Call it GoPro Noir —a high-tech "Lady in the Lake" meets "Death Wish" — since Hardcore Henry" succeeds as a first-person POV actioner as a result of its audacious technique and emotional power. Thankfully, it was thoroughly road-tested by first-time director Ilya Naishuller to make sure it worked as a compelling narrative without making us nauseous.
"There was hesitancy at first," admitted Naishuller, who previously experimented with the technique on the "Bad Motherfucker" music video for his band, Biting Elbows. "But I performed 30 hours of tests [with a special helmet cam rig] to solve the motion sickness."
"Hardcore Henry" takes place during a single day in Moscow, where a newly resurrected cyborg attempts to save his wife/creator Estelle (Haley Bennet) from Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a psychotic tyrant with telekinetic powers and an army of mercenaries. Henry’s only ally is Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) and his legion of avatars.
After raising nearly $255,000 from a crowdsourced Indiegogo campaign, Naishuller had an unfinished Hardcore 1.0 version before STX Entertainment. stepped in to buy the movie. "I went through six pages of Excel spreadsheets and a 10-hour presentation of what I wanted fixed. To their credit, they allowed me to do 7/8s of what I asked for to get it to Hardcore 1.5. We redid the entire rooftop finale," he said. "The Moscow that you see outside the building was a lot of work: shot on a sound stage with black walls and rotoscoping by hand because GoPro doesn’t lend itself well to being automated."
And the director had an important ally in Russian producer-director-VFX-entrepreneur Timur Bekmambetov, who made his breakthrough with the Moscow thrillers "Night Watch" and "Day Watch," and enjoys being on the cutting edge of risky tech (he’s currently finishing the "Ben-Hur" remake with a YouTube influenced chariot race).
"There were a lot of tough moments because it was not a big budget movie, but it also helped us because he had more freedom," said Bekmambetov, who shepherded "Hardcore Henry" as producer. Everything that Ilya shot was in the movie. He had good instincts. And, technologically, he was very smart in figuring out how to use the camera for this type of movie. The world where you are the point of view, and you don’t see the reaction of the main character is challenging. But that’s where Sharlto comes in to bring the reality to the surface.
"The problem with helmet cams is they are very shaky and it’s not comfortable to watch. But because he is a gamer, he understands the importance of giving some kind of comfort to the audience.By extension, the cameraman is also part of the character capturing events around you and every action and reaction is an important part of this language," he added.
VFX was obviously an important component shared by 13 companies, each responsible for stitching together its segment. "As much as I am a fan of CG, I’m a bigger fan of practical," suggested Naishuller. "My whole pitch was we’re going to do at least 80% practical and the rest CG to augment the practical effects. So everything that Henry does in the movie was real. There was never a case of a green screen hand or throw a camera down in post. I wanted the audience to be immersed and be Henry for that run time. Same with the prosthetic work. I wanted it to be as physically real as possible.
"Most of it is not obvious CG. We did all of the explosions and most of the blood squibs for real but sometimes we’d add more just to make sure it’s more visible or to hide the wire work, the shadow of a camera rig."
By far the most challenging sequence was the highway chase in which Henry rolls up to a convoy of vans and other cars and works his way up the line destroying them. However, when Henry gets to the semi-truck, he narrowly escapes being creamed by a bridge.
"We had six days to shoot a two-minute sequence and it had to be practically prepped and still some things were improvised on the set. The van was flipped for real but we had to have the right amount of explosions to make it look real. And another thing, we didn’t want it to look like a typical blockbuster explosion. We were shooting on a GoPro level so it had to be consistent with what [preceded it]."
Boston-based Zero VFX ("Black Mass") handled the sequence with a team of 30 artists working and renaming shots and putting them back together with hand-crafted rotoscoping and using a workflow that included After Effects and Nuke.
"Our work in there was to take 45 shots and stitch them into a cohesive, uncut sequence," explained Zero VFX co-founder Brian Drewes. "And because of the shooting style, it didn’t contain a lot of precise shooting points. Each time Henry looks forward or backward, much of those in-between frames were our work in either 2D projection or full remapping of the environment and taking over those camera moves. So before we could start any of the effects, like explosions, we had to really lock those intricate seam moments and come up with a seamed master sequence that the filmmakers could approve. And then we were able to work from there into the more visible aspects of the work."
Since it was shot in Moscow, Zero VFX modeled the van from available photography. Mini gun, muzzle flashes, smoke and shell casings come out from that, and also when Henry looks back down the road, all of those systems were built fully CG and are present throughout the sequence. Plus, it was a long, straight road, which meant that some of simulations were quite lengthy.
"The resolution of the GoPro was just fine for this first-person POV," Drewes said. "Many times, you’re trying to hide the fact that it’s shot in this manner. But in this case, it’s front and center. So all we had to do was make sure our technical pipeline…could handle the tracking and distortion challenges."