Randall Balsmeyer has been working in visual effects for 40 years! He has worked on many films including GHOST, DEAD MAN, THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU and BLACKKKANSMAN. He talks to us today about his new collaboration with director Spike Lee.
What is your background?
Primarily visual effects and title/graphic design (with a bit of directing and cinematography on the side).
How did you get involved on this show?
Called in prep by Spike and the Producers.
What was your feeling to work again with director Spike Lee?
I’ve enjoyed working with Spike for over 30 years, beginning with his second feature, SCHOOL DAZE. I’m always happy to work with Spike, because I know his vision is always amazing, and he inspires me to do my best work for him. I’m extremely proud of what we’ve done together.
Can you tell us more about this new collaboration with him?
This was Spike’s biggest VFX film; more ambitious than anything he’s done before. We decided early on that this was going to be bigger than a one-shop show. Which meant that my job was as much producing as it was supervising.
What were his expectations and approach about the visual effects?
The key word was “authenticity.” Especially for the flashbacks, he wanted everything to be as authentic as possible. We had military advisors on set, helping us with weapons, gunfire, explosions, aircraft, and battle choreography. And in post we had screenings for military and technical advisors to make sure that the work was correct.
How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
I wore two hats: Supervisor and Producer. It was my job to come up with the original budget, and then keep on top of it all the way through post. I was also the on-set supervisor, organizing everything from prosthetics, to explosions, to green screen, blue screen and aerial work.
What are the main challenges to work on a war movie?
In a battle scene with dozens of actors (friend and foe) running around a large area, it’s difficult to tell the story in a way that the audience can understand both the story and the geography. Our DP Tom Sigel working with our military advisor Harry Humphries, were extraordinary in the way that they organized the shots in a way that kept the chaotic action coherent on screen.
The movie has many flashbacks. How did you handle the change of ratio, its particular colors and the grain?
Spike wanted to shoot using the same media that was originally used in the war: 16mm reversal film. Tom was on board with it, and Kodak made us a special batch of film. All the 16mm was shot framed for 4×3. The scary part of this approach was that the film had to go back to LA to be developed and transferred. Which meant we had about a ten day turnaround before we could see dailies. And we only had Chadwick Boseman for two weeks. Nearly all his shots in the film were on 16mm, which meant we didn’t get dailies of his performances until he was already wrapped.
Does the special look of the flashbacks affect your work?
The helicopter scene at the beginning of the film, was the most complex. We knew that we’d be combining aerial shots with blue screen shots of the actors and CG shots of the helicopter. For quality control, we didn’t want to be doing VFX shots on 16mm original footage. So before heading to Thailand, I worked for a day in LA with Tom Sigel and our colorist Stephen Nakamura, to make sure that we could come up with a formula to make shots photographed and completed digitally, look exactly like 16mm film shots they would cut next to. Our tests were good enough to convince Spike and the producers that this was the way to go.
Can you explain in detail about the helicopter sequence and especially the crash?
We had a day of ground-to-air and air-to-air photography for the helicopter scene. Then we had a day of blue screen photography with the actors in a Huey shell on a gimbal. Finally we had a day with a practical helicopter “crashed” on the ground and dressed for post-crash. But here’s the catch: the picture helicopter in our aerial work was a twin-engine model with two big exhaust ports. Our “crashed” helicopter (the more authentic one) was a single engine model. When the scene was first cut together, it became impossible not to notice the mismatch. So we ultimately replaced nearly all the “real” flying shots with a CG helicopter and digital doubles for our actors. We knew in prep that the helicopter sequence would be largely 3D/CG, and wanted to get our 3D vendor chosen and on-board for production. We talked with several vendors about the project, and in the end, Spike chose Mr.X Toronto. James Cooper was Mr.X’s VFX Supervisor, and he joined us on set for a couple weeks. He was an amazing resource and a huge contributor to the success of the sequences. We worked with both first unit crew, and our own second unit for plate photography.
How did you work with the SFX and stunts teams?
Watcharachai “Sam » Panichsuk was our SFX Supervisor. Had had a shop and crew in Chiang Mai that created all the practical effects and pyro work. Jeff Ward was our Stunt Coordinator, and has worked with Spike on most of his films, and is a real pro at getting extraordinary stunts while keeping everyone safe. And Michael Maddi was our SFX Make up Artist, who created the prosthetics. This was our team for creating special effects. Most explosions were practical, but not actually in contact with actors. We knew that Spike wanted the “reality” of practical effects, but enhanced in post with VFX. So that was the overall approach to VFX.
