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April 2014
Issue: April 1, 2005

COVER STORY - SIN CITY

By: By Ken McGorry


Ken McGorry
AUSTIN, TX - When Robert Rodriguez likes you, he really likes you, as Frank Miller, the creator of the Sin City graphic novels will attest. It will likely become the stuff of legend that Rodriguez virtually stalked Miller (in the nicest possible way) to get the quirky writer/artist to agree to have his work transformed into a motion picture.

Rodriguez's courtship involved some highly unusual steps. One was initially filming a Sin City vignette as a demo to convince Miller that the camera could capture his unique look and style; another was lifting Miller's dialogue directly from his book(s) to the script. And another was Rodriquez's eventual resignation from the Director's Guild so he could realize his promise that Miller, a non-director, could act as co-director on a Sin City film with all the authority that implies.


The Big Fat Kill: Troublemaker used AMD64 technology-based workstations running Microsoft's Windows XP Pro to previsualize scenes.
Frank Miller's books are stark. It's always night. Stark characters live and die tough-guy lives in a world that is so stark its black-and-white palette even excludes shades of gray. The characters' interaction is so brutal that you can become inured to the violence: What's a few bullets between friends? So policemen punctuate questions for their suspect with swings of their baseball bats? And, when planning an excursion, one savvy shopper - Marv from "The Hard Goodbye" - knows it's best to pack a sledgehammer and a hatchet.

Keefe Boerner, the visual effects producer and post supervisor for Troublemaker (www.loshooligans.com/), Rodriguez's Austin-based production company, has a favorite line. Early in the movie, Bruce Willis, as an aging cop, takes six slugs in his back while trying to arrest a detestable fiend in "That Yellow Bastard," one of the film's three stories. In true Sin City fashion, the bullets are fired by Willis's own partner. "Don't make me have to kill ya!" is the partner's line, Boerner recalls with a rueful laugh.


Rodriguez shot this Sin City vignette to prove to Miller the film could and should be made.
SHOOTING THE LOOK IN BASIN CITY
But how do you shoot Miller's world? First guess might be color-desaturated film, or maybe actual B&W film stock. But Robert Rodriguez owns two Sony HDCAM F950 cameras and he is also the DP - the film Sin City is, strictly speaking, a great, big video. And nearly every set (or "environment") is a virtual CG construct - adding to the disorienting play between real and surreal scenes - which meant all the talent would be shot on greenscreen.

Achieving the "look" of Sin City (actually Miller's fictitious "Basin City") quickly became the focal point. Rodriguez ultimately decided against shooting for only black and white and admitted some gray scale into the shots. This was a fortuitous decision; his use of gray scale allows the viewer to perceive more detail and also lends a silvery richness and depth to most scenes. The look goes way beyond what most B&W movies give us while still retaining Miller's style of remorseless black and white.


Marv in "The Hard Goodbye" is one of Sin City's few practical props
Boerner says that Montreal effects house Hybride was instrumental in establishing the style of the movie: "Hybride is the company that we always go to first; we've been working with them for six or seven years." That includes all of Rodriguez's Spy Kids movies. Besides developing "the look," Hybride's VFX supervisor/producer Daniel Leduc cites two other major challenges: Sin City places all its actors in virtual environments, a reversal for post facilities that specialize in placing virtual characters in real backgrounds. The other challenge was the sheer number of environments needed to sustain Miller's graphic vision. "Normally, in a movie like Spy Kids, you create less than a dozen virtual locations," Leduc says. "You can define a location that will cover the action of 50 to 100 shots. Sin City is not like that - we had to design and create 45 locations for just one of the books!" One important step, Leduc says, was to design lots of detail into these CG environments. Then such details could be easily emphasized or deemphasized depending on the directors' lighting decisions made later.

INSTANT FEEDBACK WORKFLOW

Troublemaker's Boerner describes the movie's post challenge as one of "integration, trying to make the backgrounds match the lighting and make it look right. The biggest challenge was trying to match the books and still be somewhat realistic, but it's liberating that you don't have a real set that you need to tweak and tweak. We tried to do a lot of things that Frank Miller did stylistically in his books: Marv's bandages, for instance, or the glowing blood in 'The Big Fat Kill.'"


