As one of Image Engine’s longest serving crewmembers, Bernhard Kimbacher has contributed to many of the company’s projects, including DISTRICT 9; THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE; THE THING; BATTLESHIP and ELYSIUM. He joined Jesper on set in New Mexico as Plate Supervisor for LONE SURVIVOR and was also the Compositing Supervisor.
How did Image Engine get involved on this show?
The team had worked with Visual Effects Producer Petra Holtorf on Peter Berg’s previous film BATTLESHIP, and also with Holtorf on THE THING.
Bernhard: I personally got involved on very short notice on the project. I was just finishing up on ELYSIUM when I was asked if I could go to Albuquerque for this shoot. This gave me just a couple of weeks to get up to speed on the script and the scope of work we were expecting, before I headed down for a 3 month shoot around New Mexico.
How was your collaboration with director Peter Berg?
Bernhard: This was the second Peter Berg project I worked on. The first one was BATTLESHIP. Though those two movies are as far apart on the VFX spectrum as possible, they share one aspect of how Pete approached VFX both on BATTLESHIP and LONE SURVIVOR: The mix of giving very clear direction yet leaving room to play with different ideas. This enables us to execute the work very efficiently, yet we could add our own spin to the work, making it an overall very rewarding experience.
Jesper: I didn’t know Pete before I met him a very early morning about to scout locations in Albuquerque. The vfx producer (and co-producer of the film) Petra Holtorf kindly introduced me as being from the company that made the Thug-sequence on his recent BATTLESHIP movie. It was a brief conversation with a generous nod towards our work then we were off.
Pete has worked with his crew for many years. It’s a well-oiled machine and I was the new guy. I learned very quickly how much trust he puts in the people around him to take the responsibility of their expertise. You have to know your stuff or you’re in for it, because you are meant to be the expert in your field and help the process of making a film. As unnerving as that might sound, I really respect it and wish more directors had that relationship with their crew. You know you have a job to do. You’ve been given your marching orders but you still have to cross the finishing line, and to cross it with pride and honour is what Pete is all about. And it’s so refreshing!
What was his approach to the visual effects?
Jesper: Like everyone else on his crew, Pete relied on us each of us to ‘make it happen’. With his background, he knows how filmmaking works and I thought he was incredibly knowledgeable about all the different needs and qualities of each department and he made the most of it. It was an absolute joy and privilege to join that incredible crew.
What was your role on this project?
Jesper: I was one of two VFX Supervisors with the other one being Grady Cofer of ILM.
Bernhard: I was Plate Supervisor during principal photography and then 2D Supervisor in post.
What are the sequences done by Image Engine?
Bernhard: We completed shots all throughout the movie; the only sequence not done by Image Engine was the Chinook crash, which was executed by ILM.
Can you describe to us your daily work on-set and then in post?
Jesper: I only did the prep and the first week of the shoot and the last few days when we had a lot of blue screen work. Bernie (Bernhard) covered the rest. For the first part of the shoot the location was a ski hill in Santa Fe. We were working at around 12,000 ft, which took a bit getting used to. Just walking around with our gear, even though we kept it to a minimum, was quite a test but you get more used to it after a few days.
On the mountain, Bernie and I took the opportunity to capture a huge amount of stitches, HDRI’s and reference stills. We tried to cover each location in case we would need to bridge them with sequences shot in completely different locations. We would hang out with the film unit when we knew they were shooting something that would require work in post. We had two very talented local data wranglers, Michael Chochol and Bryan Jones who between them would cover any cameras, split themselves between units and alert Bernie and I over radio if something needing our attention was about to happen and more importantly, letting us know when lunch was called.
Bernhard: The general approach to filming this movie was very much guerrilla style. I think this minimalistic approach helped give the film a great feel of authenticity. For the crew it meant a lot of physical work, especially while shooting at altitude on challenging terrain. We had to do a fair amount of hiking to get to different sets and even more so to get reference photos for VFX from locations that the film crew would never get to. I remember hiking up to the top of the Santa Fe ski resort just shy of 13000 feet at 4am very vividly!
We had a few sequences we knew would require work, and getting the necessary information was fairly straightforward. The challenging bit was the many unknowns of the movie during shooting. Once you need to cover for multiple scenarios things start to be far less straightforward. During post most of my time was spent reviewing work together with Jesper and giving feedback to artists as well as working with our VFX Producer Victoria Mowlam to make sure we stayed on track. The little time that was left I spent doing rounds on the floor or working on some pipeline enhancements or templates to speed up the work.
How did you create the beautiful matte-paintings?
Jesper: With three very talented matte-painters. Gillian George, Mitchell Stuart and Michael Steward.
