Alain Bielik looks at how Peerless Camera and Digiscope made their mark on The Legend of Zorro.
At a time when studio execs put a sequel on the back burner as soon as a movie makes a profit, it is more than surprising to see that it took seven years for director Martin Campbell, exec producer Steven Spielberg and lead actors Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones to reunite for a new adventure of Zorro. After all, The Mask of Zorro had been a major sleeper hit, with Campbell managing to deliver an extremely enjoyable re-imagining of the legendary character. The movie owed a lot of its success to the charm of its leading duo, with newcomer Zeta-Jones stealing the show (she had been spotted in CBS Titanic miniseries by Spielberg himself).
In The Legend of Zorro, Don Alejandro de la Vega (Banderas) is now married to Elena (Zeta-Jones) and has a 10-year old son who is not aware of his secret identity. Elena is tired of her husbands swashbuckling activities and urges him to stay home for his family. However, a threat to Californias pending statehood obliges Zorro to take action again, which brings chaos into Alejandros relationship with Elena
The original movie had necessitated very little visual effects work, but The Legend of Zorros ambitious action sequences required a completely different approach. To this purpose, Campbell brought in fellow New Zealander and overall visual effects supervisor Kent Houston, co-founder of Peerless Camera in London. We had more than 550 shots to do, Houston says. They covered the whole range of the visual effects, from CG doubles to matte-paintings to complex miniature set-ups to face replacements. However, we never considered it as a visual effects movie. The effects were only here to help tell the story. The shots were awarded to Peerless, where John Paul Docherty supervised the project, and to Santa Monica-based Digiscope, where Dion Hatch oversaw the work.
Recreating 1850 California
As for any period movie, a large part of the visual effects workload involved modifying existing environments or creating new ones. The Legend of Zorro was mostly shot in and around a historical hacienda in Mexico. The compound was so large that production designer Cecilia Montiel was able to use it to represent several different locations in the movie. For Houston and his crew, it meant keeping the part of the hacienda that suited the shot and replacing the rest, and its environment, with new imagery. We did this by creating matte-paintings in Photoshop and by projecting them on 3D geometries that were built in SOFTIMAGE|XSI. This projection technique allowed us to create a proper change of perspective on the buildings whenever the camera was in motion. We also did a lot of work in shots featuring actual locations, painting out buildings whose architecture didnt fit the period or moving other ones around to create a more eye-pleasing framing. Final composites were for the most part created in Inferno and Shake.
Although the environmental work was quite complex, the vfx requirements became really tricky when the artists started to tackle Tornado, Zorros faithful black stallion. During principal photography, no less than 11 horses were used to create the illusion of a mount of many talents. Frequently, the color pattern of a stunt horse didnt exactly match the hero horses fur, in which case it was digitally retouched by Digiscope to maintain a consistent look from shot to shot.
There was one scene that no stunt horse could perform though. During the climactic end sequence, Zorro jumps with his horse on the rooftop of a running train in which his nemesis Armand (Rufus Sewell) is hiding. The spectacular shot was realized with entirely computer-generated horse and Zorro built and animated at Peerless. The horse was first scanned by Eyetronics who provided us with a high-resolution mesh, Peerless head of CG Ditch Doy explains. Eyetronics also provided photographic textures of Tornado, but we couldnt use these directly as they had the lighting and in particular the specular highlights baked into them. They were very good as reference, though. In order to replicate the sheen of the black stallion, we first used the fur technology we had developed for the wolf on The Brothers Grimm. This approach gave us a physically accurate model of the fur and realistically simulated the way the light interacted with it. However, horse fur is very short and to get a photoreal result required the generation of millions of hair strands. Eventually, we used this as the basis for a combined approach, also generating a complex shading network to imitate the specular qualities of horse fur. This approach was further combined with areas where we placed longer hair (such as above the hooves, etc.) to soften the silhouette of the horse.
To create the long flowing tail and mane, Peerless used the hair module within XSI. The tail comprised of seven different hair systems, each with slightly differing physical properties. The mane was created in a similar fashion with complex collision detection to avoid interpenetration with the CG horse and rider, Doy adds. Hair dynamics were also used to drive the simulation of all the various parts of Zorros tack. The saddle comprised of many straps which all had to react correctly with the motion of the horse. We simulated long strands of hair, which were then used to constrain the dangling straps and reins. For the later shots in which Tornado is seen rearing up on top of the running train, the horse and a stuntman were shot in front of a greenscreen and the element was then tracked to the train rooftop.
