Benjamin Loch began his career in visual effects in 2004 at Framestore. He works on many films like SHERLOCK HOLMES, 47 RONIN, FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM and THOR: RAGNAROK.
What is your background?
I graduated with a Masters in Industrial Product Design from Coventry University. it was during my time there that we were expected to deliver 3D imagery to complement our portfolio, but little of this was taught as part of the course. From there I wanted to learn more about the world of CG, and was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go the Bournemouth to study Computer Animation, which was an intense but very enjoyable year. Once I graduated I was fortunate to gain a position at Framestore, where I have worked for the past 16 years.
How did you and Framestore get involved on this show?
Dan Glass and the film-makers knew early on that the end sequence would be shot last and delivered quite late in the day. They felt more comfortable that this be owned by a VFX house that (a) Dan had previous experience with and (b) that could focus solely on this sequence. Dan approached Framestore quite early on in the production, and we were all very excited to get on board.
How was the collaboration with director David Leitch and Overall VFX Supervisor Dan Glass?
With David and Dan having worked together on DEADPOOL 2 they’d built a good working relationship – Dan seemed very aware of what David wanted to achieve and worked hard throughout to try and realise David’s vision for the film.
What were their expectations and approach about the visual effects?
From the first meeting it was very clear that there was a strong desire to keep everything very photographic, to only use VFX where necessary and to always try and utilise as much of the plate as possible.
How did you split the work amongst the Framestore offices?
The work was not split on this occasion – it was all undertaken by the London team.
What are the sequences made by Framestore?
Framestore’s focus was predominantly on the third act chase sequence. This involves Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Shaw (Jason Statham) attempting to rescue Shaw’s sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) from the grips of the villain Brixton Lore (Idris Elba) who is trying to leave with her aboard his Black Hawk helicopter. Along with the helicopter, the sequence involves a squadron of souped-up cars, winches and much flexing of muscles!
How did you approach this crazy action sequence?
Knowing that this sequence was going to be delivered so late we had to prep as much as possible in advance and plan for as many unknowns as we could. A big part of this was the environment work, and a small recce shoot was organised in November 2018 to go to Hawaii ahead of the main unit where we had access to all areas. This turned out to be hugely beneficial, as the clients knew roughly where the chase was going to take place so we were able to capture as much environmental reference as possible in the time we had – roughly 2km of Hawaiian coastline. This meant that the data could be processed as soon as we returned to London, and that the asset builds could start at the end of 2018 – before the shoot, which really put us on the front foot. Actually being on location beforehand really helped get a grasp of the landscape, the sets and gave us a clearer insight into what the film-makers planned to shoot when they were there.
Between then and the shoot we had to use this early reference to start building the individual assets that populated the larger environments. This included rocks, specific plants, grasses, trees etc. that were dressed into some recce photoscans of what we felt were the two key locations. We knew this terrain would be updated upon receiving client scans, but it allowed us to push forward with the lookdev in the meantime. The key was to stay as flexible as possible with our workflow so that when plates were turned over or new edits arrived we were able to react effectively so as to run the shots through the pipeline quickly – if the environments had not been ready it would have delayed all the 3D work.
Obviously in parallel to the environments we knew the assets we had to build, the vehicles, props, the digi doubles and the corresponding Dwayne Johnson face shapes we felt we would need to pull off some very tricky face replacements.
Can you elaborates about the creation of the various cars and the helicopter?
Each of the four custom chase vehicles were built from scratch in LA and shipped to Hawaii for the filming. All these vehicles were photographed during the shoot and the imagery was processed back at Framestore to generate photo scans that were used by the modellers and texture artists to get as close a match as possible in CG. The added complexity was that there were multiple versions of each vehicle that were used at different times in the filming, often built for different functionality/stunts. This meant that we had to essentially build 2-3 variants of the Peterbilt and M37 for accurate tracking line-ups, and often had to render each of the variants – depending on which one was used for which shot. Much of the texture detail was also generated from the reference imagery, although much of the artwork had to be painted by hand multiple times. This was a combination of the reflective nature of the vehicles’ surface being hard to accurately photograph, and the fact that at times the duplicate vehicles had subtle differences from one another that we had to match.
The rigging of these vehicles ended up being more complex than first thought – every time we had a new shot turned over the camera would get closer and closer to the vehicles and from completely new angles. All the many shocks and windows had to be rigged, and for one vehicle we ended up building a whole new drive shaft – the late arrival of a new full-CG shot that was based under the belly of the Ratrod and exposed all as the NOS kicks in to avoid being dragged over the cliff edge.
The Black Hawk was cyber scanned by ClearAngle with the rotors removed and the modellers matched to this as closely as possible, thankfully there was only one helicopter on the shoot, much to the modellers’ relief! The resultant model was hugely detailed – more so than was eventually required, but with the edit changing so much and the limited time it made sense to prepare for the ‘worst case scenario’ and ensure it would hold up close to camera. The texture work was a little more forgiving than the cars due to the slightly more matte nature of the paintwork, much procedural texturing was done here and detail was added as and when required.
