Production: Monsters under the Bed
Before there were virtual effects, practical effects ruled. In some films, they still do.
By Tim Partridge
CEO/ Executive Producer
Before we discuss the use of practical effects in today’s filmmaking, let’s define the term and where it fits in the lexicon of special effects. “Special effects” encompass an enormous range of techniques to create something that the eye would not normally see. These include camera techniques like close ups, zooms, and high speed photography. Then there are all the transitioning techniques such as dissolves, wipes, and split screens, all of which were once done with a piece of film and are now done digitally. Finally, there are the special effects that are achieved in camera on the set such as flipping cars, exploding trucks, and squibs of blood where the bad guy gets shot. This last category is what we call special effects today.
All of the preceding categories involve manipulating something that actually exists. There is also the category that encompasses things that exist only in the imagination of the filmmaker; these are your monsters, aliens, robots, spaceships and far away planets. It also includes doing things to existing elements that you can’t do for real like blowing up a skyscraper or morphing from a man to a wolf.
Before the 1980’s, it is a good bet that any of the above effects were achieved “practically,” i.e. using layers of optical film, scale models or miniatures, special FX make-up with prosthetics, and of course, fake blood. Post 2000, there’s a good chance that most, if not all, of the above has been done digitally using computers to create fantastic new worlds and creatures and then to composite them into the on-set footage. In between, during the 80’s and 90’s, there was a transition period when a mix of practical and digital techniques were employed. The well understood practical techniques were replaced by computers which, in the right hands, became powerful tools to help the creative process.
So where does this leave “practical effects” now? Practical effects today relates to that category of creating things that either don’t exist or creating effects that can’t be done to people/objects that do exist. Moreover, today it is a creative choice to use practical techniques since digital is always an alternative. And, as in all things, there are pros and cons to each in the areas of quality, cost, and time to completion.
It is rarely a case of one or the other; it is always a combination of some practical elements digitally composited with some digital elements. So when would a production choose to shoot a practical FX element? When it is important to the filmmaker—or the fans—that the movie has a “practical” look. As incredible as computer generated imagery is, to many people it has a specific look that is different than a real object. This might not be an issue if the object is in the back or even mid-ground, but may be if the object is very close to the camera.
Another area where practical elements are often preferred is in scenes of mass destruction. An exploding miniature building, plane or spaceship packed full of debris designed to fly toward camera will have the correct speed relationships between materials, the correct gravitational pull on each element and the actual interactions between flying, colliding material, all in the correct light without having to simulate all of that that in a CG model.
If flames are involved in the explosion, the interactive light from them on all of the flying debris is just as it should be and happens for free! Flames and other organic elements are the other area where practical is often chosen over digital, especially if the element is close to camera.
Let me give you some examples: In Pacific Rim, the filmmakers decided that a particular shot where a complete interior floor of an office building was destroyed by the fist of a Jaeger robot needed to be done with a practical model. All the destruction was to happen right in front of the camera as the camera tracked back alongside the fist tearing through cubicles, desks, office furniture and the ceiling. Nick d’Abo (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith) was charged with supervising the model build and along with the rest of the team decided upon scale. His team then set about creating two dozen miniature cubicles with all the appropriate office furniture, desks, chairs, computers, monitors, filing cabinets, papers, notepads, pens and pencils, etc. Some of the items were 3D printed, some were molded, but most were hand made by skilled model makers using a variety of materials.
With the knowledge that these pieces were to be destroyed, the desks and partition walls were pre-scored so they would crumble on cue. These were then all placed in the office set with a suspended ceiling so that when the fist ripped it down, everything above looked realistic. 32TEN’s practical effects supervisor Geoff Heron (Mission Impossible III, Pearl Harbor) had also rigged some pyro events in the ceiling so sparks would fly as lights were ripped through. Heron also built the two rigs that would travel through the set; one carrying the mandril, a steel ram in the shape of the robot’s fist, painted green so that it could be extracted and replaced by a CG fist. A second one, synchronized with the first, would carry the 3D cameras alongside the mandril to capture the destruction.
The starting point for this shot and others in Pacific Rim, was “this is what we envision, make it look dramatic” and the rest was up to the team to imagine and create what was needed. For The Lone Ranger our instructions were very different; we were shown a carefully choreographed digital previz of the shots we were tasked with and told “match that exactly!”
The main shots here were of a 19th century train trestle bridge that was to blow up and collapse. Director Gore Verbinski was also very particular about the look of the explosions that would blow the bridge up, so Heron, who is also a highly qualified pyotechnician, built into the schedule some R&D so he could perform a number of tests using different compounds to produce different looks until everyone was happy. Since there was to be lots of pyro in the explosions and splashes in the river below, 32TEN model supervisor Ben Nichols (The Matrix Revolutions, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones), working with production designer Crash McCreery and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) VFX Supervisor Tim Alexander, determined the model should be no smaller than 1/5th scale (otherwise water droplets look too big). That meant our miniature section of the bridge would be 25 feet tall and 33 feet long and would stand in a water tank 50 feet square. We call these “bigatures.”
