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'The Omen' Returns: Heed the Devilish VFX

Alain Bielik recounts how Cinesite (Europe) recreated the legendary death scenes in the remake of The Omen using state-of-the-art digital technology.

Cinesites work on The Omen wasnt voluminous, but the 120 shots were remarkably complex and had to look absolutely real. All images  & © Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved. 

It was certainly the marketing coup of the year. When you want to release a feature film about the devil incarnate, what better day than 6/6/06? 666 the Mark of the Beast. On that fateful day, 20th Century Fox releases The Omen, the remake of the classic 1976 horror movie directed by Richard Donner. The story follows the investigation of an American ambassador (Liev Schreiber replaces Gregory Peck from the original), who realizes that his young son may be the devils offspring.

A surprise worldwide hit, the original movie left a lasting impression on everybodys mind, especially its intricate death scenes. The concept of having the main characters killed off one by one in a series of horrible accidents later formed the basis for the Final Destination franchise. In 1976, Donner relied on the expertise of legendary make-up artist Stuart Freeborn and on skillful editing to craft the shocking death scenes. For the remake, director John Moore wanted to pay tribute to these sequences. At the same time, he wanted to draw on digital technology to take them even further. To this purpose, he turned to visual effects supervisor Matt Johnson and visual effects producer Aimee Dadswell-Davies at Cinesite (Europe). It wasnt a large show in terms of volume, Johnson acknowledges. We did about 60 shots featuring creative visual effects, and another 60 or so of wire removals. It was a small number, but some of these shots were remarkably complex, and they all had to look absolutely real. Plus, the visual effects provided the key element to most of the main sequences. Basically, any time anything bad happens in the movie, thats where we stepped in. In other words, the visual effects were doing the work of the devil!

Revisiting a Landmark Sequence

As in the original movie, the most impressive sequence features the decapitation of a key character. For many people, it was a stand-out shot in the 1976 movie, Johnson notes. They still remember it today. Our challenge was to re-invent it in a way that would appeal to audiences 30 years later. We wanted to be faithful to the original action, but, on the other hand, we knew that most of the audiences for this new movie werent even born when the original came out. It allowed for some artistic license.

The decapitation takes place when a loose hammer accidentally hits a shop sign in a street, breaking its top supporting bracket. The sign then swings down scythe-like over the character, who stands up at the wrong moment The hero shot of the character being decapitated required the combination of no less than four different plates. I wanted to see the real actor in the scene, all the way until the head is chopped off, Johnson relates. I didnt want a cheap cutaway on a dummy. Its always a giveaway. In order to achieve that, we had to create a seamless transition between the real actor and a dummy that was built by special make-up effects supervisor Matthew Mungle.

On set, the sign was mounted on a mechanical rig that repeated the same movement every time. The crew first shot the static dummy being decapitated by the swinging rig. Then, the actor was instructed to stand up and to stop in the same position as the dummy. At that point, he had to jerk his head forward as to simulate the impact of the sign. Video assist was used to align both elements as close as possible. The actor was shot in front of a portable green screen, which later allowed compositors to reposition his body in 2D as to precisely match the dummys position. The crew also shot a plate of the swinging sign alone, and a clean plate of the background.

The revised version of the impalement required the seamless combination of many different techniques: practical effects, atmospheric effects, stunt work, rig removal, CG animation, particle animation, 2D matte paintings, miniatures and pyrotechnics.

Back at Cinesite, we worked very, very hard on blending the live-action actor and the dummy. I knew that the shot would eventually be played back frame-by-frame on the DVD, with people trying to work out at what point we were making the transition so, it had to be perfect! Blending the two elements sounds pretty simple, but it was actually quite complicated. We spend a lot of time in 2D, replacing large parts of the dummys costume with still frames of the actors costume, massaging the colors, doing some grading At the beginning of the transition, we also replaced the dummys eyes with the actors eyes to help blend the two faces together. We even incorporated a subtle blink on the dummys eyes at the moment of impact, just to add a touch of life. We also augmented the decapitation effect with extra blood elements that I had shot on greenscreen. As for the sign, we first took the real prop from the sign plate and combined it with the actors plate, making sure the timing was right. Then, we did a transition with the sign that actually chopped the head off in the dummy plate. So, there was a fair amount of digital massaging to make it work, all carried out in Shake, our compositing tool of choice for this movie.

In the following shot, the headless body remains upright for a moment before falling back in a staircase. A plate was shot with a stuntman performing the action, his head covered with a green hood. A second plate captured the clean background. Compositors first painted the hood out, leaving a headless character. Then, 3D supervisor John Neill and his team used Maya to build a CG stump that was match-moved to the falling body. The model was textured with still photographs that combined meat and gory images found on the Internet. The CG team also reconstructed the back of the costume that was covered up by the stuntmans head. The elements were then rendered in RenderMan. Final touches to the decapitation scene included set extensions. The plates had been shot on a studio backlot in Prague. In order to place the action in Israel, matte painter Dave Early created the appropriate environment in Photoshop.

