Alain Bielik takes on the mission of uncovering the secrets behind the visual effects of Stormbreaker. Includes QuickTime clip of Baseblacks vfx work in the films climactic rooftop sequence!
If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip of Baseblacks vfx work from Stormbreaker.
He works for the British Intelligence Agency known as MI6. He knows how to run and fight better than anyone. He carries fancy gadgets that help him save the world on almost a daily basis. Oh, and, yes, he still has to do his homework for tomorrow For Rider, Alex Rider, the coolest secret agent this side of James Bond, is only 14.
Stormbreaker (released by The Weinstein Co. on Oct. 13) is adapted from the first of the best-selling series of Alex Rider books by Anthony Horowitz. In this first adventure, Rider tries to uncover the dark secrets of the Stormbreaker supercomputers that billionaire Darius Sayle is about to release. Directed by Geoffrey Sax, the movie features more than 500 visual effects shots created by a group of London-based vendors under the supervision of vfx supervisor Tom Debenham and vfx producer Alexandra Day. Associate vfx supervisor Dominic Parker was also on board to oversee an in-house vfx unit and to animate the main titles.
It was a difficult project for me as I was brought on in post-production only, notes Debenham. Initially, The Moving Picture Co. (MPC) was going to do the whole film. They were on set to supervise plate photography and to discuss vfx options. But when the number of shots and their complexity grew tremendously, the production decided to spread the workload among several vendors. It was the only way the movie could be done with the time and budget we had.
Adds Day, We worked with four different vendors. Their respective contribution was as follows:
Cinesite: 30%All MI6 interior shots, including Blunts (Alexs boss) office: CG environments, painted backgrounds, monitor insertsMI6 lift shotsAll helicopter shots: bluescreen composites, CG rotor blades and other fixes. A fair amount of graphic shots
Moving Picture Co.: 30% Stormbreaker game sequence Car interiors: bluescreen composites as Alex is approaching Sayle Enterprises Science Museum Interior shots as Alex crashes through the roof Nintendo graphic inserts Interior Liverpool Station graphics Other paint work and bluescreen composites
Baseblack: 20% The entire end sequence involving Sayle Tower: bluescreen composites, CG tower, 2 and 1/2D environment
Double Negative: 10% Establishing shots of Sayle Enterprises complex: 3D buildings added to existing structures, 2D background buildings. All bluescreen window composites for the interior shots of Ryders car (opening sequence) and Blunts MI6 car.
In-house unit: 10% Wire removals, paint work, pre-selection of background plates, pre-composites, shot design, etc.
These percentages should also be understood in terms of the complexity of the work done.
Crafting Fancy Headquarters
Among the large variety of visual effects that the movie required, bluescreen composites and digital environments represented the bulk of the work. Cinesite took on one of the most complex sequences, where Alex is lured to the underground HQ of MI6 from a photo booth. The teenage spy descends through a large open atrium in a glass elevator, as surrounding office levels whiz past. To create the shots, Cinesite and visual effects supervisor Sue Rowe used Maya for 3D, Shake for compositing, and Photoshop for matte-paintings. The team included vfx producer Martin Gabriel, 3D supervisor Chas Cash, head of matte painting David Early and sequence supervisors David Sewell and Keith Devlin.
The main challenge of the MI6 sequence was the fact that the atrium was completely virtual, Rowe explains. The set was 60% bluescreen; only the foreground existed for real. So, the challenge was to create a dramatic backdrop of steel and glass that looked believable. All the cameras were moving, which meant all the backgrounds had to be built in 3D. Plus, there was a certain amount of roto and clean up. We used the multiple reflections and refractions of the glass to our advantage if we could. The establishing shot of MI6 is totally computer-generated. We had art department concepts of how it should look and it grew from there. Interestingly enough, Sue Rowe and her team had recently created a very similar sequence for Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. I seem to have an affinity with elevators! she laughs.
The 3D atrium was modeled and lit by one-man-team Chas Cash. Along with Early, Cash came up with a hybrid approach. It was a 3D build with matte painted projections. We shot high-resolution textures of the set captured on our Canon 1DS camera. We always capture raw data, so we can keep the full dynamic range and manipulate it from there. David also took photos of artists working in Cinesite as we have our own mini atrium here. If you look closely, you can even see our producer at work in one of the windows! All the office workers in the sequence are real. The production shot extras walking on bluescreen at many different angles. We projected them on to 3D cards and composited them behind layers of CG glass, which worked really well.
Given the uncompromising deadline and budget, Cinesite rendered the images in the quickest way possible. The glass was ray-traced, with the live-action plates being used as an environment map. The lighting was designed to work with each shot, as they were all a little different.
Rowes team also handled the helicopter sequence. The main challenge there was to capture background plates that matched the camera angles featured in the bluescreen live-action plates. We did it the old fashioned way: match the lens, match the height, and fix it if it doesnt work the first time! In a number of shots, we replaced static rotor blades with CG blades and added a hand held camera move in post to simulate flight. They seemed to work well for such a simple solution. We were also responsible for adding bullet hits and sparks in a number of shots. After 12 years of business, we now have a great library of such elementsFrom a general point of view, I would say that the great thing about this project was about making the shots work in the time we had.
