Halon previsualization/postvisualization supervisor Clint Reagan oversees key sequences for director James Mangold’s latest installment in the X-Men universe.
Director James Mangold recently tapped Santa Monica-based previs/postvis studio Halon Entertainment to help develop some of the key action sequences for 20th Century Fox’s Logan, the 10th installment in the X-Men film series. The film, which opened March 3 to great reviews, follows an aging Logan (aka Wolverine) as he embarks on a road trip across the U.S. to help a mutant refugee escape to Canada.
Ahead of Halon’s panel presentation on its work on Logan with previsualization/postvisualization supervisor Clint Reagan and production designer Francois Audouy at this weekend’s WonderCon event in Anaheim, CA, AWN sat down with Reagan to detail the company’s contributions to the project, including the many previs, postvis and stunt-vis sequences that made it into the final film.
Reagan explained that he first introduced Mangold to previs on Knight and Day (2010), and also worked with the director on The Wolverine (2013), as well as a couple of commercials along the way. “Basically, I got a call one day and they said, ‘Hey, are you on a show?’ I said, ‘No,’ and they said, ‘Okay, you are now,’ and that was it,” says Reagan.
Reagan added that initially he was just brought in to help the director explore the possibilities and help build a visual language and a tone for the film while Mangold was still writing the script. “He likes to use all of the tools to explore story ideas,” says Reagan. “The scope, initially was, ‘Hey, you’re on until we’re done,’ and so I started with a small team and we had some boards. Jim is notorious for scrapping boards in a heartbeat and then bringing them right back. He tries all sorts of things to try to find what he needs. Being ready to change in a heartbeat is very important working with Jim, because he’s looking for the character moments and for the mood of the film.”
Reagan, along with a team of four Halon previs artists started on the project near the end of 2015. He recounted that they spent the first two months working on a challenging prologue sequence that was originally conceived as a three-minute single-camera shot from Logan’s point of view. But when they came back to work in January after the holidays, they found that the whole sequence had been cut.
But at that point there were five other major sequences waiting for them, starting with the refinery escape, which itself went through several iterations. But that’s very much part of the game in previs, which serves as a springboard between storyboards and production and helps guide pre-production planning.
Reagan explained that by March or April, the previs team had expanded to eight artists, housed on the Fox lot. “I had several artists on each sequence and we were progressing on all of them,” Reagan says. “By then, the [visual effects team] had come on and we were working closely with them. One of the things that Jim does that is really great is, he gathers all the department heads together and we have a creative meeting around the table. We had visual effects there; we had production design, eventually stunts came on, and then storyboards and myself. We all sat around the table and Jim would pitch us what he was working on in the script, and then we would pitch him and show him what we had been producing based on the last set of notes and ideas. Sometimes we’d find out, ‘yeah, that’s out of the movie,’ but we can re-purpose it for this or that.”
Reagan noted that these collaborative sessions in preproduction were invaluable, giving the various department heads the chance to compare notes. “Even if it’s not my scene, I can see a similarity to the shots I’m working on over here, so I’d better do this or that. We kept doing that all the way up to the shoot,” he explains.
“These meetings really helped bring everybody together,” Reagan adds. “I wish that kind of approach happened more often.”
The largest sequence that the previs artists had to tackle was the refinery escape, where the villain Donald Pierce and his Reavers show up to try to capture the young mutant girl Laura. “We did multiple iterations on that,” Reagan recounts. “That was the scene where Jim was really using all of us to find what he wanted. He didn’t want something amazing, he wanted something gritty and practical.”
In the ensuing chase scene, Logan is driving a limo in reverse, trying to race his pursuers to the train tracks, where they would be cut off. “We did that whole chase backwards, which was really a great chase scene, but Jim came in and said, ‘It’s just too simple. He just goes backwards and then he wins.’ So we went on this kind of roundabout exploration of [the scene].”
In the original scene, Logan crashes through a fence in his escape. “Suddenly, Jim had this idea. He said, ‘Fences don’t break like that in the real world. Those are rigged in Hollywood. Let’s not break the fence.’ It came off the cuff, but I latched onto it and said, ‘let’s ride that idea for a while and see what we can do.’”
Reagan explained that he discussed the scene with VFX supervisor Chas Jarrett, and “we started prevising to see if we believed in it -- the scene where he slams into a fence and the fence just doesn’t come down as everybody would expect in a Hollywood movie. It stuck and it became one of the centerpieces of that scene to suggest that, ‘Yeah, life just sucks and it does not work the way you think it will.’ That’s what he wanted for this picture.”
