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Taking Up Arms for 'Battle: Los Angeles'

Read about the new militaristic wrinkles in the latest alien invasion movie.

Cinesite provides background plate of Santa Monica, with CG helicopters and real smoke and fire elements along with CG smoke rings. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Digital Inc.

It's very fitting that the marines are sent in to protect downtown LA from an alien invasion in Battle: Los Angeles --the enemy is a comparable militaristic one. In fact, director Jonathan Liebesman wanted to evoke Vietnam. For the creature work and mayhem, Everett Burrell (Pan's Labyrinth, Sin City), the overall visual effects supervisor, called upon several vendors to complete 1,000 shots, principally Hydraulx, Spin VFX, Cinesite, Embassy VFX, Soho VFX, Luma Pictures and Shade VFX. Burrell also made significant use of a small in-house VFX team, known as "the garage band," which contributed around 200 shots, mostly tracer fire and custom tools for rifle scope POVs.

"Jonathan wanted the aliens to be faceless with no eyes, sort of like a giant sonar dish of a head," Burrell explains. "The navy has a recon plane with a big dish on top of it that orbits around and sends signals. He wanted the head to reflect that. Underneath that skin there's something else going on, which I'm sure we'll find out in the sequel. This is just a camouflage covering that they wear, but you see little glimpses through anatomical pieces of weapons and pipes and tubing. The unique thing is that Jonathan didn't want them to be a creature; he wanted them to mimic what marines look like, so you got the vibe that the marines were fighting another military force, not a fantasy alien."

Designed by Paul Gerrard (TyRuben Ellingson designed the hardware vehicles), the aliens are split into humanoid bipedal infantry types (built by Hydraulx) and floating commander creatures (built by Cinesite) with a long body and multiple legs. These weren't your typical insect or reptile or crustacean-looking aliens: they acted like soldiers.

An early test phase overseen by Burrell with the assistance of Spin, made use of footage shot at Sony (a corporate building being rebuilt looked suitably "bombed out and destroyed"). Sony head Amy Pascal was so pleased that she signaled the next phase, which included storyboarding and previs (by POV) while script revisions were made. The film was subsequently greenlit and production took place in Louisiana the second half of 2009. Post started in early 2010.

Soho shows off CG helicopter with real smoke and fire elements.

The opening invasion, dubbed "The Travel to Santa Monica," was generated by Cinesite (which got the job based on its Emmy award-winning work on HBO's Generation Kill), and it involves the CH-46 Chinooks traveling from Camp Pendleton to Santa Monica Airport. "It showed off the scope of the destruction," Burrell continues. "The missile trail shockwaves when the meteorites are entering the atmosphere, right before they hit the water, produce a shockwave, a retro-rocket slowing down effect, and causes an iconic smoke ring."

The plate was shot with three helicopters, which Cinesite (under the supervision of Ben Shepherd) enhanced to a formation of 12 by adding CG ones. The airfield was further populated by tanks, light armored vehicles and armor, as well as atmospherics such as smoke streams and distant smoke rings.

To create the massive destruction, Cinesite applied realistic smoke, dust, fire and water explosions. Physical elements shot on location were composited onto digital matte paintings. Layers of haze, smoke and dust were created in Maya Fluids and Cinesite's proprietary software, csSmoke. The donut-shaped smoke rings seen at various stages are Cinesite's trademark in the film and symbolize the aliens landing. Liebesman set Ben's team the task of creating dramatic but realistic smoke rings after the director was inspired by an explosion on set.

Cinesite works on sewer tunnel set in Baton Rouge, with CG aliens and on set practical effects.

"Once the marines hit ground, we travel into Luma territory, the ambush in the smoky street," Burrell adds. "That involved a lot of tracer fire and battle enhancements and some alien shots. Then Hydraulx did the reveal of the alien in the swimming pool. The next crucial scene is the helicopter crash at the police station, which was done by Soho. It's a pretty big, dramatic scene where some of our wounded marines are being evac'd out and an alien ship fires on them and kills everyone on board. The next set piece is the gas station, which has the drone done by Embassy, which is one of the alien ships. It's like a big, round pizza and each slice is like a different ship. One of the drones separates from the main UFO and investigates a bus that our hero, Nantz [Aaron Eckhart], is traveling in. He tricks it by putting a walky-talky near a gas pump and throws a grenade at the gas pump when a drone comes to investigate. That's when we learn the drones are not piloted."

The freeway battle, meanwhile, was handled by Hydraulx. "It contained a lot of infantry alien [fighting] and matte paintings of LA from a freeway overpass as well as the Walking Gun, which is a very unique piece of hardware," Burrell contends. "This was based on the BigDog robot, built by Boston Dynamics. It's basically a canon with legs, and an alien would guide from behind it, firing artillery. This involved lots of tracer fire and bullet hits and matte paintings."

The final battle contains contributions from Cinesite, Hydraulx, Spin and Embassy, in which the marines discover the alien command & control center hidden underground; it unearths itself and the marines have to shoot it out of the sky to stop the signals being transmitted from the center. Hydraulx did the command & control center rising up out of the ground.

Final battle shot by Hydraulx in Baton Rouge with CG command & control center, CG drone ships and CG debris mixed with real elements.

Burrell says most of the vendors customarily started with Maya and then wrote their own shaders and scripts (Embassy uses Softimage). Most also used Nuke and rendered with RenderMan or mental ray.

"It was a very complicated collaboration because a lot of them had to share assets," Burrell suggests. "But we warned them that the film was going to be all hand-held, a lot of zooms and roto and tracking and we had to share assets. I couldn't award it all to one company, because not one company was big enough. And we couldn't afford ILM or Weta or even Sony Imageworks, so we spent our money wisely. The most difficult part was getting vendors to match assets with one another. It certainly kept us on budget doing it this way, but it kept it hard for me and my staff to keep track of everybody."

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.