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September 2014
Issue: August 1, 2014

VFX: 'Sin City 2 - A Dame to Kill For'

By: Marc Loftus
VANCOUVER — Prime Focus World recently teamed up with director Robert Rodriguez and his Troublemaker Studios on the new film, Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For. The studio served as the exclusive visual effects and 3D conversion partner for the film, which is based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel.

In addition to acting as a service provider, Prime Focus World is also an investor in the feature, dedicating approximately $8 million to the project, which cost more than $50 million to produce. The film coincides with PFW’s new revenue model and made use of its resources in both Vancouver and India.

Freelancer Stefen Fangmeier, who spent more than 15 years at ILM, served as VFX supervisor on the film. Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, he details the film’s VFX challenges and how they were able to meet Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s stylized vision.

How did you get involved in this feature?

“I was brought in by Prime Focus to consult and bridge between [them] and Robert. I had to supervise all of the work, which included what was going on in India, which was pretty much 80 percent of the work. The challenging work was done by Prime Focus here in Vancouver.”

This film relies heavily on VFX. 

“It was a creative challenge and a technical challenge of producing that volume of work, which I think was 2,300 shots for the film, but with opens and everything, I think it was well over 2,500 shots. 

“It’s the whole movie. The actors are shot and there are people in the room, and the cars when they get in and out of them, but in general, it was very bare bones in the way it was photographed because Robert said, ‘I can make all those choices later on in post.’ That is where a lot of the action happens. He really wanted a virtual set, a primitive set with extras in there, the talent and a greenscreen.”



Is there anything that’s not a VFX shot?

“Yeah, maybe a couple of insert shots. The visual effect process is heavily graded. We shot on the greenscreen stage, but then heavily graded it to give it the black & white look, and sometimes even spot colors — the lips and eyes of certain actors — certain elements were left in color.”

Those color decisions were made prior to the DI?

“When it came to the DI process, there wasn’t a whole lot to be done. Probably some balancing.”

Did having the graphic novel for reference help? 

“The biggest challenge was really the production design — figuring out what all those settings and locations would look like, which was really the fun part for me, because it wasn’t something I had done. I got to be the production designer to some extent — because we had nothing really. What’s the wallpaper look like, or the floor? What is the setting? There’s a scene with Ava, where she’s in the bathtub making a phone call, and we designed the whole bathroom around her — all the rooms actually — with a big fireplace and all those things. It was kinda neat.”



How much direction did you receive?

“There wasn’t a lot given to us by Robert or the production designer. We had cardboard models and a couple of frames of what they expected to see in a certain section, but in general, it was very much left open to me for what kinds of settings this would take place in.

“There was really no storyboarding as far as I can tell. Prime Focus in Vancouver had done a lot of concepting, and they presented it to Robert, but Robert hadn’t really said, ‘Absolutely, I like this,’ or ‘I like that.’ He was a little bit up in the air on a lot of that. When I came in, I first went for photorealism to prove to him that the quality could be there. I wanted to make a very uniform and high-end quality in terms of the visuals, and we did do some stylization where we went completely for black & white. 

“There are a few frames here and there that Robert picked and they match the frames from the novel. For 'A Dame To Kill,' we had the novel in-hand and all the scans from each page. He was very specific about certain shots he wanted to match exactly from the novel. But in general, we were given a lot of freedom.”

What is Robert Rodriguez’s style?

“I think Robert likes to collaborate with people who get it, and he doesn’t have to say that much.”

Was the film shot in stereo or did it undergo a conversion process?

“It was shot in 3D stereo. [Robert] had experience shooting the Spy Kids films in stereo, so he wanted to make this and it works really well in stereo because it’s so graphic in terms of the black & white layering. The dimensionality of the stereo really makes a big difference. I’m not sure, but I think he might have shot on [Arri’s] Alexa. It was definitely shot digitally and in 3D. Of course, we still had to convert our environments. We didn’t render our environments in 3D in terms of a left and right eye. We’d just render a left eye and then converted the environments to the right eye, which is very common.”



