By Karen Moltenbrey
What a difference a year makes. Then again, what a difference 30 years make. That’s about the time when the feature film The Abyss included photoreal CGI integrated with live action, setting a trend that continues to this day. Since that milestone many years ago, VFX wizards have tackled a plethora of complicated problems, including realistic hair and skin, resulting in realistic digital humans, as well as realistic water, fire and other elements. With each new blockbuster VFX film, digital artists continually raise the bar, challenging the status quo and themselves to elevate the art even further.
The visual effects in today’s feature films run the gamut from in-your-face imagery that can put you on the edge of your seat through heightened action to the kind that can make you laugh by amping up the comedic action. As detailed here, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw takes the former approach, helping to carry out amazing stunts that are bigger and “badder” than ever. Opposite that is Sextuplets, which uses VFX to carry out a gag central to the film in a way that also pushes the envelope.
Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw
The Fast and the Furious film franchise, which has included eight features that collectively have amassed more than $5 billion worldwide since first hitting the road in 2001, is known for its high-octane action and visual effects. The latest installment, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, continues that tradition.
At the core of the franchise are next-level underground street racers who become reluctant fugitives pulling off big heists. Hobbs & Shaw, the first stand-alone vehicle, has Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham reprising their roles as loyal Diplomatic Security Service lawman Luke Hobbs and lawless former British operative Deckard Shaw, respectively. This comes after facing off in Furious 7 (2015) and then playing cat and mouse as Shaw tries to escape from prison and Hobbs tries to stop him in 2017’s The Fate of the Furious. (Hobbs first appeared in 2011’s Fast Five and became an ally to the gang. Shaw’s first foray was in 2013’s Fast & Furious 6.)
Now, in the latest installment, the pair are forced to join forces to hunt down anarchist Brixton Lorr (Idris Elba), who has control of a bio weapon. The trackers are hired separately to find Hattie, a rogue MI6 agent (who is also Shaw’s sister, a fact that initially eludes Hobbs) after she injects herself with the bio agent and is on the run, searching for a cure.
The Universal Pictures film is directed by David Leitch (Deadpool 2, Atomic Blonde). Jonathan Sela (Deadpool 2, John Wick) is DP, and visual effects supervisor is Dan Glass (Deadpool 2, Jupiter Ascending). A number of VFX facilities worked on the film, including key vendor DNeg along with other contributors such as Framestore.
DNeg delivered 1,000-plus shots for the film, including a range of vehicle-based action sequences set in different global locations. The work involved the creation of full digi-doubles and digi-vehicle duplicates for the death-defying stunts, jumps and crashes, as well as complex effects simulations and extensive digital environments. Naturally, all the work had to fit seamlessly alongside live-action stunts and photography from a director with a stunt coordinator pedigree and a keen eye for authentic action sequences. In all, the studio worked on 26 sequences divided among the Vancouver, London and Mumbai locations. Vancouver handled mostly the Chernobyl break-in and escape sequences, as well as the Samoa chase. London did the McLaren chase and the cave fight, as well as London chase sequences. The Mumbai team assisted its colleagues in Vancouver and London.
When you think of the Fast & Furious, the first thing that comes to mind are intense car chases, and according to Chris Downs, CG supervisor at DNeg Vancouver, the Chernobyl beat is essentially one long, giant car-and-motorcycle pursuit, describing it as “a pretty epic car chase.”
“We essential have Brixton chasing Shaw and Hattie, and then Shaw and Hattie are trying to catch up to a truck that’s being driven by Hobbs, and they end up on these utility ramps and pipes, using them almost as a roadway to get up and into the turbine rooms, onto the rooftops and then jump between buildings,” he says. “All the while, everyone is getting chased by these drones that Brixton is controlling.”
The Chernobyl sequences — the break-in and the escape — were the most challenging work on the film for DNeg Vancouver. The villain, Brixton, is using the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Russia as the site of his hideaway, leading Hobbs and Shaw to secretly break into his secret lab underneath Chernobyl to locate a device Brixton has there — and then not-so-secretly break out.
The break-in was filmed at a location outside of London, at the decommissioned Eggborough coal-powered plant that served as a backdrop. To transform the locale into Chernobyl, DNeg augmented the site with cooling towers and other digital structures. Nevertheless, the artists also built an entire CG version of the site for the more extreme action, using photos of the actual Chernobyl as reference for their work. “It was a very intense build. We had artistic liberty, but it was based off of Chernobyl, and a lot of the buildings match the reference photography. It definitely maintained the feeling of a nuclear power plant,” says Downs.