How did you create the various shaders and textures for the vehicles?
The development of the six vehicles in our sequence was very exciting because each vehicle has its own very unique features – almost like a character. At the same time, though, we had quite a limited amount of time to create them all. With this in mind we had to come up with a plan to have a very efficient workflow that would work with all the vehicles.
Based on the references we received from the clients, we started to develop a broad collection of shaders to cover a maximum of vehicles materials using simple tileable textures even before we got any models. We created glass, rubber, metal, paint, plastic, wood, leather with Framestore indoor shaders and lookdev tools. All of those shaders were made to be very flexible, so with the exact same paint shader and texture we could create a really rough, scratched, rusted yellow paint or a very coated shiny blue paint. The flexibility and variety of the shaders with their tileable textures allowed the lookdev team to cover all the vehicles’ thousands of pieces in a really short amount of time while still respecting the material properties of each element and each very different vehicle.
This workflow saved us a lot of time and allowed both the lookdev and texture team to focus on the most important features of the vehicles and ensure they matched the real-world vehicles as closely as possible. The texture team, using Mari, focused on reproducing the complex body paint pattern of each vehicle, like the tribal paint of the Peterbilt or the damaged details of the M37. Each pattern was hand-painted and combined with the many different layers of dust, rust, dirt scratches and damages that make everything more realistic. The lookdev team spend more time on the property of those shaders and getting them as close as possible to what they are in reality. For this the client reference was key for both teams, ensuring the CG vehicles were set up in each shot to match as closely to that reference as possible.
Can you tell us more about the lighting work?
The lighting work consisted of two main tasks. The first was to match the plate of the outdoor car chase shots. We received a lot of HDRIs shot on set with reference balls and MacBeth chart, so we had a great amount of data to use in order to gain an accurate lighting match. The tricky part was with the car chase being outdoors – the weather changed all the time, and the condition on the references (ref ball and MacBeth) were not matching the plate. So the team had to be flexible and work on observation and eyeball match of the plate to reproduce properly the weather condition and time of the day so all of our CG work integrated properly.
The second main task on the sequence was to reproduce moving reflections on the vehicles for the blue screen shots on the talking characters so it integrated properly with the moving surrounding environment of the car chase. For this, using the LIDAR scans we recreated, with cards and pieces of geometry, the different sections of the road so it matched the speed the vehicle is suppose to be travelling at and the location in the cut. We rendered reflections that the compositing team then used in their setup, so they made those blue screen shots look like the vehicles are travelling. This once again helped with both the integration and giving a sense of speed.
How did you handle the animation work especially when the cars are off-road?
The first thing was to establish the center of mass for each car and have our pivot points matching. This was essential to be able to have a realistic weight and motion of the cars as they were travelling.
Each car had was set up on a path rig, and the animators were able to sculpt out a direction of travel and then animate the cars to travel along those paths. By having this system setup we were able to add realistic roll, sliding and weight shifting to the cars and not worry about defying physics. We also had a procedural setup within the system for wheel rotation, ensuring that the wheels would rotate depending on the speed of the cars. The animators would however be able to override this to add wheels spin, drift or body roll etc. whenever the story demanded it.
When it came to lifting cars off the ground, a similar system was set up for multiple cars. This was essentially a chain rig that each car was attached to. However, we quickly discovered that any kind of procedural system wouldn’t give us the control we needed to tell the story, so it came down to the animators to come up with this motion and the correct weight for each shot. This became quite a challenge, as the cars not only had to react to realistic physics but also how and when the helicopter attached to them would move.
The sequence involved a lot of explosions and car crashes. How did you enhance these aspects?
We were told early on that they were going to get all the explosions in camera and they didn’t disappoint, even when the helicopter was flying 30ft off the deck – the explosion would be triggered, covered by a plethora of cameras scattered around the scene. There was some enhancement done through the sequence. The first was to tell the story of the buried barrels that were being launched into the air – the smoke was often in the plate, and we added kicked-up dirt and debris, fire elements and craters. There were also times when we had to increase the danger and add more of these complete elements in CG which ended up looking great, especially when the downwash of the Black Hawk disrupts all the barrel smoke. This was similar for the cars – all shots but one involved plate cars being propelled into the air by pneumatic rams fitted to the undercarriage, or the stunt drivers driving at speed over prefabricated rails that would flip the cars. Again we were required to dress in more kick up debris, smoke and fire.