Bernhard: For the most part the number one directive on the matte paintings was to be authentic, and make it look 100% real. This is where the vast amount of reference photos we took on set came into play. Together with some stock photos of mountain ranges from Afghanistan and Pakistan this was the base for all our matte paintings. The only matte painting that allowed for a bit more artistic freedom was Murphy’s death sequence. Pete really wanted to infuse an emotional element into the matte painting, which we achieved by a low backlit painting where we also pushed all elements, such as depth haze and lens flares, to the limit of realism.
Can you tell us more about your work on the US Army base?
Bernhard: Working at the Army base in Albuquerque was a very interesting experience. We worked together with the US Army, Navy and Air Force while we were filming at the base. To a lot of their personnel, especially on the Navy side, the story of the movie was a very personal one. They were incredibly forthcoming and open to our specific VFX needs. We got very detailed reference for all the helicopters in the movie, both in form of still photos with the helicopters on the ground as well as reference shot on camera of the helicopters doing maneuvers in the air specifically for VFX.
Jesper: Early on in post, with the cut still being worked on, we didn’t quite know how many shots of the bases we would end up with – so my VFX Producer, Victoria Mowlam and I decided to take a different route than what we did on ZERO DARK THIRTY. On that project the approach was to build simple geometry and project matte-paintings onto it. It works great as you can help the matte-painting by rendering occlusion and general light direction but it puts an emphasis on the backend work. As we didn’t yet even know how many shots we were talking about, we decided to build, texture and lookdev a lot more, which balanced that out by putting the bulk of the work at the start. Once we had the plates it was a combination of populating the scenes with buildings, vehicles, people and props and to finish it off some matte painting especially for the grounds.
Can you explain in detail about the creation of the helicopters?
Jesper: Bernie took a lot of texture, reference stills and HDRI’s when the helicopters were being used in camera. We already had a lot of the models in our library from other films but some extra details were added. We had some shots where we needed to make static rotor blades spin. Those things can be very dangerous and I’ve been told by a pilot to never refer to a helicopter as a chopper to not jinx things, but with shots like that we had the perfect environment to look dev our CG helicopters. They simply had to look like what was in the plate.
Bernhard: Our asset team did a great job during look development on the helicopters to make them match the real ones in every detail. A solid light rig created by our lead lighting artist Ross Wallis, together with some integration work done in comp, made them sit in each shot nicely and matched all the practical shots very believably.
How did you manage the animation of those helicopters?
Jesper: With so much real footage of helicopters we had a fantastic source of reference. Most of the helicopters you see in the film were there for real. We only did shots that were too difficult or too dangerous to get in camera. Intercutting with real footage can be limiting in a way but I think it’s mostly a good thing. In a film like LONE SURVIVOR you don’t want to make up anything too fancy as you quickly run the risk of taking the audience out of the flow.
Bernhard: On a few shots, especially when the Apaches attack the village, we pushed the limits a bit more to make the shots feel more dramatic, but for the most part the directive was to match to the real helicopters.
Can you tell us more about the rocky environment creation?
Jesper: Most of the environments were locations with one big exception – Murphy’s rock. The rock he climbs up on to get radio contact back to base was a set piece built outside with a big blue screen behind it and shot at the very end of the shoot. There were a few shots leading up to Murphy climbing that rock that were shot on location on the ski hill. We ended up building a CG rock, similar to the set piece, that we tracked into those plates and projected a matte painting onto. We ended up doing some overriding camera moves to not compromise the scale of the rock and added trees and backgrounds to tie the location and blue screen shots together and bridged the two – hopefully the result is that no-one thinks twice about it.
Bernhard: The other environment we were tasked to create was the POVs (point of view shots) when they look down the first and second ‘jump’, as it was referred to in production. Since we had some freedom as to what we needed to match to for these shots, we decided to get some real plates as a starting point. We did a one-day ‘recce’ in Squamish (just north of Vancouver) and found some good places on and around the Stawamus Chief mountain. Neil Impey, another Image Engine employee who has some valuable experience with live action photography, and myself shot some POV plates on a Red Scarlet which, with some touch-up help from matte painting and comp, worked very well in that sequence.
How did you enhance the action sequences?
Bernhard: We did some significant enhancement work on the battle sequences. With the help of the SFX department we shot a lot of practical elements on set, and along with the elements we already had in our in-house library we had a good selection to pepper in across the battle sequences. For the RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) we needed to create some specific smoke trails, which was done by our FX Lead Jacob Clark using Houdini.
