Visual effects supervisor Stephen James talks crashes, humor, LED walls, and layers of destruction as he takes us inside the studio’s wild and multi-faceted work on Sony Pictures’ comedy thriller, now playing in theaters.
As you probably know by now, Bullet Train is not a poignant drama about family relationships or the bittersweet experiences of puberty. Directed by David Leitch (Deadpool 2) and starring Brad Pitt (a popular movie star), it is rather a nonstop thrill ride set on board the world’s fastest Japanese Shinkansen train, in which Ladybug (Pitt), an unlucky assassin with a less-than-perfect scorecard, is pitted against multiple lethal adversaries from around the globe. There is violence. There are explosions. There are a variety of fast-moving airborne objects, and a very large vehicular accident.
Needless to say, since no participants were harmed in the making of the movie, very few, if any, of these horrific – and frequently very funny – events were staged on location. In fact, many of them were realized with the help of leading visual effects and animation studio DNEG, whose innumerable past credits, if listed here, would expand this article well beyond its allotted word count. But it’s a fabulous list.
DNEG VFX Supervisor Stephen James, whose own credits include Dune (2021), Deadpool 2, and Blade Runner 2049, talked to us about how DNEG helped ensure that Bullet Train hit every beat and stayed on the rails – until it was time to exit said rails - throughout a long and complex production. Note that spoilers regarding the film’s finale are shared below.
AWN: What was the overall scope of your work on the project?
Stephen James: We did a substantial amount of LED content for on-set, so lots of stuff that was captured in camera. The train nighttime environment was very suitable for the LED work. Once the sun rises in the film, we transitioned over into full CG environments, out the windows, as well as quite a few establishing shots and station environments along the journey. Throughout the film, we were also going big with the violent action and gore that goes along with an R-rated comedy. It's pretty messy and over-the-top, and we had some fun with that. We also ended up doing large third-act sequences, involving heavy train destruction, big environments, ripping the train in half and then eventually crashing it down the side of a mountain in slow-mo.
Normally on a show, you have a few key environments where you set your entire sequence, but [in this film] we're always moving at 300 kilometers an hour. So, it's this constant change that you want to keep interesting. You always want to have some change in lighting or other aesthetics to keep things interesting, so there's a pretty picture wherever you go.
AWN: Regarding the crashes, how much research was needed to make it realistic? Or do you start with the assumption that all the elements are going to be realistic, and then stylize it in a particular way?
SJ: I think for most projects, we would rely more on crash reference and ground it in reality. But, with this one, we had to really choreograph it and hit key story and comedy elements. So, we leaned into more animation driving the effects. We tried to build our trains with a lot of complexity, so that we can have lots of different materials, different types of shredding metal, breaking wood, snapping cables. That stuff needs to look realistic, but the action here is pretty over the top. And I think no one would survive if we kept it too real.
AWN: As far as the gore, I know you’re capable of making it hugely realistic, but that’s probably not desirable. How did you find the right level of realism for the blood and guts?
SJ: We're always looking at the intention of the sequence. So, there's moments where you want it to be so over-the-top that the audience will go, "Whoa, nasty," or cover their eyes because it's just so ridiculous. Especially when you have a really bad guy who you want to die in a pretty horrible way, or if it’s more of a comedy scene, we can be more over-the-top. And then, on the other end of it, there are moments in the film that are played more seriously. There's a sequence with The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), where he takes his cane sword and just makes his way through these mercenaries that have betrayed his family. It's a more serious moment, so it's more toned down, kept more realistic, following the choreography. He's swinging his blade, with lots of beautiful arcs in the motion, and we just tried to create an extension of the choreography. There's always this back and forth, but the director did give us some other films as a reference for how far we should push it.
AWN: On the LED work, was any of that replaced or did you actually end up with in-camera scenery in those shots?
SJ: They probably used the LEDs for 300-400 shots in the film, and about half of those were purely non-visual effects shots. The other half had VFX components. So, we touched them, but the LED wasn't touched. I can only think of a handful of moments where we maybe had to fix some seams or perspective issues. Normally on set, though, if something wasn't working in camera, they would switch to blue so that we could just replace that content later. They were able to make that call pretty quickly. But, overall, I think it was a really big success. Even if there were some subtle things that you would normally want to fix in visual effects, people tend to let those go because they just buy the image that's there.