Reagan recalled that at one point while they working on the refinery escape, he brought in an Oculus Rift VR headset to help the crew get a sense of the lay-of- the-land. “The refinery went through a number of changes in scope,” he says. “The Oculus was something I threw in, just for fun, to say, ‘Hey guys, check this out.’ I put them into the refinery, and the art department guys were able to walk around the limousine that they had just been designing in model form. They could look at it more in real-world scale and walk around it and look up at the towers and at the refinery, to feel the space that they were talking about creating. It was a fun aside in technology. Our project wasn’t dependent on it, but it was a fun little ‘Let’s-do-this-again-sometime’ moment with the VR.”
Reagan explained that they were able to incorporate what he called “stunt-vis” when stunt coordinator and second unit director Garrett Warren got involved and starting shooting rough cuts of some of the stunt actors rehearsing some of the film’s major fight scenes in a warehouse.
“We would take that footage and we would rotoscope those guys out and place them in the forest,” says Reagan. “As much as we can, we’d make it feel like [part] of the movie. We’d use that as a previs tool, when we were trying to find the film, before the shoot ever began.”
“Later on, we took the plates that resulted from that, and then did a classic postvis pass on the sequence where we would take the assets and place them in,” he explains. “Sometimes we’d use the previs that we had, place it in, get the timing right, get the positioning, the effects, and the timing of the effects correct on screen, work through in the edit so that we could hand it off to the visual effects house and they could just finish and make it really nice with their high quality effects and true dynamic effects.”
He explained that he had developed the technique with Mangold on the the previous film, Wolverine. “I would rework the stunt work and put previs in it, sometimes a previs shot, sometimes just a background, sometimes an artificial character to create this really big collage to create this sequence based on everybody’s strength,” he elaborates. “In particular, the stunt department’s strength where they’ve got more much more visceral reactions going on than I can animate at the same pace. I can’t animate that fast with the times we have – getting their really strong, aggressive performances, unencumbered by formal animation techniques.”
Reagan explained that the film also gave Halon the chance to experiment with using a game engine to render the previs shots.
“I really wanted to push further. I wanted to give it a better look,” says Reagan. “I wanted to challenge the visual quality, the lighting quality and see what we can do. We did run into challenges with adapting our workflow. I’ve been working on this previs workflow for 10 years or more. Now I’m having to rethink it just because of technical issues with the engine. It needs a different kind of build quality to the assets, a different workflow for submission of data to the next artist. We had to segment things a little bit more, and that was challenging.”
He added that in spite of the challenges, they managed to get great results, “to the point where Jim had dubbed it the ‘pretty box.’ We would show very rough previs and he’d wave it off and say, ‘Just don’t show it to me until it makes it through the pretty box, okay? I don’t want to look at it.’”
“That presented a challenge for us because all along the way we were finding new problems and realizing that we’ve still got to deliver,” Reagan recalls. “It made some tense moments on my side, just trying to make sure could deliver this visual that we’re trying to do, as well as make sure we’re keeping up on the storytelling and shot work.”
“Later on, the pace got so fast and we were working on multiple sequences at a time, that we decided that the engine had kind of proved its point,” Reagan adds. “Production was looming and we decided, let’s not do the engine work for a while and go back to classic previs, just so that we can get the volume of work that’s coming at us now done.”
In one key sequence where Xavier, (Patrick Stewart) has a psionic seizure, Reagan had a chance to try out a new Perception Neuron motion capture suit made by Noitom. “We took that in Jim’s office, and we stayed late one night, after everybody had left. We set up our suit. We laid out Jim’s main room as the hotel room, as close as the production designer had known at that point. We motion captured us walking through this scene and just figuring out the distances, the time, how long it would take, how much space we needed to make the scene work so that it wasn’t boring. We were trying to create this effect that Charles Xavier was crippling everyone’s minds and crushing their minds, but Logan was fighting against it. Jim had [explained] this effect as: his muscles don’t want to move, but he’s forcing them,” Reagan details.
“We had some of our artists dragging on the ankles and holding onto the guy in the motion capture suit, so that it would look like he was really being held back physically, as we motion captured this stuff all around the billiards table at Jim’s office,” he adds. “It was a great use of the technology and then we integrated it into the scene, we were really excited when it came back. What we discovered really helped them when the stunt guys came back with their pass of it with the stunt men. It worked out really well.”
In spite of all the high-tech tools behind the scenes, the prime directive from Mangold was that he didn’t want it to feel like a superhero movie. Instead, he was looking for a style that felt more like a 1970s low-budget movie. “He said, ‘Don’t do anything that would break that idea, that feel,’” Reagan recounts.
Regan recalls that Mangold was particularly inspired by Peter Yates’ 1968 drama-thriller Bullitt, staring Steve McQueen, and frequently screened the film in his office. “He would play movies over and over, movies that were inspiring to him and that were along the feel of the camera work and the scope that he wanted for the film. It would be playing on the big screen in his office all day long,” says Reagan. “It was a really cool atmosphere.”
Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched VRNation.tv -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.