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'Sin City': Bringing the Graphic Novel to the Screen — Literally

Tara DiLullo descends into the seedy underworld of Sin City to see how the filmmakers ripped the images from the graphic novel page and plastered them onto the silver screen.

Lets take a ride into Sin City. All That Yellow Bastard (left) images property of Dimension Films. Courtesy of The Orphanage. All The Big, Fat Kill images property of Dimension Films. Courtesy of CaféFX.

Inspired by Its the formula followed by just about every studio thats ever translated a comic book into film. Looking to mine the rich stories and inspired visuals of decades worth of superheroes and dark anti-heroes, Hollywoods aim has never been about creating literal translations from print to screen. Theyve been more intent on capturing the spirit of the original or just bringing life to a characteruntil now. Rebellious filmmaker Robert Rodriguez has built his career on doing things his way, literally directing, shooting, writing, cutting, scoring and even creating the visual effects for his films. Yet when he became obsessed with the idea of translating Frank Millers heralded Sin City graphic novels to screen, it wasnt to put his own spin on the groundbreaking works. Instead, Rodriquez wanted to give Miller the chance to see his drawings and words faithfully adapted to the big screen the first graphic novel made real on celluloid. For years, other directors had tempted Miller with the same promises, but the writer declined every offer. That is until Rodriguez, in Millers own words, literally seduced him into giving his blessing. But a blessing wasnt enough for Rodriguez and he drafted Miller as his co-director on Sin City (to the detriment of Rodriquezs DGA membership), ensuring that Millers vision would remain the guiding principle for all aspects of the production.

Rodriguez and Miller shot Sin City entirely at the filmmakers Austin, Texas, compound, Troublemaker Studios, with a large cast of Hollywood veterans and up-and-comers, including Bruce Willis, Benicio Del Toro, Rosario Dawson and Jessica Alba. Yet even more enticing was Rodriguezs plan of how to approach tackling the visual look and feel of Millers novels for the movie. Following the path of his Spy Kids films, Rodriguez made the choice to shoot the actors almost entirely in greenscreen environments, using the barest minimum of props, with the intention of creating Millers world digitally. While Troublemaker did some initial previs work for the segment they shot to sway Millers approval for the film, Rodriguez knew the scale of the film would be too big for his in-house facility and bid the project out to three visual effects boutiques with whom he had previously worked: Hybride, CaféFX and The Orphanage. Each facility was awarded one entire story to create for the film, either The Hard Goodbye, The Big, Fat Kill or That Yellow Bastard. They were then provided Millers novel, the filmed footage for their story (with Troublemaker establishing the look with Rodriguez along with invaluable groundwork), and were mandated by Rodriguez to create their segment with Millers artistic vision as their guide. Rodriguez also told the houses to work independently, in a virtual creative bubble, so that each storys look would remain true to Millers own artistic evolution over the series of the novels. The three stories would then be connected together in HD post, where the assembly would connect the three visions together for the first time. VFXWorld talked to the visual effects supervisors from each house to get their perspectives on this unique creative process and their personal challenges in making these stunning pages come to life.

Daniel Leduc and his Hybride had to adjust to doing real characters on CG backgrounds instead of CG characters on real backgrounds. All The Hard Goodbye images property of Dimension Films. Courtesy of Hybride.

Hybride The Hard Goodbye

Visual effects collaborators with Rodriquez since the first Spy Kids, Hybride of Quebec was the first house to begin work on Sin City after the initial test was done at Troublemaker in late spring of 2004. Daniel Leduc, vp and visual effects producer of Hybride, became the supervisor for the house on the film and he explains that they were approached by Rodriquez to join the project despite their lack of familiarity with Millers novels.

The critical point for Robert was that he wanted to follow the style of the book, but when you are looking at the pictures in the comic book, its not something that you can transpose on screen right away, Leduc admits. The style of Miller is black-and-white, with no gray scale at all. I remember we had a lot of discussion, lighting-wise, because its all drawings. When somebody is drawing, you can put highlights here and there and those are sometimes impossible to recreate on film. I was really nervous at the beginning because it was a black-and-white movie and we arent used to dong that, plus the vfx were the other way around. Normally, when we are doing effects, its more of a CG character over a background and this project is the other way around: its a real character on CG. In [Roberts] mind, the movie was a super high contrast movie with no detail in the black or white. In his mind, it was supposed to be really close to the book, but it did change during production as we began to show him stuff.

