By Randi Altman
The Commuter once again shows how badass Liam Neeson can be under very stressful circumstances. This time, Neeson plays a mild-mannered commuter named Michael who gets pushed too far by a seemingly benign but not-very-nice Vera Farmiga.
For this Jaume Collet-Serra-directed Lionsgate film, Cinesite’s London and Montreal locations combined to provide over 800 visual effects shots. The studio’s VFX supervisor, Stephane Paris, worked hand in hand with The Commuter’s overall VFX supervisor Steve Begg.
The visual effects shots vary, from CG commuters to Neesom’s outfits changing during his daily commute to fog and smog to the climactic huge train crash sequence. Cinesite’s work on the film included a little bit of everything. For more, we reached out to Paris…
How early did Cinesite get involved in The Commuter?
We were involved before principal photography began. I was then on set at Pinewood Studios, just outside London, for about six weeks alongside Steve. They had set up two stages. The first was a single train carriage adapted and dressed to look like multiple carriages — this was used to film all the main action onboard the train. The carriage was surrounded by bluescreen and shot on a hydraulic system to give realistic shake and movement. In one notable shot, the camera pulls back through the entire length of the train, through the carriage walls. A camera rig was set up on the roof and programmed to repeat the same pullback move through each iteration of the carriage — this was subsequently stitched together by the VFX team.
How did you work with the film’s VFX supervisor, Steve Begg?
Cinesite had worked with Steve previously on productions such as Spectre, Skyfall and Inkheart. Having created effects with him for the Bond films, he was confident that Cinesite could create the required high-quality invisible effects for the action-heavy sequences. We interacted with Steve mainly. The client’s approach was to concentrate on the action, performances and story during production, so we lit and filmed the bluescreens carefully, ensuring reflections were minimized and the bluescreens were secure in order to allow creative freedom to Jaume during filming. We were confident that by using this approach we would have what we needed for the visual effects at a later stage.
You guys were the main house on the film, providing a whopping 860 visual effects shots. What was your turnaround like? How did you work for the review and approval process?
Yes, Cinesite was the lead vendor, and in total we worked on The Commuter for about a year, beginning with principal photography in August 2016 and delivering in August 2017. Both our London and Montreal studios worked together on the film. We have worked together previously, notably on San Andreas and more recently on Independence Day: Resurgence, so I had experience of working across both locations. Most of the full CG heavy shots were completed in London, while the environments, some of the full CG shots and 2D backgrounds were completed in Montreal, which also completed the train station sequence that appears early in the film.
My time was split fairly evenly between both locations, so I would spend two to three weeks in London followed by the same amount of time in Montreal. Steve never needed to visit the Montreal studio, but he was very hands-on and involved throughout. He visited our London studio at least twice a week, where we used the RV system to review both the London and Montreal work.
Can you describe the types of shots you guys provided?
We delivered over 860, from train carriage composites right through to entirely CG shots for the spectacular climactic train crash sequence. The crash required the construction of a two-kilometers-long environment asset complete with station, forest, tracks and industrial detritus. Effects were key, with flying gravel, breaking and deforming tracks, exploding sleepers, fog, dust, smoke and fire, in addition to the damaged train carriages. Other shots required a realistic Neeson digi-double to perform stunts.
The teams also created shots near the film’s opening that demonstrate the repetition of Michael’s daily commute. In a poignant shot at Grand Central Station multiple iterations of Michael’s journey are shown simultaneously, with the crowds gradually accelerating around him while his pace remains measured. His outfit changes, and the mood lighting changes to show the passing of the seasons around him.
The shot was achieved with a combination of multiple motion control passes, creation of the iconic station environment using photogrammetry and, ultimately, by creating the crowd of fellow commuters in CG for the latter part of the shot (a seamless transition was required between the live-action passes and the CG people).
Did you do previs? If so, what tools did you use?
No. London’s Nvizible handled all the initial previs for the train crash. Steve Begg blocked everything out and then sent it to Jaume for feedback initially, but the final train crash layout was done by our team with Jaume at Cinesite.
What did you use tool-wise for the VFX?
Houdini’s RBD particle and fluid simulation processes were mainly used, with some Autodesk Maya for falling pieces of train. Simulated destruction of the train was also created using Houdini, with some internal set-up.
What was the most challenging scene or scenes you worked on?
The challenge was, strangely enough, more about finding proper references that would fit our action movie requirements. Footage of derailing trains is difficult to find, and when you do find it you quickly notice that train carriages are not designed to tear and break the way you would like them to in an action movie. Naturally, they are constructed to be safe, with lots of energy absorption compartments and equipped with auto triggering safe mechanisms.
Putting reality aside, we devised a visually exciting and dangerous movie train crash for Jaume, complete with lots of metal crumbling, shattering windows and multiple large-scale impact explosions.
As a result, the crew had to ensure they were maintaining the destruction continuity across the sequence of shots as the train progressively derails and crashes. A high number of re-simulations were applied to the train and environment destruction whenever there was a change to one of these in a shot earlier in the sequence. Devising efficient workflows using in-house tools to streamline this where possible was key in order to deliver a large number of effects-heavy destruction shots whilst maintaining accurate continuity and remaining responsive to the clients’ notes during the show.