Immersed in Movies: Talking ‘Looper’ VFX

Immersed in Movies: Talking 'Looper' VFX

Rian Johnson, like many directors, hated CG without really understanding it. But no more, thanks to “Looper”‘s VFX supervisor, Karen Goulekas (“Green Lantern,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Spider-Man”). In fact, she made it her mission to turn Johnson into a convert. But then Goulekas had no choice: she needed A-list VFXers to create convincing work for the futuristic thriller about time traveling hit man Joseph Gordon-Levitt confronting his older self (Bruce Willis) in an existential showdown.

“I kind of understand where Rian was coming from,” Goulekas suggests, “because there’s so much bad CG that gets done out there and that’s the stuff you notice unless it’s a really good, in your face, CG character. But when it’s done seamlessly, you don’t notice it. That’s why it was so important to me that we got good vendors, obviously for my own personal craft, but also in support of Rian’s vision.”

In the end, Johnson was pleased; he thought the VFX looked real. “He was even picking up the lingo,” Goulekas adds. “‘Hey, Karen, let’s give it a little comping: Is that a halo I see?’ Then we’d be comping dust and he’d say, ‘It doesn’t look like they comp’d it based on the luminance of the plate.’ So I’d make a note of it and I’d line up all the shots and show Rian the changes and I’d follow up.”

In fact, “Looper” was Goulekas’ first indie experience and she found it refreshing. She got to work in the trenches again and got her first taste of globalization. She even got to collaborate with some old pals and new people she’s admired that she didn’t think she could afford at first. But thanks to scheduling and flexibility, she top of the line companies. Of course, it helped that everyone was a fan of Johnson’s neo-noir, “Brick,” and wanted to work with him.

Scanline VFX’s Munich division handled the tricky telekinesis; Hydraulx did impressive decomposition of victims; and Atomic Fiction took on futuristic cityscapes. Indeed, I featured both Scanline and Atomic Fiction in my recent column to counter some of the prevailing industry gloom and doom.

“CG effects work included the initial telekinesis shockwave as it radiates out and knocks over a van, the big telekinesis effects of rising and swirling debris, telekinetically affected debris that breaks out of the soil and CG sugar cane set extensions,” explains Scanline CG supervisor Ivo Klaus. “The main idea we received from the production was that the effects were going into the telekinesis shots to convey a sense of drama. There was to be a progression of ever faster flying debris until finally something important happens and everything slows down again until the telekinetic effect falters and stops.

“To make those individual shots into parts of the same shockwave we had to develop some concepts that would be carried over from shot to shot. The main body of the shockwave would consist of an atmospheric dust fluid simulation driven by controllable geometric helper objects.”

Meanwhile, Atomic Fiction, which completed nearly 100 shots of cities (including Shanghai) and vehicles, offers a lower-cost business model utilizing cloud computing and other measures. Atomic has been working with a company called ZYNC to utilize Amazon’s EC2 cloud services. By moving rendering to the cloud instead of owning the computers, they treat rendering like a utility and only pay for what they use.This means that rendering can literally be scaled from as many cores as you need for a particular job, back down to the Macs on the artists’ desks between gigs.

“We established some new ground rules for the look of things,” offers Atomic co-owner and VFX supervisor Ryan Tudhope. “This included finding common elements such as graffiti, shelters/tents, antennas, and camp fires to tie our shots together and, more importantly, give ‘Looper’s’ cityscapes their own signature feel.

“Rian chose to shoot the film on anamorphic 35mm, which was (mostly) a blessing. The plates are beautiful and grungy, with blue anamorphic lens stripes, lens distortion, and heavy chromatic aberration around the edges of the frame. The downside, of course, is that all these lens artifacts made the work more complicated. For example, the lenses produce an extreme warping and ‘scaling’ at the edge of frame during focus pulls, while the center of the image remains unaffected. In the end, we tackled each challenge by building custom scripts (in Nuke) that would re-create these artifacts on our CG elements or matte paintings and could be rolled out to the entire team.”

Working on “Looper” was a smart move for these VFXers and it’s only going to mean the opportunity for bigger and bigger films with the director down the road.

“And it turned out to be a good movie,” Goulekas says. “Quite often, we work on big movies and the visual effects are good but the movie isn’t received well for whatever reason and it gets disheartening. It’s one of those movies where you’re still thinking about it and you talk to your friends. ‘So when this happened, did you think it was because of this, or was it meant to be that?’ It prompts discussion afterwards, which is cool.”

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