As the style began to evolve, Rodriquez settled overall on a very stylized look that incorporated black-and-white, photorealism and even object specific colors that were used randomly throughout all of the stories. Leduc explains, The original elements were all in color, but in the compositing, they were finalized in black-and-white. Not knowing the final style, it was hard to plan everything ahead. We were trying to define things and environments in black-and-white and it was really, really difficult. At some point, we made the decision to do everything in color because we are more used to it. We did the environments in color and then peeled the color and it was much easier for the artists. It allowed us to decide that if we wanted to put back an object in color, we could just create a mattebut it didnt happen, he chuckles. He made the decision to put color mainly on character eyes, colors, hair.

While working on the visual style, Leduc says they also had to settle on determining the technical details for the actual shooting in order to help in the post-production process. Physically, Rodriquez decided early on to keep the actor interaction with their environment as limited as possible.

Bold red flashes play a key role in the style and mood of Sin City.

In our part, there is a bed in the opening. We call it the art bedroom. The bed was actually part of the shooting and real. We decided at the beginning to make all the interaction objects, anytime the actor was touching something, it was part of the set. Its one of the toughest parts of vfx contact. The bed, chairs, tables were part of the set, but not the floor or walls. As for the cinematography, Rodriquez elected to continue working on video by choosing to shoot Sin City in HDSR, a format Leduc was pleased about. My part at the beginning was to find ways to do the shooting to be able to generate the visuals after. This wasnt my first HD movie, the third or the fourth one, actually. Technically speaking, I prefer to shoot something more flat so I can add the contrast after. To satisfy us both, we made the decision to use two monitors on set. One to show the real output of the camera and another one in black-and-white, in high contrast, looking closer to what Robert was expecting at the end. It helped a lot. The new HDSR have a lot better resolution than the HD cam. Its 444 recording RGB, which means better keys and extraction and less noise. Technically speaking, its a lot better system. Its closer to the definition scanning from film.

Having worked with Rodriquez before in the format, Leduc says they had already worked out a lot of the technical shooting issues on previous projects, which made this process easier all around. Robert is a strange man, he laughs. He likes a lot of technique and he is an artist at the same time. He always wants to understand what is happening and how to do things. I remember working on Spy Kids, I was always explaining things how to get certain effects. Now on Sin City he knows what to do and he was really aware. I was on set for the beginning of the shooting, and in less than a month, I was back home and he shot it by himself.

Back at Hybride, Leduc says they were left to their own devices on how to create their segment. One important thing was that Robert decided not to involve the three houses apart from the technical specifications so we all worked the same way. It was part of the style. The design was really open. In Roberts mind, everybody was able to design the direction, while he was controlling the direction at the same time. He needs to see stuff to make decisions, so seeing stuff from all the vendors, he put together the overall direction. Some scenes Robert was very specific on the directions and other scenes, it was up to us. Its nice, but scary. Sometimes Robert didnt even know what would be the final result. We did exchange the technique of the rain but we didnt talk about the snow for my part. He did send to me shots from other vendors showing me what he liked and it was faster for him because there was so much stuff. He did that at the end with all the vendors.

Hybride also created the striking white rain that falls in Sin City.

That was a big question mark with the movie because he was really trying to convert the book one-to-one and sometimes it was more contrast or less. So that was another reason why it was difficult at the beginning and we made our decision to do everything with a lot of resolution, like a normal picture. On the final, we were able to cut details so we didnt have to redo everything. We did it once and after that we could do different styles. As for systems used on the film, he adds, We use mainly XSI for the 3D. We have Maya for the 3D parts and for compositing it was Discreet logic, inferno, flame. We had 85 people working on it for the 3D and other things.

Reflecting on the project, Leduc is really happy with the forest they created. It wasnt exactly a real forest; it was in between being stylized and real looking. The other challenge was the rain. We began by doing real rain and Robert said it looked too real and he didnt want to see something that looked too real. So we tried to find the essence of the look of it from the comic book, trying to extract the style, but at the same time you need to believe its real rain.

In the end, Leduc says the The Hard Goodbye segment consisted of 735 shots and another 200 shots of color correction, for about 54 minutes of effects. We began shooting last spring, but the big chuck of production was in the last four months. Matter of fact, one of our shots, was shooting in the second week of January 2005! It was the shot with the priest at the end of our book. They were actually shooting Shark Boy and Lava Girl then, so they took a break from that to do a couple days of Sin City again.