Marv in his fluorescent bandages, talks with his parole officer. Marv's red bed
To make Sin City this way, Rodriguez, Troublemaker and the film's three visual effects houses graduated to Sony's new high def SRW-5000 deck, which boasts 10-bit, 4:4:4 processing. Sony designed this format for those who might want to add some visual effects to their footage. George Lucas used it for Star Wars 3. Now with Sin City, compositing - at Hybride, Café FX and The Orphanage - became crucial.

During tests, there was even a Flame artist routed to the set at Troublemaker, Boerner says. "We would be getting feedback from a compositor as we were setting up shots. We were using Sony's new HDCAM SR, which allows us to shoot in 4:4:4 color space. We shoot everything in color and, when Robert's filming, he has two [HD] monitors side by side that show the same thing - one in full color, so we can make technical judgments, and another one that's desaturated to black and white. We pushed up the contrast and it's kind of tweaked to see what it looks like, so he can make lighting choices. He lights it in the way we will treat it in post." Boerner says this on-set method of achieving instant feedback in HD proved to be a better app than using a video tap off a film camera; it provided "a lot better resolution."


Top left: Del Toro as a bad cop in a virtual world. Middle and bottom left: Rodriguez and Hybride proved that Millers stark comics would translate to the screen.
A SPLASH OF COLOR
Those red lips, those blue eyes, the red satin sheets...a relatively short list of key visuals for an otherwise B&W movie. But this is Sin City, pal, so add some red blood, lots of fluorescent white blood and bandages, some yellow urine (spit up by Benicio Del Toro, no less) and a splattered brain to the list.

The Orphanage shifted the villainous Yellow Bastard's blue color to its requisite queasy mustard hue (the actor was painted blue for use against greenscreen). Color consistency was important, and the shop also worked to get the bad guy looking "really gritty and slimy and getting all the deep shadows under his eyes - it took us a couple of passes in our compositing phase" according to the Orphanage's Ryan Tudhope. Café FX used its Eyeon Digital Fusion compositor to restore and highlight special color effects. And Hybride's shots of antihero Marv (who spits red blood during a police grilling) were cross-examined by the MPAA (which found that the movie looked less violent in B&W).


Bruce Willis's crooked partner draws Day-Glo blood in "That Yellow Bastard."
Some color solutions were more practical than digital. "We didn't know how we were going to make this blood glow, especially in the shadows," Boerner says of "That Yellow Bastard." "Finally we had the idea to try glow-in-the dark paints in some liquid form that wouldn't dry out, so it would still drip and flow when we needed it to. We just threw a big powerful black light on it and that worked very well."

A SHOP FOR EACH STORY

Each of Miller's three Sin City stories had its own visual effects shop. The three stories time out around 40 minutes each (somewhat longer versions are planned for the DVD release). As it turns out, each segment has its own feel, but there's an obvious visual unity to the entire movie, in part due to its extraordinary B&W look.


Head case: "That Yellow Bastard" features a violent virtual car chase by The Orphange.
THE HARD GOODBYE
In addition to the iconic opening segment starring Josh Hartnett, Hybride Technologies (www.hybride.com/) in Montreal did the 735 shots for "The Hard Goodbye," Frank Miller's idea of a love story. Here Mickey Rourke, in heavy prosthetics, plays Marv, sure to take his place as one of Hollywood's toughest tough guys. Atop his prosthetic makeup is additional blood and then his ultra-white bandages. But, true to Miller's original story, Marv also has a heart-shaped bed with red satin sheets. In those sheets lies a dead girlfriend.

During the shoot, Boerner hit on the idea of using Day-Glo gaffer's tape under black light - expanding on the Day-Glo blood idea - to make Marv's cross-shaped bandages pop in B&W. This segment's smoke-filled barroom set is practical, as is Marv's bed, but beyond that only the props the actors were in contact with were real.

Hybride had 85 people working on Sin City, most of them permanent, and uses Softimage|XSI for 3D and effects as well as some Alias Maya seats. Staunch Discreet customers, Hybride has "nine Infernos - all those workstations were used for Sin City," Leduc says, "also six Flames, two Smokes."

