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).
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!
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.
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)?