Café FXs Everett Burrell worked closely with director Robert Rodriguez to choose the right visual balance between the stark black-and-white of the graphic novels and the filmed color images.

CaféFX The Big, Fat Kill

Digital effects supervisor Everett Burrell of CaféFX Inc. suggests their involvement with Sin City stemmed from the sheer volume of effects that were needed for the film. Robert has a relationship with CaféFX since Spy Kids. Basically, when Hybride realized that there were just too many shots, it became an automatic decision to go back to the other vendors they trust the most: CaféFX and The Orphanage. Burrell admits he was a fan of Millers novels before they were assigned and because of his familiarity with the books, he initially thought the project would be easier because of Millers high contrast style.

As we talked to Robert, he said, No thats not necessarily true because we cant go as graphic as the graphic novels because it would wear and tear on the audiences eyes. We then realized it was going to be a photorealistic show and that we would selectively pick areas that are more stylized than others. So, we had to build the whole world, photoreal, and then in certain moments, it goes more stylized. That way, the audience isnt so strained looking at a big, white screen all the time.

Using the graphic novel as their storyboard, Burrell admits, It was a lot more intense than any of us originally thought. We thought it would be a lot more comic booky, but its actually more film noir, than, say, the Richard Linkletter film, Waking Lives. So we watched these old noir films like The Third Man, Touch of Evil and even Eraserhead was a very big influence. In order to balance the intense effects demands, Burrell says they broke the segment down in-house. I supervised half of it and Jeff Goldman supervised the other half. We split it pretty evenly and then Dave Lombardi at our Santa Monica office handled the [guest directed Quentin] Tarantino sequence, which was 35 shots, I think. Our teams would share ideas and techniques.

Because of the greenscreen shooting, creating their entire world from scratch took a huge bulk of CaféFxs time. [Robert] wanted the actors to appear very real, just more moody and keeping all the nuisances. That also translated to the world we had to build: a subtle, realistic world, that wouldnt make the audience think its fake. We had to make sure we put in every nook and cranny, bolt, doorknob and light bulb, tiles and carpeting and dirty glass. Its a very dirty world! There had to be stains on the walls and dripping water, garbage in the alleyways very intense detail. Also, the actors had to interact in this world that didnt exist. It was exciting, but it was also very frightening because the amount of work. When you look at the plates, you just see guys standing on a greenscreen. Whats there? Whats behind them and how deep do we have to make this world?

Various visual effects tricks were used to create the stark black-and-white look of the graphic novels.

Very deep was the answer, with the minimal prop use meaning more work for the artists. There would sometimes be a real car, but sometimes he couldnt get the camera where he wanted so [the actors] were instead sitting on apple boxes. We had to create interiors of CG cars that had to cut with the real cars and match exactly. There is a scene where they go to, like, the La Brea Tar Pits and its really just a concrete floor. They are walking in wet mildew grass that didnt exist, as well as bushes and tress and rain. We have the most rain in any episode and there was no rain on set. We had to create all the CG rain and the interaction of the rain and the clouds moving and trying to keep continuity. When you shoot an all greenscreen movie, you tend to get really lost quickly because you dont have any point of reference. We had to develop north/south/east and west looks right off the bat. We actually temped out our entire episode by Thanksgiving of last year, even when it wasnt due until the first of March. It was a tough call to make and it really burned some people out, but it was the only way we could be sure what Robert wanted.

It was also scary, because Robert didnt want us to share between the vendors, Burrell continues. We asked and Robert said, No offense, I want you to do what you think is best and run with it. I want Hybride and The Orphanage to do the same because they are uniquely different stories. To Roberts credit, he uses that to motivate the companies to come up with new things. If he sees something that he likes from one company, then hell tell the other company. But, honestly, I think everybody did such uniquely different jobs, we never got into a situation where Robert asked us to match.

As for his favorite moments that CaféFX created, Burrell details, There is a scene where Dwight is holding Jackie-Boys head in a toilet. In the graphic novel, its black shadows on Dwight and a white wall behind him. We built this photoreal bathroom, so what I thought would be neat was a slow push in on Dwight. We tweaked the levels and made it look just like the graphic novel. By the time the camera was done with the push in, we went from a photoreal world to a white wall and Dwight was super contrast-y and we captured that flavor from the graphic novel. When Dwight gets up to leave, it goes back to the real world. Its an isolated moment and Robert loved it. Dwight is sort of a crazy character and you dont know when he is going into his madness, so it heightens that. [Robert] liked it so much, he had us do it in other moments in the film, so there are moments where it goes into stylized mode, but it just accents the action or the motivation of the character.

