EXTRACTION: Craig Wentworth & Dan Bethell – VFX Supervisors – Method Studios

IN 2018, Craig Wentworth told us about the work of Method Studios on AQUAMAN. Now he’s talking about EXTRACTION.

During his last visit here, Dan Bethell had detailed the work of Method Studios on OUTLAW KING.

How did you and Method Studios get involved on this show?
Dan: Method studios was approached by Netflix.

Craig: I came onboard having worked THE LAUNDROMAT for Steven Soderbergh and Netflix.

How was the collaboration with Director Sam Hargrave and the Russo Brothers?
Dan: Our collaboration was with the studio VFX Supervisor Mark O. Forker and VFX Producer Lynzi Grant. Like all good projects, it felt like a real partnership, with Mark O. being really open to our creative input, and supportive throughout the process. It was a tough schedule and the shot count was logistically challenging so having a strong and affective collaboration with them both was key.
 
What were their expectations and approach about the visual effects?
Dan: From the beginning we had one goal – the VFX had to look real. Wherever possible we would use photographic elements and reference, and when full CG vehicles and environments were required, we went to painstaking lengths to make sure they felt real and believable, from the story behind why some buildings were in certain places, to the accurate physics of destruction and bullet hits.

Craig: Absolute realism was first and foremost of most importance. This was not a film meant to be a CGI-fest. In the case of The Oner, which was intended to be 12 minutes of relentless and continuous action, the main expectation was that our work appear completely seamless. There could be nothing obvious about what we had done to connect shots through transitions. In terms of the approach, that meant extensive planning of the photographic elements to help facilitate the clever ways in which those transitions were ultimately hidden in the final product. It also meant, at times, exhaustive frame-by-frame analysis of the transition points.


 
How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
Dan: Our work fell into a few broad categories of ‘scope’ which we used to organised things. Sometimes this was based on scene or environment (bridge, casino, sewer), and sometimes the type of VFX could be used to categorise and organise things (bullet hits, blood hits, explosion, debris). This helped us split the large number of tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks.

Craig: My producer (Karen Clarke) and I appreciated that the Oner was intended to be “a star” of the movie. Sam has made these kinds of moments his signature, and so the bulk of our resources and focus was on those shots.

Just as the main unit had in capturing the footage, we had to think cleverly about how we would schedule shots because they were all so dependent upon each other.  We eventually broke the whole sequence down into five or six “sub-sequences” which contained smaller snippets of the action we felt we could have, for example, the same artists work on, or block out smartly as a group.

From there it was a matter of prioritizing the transitions we felt were going to be the most challenging and working on and around them.
 
How was split the work between you two and amongst the Method Studios offices?
Dan: Vancouver had the challenge of completing the Oner, while in Montreal we concentrated on the Dhaka bridge environment for the final act, as well as a lot of miscellaneous aspects: the sewer scene, establishing the Casino, and more bullet hits than I can remember.

Craig: In Vancouver we had the Oner, the opening sequence in Australia, Rake’s initial rescue of Ovi in the tenements, and a hand-full of one-off shots involving bullet hits and blood splatter. Dan supervised the third-act bridge attack, sewer bugs, Rake’s fight with the kids, and more in Montreal. Dan’s commitments meant he left the show in November, and I ended up supervising the work that extended beyond our original schedule out of both Montreal and Vancouver locations.

What did Method Studios did on this show?
Dan: Method studios was responsible for nearly all the main VFX on EXTRACTION, including the Oner Car Chase, and the final act on the bridge.

How did you approach a sequence like this crazy car chase sequence?
Craig: I have to tip my hat to Sam, Marko and the production. They had planned and filmed the whole live action portion so well that the hardest part for us was ensuring we drew no attention to our work. The sequence was cleverly shot sequentially, and Sam shot most of it himself. His experience as a second unit director and stunt coordinator proved invaluable.
 
What are the main challenges with a long continuous shot?
Craig: From a VFX perspective, particularly as I had never done a sequence like this before, the most challenging thing for me was wrapping my head around it organizationally. Every shot had a dependency on those around them, and creative choices in one transition would often affect two or three other transitions around that. Keeping track of the snowball effect was very important.

Which cut was the most complicated to create and why?
Craig: Every transition presented unique challenges, but a couple stand out in terms of complexity. Obviously, the crash at the end presented some real challenges, but the toughest cuts were unexpectedly Rake landing on the rooftop after throwing Ovi to another building, and then something as conceptually simple as a truck driving by.

Rake’s jump was challenging due to quite vast lighting differences in the plates which required quite a bit of set reconstruction to hide. The truck pass-by was complicated because we had nowhere to hide at all in that moment. To pull it off we did a CG takeover right in front of your eyes, along with subtle camera reworking, and extensive frame-by-frame manipulation and paintwork in order to conceal the switch.

In terms of element complexity, the final truck crash was obviously the most complicated shot to create. The environment, while made of photographic elements, was a digital matte painting, and the truck (and everything it crashes into) full CG. Countless layers of FX elements went into the explosion and associated debris field, all of which were essential to recreating the kind of visual complexity you expect of and see in a practical stunt like this.

