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'Saw II': Horror VFX Cut to the C.O.R.E.

Tara DiLullo has seen Saw II and survived to tell us if C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures effects make the cut.

Actor Noam Jenkins struggles with Jigsaws Venus Flytrap in Saw II. All images courtesy of Dimension Films. Photo credit: Steve Wilkie.

In the ultra-creepy, gory Saw films, the core conceit of both films has innocent people thrust into gruesome life or death situations by a cunning, psychopath dubbed Jigsaw. The serial killer is intent on making his victims do extreme things with only the most the basic information given to them about how to survive what he inflicts upon them. For Saw II, visual effects supervisor Bret Culp can definitely sympathize with their pain. He and his team at C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures in Toronto, Canada, literally had to create sequences for the film without having access to the script or knowledge of what even happens in the film!

Its the only film that Ive worked on that Ive not gotten all the script pages for, just the sequences we were doing, Culp admits. A visual effects veteran of more than 30 film and TV projects, Culp says they had to work around a very tightly guarded director and producing team that didnt want any leaks getting out onto the Internet. There was a big surprise at the end of the first film, and there is again in this one. Its not the same surprise and doesnt happen the same way at all, but it was very important for them to keep this as close to their chest as they could. We went over to editorial and saw the sequences and were very familiar with the bits we were doing, but it was my understanding even the actors didnt have the full script and even some of the producing team didnt know the whole story. They were building the mystery that way too.

Its not usually the ideal way I like to work, because I always say to the team, here at C.O.R.E., you may be only working on a shot but I need you to know what comes before and after. We need to understand what is being said with the shot, the scene and the film as a whole. However under the circumstances and with the nature of the work that we were doing, I dont think it was too big of a hindrance on this project.

With the original Saw being a traditional special effects horror film, the vfx work on Saw II followed in line with only a few sequences being created, but even those were not actually part of the initial pre-production plan. Its a funny story because we knew the post supervisor, Michael Beard, and also knew this project was shooting locally, so we contacted them and said, We are available for your vfx work! I remember pretty clearly at the time they said, We dont think we are going to need any visual effects work. This was even before shooting had started and I said, There are no films that dont have visual effects work in this genre. Well hear back from them. And thats what happened. We heard as the shoot progressed, of course, there were things that they couldnt get in camera in. Additionally, the possibilities and potential benefit of using digital technology became clear during editing, so they called us back so thats how we got the project.

Director/co-writer Darren Lynn Bousman wanted to retain the look and feel of Saw. He instructed C.O.R.E to watch the original and remain faithful to the tone, but did not want the vfx to draw attention.

Director Darren Lynn Bousman was also new to the franchise, but he was clear to Culp that he wanted this film to look and feel like Saw. The first and most important thing to comment on was the intention of it was to be absolutely faithful to the original. It shouldnt feel like an effects film. We did watch the first film and it was our direction from Darren. He said, Rent the first one, sit the team down and go through it. Thats basically the tone, so they are being very faithful. His mandate was to raise the bar, but that it should not stand out as visual effects work.

Keeping in line with that mandate, Culp details the C.O.R.E contributions. We primarily provided augmentation and enhancement work. There is a sequence in a very confined space with fire and because you cant endanger your actor and you can only go so far with putting flame around somebody, we ended up doing a whole sequence, and it was probably the best sequence we did, where we added flame. It was a dark, confined space and so the challenges of that kind of work is, firstly, digital fire and smoke, but even more challenging is having interactive lighting, both to the individual and to the environment. Its the sequence I am most proud of and I think it comes off incredibly well. What it does in the end is really enhances the intensity of the scene. There are two sides to this environment, an inside and an outside, and you can see shots from both sides with flame. On the outside, you can see the light from within interactively illuminating our digital smoke. It was a pretty intense scene when I initially saw it cut together. Once we added our elements it achieved a whole new level.

C.O.R.E. worked at breakneck speed to turn the job around. The studio was given three weeks initially to finish roughly 40 shots.

Otherwise, it was all augmenting work that was already there or enhancing work that was there, like there were set extensions or modifications, he continues. We actually took a room and put an elevator in the back of it. The result is that a whole part of the room lowers. We added more props in some places; if there were a few of something, we maybe quadrupled it or more. There was a lot of compositing as part of the augmentation. There were some simpler things like transition effects from one location to another.

Of course, while Saw II might have a terrifying concept and villain, the turnaround time for C.O.R.E. ended up being even scarier. We had initially about three weeks to turn all of this around, Culp laughs tiredly. I think that extended to four, not because of us but because of their color timing. We were done within the three weeks and there were a couple things they wanted us to add or change. A dozen people worked on it and we did roughly 40 shots. There were 20 of them just in the fire sequence.

The fire sequence didnt require proprietary tools, just great skills to put it together. Most of it was Combustion and Fusion in a 2D realm with some 3D help from Houdini, our primary visual effects packages here.

Despite the record turnaround, Culp says Saw II was a definite highlight project for them this year. While there was nothing we havent done before, it was the most successful use of digital fire and interactive lighting that weve ever done. It was a bar raising effect for us.

Tara DiLullo is an East Coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI-FI Magazine, Dreamwatch and ScreenTalk, as well as the websites and