Which stunt was the most complicated to enhance?
When Eddie gets blown up by a land mine, that was the most complex SFX gag. Michael built a prosthetic torso with guts and arm/leg stumps. We buried most of the actor (Norm Lewis) in a pit, and put the prosthetic on top of him. We had blood pumps off-camera to squirt out of the stumps. While the practical effects were pretty good, it took a crazy amount of post work to take it to the next level.
How did you create the various explosions and FX elements?
Most of the land mine explosions were shot at the same location as the first unit photography, without the actors of course, and then « cut out » and added to the principal photography. One exception was when Melvin throws himself on a grenade. We shot a special green screen explosion for that shot using a green dummy on top of the explosion to divert the force sideways. All the explosions were digitally enhanced in post.
Where was filmed the jungle sequences?
All the jungle work was around Chiang Mai and Chiang Dao, in northern Thailand.
How did you enhance the environments and locations?
Most of the environments and locations are practical. Our DP Tom Sigel was very good at framing out anachronisms and offending visual stuff. Mostly it was just cleanup work, sometimes having to remove crew or equipment that got caught in a shot. The My Son Temple scene was a little tricky as there were commercial buildings adjacent to or set, and even though we tried to hide them with nets & greens, sometime we still had to paint things out. We had one night scene where a large tree leaf was upstaging the actors and we had to remove that leaf from about half a dozen shots 🙂
Can you elaborate about the snake creation and animation?
We knew in prep that some or all of the snake shots would be CG, so the snake was part of our overall deal with Mr. X. On set we had a dead snake and a rubber snake. The snake that jumps and bite Paul is CG, the snake he peels off his arm is a dead snake, and the snake on the ground getting shot is CG. Incidentally, Delroy is petrified of snakes, even a dead one!
How did you choose the various VFX vendors?
Mr.X was chosen in prep for all the 3D/CG work, and that expanded to include the battle scene that follows the helicopter crash. We were doing our post in New York, and wanted to be able to do most of the remaining work with NY shops to keep the tax credit. I ultimately chose The Molecule and MPC to be our NY vendors, based not just on their reels and bids, but with personal knowledge and comfort with working with their principal artists. Later in the post-production, we were looking to “de-age” a still photo of Da Bloods, and went to Vitality (Vancouver), a shop known for seamless stills work. As it turned out they were good at other things too, and they turned around a number of other shots for us, including finessing Hanoi Hannah’s eyebrows.
How did you split the work amongst these vendors?
We had each vendor bid the entire show. Then going through the bids, we found that the vendors had significantly different approaches to some of the work. So we took what we thought were the best approaches, artistically and financially, and assigned complete scenes to the different vendors to keep the work consistent within each scene,
Can you tell us more about your collaboration with their VFX supervisors?
As I mentioned, James Cooper from Mr.X was a joy to have on set and brought a lot to the party. I had known and worked with Mark Friedman at The Molecule and David Piombino at MPC for a long time, so we had the “shorthand” of being able to understand each other pretty well.
Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
The helicopter sequence overall was most challenging. The end shot, where the helicopter actually crashes, was the most complex. It was the first shot that work was started on right after wrap and nearly the last shot to be delivered nearly five months later! Runner-up was the first reveal shot of the helicopter in front of the sun. That shot evolved editorially, and became a tricky blend of blue screen, CG helicopter and photo-matte paintings of the mountains.
Did you want to reveal any other invisible effects?
The dinner with Otis, Tien, and Michone was supposed to take place in a Saigon luxury high rise with a killer view of the city. But we shot it in a 6th floor apartment in Chiang Mai hanging a green screen outside the window. We had seen a stock shot of the killer view, but after two months of scouting in Saigon, no one could figure out where the shot had been taken from. One day I showed the picture to our Vietnam Line Producer, Benoit Jaubert from Indochina Films, and he immediately said, “Oh, that’s a drone shot. » Doh!! He was absolutely correct. We got the drone team to go up and park the drone in the exact right spot, and shot a little library of matching angles and sizes. Like a tripod in the sky! A little stabilizing and, Voilà! Killer view accomplished.
One other funny note: a month or so into post, Spike decided that he wanted all the gunfire in the battle scenes to be automatic fire. In production we had shot everything as single shots with trigger pulls and blanks being fired. So in addition to each shot having multiple bullets fired and shells ejected, we also had to eliminate the individual trigger pulls by “freezing” the actors fingers, so that one pull causes about 10 bullets to be fired.
A big thanks for your time.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2020