In 2017, Huw Evans explained the work of DNEG on LIFE. He then worked on the new episode of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.
How did you get involved on this show?
I actually started working on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT directly after finishing work on LIFE. It was a great opportunity to be on the show in the early stages: it doesn’t always happen so I could really get my head into the project. I’d also worked with Jody Johnson (Overall VFX Supervisor) before. It is always nice to start a project with people you already know.
How was the collaboration with director Christopher McQuarrie?
Chris was an absolute pleasure to work with and I say that genuinely. He was hugely collaborative, gave clear and concise feedback, would listen to us and actively involve us in solving problems that became apparent. I feel like he trusted us, which is a huge deal for us. It really helped keep things moving. He had a great balance of wanting to see results and yet giving us the time to work our magic and really give our work some polish before seeing it, which helped us both. A tricky balance but one that he had nailed in my opinion!
What were his expectations and approaches about the visual effects?
For Chris and for the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movies as a whole I would say the VFX are all just about being as close to reality as possible. The whole conceit of the film series is that all the stunts are real and everything is practical. This is how we had to approach our work. We had to make sure we were always grounded in reality and as ‘invisible’ as the work would permit. On set, while the focus was still on getting all the practical stunts and actions, we were also given the time to get our VFX passes – clean plates, chrome/grey balls, separate element shoots etc… There was definitely a good understanding and a good level of communication between Chris and Jody. It really helped us back at DNEG when the work came through and we had all we needed already in most cases.
What are the bigger changes in the VFX that the director wanted to do since the previous movie?
I think one of Chris’ particular issues with VFX from his previous experiences would be vehicles and getting realistic physics to the movement of them, so naturally this was one of our key focuses on this project. Another key focus was some tricky digi-double work that had to look spot on. As with all the movies in the series, there are also the big set pieces that need to look bigger and better each time so we knew we had to up our game.
Can you tell us more about the previz and postviz work?
Previs was used pretty extensively on this project to help plan out some of the trickier sequences, namely the helicopter crash and the halo jump. We had a separate previs team who could quickly iterate and provide fast turnaround of notes from Chris and Jody to make sure we had something that looked interesting, but that could also be shot practically rather than having to resort to CG. The previs was a great tool for the onset team to help them understand what we needed to shoot. It’s amazing how close some of the previs is to what the final sequences ended up being so huge credit to Mike Hull and James Lewis and the previs team at DNEG.
The movie opens with a nuclear explosion. How did you created this effect?
The nuke effect was created in Houdini with a host of additional passes to give a multi-layered effect that the comp team could balance and really bring to life. Our FX Supervisor Andrew Cadey, helped push this effect forwards along with FX artist Ole Eidsheim. We had the main nuke explosion effect, a distortion shockwave effect, a fine detail particulate pass, a ground smoke pass, a travelling smoke pass and some heat haze, each with plenty of variables for comp to play with. Then a lot of additional grading work was done in comp to lift the characters levels incrementally as the sequence evolves, flare out the background and bleed it into the hills realistically, and eat into the characters edges and the ground as the nuke blast comes right to camera. Then finally where we have the characters flaking away to skeletons, this was a big challenge conceptually, which took a number of twists and turns before ending up at the effect you see in the movie. This was put together by a large team of artists and finished off beautifully by our stand-in FX Supervisor Adrian Thompson.
What was the most complicated stunt to enhance?
This would probably have to be the Halo Jump as described below.
Hunt and Walker jump over Paris with parachutes. Can you explain in detail about your work on this sequence?
This dramatic skydive sequence towards the start of the film was actually our very last VFX shot to deliver and was a real challenge for the team. The tracking had to be perfect and with the real jump happening on a clear day over a featureless desert in Abu Dhabi, making it appear that it was a stormy evening over the lights of Paris proved very difficult indeed. We stitched together separate footage from 4 different takes of action, joining them with transitions to and from a digi-double character to create seamless joins as the director wanted to keep the shot as a single take with no visible cut points. As well as tracking the tricky camera moves, we also had to tightly track both characters around each transition point to make sure the changeovers were completely invisible. In addition to this, we also needed to track the visor to add the HUD graphic display to them so a very track heavy section of work which really paid off through the talented work of a mixed team from Mumbai and London.
We also had to replace the real-world desert environment for a dusky Paris to work in the story, which fell to our Environments team. They created a hybrid matte paint projected onto simple geometry setup which gave us the vast distances when we are high up, and the parallax shift and details such as moving traffic when we are close up. There was also a high detail build of the Grand Palais exterior so we can get really close at the end of the shot and retain image fidelity. This was one of our largest assets built for the show as we built the inside and outside in incredibly high detail for this sequence and the interior rave sequence.
