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Wētā FX Brings Its Special Brand of Visual Magic to ‘The Batman’

VFX Supervisor Anders Langlands talks about the iconic visual effects studio’s work on the Warner Bros. blockbuster, from car chases and mysterious lens flares, to why making rain is harder than it looks.

Almost 25 years after Tim Burton directed Michael Keaton in the first Batman feature, Warner Bros.’ The Batman, directed by Matt Reeves and starring Robert Pattinson, hit theaters in its worldwide release on March 4, going on to become the year’s highest-grossing film to date. Centering on one of Batman’s traditional arch-nemeses, the Riddler – here reconceived as a sadistic serial killer – the film follows the perennially popular superhero as he matches wits with his merciless antagonist, while investigating Gotham’s hidden corruption, and again having to confront his own family history.

Among the factors that contributed to the movie’s success is the complexity and realism of its visual effects, in which iconic VFX studio Wētā FX played a key role. From a stunning tour-de-force Batmobile chase to the two high-profile environments of the Batcave and City Hall, Wētā helped ensure that the storytelling never missed a beat.

To find out more about how the studio accomplished its exceptional work for the blockbuster DC action-adventure, we spoke with VFX Supervisor Anders Langlands, who, along with Composite Supervisor Beck Veitch and Animation Supervisor Dennis Yoo, led the Wētā team.

AWN: The Batmobile chase sequence presented a number of significant challenges for your team, from creating a fuel truck explosion to getting the rain just right. Can you fill us in?

Anders Langlands: We actually came in quite late to the Batmobile chase. We didn't get involved until they were already pretty much finished shooting it, rather than in pre-production. So, we had to hit the ground running a little bit there. It was mostly shot in the UK at a place called Dunsfold Aerodrome, where they had taken about a half mile of runway and turned it into a highway, dressing it with street lamps and a central partition and some road signs. They had about 50 vehicles, with the idea of getting as much of it as possible in camera.

They prevised everything and shot versions of every shot, but after they got back and Matt was starting to cut it together, they realized that there were a few things that didn't really work story-wise, particularly towards the end of the scene where Penguin causes a multi-car pileup that ends with the fuel tank going over and exploding, and then that awesome shot of the Batmobile coming through the wall of fire. And Matt was particularly concerned, as he always is, about making sure the audience understands what's going on. It's movie magic, but everything has to make sense.

So, our first big task was taking the footage that they shot and doing postvis on it – creating previs-style animation on top of film footage – to try and work out things like the positioning of the vehicles, and trying to get a bit more energy into some of the shots. A bunch of them were going too slowly, so we knew we'd have to replace the road or replace the vehicles. A lot of those shots at the end of the scene are completely digital, because we ended up having to replace everything.

For example, in the original version, the truck that exploded was a van rather than the fuel tanker that ended up being in the movie. But it didn't really make any sense, because it didn’t establish that this van was carrying a bunch of explosive materials. There were markings on the side that said “Warning: Explosives,” but in the context of the scene, an audience member wouldn’t really process that. So, we went in and replaced it with a fuel tanker, something that the audience can really quickly understand, and then understand where this huge fireball comes from.

AWN: What about the rain? Why was that so difficult?

AL: Throughout the scene, we were adding rain, because Matt really wanted to amplify the dangerousness of the situation. Even with the material that was pretty much all plate, we were still adding CG falling rain and wheel mist and spray from all of the vehicles, as well as little splashes on the ground. It may sound simple, but it ends up being quite a lot of work, because you have to deal with virtually all the parts of the image. It’s one thing to add rain to a static shot, but it gets a whole lot more complicated when you're driving through it, and it starts whipping past camera and changing direction as the cars do. We had to track all of the shots and fly through a simulation of the rain falling with the correct wind direction, and track all of the vehicles so we could get the position of the wheels to do fluid simulations for the mist and spray coming off them – not to mention getting the position of the headlights so that we could shine light through all of the rain as well.

For a start, we only bothered tracking the vehicles that were closest to camera that you'd actually see. And we came up with a bunch of preset, pre-sim elements that we could attach to the cars, to render the lighting either through Manuka, or in Nuke, using a volume renderer.  But with 50 different cars on set, [it was difficult] just figuring out which vehicle is which – if all you can see is the flash from the headlights, how do you tell whether that's a Bronco or a sedan? You can't. So, we came up with what we called the clown car, which was essentially an adjustable rig for the car. It was pretty horrendous if you looked at the actual geometry of the thing, but basically our camera team could just move the headlights and move the wheels around, and we'd get a 3D representation car out of that.  That meant we could track with just one rig and adjust it as needed for each vehicle, rather than having to build dozens of different vehicles and try and figure out which was which in the shot.

AWN: Considering how last minute all of this was, what would you have done if the clown car solution hadn’t worked?