A Trainload of Challenges
The action continues with an extensive sword fight that takes place on top of the train. During plate photography, the old vintage steam engine was never activated. The special effects department had rigged it to generate a great amount of smoke in order to reproduce the action of a steam engine running at full power. The train was actually set in motion by a modern diesel engine that pulled it or pushed it, depending on the shot. This whole set-up required heavy digital retouching as the anachronistic diesel engine needed to be removed from all the shots, and the real smoke had to be enhanced and often completely replaced by CG smoke so as to present a more consistent look.
The fight itself was captured in various set-ups, including stuntmen shot on the real train in motion, actors shot on a partial rooftop set, greenscreen photography and even computer-generated characters. During most of the shoot, the stunt performers and the principals were secured by cables suspended from heavy rigs. Both needed to be painted out in post-production, as were the cameras that appeared in the frame (theres not much place to hide your second camera on a train rooftop!). Between the diesel engine, the cables, the rigs and the cameras, the train sequence came out as a massive paint job for the digital artists.
The shots also required more creative work whenever the face of the stunt doubles was clearly recognizable. To this purpose, Houston commissioned Eyetronics to scan the main actors face. On all my projects, I like to do a scan of the principals, as a back-up, Houston reveals. It allows me to help the director add new shots via CG animation, long after the actors have left to other projects. On The Legend of Zorro, we first tracked the plates using SynthEyes, a great piece of software. Then, we utilized 3ds Max to map the digital faces onto the stuntmens face. At Peerless and at Digiscope, we have artists who prefer to work in Maya, others who like XSI the most, and others who feel more comfortable with Studio Max. Therefore, the choice of the animation package for any given shot is ultimately dictated by whoever has been assigned to produce it unless we need a specific feature from one package. Personally, as a facility owner, I have a tendency to push for Studio Max, as it can do excellent workand it is much cheaper than the other two!
The trickiest train shots involved creating and animating CG doubles of the main actors. The shots were added late in post-production after renowned film editor Stuart Baird had completely restructured the fight sequence. In the revised cut, the characters successively appeared in two different locations, but the shots in which they were seen going from one location to the next were missing. These were the kind of shots I was glad I had a scan of the principals for, Houston notes. Martin and Stuart asked us to create shots that made a transition between the two series of live-action shots. We first set up a motion capture shoot in which we shot stuntmen performing the required actions. The motion data was then applied to our CG doubles and the resulting animation was composited in live-action plates of the train.
In the train fight sequence as in many of the fight shots of the movie, the principals were occasionally shot wielding a sword equipped with a rubber blade. In some cases, the fake nature of the weapon was clearly visible on screen. The blade was thus painted out with Matador or Inferno, and replaced with a CG blade created and animated in 3ds Max.
During principal photography, the filmmakers were unable to shoot specific actions with the vintage train, due to the lack of suitable locations. For example, there was no tunnel in the area where the train scenes were photographed. In order to create the necessary shots and also to produce the final explosion scene, producer Lloyd Phillips asked Weta Workshop (The Lord of the Rings) in New Zealand to fabricate a highly detailed scale miniature of the whole train. The project was supervised by founder Richard Taylor: We built our replica at 1:4.7 scale, which corresponded to the 12-inch gauge that is standard in large-scale train modeling. The inner structure was built in hard steel in order to sustain repeated takes. We shot the train on a miniature landscape that was the size of a football field. We had to color 20 tons of sand to reproduce the color palette of the Mexican sand! The explosion was rigged by Steve Ingram, a fellow veteran from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and shot at 150 frames-per -second.
The footage was then retouched and enhanced at Digiscope. We needed to extend the environment in several shots, Houston recounts. One of the problems was that the explosion had been photographed by cameras protected by heavy plexiglass shields. This resulted in a slight distortion that had to be factored in when we did the compositing. Since the shots were also full of smoke from both the explosion and the train engine, the whole sequence turned out to be much more difficult than anticipated.
Coming out of the nightmarish production of The Brothers Grimm, Houston and the artists at Peerless and Digiscope tremendously enjoyed the drama-free process of creating the visual effects of The Legend of Zorro. Plus, it was funny to have so many fellow New Zealanders working on the project: Martin Campbell, Richard Taylor, Lloyd Philips, [and] many key members of the crew It didnt feel like a Hollywood movie at all!, Houston concludes.
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 Cinéfex. He recently organized a major special effects exhibition at the Musée International de la Miniature in Lyon, France.