The Tower That Didnt Exist
The final sequence features another extensive 3D environment. Set on the Sayle Tower rooftop in downtown London, the action was actually captured outdoor on a limited set built at ground level. It was a very complicated sequence, both from a vfx and editing point of view, Debenham says. First of all, we had to deal with light conditions that vary from shot to shot. Second, we had to fit our CG Sayle Tower onto the lower floors of an existing high-rise office building. The fictitious tower was re-designed to specifically blend into this real architecture. The funny thing is that many Alex Rider fans are now going to try to locate the tower in London, only to find the first three floors of the building they saw in the movie! Another problem with this sequence was that the environment had to be created from scratch. There was no unique location from which it was possible to capture the appropriate London skyline. So, during production, an MPC team went to the rooftop of the highest buildings surrounding the supposed location of the Sayle Tower, and gathered high-resolution photographic material. The images were then stitched together by Chris Panton at Baseblack to create an actual panoramic point of view on the city that one would have at any point on top of the Sayle Tower. The far background was a 360° environment sphere, while mid-ground buildings were treated as two-and-a-half D elements. The nearest towers were built as basic 3D geometries, just to get the proper perspective.
Visual effects for the climactic rooftop sequence were awarded to Baseblack where versatile artist Val Wardlaw acted as vfx supervisor, 2D and 3D lead. The main challenge for us was doing 100 shots in six weeks! vfx producer Stephen Elson says. Apart from some blue screen close-ups, about 75% of the shots had some element of 3D set extension and environment. The Tower model was created from plans of the practical set, and adjusted to fit what was actually built. This set, where the finale takes place, was a balcony made from three buttresses, to which we had to add two more CG buttresses. This balcony was then placed 650 feet above the ground projecting out from the top of the Sayle Tower. The lower part of the building was adapted from concept artwork provided by the production designer and contrived in such a way to fit the footprint of the existing Ariva building, which it replaced. The backgrounds and the top shots of the streets below were all completely fictitious. They were made up mostly from stills. To populate and animate them, we used boats, buses, cars and people stolen from other scenes in the movie. Most shots were set up in 3D to orientate the set piece in relationship to the background. Every shot had a bunch of wires to remove, and they all needed major cleanup. Our pipeline was Maya with mental ray, Shake, Photoshop and Stitcher. The textures were derived from a digital shoot of the live-action set. They were normalized within Shake or Photoshop. Specular and reflectivity maps were in part derived from the color maps, but cleaned up in a paint program and sometimes augmented with procedural textures.
Computer-generated buildings also played a key role in the creation of Sayle Enterprises, the futuristic plant where the Stormbreaker computers are being manufactured. For establishing shots of the massive industrial complex, Tom Debenham asked Double Negative to add fictitious buildings to an existing location. Vfx supervisor Richard Briscoe and his team used Maya and Photoshop to create a mixture of 3D foreground buildings and 2 1/2D background structures. Those elements were added in live-action plates and combined with a variety of moving elements: a convoy of vehicles, a helicopter, people walking around, etc. Those elements were either extracted from other shots or filmed especially.
The Next PlayStation
Another significant digital environment was the virtual world that Alex Rider experiences when he tests the Stormbreaker video game first hand. Created at MPC, the sequence involved combining bluescreen footage of actor Alex Pettifer with digitally enhanced background plates. We decided not to stylize the environments, Debenham observes. We did not want to make them look like a traditional computer game world. Instead, we carefully graded each environment to make it feel different, yet realistic. The illusion was enhanced by the addition of various animated graphics in the frame. For this sequence, we were lucky that MPC was able to re-use a 3D satellite model and a 3D dinosaur model that they had built for other projects. It allowed us to greatly expand the production value of the sequence.
In addition, MPC contributed to a spectacular sequence in which Alex Rider parachutes directly through the glass rooftop of Londons Science Museum. The interior plates were shot at the real location, but Pettifer was photographed separately, suspended in front of a bluescreen. The two elements were then composited and combined with a shower of CG glass. The following shots were filmed directly on location, with Pettifer suspended inside the real atrium.
James Bond on a Budget
Three years after working on Die Another Day, Stormbreaker offered Debenham another opportunity to create visual effects for a superspy movie, a genre that seems to have become a British specialty. Alex Rider is an interesting alternative to James Bond, he concludes. To be honest, I was not familiar with the character before embarking on this project. But my nieces and nephew quickly confirmed that he is really huge among teenage readers! Eventually, Im very proud of what we did on the movie. We accomplished some very ambitious things on a very limited budget and timeframe. I hope that what we managed to put on screen rivals the James Bond movies in their complexity with much less than half of their budget!
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 Cinefex. Last year, he organized a major special effects exhibition at the Musée International de la Miniature in Lyon, France.