Sin City takes the art of all digital sets to a new level.

Another highlight involves Tarantinos segment. He directed a scene with Dwight driving a dead Jackie-Boy in his T-Bird to the Tar Pits. Jackie-Boy is dead, but Dwight thinks he is talking to him, so its a very maddening scene. Quentin shot it and referenced a really great film called Suspiria, which was one of the last films [printed in Technicolor dye transfer]. There was a super colorful scene of a girl in a taxi and these colored lights are going by and Quentin wanted us to match that and we did. Again, its super stylized and its not like in the graphic novel, but it captured the flavor.

Detailing the overall production schedule, Burrell says, It was a long haul. I was on it for nine months. We had a huge crew and it was the most shots Café has ever done for a single film 650 shots. Our segments runs 42 minutes uncut, but Robert cut 10 minutes out. Some of that had to do with gore, but on the DVD all of it will be put back in. Also, one of the biggest things for us was that this HD444 technology is brand new and nothing works! Even Avid cant make it work right, so there is a learning curve for not only the software and the hardware, but also the technology. People call it the new film, but its still video technology and you have to treat it like that, because its not quite there yet. Its not like Cineon. There is a whole learning curve involved, so we learned a lot. I think the next show should go a lot easier. I had a great experience on it and knowing what I know from this, I have a better idea now on how to plan it out better blueprinting the world a little more. We were so rushed to turn in ideas for looks that we overlooked the overall blueprint. From the get-go next time, we would blueprint the entire world and make a map of where we were in the city. Overall, its probably one of our most challenging projects ever because of the number of shots and that it was all green screen. I really have a deeper respect now for ILM and Star Wars films because they create so much. For Sin City, we are most proud of the fact that when most people watch it, they wont have a clue that the city didnt exist and they are all on a greenscreen, which is the point!

Stu Maschwitz, the founding partner of The Orphanage, loved to play in Frank Millers world.

The Orphanage That Yellow Bastard

Of all the participants, Stu Maschwitz, the founding partner of The Orphanage and the vfx supervisor on Sin City, might have been the most excited about getting to play in Millers world. One of Rodriguezs newer collaborators, Maschwitz says he first found out about Sin City on the Internet: Weve only been on one film with [Robert] before, Spy Kids 3D, but we got along really well and had similar attitudes about things. We never talked about Sin City, but I had long been a fan of the books. I read on Aint It Cool News about Roberts pitch to Frank Miller and I e-mailed him right away because it was a dream project. We were asked to bid on it and were awarded the entire Yellow Bastard segment. It was such a rare opportunity. Not only were we doing 1/3rd of the movie, but it was a contiguous chunk and it was every single shot!

Despite his previous experience working on CGI dominant films, Maschwitz admits that the new approach is still evolving. I am not 100% sold on what I imagine is going to become a more and more popular technique the complete digital environment world. People are seeing a real opportunity in movies to create these impossible worlds and maybe control their budgets at the same time. Thinking purely with my visual effects hat on, its always better for us when we are doing the invisible work and that means keeping the audience guessing and using different techniques. Its a big challenge to make the magic, repeating the same trick over and over again and not having the audience gets wise. Its daunting, but in this case it was unique. We were doing things you couldnt do another way, but in a gritty, real kind of way. I latched onto that and I didnt want the stylization to come out of the fact that the world was going to be computer- generated. I wanted the stylization to be photographic and it became the mission statement that got us through the project.

Heres a look at the vfx work that went into bringing Yellow Bastard to vibrant life.

Unlike the other houses, Maschwitz details that their approach was very methodic. The first order of business was to turn all of our matte painters into concept artists for a thumbnail phase, where we just did low resolution black-and-white mockups to show what the composition might look like. Then the rule was to think about how we would achieve the comic book imagery using live action and tradition lighting and gaffing techniques. We would emulate them using computer graphics, but we would rigidly adhere to a set of rules that would limit us to real world solutions.

