Jon Thum works in visual effects for over 20 years. He worked in London, Australia and the USA. He has participated in projects like DARK CITY, THE MATRIX, PITCH BLACK or TROY. He won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for THE MATRIX.
What is your background before joining Prime Focus World?
I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years. I did a masters degree in Computer Graphics then worked as a 3D animator and Flame artist in London in the early 90s. I went on to work in Australia and the US on feature films, and was recognized with an Academy Award as a VFX Supervisor on THE MATRIX, before collaborating with the Wachowski Brothers again on THE MATRIX RELOADED. I returned to London in 2004 to work on a number of Hollywood blockbusters (including TROY, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, PRINCE CASPIAN, SUPERMAN RETURNS [also nominated for an Academy Award] and QUANTUM OF SOLACE).
How did Prime Focus get involved on this show?
I met Alex Garland, the writer/producer and main creative force behind the film very early on and helped him out on some “pitch-vis” to get the film green-lit. Then Michael Elson, Co-Executive Producer on the film, contacted me with a plan to start a new Prime Focus VFX facility in London. The film allowed us to effectively build a new VFX facility from scratch, growing from a few people in a small office to over 200 in our new building on Bucknall St.
How was the collaboration with director Pete Travis and what was his approach and expectation about VFX on this show?
Our art department, led by Neil Miller, was involved very early on working with Alex to develop concepts and designs for the film even before Pete Travis was on board. So there was already a starting point from a look and design point of view. When he did come on board, along with the DoP Anthony Dod Mantle and production designer Mark Digby, the group of us sat through all kinds of mood reels and reference that we’d prepared to nail down the look and feel of the film. It was a great collaboration.
Mega City One is a massive endless city. Can you explain to us in detail about its design and how you created it?
For us it was important to ground our visual effects in the real world, so when South Africa became the most practical and cost effective shooting location we started basing our Mega City One concepts on parts of Johannesburg and Cape Town, and those concepts held true right through to the final shots on film. For our establishing shots we used helicopter footage to turn Johannesburg into Mega City One, cutting whole blocks out of the city, replacing them with jammed freeways to add to the crowded claustrophobic feel and extending the horizon to infinity. We also added in surveillance drones to enhance the oppressive atmosphere, which allowed us editorially to tie in some of our action sequences with the Halls of Justice communications centre. That way our establishing shots of Mega City One became part of the story. Then, in the bike chase scene, some of the seedier streets of Johannesburg and Cape Town became the foregrounds for us to composite in our Mega City One backdrops.
How did you collaborate with the art department and production designer about the creation of Mega City One and Peach Trees tower?
We had a relatively low budget for such a VFX heavy film so it was approached in a different way from the start and was very much a collaboration between the filmmakers (DNA Films) and Prime Focus World. As VFX Supervisor I was involved very early on in the design stage and we were able to develop our assets alongside the conceptuals for the film. When Mark Digby (Production Designer) came on board we aligned our art department, led by Neil Miller (Prime Focus VFX Art Director), with his.
As I mentioned above, we all sat down and watched mood reels, and chose films and reference we liked – so aesthetically we were all on the same page; director, DoP, production design and visual effects. The main theme for the film was gritty and visceral. Brutalist architecture from Eastern Europe and the Italian film GOMORRAH were strong references for us in designing the look and feel of the megablocks. In addition, producer and writer Alex Garland was the main creative force behind the film and was a big 2000AD fan. He was in regular contact with John Wagner (Dredd creator) about the direction we were taking, and John had input on all the conceptuals we were making for the film.
What was the real size of the set inside Peach Trees?
A corner set was built that was 3 floors high and about half the intended width of the atrium, which had been designed to be 40m x 40m. This set had to be reused over and again to represent the various stages of Dredd’s ascent though the building. That meant we had a lot of VFX shots to produce, close to 300 out of a total shot count of 650, ranging from small set extensions to complete CG builds. We couldn’t possibly build the CG model with all the detail needed for every eventuality, so for this we frequently used the technique of paint and reprojection. With this method we had a basic textured build of the atrium that could be redressed to represent the different floors. We would render the CG but then paint on top extra details such as graffiti and scorching to the concrete, vents and shop signs to the walls. The painted frame would then be reprojected back onto the geometry and rerendered. This makes for very efficient turnaround and allows for quick creative iterations on the final shot.
There is a Slo-Mo drug used in this movie. Can you tell us more about its beautiful design and its creation? How did you manage the super slow-motion shots?
The main draw for me when I read the script was the slo-mo sequences. Although in the end they weren’t technically the hardest shots to achieve, they were at the centre of the story and had to work well for the film to work well. We were interested in capturing the unexpected and from that perspective wanted to shoot as much live action as possible. We looked at lots of slo-mo stock footage to get a feel for what would look great but also tell the story. It had to be hypnotic for the drug to make sense and we wanted the violence to somehow look beautiful.
We knew we’d have to add VFX for the blood and gore when people are being shot, so for reference we fired bullets at blood bags and prosthetic skin and noticed the stringy nature of the blood and the shock wave impact of the bullet on skin.
We shot as much of it as possible in layers so we could control the action and in VFX we added particulates in the air to add depth to the stereo. The slo-mo « look » was developed over a period of time and consisted of separating out the colours and objects in the scene and taking them in different directions with hue and saturation. Add to that some sparkles in the highlights and some heightened stereo and we had our drug look.
Dredd kills a bad guy by burning his head. How did you create this shot?
We actually put that shot out to The Mill – they did a great job of creating this shot with a full CG take-over of the actor’s head.
(Note: Here’s the link for the DREDD video breakdown from The Mill work)
Have you created some previz for specific sequences?