I should add that there was a good amount of pre-production built into that. They had a production team in Japan film a bunch of array plates going down highways. They found the longest stretches of highway they could in cities and suburban areas that would replicate what they wanted in the exteriors. That required a lot of stabilization to get it to feel like a Shinkansen exterior.
That was a really good reference for the look of the environments, but they also wanted some more stylized shots. That's where we used Clarisse and Unreal to block out bigger city blocks with more stylized, colorful lighting, and maybe more exaggerated architecture passing by. And then we also had specific components that we wanted to hit, like traveling through tunnels or passing trains, that would need to be added as well. So, we came at it from two angles. We had the plates and then CG pre-rendered from Unreal and Clarisse. Because of our timeline, we just ran it through all these different ways to create as much content as we could for on-set.
AWN: So, the material that you created in Unreal, and the other CG content, would then go onto the LED wall and be shot practically?
SJ: Exactly. It was a bit of a custom setup because it was a train. They had multiple train cars on set, and they needed these LEDs to wrap around – more a really long LED paneling, with just caps on the end – so that you could point the camera in any direction. And then there was a bit of a real-time aspect to it. We didn't go the full, real-time Unreal route because we did have this filmed footage, and we wanted everything to work in the same way. So, we rendered everything at the same massive resolutions. Those would then be rendered out into smaller panels that would go on set. Then Mike Brazelton, the VFX sup on set, could add or remove layers – he could add a tunnel, or a train that passes by, or quickly change up the content, adjust the speed, so they could go from Tokyo to the suburbs pretty quickly.
Then, once we have the sunrise in the film, they switch over and use the LEDs for blue or greenscreens. A large amount of our work for that was creating pretty massive environments that we could travel through because the train's traveling so fast. We had in total about 30 kilometers of environments that we had built out – everything from a really scenic lakeside rice field to curved mountainsides. We could really get a sense of speed when we're turning around all these corners. That was used more for the end action sequences, through some suburban areas, as well as when we get to Kyoto.
Of course, all these also needed custom assets and trees and geo to give them different feels. We utilized OpenStreetMap data to give us a head start because these environments are so massive. Just doing something procedural without any kind of foundation to build upon, you can end up with something that's maybe not so realistic. So, they actually took chunks of Japan, these map data, as blueprints. That gave us street sections where forests would be, the heights and shapes of buildings, and then we could populate that with all our different assets. So, we could change the style of rooftops, windows, fences, and so on. We could easily swing from a traditional village to something more like a modern suburb of a city.
AWN: How detailed did these environments need to be, considering that you're going through them at such high speed?
SJ: We didn't have to push it as far as we would for the average journey environment; it was more about making sure that we got key stylistic components, like really dramatic silhouettes for the mountainside. That detail was there. We had all the forests and all of that. But we also had some fun and pushed for the bolder lighting choices with stronger silhouettes in color. And there were definitely moments where we had to really up the detail for scenes where we're outside the train.
AWN: Okay, let’s get to the good stuff. What about the fights and crashes?
SJ: They use just about every weapon you can think of in this film, including utensils and water bottles. So, they really thought of creative ways to realize some of these action beats. There were very few moments where we were doing the same thing over and over. Every scene was just a little bit different, every kill was different, so that was really good fun. We had some good practice working with [director] David Leitch on this kind of over-the-top action in Deadpool 2.
AWN: To what extent were the different weapons shot practically and how much was done with CG replacements?
SJ: It varied. We definitely did a lot of CG weapons and prompts, because, for anything that's going to be cutting through someone or blowing through someone, we wanted to be able to take that over and have that connection work realistically. So quite a lot of sword extensions. Anything that was thrown through the air would usually involve some kind of take-over to ensure that the impact really feels like it hurts.
AWN: Let's talk a little about the big crash.