Jesper: If you look at any reference of a real RPG it’s nothing like what you’re used to see in movies. They are fast. Pretty much instant like any other gun but that’s not very visually interesting. What we ended up doing was something in-between reality and movie magic by re-timing or chopping frames out to make them seem quick but still have that nice smoke trail that we’re all used to seeing. It’s a small detail but I think it really helped the energy and the chaos going on in those sequences. We also did a lot of the usual muzzle flashes that gets lost with the shutter of cameras – and added more bullet hits, blood, smoke etc.
Can you tell us more about the shots featuring the C-130?
Bernhard: The plane itself was never shot practically, so we didn’t have anything to match to. On one hand this gave us some creative freedom, but also made it more challenging to make it look realistic. Geoff Pedder did the look dev on the plane, and Edmond Engelbrecht did the lighting setups for those shots.
How did you create the various HUD and screen contents?
Jesper: A lot of it was actually captured in camera during several shoots. It was all based on plates, but we added what you see on the actual screen with some adjustments, like matching the depth of field for example.
Bernhard: For the sniper scopes we did some research on the actual scopes that were used, and then did a bit of re-designing to make them more interesting for the movie. Most of those elements were created in comp using Nuke.
How did your experience on ZERO DARK THIRTY help you on this project?
Jesper: I wasn’t directly involved in ZERO DARK THIRTY but we had a lot of useful assets in our library thanks to that show – everything from buildings and vehicles, which was a great head start. I also really think it helped with the confidence of the filmmakers that Image Engine had just done the work on that film. We really couldn’t have been better set up which helped making this project such a nice one.
Have you adapted your pipeline for this show?
Jesper: We didn’t really have to. We have a very flexible way of working that has evolved with different demands from different projects over the years.
Bernhard: As a general rule we are always trying to avoid having to create show specific solutions. Our pipeline is designed in such a way that it can handle a wide range of scenarios. That means we can handle heavy FX movies as well as smaller budget movies with quick turnaround within the same pipeline. Our R&D team has to be credited here for creating a very solid pipeline without which we couldn’t have completed a project like this.
What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
Bernhard: We knew from the start that we only had a limited budget and a lot of work ahead of us. Early on we put together a small team that had just been working together on R.I.P.D. As they were already a tight team, everyone could kind of hit the ground running – there really wasn’t much need for handholding. With a show like this where a lot of the work is about making New Mexico look like Afghanistan it’s very tough to know how many shots you’ll end up with. It’s all down to the cut in the end. I’m very proud of the end result and extremely pleased that we could make what seemed a really tough challenge at the beginning a really smooth ride.
Jesper: I’m incredibly grateful to the team and especially my Producer Victoria – and Comp Supe / Plate Supe / Vfx Supe for doing most of the shoot in my absence – Bernie! You couldn’t do a project this way without people as level headed as Victoria and someone as capable as Bernie, but also we wouldn’t have finished this well without Bernie who shot his own plates in Squamish to make the film work. I challenge anyone reading this article to find Squamish in the footage of the film! I know there are at least five shots to look out for…
Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
Jesper: No, I slept well during this one.
Bernhard: The two shots that I was very uncertain about for a long time were the two POV shots. Since we had no plates to base those shots on, and I was convinced a full CG approach wouldn’t have worked for the movie, it took us a bit out of the usual comfort zone of Visual Effects. Deciding to do our own location scout and VFX unit shoot in Squamish turned out to work really well, so after we returned safely from the mountains I knew we had those shots in the bag as well.
What do you keep from this experience?
Jesper: My job is unbelievably fortunate. A project like LONE SURVIVOR solidifies that I’m very, very lucky. Whenever things go wrong, and they tend to do just that, I will always think back to this experience and the people I shared it with. Doing what we do on a day-to-day basis and then to see that on the big screen on a very special project is incredibly satisfying. I really hope everyone I had the pleasure of working with on this one feels the same. It really was special.
Bernhard: I think the most memorable part of the experience will be principal photography. Shooting a movie based on a horrific true story, with the person the lead character is based on – Marcus Luttrell – being present was a very intense and humbling experience. Being able to work so closely with the US Military gave me a whole new perspective on the subject matter and respect for the people involved.
How long have you worked on this film?
Jesper: We started the prep and scouts in New Mexico in September 2012. Shoot commenced in October and we finished vfx at the end of May 2013 – Overall I guess I worked on it for 9 months.
How many shots have you done?
Jesper: We finished just over 270 shots that made the movie.
What was the size of your team?
Bernhard: We built a team of 16 artists that were fully dedicated to the project but I also had some help from our asset and animation department.
What is your next project?
Jesper: TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES.
Bernhard: Daniel Espinosa’s new project CHILD 44.
A big thanks for your time.
// WANT TO KNOW MORE?
– Image Engine: Dedicated page about LONE SURVIVOR on Image Engine website.
LONE SURVIVOR – VFX Breakdown
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2014