Not only did the construction involve all the exteriors of the industrial complex around Chernobyl, but also an interior build of an “insanely complicated” turbine hall that the characters race through at one point.
The sequence required other environment work, too, as well as effects, digi-doubles and cloth sims for the characters’ flight suits and parachutes as they drop into the setting.
Following the break-in, Hobbs and Shaw are captured and tortured and then manage to escape from the lab just in time as the site begins to explode. For this escape sequence, the crew built a CG Chernobyl reactor and power station, automated drones, a digital chimney, an epic collapse of buildings, complex pyrotechnic clouds and burning material.
“The scope of the work, the amount of buildings and pipes, and the number of shots made this sequence our most difficult,” says Downs. “We were blowing it up, so all the buildings had to be effects-friendly as we’re crashing things through them.” Hobbs and Shaw commandeer vehicles as they try to outrun Brixton and the explosion, but Brixton and his henchmen give chase in a range of vehicles, including trucks, Range Rovers, motorcycles and more — a mix of CGI and practical with expert stunt drivers behind the wheel.
As expected for a Fast & Furious film, there’s a big variety of custom-built vehicles. Yet, for this scene and especially in Samoa, DNeg Vancouver crafted a range of CG vehicles, including motorcycles, SUVs, transport trucks, a flatbed truck, drones and a helicopter — 10 in all.
According to Downs, maintaining the appropriate wear and tear on the vehicles as the sequences progressed was not always easy. “Some are getting shot up, or something is blown up next to them, and you want to maintain the dirt and grime on an appropriate level,” he says. “And, we had to think of that wear and tear in advance because you need to build it into the model and the texture as you progress.”
The CG vehicles are mostly used for complex stunts, “which are definitely an 11 on the scale,” says Downs. Along with the CG vehicles, digi-doubles of the actors were also used for the various stunt work. “They are fairly straightforward, though we had a couple shots where we got close to the digi-doubles, so they needed to be at a high level of quality,” he adds. The Hattie digi-double proved the most difficult due to the hair simulation, which had to match the action on set, and the cloth simulation, which had to replicate the flow of her clothing.
“She has a loose sweater on during the Chernobyl sequence, which required some simulation to match the plate,” Downs adds, noting that the artists built the digi-doubles from scratch, using scans of the actors provided by production for quality checks.
The final beat of the Chernobyl escape comes with the chimney collapse. As the chase through Chernobyl progresses, Shaw tries to get Hattie to Hobbs, and Brixton tries to grab Hattie from Shaw. In the process, charges are detonated around the site, leading to the collapse of the main chimney, which just misses obliterating the vehicle they are all in as it travels down a narrow alleyway.
DNeg did a full environment build of the area for this scene, which included the entire alleyway and the chimney, and simulated the destruction of the chimney along with an explosive concussive force from the detonation. “There’s a large fireball at the beginning of the explosion that turns into a large volumetric cloud of dust that’s getting kicked up as the chimney is collapsing, and all that had to interact with itself,” Downs says of the scene. “Then, as the chimney is collapsing toward the end of the sequence, we had the huge chunks ripping through the volumetrics and kicking up more pyrotechnic-style explosions. As it is collapsing, it is taking out buildings along the way, so we had those blowing up and collapsing and interacting with our dust cloud, as well. It’s quite a VFX extravaganza.”
Adding to the chaos: The sequence was reshot. “We got new plates for the end of that escape sequence that we had to turn around in a month, so that was definitely a white-knuckle ride,” says Downs. “Thankfully we had already been working on a lot of the chimney collapse and had the Chernobyl build mostly filled in when word came in about the reshoot. But, just the amount of effects that went into it — the volumetrics, the debris and then the full CG environment in the background — was a staggering amount of very complex work.”
The action later turns from London at the start of the film, to Russia for the Chernobyl sequences, and then in the third act, to Samoa, home of the Hobbs family, as the main characters seek refuge on the island while trying to escape from Brixton. But Brixton soon catches up to them, and the last showdown begins amid the island’s tranquil setting with a shimmering blue ocean and green lush mountains. Some of the landscape is natural, some is man-made (sets) and some is CGI. To aid in the digital build of the Samoan environment, Glass traveled to the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where the filming took place, and took a good amount of reference footage.
