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October 2014
Issue: January 1, 2011

VFX: 'The Fighter'

By: Marc Loftus

SANTA MONICA - Comen VFX (www.comenvfx.com) served as the sole visual effects house for the feature film The Fighter, directed by David O. Russell. The film stars Mark Wahlberg as boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, who is trained by his half brother, played by Christian Bale, in the years leading up to him turning pro. 

Here, Post speaks with Comen VFX producer Josh Comen and VFX supervisor Tim Carras about the studio’s work on the film, which included handling the effects for more than 380 shots, many of them invisible.

Post: How did you get involved in the VFX for The Fighter?

Josh Comen: “The majority of our work comes from referral and people that we have worked with before. We were basically brought on by the studio, Relativity Media.

Post: Did you know up front how many effects shot were involved?

Comen: “It always turns out that the producers go in saying that it’s not a visual effect movie, so there aren’t a lot of visual effects. But in theory, there usually ends up being more visual effects in films and people end up wondering, ‘It wasn’t a visual effects movie? Where are the visual effects?’” 

Tim Carras: “There was some level of work that needed to be done on the boxing sequences. I don’t think anyone really knew how extensive it would be, which is pretty much always the case. But as soon as we heard about the project and knew that we’d have a chance to meet with the team, and maybe do some work on it, we were pretty excited. Even at that point, there was a lot of buzz, and people were talking about how this was going to be a really good project. Based on some of the previous work we had done with that studio, and we knew some of the creative people involved, we felt that it was a good fit.”

Post: When did you get involved?

Carras: “We met with them shortly after they completed principal photography. I think it was the first few weeks of editing. We weren’t there on set during the original shoot, but there was a series of pickups that they did in 2010, and we were around for that. I think it was October of 2009 that we first sat down and looked at shots.”

Comen: “The theme of this film is just pure brute authenticity. There were 383 total visual effects shots. 292 were boxing video shots, however, within that subcategory of 292, 23 of them involved a high level of complexity, because we had to do crowd replacement, which involved tracking, roto and 3D match camera moves, and 3D matched camera moves in those sort of shots certainly can get very complex. There is no one method that fits all. There was a remaining 91 shots, and of that included 20 monitor burn ins. We [also] did the main title sequence. [And] we did six shots that were very complex that involved headlights of a car and Christian Bale, and some obscuring of him. There were also seven blood-enhancement shots.”

Carras: “There was a fair amount of graphic design work that we needed to do, because one of the themes that the director was very insistent on for this film was keeping it low tech and low key, and letting the story tell itself without doing additional, super fancy graphic treatment.”

Post: Tell us about the unique looks created for the film?

Carras: “There are centerpiece boxing matches throughout the film, and each one of those is presented in a way where it looks like you are actually watching it on TV in a hybrid fashion. We ended up designing the HBO-type sports graphics showing the different fighters and their stats and vitals. For that stuff we got to be a little more creative and flashy because we were emulating that mid ‘90s HBO — lots of gold and shiny rings, and little bits flashing in and out of the screen. For that it was a bit of a research projects as well as a design project, authenticity being a key. We really wanted to emulate the look of that ‘90s footage as much as possible. Fortunately, production had already pulled the fights of Micky Ward from that era because for costume and production design, [so] they were already using that for reference. We watched through those and frame-by-frame analyzed the graphics. And, based on a 4x3 TV screen, how [we could] translate that to a 2.40:1 cinema frame and still getting the same ideas across. Not only upscaling it, but reformatting it for that different aspect.”

Comen: “And all the while with the load on our shoulders of authenticity. The film was so true and authentic to Boston. I am from Boston and am very perceptive. The license plates were all authentic and the neighborhoods were really the neighborhoods. So, in creating visual effectd, have to be on par with all of the authenticity of the professionals in each respective department or else our work would stand out. Yet, our goal is to have someone say, ‘Well what are the visual effects?’”

Post: Can you talk about a specific scene?

Carras: “In terms of helping to augment the mood and aiding in the storytelling, the Christian Bale sequence is probably a good one to talk about. There is a sequence where Christain Bale’s character is posing as a cop to commit a crime, and we don’t want the audience to know whether it’s an actually cop or Christian Bale until several shots into the scene. It was shot in a way that they did their best to [hide] his face but you could still kind of tell. We were faced with the task of creating a look for the scene, where we were adding some atmosphere and some fog, and some interesting lens flares and artifacts on the headlights of the car in such a way that it made him more of a silhouette and made it more difficult to see what you were looking at. We ended up creating a dream-like look for the scene that ended up being pretty cool.”

Post: What tools did you use to pull it off?

Carras: “That particular scene was done completely in Nuke. Everything from the roto — we had to roto out all of the characters so we could composite them in layers — to the smoke. We used a couple of different noise generators to create different layers of smoke. There’s a ‘God ray’ node in Nuke to generate some radial effects coming out, so we had the impression of a projector beam casting a ray of light with their outline cut out through it to create some interesting shapes in the fog. The final composite was all done in Nuke.”

Post: Did the fight sequences require anything special?

Carras: “We didn’t have to do to much in terms of realism for the fights. There was a certain amount of leveling out the bruising between shots, which is par for the course in anything like this. The director made the decision very early on to shoot all of the fights in a retro ‘90s era documentary style, so they hired an HBO TV crew to shoot with eight video cameras and they had their own video cameras for production. Over the course of three days [they] shot all of these fights from many, many different angles, all in realtime. The upshot for us was we ended up with elements that were video resolution — 720x486 NTSC interlaced — because that’s how it would have been shot at the time. We were tasked with finding a way of getting that to play on a widescreen cinema frame and feel cinematic enough that it didn't feel like lousy video and that it had it’s own distinct look and made the viewer feel that they are watching this match on TV and get all that excitement out of a TV boxing match."

