Alain Bielik uncovers the demonic inspirations and digital challenges of bringing Hellblazer to the big screen as Constantine.
From What Dreams May Come to Spawn to Bedazzled, Hollywood keeps sending film characters to hell and vfx artists keep struggling to visualize it in an imaginative and convincing way. Since heaven and hell are ultimately very personal beliefs, it is almost impossible to create imagery that will satisfy everyone. This turned out to be a major challenge for everyone involved in Francis Lawrences Constantine, the big screen version of the Hellblazer graphic novel (the title was changed to avoid confusion with the Hellraiser franchise). Supernatural detective Constantine (Keanu Reeves) has literally been to hell and back. This traumatic journey left him with special powers that he uses to hunt evil on Earth. He is approached by police officer Angela (Rachel Weisz), who wants to solve the mysterious suicide of her twin sister. Their investigation takes them to a world of demons and angels that exists just beneath our reality
The task of putting Lawrences vision on screen was awarded to overall visual effects supervisor Mike Fink: I had just finished X-Men 2 for producer Lauren Schuler-Donner when she asked me to supervise Constantine. Originally, the script called for 250 shots, but we ended up creating more than 500 shots. I had six or seven vendors on that project. The main facilities were Tippett Studio, ESC (in what would eventually be their last project), CIS Hollywood, Hydraulx and Hatch FX.
Designing A New Hell
From the beginning, Lawrence wanted to stay away from the traditional imagery of bonfires, horns and pointy tails. He had very specific ideas about what hell should look like. Francis had been impressed by footage of nuclear blasts that he had seen, explains Fink. Right before the shockwave, there is a heat wave that melts everything away. You can actually see surfaces being superheated before the whole thing is blown away. Francis wanted this moment to form the basis for the look of hell in the movie. His idea was that hell is a parallel universe. It exists in another dimension as a complete replica of our world. You have the same buildings, the same streets, and the same rooms. The difference is that everything seems to be perpetually hit by a nuclear heat wave. This universe keeps decaying forever. It just never stops. We started to look at nuclear blasts footage and our main source of information was the material that Peter Kuran of Visual Concept Engineering had been able to declassify for the TV movie The Day After (1984). Another major source of inspiration was the disturbing work of Polish artist Zdzislaw Beksinski. His paintings of decaying corpses and corroded universes really echoed Francis vision.
In one major sequence, Constantine goes back to hell and arrives on a freeway littered with hundreds of car wrecks, while a hellish downtown Los Angeles looms in the background. The sequence was executed by Tippett Studio, as were all the movies hell shots. The freeway sequence was photographed on a 80-foot large set surrounded by a green screen, notes Craig Hayes, co-founder and visual effects supervisor. Our task was to extend this environment and create a hellish rendition of the real Los Angeles. The question was: what would the city look like if it were eternally hit by a nuclear heat wave? From a conceptual point of view, it was pretty challenging.
A World of Particles
Tippett Studio did a Lidar scan of the set and sent a crew to downtown Los Angeles to run a similar task on the main buildings. Reference photographs of the façades were also taken. Although the action is supposed to take place in Los Angeles, the freeway set matched no real location. We took a very stylistic approach to L.A., confirms Hayes. Some buildings are not where they should be. It is sort of a mythical view of the city. Using Maya, we modeled all the structures and street elements power lines, streetlights, trees in the computer. These models were then laid out in low resolution to create a CG version of the city. Once the position of each element was approved, we figured out which one had to be in high resolution. We then created a matte-painting of the city that was projected onto the CG geometry. The skies were also matte-paintings that were designed to match the look and texture of a thermonuclear cloud. Rendering was handled in RenderMan while Shake was the compositing tool.
The next step was to create the billions of particles that flow through the scenery. In the footage of an atomic blast, you can see the surfaces melting down and thousands of tiny elements being scattered by the nuclear wind, adds Hayes. We tried to match that by rigging our models to generate an endless flow of particles. Each shot contains up to 60 layers of particle elements. We wanted people to almost smell it! The action was photographed without any dust on the set, although there were huge wind machines generating the appropriate turbulences on the actors. It gave us clean plates onto which we could build particle layers in a very controlled way.
