VFX supervisor Mark Breakspear discusses the studios’ 300 third act shots on Warner Bros’ DC Comics superhero hit, ‘Suicide Squad.’
With the international box office success of Warner Bros’ latest DC Comics superhero adventure, Suicide Squad, the studio has successfully introduced eager audiences to a legion of new villain and hero characters, many sure to populate the WB film slate for years to come. Among them are the villains Enchantress, her brother Incubus, as well as the reluctant hero El Diablo.
Handling visual effects supervisor duties on 300 third act finale shots was Sony Pictures Imageworks’ Mark Breakspear. We recently spoke about some of the project’s technical and overall production challenges, including his handling of a unique set of fractal geometry-based effects for some of the film’s most stunning visual sequences.
Dan Sarto: What was your role on the film and what was the scope of your duties?
Mark Breakspear: I was the visual effects supervisor on Suicide Squad for Sony Pictures Imageworks. I worked with Jerome Chen, the overall production side supervisor. I came on board probably late 2014 when we first looked at some scripts. We had to fly down to Los Angeles [from Vancouver], leave all our electronics, pens, paper and everything else at the door, and read the script, which was on red paper so we couldn't photocopy it with our in-pocket photocopier [laughs]. We read the script, then flew back and put some numbers to it. We did that back and forth for a month or two, settled down on the numbers, and before you know it, here's some tests, what does this character look like, and we started working away.
In fact, getting those tests going early was very important. We actually worked with a gentleman named Tim Borgmann, who is a fantastic designer. He was able to help us work designing characters in 3D long before anyone on the post side starting to think about that. But we knew we had to have something for when we started shooting. We took some amazing art department drawings and fed those to Tim, who worked with our CG team. The look of one of the main characters, Incubus, who is Enchantress' brother, is basically a 10-foot tall, amber warrior, sort of an Incan, or Mayan-esc amber warrior, with a sort of jade, pre-Colombian type armor. He harkens back to an earlier time the comic book fans would recognize. We designed him just in time to start shooting so we could make sure that on set, we had people looking in the right direction and acting the right way based on who and what they were fighting.
DS: What were the main sequences you handled on the film?
MB: The main scope of work was mostly the big 3rd act end battle. Our responsibilities were Enchantress, the witch, who as she becomes most powerful, controls a giant fractal machine. We also did her brother, Incubus, a giant 10-foot amber snow globe, if you like, full of the dead body parts of all the people he has fought and beaten. Also, Mega Diablo. We have El Diablo, who can control fire and shoot fire from his hands, generally a very destructive superpower. Inside him, when he finally loses his temper, this sort of demon comes out of his body, called Mega Diablo, who is a 10-foot skeleton.
Again, harking back to some sort of pre-Colombian, Incan / Mayan type look, the way the story is told, Mega Diablo and Incubus have fought each other in a past set 5,000 years ago. We’re retelling that story in the arena of the modern day environment we built, which was the train station. We shot practically on a stage in Toronto at Pinewood and extended the small set, upwards and outwards, into a full train station, so we could create a battle in there. That was our main scope of work. We did have a smattering of shots throughout the whole movie, but the majority of our work was three hundred shots in the end battle.
DS: Did you work with any previs?
MB: Yes. The Third Floor did both previs and postvis. They took a lot of the character models we built and used that in the postvis so that we could stay focused on the job of building these guys for real. They were able to help the director in telling the story to people that needed to see it early on before all our stuff was ready.
DS: How much initial work were you provided by the film’s art department as a starting point for your own ongoing designs? How much did the designs change over the course of the film?
MB: I often joke that with this film, they gave us half of the designs of the things they thought that they didn't want. It was a great start. But, it was a bizarre thing. They were like, "Here's a bunch of stuff that we really, really want that we know we won't want in about six months. Start off there." As you know, it's always the case that when people start to see designs develop, what was a great initial Photoshop drawing by the art department from the very first few weeks, -- that inspired everyone, got everyone excited -- when you take that flat 2D drawing, start turning into a living, breathing, person, somebody's like, "Oh, you know, he looks a bit like this or looks a bit..."
