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Double Negative Delivers the Joi of ‘Blade Runner 2049’

DNeg VFX supervisor Paul Lambert details the creation of futuristic Los Angeles cityscapes, the holographic Joi, and the visuals for the final act of director Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to the 1982 sci-fi film noir classic by Ridley Scott.

‘Blade Runner 2049’ © 2017. All images courtesy of Warner Bros.

VFX supervisor Paul Lambert and his team at effects house Double Negative helped create a beautiful holographic companion amidst the bleak and grey desolation of future Los Angeles in the sci-fi action adventure sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film noir classic, Blade Runner. Lambert, who is part of the team nominated for Best Visual Effects at the upcoming 90th Academy Awards -- alongside John Nelson, Gerd Nefzer and Richard R. Hoover -- spent six months on the film’s pre-production in Budapest as well as all the studio’s on-set sequences, before returning to Vancouver to oversee the work on approximately 350 visual effects shots.

For Blade Runner 2049, Lambert’s team focused on several main sets of sequences: Los Angeles cityscapes, the holographic Joi (played by Ana de Armas), her three-way sex scene integration with the prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) and K (Ryan Gosling), the giant Joi billboard, and the final act chase and crash.

On most of DNeg’s sequences, the team had storyboards and previs to work from. Lambert explains, “Each one of the big visual effects sequences was story-boarded. We [also] had concept art. If you look at some of the concept art and some of the sets which were built, they’re pretty close. There was a team from MPC that also did previs on a lot of the other sequences [besides the ones on which they provided the VFX]. In the beginning of the movie, after K killed Sapper Morton and he flies off to the LAPD building, they prevised that whole sequence. We then shot plates in Mexico, and in post, completely destroyed those plates and built on top of them, adding sci-fi brutalism and that kind of thing. But yeah, we pretty much had a storyboard for all of our sequences.”

Lambert notes, however, that director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins would often set aside the previs when it came time to shoot a scene. “Now, on the day [of a shoot], sometimes Denis would change it up a little bit. The storyboards described the idea of the scene, and sometimes he would stick to those. But, a lot of times he would deviate, and seeing Denis and Roger work, they’re very organic. It’s all about trying to work it out on the day. You’ve got a certain idea as to how things will work, but it’s not until you’re actually there, with the actors, and you’re talking to the DP and you’re working with everybody else…that’s when the actual magic happens. To witness that was a beautiful thing.”

One of the film’s most striking visual elements is the atmospheric lighting. Living in a future where global warming has decimated the world’s climate, those who haven’t escaped to the off-world colonies must slog through a world, as depicted in Los Angeles, where the air is choked with dark, dreary smog, dirty rain, and snow. According to Lambert, Villeneuve and Deakins were adamant about capturing that visual tone for the film’s environments. “Denis and Roger were very specific about how the world should feel. They’d seen concepts from Dennis Gassner [the film’s production designer]. They’d seen images of Beijing in the smoke, where it’s just gray everywhere with a little bit of neon light in the distance. The idea is that in 2049, climate change has just gone absolutely berserk and there’s always this haze. There is always this smoke, it’s always snowing in L.A., or raining, or sometimes it’s raining and snowing at the same time. The idea was that you would never see a pretty vista or pretty city going off into the distance.”

The VFX supervisor continues, “L.A. was basically [depicted as] a city under a cloud, so you didn’t want to see too far. You wanted to feel the glow of the lights, the advertisements, but also a sense of desolation. Roger had done some on-set scenes where he pumped the world full of smoke -- he had snow going, he had rain going, and it was a dark and dingy place.”

One of the biggest challenges Lambert faced was capturing the right look of the incessant rain. He describes, “Our cities basically had to match what he [Deakins] had shot on particular sets. Even though we put in a ton of detail for all of the cities, bit by bit, we had to block it up a little bit more. We would add snow…we would add rain. Rain, actually, was one of the things that took us the longest to render, because when you can’t see too far, and you have to focus more on your surrounding areas, the rain has to look right to the eyes. You need the particles for each bit of rain, because of all of the lights in the scene, the spinners [flying police cars], advertisements and other stuff, that rain has got to be lit by those as well. You have these big, wide shots, and you’ve got millions and millions and millions of particles that I would try and light. So yeah, it was one of the bigger renders we had, for sure. That was actually a very big part of getting that sense of realism into our cityscapes.”

While Lambert tried to use as much of each plate as possible, the cityscapes required significant changes to capture the look and feel of the bleak and dreary 2049 L.A. “Where you see the spinner flying along the cityscape towards the LAPD Building, we tried to use as much plate as possible,” he notes. “But, we added atmosphere, additional buildings and stuff. In the film, you don’t have any sense of greenery. So, any plate which had green in it, we had to replace with buildings and color correcting. We would always try to use plates where possible and work off their realism, because it’s always going to give you a better footing than trying to do everything in purely CG. If you were to see a before and after of the plate and the background, you’d actually question how much was actually kept.”