SJ: We had built our train to look really beautiful and what you'd expect of a Shinkansen train – really smooth, reflective exterior, lots of fine detail. But, of course, we were always looking toward the crash, knowing that we needed to build this thing to be ripped in half. We built it out based on a realistic Shinkansen train and blueprints that we had. We looked at how the panels would wrap around all the framework, grates, engines, wheels, interior, wall structures – so that when we rip that stuff away, you can see some of that complexity inside. Of course, blink and you miss it. But it all just adds to that realism, so that you're not distracted when it comes to the action.
Our first key destruction moment was called “the can opener,” where they plow an upcoming train out of the way. Then they come up to another train and, when they hit it, it peels over them, like a wave cresting. And then that train shears the side of the hero train open. So, it really ups the intensity through the rest of the film. You have half the train ripped open, with sparks and smoke and cables flying all over the place.
Obviously, in reality, the film would end after the can opener. So, again, we had to find this balance – making an over-the-top action beat but giving it some weight and a real sense of danger. I think the animation team did a nice job of making this border on believable, where you have this train peel up and over, and have a good amount of weight as it comes down and smashes into the ground. That's where there was quite a lot of back and forth between animation and effects, because animation had to interpenetrate the vehicles, then pass that to effects to do the shearing away and destruction. And if that aspect wasn't believable, we'd have to feed it back to animation, do some tweaks as to how it's crushing through the vehicles, and then it would go back to effects again. Animation and effects really had to work together to make it believable.
AWN: And the finale?
SJ: For the very end of the film, we go full speed into the end-of-the-line station. They can't stop the train and they know that they're going to crash. Once we hit the station, we transition into full CG and the actors are fully on bluescreens. We lose the practical train at that point. They had a pretty elaborate setup on set for the bluescreens.
Quite a lot of previs went into the scene as, again, it's pretty complex. We have to get Brad Pitt from the driver car, flying through three or four trains, and then safely crashing into this costumed character at the end, so that you know that he survived the crash. Our previs and postvis supervisor, Alex Cannon, did a lot of back and forth with the director to visualize it all, and make sure that all the key beats were there. They shot the bluescreens after that point. That went back through another round of postvis to make sure that we were hitting all those moments through the slow MOs, speeding back up, exiting trains, entering back through windows, and so on. So pretty crazy over-the-top camerawork all needed to blend together.
The actors did a really wonderful job making believe they were flying through the air. They had a 360 wirework that allowed Brad Pitt to rotate in all directions as he's flying down the train. Then we added all the train shearing away around them – all the walls and chairs and props were peeling away and shredding away in slow motion. It's obviously heavy destruction, but there are multiple comedy story beats that we needed to hit throughout. For example, we knew that Brad Pitt's character would fly by these other characters, and that he would get hit in the face by specific recognizable props that are now flying by at high speeds.
We built out the environment with destruction in mind as well. We had a mountainside with tons of vegetation, trees, rocks, and gravel that we could plow through, as well as the plaza environment, where they finally come to a stop. We consulted a lot of reference materials in order to build out a traditional touristy Japanese plaza that we could smash into. It's really early in the morning. There are no pedestrians around. Everyone's safe.
AWN: Any final thoughts about the project?
SJ: One limitation that actually ended up working out well was that we couldn't travel to Japan for any reference or shoots. We had to depend on local production teams there to work with us. We were first in line to go once the pandemic restrictions were lifted, so, throughout the film, we were waiting to be able to go over there and use our team to capture data and LiDAR and stuff like that. But that time never came. So, we ended up sending all our shooting and data-capture kits to local production teams. We worked with a company called Jade Productions, and our shoot supervisor, Dan Koons, trained them remotely. And then we would go out on shoots with them remotely. So, it was me and Dan and Jade Productions traveling all over Japan via Zoom or FaceTime. Of course, we had to stay up really late in Vancouver to make this happen. So, it was a lot of 3:00 AM sunrises in Japan shoots and that kind of thing. Pretty fun remote tourism, and it was nice to be able to develop this relationship with that team, which wouldn't normally have happened. It ended up working out really well.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.