In 2015, Christian Irles explained in detail about the work of MPC on INTO THE WOODS. He then took care of the visual effects of PAN and MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN. He joined Cinesite in 2016 and worked on ASSASSIN’S CREED.
How did you and Cinesite got involved on this show?
We had recently worked with VFX Producer Sarah Tulloch on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E and at the time were working with New Regency on THE REVENANT, so we had great existing relationships and jumped at the opportunity to come on board the show and work with Ged and Justin. Oh, and we have one or two Assassin’s Creed fans around the facility!
How was this collaboration with director Justin Kurzel and VFX Supervisor Ged Wright?
It was a pleasure, and a privilege working with them. We spoke with both on a weekly basis. Justin wanted us to be as creatively involved as possible. On Wagon Chase, for example, he allowed us to help design new shots and be part of the editorial process to enhance the excitement of the sequence. It was a truly rewarding experience.
What was their approach to the visual effects?
Justin wanted the visual effects to be invisible; he wanted the viewer to believe in what they were seeing on screen whether it was shot practical or not. Every visual effect shot had to be anchored in reality in terms of timing, weight, lighting and atmospherics. In regards to the cinematography we had to respect the visual language Justin had created for the film.
What are the sequences completed by Cinesite?
Our original award consisted of two sequences, ‘Wagon Chase’ and ‘London Finale’. As the show progressed we also got awarded the scenes in which the Assassin’s escape Abstergo (‘Animus Escape’ and ‘Escape Abstergo’) and a handful of shots in the ‘Granada Attack’ – featuring the Apple of Eden, ‘Introduce Rikkin’ and ‘Introduce Abstergo’ (wide views of Abstergo compound in Madrid).
How did you organize the work between Cinesite and Image Engine offices?
Image Engine handled all the action shots in the sequence called ‘Escape Abstergo’ in which the Assassin’s fight their way out of Abstergo. Their work involved creating CG weapons (knifes, crossbow bolts, arrows), face replacements and enhancing fights (ie adding blood stains, repositioning actors, re-speeds, etc). Cinesite Montreal and London handled the rest of the work.
How did you approach the Wagon Chase sequence?
From day one we had a very clear brief from Justin on Wagon Chase. He was concerned about its four main beats: Maria Parkour, Aguilar Jumps, Wagon Flip and Wagon going off the Cliff. Three out of the four beats had been filmed using multiple plates and he wanted to make sure we could make these look completely seamless.
Can you explain in detail about your work on this sequence?
Wagon Chase / Maria Parkour (beat 1): in this beat Maria jumps from the front of the wagon to the back to fight a Templar. She does so by pushing herself from a rock wall. These shots consisted of background plates shot in Spain with the live action wagon and rock wall, and green screen plates of Maria on wires doing her jump. In order to assemble these properly, we roto-animated the wagon on the background plate, and Maria on the GS plate. This allowed us to combine the plates knowing the scale of the actress was correct. Once we had her scale right, we then simulated dust and debris in order to enhance the impact of her foot against the rock wall.
Wagon Chase / Aguilar Jumps (beat 2): Aguilar jumps from his horse onto the back of Ojeda’s wagon. Our clients filmed multiple plates for each shot as well (ie wagon going by at fast speed, Aguilar’s stunt double on his horse galloping at full speed, stunt actor jumping off a horse, etc). We followed the same methodology as Maria Parkour. We roto-animated the wagon, Aguilar and his horse. We then assembled them together in layout to make sure their relative scale was correct. We had to cheat the speed at which the horse was running; otherwise it always felt as if Aguilar was jumping forward faster than the wagon itself. Additional FX dust coming off the wagon was added to the shot. It helped feel as if Aguilar was travelling in depth more. We also replaced Ojeda’s stunt double face.
Wagon Chase / Wagon Flip (beat 3): this was by far the most complex beat of the sequence. Once again our clients filmed multiple plates per shot (ie war wagon doing its flip, war wagon horses, prison wagon, Ojeda and Aguilar). Unfortunately the practical war wagon didn’t flip the way Justin wanted. Early on we proposed going full CG so we could control its animation and amount of destruction across all shots. Ged and Justin were happy for us to proceed this way. Once the animation of the CG war wagon was approved we proceeded to do FX simulation to break it apart. As the shots progressed we also replaced the practical war wagon horses by CG. Due to safety reasons they had been filmed as a separate pass. They never reacted to the impact of the wagon. The horses were hand animated and additional FX elements were created for them. Ojeda and Aguilar are practical in some shots, and full CG in others. Our compositing team created seamless shots out of many 2D and 3D layers.
