“The Walk,” which recreates Philippe Petit’s amazing high-wire act across the World Trade Center Twin Towers in 1974, has been shortlisted for the VFX Oscar. And on Tuesday it was the subject of a special case study on virtual production held at Sony for a joint tech committee comprised of the ASC, ADG, VES, the Previs Society, the PGA and the ICG.
Indeed, final 28-minute balancing act over New York City was a virtual production wonder, overseen by VFX supervisor Kevin Baillie of Atomic Fiction, who has collaborated with Robert Zemeckis since his pioneering performance capture crusade.
READ MORE: “NYFF Opens with Thrilling ‘The Walk’ in Spectacular 3D”
In fact, Zemeckis’ original intention was to make “The Walk” as a performance-captured animated feature. But that was before Disney closed down his ImageMovers studio. However, he still got Petit to don the mo-cap suit and virtually pantomime his legendary high-wire balancing act as part of an elaborate animatic of the entire movie. That performance-captured walk served him well as a choreographed roadmap.
“For the third-act walk, we built one corner of one of the Towers (40 feet long and 12 feet high),” Baillie explained. “That’s all they could fit on the stage in Montreal and still have room for about 100 feet of cable for the walk action to happen [with actor Joseph Gordon-Levit as Petit].
“The rest was green screen in all directions. We had to do digital extensions of the rooftop and the Towers and recreate those. And 1974 New York looks remarkably different from today, so we couldn’t just take photography of modern day New York. We had to recreate New York completely from scratch. What you see is 20% filmed real and the rest recreated. Rodeo did set extensions of the World Trade Center lobby.”
Building New York from scratch (including buildings, hot dog stands, newsstands, cars and people) first began by getting reference footage for two days in a helicopter to monitor traffic flow and how people look from that height. “The unexpected outcome for me was getting permission to hover right over Ground Zero at 1,400 feet, which is the exact place where Philippe walked. I was able to evaluate every shot in post around that sensation,” Baillie added.
The cityscape was achieved through a combination of Maya and Modo for model making and then they used Mari and Modo, depending on the artist, to texture the buildings. Atomic did all of the look development, shading, and lighting in Katana. Then it was all rendered in Atomic’s in-house cloud-rendering platform called Conductor, which is being released commercially at the end of the year.
“We do all of our rendering in the cloud and it manages the entire cloud process from beginning to end so an artist doesn’t have to think about it,” Baillie said. “By doing that, we rendered about 9.1 million processor hours in the cloud for The Walk, the largest cloud-rendered feature film, which is more than 1,000 years on a single processor worth of compute.”
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The biggest challenge, of course, was recreating the Towers. “We wanted them to look and feel like people’s recollection of those Towers. And the really interesting thing about the Towers is that because they are anodized aluminum skin, they were like chameleons in a way,” Baillie continued. “They reflect and take on the intensity of the light that’s around them. Even what’s behind you has a profound impact on how the Towers look. On sunny days they look white and on cloudy days they look almost black. So we had to spend a lot of time working on the shading of the Towers.
“We ended up using V-ray to render them and they have a relatively new shading model called GTX, which simulates micro bumps in a surface, and that’s exactly what anodized aluminum is. When you look at it front on, it almost looks matte. But if you look at a steep angle, like from the side of the building, it’ll be reflective. Using the GTX model made the difference between looking like a GG thing and looking real. The first time that GTX has been used in production on this scale.”
Baillie insisted that “The Walk” is the antithesis of the modern-day superhero movie. “He’s real and you’re there with him and the visuals aren’t meant to punch you in the face—they’re meant to evoke an emotion and to support this guy’s journey.”