Tag Archives: Suicide Squad

‘Suicide Squad’: Imageworks VFX supervisor Mark Breakspear 

By Randi Altman

In Warner Bros.’ Suicide Squad, a band of captured super-villains are released from prison by the government and tasked with working together to fight a common enemy, the evil Joker. This film, which held top box office honors for weeks, has a bit of everything: comic book antiheroes, super powers, epic battles and redemption. It also features a ton of visual effects work that was supervised by Sony Imageworks’ Mark Breakspear, who worked closely with production supervisor Jerome Chen and director David Ayer (see our interview with Ayer).

Mark Breakspear

Mark Breakspear

Breakspear is an industry veteran with more than 20 years of experience as a visual effects supervisor and artist, working on feature films, television and commercials. His credits include American Sniper, The Giver, Ender’s Game, Thor: The Dark World, The Great Gatsby… and that’s just to name a few.

Suicide Squad features approximately 1,200 shots, with Imageworks doing about 300, including the key fight at the end of the film between Enchantress, the Squad, Incubus and Mega Diablo. Imageworks also provided shots for several other sequences throughout the movie.

MPC worked on the majority of the other visual effects, with Third Floor creating postviz after the shoot to help with the cutting of the film.

I recently threw some questions at Breakspear about his process and work on Suicide Squad.

How early did you get involved in the project?
Jerome Chen, the production supervisor, involved us from the very beginning in the spring of 2015. We read the script and started designing one of the most challenging characters — Incubus. We spent a couple of months working with designer Tim Borgmann to finesse the details of his overall look, shape and, specifically, his skin and sub-surface qualities.


How did Imageworks prepare for taking on the film?

We spent time gathering as much information as we could about the work we were looking to do. That involved lengthy calls with Jerome to pick over every aspect of the designs that David Ayer wanted. As it was still pretty early, there was a lot more “something like” rather than “exactly like” when it came to the ideas. But this is what the prepro was for, and we were able to really focus on narrowing down the many ideas in to key selections and give the crew something to work with during the shoot in Toronto.

Can you talk about being on set?
The main shoot was at Pinewood in Toronto. We had several soundstages that were used for the creation of the various sets. Shoot days are usually long and arduous, and this was no exception. For VFX crews, the days are typically hectic, quiet, hectic, very hectic, quiet and then suddenly very hectic again. After wrap, you still have to download all the data, organize it and prep everything for the next day.

I had fantastic help on set from Chris Hebert who was our on-set photographer. His job was to make sure we had accurate records (photographic and data sets) of anything that could be used in our work later on. That meant actors, props, witness cameras, texture photography and any specific one-off moments that occur 300 times a day. Every movie set needs a Chris Hebert or it’s going to be a huge struggle later on in post!

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Ok, let’s dig into the workflow. Can you walk us through it?

Workflow is a huge subject, so I’ll keep the answer somewhat concise! The general day would begin with a team meet between all the various VFX departments here at Imageworks. The work was split across teams in both Culver and Vancouver, so we did regular video Hangouts to discuss the daily plan, the weekly targets and generally where we were at, plus specific needs that anyone had. We would usually follow this by department meetings prior to AM dailies where I would review the latest work from the department leads, give notes, select things to show Jerome and David, and give feedback that I may have received from production.

We tried our best to keep our afternoons meeting-free so actual work could get done! Toward the end of the day we would have more dailies, and the final days selection of notes and pulls to the client would take place. Most days ended fairly late, as we had to round off the hundreds of emails with meaningful replies, prep for the next day and catch any late submission arrivals from the artists that might benefit from notes before the morning.

What tool, or tools, did you use for remote collaboration?
We used Google Hangouts for video conferencing, and Itview for shot discussion and notes with Jerome and David. Itview is our own software that replaces the need to use [off-the-shelf tools], and allows a much faster, more secure and accurate way to discuss and share shots. Jerome had a system in post and we would place data on it remotely for him to view and comment on in realtime with us during client calls. The notes and drawings he made would go straight in to our note tracker and then on to artists as required.

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What was the most challenging shot or shots, and why?

Our most challenging work was in understanding and implementing fractals into the design of the characters and their weapons. We had to get up to speed on three-dimensional mandlebulbs and how we can render them into our body of work. We also had to create vortical flow simulations that came off the fractal weapons, which created their own set of challenges due to the nature of how particles uniquely behave when near high velocity emissions.

So there wasn’t a specific shot that was more challenging than another, but the work that went in to most of them required a very challenging pre-design and concept solve involving fractal physics to make them work.

Can you talk about tools — off-the-shelf or proprietary — you used for the VFX? Any rendering in the cloud?
We used Side Effects Houdini and Autodesk Maya for the majority of shots and The Foundry’s Nuke to comp everything. When it came to rendering we used Arnold, and in regards to cloud rendering, we did render remotely to our own cloud, which is about 1,000 miles away — does that count (smiles)?

The A-List: Suicide Squad director David Ayer

By Iain Blair

With his distinctive, anarchic, immersive style, director/producer/screenwriter David Ayer has always excelled at probing the murky depths of human behavior and blurring the lines between the bad guys and the good guys in such hardcore films as Training Day, Fury, Sabotage, Harsh Times and End of Watch. Now Ayer, whose credits include Street Kings, and the screenplays for U-571, The Fast and the Furious, Dark Blue and S.W.A.T., has made Suicide Squad, a blockbuster without the usual bluster, and a superhero movie without the usual heroes.

