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Immersed in Movies: Stepping Up the VFX for ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’

Immersed in Movies: Stepping Up the VFX for 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation'

After viewing the bang-bang antics of “G.I. Joe:
Retaliation,” it made perfect sense that Jon Chu became the director. His
dance experience with “Step Up 2: The Streets” and “Step Up
3D” provided the perfect training for the choreographed action he devised
for the “G.I. Joe” sequel starring newcomers Dwayne Johnson as
Roadblock and Bruce Willis as the original Joe. The stealthy overthrow of Cobra
after the Joes have been decimated and disgraced involves a series of escapades
that are as remarkable for their balletic brilliance as their explosive firepower.

And “Retaliation” required its own VFX Joes for
support from Digital Domain, Industrial Light & Magic and Method Studios
(under the overall supervision of James Madigan). But other than the obvious CG
explosions and a brief bit of creepy morphing, the result is invisible VFX at
its most proficient.

DD (supervised by Thad Beier) handled several key sequences,
including an exploding motorcycle by baddie Firefly(Ray Stevenson), a
space-based satellite, a tank battle, the reveal of the President (Jonathan Pryce)
as an imposter, and a massive explosion that marked DD’s biggest simulation
ever with 1 billion voxels.

Therefore, DD was tasked with creating vehicles and aircraft
that look cool as well as plausible. The work consisted of a fully CG version
of the Cobras’ complex, high-tech HISS Tank (a counterpart to a practical tank
model that had to appear photo-real and indistinguishable from the physical
model), along with the satellite and the Cobra commander’s dual jet
engine-powered helicopter.

As the tanks roll, the treads pick up mud and dirt and kick
up dust, all of which had to be created in CG to match the practical tank in
every way, down to lighting, color, and texture. The HISS tanks also have
Gatling guns, and fired tracers that needed to be visible in the daytime
battle. DD (in collaboration with its partner team at Reliance in London) had
to work out an approach where they slowed down the bullets enough to make them
visible, but not so much so that the physics would appear to be implausible.

Then, for Firefly’s weaponized motorcycle that deconstructs
into missiles for an explosion, DD had to choreograph a difficult shot with the
camera move and the CG breaking up of the bike that required artful hand
animation and algorithms to smooth the effect.

But DD’s most challenging shot lasts less than 10 seconds:
the impersonation of the President by the Cobra henchman (played by Arnold
Vosloo) with the help of nanomites, the microscopic robots that form a living
mask on his face, and reveal it in an unnerving scene where he appears to cut
through his own skin to expose them.

Beier and the DD team took the approach of creating CG
models of each actor’s head and using blend shapes, hand animation, and plate
photography of the President to create the seamless transition from one to the
other. Madigan worked directly with DD animators to art-direct specific facial

“In the end it looks mysterious and leaves you wanting
more,” Beier observes.

Meanwhile, ILM (supervised by Bill George) got to tackle a
stunning Himalayan fight sequence involving a group of ninjas hanging from
ropes on the side of a sheer rock face. Interestingly, the sequence is based on
the ’84 G.I. Joe comic, “Silent Interlude.”

“We shot in an old warehouse where they constructed
NASA rockets outside of New Orleans,” George explains. “They created
a green screen wall at a very steep angle with a lot of rigging above to swing
the stunt people through for the fighting. But they couldn’t move as fast as
they wanted, so that’s where we came in.

“We tried to capture the action with the stunt people
going at it on ropes. So we’d take a performance that was 90% there and
augmented it by, for instance, replacing an arm and having it swing in more
aggressively. Getting onto the zip line was done CG. For us, it was the perfect
scenario for doing digital doubles because they were completely covered up and
the only face you saw was through their eye holes. It was a fairly easy match
without cloth sim or hair sim to take it up to another level of

Finally, Method in Vancouver and New York (supervised by
Ollie Rankin) handled, among other things, an all-out assault on the G. I. Joe
camp by a squadron of CG Apache attack helicopters, raining down machine gun
tracer fire and missiles, blowing up every vehicle and killing almost everyone.

“A lot of people get into VFX specifically for the
opportunity to blow stuff up and ‘G. I. Joe: Retaliation’ offered us at Method
Studios many such opportunities, with Apache gunships on the attack, exploding
robotic fireflies, Cobra ball grenades, and a catastrophic cooling system
meltdown,” enthuses Rankin.

With “G.I. Joe,” they all got to be kids again.

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