Once we start flushing it out and making it real, it becomes something else. Then they start changing and then they realize that A no longer connects to B because of C. Those are the things that come into play. Then, the story needs...something one actor said during one of the takes, gives this little spin on something, which we should reflect in his character design. It would be cool if we did this. Very quickly, we went away from, "Hey, this is the design."
Basically what we had worked really hard to do, to be ready on set when we shot, it ended up all we needed to know was that the character was 10 feet tall. The design itself was going to change so much after that. It really went through that machine of change. Up until I would say about two months before final delivery, we were still tweaking the design, in a big way -- like more than tweaking -- on both Enchantress and Incubus, right down to some of their core component designs where normally you would be through modeling, rigging and texturing and you'd be well into shot production. We were still changing elements of the model based on requests in order to tweak some things.
Put it this way. Maybe a movie comes out ahead of ours from a different studio and there's a character in there that may have some sort of glowy thing on their forehead. You go, "Oh, my god. We have a glowy thing on our forehead." Everyone says, "No, you can't have that. You got to change that. Oh my God, you can't have it." You're like, "Okay, so we change it." I always thought that was a bit ridiculous because we also have actors with two arms and two legs…I saw a movie the other day with actors with two arms and two legs. Does that mean we have to remove those from all our actors as well [laughs]?
DS: Don't make any suggestions. They may take you up on that.
MB: Yeah. There was a massive paranoia. The thing is, I don't understand the marketing machine that goes on behind these things. There is probably a giant computer that says, "If you have a movie come out, just after another one with a character with a glowy thing on his head, you will lose 2.34 million dollars instantaneously from the box office." Far be it from me to suggest I know better, but you do sit there and go, "Are we really focusing our efforts in the right areas of this design?" But, designs do change. That’s part of the excitement in a way. It's part of what drives me. I love the fact that you’re not just working in a vacuum, you’re trying to create a living, breathing, thing that has to exist in a world that in itself isn’t static. It is changing and you have to respond to those pushes and pulls quickly and in the framework of what your company can do.
We are not a charity, so we need to follow all of those business guidelines as well. It's an interesting challenge, but ultimately, you’re put at the very center of it. One of the things I'm most proud of, of the work we do at Imageworks, is that the creativity was always first. We always led with, "What's the best thing for these characters to look as good as possible?" We didn't want to leave anything in the pockets. You don't want to finish too early. But you don't want to abandon it and go, “Yeah, pens down, we've run out of time." You put everything you possible could into it.
I really do think the artists both at Culver and Vancouver really put it out there. I know everyone says that. I know it's a hyperbole thing, but every now and then, you work on a movie, and I’ve worked on a whole bunch, and you go, "Yeah, this one was a passion project for a lot of people."
DS: Any new innovations on the technology front? Anything in the pipeline that you had to figure out for this show that you hadn't used or done in previous shows?
MB: Yeah, there was a very big creative component that relied on imagery based on fractals. Though fractals have appeared as Mandelbrots and all sorts of obvious things, we got into more four-dimensional fractals like Mandelbulbs, trying to express certain types of geometry using fourth dimensional fractal physics. I know it sounds a bit crazy and it very much is crazy. On set when we were shooting, I was trying to learn as much as I could about this stuff. I did math at the university and feel okay with fairly complex mathematics, but my god, did I suddenly find myself out of depth with this stuff.
It's really beautiful mathematics, but it's extremely complicated. We would try to build objects whose surfaces were no longer planar, or any sort of geometry-based surface, but actually made from the kind of equations that generate infinite depth fractals. There are ways of doing it, but they're cheats. We tried all the cheats first because obviously the cheats rendered a lot quicker. They didn't give the same results. We had to have components in the movie where the shapes of the objects couldn't look like they were modeled by human hand. They had to look computer generated, but not computer generated…fractal generated. We developed a whole bunch of ways using our affects team to create these types of images.
That was probably one of the biggest technical challenges up front, creating this sort of fractal look to some of the effects we were doing.
After that, I’d say, was we had to design a human character, Enchantress, whose body was slightly translucent. She had all these tattoos, but the tattoos weren’t just on the surface - they sort of impregnated her skin and went down in depth. They were tattoos on the surface, that you could also see plunge deep down into her skin. That was amazingly tricky to make sure it looked like skin, but also had the translucency that we needed to see the sub surface tattoos.