Cinesite created 2D matte paintings to place the action in London. 

Blending Multiple Techniques

The other death scene that every one remembers from the original movie is the impalement of a priest on a church weather vane. In the revised version of the sequence, a lightning strikes a scaffold pole on top of a church undergoing renovation. The pole falls down onto the priest, crashing through a stained glass window. The character ends up impaled by the pole and lacerated by hundreds of shards of glass. Encompassing several highly complex shots, the sequence required the combination of many different techniques: practical effects, atmospheric effects, stunt work, rig removal, CG animation, particle animation, 2D matte paintings, miniatures, pyrotechnics all blended in a series of seamless shots.

Matt Johnson of Cinesite found the impaling scene very complicated, but the viewer will find the CG transparent.

The first shot features the scaffold being hit by a lightning strike. First of all, we had to completely replace the sky in the whole sequence, Johnson explains. The plates had been shot on a dry day, but the director wanted a rainy, stormy day. So, we added lots of cloud layers in the sky, animating light effects behind some individual clouds to create the illusion of a storm. Then, we added a matte painting of London, replacing the Czech environment. As for the foreground, since we couldnt shoot the real church rooftop from the proper angle, we filmed a two-meter (seven feet) tall miniature in front of a greenscreen. Then, we shot full size scaffolding on green screen and combined it with our miniature element. The hero pole was modeled in CG and added to the real scaffolding. For the lightning strike, we used 2D hand animation. We then added four or five layers of CG rain augmented with turbulences and mist elements. CG water splashes were also incorporated into the scene, as was CG water running down set elements. The final element was a pyro flash that was shot separately to enhance the impact of the lightning strike. All this for one shot

For the following tracking shot of the pole falling down toward the stained glass window, the plate was filmed with a full size set built sideways in front of a green screen, which allowed for a much simpler set-up. The background was then added in, as were the CG pole, several layers of rain, raindrops on the window, water running down on it, and various 2D enhancements. For the shot of the pole shattering the stained glass window, Cinesite utilized a plate of the real prop being destroyed via pyrotechnics. Unfortunately, the plate was marred by a pyro flash, which ruined the illusion. The removal of the flash necessitated hundreds of glass shards to be individually rotoscoped and keyed. Again, the CG pole and CG rain were added in. For the next shot, the crew used a highly unusual camera rig to shoot the plate. In order for the camera to follow the pole and the shards falling down towards the character, it was mounted on a descender rig, a device commonly used in stunt work to slow stuntmen down after a high fall. It allowed the camera to take a controlled free fall before smoothly stopping right above the real actor. Tracking markers were laid on the ground to help integrate the various CG elements. Digital pole and rain were once again created for the shot, as were hundreds of glass shards. Most were animated via particle animation, but some hero shards were hand animated.

The most complex shot was the final shot where we see from several angles the priest being impaled, Johnson observes. It was quite complicated, although it doesnt look like it when you see it on screen. We shot the actor suspended on wires on set, just above the ground, without any rain. A jerk rig helped him simulate the impact of the pole. After that, he did a fantastic job of remaining perfectly still in this awkward position. We then animated the CG pole and shards hitting him, timing the animation to the body jerk. To show the entry and exit wounds of the pole, I shot some interesting elements. We used compressed air mortars to spurt fake blood and Chinese food in front of a greenscreen. Very effective then, I wanted to show the impact of the pole on the ground. To this purpose, I shot a plate of gravel being blown up with an air mortar. Finally, I shot a plate of leaves being blown away and added it in front of the action, as to match the rest of the scenery. Once again, we added a lot of CG rain and CG splashes on the ground. We also removed the wire rigs and replaced the background to create a stormier ambiance. When you see the shot in the final cut, it looks like we didnt do anything at all to it!

Generating Visceral Reactions

Other visual effects work included 2D matte paintings to place the action in London, combining stunt work and a running car to simulate a character being run over, adding fog and mist to an Italian valley, executing various wire removals and digitally shattering the glass of a gorilla cage in a zoo.

For Johnson, who had never worked on a horror movie before, this assignment turned out to be an enjoyable challenge. Its interesting, he concludes. When I was doing the decapitation shot, I must have watched it a hundred times. After so many viewings, I became completely numb to it. I kind of lost the meaning of the whole thing. I was totally focused on the details, trying to make it look as real as possible. The gore no longer affected me. I was really like: we should put more blood here, and maybe add some flesh elements there. It only hit me when we first screened the shot to people who had not been involved in its fabrication: they all jumped back five feet! Only then did I truly realize that it was quite a violent sequence indeed. Watching these reactions was quite satisfying, actually

Alain Bielik is the founder and editor of renowned effects magazine S.F.X, published in France since 1991. He also contributes to various French publications and occasionally to Cinéfex. Last year, he organized a major special effects exhibition at the Musée International de la Miniature in Lyon, France.