Why is that an easier approach?

“Because we didn’t have to convert all those elements and different layers, so that certainly made it much easier for the 3D conversion. You can combine all of the passes.”

As a freelancer, is it tough to get up to speed on a studio’s workflow?

“It’s kind of interesting to come into a facility and work with them. Of course I got to know everyone in Vancouver very well, and at night — because India is 12-and-a-half hours ahead — Mumbai. I’d use CineSync and Skype to review all of the work they were doing there.”

How was the work distributed between the Vancouver and India facilities?

“In India, they were doing all the modeling. A lot of assets have to be built — CG cars, buildings, roads, backgrounds. A lot of the modeling happened in India and also the layout. Basically, taking the greenscreen photography and putting in the final action. Eighty percent of the shots were completed in India. There were two other outsourced vendors that were hired.

“In Vancouver, the 20 percent of the work that was being done was the more complex stuff — explosions, cars blowing up and things like that, that were all computer-generated. Also, exteriors of them driving by in car, they were all computer-generated with digital doubles in the car — of course CG cars. Any wide shot that you see, where you don’t specifically focus on the actors, was done all CG.”



Were the VFX created in color or B&W?

“We did render everything in color. Of course the grade was applied to the greenscreen photography and then the backgrounds were also desaturated to match the black & white grade. It was all integrated, so it wasn’t a separate process.”

The color process is being done as you go along?

“Yes, because it’s the way you want to look at the work — the way it’s ultimately gonna be. Also, because of the way we’re able to control aspects. The only thing left in color was some of the neon signs in the background and the city environments.”

Did you do any character work?

“Some. Marv always had the prosthetics on his face. [We did] CG doubles, but not characters. That’s not idea here.

“Bruce Willis had the white scar on the top of his head and we retained the whiteness and punched it up a little more. And Nancy cuts her face at some point in the film to make herself ugly, and cuts her hair. So those were all enhancements to the makeup done on-set.”

What was the review process with Robert Rodriguez?

“We would work and usually do two reviews a week with him. He’s very busy. We would do a conference call and use CineSync. That’s basically the review process. We’d look at all the work and play through a sequence, and he would make comments. I’d explain to him what was at what state, and what I needed to know at this point. It was simple. It wasn’t an elaborate, hour-long discussion. It was short and to the point."



Were certain scenes more challenging than others?

“They were all [challenging] because they are doing the whole movie [with VFX]. There were certain locations — in the club, for instance — I think there were five dance sequences, and Nancy, who is Jessica Alba’s character, is on-stage dancing. The nightclub that they’re in is also in the first film, but he wanted it to look different and an updated [version] of that set. Trying to make that look like it was the same club from the first film, where she works as a dancer, and Marv — that’s Mickey Rourke — hangs out a lot, that was certainly quite challenging. 

“And then going into other locations to make differentiations. Eva Green’s character — the ‘Dame to Kill’ — her house. She’s married to a very wealthy man, so to get the look of that. We could look at some frames of Frank Miller’s graphic novel and say, ‘OK, this is kind of a guide,’ but they are so minimalistic. He really paints in black & white. There is no shading. It’s completely silhouettes and that’s his style. It’s very strong [but] that does not work on film for very long. It becomes very flat and the audience wants the detail of the characters. So it’s a cinematic interpretation of that look.”

What tools was Prime Focus using?

“Maya, of course, and Nuke. Those were the major tools. It was rendered with V-Ray, which I hadn’t come in contact with. Industrial Light and Magic was always RenderMan and some Mental Ray. They used V-Ray, and I guess it’s a fairly inexpensive renderer. It’s a ray-tracer. We had a lot of comps, where it was like, ‘Wow, this render time is taking very long!’ So I’m not a big fan of it. It would have been much easier in RenderMan, but each facility uses different technology.”

When did you wrap up work?

“I wrapped up the first week of July, and the 3D conversion was still going on. We had already gone a little bit longer. For this kind of work, you sort of expect that.”