For a daring chase in Samoa, the artists built out the cliff’s edge and sent a CG helicopter tumbling down the steep incline in the final battle with Brixton. In addition to creating the fully-digital Samoan roadside, CG cliff and 3D Black Hawk, the artists completed complex VFX simulations and destruction, and crafted high-tech combat drones and more for the sequence.
The helicopter proved to be the most challenging of all the vehicles, as it had a couple of hero moments when certain sections were fairly close to the camera. “We had to have a lot of model and texture detail,” Downs notes. “And then with it falling down the cliff and crash-landing onto the beach area, the destruction was quite tricky. We had to plan out which parts would be damaged the most and keep that consistent across the shots, and then go back in and do another pass of textures to support the scratches, dents and so forth.”
Meanwhile, DNeg London and Mumbai handled a number of sequences, among them the compelling McLaren chase, the CIA building descends and the final cave fight in Samoa. There were also a number of smaller sequences, for a total of approximately 750 shots.
One of the scenes in the film’s trailer that immediately caught fans’ attention was the McLaren escape/motorcycle transformation sequence, during which Hobbs, Shaw and Hattie are being chased by Brixton baddies on motorcycles through the streets of London. Shaw, behind the wheel of a McLaren 720S, tries to evade the motorbikes by maneuvering the prized vehicle underneath two crossing tractor trailer rigs, squeezing through with barely an inch to spare. The bad news for the trio: Brixton pulls an even more daring move, hopping off the bike while grabbing onto the back of it and then sliding parallel inches above the pavement as the bike zips under the road hazard practically on its side; once cleared, he pulls himself back onto the motorbike (in a memorable slow-motion stunt) and continues the pursuit thanks to his cybernetically altered body.
According to Stuart Lashley, DNeg VFX supervisor, this sequence contained a lot of bluescreen car comps in which the actors were shot on stage in a McLaren rigged on a mechanical turntable. The backgrounds were shot alongside the stunt work in Glasgow (playing as London). In addition, there were a number of CG cars added throughout the sequence. “The main VFX set pieces were Hobbs grabbing the biker off his bike, the McLaren and Brixton’s transforming bike sliding under the semis, and Brixton flying through the double-decker bus,” he says. “These beats contained full-CG vehicles and characters for the most part. There was some background DMP [digital matte-painting] work to help the location look more like London. There were also a few shots of motion graphics where we see Brixton’s digital HUD through his helmet visor.”
As Lashley notes, it was important for the CG work to blend in with the surrounding practical stunt photography. “The McLaren itself had to hold up very close to the camera; it has a very distinctive look to its coating, which had to match perfectly,” he adds. “The bike transformation was a welcome challenge. There was a period of experimentation to figure out the mechanics of all the small moving parts while achieving something that looked cool at the same time.”
As exciting and complex as the McLaren scene is, Lashley believes the cave fight sequence following the helicopter/tractor trailer crash was perhaps even more of a difficult undertaking, as it had a particular VFX challenge in terms of the super slow-motion punches. The action takes place at a rock-filled waterfall location — a multi-story set on a 30,000-square-foot soundstage — where the three main characters battle it out. The film’s final sequence is a seamless blend of CG and live footage.
“David [Leitch] had the idea that this epic final fight should be underscored by these very stylized, powerful impact moments, where you see all this water explode in very graphic ways,” explains Lashley. “The challenge came in finding the right balance between physics-based water simulation and creative stylization. We went through a lot of iterations of different looks before landing on something David and Dan [Glass] felt struck the right balance.”
The DNeg teams used a unified pipeline for their work, which includes Autodesk’s Maya for modeling, animation and the majority of cloth and hair sims; Foundry’s Mari for texturing; Isotropix’s Clarisse for lighting and rendering; Foundry’s Nuke for compositing; and SideFX’s Houdini for effects work, such as explosions, dust clouds, particulates and fire.
With expectations running high for Hobbs & Shaw, filmmakers and VFX artists once more delivered, putting audiences on the edge of their seats with jaw-dropping VFX work that shifted the franchise’s action into overdrive yet again. “We hope people have as much fun watching the result as we had making it. This was really an exercise in pushing everything to the max,” says Lashley, “often putting the physics book to one side for a bit and picking up the Fast & Furious manual instead.”
