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'Punisher: War Zone': A VFX Gore Fest

VFX Supervisor Robert Short tells VFXWorld about raising the bar more graphically for Punisher: War Zone.


The third time around might be the charm for Punisher: War Zone, the newest bigscreen version of the Marvel title. Courtesy of Pixel Magic. All images © Lionsgate Entertainment. 

Most of the time, filmmakers get it right the first time, but with some characters, it seems that once is not enough. Opening today from Lionsgate, Punisher: War Zone is not the first time Marvel's comic book hero Frank Castle has been adapted for the big screen. It's not even the second time. Director Mark Goldblatt took a shot at the vigilante hero in 1989, then Jonathan Hensleigh followed in 2004, but each time, the movie failed to launch the franchise the studio was hoping for. Will Punisher: War Zone finally click with audiences?

Supervising the visual effects for the movie was Robert Short, an artist with a unique combined expertise in visual effects and make-up effects (he won the 1985 Academy Award in this category for Beetlejuice) alike. "I was responsible for overseeing and designing the vfx and make-up effects. This worked out well because of my background and the amount of overlap between the make-up effects and the digital effects. In order to produce our 285 shots, we used several houses in the United States, as well as in Canada and England. We had CIS London, Pixel Magic, XY&Z, 2-G and PIC. Montreal-based Maestro Studio created the make-up effects."

Short and his team had a very tight schedule to work with, which did not allow for a lot of guesswork or experimentation. "Having cut my teeth working in the business with Roger Corman, I've learned how to work quickly and effectively with directors. During pre-production, I storyboarded all of the vfx and make-up effects sequences and created booklets for all the departments, so that we would all be on the same page. Doing the storyboards allowed me to 'cut to the chase' regarding the best angles to use for the shots, and figure out just how much we will be able to do in camera."

The vfx ranged from simple blood hits to matte paintings of New York to explosions composites to CG animated elements. Though the team strove to keep the vfx shots as invisible as possible, some sequences were treated as nods to the surrealist tone that graphic novels sometimes have. "Whether it is artistic license with the path of an ejected shell from a gun or the intensity of a background color, graphic novels sometimes embrace a hyper realistic approach, and so did we. A great example of some of our more explosive, but invisible effects is a shot of a thug being blown out of a window by a huge explosion. We shot the explosion first, with a locked-off camera, and then did a second take with a stuntman and the camera panning with him, which gave us a myriad of choices in post. The composite was completed by Pixel Magic early in the schedule in order for it to be featured in the trailer."

A Gore Fest

Because of the amount of carnage in the movie, director Lexi Alexander looked for innovative ways to create very graphic deaths on screen. Short suggested filming exploding puppets and combining them with the corresponding actors shot in a similar position. "This 2D technique allowed us to show heads and body parts being blown off in a very realistic manner. At times, it's very much like a zombie film… but without the zombies! Even though each shot was storyboarded, we were always prepared to change them according to the surroundings and needs of the final scene. As with all shots, the lens, f-stop, angle and height of the camera were recorded for later use with either the CG environments or shooting elements on green screen. Matching up the element shot of, say, an exploding head to the actor's shots was very much a by-eye-and-gut situation using a playback of the actor's footage and the camera log information."

Most of the exploding heads and viscera were shot on a greenscreen sound stage. Take after take, the team kept spreading blood on the immaculate green fabric. Each time, they would have to move up to find a clean area and keep shooting… The final composites of the gore effects were divided up between Pixel Magic and XY&Z.

Some of those shots were planned as practical effects, but eventually required digital trickery to suspend disbelief. In one such scene, a character gets his face punched in by Castle. Maestro FX created a flexible breakaway puppet head of the actor filled with blood. The intention was to shoot Castle's fist crushing the face as a practical element on set, and then have Pixel Magic enhance it with an eye blink and mouth move. After the shot was completed and screened, Alexander and Short noticed that, though excellent, the puppet head didn't feel quite real enough. In order to fix this, Short and the editorial team searched for a shot in which the actor's face had the right lighting and could be overlaid on top of the puppet. The perfect shot was found and XY&Z combined it with the blood element of the puppet.

Other shots required a more simple approach, including when a group of gang bangers is blown up by Castle's hyperbaric grenade. "The stunt team had rigged one of the guys to be pulled back and slam into the wall, while the others would simply pantomime their action. The effects department rigged a cluster of tinted flash bulbs for me in the center of the room as the interactive light source when the grenade goes off. Later on, Pixel Magic removed the flash bulbs and stunt cables, and overlaid a two-part explosion into the shot. A CG grenade and vapor trail were also added along with an element of shrapnel.

"Another good combination of on-set elements and 2D work is where a thug gets shot in the neck with a dart," Short says. "We had the actor walk along with the dart in his hand just off screen, and then bring his hand up to his neck as the CG dart flies across frame and hits him. Pixel Magic removed the dart from the actor's hand as he brings it up to his neck, and then revealed it on impact where it replaces the CG dart."

