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'Wanted': Bending VFX for a Killing Machine

Alain Bielik gets the lowdown on Wanted from Stefen Fangmeier and Craig Lyn.

Wanted required more than 800 visual effects shots, including a train derailment sequence from Framestore that almost half of its crew worked solely on. Courtesy of Framestore. All images © 2007 Universal Studios. 

In 2006, the Russian movie Night Watch made a strong impression on American producers. Director Timur Bekmambetov's innovative use of visual effects created a definitely unique movie experience, enough so to land him his first American directorial gig with Wanted (which opened June 27 from Universal). In this adaptation of a comic book created by Mark Millar, a young "nobody" (James McAvoy) finds out that he is the son of a legendary assassin. He enters a mysterious fraternity where he is trained to become a perfect killing machine, a human being able to bend the laws of physics and gravity to his own advantage.

The movie required more than 800 visual effects shots, a massive effort initially supervised and produced by Jon Farhat. However, during post-production, Farhat fell very ill and had to be replaced by Visual Effects Supervisor Stefen Fangmeier. "I had directed Eragon, and, at that time, I was exploring new directing opportunities," Fangmeier says. "I didn't want to get into a vfx assignment that would tie me up for too long. This project was perfect in the sense that they only needed somebody for four months to come in and finish up."

Stepping in a colleague's shoes is never easy, but on Wanted, Fangmeier ended up facing many other challenges. "When I came in, most of the shots had already been assigned to a variety of vendors. The majority of the visual effects were being created by Bazelevs Studios, Timur's own company in Moscow. They did almost 500 shots encompassing a very large range of effects. We also had Hammerhead, Hydraulx, PacTitle, Hatch FX and CIS Hollywood and Framestore in London. So, I had to delve into shots that someone else had conceived, with visual effects already well underway and with key creative people based in Moscow. Since Bazelevs were in charge of two thirds of the shots, I primarily focused on the work that was being done there."


The Moscow-based studio had produced some spectacular shots for Day Watch and Night Watch, but Wanted was their first American production. This new experience didn't go without difficulties, as Hollywood doesn't do things quite the same way as a Russian director employing his own company on his projects.

"They really have a strong talent pool there, they also have the software, but they didn't have any experience interfacing with a major studio, dealing with constant editorial changes, and meeting a schedule of deadlines, etc." Fangmeier observes. "For instance, when I got involved, they only had 12 final composites out of 500 shots, and we were already close to the original deadline (the movie was initially due for release in March 2008). One of their issues was to get the director to buy off on concepts and shots. They had to date done many different versions for quite a few shots. At one point, somebody needed to make decisions and get the shots done. So, part of my job was to establish priorities, to select the 50 or 70 shots that could be completed each week, and to push them forward. For the remainder of the post schedule, we needed to finalize 45-50 shots per week in order to meet the deadline! It definitely put a lot of pressure on everybody… So, this project was a creative challenge on one hand, but on the other also a significant production challenge."

After his first three days in Moscow assessing the production, Fangmeier requested that American Visual Effects Producer Steve Kullback should join him in order to wrangle the production management side of things. VFX Producer Juliette Yager had already been brought on board by production. "If there is one thing I appreciate after 15-and-a-half -years at ILM, it is the importance of very rigorous production management!"

Moscow's Bazelevs Studios created the sequence in which assassins ride a train rooftop for a clear view of their target in an office building. CG is used extensively. Courtesy of Bazelevs Studios.

Time Manipulations

Bazelevs used an NT-based pipeline that included SOFTIMAGE and Maya for 3D, RenderMan and mental ray for rendering and Nuke or Fusion for compositing. The company was responsible for a great variety of shots: CG rats, CG bullets, digital doubles, assassin POV effect, fluid simulations, etc. Some of their key effects included the many speed changes that Bekmambetov had envisioned for his movie. The shots were filmed at very high speed, and then digitally altered to modify the frame speed, some time from normal to very slow to ultra fast to normal again, all within a single shot. 2D artists worked from templates that the film editors had designed in Avid. Using time flow algorithms, they changed the speed of the shots while trying to retain the original image quality. A task not as easy as it sounds as the time warp process generates a lot of artifacts.

The speed changes allowed the camera to follow a bullet up to the point where it hit its target. Bazelevs created the bullet in Maya and added reflections and shadow on the environment to better integrate it. "In one shot, a bullet flies around Angelina Jolie's head in full close-up," notes Fangmeier. "When the bullet passes by her, you can see its shadow on her face and then her hair slightly moving, and finally her eye blinking. We also worked hard on the depth of field to keep the bullet realistically in focus, while Angelina would go from blurred to sharp to blurred again. Since the shot was in very slow motion, we needed all those subtle details to sell it… "

Moving VFX

One of those stylized shots forms the climax of a sequence in which the two lead assassins travel on a city train rooftop in order to get a clear view on their target in an office building. "The actors inside the building were shot in an interior office set. We then added a CG exterior, a CG window, CG glass debris, and the city background. For the exterior shots on the train, James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie were filmed on a partial train rooftop set in front of a greenscreen. We then extended the set in CG to get a complete train. In order to create the cityscape, five cameras were bolted on top of a real elevated train traveling through downtown Chicago. The plates were then tiled together to create a cyclorama, and later combined with the foreground elements. We also added CG cars in the background, and created an entire bridge that the train goes under. It was a fairly complex combination of 2D and 3D elements."