Finally we required a large-scale lightning storm for Ethan and Walker to jump into and travel through. This was created digitally, leaning heavily on the FX department and some very experienced artists. Simple geometry was created first to define the rough shaping of the clouds. This was then run through a FX process to create the fluffy cloud volume. An additional displacement pass was run on the outer edges to give a much higher resolution to the fluffy edges as we found they needed a little more definition with the low level raking light we had to match to.
Can you tell us more about the digital doubles creation?
We created high detail digi-doubles for Ethan Hunt and August Walker, mainly for the halo jump sequence but also in other costumes to be used elsewhere such as during the helicopter crash and the resulting fist fight on the cliff edge afterwards. We also had some tricky shots during the motorbike chase where we had to transition from live action to digi then from digi back to live action again in the shot right after so they had to hold up to close scrutiny. The actors were first cyber scanned to give us a perfect base to build on so overall body/limb position and proportions would be correct. Then our talented character modellers would build high detail but topographically accurate recreations of the scan data which we can rig and skin with. Pat Imrie, our modeller, spent a lot of time getting the eyes perfect as these had a huge effect on the character’s appearance and if wrong would instantly break the illusion. After some incredibly high detail texture work was completed along with various levels of skin detail to give the ldev artist as much control as possible, it would be worked up to match our reference photography as closely as possible and I think the end result for both characters was a very close match. Our character ldev lead Christoph Matthiesen spent a large amount of time getting the match just right including details such as the tear ducts which would give the same reactions as the ducts in our reference photography. The skin in particular was tricky to solve but again I think the team did a really great job and they should be very proud.
How did you handle the matchmoving challenge for the Halo sequence?
Matchmoving these cameras was very challenging and involved a large team of people and a lot of work from our matchmove supervisor, Amir Bin Shaazza. Being shot over a desert in Abu Dhabi, there wasn’t a lot of surface detail on the ground to get a decent track especially when the camera was pointing upwards into a fairly clear sky. This meant a lot of frame-by-frame hand tracking which was split up over many artists meaning we just had to stay ordered and manage things carefully to keep on track. This was a large task due to multiple takes in the action that needed to be combined together into one cohesive piece. There was a lot of back and forth between the matchmove team and the layout team headed by Bodie Clare, who would take these cameras and stitch them all together in our CG environment. They had to make sure that they all joined together as closely as possible and that the characters would be falling at the correct speed, so that when we add our CG clouds everything ties together and makes the most sense.
A major chase sequence happens in the streets of Paris. Can you tell us more about the creation of the various CG cars?
Our CG cars were based on Lidar scans of various Parisian cars and high-resolution photography for texture work that we gathered during the shooting day. Look dev was balanced to multiple lighting environments to make sure we had a close match as possible for the way each car reacts to the light. These were then rigged to give animation detailed controls and allowed the animation team (lead by Pete Clayton) to bring the vehicles to life. They had a great understanding of how car physics works and created some absolutely beautiful and dynamic work, which was one of our priorities for the director.
How did you populate the Grand Palais and the streets of Paris?
The Grand Palais interior was populated with a mixture of digital crowd agents who were based on the on set extras, and green screen sprites that were shot on location then brought back to London for processing and integrating. The streets of Paris were similar: a mixture of digi, practical and separately shot elements on cards.
The iconic masks of the Mission Impossible are back. Can you explain in detail about the creation of those shots?
To create these effects we shot multiple passes of the actor wearing the practical mask and ripping it off, not wearing the mask but still pretending to rip it off (so we get their arm actions), then a clean plate of them not wearing the mask at all or trying to pull it off. These passes were combined along with a 3D representation of the head in question that we could use to help fill in any problem areas using small CG patches. We then had to do a lot of warping in comp in order to make sure everything lined up as it should and to create a seamless blend.
How did you created the medical camp in the mountains?
We started with a detailed lidar scan of the valley in New Zealand where it was shot, then built a proxy model that we could work with for our building placement. Meanwhile, the build team, lead by Jenni Eynon-Hull and James Benson, built a kit of parts for the main village area that matched both the practical buildings and also the reference of Kashmiri houses that we were provided from the art department. This kit of parts allowed us to build a large variation of buildings in the timescale we had available. Poul Steenstrup, our environment artist, was instrumental in getting this layout pulled together and into the shots. Once we’d got all the buildings in, additional props and fences were added to give a good sense of scale and business to the scene. This was backed up with smoke plumes from the FX team, moving vehicles from the animation team, and a large amount of people and animals as sprites that were previously filmed on a blue screen for this purpose, and positioned and integrated in comp. For the closer up FG white tents in the MediCamp, these were fairly low detail geometry and projected high res textures, which seemed to work really well.