In this case, blueprints of the actual bridge that was built on set existed, so building the three sections was relatively simple once the correct size lumber was sourced and the scenic artists found a method to reduce the size of the wood grain and age it appropriately. What was not simple was rigging the sections so the bridge could collapse exactly in the way that the previz described—and then be re-erected and ready to go for take 2! Again, Heron was in charge of executing the practical effect and did so with a combination of pyro, wire pulls, ropes, pulleys, pneumatic systems, and a very experienced team.
We did several takes of each shot and since we knew which pieces would be destroyed, we had several replacement pieces standing by. Miniature dynamite sticks and cord were placed close to camera for added effect and director Verbinski watched it all on a live feed to LA. Even when an event like this is so carefully choreographed, each take is slightly different; one fireball is more beautiful than another or two pieces of flying debris collide in a spectacular way only once. And, in water, each splash is always different.
We are often called upon to shoot real water since it is still one of the things that is very difficult to get to look real, especially close up, in CG. In Noah, there was water all over the place and Heron used every water cannon, sprinkler head, and length of hose he had to create a number of elements such as rain, miniature wave crashes, and gushes of water that were composited into the scenes.
In Tomorrowland, there was a scene where a young girl gets a glimpse into the future and sees her family home inundated by floodwaters after a hurricane. The water fills the screen and the camera rests on the scene for a long time zooming in on the flooded family home. So while the edges of the screen and the background were to be digital extensions, it was determined the central part should be real water in a miniature set. We built a tank 40 feet square and 18 inches deep and placed the houses, trees and vehicles in it to match the real location. As another example of digital and practical effects working in harmony, our assets that were placed in the water were there only to provide the interaction with the water as it slowly flowed by. The houses, vehicles and trees were replaced with CG versions later on. The floating debris, however, would have been too difficult to track and replace with CG, so the model makers painted dozens of pieces of scale debris to look like it had been waterlogged for some time and fed it into the tank for the shot.
Heron’s team kept the water moving with underwater pumps, several fans strategically placed around the tank, and some underwater structures to provide eddies and whirlpools. For key pieces of debris that needed to be choreographed, this was done with attached wires held by off-camera model-makers puppetteering as necessary.
The scenic painting of models to give the correct sense of scale is a fine art learned over many years. When done by a talented artist, it can add a sense of realism since there is real texture that the camera picks up. Sometimes we will build a small section of a set and scenic paint it so that the production can take photographs and map them onto a CG model, providing the texture they need. That is exactly what we did for some underground tunnels for the project Mazerunner.
For Jurassic World however, the scenic work was equally important and the model was equally practical. We were asked to build a practical model of the huge gates at the entrance to the prehistoric theme park. In the movie, the gates would stand approximately 60 feet tall. We decided, based on the level of detail required, the proximity to camera—and, of course, the budget—that a 1/3rd scale model would be best—still giving us an almost 20 foot tall miniature.
Model supervisor Mark Anderson and his team went through a series of tests of different types of wood for the doors and compounds for the stone pillars. Having settled on cedar for the doors due to its tight grain, and a drywall compound for the columns, it was then up to scenic artist Peggy Hraster to deliver the look that the director wanted. This is an iterative process of painting sections, sending photographs, and getting feedback until everyone is happy and the gates look suitably aged.
Next, the iconic Jurassic World sign was laser cut from acrylic and its arching support was fabricated from medium density fiberboard (MDF)—which Peggy painted to look like aged steel. The final touch was to hide some lights inside the flame scones on the pillars to give the effect of the light from the flame torches (to be inserted later) hitting the gates. This was also a working model in that we had to shoot the gates while the doors were opening, to allow the monorail and its passengers into the park. This was all done using motion control under the guidance of VFX Cinematographer Carl Miller.
Once the lighting was correctly adjusted, the camera stepped forward on a track mimicking exactly the camera move on location, and at the same time the doors opened, driven by the same motion controlled system—and this was all done one frame at a time. Several passes were made under different lighting conditions so that the compositors could make a blend of each to get the perfect look. Finally, the real flames for the torches on the gate were shot separately but in a similar motion-controlled fashion so they could be resized and digitally placed on the gates in the final shot.
As you can see, our practical elements are always used in conjunction with CG to create the imagery the production desires. But without the practical, the virtual would be less believable in this age of digital excitement on the screen.