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Immersed in Movies: Pulling Off a New VFX Twist for ‘White House Down’

Immersed in Movies: Pulling Off a New VFX Twist for 'White House Down'

Uncharted Territory, which has become a model of efficiency and innovation during these precarious times for the VFX industry, came up with a new concept for handling Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down”: management and quality control rather than creating the bulk of the effects in-house. 

That’s because Uncharted had only 12 months to deliver 1,000 VFX — the shortest schedule ever for partners Volker Engel and Marc Weigert, who also serve as co-producers and close collaborators with Emmerich.

“We’re very fortunate that we already came up with this process many
years ago and not have a company that we have to feed with shots and
have 100-150 artists,” Engel explains. “We are able to do it in
different ways depending on the project. On ‘2012,’ we did a third of
the movie’s VFX in-house because it made sense and we had the
preparation time. On ‘Anonymous,’ it made sense because it was a
contained number of shots (300) and it was all London in the 16th
century. But on this movie we didn’t have much preparation and setup
time and we couldn’t hire artists just from our own infrastructure.”

Production management is Uncharted’s specialty anyway, so it just meant tighter control and oversight of the shots turned in by a host of VFX companies that included Method, Hybride, Image Engine, Scanline, Prime Focus, and Luxx. The biggest challenge, of course, was getting around White House limited access and the no-fly zone around the perimeter and Lincoln Monument. 

This required a lot more analysis and creativity in delivering the most unique and spectacular White House environment ever made. They utilized a combination of stills and aerial photography wherever possible and then relied on the CG craft to build a photorealistic DC. The modeling, lighting, and texturing are especially believable. And all the better when blowing it up and tearing up the White House lawn.

The second difficulty was shooting in early fall to capture a beautiful, crisp day as a contrast to the explosive mayhem. Hurricane Sandy made it even more restrictive. They got only half a day’s worth of aerial photography. Still, Method of Vancouver and Hybride of Montreal managed to stitch together the backdrop they needed. Method did most of the asset building, which was shared with other companies: the White House, the grounds, the East Wing, the West Wing, the Capitol, and the Black Hawks. Not only was the CG authentic-looking but there were also multiple interacting dynamic simulations. Trees, in fact, proved the most underestimated aspect.

Then Hybride came in and shared the Black Hawk sequence, creating an entire virtual city down to the smallest detail, through a combination of procedural animation, including traffic lights, street lamps, bicycle racks, and vegetation
(with the aid of a cutting edge tool to populate trees and simulate
movement), as well as buildings and landmarks done from scratch.

Speaking of detail, the most mysterious aspect was dealing with the abnormal White House paint, which appears to have a secret ingredient. “Our theory is that it was developed somewhere in collaboration with the Pentagon because it’s really amazing once you start analyzing it,” Weigert suggests. “In sunlight it almost has this ethereal glow and almost looks unreal. So how do you make something look real in CG that already looks unreal? That was Method’s task. And there’s almost no detail that you can put into the model. Only when you get real close do you see the little uneven pieces — the stone edges and so on.” Turns out that Weigert got the best stills from his camera phone after exiting a tour of the White House.

However, one new tool that proved invaluable to Uncharted was the Ncam system, which enables virtual production through real-time camera tracking. This was used not only by the director and camera operators for the framing of virtual sets but also editorial for onset composites as a starting point for final shots. Weigert even used it for animating objects inside virtual scenes to cue extras and give correct eye lines to actors.

But Engel found Ncam indispensable for assisting with the White House rooftop attack shot on a stage. “Immediately instead of seeing a bluescreen, Roland saw the actual background of a fight on the rooftop. That way he could look at his monitor and decide to crane higher, say, for better composition.”

All sorts of lessons were implemented such as making sure the virtual environments looked their best early on so you didn’t have to mess with them in post, or shooting slightly overexposed so you didn’t need as many bluescreens behind windows (which saved around 400 VFX shots).

Like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, though, Engel and Weigert believe a cataclysm is coming to the industry. “For me, there’s something wrong with the general approach,” Weigert offers. “Visual effects are treated as a shot by shot bidding basis that doesn’t really work anymore. Today visual effects are part of the production infrastructure. It’s a strange hybrid that isn’t integrated into the production. It really needs to be formally made part of the infrastructure.

“You don’t pay the orchestra that plays the score by the length of time they actually contribute to the movie in the end. You don’t pay the editing team by the cuts that they make. It needs to change so the whole visual effects crew — every modeler and texturer and rigger and shader artist — would be part of the production. The studio needs to hire all of these people like they hire the entire art department, camera crew and lighting. As soon as that changes, there will be a lot more equal opportunity for the people that are working in this industry and also a little bit more responsibility on the part of the filmmakers and the studios to be diligent about their planning and doing it.”

In the meantime, Uncharted does what it can to stay ahead of the curve, waiting for the industry to come up with a better business model that will benefit everyone.

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Voice of Reason

Weigert said "…It needs to change so the whole visual effects crew — every modeler and texturer and rigger and shader artist — would be part of the production. The studio needs to hire all of these people like they hire the entire art department, camera crew and lighting…."

Perhaps, but this comment ignores the fact that to work as a team these people need an established pipeline or it needs to be rebuilt every time–which means time and money. Some folks are in the business of having a pipeline while hiring and laying off as needed, but that's the business model that's treats the CG artist/technician like a migrant worker.

Filmmakers need to go back to respecting the VFX industry like they did in the 1990's. Employ and pay the talent. Give them the same job security that the studio execs have. Period.

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