Leduc adds, "The 3D guys basically designed and defined a look and style that would then be refined by the compositors."

"There are watery environments that are impressive," Boerner says of "Hard Goodbye." "There's a scene by Hybride where Marv drives a car off a pier and goes into the water; and he swims away from the car and into a sewer pipe. We shot that stuff on a dry greenscreen stage and tried to make it look like it's really underwater - it just looks really beautiful."

Leduc says the Hybride team appreciated upgrading to Sony's SRW format: "Spy Kids 3D was done in HDCAM 4:2:2 recording format; Sin City was done in SR 4:4:4 RGB 10-bit. It's a huge difference. Quality-wise, it's easier to pull out keys. Because of the black and white and the gray scale, everything was done in 10-bit and higher. The 3D stuff was done in 16-bit and scaled down to 12-bit for the Inferno. After that, the final comp was scaled down again to 10-bit to go on SR tape. All Sin City facilities delivered 4:4:4 SR tapes to Troublemaker."

THE BIG FAT KILL

In this story, a band of heavily-armed prostitutes engages a group of crooked undercover cops in a turf war. But there's also a vicious struggle in a CG bathroom, a beheading and exploding hand grenades in a skirmish at a tar pit. Typical Frank Miller. This segment is lousy with big-name movie stars - antihero Clive Owen, bad cop Benicio Del Toro, Rosario Dawson as the Uzi-toting lead prostitute, and Brittany Murphy as an at-risk cocktail waitress.

At Café FX (www.cafefx.com/), a division of Computer Café with offices in Santa Maria and Santa Monica, CA, visual effects producer Ed Irastorza says the shop had to staff up quickly for about 600 shots, training freelancers from shops like Weta, ILM and Tippett Studios to create Sin City's noir fantasy world of crushed blacks and peaking whites. This was Café FX's biggest show to date.

Irastorza says Café FX used Apple Final Cut to slip their finished shots into Rodriguez's HDCAM SR master. The shop uses Eyeon's Digital Fusion for compositing and many of its effects, including color manipulation, and Irastorza says Café FX did as much color timing as they could in-house to help limit Rodriguez's eventual time in DI.

Take Clive Owen's red sneakers. They were red on set, says Everett Burrell, a Café FX digital effects co-supervisor, and Digital Fusion easily restored that red for the final B&W master. "The Sin City 'look' was a very special set of curves in Fusion that had to be adjusted on a shot-by-shot basis," says Burrell, "that got us 60 to 70 percent there" before final QC to ensure that all the blacks and all the whites were consistent.

More color appears in a scene actually guest-directed by Rodriguez pal Quentin Tarantino. Owen is driving a trunk-load of bodies, with Del Toro flopped in the front seat - the only place his body fit. During the ride, we see an eerie wheel of color rotating behind our characters - a Tarantino homage to Dario Argento's 1970s camp scarefest, Suspiria.

Café FX's big digital double scene involves Owen's character in a gun battle on a CG set reminiscent of the La Brea Tar Pits complete with statues of dinosaurs. A hand grenade blows up his vintage T-bird and sends him flying into a pit of tar. Café FX created the whole tar pit environment from scratch. "This was organic, there was grass and bushes and trees," Burrell says, "and all the dinosaurs were made by us." Alex Friderici was the "tar pit lead" - he designed the set in NewTek LightWave and the dinosaurs were built in LightWave by Grzegorz Jonkajtis. The segment's outrageous explosions were created by Szymon Masiak in Afterburn and 3D Studio Max.

Next, Owen and his pals are literally hurtling back to town in another car. "We tried to capture that moment," says Burrell. "Alex just took it to a whole new level." Café FX had to match move the racing car's virtual headlights, wipers and even the rain droplets that hit the windows. Digital Fusion made the beads of rain scurry away.

Regarding working with Sony's 4:4:4 RGB HDCAM SR format, Burrell says, "It's better than 4:2:2 and, if you have to adjust the edit, all the [compositing] work doesn't get thrown out like in the old film days when they'd rescan the negative. That's over - we can use the work we already did." Irastorza adds, "It looks better ultimately and more film-like than video."