As if this end-of-the-world environment was not enough, hell happens to be the home of some terrifying creatures: the scavengers who walk the streets and the seplavites who fly. Both hunt down the hopeless humans and devour them. Worst of all, the victims never truly die. After each horrifying death at the creatures hands, they come back and the hunt starts all over again. This is like Groundhog Day in hell, observes Fink. Everything keeps happening again and again. And each death makes the next one more painful as the victims remember what it was like and they also know that there is no end to it. They will be devoured again
The general look of the creatures was conceived by production designer Naomi Shohan with input from Lawrence and Fink. While doing research for Constantine, she came across photographs of corpses in an autopsy room. The bodies were all shrunken and the top of the head had been cut off at eye level to allow access to the brain area. The director deemed these images to be really compelling and approved the concept. Aaron Simms of Stan Winston Studios was then brought in to design the creatures. After a maquette had been approved, Tippett Studio scanned it and used the data as the basis for the CG model. We ran animation tests and found that the character was too skinny, reveals Hayes. It looked fine as a static model, but when it moved, it tended to look like a stop motion armature. So, we added about 15 pounds of flesh to beef him up. In terms of animation, we found it difficult to convey emotion or personality without eyes. They really are the soul of a character. In order to compensate, we worked a lot with body language, overdoing at times the animation to make a point. We made some really graphic moves in the shoulder and hand areas. We also cheated a little bit by adding glitter in the eye area to suggest that there were, after all, eyes in there
Confronting Hell Minions
Simultaneous to the creation of hell itself, Tippett Studio was responsible for many manifestations of hell on Earth. One of them involved the fight of Constantine against the Vermin Man, a creature made of millions of bugs and maggots. As the character is able to appear and disappear at will, plate photography required Reeves and three stuntmen to perform a complex choreography. The stuntmen played the Vermin Man at different positions around Constantine and helped the actor to focus his eye line and adjust body language. They were later painted out by Tippett Studio and replaced by a computer-generated Vermin Man.
Originally, the sequence was awarded to ESC and the facility produced such spectacular results that 14 extra shots were commissioned. However, in the meantime, ESC had folded and could no longer contribute to the project. Fink then awarded the extra shots to Tippett Studio. Interestingly enough, the concept was similar to the sequence that we had created for Matrix Revolutions in which Neo speaks to a face made of thousands of flying machines, observes Hayes. We started by modeling different maggots and created about a dozen animation cycles. We then used a particle animation system to apply these cycles to the thousands of maggots that formed the shape of the characters body. Officially, the Vermin Man is comprised of millions of bugs, but when we got to 50,000 individual models, render time became unmanageable. We ended up cheating a lot not to exceed 50,000 models while still creating the illusion of having millions of them on screen.
Tippett Studio also tackled two exorcism sequences. In the first one, Constantine extracts a demon out of the body of a little girl and traps it into a large mirror. This sequence was filled with challenges, comments visual effects producer Jay Heapy. How would the demon interact with the mirror? What would the mirror world look like when the demon entered it? What happens when the demon reaches back through into our world? The director knew what he wanted, but he also allowed us to run with his ideas and try new things. We did a lot of studies in how the demon would get from the possessed girl to the mirrors surface, the smudges it left on the mirror, how the cracks and holes in the mirror formed and looked. The shots were photographed in an actual apartment with a practical mirror. A greenscreen set up behind the window made lighting a challenge since we had to establish what kind of highlights or lighting the director wanted based on an unknown source.
The second exorcism sequence involves Angela and Mammon, a powerful demon hiding inside her. Through out the shots, Mammon fights with Angela and, at times, stretches her stomach with his face. Early on, it became obvious that any sort of physically based simulation would fall apart quickly, explains Heapy. The team started the simplest way possible: our CG Mammon pushes up through a simple cloth-like sheet modeled to match Angelas stomach. We looked at the results and came up with ways to make it look better: we put some dampening geometry between Mammon and the sheet; we also had Mammons hands control how the sheet folded, stretched, and relaxed; finally, we made it so the veins and other internal layers could move differently from adjacent layers to help show that Mammon was pushing through lots of stuff.
From Hell to Heaven
During the climax of the movie, one character is taken to heaven. The sequence was awarded to Hatch FX and executed by founder and lead matte-painter Deak Ferrand. Interestingly, the artist had already created (for Pacific Ocean Post) the famed sequence of the heavenly city in What Dreams May Come and also contributed to Hellboy. I dont know if heaven and hell are becoming Deaks trademark, but I do know that, although the sequence comprised five shots only, it was extremely important to the movie, observes Fink. We had very little screen time for these shots, and yet, they had to carry a lot of weight. I think we did our job right, because the audience loves these shots.
Alain Bielik is the founder and special effects editor of renowned effects magazine S.F.X., published in France since 1991. He also contributes to various French publications and occasionally to Cinefex. He just finished organizing a major special effects exhibition that will open Feb. 20 at the Musée International de la Miniature in Lyon, France. Displays include original models and creatures from 2010 Odyssey Two, Independence Day, Ghostbusters, Cliffhanger, Alien Vs. Predator, Alien 3, Pitch Black and many more. The exhibition will run through Aug. 31.