On August 5th, Warner Bros. released Suicide Squad, a new superhero film based on the DC Comics team of the same name. Written and directed by David Ayer, the feature stars an ensemble cast that includes Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman and Viola Davis, among others.
The imprisoned super villains are assembled into a special squad by the US government in order to execute dangerous missions. MPC served as one of the film’s primary visual effects houses, splitting duties with Sony Pictures Imageworks. Post caught up with MPC VFX supervisor Robert Winter in late July, as the film was being readied for release. Here, he talks of MPC’s effects contributions, its global post pipeline and some of the film’s more challenging scenes.
How many shots did MPC contribute to Suicide Squad. I would imagine the studio had a number of summer films in the works simultaneously?
“MPC delivered about 700 shots for the film. I think at some point, at the start of the year, we had somewhere like 17 films [in the works] and a few were big summer films. There’s a lot going on for sure.”
What shots in Suicide Squad were you responsible for?
“Jerome Chen, who is the client-side supervisor, split the show into two main parts. We did all the work outside the rail station, where there is a big battle that takes place. All the work inside the rail station was done by Sony Imageworks, so they did a large portion of the film.”
For MPC, what does that represent?
“Probably more than any film that I’ve worked on in the last five years, the scope of the work was quite large and very diverse. We had shots where we did a CG double of Killer Croc swimming underwater, all the way to a satellite in space getting destroyed. We did just about anything you can imagine in terms of CG characters, set extensions, CG environments, destruction — a lot of destruction.”
What was the directive as far as the look?
“David Ayer and Jerome stressed that they wanted physical effects with a lot of impact and energy. We did a lot of destruction. We destroyed aircraft, buildings…We even had a CG set piece that was a burning skyscraper. It was a really cool visual set piece for one of the big fire fights.”
How far back did you begin work on the film?
“It was April of 2015 when we started working on creative turnovers and building assets.”
Did the shot count grow over time?
“It grew, but not by an insane amount. Probably by about 15 to 20 percent. We definitely pushed the envelope in terms of trying to maximize the effort of our worldwide workforce, especially with the sheer volume and turnaround schedules we have these days. It was definitely a global collaborative effort. Vancouver and Montreal delivered roughly 300 shots for the film, and then London delivered 100, so we had shot finaling done at those three facilities. And then our Bangalore, India, office did a lot of work on the asset creation. The Santa Monica facility, which is now the Culver City facility, since we finished the show — it started in Santa Monica — they did a lot of previs work as well. And the art department there did conceptual work.”
So MPC did previs too?
“We helped out as they started to rework some of the action scenes and stuff like that during post. We had our previs team help out and do some of that work. We sent in our work to Jerome, who was with the director and the production offices, to final the work.”
Talk about MPC’s global workforce?
“We basically have found a way to work. I am in Montreal. We’ve found a nice little niche in terms of the eastern time zone, being able to talk with India first thing in the morning and at the end of their day, and have things later in the day, as the dateline moves west into the Pacific region. We bookend the day with the far east and India, and then the western time zones in the evening.”
Are you using a Maya pipeline?
“We definitely use Maya for a lot of our asset creation in terms of hard-surface modeling, character modeling and that type of thing. We animate with Maya. We had a lot of effects animation in this film and we had to broaden our tool chest. We incorporated more use of Houdini than we have in previous shows.”
What is the advantage of using SideFX Houdini?
“We had such tight turnarounds, in terms of schedules, that we literally had to look at what is the best tool or has the very specific feature that we need that we can get up and rolling and get activated very quickly. Our pipeline supports Houdini internally. We have a destruction solver. We have a few different effects animation tools that we have that luxury of being able to activate, depending on what the specific effect is. For Houdini specifically, we found that we had to destroy deforming characters. Take a typical CG character, where it has fleshy, muscle jiggle, and skin deformation, and take that and shatter it. We found that we need to use Houdini, and we had an easier time getting up to speed and tackling that effect.”
What hardware platforms are you running?
“We are pretty much all Linux for most disciplines, with the exception of the art department and texture painters. They will use Macs when needed, but our primary platform is Linux.”
What scenes would you call attention to in terms of VFX highlights?
“I think there are a couple of things. One is the burning skyscraper I described earlier. It’s a CG set surrounding a high-rise building. It’s a big action scene with a big fire fight. That burning skyscraper is a hero set piece in the scene and is very visible. That took a lot of ingenuity in terms of being able to dive in and get realistic-looking rendering in a very complex scene with a lot of very complex buildings. Just the sheer organization of the scene, and incorporating CG fire, and accurately get the physical reflections to work versus trying to cheat it all afterwards as a reflection in 2D — that was definitely a big challenge.”
How much is CG in the scene?
“The whole building was CG. The scene was shot on a 30- x 20-meter set of a partial rooftop and then we built the city around it and extended the rooftop they were on.”
What other visual effects stand out?
“The other area where we found we needed development and we couldn’t use our current tools right out of the box was for ‘EAs.’ That was the name of the villain’s soldiers. They are basically demon soldiers. We found we had to build tools to be able to do the destruction of those characters. The creative direction to destroy them was, when they get hit by a projectile, they would fracture into obsidian pieces in the areas of their bodies where they were impacted. We basically had to destroy them with any weapon possible. All the members have different weapons, whether it be a bat or boomerang or gun or bare hands. We found that we had to develop some tools to take a deforming character and shatter it. And sometimes you had to do that hierarchical or repetitively. We’d take a shattered character and continue to shatter it with a secondary bullet hit.”
The levels of destruction must vary?
“Absolutely! We have anywhere from a precision sword, like a katana slicing through a creature, to a baseball bat. Very different in terms of the physics, and we definitely fine tuned it per weapon.”
When did you wrap up?
“We’ve been done for over a month. I am on vacation right now. We finished in the end of May. We delivered everything in 2D and stereo. It trickled into July, but by July 4th everything was done. They had wrapped on visual effects.”