Another challenge, Lambert explains, was duplicating the in-frame blackness Deakins consistently captured in his shots. “For the lighting, there were frames which Roger shot where there were complete black areas. You’d have somebody in the scene, but it just falls off to black. One of the toughest things to get a CG artist to do is allow his frame to go black. I would be forever in dailies and people would always be adding additional light, because you’re always trained that you don’t want to give out black pixels, because who would do that? Well, this movie is all about black pixels. So, I was forever having the team remove the additional lines, which they had added. Basically, we allowed the frame to fall off to black, exactly like Roger had been shooting. And it does need to match.”

Regarding DNeg’s main sequences, Lambert admits that creating Joi was the most challenging. Villeneuve and production VFX supervisor John Nelson were looking for something cooler, more unique and less hi-tech than the look of more conventional holograms. “Myself, [Framestore VFX supervisor] Rich Hoover, and John Nelson would spend every weekend during the shoot, either in my apartment, John’s apartment or Richard’s apartment, just talking about what Joi should be,” he recounts. “When we were shooting Joi, we captured as much data as possible, because we still didn’t know what she was going to look like. With one week left of principle shooting, I showed Denis a test of what would become Joi the Hologram, the idea of the back shell, and he said, ‘That’s it!’ He was over the moon.”

“Denis,” Lambert adds, “didn’t want anything overly effects-y. For the narrative, he needed the audience to believe that, at times, Joi was a real girl. He needed K to believe as well. If it was an emotional scene, and she was this constant, transparent, wire-frame kind of digital effect, you would never have bought into it. You would always be looking at the effects. So the idea was to try and come up with something simple, but yet sophisticated. It took a good while to actually get there. We created a CG version of the actress, we cut that CG asset in half, and then only composited the back half before adding her on top. That actually gave us the sense of a photographic volume.”

An additional challenge was creating the three-way integrated sex scene, which involved merging the holographic Joi and real Mariette while both embraced with K. Part of the reason was the fact the actresses, and Gosling, were only filmed, not “captured” with any tracking technology. “The merge was a steady progression,” Lambert explains. “It required so much back-end work in that each actress had to be completely 3D tracked. This wasn’t a movie where you could put tracking markers on your main actresses. That was just not going to happen. So, we had to photograph the actresses using multiple cameras. Roger would have his main camera, but we would have four or five witness cameras recording the actresses from different views which would then allow us to make a 3D version. Sometimes, we also had to use a 3D version for K as well, if they were interacting with him.”

Villeneuve, in essence, was looking to merge, or “sync” the two actresses into a third character. Notes Lambert, “What we tried to do was keep as much [as possible] from each performance, but then slightly, subtly adjust Joi whenever Denis wanted a moment in sync. By ‘sync,’ I mean when they moved or changed their head position, both of them would move in time and there would be a certain transparency between them, which gave this idea of the third woman who would appear and disappear.”

Another of the challenging scenes was the big, pink holographic advertising projection of Joi that tries to entice K as he walks past, shortly after his personal holographic Joi was destroyed. “Basically, Roger set up the stage with rain, a ton of smoke and a 3-story LED screen,” Lambert says. “He’d shot some footage of Ana performing all her moves, which was played back on the screen -- that was the only light source in the scene. So, basically, that LED screen was lighting up K as well as actual smoke. There were a couple of spotlights to mimic some spinners flying around in the fog, but there weren’t any other additional lights. Joi was painted pink against this blue backing because that was the light source. We removed that screen in post and added a digital screen, as well as a 3D version of Joi. Because she’s a lot bigger, you see more of her break ups, the lines of her big projection. If you walk up close to an LED screen, you see all of the bulbs and filaments. So, with a 30-foot tall Joi, you’re going to see a little bit of her structure.

The film’s finale, a daring chase involving K, Luv (played by Sylvia Hoeks) and Harrison Ford reprising his role as Deckard, was filmed on a set with a water tank that added a number of practical issues DNeg has to contend with in post. “The third act, that was something we shot over the course of two weeks,” Lambert describes. “It was absolutely miserable. It was shot at night in simulated rain, wind and smoke. We’d built a partial sea wall with a tank. One of the limos was attached to this contraption where over the course of the scene, you could have the vehicle sink further and further into the water. Even though we had the ability to make waves, when we shot, Denis always said, ‘Okay, I need more volume. I need bigger waves. I need more volume!’”

Lambert continues, “So, what we did in post, we added additional splashes and water. There were a couple of shots where we had to replace water completely. There were also a handful of shots which are completely CG. And that scene is where you’ll see a lot of the frame going to black. On the set, Roger only lit the world with the interior light coming from the limo and the vehicles’ headlights. That was it. So, you would look at the frame in certain areas and it was just black. So that’s basically what we had to do with the CG, too.”

“It was such a fantastic experience working with Denis and Roger,” Lambert concludes. “On my first day on set, I suddenly realized that I was actually in the company of the best of the best. You know what I mean? It’s like you’re looking at a frame, you’re seeing how it all comes together and you tell yourself, ‘Oh my god, it doesn’t get any better than this.’”

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.