Visual Effects studio produces 527 shots on Peter Thorwarth’s harrowing tale of an airplane hijacking gone astray because of one passenger with an unnatural thirst for blood.
A recent trend sees more visual effects companies working as the sole vendor on a feature film or TV project. Such is the case with leading visual effects studio Scanline VFX and their latest effort, Blood Red Sky, under the supervision of VFX supervisor Falk Büttner (Blackout). The German-American production, helmed and co-written by Peter Thorwarth (Not My Day) mashes together the concepts of vampires and plane hijackings in a contained horror thriller distributed by Netflix. In the film, as a terrorist group commandeers the plane, they unwittingly become prey to a passenger with an unnatural thirst for blood. And an interesting set of parenting skills.
“Niels Rinke [Game of Thrones] was the production side VFX and post-production supervisor on Blood Red Sky; he was our link to director Peter Thorwarth, RatPack Filmproduktion and Netflix,” states Büttner. “We worked closely together daily, and Niels gave us complete creative freedom.” Just as terrorists in the film had to adjust their hijacking plans after a surprise encounter with a vampire driven by maternal instincts to protect her son, Scanline had to adjust their production efforts when shooting and post-production were abruptly upended by COVID-19 protocols. “We had to go through all the obstacles that came along with that,” Büttner says. “We ended up switching to a completely remote workflow during this project, but that worked out quite well.”
It’s in German, but take a look at a behind-the-scenes reel on some of the VFX production:
Aiding production were detailed storyboards, concept art, and designs for key aspects of the movie. “We did some previz regarding the airplane positioning on the RAF station runway; that was important as a size and placement reference for the shooting,” remarks Büttner. “We got a lot of vampire concept art from Mark Coulier’s SFX Make-Up Department and all the transatlantic airline corporate designs from Uwe Stanik’s Art Department.”
The scope of the visual effects work included screen inserts, muzzle flashes, sky replacements, snow removal and creation, clouds, 2D and 3D set extensions, DMPs, skin retouching, 2D and 3D face enhancements, fires, and explosions. According to Büttner, “Our visual research focused on clouds, airplanes, airports, RAF station layouts, RAF vehicles and armament. We collected a lot of reference images and tried to stick to reality as much as possible.”
All told, 527 visual effects shots were delivered in 20 weeks. “The main portion of the work was done in our Munich and Stuttgart Scanline offices,” he continues. “In addition to that, our London and Seoul offices supported the project with comp work for a few standalone sequences, and for certain tasks, we also got support from our colleagues in North America. Sharing assets or shots was no problem. Our pipeline is centralized, and all our offices access our data in the same way. Since everybody was working remotely from home anyway, it felt as if we were all together in one huge virtual office.”
To deal with a short post-production schedule, efforts focused on handling as much in compositing as possible. “As an example, our Senior Comp Artist Tim Klink came up with a method that enabled us to widen the distance between the eyes of the two main characters directly in Nuke,” Büttner shares. “We 3D tracked the actors’ heads and matchmoved 3D scans of their faces with applied special effects make-up. Then our modelling department changed those 3D scans to widen the eye distances and make bigger jaws. From there, we used the resulting differences between the two models in the comp department to drive the distortion inside Nuke. We completely replaced the lower parts of the faces with our CG models, so mouths could be opened much wider than a real human can do it in some shots.” It was critical to retain the original performances and great prosthetic designs despite the facial alterations. “Our goal was to extend their work just enough that it still felt realistic but also give it a supernatural element, so nobody really knew where it came from. Finding that sweet spot was a process that took a couple of weeks.”
“Prosthetic make-up designer Mark Coulier and his team did a lot of prosthetics for the different transformation stages of becoming a vampire,” reveals Büttner. “We did a 3D scan of all those prosthetics and Mark also supplied us with 3D scans of the original concept design busts. We also worked closely with the special effects department, including assisting with the fire, blood, and muzzle flash plates. For the final explosion, special effects created a huge practical explosion, which was extended by us to get an even bigger explosion.”
Digital augmentation assisted with the vampire transformations. “Nadja [Peri Baumeister] and Eightball [Alexander Scheer] go through three stages of transformation,” Büttner says. “We supported stages one and two by revealing veins on the skin or healing wounds. In stage three, we widened the eye distance and partially or completely replaced the lower part of their faces with bigger jaws. There are some shots where we had to replace the ears as well. I don’t remember the exact number, but we had more or less 100 shots with face extensions or partial facial replacements. Towards the end of the movie, there are a couple of shots where we included full CG extras jumping out of the plane in the background.”
CG extensions were required for the RAF station and departure airport which served as the two main locations. “We shot the RAF station in Poprad, Slovakia,” states Büttner. “They have a small airport there with a nice mountain setting in the background. It’s a small civil airport, and we had to make it look like a big military airport with all sorts of hangars, military installations, military airplanes, and vehicles. We did an aerial 3D scan of the complete airport. Our 3D set extension made the Poprad airport 4x bigger. We included about 30 military planes and helicopters and a lot of cars. We had to constantly deal with weather changes in Poprad. One day we had blue sky and sun, and the next day we would get fog and snow. In many shots, we had to replace the background and sky with DMPs to make the weather look consistent.”
He continues, “For the sequence where the SWAT teams storm the airplane, we only used a scissor lift, covered by greenscreen fabric, to represent the airplane. The inside shots of the departure airport were shot at the Brno–Tuřany Airport in the Czech Republic, but that also was a small airport and the director wanted it to be much bigger. We then placed a huge greenscreen behind the windows of the gate, which enabled us to replace all the exteriors. Later we did a second unit shoot at the Leipzig/Halle Airport in Germany to get visual effects plates, backgrounds, and details. Those were later combined into digital matte paintings. Only the plane and the gangway are 3D during the departure airport sequence, and everything else is DMP.”
Within the first four weeks of its Netflix release, Blood Red Sky had been watched by 50 million members, making it the most successful German original title to date. “Our biggest challenge was finishing 527 shots in 20 weeks; that’s an output of almost 27 shots per week, or essentially 5 shots per workday,” notes Büttner. “It was quite a challenging logistical endeavour. I am looking forward to people seeing the completed movie and all our work. It’s quite different to have a German genre movie production of this scale as well. Blood Red Sky proved that it is possible to produce successful genre movies from Germany,” Büttner concludes.