VFX supervisor Doug Bloom breaks down the final battle of Brett Ratner’s mythological action-adventure.
Despite predictions to the contrary, Brett Ratner’s reboot of the Hercules franchise, starring Dwayne Johnson in the title role, opened to a perfectly respectable $30 million on its way to almost $250 million worldwide, surprising many with a fairly positive response from critics and audiences alike. It turned out to be a well paced, confident, entertaining action movie. Double Negative (DNeg) took the lead on the film’s visual effects, but ended up farming significant chunks of the work out to other studios. Method Studios was one such studio and I was fortunate enough to speak with Method’s VFX supervisor Doug Bloom about his company’s work on the show.
Paul Younghusband: So how much work did Method pick up from DNeg?
Doug Bloom: Most of the work that Method picked up was the final battle sequence. I think that was about 90% of our work. We did a little back and forth with the client directly, as well as with DNeg. It was around 100 shots and we worked about 4 months. When we started, the original schedule provided 3 months, but we ended up adding a month on at the end. It really went down to the wire.
PY: Why don’t you give me an overview of the work you did?
DB: Most of the work we did was spread across three sequences in terms of how they broke it up editorially, but it’s actually one continuous sequence in the film - the final battle sequence that takes place in a citadel environment. That work consisted of sky replacements, quite a bit of CG destruction work, quite a lot of CG fire, massive army extensions, full CG sets and set extensions, some CG weaponry such as arrows and spears being thrown, and a bunch of hero digi-doubles.
PY: Presumably the sequence was prevised by the time you came on board?
DB: Exactly. And we stuck very close to the previs, except for a couple of fully CG shots that we ended up doing previs on for ourselves. And of course when you start getting into it and dealing with the timing and pacing we broke free from that. But even then, John Bruno [the overall Visual Effects Supervisor] would regularly just bang out some little storyboards and quick drawings for us in place of previs. We’d take John’s input, do a quick previs pass, get buy off from the client and then take it from there. But I’d say for 70% of the sequence we were sticking pretty close to the previs that has been done by The Third Floor, which was a huge benefit to have especially when you’re coming onto a show that late in the game.
PY: What did you find most challenging?
DB: Most challenging was probably the timeframe we had to work with. We spent a fair bit of time going back and forth with DNeg on the look of the set extensions and the set environments, but once we got a couple of shots through the approval process the rest just kind of rolled through. So that left us with the big effects sequence which was the large scale destruction of the citadel environment and the Hera statue. That was quite a bit of work because they wanted to hit very specific timing notes. What we did to help with that was to run one long sim that was 14 to 17 seconds or so, and we looked at it with the client to evaluate the timing. Then we took that sequence and broke it up into individual shots as per the cut they did with the previs. So that was quite a bit of work. Not to downplay all the effort that went into the destruction and simulation, but it was really tricky to get the pacing just right. This is made all the more challenging when something isn’t a hand animated event, but a simulation.
And the fire was tricky to get the timing on right too. Actually, it’s not just fire, it’s large cauldrons of oil that get spilled, and that oil is on fire so those were all actually fluid simulations. Again, we were working to hit specific timing notes. We had to make sure that the oil just caught up to the soldiers but didn’t overtake them, and we did have a few instances where in order to make the timing work we had to remove one or two of the soldiers and replace them with digi-doubles. So we were really trying to sculpt the underlying fluid simulation so that it kind of met up with the timing of these actors that were running away from the fire.
And you know, when I look back on all the work we did, I think the trickiest thing was actually the sky replacement because there were just so many things happening at once. First we had to establish a look and get buy in from the DP and also from Brett. We actually had the VFX production team come into Method along with Dante Spinotti, who was the DP on the film, to review and make sure we were dialing in the look they wanted. And once we nailed the look, we were able to push a template out. But there was a huge amount of work that needed to be done in terms of roto and comp integration.
We ended up having to use two light rigs for all the set extension work. We had one rig for anything within what you might call the foreground, wherever we were building a set extension that was connected to pieces in the photography. And then we had another rig which was more based on this matte painted sky around the sunset tower, which was used for anything in the distance. So it was very different to how we’d normally do set extensions, where we’d try to use one lighting rig for one environment.
But it was a challenge to both build CG pieces, whether they were people or pieces of the building or effects elements, in such a way that we could light them, render them, and have them sitting with the foreground photography, but then also have those set extensions going off into the distance that married into this sunset look. So it became a lot of work on comp in terms of all the roto and tracking that needed to be done, especially for a lot of characters who had long wavy hair. So that was a challenge. But that actually rolled back into the lighting team as well as the effects team, where depending upon the element you were generating, you’d have to use a different lighting rig or a different lighting HDRI in order to get everything to balance.
We also delivered that work to Company 3, our sister company that was doing the DI work. We delivered mattes so they’d have additional control over the skies when they were in the DI session. They then could further balance on an individual shot by shot basis, and get a nice warmth to the sky and a nice progression over the sequence. The sequence takes place over about 15 minutes or so, so we wanted to get a nice balance where the sun is slowly going down and down. As we get to the final part in the battle sequence they were really able to push that sky and play up the warmth of that sunset.
PY: I saw some of the plates for those shots and they were really dark.
DB: The plates were very dark and this was something we really struggled with in the beginning. We kind of went back and forth and did a couple of tests where we were actually grading the photography to try and lift the blacks and push a little blue into them in order to get them to something that looked a little more day lit. We reviewed those tests with the client and the DP and it was decided that the best thing to do was to light everything to the plate and not modify the photography at all. We left that component for the DI house, because they wanted to be able to sit there with Brett and Dante during the DI sessions and have full control over the mood. So rather than baking colour into the plates and then having another round in the DI, we balanced everything to those plates even though they were dark. We just had to make sure elements like the fire, digi-doubles and soldiers had enough range so that they could lift everything up to match the day lit look they were going for. Before we would send anything out to the client we would always put it through a little grade test on our end to make sure it would work. That was part of our process internally before we would deliver a shot for final presentation.
PY: So this was a cool project to work on?
DB: It was a lot of work. It was really a little bit of everything and it was definitely fun to have a show that wasn’t just water or just fire or just set extensions. So, it was a great show and the client was great to work with and I think Method as a company is very happy with how the work came out.
Paul Younghusband is a producer and writer based in London. He has previously served as editor of Visual Magic Magazine, and has contributed to publications such as VFX World and Animation World Magazine.