Summer Movies: 'San Andreas'
Issue: July 1, 2015

Summer Movies: 'San Andreas'

Earlier this summer, Warner Bros. Pictures took on the disaster film genre with director Brad Peyton’s San Andreas, starring Dwayne Johnson. Shaking up the box office early on, the film grossed more than $134M at press time, and looks to end up as a season winner.

The film, which takes place during one of California’s worst earthquakes, features a rescue-chopper pilot (Johnson) making a dangerous journey across the state in order to find his wife and daughter. To create realistic-looking sequences, visual effects supervisors Colin and Greg Strause called on a number of VFX houses, including UK-based Cinesite ( and LA’s Method Studios (

Cinesite, lead by VFX supervisor Holger Voss, shared the work between its two locations in London and its newly opened Montreal studio. Together, they completed the film’s opening scene involving a young woman driving along a mountainous cliff, only for her car to go over the edge during the first earthquake. “We did 160 [shots for that scene] — it was a lot of CG,” says Voss. “Every shot had to have mist and flying debris. It was a lot of work, but once you figured out one shot, it was like another 150 of the same kind.”

Initial shots of the car leaving the road were achieved through a combination of live-action footage with a CG landslide, car panels, debris, etc. A digital double was used for shots where the car goes airborne.

Voss flew to the Glendora Mountains in California to capture extensive photogrammetry photography from various vantage points, both on the ground and by helicopter. The geometry from this was used to recreate the location digitally, complete with CG cliff face and vegetation.

“We did some aerial shots, the helicopter flying through the canyon, but there were a lot of scenes where the set piece was shot in Australia (on Arri Alexa and Red Dragon cameras) and we were basically shooting the scenery for it,” says Voss. Because it was hard to mesh all the shots, Cinesite captured “tons of stills out of the helicopter and also from the ground up so we could actually recreate the whole environment in case the plates wouldn’t line up. That’s actually what we used most of the time. The scene depicts one side of this canyon, where the actual car crash was, and then the other side of the canyon, which didn’t even exist. We had to find a cliff we were building in CG anyway, so it turned out in the end that it was so much easier to do both sides digitally and just put the greenscreen element on it and that was it.”

Voss also explains that half the shots of the helicopter are entirely CG, or that his team added CG rotors to a hydraulic rig filmed with the actors in Australia. Cinesite’s overall pipeline included 3D Cordova, Maya, MatchBox, rendering in V-Ray, Nuke, and Agisoft PhotoScan for photogrammetry processing. 

Creating around 247 VFX shots for the entire downtown Los Angeles destruction sequence, as well as contributing to the film’s San Francisco sequence was LA-based Method Studios, led by VFX supervisor Nordin Rahhali.

On-set for several months during the shoot, Rahhali oversaw certain shots in Los Angeles and Brisbane to ensure proper integration between CG elements and environmental shots in post while working closely with Bruce Woloshyn, who was overseeing Method’s Vancouver team.

At the center of the Los Angeles sequence is a continuous, three-minute shot following actress Carla Gugino through the chaos as she attempts a rooftop helicopter escape (previs was done by The Third Floor). 

According to Rahhali, “Brad wanted the audience to feel like participants with what was going on with the main characters — kind of like being involved and inside the earthquake. One of the larger shots we worked on, the three-minute epic shot of us traveling along with Carla, evolved from that idea, which is make the audience feel what it’s like to be inside a 9.0 or 9.6 earthquake. They weren’t going for anything other than trying to make it gritty and real.”

Rahhali says the LA earthquake is the “predecessor to the main quake that ends up happening in San Francisco, and it sets the tone for the entire film. That’s what they wanted us to do. They wanted it to start it off with a massive bang that just never let up. They said we would be setting the bar for the look and feel of this earthquake throughout the entire film.”

Using a combination of tools, Method’s pipeline included Autodesk Maya, Side Effects Software’s Houdini and Mantra, The Foundry’s Nuke, Massive Software’s Massive, and Autodesk’s Shotgun and RV. 

“The Los Angeles sequence was a huge challenge in terms of the scale and the complexity of what was needed,” explains Rahhali. “We had full CG environments where everything from high rises to trees are collapsing and everything needed to look photo-real and behave realistically, even down to the type and behavior of the smoke clouds.”

To reconstruct downtown LA in photo-real CG, Rahhali and team captured extensive Lidar scans of the area from both street level and rooftops, and collected aerial shots to use as photography and lighting references. Artists used the data to build CG environments, which were stitched with the live action plates shot in Australia, then added atmospheric effects such as smoke and pyroclastic clouds to bring everything together. 

“The film itself looks like a $200 million dollar film, but it was shot and executed for half of that,” says Rahhali. “That’s a testament to the artists and the work that Method and the other vendors do.” ­