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Method Studios Helps Recreate Racing History in ‘Ford v Ferrari’

Led by VFX supervisor Dave Morley, the studio delivered more than 700 shots for James Mangold’s faithful and exciting depiction of the famous 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans.

One of the most compelling, exciting and important periods in the annals of racing history centered around the bitter competition between Ford Motor Company and Ferrari for supremacy at the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of the crown jewels of all motorsports. Starting with Ford’s thwarted 1963 attempt to purchase Ferrari, where the Detroit automaker emerged from negotiations not just empty handed, but nursing the sting of legendary Enzo Ferrari’s biting insults, the fabled enmity between the two companies pushed automotive scion Henry Ford II to initiate what would ultimately become a hugely successful effort to unseat the Scuderia Ferrari racing team as the best in the world. Ford’s push to build a race car that could defeat Ferrari, employing a team led by American car designer Carol Shelby and British driver Ken Miles, became the stuff of legends; four consecutive wins at Le Mans, starting in 1966, forever cemented Ford, Shelby, Miles and the GT40 in racing history.

Faithfully retold by James Mangold (Walk the Line) in his latest film for 20th Century Fox, Ford v Ferrari, Ford’s race to win the 1966 Le Mans is brought to life through a seamless blend of in-camera footage and integrated, invisible visual effects. Even after constructing 30 cars and capturing race footage with hard-mounted cameras, Mangold needed considerable digital augmentation to recreate the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, when Ford, led by Shelby (Matt Damon) and Miles (Christian Bale). beat Ferrari with their newly developed race car, the GT40. 

Overseeing the visual effects was VFX supervisor Olivier Dumont (The New Mutants), who brought on his colleagues at Method Studios, led by VFX supervisor Dave Morley, as the film’s primary visual effects vendor.  According to Morley, “Olivier was great in his communication and had a strong vision from day one. It generally included a lot of reference images and photoshopped styleframes of what he saw.” 

“We created over 700 shots for the film with about 600 making it in the final cut,” Morley continues. “We shared our GT40 asset with Rising Sun Pictures but didn’t share any shots with other vendors.”  Like with most feature film VFX production, certain aspects of the project required production pipeline modifications; on Ford v Ferrari, that meant the need for greater efficiency and capabilities with crowd production. “We re-built the pipeline to allow some pretty great flexibility with the crowds [via Golaem],” Morley explains. “This allowed us to procedurally swap out variations of clothing and characters at render time. We could also control how energetic a crowd was for each shot.”

Two of the film’s main action stars were cars – the Ford GT40 and Ferrari P330 - shot practically and integrated as digital doubles. “The variations [of the two cars] became part of the layout where we could define what [racing] team it was and what sort of damage/dirt state was required for the shot or sequence,” Morley shares. “This made things super flexible and fast to turn around iterations. We shifted to RenderMan / Katana for the show; the work would not have been possible without that switch. We also built in flexibility on the layouts of the world, as we only had a certain number of pits physically built. Depending on the scene, we may have been in the Ferrari or Ford pit, so we needed to be able to shift the world in a north south direction. Or, when facing the grandstands, we may have needed to again shift the world to art direct what stands we may be seeing.” 

Accurate, photoreal depictions of cars, racetracks and environments were crucial on the film. Visual research involved watching old documentaries, YouTube videos, and classic racing movies. “We were recreating history,” Morley notes. “Having a huge amount of reference images and movies to study meant we had no excuse but to get it right.  We spent a long time making sure we were as accurate to the era as possible, down to the placement of all the advertising. The art department did extensive research as well and had an amazing layout for the world which essentially re-created logos and signage throughout. We also had to push the quality and detail of our digital double work for the film.  Knowing that we would be getting super close to them [the digital actors and vehicles] we needed a way of getting better fidelity to textures, including hair for close-up characters, and scaling back to lower levels of details the further they got from camera.”

The production made considerable use of previs, which was produced for the more complicated sequences. “This helped us a lot to understand how much of the world we would have to build,” Morley states. “It also gave us a good idea of the pace and types of shots that we needed to do. We built the world to work from almost any camera position within the pit area of Le Mans, but once we got out of that zone, we were more specific to building what the camera would see. This is where the previs really helped us.”  

Some of the film’s most significant settings were the Le Mans grandstands that are shown at the beginning and end of the race. “Production built maybe 1/3 of the actual pit area to a full-camera-ready level, which meant we had the perfect base to work from,” Morley says. “The grandstand side of the pit was a full digital recreation based on historical reference. We built up to and around the first corner of the Dunlop Bridge in the north; looking south, we built paddocks, carparks, farmhouses and all the way down to the Maison Blanche [White House] on the southern corner of the track. All told, we probably covered a good 1.5 km of area. We had 8-10 40x40 bluescreens permanently mounted on forklifts that were constantly moved around into the positions required for each shot. Of course, these never covered enough area. so extensive roto was employed to cover the shortfall.”

Crowd work required significant simulation development and integration. “We scanned probably 150 plus extras to make up the crowd for the film,” Morley remarks. “We needed everything to remain as authentic as possible, so using off-the-shelf crowds wasn’t going to work. The level of detail in the art department’s work meant that clothing colors had to fit the film’s style, which carried down to us. The reds, as you can imagine, were a Ferrari red, for example. We made variations of colors on the clothes so we could get more procedural variation on top. We quickly learned that hue shifting was not going to work here. So, we essentially created other ways of retaining the palette of the film while getting a good spread of variation. We created four levels of detail on the characters across the film. This high detail version included hair grooms, down to low res being no more than a few hundred polys for distant characters, that still had their color variants.” 

One of the production’s most critical challenges was conveying the proper speed of the race cars. “The majority of the car work you see in the film is done in-camera,” Morley reveals. “We generally were adding to other cars in the shot that gave us our speed reference.  We did shoot some of the car plates against greenscreen, but it was very sparingly done in cases where cast was interacting through windows.”  Simulated rain was also required for key racing sequences. “The cars racing at night in the rain were all in-camera.  We did extensive work to add to the rain, enhance the wetness on the road and wheel spray from the tires; this generally always included adding an additional layer of CG fog to the scene that would be lit by virtual lights to help sell the danger. We matchmoved all the cars very tightly to enable this.”  One particularly cool nighttime shot effect captured overheated brakes and tires. “We matchmoved the wheels and dropped in CG versions of brake calipers that were enhanced by embers and smoke,” Morley adds. 

The Method team also digitally augmented a number of practical car crashes. “We did do a handful of shots including a full CG car flying into the pit area coming up behind Miles as he completes ‘The perfect lap.’ We also created a CG car crash for the start of the film where we actually added the CG car into a practical crash takeover with some debris enhancements. There was one other full CG car shot of two cars clipping each other in the nighttime rain that was added to help enhance the story. But all-in-all the CG car work was kept to a minimum.” 

Morley notes that decisions on camera angles, motion and speed were driven by the live-action plates, which is why “the work feels so seamless as it was all based on real world physics.” Regarding the iconic image of the three GT40s crossing the Le Mans finish line at the same time, Morley states, “A Russian arm was used to shoot the three cars side by side. We built the world around the cars. As you pan up and see the pit area, everything outside of the road left and right, including the pit walls, is CG.” 

“I’m particularly proud of the world we built for the film,” Morley concludes. “It was vast, but the payoff was great. The night rain work was phenomenal as well. It was really great to see and hear people’s reactions to the work, and even more awesome when people see the base we started with.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.