When actor/comedian/screenwriter/film producer Marlon Wayans signed on to play the lead in the Netflix original movie Sextuplets, he was committing to a role requiring an extensive acting range. That’s because he was filling not one but seven different lead roles in the same film.
In Sextuplets, directed by Michael Tiddes, Wayans plays soon-to-be father Alan, who hopes to uncover information about his family history before his child’s arrival and sets out to locate his birth mother. Imagine Alan’s surprise when he finds out that he is part of “identical” sextuplets! Nevertheless, his siblings are about as unique as they come.
There’s Russell, the nerdy, overweight introvert and the only sibling not given up by their mother, with whom he lived until her recent passing. Ethan, meanwhile, is the embodiment of a 1970s pimp. Dawn is an exotic dancer who is in jail. Baby Pete is on his deathbed and needs a kidney. Jaspar is a villain reminiscent of Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil. Okay, that is six characters, all played by Wayans. Who is the seventh? (Spoiler alert: Wayans also plays their mother, who was simply on vacation and not actually dead as Russell had claimed.)
There are over 1,100 VFX shots in the movie. None, really, involved the transformation of the actor into the various characters — that was done using prosthetics, makeup, wigs and so forth, with slight digital touch-ups as needed. Instead, the majority of the effects work resulted from shooting with a motion-controlled camera and then compositing two (or more) of the siblings together in a shot. For Baby Pete, the artists also had to do a head replacement, comp’ing Wayans onto the body of a much smaller actor.
“We used quite a few visual effects techniques to pull off the movie. At the heart was motion control, [which enables precise control and repetition of camera movement] and allowed us to put multiple characters played by Marlon together in the scenes,” says Tiddes, who has worked with Wayans on multiple projects in the past, including A Haunted House.
The majority of shots involving the siblings were done on stage, filmed on bluescreen with a TechnoDolly for the motion control, as it is too impractical to fit the large rig inside an actual house for filming. “The goal was to find locations that had the exterior I liked [for those scenes] and then build the interior on set,” says Tiddes. “This gave me the versatility to move walls and use the TechnoDolly to create multiple layers so we could then add multiple characters into the same scene and interact together.”
According to Tiddes, the team approached exterior shots similarly to interior ones, with the added challenge of shooting the duplicate moments at the same time each day to get consistent lighting. “Don Burgess, the DP, was amazing in that sense. He was able to create almost exactly the same lighting elements from day to day,” he notes.
So, whenever there was a scene with multiple Wayans characters, it would be filmed on back-to-back days with each of the characters. Tiddes usually started off with Alan, the straight man, to set the pace for the scene, using body doubles for the other characters. Next, the director would work out the shot with the motion control until the timing, composition and so forth was perfected. Then he would hit the Record button on the motion-control device, and the camera would repeat the same exact move over and over as many times as needed. The next day, the shot was replicated with the other character, and the camera would move automatically, and Wayans would have to hit the same marks at the same moment established on the first day.
“Then we’d do it again on the third day with another character. It’s kind of like building layers in Photoshop, and in the end, we would composite all those layers on top of each other for the final version,” explains Tiddes.
When one character would pass in front of another, it became a roto’d shot. Oftentimes a small bluescreen was set up on stage to allow for easier rotoscoping.
Image Engine was the main visual effects vendor on the film, with Bryan Jones serving as visual effects supervisor. The rotoscoping was done using a mix of SilhouetteFX’s Silhouette and Foundry’s Nuke, while compositing was mainly done using Nuke and Autodesk’s Flame.
Make no mistake … using the motion-controlled camera was not without challenges. “When you attack a scene, traditionally you can come in and figure out the blocking on the day [of the shoot],” says Tiddes. “With this movie, I had to previsualize all the blocking because once I put the TechnoDolly in a spot on the set, it could not move for the duration of time we shot in that location. It’s a large 13-foot crane with pieces of track that are 10 feet long and 4 feet wide.”
In fact, one of the main reasons Tiddes wanted to do the film was because of the visual effects challenges it presented. In past films where an actor played multiple characters in a scene, usually one character is on one side of the screen and the other character is on the other side, and a basic split-screen technique would have been used. “For me to do this film, I wanted to visually do it like no one else has ever done it, and that was accomplished by creating camera movement,” he explains. “I didn’t want to be constrained to only split-screen lock-off camera shots that would lack energy and movement. I wanted the freedom to block scenes organically, allowing the characters the flexibility to move through the room, with the opportunity to cross each other and interact together physically. By using motion control, by being able to re-create the same camera movement and then composite the characters into the scene, I was able to develop a different visual style than previous films and create a heightened sense of interactivity and interaction between two or multiple characters on the screen while simultaneously creating dynamic movement with the camera and invoking energy into the scene.”
