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The A-List: Creating a VFX tightrope for ‘The Walk’

Visual effects supervisor Kevin Baillie talks about working with Robert Zemeckis on the director’s latest

By Iain Blair

Oscar-winner Bob Zemeckis has always been at the cutting edge of technology, and highly skilled at integrating that technology in the service of telling stories in such films as Forrest Gump, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Polar Express, Beowulf and Flight.

Now, in The Walk, he’s putting moviegoers in the shoes of Philippe Petit, the French aerialist who in 1974 stunned New Yorkers — and the world — with his high-wire walk between the iconic towers of the almost-completed World Trade Center.

L-R: Bob Zemeckis, Kevin Baillie, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Steve Starkey and Jack Rapke on the last day of shooting.

L-R: Bob Zemeckis, Kevin Baillie, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Steve Starkey and Jack Rapke on the last day of shooting.

“When I first heard this story, I thought, ‘My God, this is a movie that A: should be made under any circumstance, and B: should be absolutely presented in 3D,’ explains Zemeckis. “When you watch a wire walker, you always have to watch by looking up at him. You never get the perspective of what it’s like to be on the wire.”

But aided by DP Dariusz Wolski and VFX supervisor Kevin Baillie, Zemeckis has made an epic, big-screen spectacle that gives audiences that vertigo-inducing “you-are-on-the-wire” perspective and the chance to go where only one man has been or ever will be — 110 stories in the air, walking between the twin towers.

I spoke with Baillie — whose Atomic Fiction studio has locations in Oakland, LA and Montreal — about working with Zemeckis and creating the VFX.

Is it true you began working on this years ago?
Yes, Bob and I began discussing how to do it seven, eight years ago when I was still at ImageMovers Digital, the company Bob ran with Disney. Back then it was going to be completely motion capture, and I was shocked when TriStar later stepped in to make it after Bob and Disney went their separate ways, since it had been so long in development.

By then you’d co-founded Atomic Fiction, when the VFX industry was a bit rocky?
Right, we formed it out of the ashes of ImageMovers, and got to take some of the best talent with us. Back in 2010, there was a lot of VFX work going on, but companies weren’t making any money, and it was a tough time for the business.

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So that’s when you pioneered cloud rendering?
Yes, we decided to use cloud computing for all our rendering instead of using the traditional local vendor farm, and that’s been a critical part of being able to help filmmakers like Bob get their visions made on budget. So for this, our teams in Oakland and Montreal did about 9.1 billion hours of processing in the cloud, which is over 1,000 years on a single processor. So the scale it allows a company of our size to go to is pretty epic.

We even built our own tool to do all that, the Conductor, and that’s given us a 50 percent cost savings versus doing local rendering, and artists are also about 20 percent more productive, since they’re getting results back quicker. Atomic has between 120 and 150 people total, yet we have access to a renderfarm as big as what ILM has on demand. So we can have that one minute, and nothing the next.

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Which allows you to give filmmakers the budgets they need to hit, right?
Exactly, and it also makes Atomic healthier as a business, which lets us invest in more long-term things and in more talented artists. So when Bob came to us last year and said he wanted us to do all of The Walk, we decided to set up a new office in Montreal with 100 people. Even so, we had to bring in other companies to help handle the load — Rodeo Effects in Montreal, UPP in Prague and Legend 3D.

Tell us about working with Bob.
He’s a “story-first” guy, which I love, and which is very satisfying from a VFX standpoint, as it allows our visuals to be more effective. I don’t think there’s another director who knows how to use VFX and 3D as tools better than Bob. He has a clear vision, is very articulate and gives us an immense amount of freedom to work. This took just over a year to shoot, and post and VFX took about eight months.

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I noticed that the film’s pacing also perfectly parallels the material.
That’s so true. Bob makes incredibly effective use of 3D, and part of that is having shots be long, which gives the audience a chance to sit back and explore the world instead of force feeding them with quick cuts all the time. A typical movie now has 2,000 to 2,500 shots, with 2,000 VFX shots in a heavy-effects film, but we had just 826 total shots — a quarter of the usual number — and out of those, 672 were VFX shots. But that equates to over 2,000 VFX shots in a normal film, so there were a lot!

What was the hardest sequence to do?
Making New York feel like it was alive and bustling during the walk. As the sun comes up, it progresses into a darker, stormier look, so we couldn’t just build one matte painting of the city and be done with it and re-use it. We had to create moving cars, people and constantly changing lighting. So we had to build out New York 1974 completely digitally — every AC unit, every gutter – in order to make it look real. That alone took four months, with a dedicated team, and that left us with less time to render it, but thanks to Conductor we rendered a ton of stuff in a very short time. And I think the film turned out — as is the case with a lot of Bob’s films — better than anyone could have imagined.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors and artists in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

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