David Ayer

With an all-star cast that includes Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman and Viola Davis, and based on the DC Comics anti-heroes, it tells the story of a rogues gallery of outcasts who are assembled into a team, equipped with the most powerful arsenal at the government’s disposal, and sent off on a mission to defeat an enigmatic entity.

Ayer’s behind-the-scenes stellar creative team included director of photography Roman Vasyanov, production designer Oliver Scholl, editor John Gilroy and visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen. The music is by composer Steven Price. The Warner Bros. film was released in 3D, 2D and in select IMAX 3D theaters.

I spoke with Ayer on the eve of its release about making Suicide Squad and why editing is like a wrestling match.

This is definitely not your usual superhero movie. What was the appeal of doing it, as there’re so many superhero films out there now? 
Great question. When I did Fury, it was all about historical accuracy and recreating WWII. With this, I wanted to try and create a fantasy world and give it this real and gritty feel that I like as a director, and bring that sensibility to a comic book movie and create multi-dimensional characters through casting amazing actors — and ground the fantastical as much as possible in reality.

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
In a lot of ways filmmaking is very mechanical, and all the processes are sort of an industrial process. So it was dealing with all the sets and set pieces, the sheer scale of it, and that becomes about logistics — building them, tearing them down, building new sets on the same stages, and how to move all these pieces around and keep your crews running smoothly. It was a massive undertaking.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Sony Imageworks’ Jerome Chen — who did the VFX on Fury, and the Spider-Man films as well as Beowulf and The Polar Express for Bob Zemeckis — came in right at the start. We did extremely complex CG characters in this, so we spent a lot of time figuring out how to go about doing it and what were the best techniques. It took a lot of time and work, and we also had to figure out all the computer time and the renderfarms we needed to generate the shots, so all the VFX were embedded in the shoot from day one. We set up witness cameras to record everything the crew did, we had constant telemetry and a ton of data gathering.

Did you do a lot of previs?
Quite a lot. Third Floor did them. It’s a very interesting technique, as for certain scenes you absolutely have to have it. You have to go in knowing efficiently where you’re going to have to drop that camera on the set, and there are a few scenes that almost exactly match the previs we did. But other times it’s not really an essential tool

You reunited with director of photography Roman Vasyanov, who shot Fury and End of Watch. How tough was the shoot?
We did most of the principal photography at Pinewood Toronto Studios, and it was a long and grueling shoot. I was very happy to get to post!

Do you like the post process?
I love post. You know you’re going to work every day, that’s for sure. We did it all on the lot at Warners. It’s always challenging because film isn’t logical, it’s emotional, and it comes together in strange ways. It’s never a linear journey, and you go down blind alleys and try to solve problems, and not every problem wants to yield its secrets.

Can you talk about working with editor John Gilroy, (Nightcrawler, Pacific Rim, The Bourne LegacyMichael Clayton). Was he on the set?
He set up editorial in Toronto so it was up and running from the beginning. He tried to keep up with the shoot as much as possible as we shot on film, so there’s the lag between photography and the dailies reaching editorial.

And you like to shoot, don’t you?
(Laughs) I do shoot a lot! Over 1.5 million feet of film on this — so it’s a lot of work just to watch it and keep the assembly up to date. Then we did the main editing back on the lot. I love editing even though it’s baffling and frustrating and wonderful, all at the same time. The challenge is always that you can make an infinite number of films out of the same footage, and whatever your ideas and dreams are going in, they’re going to be shattered along the way — because the movie wants to be what it wants to be, and you can only fight that so much. You’re wrestling every day to find the right film.

All the VFX play a big role. Talk about working on them with VFX supervisor Jerome Chen who did Fury for you.
We have this shorthand, and he knows my taste and how I think and what I’m going to want and how I’m going to want it. It’s a pretty seamless relationship, and he also has great ideas; he often surprises me. This was a huge job with thousands of VFX shots, and a lot of vendors, but the main ones were MPC and Sony Pictures Imageworks.

What was the hardest VFX sequence to do?
Anything with full CG characters is hard. It’s hard to shoot that and block it and hard to edit things you can’t see. You end up with this hodgepodge of previs and half-finished shots and slowly the finished VFX stuff gets dropped in.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
At Shed in Santa Monica, a fairly new company [which runs Baselight’s latest Generation VI system with more grading power]. We did the DI with colorist Yvan Lucas, who co-founded the company. He did Fury, but this was my first time at The Shed, and he did an amazing job. The film looks very beautiful. The DI is so important, and it’s almost my favorite part of post. I get in there and look at every shot. Yvan and Roman would do a pass and then I’d do one, and we’d keep passing the baton like that until we were all happy.

For me, it’s where the film really comes to life. After seeing it in dailies for so long, it’s such a pleasure to see it like this. We did everything from the overall look to saturation and contrast matching, and some re-composition now and again. We shot the film in a very precise way and composed shots very specifically, but the DI lets you do some re-comps if needed when you simply don’t have the time on the day of the shoot, especially with exterior stuff.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It was mostly what I had envisioned, but the mechanics of how you get there and how to tell the best story were a bit different, and you can’t foresee that. It was a great experience, and I can safely say I learned more about filmmaking on this than on any other film I’ve done. It was a maturing as a filmmaker.

What’s next?
I’m doing Bright with Will Smith. We start shooting in the fall.

Will you do another superhero movie?
(Laughs) I’ll wait to see how the fans respond to this before I put my neck on the block again.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors 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.