A character jumps through a window with thousands of glass debris sticking to his body. The actor was shot greenscreen and a tracked CG double was animated through a CG window. Courtesy of Bazelves Studio.

Another major speed change occurs during the opening scene where a sniper gets shot in the head -- with the camera following the bullet exiting the victim's forehead in gory slow motion. The actor's face was extracted from the plate and re-projected on a CG head that was deformed by the CG bullet animation. Fluid dynamics made the CG blood follow the bullet's motion. "The movie is gory, but those shots are so stylized that the audience understands this is not reality. After all, the story is based on a comic book and we had to preserve that quality."

One of the most memorable images in the movie features a character jumping through a window, with thousands of glass debris sticking to his body. In the longer shots, the actor was shot greenscreen and a tracked CG double was animated through a CG window, starting off a rigid body simulation created in Maya. A close-up of the same action was produced using an entirely CG head.

Individual VFX sequences

Meanwhile, in America, other vendors were hard at work on specific, isolated sequences. "Hydraulx was responsible for a complex effect that was meant to go completely unnoticed," Fangmeier says. "Colin Strause and his team built a CG weaving machine for a sequence in which our hero needs to slow time down in order to find an object that is attached to one of these tens of thousands of threads. At Hammerhead, Jamie Dixon supervised the car chase and created the scene in which a CG Ford Mustang flips over a live action limo. As for Hatch FX, Deak Ferrand and his team did two extensive matte paintings for the prologue."

Framestore had to work on a tight schedule to create the climactic train crash sequence that takes place on a bridge. The studio completed more than 117 shots in a three-and-a-half-month period. Courtesy of Framestore. 

In London, Framestore was called in to create the climactic train crash sequence that takes place on a bridge. In-house Visual Effects Supervisor Craig Lyn oversaw the challenging assignment. "There were several obstacles that we had to overcome," he notes. "The first being the tight production schedule that we worked under. We completed over 117 shots in a three-and-half-month period. This included our pre-production phase for the build and look development of our digital assets, which included both a CG train as well as a full digital environment of a gorge. While pre-production was going on, we had to lock animation, which took place over a three-week period. Due to the compressed schedule, lighting of the shots occurred concurrently to the digital environment build, a less than ideal situation."

The biggest challenge was a shot that ran more than 40 seconds: a train carriage falls down into the gorge, impacts a rocky outcrop, and then scrapes down the side till it comes to a rest. At the end of the shot, the CG train has to seamlessly transition into a live action plate of the carriage. The shot ran the full length of Framestore production schedule. By the end of the show, almost the half of the crew was dedicated solely to delivering this one shot.

Framestore's software pipeline was predominantly Maya-based for animation, lighting setup and digital environments. Vfx work, which involved dust, smoke, debris and rigid body dynamics, was done in both Maya and Houdini. On the rendering front, the team utilized a hybrid solution of both RenderMan and mental ray. The compositing work was done entirely in Shake.

The train was detailed out based on reference photography. But the digital environments were a tough challenge, and a fully CG gorge was created that was seen from any number of angles. Courtesy of Framestore.

Full CG Environment

The team built the train from assets supplied by production, and then detailed it out, based on reference photography. The digital environments turned out to be a much tougher challenge. "We had to create a fully CG gorge that was seen from any number of angles," Lyn observes. "The gorge was built using low resolution meshes in combination with higher resolution ones for the more detailed areas. Texture maps and matte paintings were then projected onto the surfaces from multiple camera angles, and we were able to reuse many of the common angles for multiple shots. The break off pieces for both the train and the gorge were a combination of several techniques. Hero debris was animated traditionally, while the smaller ones were done using rigid body simulations from both Maya and Houdini. The deforming shapes of the bridge being ripped apart, and the train being squashed, were sculpted by our modeling crew, and then used as blend shapes."

Framestore's rendering pipeline was HDRI based with reflections and heavy ray–tracing done in mental ray. That data was then passed back into RenderMan for the final renders.

The team also built low resolution digital doubles for Jolie and MacAvoy. "The trickiest bit was Angelina's hair, which was supposed to be long and flowing," Lyn explains. "We didn't want to go to the trouble of a CG hair build and groom, since she was only in a couple of shots. Instead, we did a simple bluescreen shoot in an alley behind one of our buildings of a wig on a broom handle, and then tracked it in 2D!"

This outrageous sequence concludes a movie filled with unique moments and imagery. Indeed, Fangmeier was repeatedly impressed and surprised by some of the concepts that Bekmambetov came up with. "Timur has a great imagination for this type of things. There are some really good moments in the film where you feel: 'Wow! This is a neat idea. I've never seen it before!'"

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, both print and online, and occasionally to Cinefex. In 2004, he organized a major special effects exhibition at the Musée International de la Miniature in Lyon, France.