Robert Short closely supervised the design of The Punisher's emblematic villain, Jigsaw. He only had two weeks to create a design for the character based on the comics, but in the end, the director opted for a straight make-up and applications

The most gruesome death in the movie takes place at the end of an extensive fight sequence. The character is first stabbed with a spear, and then burned to death. "At the last moment," Short continues, "we decided to make the spear a CG element and shoot the scene with the actor pantomiming the action. I gave the actor a chopped off version of the spear and rehearsed the action, so there would be room for the CG spearhead element to be put in properly in post. I shot high resolution photos of the spear tip to be used later, but in the end, Pixel Magic rotoscoped an image from the film itself to use as the spear tip element. Just another reminder that it's not a perfect science… They also modified the color of the jacket's fabric to simulate blood, warped the area as the spear pierces his side, and added a splash element of real blood shot on the insert stage."

For the fiery death scene, a stuntman covered in fireproof gel did the initial impact in the pit and went up in flames. Next was a dummy that was shot catching fire. Finally, the actor was filmed in full make up in the unlit pit with a flame bar in front of his face. To finish it off, the team shot the flame in the pit in front of black from each of the angles used to burn the body, which created a library of flame elements for later compositing.

Meet Jigsaw

The Punisher’s emblematic villain is Jigsaw, a man bearing multiple scars on his face. The final design was conceived and executed by Maestro Studio under extreme time constraint. The make-up consisted of a one-piece silicone mask with hand-stitched sutures. "I would have liked to take it way over the top, much the same way Gary Oldman was done in Hannibal, but the fact that we needed to recognize the actor under the make-up and not interfere with his ability to speak, made this approach impossible. Also, sometimes fate steps in and lends a hand when you least expect it. One of the initial designs for Jigsaw would have looked a lot like Two Face from The Dark Knight, because the design of the character’s eyes and mouth are very similar in the comics. Fortunately, in the end, Lexi opted for a straight make-up that would rely on the actor and not vfx. We were very lucky and dodged that bullet, though we did not know it at the time!"

Extensive matte painting work was required for place the story in New York City. A combination of 2D and 3D techniques were used, with some composites of live-action plates; others were created in full CGI. Courtesy of Pixel Magic.

CIS London handled the spectacular chandelier shots and the glass crusher sequence. Lexi Alexander wanted a "hero" shot looking up at Castle spinning from the chandelier and firing his guns. The scene required CG shells as the real ones would fly out of frame and never be seen. "I devised a vortex-like travel pattern that would actually suck the bullets closer to the lens of the virtual camera. Just the opposite of what would happen in reality… Our job, I believe, is creating the illusion of reality, not replicating it. For the glass crusher, it would require a different sleight of hand. To ensure the safety of the actor, we had to enhance the scene digitally. The key to making it all work was chaos. I had the team at CIS throw everything they could into the scene to make it visceral and dangerous. Breaking bottles, glass shards cutting the actor's face and drawing blood, bottles shattering from above, steam from the machine itself and a fine layer of sparkling glass dust to filter it all through. And the end result looks and feels very dangerous and painful."

Speaking of chaos, Short was informed two-thirds into the CIS work schedule that the entire shop was being shut down permanently within the week and team would be disbanded… "Needless to say the midnight oil was burned, and my 8:00 am CineSync conferences became 3:00 am conferences! Fortunately, they never missed a beat and delivered the last shot flawlessly as they were turning out their lights and locking their doors for the last time. Yes, the CIS offices in L.A. would have picked up and finished the shots, if necessary, but the team in London was extraordinary."

Since the movie was shot in Montreal, extensive matte painting work was required for the action to take place in New York City. The shots were handled by Pixel Magic using a combination of 2D and 3D techniques. Some were composites of live-action plates shot in both cities with matching angles; others were created in full CGI in order to get the exact same angles for each of the shots throughout a scene. Originally, the plan was to create a "larger than life" version of New York, but, partly due to the tight deadline, it was decided that the look would stick much closer to present day New York.

Throughout the project, the team worked very hard to pay homage to the original Punisher material. "Lexi put together a 'look' book for us to reference," Short concludes. "It was made up of one of the Punisher Max graphic novels. This was our bible as to the look we were trying to achieve. In terms of composition, style and content, this had an immense effect on the shots as seen in the film. There are several panels where the Punisher is blowing the entire head of a villain and we followed them to a tee. Actually, half the fun of the project was always trying to capture the feel of the literary Punisher, because the 2004 film had strayed so far from it."

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, both print and online, and occasionally to Cinefex. In 2004, he organized a major special effects exhibition at the Musée International de la Miniature in Lyon, France.