The main explosion that Framestore worked on was the Digger Arm section: a pre-rigged digger arm laden with explosive barrels which swings out from the tree line and destroys one of the many chase vehicles, causing it to be catapulted into the air by the huge fireball that surrounds it. Needless to say this causes serious damage to the coastline by triggering a landslide which ultimately stops the pursuers in their tracks. We maintained as much of the plate work in these shots as possible and relied on doing vehicle takeovers. These shots relied on heavy comp work to successfully bring the many FX passes of fire, debris and smoke together and integrated cleanly with what was often a heavily-augmented plate. Often additional explosion elements were called for to again help dress the vehicles into the action, some of which were shot for the film and others were from our own library.
The final shot of this beat shows a wide view of the ensuing cliff collapse following the explosion, with the vehicles, digis and helicopter narrowly avoiding the devastation. For this shot we used a plate for the treeline and a portion of the sky with everything else being added digitally. All the vehicles, digis, cliffs, the landslide, water, smoke and explosions were all 3D rendered assets.
Where was this sequence filmed?
This whole sequence was filmed on location in Kauai (Hawaii).
Can you explain in detail about the creation of the environments?
Early on in discussions the film’s Production Designer, David Scheunemann, located a specific area of the Napoli Coast on the North Side of Kauai. The only slight issue was that it was inaccessible by car as it was National Park land, so you had to fly in via helicopter. We heavily photographed the coastline on multiple trips, both on the recce and during the main shoot. All of this imagery was sent back to the London office to be photo scanned and transferred into a digital representation, which in the end equated to about two kilometers of coastline. This raw data had to be rotopologised to output clean 3D geometry to work with, and the textures had to be similarly processed to remove any areas of direct sunlight that was baked in. With the nature of the terrain and the shoot restrictions there were also areas that had stretching, so there was quite a large cleanup process to fix such areas.
The next challenge was adapting the Napoli Coast cliff to fit the terrain of the shoot location, which was conveniently shot on the opposite side of the island. The CG environment had to tell the story of the chase vehicle route getting tighter and the cliffs getting more perilous. This meant that not only did the cliffs have to fit seamlessly into plate road but they also had to get steeper and steeper, with many notes coming back saying “even more danger!” Once the layout of the CG cliffs were signed off we then did the final process of adding more detail with CG foliage to help tie it to the plates and the scattering of rocks over the flatter areas or ledges.
During the shoot there was a vast amount of reference plates shot which were invaluable to many of the departments, not least of all the compositing team. Both spherical and array plates were shot from the air and ground to provide an extensive library of material that was used to generate various backplates for the blue screens. These really came into their own when it came to the compositors adding the finishing touches to some of the bigger shots – this can be seen best with the water at the base of the cliffs. Much of the water was CG but all the closer shots where we wanted waves crashing into the cliffs – we turned to these plates as they looked fantastic and really brought the shots to life.
Which shot was the most challenging?
Surprisingly it wasn’t the big explosion shots that were the most challenging, it was actually some of the blue screen shots that required carefully integrating a FG plate of Dwayne with one of the pre shot array plates of the BG environment. The first challenge was the fact that the edit was constantly in flux: one day a plate is being used for one section of the sequence then the next it’s at the opposite end of the sequence. The impact of this was that the entire background had to change and, more often than not, the comp would have to start again with new frame range, more edge work etc.
The next and by far the biggest challenge was to avoid the rear projection look which was immediately achieved when you composited the blue screen plate over the array, to be expected when they were shot so differently. More specifically we battled with the fact that the DOF and motion blur was baked into array plates and didn’t match that of the FG plate, often because the shoot schedule dictated that the array be shot before the action plates. The end solution was found by relying more heavily on CG layer that was dressed into the array background and helped give that sense of parallax that was often missing. This combined with some subtle grading and clever 2D camera moves to free up the FG plate helped get over this hurdle.
The CG elements were relied on more heavily when the shot included a FG plate with wheels that would need to connect to an array plate. This would have all the same issues as described above, but would have the additional problem of bedding the plates together. Obviously CG wheels with kickup dust and debris helped, but often the array plate road would have to be reprojected onto a CG plane to ensure the contact worked (The shot of Mateo on the back of the M37, comped by Neil Barrack, is a good example).
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
I think any of the shots containing the Black Hawk flying through the barrel explosions look great. The stark contrast of the idyllic and saturated backgrounds combined with destructive nature of the Black Hawk being dragged unnervingly close to the ground with cinematic smoke trails being created by the downwash really make these stand out for me.
What is your best memory on this show?
Hanging out the back of a helicopter in the rain and being told by Fred North (H) that the weather was so bad we had to head back to base. Upon telling me this he dropped to the deck and proceeded to fly ridiculously fast about a meter above the crashing waves – a truly terrifying yet thrilling experience that you don’t get at Alton Towers!
How long have you worked on this show?
Since October 2018.
What’s the VFX shots count?
264 delivered shots and 150 omits.
What was the size of your team?
Around 250 artists.
What are the four movies that gave you your passion for the cinema?
THE BREAKFAST CLUB
A big thanks for your time.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Framestore: Dedicated page about FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS – HOBBS & SHAW on Framestore website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2019