Wagon Chase / Wagon going of the Cliff (beat 4): For this beat we created a CG cliff using Mudbox, Mari and Maya. It had to feel deep enough that you wouldn’t survive a fall. The cliff model was not only used to extend the Spanish desert filmed on location but also to create full CG shots. Digital versions of Ahmed, Aguilar and the prison wagon were also required for this sequence. Dneg originally did Aguilar’s model but we had to modify it to fit our pipeline.
Outside the four beats mentioned above, Wagon Chase also required face replacements, weapons addition and environment clean ups.
How did you work with the stunt team and enhance their work?
Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to work with the stunt team directly as the sequences had already been filmed by the time we joined the project.
The sequence ends over a cliff top. How did you create this huge environment?
As mentioned above, the cliff was created using Mudbox, Mari and Maya. We then enhanced it on a shot by shot basis in DMP. We modeled it as an extension of the live action terrain making sure it was much deeper. The goal was for it to feel dangerous.
Can you explain in detail about the set extensions and environments work on the Cal’s breakout sequence in the lab?
Cinesite London achieved the Animus set extensions using models and textures provided by Dneg. We had to redo the lookdev as Dneg works with Clarisse and us with Arnold / Maya. Set extensions were lit to match the plate; their integration was finalized in comp by adding layers of 2D/3D atmos to help give them scale.
Cinesite Montreal handled the exterior Abstergo shots with the help of Raynault VFX. The city of Madrid was achieved in 2.5D as it was based on still photography; we added CG cars to it to help give it life. The final hazed silhouetted look was achieved in comp using many 2D smoke elements layered at different depths.
How did you create the various weapons?
All weapons for the film were created from cyber scans and texture photography provided by production.
Can you explain in detail about the creation of the beautiful last shot over London?
Previs for the shot was done by Proof. Using the previs as reference, production filmed two plates. The first one was shot on location at the entrance of the Freemason’s Hall in London – a camera move craning up and pulling away from Marion Cotillard as she exists the building. The second plate was shot on a green screen stage in LA, a partial piece of the building’s rooftop was built in which Cal and the assassin’s were standing on. The camera approached the actors from behind and rotated around them almost 360 degrees. Once we had match moved both plates, we stitched them together in layout in order to create one continuous camera move. Unfortunately due to constraints caused by the live action plates, we quickly realized that this approach wasn’t going to work, the camera move didn’t feel realistic. In order to achieve what Justin was after in the time we had remaining, we decided to team up with Raynault VFX and ditch the green screen plate and go full CG once the camera pulled away from Marion Cotillard. This of course meant having to create digi-doubles for the three Assassins. For their faces though, we re-projected live action footage.
How did you created this nighttime London environment?
When we originally bid the big shot flying above London back in January, we always knew parts of the environment would have to be CG. However, due to very strict flying constraints in the city of London and the camera move we had created for the shot, the entire environment ended up being recreated digitally. In order to achieve this, production shot for us high resolution (Alexa 65) texture photography from a helicopter flying at 500ft above London. Before the shoot took place though, we worked closely with Ged in order to plan the helicopter’s path and which lenses to use. It was crucial for us to receive sharp frames for re-projection.
In essence, we created most of our digital version of London by projecting texture photography onto mid-resolution geometry using good old camera projection techniques. Some buildings were textured, lit and rendered due to their proximity to camera or complexity in terms of their shape (ie The London Eye). The Thames had to also be created in 3D in order for its reflections to behave properly as the camera rotated around the Assassins.
What was the main challenge on this show and how did you achieve it?
The biggest challenge was to make the vfx work as invisible as possible.
Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
A really difficult one to crack was achieving the look of the residual energy released by the Apple of Eden at the end of the film. Wagon Chase in general was one keeping me up at night; we knew Justin wanted this sequence to be spot on in all respects. Oh, and the exterior Abstergo shots, time was definitely up against us on those.
What do you keep from this experience?
Good memories from working with Ged, Sarah, Justin and our crew. I’m proud of the work we achieved.
How long have you worked on this show?
I worked on ASSASSIN’S CREED for eleven months.
How many shots did Cinesite complete?
We completed 197 shots corresponding to approximately 10 minutes of screen time.
We also delivered 12 trailer only shots.
What was the size of your team?
The size of our crew grew to 178 across three cities (Vancouver, Montreal and London). I am personally extremely thankful to each and one of them for their commitment and fantastic work on ASSASSIN’S CREED.
What is your next project?
Unfortunately I am not allowed to tell! I wish I could though…
A big thanks for your time.
// WANT TO KNOW MORE?
– Cinesite: Dedicated page about ASSASSIN’S CREED on Cinesite website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2017