Hunt is chasing Walker in helicopters. How did you enhance these shots?
For this sequence, the bulk of the work was done for us already with Mr Cruise actually flying a real helicopter through enclosed canyons and along cliff edged runs. We had a lot of wire / camera rig / crew clean up to do and tracer fire FX to add, but in addition to that a number of shots were shot in a motorized helicopter buck against a blue screen surround in Leavesden Studios rather than on location in New Zealand. Our trickiest work here was to match perfectly to the live action photography, so an array of clean plates shot from a helicopter on location gave us a great starting point. We also built a 360 degree dome using a mixture of photography and matte painting that we could sit the plate into and have full control over the camera and its rotations to match the natural float that a helicopter has while travelling. This was managed by our environment supervisor Robin Konieczny. This process also aided us in creating moving reflections that would travel over the windows of the stationary helicopter buck to give the impression of travel. We also had CG helicopter extensions to do and spinning rotor blades to add to complete the illusion. Our sequence supervisor Travis Porter was managing all of this and hopefully he did such a good job, nobody will be able to spot which shots are actually blue screen shots and which are real!
The final fight happens on the edge of a dizzying cliff. How did you created this vast environment?
This cliff edge fight was filmed in Norway on what is known as Pulpit Rock so we were only extending what is actually there in reality. The work here was to create our extension in modelling first, then the environments team would work up a number of projections using high resolution photography to give us all the detail to match into the practical footage.
Where was filmed the various places for the third act?
The helicopter chase was filmed in New Zealand around Rees Valley, Shotover River, Llawrenny Peaks and the Milford Sounds area. The crash was a mixture of full CG environment and a backlot set build at Leavesden Studios. And the fist-fight on the mountain side was filmed in Norway on Pulpit rock.
Which sequence or shot was the most complicated to create and why?
Definitely the Halo Jump sequence: both the longest shot and the toughest sequence. The complication came from a number of factors, joining multiple takes of action together into a long one-shot, tracking the tricky cameras, animating digital characters to help join the different takes together, adding the CG storm for the characters to fall through, recreating an incredibly wide view of Paris that they are falling down towards, and making sure that Paris environment holds up as we travel right down into it for the landing. It was a LOT of work done by a LOT of incredibly talented people!
Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
Again the Halo Jump sequence was the section of work that stopped me sleeping at night. We had a fantastic team of artists working all the hours possible on it for as long as we possibly could before the deadline arrived, but it was such a mammoth task and I’m just absolutely amazed at what we achieved in the time we had to achieve it! One of the most stressful pieces to pull together but also one of the most rewarding I think.
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
My personal favourite sequence is probably the bathroom fight as it is so visceral and such a good fight scene. But I also love the car chase in Paris. My favourite shot is probably from that sequence – not a particularly VFX heavy shot, but one where the camera is ahead of Ethan as he races right up to it while power sliding round a corner in his car. It just looks awesome and I can’t believe he actually drove the car for real like that! I love it.
What is your best memory on this show?
I have a few, I think being lucky enough to be on set for so much of this project was a fantastic memory. Standing in Paris watching Tom Cruise sliding around a corner at full speed in an incredibly awesome car was something that will be hard to forget! Also just New Zealand in general: such an amazing place. The work was hard and the hours incredibly long but the scenery was just stunning. Then also as soppy as it sounds, my production and supervision team back at DNEG. It’s so rewarding to work with such passionate, hard working and silly people. This show in particular I felt blessed with the wonderful team I had to work with, and left this show with some good memories and good friends.
How long have you worked on this show?
I started in March 2017 and ended in June 2018 so around 1 year and 3 months.
What’s the VFX shots count?
DNEG worked on a total of 1’326 shots including omitted shots. 1’042 of our shots are in the film.
What was the size of your on-set team and the DNEG team?
The on-set team varied but was around 5 of us.
The overall show was split primarily between London and Mumbai with a small section done in the Vancouver office.
What is your next project?
That is currently classified, at least until I’m back from a long holiday and some much needed time with the family who have possibly forgotten who I am by now!
A big thanks for your time.
// WANT TO KNOW MORE?
DNEG: Dedicated page about MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT on DNEG website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2018