Nigel Denton-Howes joined Prime Focus World in 2014. Before that he worked at Image Engine, Digital Domain and Sony Pictures Imageworks. He has worked on films such as DISTRICT 9, BATTLESHIP or THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2.

What is your background?
I come from a CG background, beginning in modeling, texturing, look development, lighting and later quite a bit of compositing. In addition to this I have spent a lot of time programming, specifically pipeline and asset management systems development, and at the other end of the spectrum doing concept art and matte painting. After 8 or so years hands on I moved into departmental supervision, CG supervision and finally into VFX supervision. Luckily for me, even as a supervisor I have had the opportunity to remain very hands-on with the technology and people and really enjoy getting back on the box at every opportunity.

How did you get involved on this show?
After wrapping up THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 as a sequence supervisor at Sony Imageworks I was contacted by Prime Focus World to VFX supervise THE EXPENDABLES 3. As a fan of the series, and of course all my 80’s actions heroes therein, I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it.

How did you work with Production VFX Supervisor Ajoy Mani?
Ajoy Mani is a great supervisor to work with. He has a clear understanding of what the filmmakers are trying to achieve and communicates it back to the facilities in a very concise manner. He works in a very methodical way, building up all the shots in a sequence with first, second, and third passes ensuring that the work is moved forward with each pass until final rather than just focusing on one tentpole shots to the determent of the others. It was great to work with him in this manner.

What are the sequences done by Prime Focus World?
Prime Focus World completed the opening sequence of the film, which happens just before the title card pops up. This is the sequence where Doc (Wesley Snipes) is broken out of a prison train.

How did you approach the opening sequence?
We were lucky that the opening sequence was easily broken down into multiple shot groupings. One group was all the shots where we were putting a canopy, rotors and shadows on to the prop helicopter. Another group was replacing a helicopter filmed on set with a different model; another group involved the CG train, and another was simple green screen replacements. We then developed templates for each of those types of shots (lighting setups and nuke templates) with our lead artists. At that point it was fast and simple to run through those types of shots with the larger groups of animation, lighting and comp artists. There were several one-off shots as well which required more hands-on work such as the all CG shots of the prison exploding.

Have you created some previs for this sequence?
This sequence was presented to us as a series of storyboards and editorial composites. We then went directly into production using those as a rough guide of what needed to be accomplished in each of the shots.

Can you explain in details about the creation of the helicopter?
The helicopter model was sent to us in its basic form from another vendor. From there we upgraded the model, textures and look development to hold up in some of the extreme close-ups our sequence required. It was great seeing that asset come together, and it fits into the shots extremely well.

Can you tell us more about the train?
A practical train was filmed on set for most of the earlier shots in the sequence and later wide-angle shots. For more ambitious stunts being performed in the sequence the actors and stunt doubles were filmed on a single car set piece, which comprised only the top 1/4 of the train. Our job was to extend that set piece down to the rails and to tack on additional train cars as necessary. It was a fun challenge getting that train elements to line up as well as have the asset hold up well to the very close up cameras we were going to be rendering it with. The train also featured lots of dead guards on the top, which we also added in CG to ensure continuity throughout the sequence.

How have you created the environment for this sequence?
The environment is a combination of background plate footage, projection paintings and straight matte paintings. Each of the shots also underwent a grade to change the foliage from a nice lush green to a dead brown colour, to help enhance the depressing feeling the filmmakers were looking for. In the case of the plate-based environments, many times we would have to splice several pieces from different plates together to make it work with the sweeping camera moves we had on the CG/prop train.

The Expendables attack a prison. Can you tell us more about its design and creation?
The prison design came to us as a single frame storyboard drawing. This gave us a lot of freedom to design its look which we did via a series of concept paintings and finally a matte painting and model to project on to. The final prison in each shot was created in different ways depending on the angle, but generally with a base painting that was then tweaked for each shot and projected onto cards in Nuke to give a sense of parallax. The final explosion shot is about 90% matte painting with a little bit of plate in the foreground.

Have you used models for the prison explosion or is it all CG?
The prison itself is done as a matte painting projected on to 3d geometry, which is then blown up in Houdini. We didn’t get a chance to use any practical models for this shot.

Can you explain in detail about the creation of this big explosion?
The explosion of the prison spanned the last two shots of the sequence. We needed to ensure the explosion made sense in continuity between the two shots so we approached them as a single long simulation that was then rendered from the two different camera angles. The explosion itself has a huge number of elements contributing to the final look. These range from the smoke wafting out of the doorway where the train broke through to the fire and glass shooting out of the guard building windows and of course the massive explosion coming from the warehouse buildings at the very back of the prison. The explosion elements (fire, smoke and debris) were all created in Houdini. It was a complex shot to pull off and involved a lot of fx and comp artists working very closely together.

What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
The timeline on this project was one of our biggest challenges. It was a tight schedule to hit with the resources we had available. Creatively, the big explosion shots were of course high on the difficulty list, as was getting the look of the prison nailed down across so many shots.

How did you split the work amongst the various offices of Prime Focus World?
Most of the work on the show was completed at the Prime Focus Vancouver facility. Our studio in India contributed the bulk of the front-end work such as match move, paint and roto, with some of the last minute paint work being completed in Vancouver.

Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
Nothing in particular was scary from a how-do-we-do-it perspective. Our approach of breaking the sequence down into shot types also made the show very efficient. As usual it was the combination of timeline vs resources that kept the heart pumping pretty fast.

How long have you worked on this film?
We worked on this show for about three months, but the bulk of the work was completed in the last three weeks of the project.

How many shots have you done?
We delivered 179 shots for the show.

What was the size of your team?
The size of the team varied as the show progressed, from 9 compositors, for example, going up to 45 in order to complete the project. The last few days were pretty intense with a team that size!

What is your next project?
Our team is currently completing a show called THE BEST OF ME for Relativity Media.

What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
– ALIEN / ALIENS (ok, that’s two, but you know what I mean)
– THE MATRIX (just cool)
– CASABLANCA (a reminder that the writing can be awesome)

A big thanks for your time.


Prime Focus World: Dedicated page about THE EXPENDABLES 3 on Prime Focus World website.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2014


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