At times, Gregg Wayans, Marlon’s nephew, served as his body double. He even appears in a very wide shot as one of the siblings, although that occurred only once. “At the end of the day, when the concept of the movie is about Marlon playing multiple characters, the perfectionist in me wanted Marlon to portray every single moment of these characters on screen, even when the character is in the background and out of focus,” says Tiddes. “Because there is only one Marlon Wayans, and no one can replicate what he does physically and comedically in the moment.”
Tiddes knew he would be challenged going into the project, but the process was definitely more complicated than he had initially expected — even with his VFX editorial background. “I had a really good starting point as far as conceptually knowing how to execute motion control. But, it’s not until you get into the moment and start working with the actors that you really understand and digest exactly how to pull off the comedic timing needed for the jokes with the visual effects,” he says. “That is very difficult, and every situation is unique. There was a learning curve, but we picked it up quickly, and I had a great team.”
A system was established that worked for Tiddes and Burgess, as well as Wayans, who had to execute and hit certain marks and look at proper eyelines with precise timing. “He has an earwig, and I am talking to him, letting him know where to look, when to look,” says Tiddes. “At the same time, he’s also hearing dialogue that he’s done the day before in his ear, and he’s reacting to that dialog while giving his current character’s lines in the moment. So, there’s quite a bit going on, and it all becomes more complex when you add the character and camera moving through the scene. After weeks of practice, in one of the final scenes with Jaspar, we were able to do 16 motion-controlled moments in that scene alone, which was a lot!”
At the very end of the film, the group tested its limits and had all six characters (mom and all the siblings, with the exception of Alan) gathered around a table. That scene was shot over a span of five days. “The camera booms down from a sign and pans across the party, landing on all six characters around a table. Getting that motion and allowing the camera to flow through the party onto all six of them seamlessly interacting around the table was a goal of mine throughout the project,” Tiddes says.
Other shots that proved especially difficult were those of Baby Pete in the hospital room, since the entire scene involved Wayans playing three additional characters who are also present: Alan, Russell and Dawn. And then they amped things up with the head replacement on Baby Pete. “I had to shoot the scene and then, on the same day, select the take I would use in the final cut of the movie, rather than select it in post, where traditionally I could pick another take if that one was not working,” Tiddes adds. “I had to set the pace on the first day and work things out with Marlon ahead of time and plan for the subsequent days — What’s Dawn going to say? How is Russell going to react to what Dawn says? You have to really visualize and previsualize all the ad-libbing that was going on and work it out right there in the moment and discuss it, to have kind of a loose plan, then move forward and be confident that you have enough time between lines to allow room for growth when a joke just comes out of nowhere. You don’t want to stifle that joke.”
While the majority of effects involved motion control, there is a scene that contains a good amount of traditional effects work. In it, Alan and Russell park their car in a field to rest for the night, only to awake the next morning to find they have inadvertently provoked a bull, which sees red, literally — both from Alan’s jacket and his shiny car. Artists built the bull in CG. (They used Maya and Side Effects Houdini to build the 3D elements and rendered them in Autodesk’s Arnold.) Physical effects were then used to lift the actual car to simulate the digital bull slamming into the vehicle. In some shots of the bull crashing into the car doors, a 3D car was used to show the doors being damaged.
In another scene, Russell and Alan catch a serious amount of air when they crash through a barn, desperately trying to escape the bull. “I thought it would be hilarious if, in that moment, cereal exploded and individual pieces flew wildly through the car, while [the cereal-obsessed] Russell scooped up one of the cereal pieces mid-air with his tongue for a quick snack,” says Tiddes. To do this, “I wanted to create a zero-gravity slow-motion moment. We shot the scene using a [Vision Research] high-speed Phantom camera at 480fps. Then in post, we created the cereal as a CG element so I could control how every piece moved in the scene. It’s one of my favorite VFX/comedy moments in the movie.”
As Tiddes points out, Sextuplets was the first project on which he used motion control, which let him create motion with the camera and still have the characters interact, giving the subconscious feeling they were actually in the room with one another. “That’s what made the comedy shine,” he says.
Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran writer/editor covering VFX and post production.