BLADE RUNNER 2049: Paul Lambert – VFX Supervisor – Double Negative

Paul Lambert started his career at Cinesite in 1995 and then worked at Digital Domain before joining Double Negative in 2015. His filmography includes films such as THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, TRON LEGACY, OBLIVION and THE HUNTSMAN: WINTER’S WAR.

How did you and Double Negative get involved in this show?
John Nelson approached Double Negative early on to work on some concepts for Los Angeles in 2049 and also initial testing of ideas for what Joi the hologram could potentially look like.

How was the collaboration with director Denis Villeneuve and Director of Photography Roger Deakins?
Absolutely fantastic. Denis had a clear vision for the movie but was always open to suggestions. Very collaborative and an utter joy to work with. Roger has an outstanding eye for what looks right and is the consummate perfectionist.

What were their approach and their expectations on the visual effects?
To not look like a visual effect. There was a strong push to try and get as much as possible in camera and not rely on green or blue screen stages. The want was to never be taken out of the movie because of a visual effects shot. During the shoot Roger was very clear about the intention of the sets he had set up and what should be carried through to post. He joined the last 6 weeks of the post schedule while he was in the DI timing the movie. We would have reviews with both Denis and Roger every couple of days.

Can you tell us more about your work with VFX Supervisor John Nelson and VFX Producer Karen Murphy?
John and Karen have such a passion for VFX that it was a joy to work with them. I had spent 6 months out in Budapest with them as well as seeing them regularly when they were back in LA for reviews. Karen kept things flowing and on track throughout the project and John’s enthusiasm and creativity for the work meant there was never a dull moment. A very enjoyable experience.

What are the sequences made at Double Negative?
We did most of the LA cityscapes, the main lead on Joi the hologram and the seawall crash/fight at the end of the movie.

How did you organize the work at Double Negative?
I basically had 2 separate teams – TeamLA and JoiDivision. I would have separate dailies for each team although there were a handful of shots which required members from both teams.

Los Angeles is playing a major part of Blade Runner. What was your feeling to recreate this city?
It was a big undertaking. We knew it was going to be a big job with the added pressure of knowing that the cityscapes in the original BLADE RUNNER had been iconic.

What references and indications did you receive from production?
We received approved concepts from the art director Dennis Gassner and his team and then expanded on those with additional concepts of our own. Denis’ vision was for a stark Brutalist city. We started using the term ‘top heavy’ to describe how buildings would be constructed in a way where there was more weight and size to the building heading upwards.

Can you explain your work on the creation of Los Angeles?
We created 100’s of buildings which were then populated by hand into each scene. We had 3 levels of detail. Our huge megastructures were the most detailed and then we had smaller assets to be used in the mid ground and then lots of even smaller ones to be used in the far distance. Every shot was art directed. No auto population techniques were used in the build up of the shot. For some of the scenes we would use shot plate photography as the base. A lot of these plates had been shot in Mexico from a helicopter filming the vast favelas there. These plates were then heavily treated and a lot of additional structures added. I would say half the shots we did were based on plate photography and the other half completely CG. One of the biggest challenges was getting the rain, snow and atmospherics to work. The Blade Runner world was always going to be a dark and dingy place. We had to follow Rogers on set photography where it was always raining or snowing – sometimes both at the same time. Climate change had gone crazy in 2049 and the idea was that you would never see too far into the distance. There would always be some kind of smoke, smog or haze in the air. The rain actually took the longest to render as we needed to light it correctly from all the individual light sources in the dark murky scene.

Which building was the most complicated to create and why?
There wasn’t a particular building that was the most complicated. The challenge came in designing how to populate the cities for each shot as each one was art directed.

How did you populate the streets with the various holograms?
We had built a library of around 100 animated advertising designs which we showed Denis. Denis would then specify certain ones he wanted in a shot and we would then be free to add additional ones to his picks. Some holograms were simply planar whereas others were a little more complex with various offset layers and then some of these were projected from an advertising drone onto the sides of buildings.

The Spinner is back of course. What was your feeling to recreate this iconic vehicle?
Again, a great challenge. Flying cars are always going to be tricky to make look realistic but we kept to some simple principles about balance of weight and propulsion to make it seem believable. 

Can you explain your work on the Spinner in detail?
The spinner was a vehicle designed by the art department which was actually built on set. We then took hundreds of pictures of the car to recreate it via photogrammetry and texture stills. Additional lights were added to the spinner towards the end of production as Denis wanted some realistic aviation light flashes. Denis always talked about the spinners being flying contraptions sometimes looking like balls of light.

How did you handle its animation and rendering?
Was animated in Maya and rendered in Clarisse. We used actual aircraft footage for reference for flying high speed and then had to adapt the weight distribution for when the spinners have to land.

Can you tell us more about the FX on destructions and explosions of the Spinners?
As well as K’s spinner we also had to create Luv’s spinner, the Limo and body guard spinners. We had to destroy both body guard spinners in the sequence towards the end of the movie. Those shots were entire CG creations with the fire and water splash FX being handled in Houdini. I had actually shot a buck of the spinner being blown up by SFX but ultimately it was used as reference as the explosion had been shot static rather than hurtling forwards. We broke the main pieces of the spinners by hand in Maya and then ran simulations based on that animation. Again using the shot explosion for reference as well as splash references we found online.