THAT YELLOW BASTARD

This bifurcated segment starts off Sin City and comes back to end the movie. In addition to Bruce Willis and numerous bad guys it features a virtual dock with a CG moon on CG water, the villain losing his head, multitudinous Photoshop 3D-projected matte paintings, both real and CG cars, and CG snowfall augmented in some shots with baking soda sprinkled on a miniature set.

"We did over 600 shots," says Ryan Tudhope, a veteran visual effects supervisor at The Orphanage in San Francisco (www.theorphanage.com/). "It was definitely a show about logistics in that way." The Orphanage had 30 environments to create for the segment.

And there were intensely challenging individual shots. Car chases using real cars in virtual environments, it turns out, are not easy. "A lot of times Robert would have multiple plates - he'd shoot two elements that were separate and [The Orphanage's] Tim Dobbert would have to do match moves to link them up," says Tudhope.

Shiny cars were not part of Frank Miller's gritty vision and their reflectivity needed to be calmed down.

"In our sequence it was snowing all the time so there was a lot of particle dynamics, snow spray, things like that interacting," Tudhope says. At one point in the chase, Bruce Willis turns and shoots his pursuer. "Then there's a full CG car shot where the car goes off the edge of the road. It tumbles and flips around in the snow field a couple of times," he says. The Orphanage uses Maya for modeling cars - sometimes a Ferrari, sometimes a classic gangster car as per Miller.

Nancy is the damsel-in-distress in "That Yellow Bastard." Played by Jessica Alba, she's a dancer in the local club, which was one of the three real sets in the film.

Outside, it's snowing...3D snow. "We set up the snow as a 3D particle system and rendered all the snow in one pass," Tudhope says. "Our renderers [Side Effects Houdini and Splutterfish Brazil] were capable of rendering depth-of-field based on camera settings that you give." The Orphanage prides itself in its ability to integrate different CG systems like Maya and Max.

Then there are the "stringy" comic book blood splats. "For a lot of the quicker gun hits we'd use a 2D particle solution," he says. One shot has Orphanage footage of colorized egg nog splattering. It's composited to Willis's real fist punching in a bad guy's head.

The Orphanage created 10-bit Cineon DPX files, which were compatible with Rodriguez's 4:4:4 HD SR format. "In terms of a CG pipeline it was great," Tudhope says, "we had more information in the blue channel than we normally do, it was a cleaner looking image, the edge artifacting was reduced quite a bit." Orphange editors use Final Cut Pro HD.

Jason Howard of SpectSoft worked with Carl Walters, head of editorial and post at The Orphanage, to get into the project into the new SR workflow using SpectSoft's RaveHD Linux-based digital disk drive recorder and an AJA Xena HD22 dual-link board. The RaveHD would bring Troublemaker's SR files online for visual effects work. Howard's box also helped later in QC and in printing the finished shots back to tape.

"We run all our dailies in HD - we watch them on an HD monitor. Before, you'd have to film something out in order to see the resolution and all the details," says Tudhope.

Due to the movie's hyper-contrasty visual style, the Orphanage made sure their CG pipeline preserved information in the highlights and in the blacks. "Our pipeline had high dynamic range, so making it really contrasty was the last step. And we 'cranked it up to 11' at the end. You get much richer images that way."

FINAL LOOK

Quantel equipment also made a big contribution to the Sin City look - including the color of this mostly B/W movie. "We started our online and color correction on the eQ at 501 Post in Austin with editor Jim Reed," says Troublemaker's Boerner, "because Robert's schedule had him tied to Austin for the final dubs and I needed to get the shots in the ball park first because of the unique look of the film. We then archived the media and transferred it to the iQ at Post Logic, where Matthew Johnson finished the online and John Persichetti color corrected shots in da Vinci. Then we sent HDCAM SR tapes to Efilm, where they loaded up the DI into film color space and we made the final color correction with Natasha Leonett." The color timing was supervised by TroubleMaker's 2D supervisor, Eric Pham.