Did you have any tips and secrets to create the perfect invisible cut?
Craig: The best tip is most certainly great planning and rehearsal. The closer your plates match during transition moments, the more successful those transitions will be. The second, and this might sound silly, as you are finishing comps, watch them flipped and flopped. You get used to looking at things a particular way while working on something for a long time. Dramatically changing your perspective helps you spot details you often miss, even when looking at things frame by frame.

How did you create the various car crashes?
Craig: Honestly, we took a pretty typical approach to these with one thing in mind: that our work needed to be complementary rather than a feature.

Such great stunt work was already done on location, we didn’t want to hide it. So, the trick was to sandwich our additions into places that helped solve problems (such as the Tuk Tuk we added in front of the bus to obscure stunt rigging that was a challenge to extract from the footage cleanly).

Digital assets were reconstructed from on-set Lidar, texture captures and photogrammetry in a pretty standard way. The FX team enhanced our animations with lots of dust, debris, broken glass, and more.

Can you tell us more about the stunts enhancements?
Dan: Sam Hargrave is an accomplished stunt coordinator and second unit director, so as you’d expect the action captured in-camera was phenomenal. With such a great starting point, the job of VFX was really about enhancing the action and making relatively safe environments for the performers seem more precarious and dangerous. Removing stunt rigging, wires, and crash mats was a big part of the VFX remit, as well as enhancing explosions (where proximity to larger practical pyrotechnics would have been dangerous), adding bullet hits, blood and plenty of debris flying towards camera.

How did you create the various elements in CG (digi doubles, cars, …)?
Dan: For the main elements we followed a fairly typical asset workflow, starting with some good on-set reference textures, lidar scans, and photogrammetry. For the environments however, we relied on a lot of real-world photography reference and a much more procedural approach, laying out thousands of instanced buildings and props in Houdini. We started our Dhaka environment with just a few basic buildings but by the end of the project had built up a large library of buildings, antennas, awnings, clothes lines, telegraph wires… the list goes on and on!

Can you tell us more about the FX work for the explosions?
Craig: Realism was key. Fortunately, production had shot an unused crash in the same location that served as invaluable reference. We literally frame-by-framed that and challenged ourselves to match all the photographic and physical aspects of that practical explosion digitally.

Dan: The helicopter crash on the bridge was a big challenge for the FX team. It was tough task to balance the realistic physical attributes of an aviation fuel explosion with the artistic direction and aesthetic requirements of the shots. For example, once the tail had been blown off the helicopter and everything started to burn realistically, we were generating quite a bit of smoke. That worked from one angle, but as soon as we cut to a wide overhead shot the thick smoke covered everything in sight and meant we couldn’t see our helicopter! It took a few iterations but in the end after a bit of clever tweaking to the smoke density and some extra down-draft from the helicopter to steer the smoke in the right direction, we got to keep all our realistic elements and see our helicopter crashing into the bridge below.


Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
Craig: Not on this show. I loved the work and the variety of challenges it offered in terms of creating invisible effects.

Dan: The city environment for the bridge scene in the 3rd act kept me up a few nights. Not only was it featured in over 100 shots but getting enough detail for such a large environment to feel believable was a big challenge. We might not always be conscious of the details we see when looking at a real cityscape, but as humans we’re very perceptive when things just don’t feel quite right.

What is your favorite shot?
Craig: It is the truck driving by. It turned out to be one of the toughest shots to get right, and the blood, sweat and patience that the compositor put into getting every frame of that transition perfect was amazing. But in the spirit of our work being a Oner, I can honestly say the whole sequence is my favorite shot. Very few people have been able to pick out what we did or where the transitions are, and that is awesome.

Dan: There are a quite a few in this movie, but they all have a common theme – great photography to start, and subtle but effective VFX as a supporting aspect. Extraction was never a movie about flashy CGI and the best shots in it are just that, seamless VFX that you’ll never notice.

What is your best memory on this show?
Craig: The team. From the client-side collaboration with Marko and Lynzi, to the crews in Vancouver and Montreal, I had a blast working with all of them on the type of stuff that is right up my alley.

Dan: It was a big show with a lot of moving parts, so having a talented, creative and adaptable team was essential! So, it goes without saying working with my awesome team at Method Montreal was probably my best memory. A close second was the day we photographed a mangled sausage covered in fake blood, to use in augmenting a severed finger!


How long have you worked on this show?
Craig: We spun up the show in Vancouver in April. I wrapped almost a year later.

Dan: I was brought on board in May and I wrapped up in November.

What’s the VFX shots count?
Craig: Roughly 120 shots for Vancouver.

Dan: Good question… a lot. I think we completed just a touch under 500 VFX shots in the Montreal studio.

What was the size of your team?
Craig: I think we peaked at around 18 people in Vancouver.

Dan: In Montreal we reached about 80 people at the peak of the project.

What is your next project?
Craig: I’m now working on Season 2 of FOR ALL MANKIND.

Dan: I’ve since moved back to Australia where I’m working on a couple of exciting projects, that of course I can’t talk about.

A big thanks for your time.

EXTRACTION – VFX REEL – METHOD STUDIOS

WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Method Studios: Dedicated page about EXTRACTION on Method Studios website.
Netflix: You can now watch EXTRACTION on Netflix.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2020

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Vincent Frei

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

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