Robert would do things like, put a light source in the shot, because he knew that part of the shot would be removed later, but we would use the opportunity to put a practical light source back into our digital environment. Wed even take it farther than that. We have a lot of nighttime exteriors where its snowing outside, so we looked at a lot of films for reference that had snowy nighttime exteriors. One thing that became really obvious was that you could always tell where the light was coming from in a scene. Its really interesting because in vfx, we have to remember that we arent simulating reality, we are simulating moviemaking.

This is something that dates back to my days doing space-battle stuff for George Lucas for the Star Wars movies. We would light our computer-generated space ships as if they were models on a motion-control stage, because that is what we were simulating and what everyone knows a space ship should look like. For Sin City, those rules meant we would light our digital environments using essentially what they call photometrically correct lighting CG lights that follow all the real world rules of light, in terms of how it falls off and how it spreads out over an area. It was interesting because a lot of the artists on my crew were resistant to that, because they felt like they were being robbed of some of their tools. I was trying to get them to think like a gaffer on the set, rather than some impossible CG maneuver. I wanted to give them a set of parameters, so it didnt look like it was being put together without any rules.

What I found is that people become more creative when you give them limitations and they did some amazing work, he continues. If an artist wanted a tree be a black silhouette against a white sky at night, it was easy to do because we would put a volumetric light back there that would rim light the trees, but would also fill up the air with light and therefore create the comic book silhouette. If our camera shook and if we panned across a light source, wed have a little aperture flare come in from the light that is just hiding off the frame. We were going through a lot of manual effort to put in the kind of artifacts of live action filmmaking that we wouldnt be able to control if we were doing it for real. So what that means is that we achieved the stylization look, but we worked through real world limitations to get there.

The Orphanage had to push themselves to get the look of this noir dripping tale.

Like the other houses, Maschwitz says their creative freedom on the film was an amazing opportunity. I actually dont do a lot of vfx supervising for anyone other than Robert. Working with him is that rare collaboration because he is so open to working with others and he can do that because his own vision is so strong and he doesnt have to micromanage. His vision of a film is broad is enough to encompass other peoples ideas. Every time we had a question about how something would look, Robert would very politely say, Go look at the comic book. They shot essentially every frame of the comic book, and used that as a starting point and branched off from there. Frank was the one more interested in branching off and doing different things and Robert was really the stickler. We were handed a bunch of green screen material and we were charged with reuniting all that with the comic book images that inspired the angles and lighting.

I also think Robert allowed us to push the Sin City look maybe farther than the other sequences because ours was last and by that time, the audience was going to be in it. We had a lot of conversations on how far we get to push it and the rule became to do what Frank does when he draws the pages, which is that he pencils in the whole thing in complete detail and then he goes through a lighting phase where he brings out the ink and he may black over huge areas, but you can tell in the final image that it is an abstraction of something that is real. Its the beauty of black and white, which forces you to participate by filling in the missing information.

Getting that look means The Orphanage had to push themselves into new areas of R&D. We pulled out every trick in the book, from adding little bits of camera shake to aperture flares and even making our dolly speed slightly uneven with relationship to the actors. We would maniacally horde our reference for things like when what a Ferrari headlight looks like when its six inches away from a Panavision lens, or what snow looks like when its kicked in your face and its backlit by taillights. My mantra to the artists was open the lid to your computer and pour some dirt into it. Robert would see the shots and he knew we were working overtime to make things work. The falling snow is a perfect example. There were a bunch of really fun things that we knew were going to be hard, like splattering blood and simulating vehicle animation, but the one thing that snuck up and bit us was snow. Its quite a feat to do motion blurred snow with depth of field that can be properly backlit and interact with an environment that may be coming from any number of sources. You have 3D snow that has to be lit and fall, land gently on something that doesnt exist and disappear in a graceful way and its in every single shot! We tried using stuff that we already knew how to do to achieve that and kept hitting walls and halfway through the production we implemented a Houdini Mantra pipeline to simulate and render the snow. Its the first time weve ever used Houdini and it wont be the last. It wound up being one of those great things that the extra effort paid off in spades.

Discussing their delivery timeline, Maschwitz adds, We were in Austin during the second week of July and we were in full shot production from the end of July and we delivered final shots in early February. It was a mountain of work, he sighs. It was 560 shots. It was broken down between 3D artists doing full digital environments, compositors and matte painters and a lot of crossover responsibility and a whole team just to do falling snow. We also delivered HD masters during the whole process, knowing full well that when they started the HD assembly that there would be changes, which was a pleasure to go back and do.

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