Can you explain your work on the design and on the creation of Joi in detail?
Joi was a challenge. It wasn’t until the last week of shooting that John and I showed Denis a test of what would become the ‘back shell’. Prior to shooting we had done a lot of tests as to what Joi could look like. Most of the versions were too effects heavy. Denis was always worried that if it was a constant fx look to Joi it would take you out of the movie and he required the audience to believe that she could at times be real. Denis always tended to go for a simple 2d transparency effect so what we came up with is in essence a transparency but rather than only reveal to the background we reveal to her volume behind her as well as the background. A subtle effect but incredibly complex to pull off. You don’t see it all the time and it works best when she is in motion as you can see her two opposite sides moving against each other. Anytime Joi was in a scene we would have multiple witness cameras setup to help with the body tracking. Joi would be recreated in CG with the exact onset HDRI lighting and then sliced down the middle. That back section ’shell’ would then be composted onto a clean background and then the live action Joi extracted from the plate and then composted over the shell and background. The transparency effect was weighted to when she was over bright lights or when bright lights would hit her back shell. This way there are times when she looks real and times when you know she is not really there.

How did you create the various glitches and bugs for Joi?
We tried to keep all the glitches analogue. We tried to avoid anything too digital. Digital never happened in BLADE RUNNER 2049 – all the tech is advanced analogue.

Can you tell us more about the scene in which Joi is discovering the rain?
Joi first goes outside in this scene and it’s the first time she has encountered rain. We have 3 shots where we show the transition from a dry Joi to a wet Joi. For the first shot we actually shot Joi walking into a raining section of the set so we could see the rain actually hitting her. We then came up with some analogue glitches to try and convey a sense that her software was trying to update to this new environment. These glitches involved using actual rain textures running through her. Denis likes to talk about the essence of a shot. So we used rain textures to help convey that essence without actually showing those textures using subtle wipes which feel like sheeting rain on a window for example. We flickered her as if a light was being hit by rain. Ideas like that. The goal was to avoid doing something so literal as seeing falling rain through her in this first shot. The second shot is a close up of her hand and here we had to paint out actual splashes and drops of rain so we could reanimate those back on at different rates to be able to sell the software update to the audience. The third shot finishes the transition to the wet hologram look.

In a scene, Joi is synching with another girl. How did you handle this challenge?
This again was another big challenge. The idea again was a simple one. The effect was to have Joi overlap Mariette and come in and out of sync with her by revealing different levels of transparency. We had Mariette do her performance first and then Joi would replicate that performance. We would line up Joi at the start using a mix from the on set video department and then she would perform. John would be with the actresses helping line them up while I would be watching the take and then call out whether it was good or too far out of sync when moving. The actresses did a really great job and we didn’t have to do many takes at all. In post we had to fully 3D body track both actresses and sometimes K if they were interacting with him. Once we had the tracks we were then able to project Joi and subtly move her to be closer in sync. We wanted to keep both actresses’ performances as much as possible but there were times where Denis wanted to have a sync moment so we would animate Joi from her original performance to Mariette’s animation. A big part of the integration was shadow work. Joi receives shadows from her environment as well as casting shadows on her environment. To correctly integrate both actresses into the same space shadows casted from one to the other were rendered for both of them which were then artfully composited together. Sometimes parts of body or hair were missing because of projection issues so there are times where we had to have some rendered CG help.

Can you tell us more about the bigger version of Joi in the streets?
Roger had setup this scene with a lot of smoke/fog. The only light source was a 3 story high LED screen. There were also one or two spotlights moving around to simulate spinners flying but there were no other lights added. We had shot live action plates of a very pink Joi on a blue backing and this was to be shown on the LED screen and would be the sole source of light, lighting the environment and K. worked really well. In post we replaced the screen with a digital version and then projected the live action Joi performance onto a CG 3D version of her. This allowed us the ability to add more interesting texture to her due to her scale as well as adding some transparency so you could see more of her shape through her. Same idea as the portable Joi but on a much larger scale so you see the breakdown of her structure more when you get close to her. Just like when you get too close to an actual LED screen and start to see the individual elements of that screen.

An important sequence is taking place on the Seawall. How did you create this huge structure?
We spent 2 weeks of night shoots in simulated rain and wind. It was miserable. I think I aged 5 years after that shoot. We had built a partial set on a water tank and had to extend it in CG going into the distance. There are some all CG shots of the Limo crash landing at the wall which cut really well with the live action photography. The limo was on a rig that could be pulled progressively further into the water to play out the scene.

Can you tell us more about the water simulations?
The practical Seawall tank had been set up with the ability to make waves. There were times when Denis wanted bigger more aggressive water which we couldn’t achieve on the day so we created CG water that would splash more violently onto the limo. Nearly all of our shots where augmented additional waves and splashes but there were a handful of shots where we had to replace the entire water for continuity with the cut. We used Houdini with some propriety in house software for the simulations. Generally we were able to iterate simulations over night.

What is your favourite shot or sequence?
There is too much good work going on in all our sequences to be able to single one specific thing out. How about ‘all of it!’

What was the main challenge on this show and how did you achieve it?
The main challenge was achieving realism. I had some of the best artists working with me and everybody had a passion for working on this movie. Everybody worked really hard to get the best possible images out there.

What is your best memory on this show?
First day of the shoot and realising I was working with the best of the best.

How long have you worked on this show?
Around 16 months.

What’s the VFX shots count?
Final completed shot count was 316.

What was the size of your team?
Around 260.

What is your next project?
Currently working with Damien Chazelle as production VFX supervisor for Universal’s FIRST MAN.

What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, THE GODFATHER and STAR WARS.

A big thanks for your time.

// WANT TO KNOW MORE?

Double Negative: Dedicated page about BLADE RUNNER 2049 on Double Negative website.





© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2017

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Vincent Frei

Founder & Editor-in-Chief // VES Member // Former comp artist

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