Of course, she's moving around. When you move and swing your arm around, you don't need to worry about what's going on with the flesh, bones, tendons, muscles and knees. But when you've got a tattoo that goes through the surface and she's moving around -- you build a muscle rig underneath so that she actually looks realistic when she's moving -- that tattoo is plunging through the muscle and skin and epidermis and all these different layers. You have to figure out, "Well, how do you keep that tattoo from shredding and becoming a giant blob, but still keep her outer surface looking realistic?" There were huge challenges there.
We worked with James Jacobs and his company called Ziva Dynamics, that wrote us a piece of software we used for our muscle rigging system. It was amazing software. It helped us animate Enchantress in a way that you look at her and you go, "Oh, why is she CG?" You get a bit closer and you go, "Oh, oh wow. Wait, how did that happen? How do you do? Wait, what machine…?" Visually, it's like, "Wait, how do you get tattoos inside a body?" That was a big achievement. I think visually that was a real payoff. It's one of those things where you know it's going to work, but you don't really see it until very close to the end. My fingernails have started growing back now, but they were pretty worn down for a while.
Something you may specifically find interesting is that when we were designing the motion of the characters, there was always discussion about doing motion capture. We did some motion capture, but one of the most fast and fluid systems we used, to get feedback from the director, was an Xbox with a camera. We just created simple meshes of one of our animators acting out certain fight sequence moments and put 30 versions in front of David [Ayer, the film’s director] a bunch of times and said, "Look, here's a way that he can stand and punch someone…here's how he can take a punch." David would say, "Yeah, I like that one the most." Then in 3D, we would be able to translate that back across to our character and put that in front of David for the fight sequence between two full CG characters. Using the Kinect system on the Xbox was a massive time saver. It was unbelievably helpful and I'm going to use it on every future movie.
DS: Besides the technical challenges, what were the main production challenges you faced on the show?
MB: I think the main challenge is a good question. There were a lot of the standard ones. You're working with a team and you have everyone who's got a strong passion and wants to do a great job. We're also trying to follow the leadership of our director. He's got his ideas and you're following a very specific protocol. You have to get what he wants. Sometimes you come up with ideas and you think, "Oh, this could actually enhance this idea and we could present that as another alternative." Sometimes when the pressure is on, with how much has to get done and how quickly, it is hard to do that. People go, "Oh, I've got a great idea and I'm not able to make it happen."
We shot Cara Delevingne on set basically wearing just a bikini because they couldn't make a decision ahead of time on what her costume was going to be like. She was a magical enchantress, and they didn't want a standard costume. They wanted something that reflected this more powerful status. They designed various things, but they just never quite got the look they wanted. We said, "Look, let's shoot almost naked and we will add a costume on later." We got to design the costume, which was fantastic, but obviously did a load of extra work and had to learn an awful lot from a brilliant fashion designer on the show - how to design and what would look real and then add that extra flair that real visual effects can give it. We considered materials that don't necessarily exist or gravity that can be manipulated even though she's in a real world gravity, maybe a costume that has a separate gravity. The way the light bends through it, we can cheat and make it more refractive or less refractive, depending on certain situations. There was a huge challenge there.
Then overall, I would say that it was funny, but we all thought that having postvis done was going to be hugely time saving and helpful. In many respects it was, but I think in retrospect, what the postvis did, it made us jump forward very quickly from when we first really finished shooting -The Third Floor was able to do an amazing job getting postvis out. Very quickly it went from instead of having to do a few temps here and there, for bits and pieces, it ended up becoming, "Oh, you've got to replace all the postvis because that's no longer accurate." It ended up being a lot harder as a result of that. That was an interesting aspect I did not expect, which was a bit of a challenge.
Other than that, to be honest, it was a movie of all the usual challenges. You've got screenings, you've got incredible pressure, I think, coming down from the studio because this movie was a huge thing for Warner Brothers and everyone wanted it to be successful. There was an awful lot of discussion and meetings about every detail. I've worked on other movies similar to this and it was all very much par for the course to be honest.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.