AL: We would have come up with something else, I suppose, and it would have had its own set of advantages and disadvantages. That's kind of the nature of the job. Ultimately, I think it doesn’t really matter how much time you have, there will always be trade-offs involved. That's just the nature of the beast. We always say that a shot is never finished, it just escapes.

AWN: All told, how long did it take you to complete the chase sequence?

AL: I think about 16 weeks, from receiving the plates to actually getting the final shots out. It was pretty tight, especially when you are trying to figure out all of these story beats in order to create the necessary clarity for the story Matt wanted to tell. All of our teams – animation, effects, lighting, compositing – were just having to run full tilt, in parallel, and then having to sync up in order to actually get this stuff to come off. We didn't have the luxury of saying, “Oh, we'll do this and then we'll go and do this, and then go and do that.” It was very much everyone taking their best guess at what was going to work and then just going for it. Fortunately, we have a team of people at Wētā whose best guesses generally turn out to be right.

AWN:  Can you talk a little about the Batcave and City Hall environments that you created?

AL: Those are both designs, first and foremost, by James Chinlund, the production designer, and his art department. Both were partial set builds. City Hall was a fairly large set build, but only up to the first balcony, and then we took over with CG above that, and for the huge windows at either end. What ended up in the movie is fairly similar to the original concept. We made a number of changes to the design of the windows, to capture what Matt was after.

The challenge was mostly in trying to match the lensing. Greig Fraser, the DP, had two sets of lenses, V1 and V2. The V2 set was the more de-tuned version, which exhibited some really crazy focus falloff and distortion and double imaging in a lot of cases, which, I have to say, is fun to try and match in CG. But especially when you're dealing with something architectural – where, say, you have a CG column extending off the top of a practical column – getting those things to line up when the lens is doing all kinds of wobbly things is challenging, and matching all the focus and stuff is very challenging. But that's something that our compositing team, particularly Beck Veitch, our composite supervisor, really enjoys. So, that was really cool to get into in detail.

The Batcave was also a partial set build on a stage at Warner Bros.’ Leavesden studio. We did a little bit more design work there, because Matt wanted to redesign a waiting room area above the platforms. We took a cue from the Chicago Tribune Tower to design the entranceway there. A lot of it involved deciding what the space was like, because you see it in a couple of shots, and it had to be long enough to accommodate shots like Bruce coming in on the motorcycle. We started with the rough models that the art department had built and then just started going to town, heroizing them as we worked out what the space would be, and working out the lighting design of the scene. Stephen Tong, our CG supervisor, spent a lot of time working with very rough versions of that set and just started placing lights to try to replicate what Greig was doing elsewhere in the movie. It was an interesting tension between getting that very dark, little-pools-of-light feeling that we see elsewhere, while also being able to see what the hell is going on in the space.

It took a while to get right, but it worked out beautifully. It was basically a full CG shot in the end, because they shot a plate on the partial set build at Leavesden, but the stage wasn't big enough to set the camera where Matt wanted it. So we ended up having to essentially replace everything, to get the right perspective. But, again, we had plates shot for the little bit of set with Greig's lighting, so that was a great template for designing the rest of it

AWN: You did some interesting in-camera effects in comp to match an unusual lens flare in the practical cinematography. Can you explain why that was significant and how it was accomplished?

AL: Throughout the film, there are instances of these really crazy lens flares, particularly in shots of Selina riding up on her motorcycle towards the camera and the Batmobile driving up, that really created a signature look. You see them in the practical photography in the chase scene, in particular. But they're not like normal lens flares – they're asymmetrical, these really odd shapes. Sometimes they look like ghosts out of Pac-Man and other times they look like caustic patterns at the bottom of a swimming pool around a light, this sort of tentacled nebula thing.

And we couldn't, for the life of us, work out what was causing it, because I've never seen a lens do anything like that. It turned out that Greig had basically put glass plates in front of the camera and just squidged blobs of silicone sealant on there – sort of mimicking what happens when you get drops of water on the lens. And they were doing this before takes, getting these blobs of sealant and smooshing them around, and creating all these crazy effects around the light sources, which was really, really cool.

So, in order to simulate it, we just ended up doing the same thing. We got some glass plates and some silicon sealant from the local hardware store, and we went to our little studio at the back of one of the buildings at Wētā, and we shined a light into the lens through these plates. We created a whole bunch of elements, for which we were then able to build a setup in comp to replicate the effects that we were seeing there. And so, that was a lot of fun.

I'm of the opinion that you should try never to put any gunk on the lens, because it's one of those things that's a crutch when CG isn't quite working. So you just add more smoosh on the lens to try and make everything fit in. And I hate doing that because it's like admitting failure. So, I tend to be very selective about things like that. But Matt really loved the look, and we ended up adding it to quite a few shots in various different forms. It was just a really fun, extra element that tied us back into the practical photography.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.