In Columbia Pictures’ Bullet Train, Brad Pitt stars as an assassin who’s determined to do his job peacefully after one too tough gigs. Fate, however, has other plans, as his latest mission puts him on a collision course with lethal adversaries from around the globe — all with connected, yet conflicting, objectives. The film is set on the world's fastest train, traveling through modern-day Japan, and was directed by David Leitch.
Dneg contributed more than a thousand visual effects shots for the feature, which was shot on a stage at Sony Pictures. Here, Dneg VFX supervisor Stephen James shares insight into the studio’s visual effects contributions.
What was Dneg’s focus as far as Bullet Train’s VFX?
“Bullet Train is fast-paced and adrenaline driven, so the visual effects had to enhance this overall feel. However, the primary focus was to make every environment unique, so we treated each station like a ‘postcard’ — creating an image with iconic buildings and landscapes that would stand out.
“The next great challenge was delivering the sensation of traveling at 300-plus km/h throughout a variety of environments. We focused on creating over 25km of unique Japanese scenery for the train to travel through, not including the stations and cities featured in the movie.”
What was the total shot count that the studio worked on?
“Dneg contributed 1,017 shots — including LED & omits — with 880 of those being VFX.”
Can you talk about the visual effects tools that the studio relied on?
“We used various techniques to create content for the LED walls, from array plate coverage taken on highways through Japan to full CG and Unreal-rendered content. Then, once the train gets moving, everything outside the train windows is either LED content, captured in-camera, or CG bluescreen replacement.
“With COVID restrictions still in place, we could not travel to Japan to film the stretches of track, so we had to implement new techniques. To create the environments the train races through, the team used OpenStreetMap (OSM) data from Japan, allowing them to define where forests, streets and buildings were on a large scale. From there, we could generate a variety of environments, from dense city suburbs to the mountains surrounding Kyoto, adding structures, rooftops, street props and gardens.”
What sequence would you point to as being particularly challenging?
“The creation and subsequent destruction of the train was always going to be a challenge. On set, the producers had a practical model of the train as a stand-in, but it was always planned to be replaced, as the Shinkansen train model had to reflect everything in the environment. Therefore, when creating the train, we had to make sure all the fine details were added, down to surface scratches, panel seams, and screws, to add a level of realism.
“The destruction was a complex process. It is shown in slow motion and close-up, so metal needed to crumple, spark and shred. Wood chairs needed to splinter. Pillows and seats needed to rip, and so on. Once the train was ripped open, we had FX run simulations for panel wobbles. The whole process of creating and destroying the train was particularly interesting as it employed multiple departments and required a certain level of attention to detail to get everything correct.
“During the crash, the Kyoto mountain environment leading into the traditional hillside plaza area, was our most complex to bring to life. The environment had to be built in breathtaking detail, as it would be seen up close when the train smashes down the mountain and into the village area.”