by Neil Burger, Shawn Levy, Dan Trachtenberg, and Travis Knight.

The live-action adaptation riddle was finally solved by director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), who cast Tom Holland, Mark Wahlberg, Antonio Banderas, Sophia Ali, and Rudy Pankow in the high-flying action-adventure.  Hired as visual effects supervisor was Chas Jarrett (Logan), with DNEG serving as the main vendor, producing 739 shots across 23 sequences including the 90 second single shot of Nathan Drake (Holland) and Chloe Frazer (Ali) falling from a C-17; recreation of the South China Sea; and bringing to life two heavy-duty helicopters each transporting a ship once commanded by turn of the 16th century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan.

The film, released by Sony in theaters this past February 18, take place years before the story of the game first series installment begins. The screenplay was written by Rafe Judkins, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway, from a story by Judkins. Charles Roven, Avi Arad, Alex Gartner, and Ari Arad served as producers.

DNEG's visual effects teams were led by VFX supervisor Sebastian von Overheidt, based in Vancouver, and VFX supervisor Benoit De Longlee, based in Montreal. Early in his career, von Overheidt worked as a compositor, which greatly impacted his ongoing creative perspective. “Being a compositor defines my approach as a visual effects supervisor as I think about the final image early on and less about the process of getting there,” he says.  “I also value the input of my team of specialists as I believe that a collaborative approach achieves fantastic results. Once in a more progressed stage of a show, as a compositor, I’m used to troubleshooting and finding the fastest way to solve a problem.”

Key to the film’s look was honoring the source material without producing action that felt like a video game.  “My affinity for gaming never converged with my visual effects work from an artist point of view because I was more rooted in photography and graphic design,” von Overheidt shares. “I did more research on the game to understand what an in-game demo looks and feels like. Who are these characters?  Then I followed my usual approach of finding inspiration from talking to the client, reading the script, looking at edits, seeing what the art department had come up with, and searching for online references like crazy skydiving stunts, dropping heavy objects in water and heavy duty helicopter flight maneuvers. There was also great footage that production shot in Thailand of the entire South China Sea environment.” 

When asked about DNEG’s heavily customized tools across the entire pipeline, the VFX supervisor says, “Our Clarisse pipeline is quite elaborate and developed. For example, the environment renders come with a pass of photorealistic depth hazing, which respects the lighting and atmospheric conditions of the scene. This gave us fantastic looking results for the third act South China Sea environment.” Jarrett looked after the principal photography and shooting of necessary plates. “We had conversations with Chas before he went onto the shoot, and then continued to share our tests so he could give us feedback during the shoot,” remarks von Overheidt.  “It was a close collaboration.  When they came back with the footage and I went through it with Chas, it showed a well thought-through shooting process.”  

The visual effects shots were divided between DNEG Vancouver and Montreal. The DNEG sites worked as one team with shared assets. Both sites presented to Chas independently. Sequences were extensively explored in postvis. “We analyzed the footage to see how the stunt performance looked, what we would have to animate and takeover in full CG, and what shots we’d just replace the heads,” von Overheidt explained. “Once the postvis was done [by The Third Floor and RISE], we did a full blocking pass for all the sequences; from there things would change in the edit and story points would be refined.” 

The interior of a C-17 was physically built as a set.  “The tail end with the ramp was missing; that was entirely bluescreen,” von Overheidt reveals.  “We topped up the interior with flapping netting and some of the cargo was replaced.  Everything had a simulation that made it look like someone had ripped the door open and there was this stream [of air] going through.”  A CG replica was created of the interior, which the VFX supervisor says, “allowed us to resort to full CG shots or replacements of large sections.”  “The crates [falling out of the C-17] were on KUKA robot arms and the whole rig was moving on a full gimbal. There were scenes where Tom was doing stunts himself and others were with his stunt doubles.  But you could see how their body weight was being thrown around randomly; that looked really good.”  Digital doubles were produced at various detail levels after principal photography had been completed. “Clear Angle scanned all of the characters onset and we would get packages of photogrammetry material with texture references that were polarized and unpolarized so the digital doubles could be built one for one,” he adds. 

An additional challenge was a POV shot of a Mercedes Gullwing driving out of the C-17 towards the camera. “The shot was originally planned as Nate looking down at the ramp, but as Ruben was developing the scene with his editorial team, it turned into a great full-CG shot looking right into the interior," von Overheidt says.

In the epic 90 second long continuous shot, internally called “The Oner,” Nathan and Chloe fall out of the C-17. They jump off a Mercedes Gullwing to catch and hold on to a crate in the distance before eventually a parachute goes off with the two climbing on top. Throughout the entire shot, the live-action actors transition back and forth between their digital doubles. “At the moment when Nathan and Chloe hit the water, they transition into full CG so we could have a stronger reaction to the impact and render their refraction through the fx water.” von Overheidt describes. “The camera dives right into the splash. The animated crate then tumbles away while Nathan and Chloe, both shot practically in a pool, are trying to get to the surface again. All underwater bubbles and atmospherics and even the water surface were added in CG.”

A huge environment that DNEG created was the flight path of the Ship Battle sequence. According to the VFX supervisor, “The production team had shot extensive footage with a multi-camera array that we originally planned to use as background plates. It looked great and was a fantastic reference for us. As we were creating a full-CG version of it for specific shots, we soon realized that we’d be able to create this at a much larger scale and look photorealistic. We eventually decided to create the whole environment fully digital. This gave Ruben the creative freedom to place the camera anywhere he wanted and also made the whole process much more efficient.” 


More aerial and fighting action takes place on board two long lost 16th century ships rumored to contain a fortune in gold that are each being airlifted by a helicopter. “We looked at classic helicopters used for heavy lifting, such as the Sikorsky and Chinook, and then created a hybrid version that looked even beefer,” states von Overheidt.  “We tried to anchor the scene in correct physics until it didn’t suit the creative purpose anymore.  At that point it came down to the artistry of the layout and animation artists trying to make sure that we swung at the right speed so that the ships looked heavy and that the helicopters had a little bit of a drag and lead so that they appear to be clearly affected by the ships and their pendulum paths.” 

Partial sections of ships were constructed on big soundstages. “LiDAR was taken of the sets, which we pieced together into the Concepción and Trinidad,” the VFX supervisor concludes. “One had to be more deteriorated than the other.  We had pieces of debris falling off of them during heavy movements.”  Mercenaries swing on ropes from one vessel to the other. “We took cues from the swinging performance and timed our boat animation to match up in the right moments.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.