We prevized five sequences, of which two were mainly to look at the use of stereo cameras. So we prevized everything in stereo and firstly got a feel for using stereo cameras in two key action scenes – the white-out attack and the car chase. The white-out attack was a precursor for a test shoot where Pete and Anthony could experiment a bit with the stereo, and it gave them a good starting point. The car chase previz helped us to design some generic styles of shots that we thought might work well in stereo and allowed Pete to try out the kind of shots he was would normally shoot in a 2D film. It turned out that most of his shooting style worked well in stereo.
The other three were prevized for more practical reasons – the 76th Floor destruction, the phosphorus attack and the Ma Ma falls sequence. The 76th floor had to be prevized to work out how we could re-use sets that we’d built and how much the special effects team needed to prep for. The phosphorus attack similarly for special effects to prep their stuntmen on fire, and additionally for VFX to work out what plates we needed. And for Ma Ma falls there was a lot of greenscreen work that we needed to figure out.
The movie features a huge variety of screens. Can you tell us more about their content design and creation? Especially about the Peach Trees CCTV.
They were all essentially done by one artist using After Effects. The design was based on a kind of future-retro technology where we assumed that most of the technology available to the masses was similar to how it is now. It was frozen in time because of a nuclear war and had at best been maintained. The judges however had developed better technology for their guns/surveillance etc. – so we were allowed to give them a bit more.
Some slow-motion shots are quite impressive and gory. Can you tell us more about your work on the sequence in which Dredd attacks gang members in an apartment?
All of those shots required CG embellishment of some kind, commonly to add particulates in the air to increase the stereo effects and then add the saturated look as previously mentioned.
Some of the trickier FX shots in that sequence were handled by Baseblack. We shot the actors with compressed air forced into their mouth/stomach to create an impact for the bullet hits or force of the explosion. One of those shots needed no embellishment (the rippling stomach from the door explosion) but others required CG takeover for the actual bullet hits such as the two who are shot in the mouth and the fat guy who is shot in the stomach. Those shots were body tracked and reprojected to add the rippling skin impacts, plus a complete CG build for the interior of the guys mouth. Most of the blood is CG and the look is based on the reference we shot. In addition Baseblack did a nice simulation for the slow motion muzzle flash from Dredd’s gun. The idea was to see beauty in the violence so we were always aiming for something aesthetically pleasing.
Ma-Ma and her gang uses Gatling guns against Dredd that causes massive destruction. How did you create those shots?
For the ‘Destruction of the 76th Floor’ scene, we were to keen to use as much in-camera special effects as possible i.e. practical squibs and explosions. To that end there were a number of sets built that could be destroyed, rooms, corridors etc. – and one atrium set on the back lot that could really be blown up. However it wasn’t nearly enough and there remained a massive amount to do in visual effects to get the scene to where it should be. Everything is in there – tracer fire, wall destruction, debris, smoke, fire, blood hits, CG extensions, fully CG shots. It had to feel really dangerous and completely over the top.
Later, Dredd uses incendiary ammo against the gang. Can you tell us more about its creation?
For the phosphorus attack we shot with practical fire effects as much as possible and then added a lot more in post. The phosphorus trails were of course CG and done in Houdini. Making the phosphorus travel relatively slowly was a challenge, we wanted to have enough time to linger on the explosion of finger trails yet keep it feeling dangerous and real. The fires we added were a mixture of elements and 3d fires. It was a very tricky compositing job with smoke and fire, stereo plates and 2d and 3d elements.
Can you explain to us in detail the creation of the impressive death of Ma-Ma in slow-motion?
We shot Ma Ma on a rig against greenscreen and against the set. There is interaction with real smoke as she falls but the glass is all added as CG elements. There is one shot that is completely CG with her digital double falling in real time against our digital set and CG smoke. In the final shot we split open a reprojected CG face with CG blood to create a stylized finale to her fall.
Did you develop specific tools for this show?
As a general rule on DREDD 3D we used Maya for animation/layout, 3DE for tracking, Guerilla for lighting/rendering, Houdini for FX, Photoshop for matte painting, Nuke for compositing. The technology we use is mainly in the integration of this software and creating an environment that empowers the artists to do the craft that they do well.
What was the biggest challenge and how did you achieve it?
The most challenging aspect was the fact that the film was shot in native stereo. This adds a lot of complication to the visual effects. The level of difficulty is much greater, especially at the start and end of the pipe. So camera tracking needs to be much more accurate, and paint and roto is much harder. Then at the end compositing is harder. The problem is that any work you do on one eye needs to match exactly the integrity of the stereo in the other. It needs sub-pixel accuracy to work. CG FX work can also be challenging because you can’t rely on 2D tricks to help them out.
Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
Not one in particular.
What do you keep from this experience?
This was a true partnership between the filmmakers and the VFX house, to the extent that Prime Focus World became part of the filmmaking process. This doesn’t happen very often, in my experience. It offered huge advantages in that PFW were able to offer up creative ideas to not only better the final outcome of the VFX but also add economic advantages, making the process more streamlined, being more efficient in the execution of the VFX and avoiding conflict between the creative forces in the latter stages of the process as everyone is on the same page from the beginning.
How long have you worked on this film and what was the size of your team?
About 70 Prime Focus artists in London produced the 650 stereo VFX shots over a 24 week VFX production period, delivering around 90% of the visual effects in the movie.
What is your next project?
The next project we are working on is WHITE HOUSE DOWN, a Roland Emmerich film.
What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
As a kid it was Sean Connery’s Bond films, which I saw as reruns at the local cinema.
Later it was art house movies like BRAZIL, BLUE VELVET, REPO MAN. For VFX the game changer for me was TERMINATOR 2.
A big thanks for your time.
// WANT TO KNOW MORE?
– Prime Focus World: Dedicated page about DREDD on Prime Focus World website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2012