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December 2014
Issue: May 1, 2006

VISUAL EFFECTS: 'MI3'

By: Iain Blair

HOLLYWOOD — Explosions! Car chases! Gravity-defying stunts! More explosions! MI3, the first big blockbuster of the year, delivers “all this and more,” reports Industrial Light & Magic’s Roger Guyett, visual effects supervisor on this eagerly awaited new Tom Cruise film. “It has all the huge action scenes and big moments fans have come to expect, and I think it really pushes the envelope in terms of what we were able to do in post this time,” he adds.

Guyett should know. During the past 11 years, Guyett has worked on some of ILM’s biggest jobs, including Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which earned him Oscar and BAFTA nominations.

“The big difference between this and Star Wars, which I’d just come off, is that MI3 aims to be realistic and the idea was to make all the effects totally invisible,” he says. “That was the big challenge, which is why post really began in pre-production when we planned out how to get the most out of all the exotic locations and the various techniques we’d use.”

Guyett and his team were helped by several factors, including a star “who does all his own stunts” and a director, J.J. Abrams, “who is very into all the effects work and technology,” and very experienced thanks to his TV work on shows such as Lost and Alias. “It’s just very difficult to shoot some of the big action scenes, like people jumping off very tall buildings or bridge attacks, in these locations, so one of our jobs was to support the film in terms of creating the environments around the actors,” he explains.

Ultimately that meant creating some 550 effects shots with a team of up to 185, including “a very big miniature department” working for almost a year, he reports. “J.J. also gave a couple of shots to Kevin Blank, who does all his visual effects work on Alias and Lost, and he did a few himself. Then LA-based Lola did some repair work and paint out stuff at the end.”

THE SCENES

The ILM team worked on three major set pieces: the Chesapeake Bay bridge rocket attack sequence, a helicopter chase through a windmill farm in Palm Springs, and a “huge stunt” sequence based in Shanghai.

For the Shanghai scenes the team used “very high dynamic range still images” to show off the distinctive skyline. “It’s not easy shooting there as they don’t allow helicopters to fly around, so instead we took all these high-res stills along with some HD footage and then created what we needed in post,” he explains. “And by taking stills with a wide range of exposures, you can recreate an image with a huge range between dark and light values and a huge amount of detail. Then essentially you paste those stills onto models of the buildings, so then you can fly around them any way you want inside the computer.”

The relatively new technique was developed in-house and was used extensively on Star Wars, notes Guyett. “A few years ago you’d probably rely on an incredibly complicated CG model, or doing matte paintings or miniatures. But the big advantage of this is all the visual information you get from the buildings themselves, and it’s a very powerful tool and very fast.”

The result? “A very dramatic effect,” he says. “You can see Tom Cruise standing on the edge of the building and go from a very wide shot of the city right into a close-up of him.”

The helicopter chase sequence is “equally dramatic,” says Guyett, “as it uses a lot of dramatic light play. When we first discussed it, I thought it would be the standard greenscreen stuff, but we ended up using a lot of miniatures and also crashed helicopters, and it looks great. As for the bridge sequence, we built a replica in Calabasas [outside of LA] and then recreated the whole bay around it using a lot of digital matte work, and I think few people will be aware of how we did it when they see it, it’s all so seamless. In fact, all the damage done to the bridge by the rockets is all done in the computer, and that line between a digital matte painting and CG work is now very blurry.”

THE MASK

Guyette reports that ILM also did a lot of “one-offs” in the film, including a sequence around the signature MI3 use of masks. “J.J. wanted to show how that mask process worked and make it very practical and real. So we designed it to make it very plausible and then used the latest scanning technology as well as [Autodesk] Maya and a lot of [Pixar] RenderMan shaders, and various in-house tools to make it work.”

The team also created a big Vatican sequence, of which the mask sequence is a major part. “You can’t shoot there, so we recreated it and then linked together different locations to make it seamless,” he adds.

Ironically the official post schedule was “just three and a half months, which is very tight for a film this complex,” he sums up. “But as we planned out all the effects shots and began building and shooting miniatures right from the start, we completed every shot on time and J.J. was very happy.”