Post: Did the video footage present challenges?

Carras: “It became pretty obvious that whatever we ended up doing in a video treatment, we really needed to have tight control over the motion blur. Various wide shots needed to have less motion blur. Close ups needed to have more. We had a pipeline running everything through a series of After Effects plug-ins that we were able to tweak at every stage. [We were] able to control the sharpness and amount of scan lines and video artifacts, and were able to control the amount of motion blur, and really dial in each shot for exactly what it needed to be.”

Comen: “We initially came up with several options that the production could decide on and view and pick to see if we could fit the bill. Basically, that was our audition. We prepared several iterations for early on approval.”

Carras: “And we printed them out to film so they could be viewed in a large screening room to see how they played on the big screen.”

Comen: “Getting visual effects work is a complex thing. It can be any number of things, and it’s usually not just one. This boxing footage because a big bulk of our work, and we had to prove ourselves. We came up with several different tests and it became clear that if the director said dial it in by this percentage or that percentage, that we had a workflow prior to the job even beginning. We could deliver whatever they wanted us to deliver with regard to those video shots.”

Post: What techniques did you use to get the look you were aiming for?

Carras: “It was a layered thing. We used Magic Bullet Frames on a bulk of the shots to do the de-interlacing. Then we’d tweak out those setting to retain a bit of the video feel so it wasn’t perfect. The settings on that were really helpful for controlling that. Then we’d go through different sharpening tools to get that signature video enhanced sharpened edge that we wanted to preserve, because that really signaled to the audience that it wasn’t just film footage that was degraded. We used [Re:Vision Effects’] ReelSmart Motion Blur to control the motion blur on a more granular level."

Post: How was the film acquired?

Carras: “The rest of the film was 2-perf Techniscope 35mm, and scope films are normally shot either 3- or 4-perf, so you have a lot of additional headroom to use for tracking and helping out with roto and being able to reposition shots. In the 2-perf format, what’s on the negative is what you have, and you have to use every pixel of it.

“The boxing stuff was shot on ENG style camcorders – 720x486. They did shoot anamorphic, which was a relief for us because it allowed us to maximize that resolution as much as possible. Even so, in framing for 2:40, we cropped off the top and bottom of the image, so our effective resolution when you factor in the interlacing, was really something like 720x180. 180 pixels of height for the entire image that is being blown up!” 

Post: The crowd scenes presented some challenges?

Carras: “We were doing 3D match moving for nearly all of the shots, mainly because it was all hand-held, zooming in and out, and swinging back and forth. Doing a 2D track would have been pretty much impossible. Pretty much all of the crowd elements that we composited in were 2D pulled from outtakes. Thankfully, they shot a lot of footage of crowds that we were able to use. When it came to extending the set and putting in lights and box seats, that was all generated in 2D. We did have to model the ring to aid in the match moving process, but pretty much everything we created ended up being a 2D comp.”

Post: Was that achieved using Nuke?

Carras: “Nuke for the compositing. Match moving was done using 3D Equalizer and [Andersson Technologies’] SynthEyes. We’d create cards and project those multiple cards in layers, and composite them individually.”

Post: What else, aside from the crowd shots, could the viewer look for?

Carras: “There were a lot of little details — boxing posters that for one reason of another they weren’t allowed to use. We’d go in and research graphical styles from the mid ‘90s — that sort of Xerox’ed look of a lot of the posters that you’d see around the gym — and create some of that artwork.”

Post: Can you talks about the ‘napkin’ scene?

Carras: “There was a bar napkin that the Amy Adams’ character wrote her phone number on and the phone number they used, for whatever reason, they couldn’t use. We had to recreate it and do a lot of different experiments. It’s a shot where basically Mark Wahlberg is holding up this bar napkin for the camera. We had to make it where you couldn’t make out what the number was. There was a lot of hiding the number in the creases and folds of the napkin, and dialing up and down the motion blur to make it hard to make out.”

Comen: “That shot went through the most iterations of any shot in the film.”

Post: How did you pull it off?

Comen: “The first thing we used was Tim’s right hand!”

Carras: “Yeah, a ball point pen and a stack of bar napkins. We took a stack of napkins and spent a few hours learning how to forge Amy Adams’ handwriting. [I] wrote it a bunch of different ways and folding it a bunch of ways and photographed all of those, and then the compositors took those and warped it and folded it, and made it fit into the scene.”

Post: How long did you spend on this film?

Carras: “The bulk of the work happened between January and July of 2010. There was a ramp up period at the end of 2009.”

Post: Did you have the benefit of a locked picture?

Carras: “We had delivered five out of six reels and they were still cutting the movie — the final climactic fight of the film. We were on the phone with the editorial department every day, asking, ‘Have they locked the fight yet? Do you know how many shots there are in the Ward vs. Gatti fight?’ It was right up to the wire.”

Comen: “The editor was Pam Martin. And she’s worked with [director] David [O. Russell] before. We would always receive elements by way of editorial, by way of a hard drive or FTP.” 

Carras: “The cutting room was in Santa Monica, near our offices, so it was a pretty simple matter to pop over there to look at a cut.”