Jonathan Bowen has been working in visual effects for over 25 years. He has worked at many studios such as Cinesite, Weta FX, ILM and DNEG. He has worked on films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Pacific Rim, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Wonder Woman 1984.
How did you and DNEG get involved on this show?
I actually arrived a little late in the process attaching to the show just before shooting was due to start, our first meeting was with Susan the week before the tech scout. Then we met up one more time, with the Nees and DP Jonathan Sela trying to figure out how best to shoot the water for the Well of Endless Tears set. After that I was onto a plane to the Dominican Republic for 3 months, split between amazing locations and stage work at Pinewood’s facilities out there before rolling straight into post after shooting wrapped.
How was the collaboration with Directors Aaron Nee, Adam Nee and Production VFX Supervisor Susan MacLeod?
The Nees and Susan were an amazing team of creative minds. The atmosphere and mood during the shoot and post-production was collaborative and practical throughout. Adam and Aaron were always approachable and even when the pressure was high they remained level-headed. Also, since Aaron had created some of his own VFX for pitch reels in the past he was already up to speed about most elements of the VFX process.
What were their expectations and approach about the visual effects?
The VFX in Lost City are first and foremost about supporting the story. Everything was sourced or referenced from real-world locations and photography. Our snakes were intercut with live-action snakes and we had set lighting reference plates for them to compare to. The only assets that would be majority CG generated were the Pegasus VTOL business jet and the Well of Endless Tears environment.
The Pegasus jet is going to be a real aeroplane but at the time of shooting was in early development and no full-size mockup existed to be referenced but we did have the sketchup files of the basic dimensions as well as helpful feedback during the build from the engineers. The aerial plates also had a real Cessna in place, for lighting and animation reference.
The Well of Endless Tears, and the Tomb of King Kalaman and Queen Taha were set extensions for the stage set-pieces. The tomb itself was entirely practical so we extended the other on-set rock walls and added an entrance to a 600 foot diameter sinkhole filled with thick palm trees and waterfalls (the tears of the name). We also completed an exterior shot of the sinkhole building on a helicopter shot of a real sinkhole in the Cabo Cabron National Park including adding some extra islands from San Lorenzo Bay tying it to where the majority of boat work was shot.
How was the work split between the DNEG offices?
Dividing work between the Montreal and Mumbai offices is a complicated equation – taking talent availability and scheduling into account between the various offices can be a tricky balancing act. My input to this is to consider the “creative logistics”, cutting dependency of one site to the other as much as I can so each is working on self-contained sequences wherever possible.
What are the sequences made by DNEG?
We were the primary vendor on the show, contributing to every major sequence; the Bajaj car chase and fall, the Shaman armoured car sequence (interior window comps and exterior rigging removal and branch), the Pegasus flight, landing, take off, as well as cabin window comps, plus the fantasy temple with hundreds of CG snakes. There was a large number of tricky outdoor/location environment enhancement shots throughout. We were stitching together different filming locations into one area – for instance the section starting at the Waterfall (real world Salto de Socoa) was joined onto Majagua Quarry in an exterior helicopter shot of the characters climbing, then the majority of the rest of the climbing sequence was filmed on an outdoor bluescreen set, and even this was joined up to the night-time and morning camping on the cliff edge stage sets. This lead to one more wide vista helicopter shot of the two heros reaching the top of their climb. The blending was made possible by our Environments team using a some scanned rock elements, some library plants and trees and a lot of hard work creating the rough scrubby mountainside and some re-use of a plate from the waterfall sequence by the Comp team.
How did you create the Pegasus?
Susan just forwarded me a really nice email from Pegasus Universal Aerospace expressing congratulations with the look and physics of our version of their plane! Really meaningful and a unique piece of feedback for the team. At first we worked from a basic SketchUp file that Pegasus had created as part of their publicity material to get the overall dimensions of the vehicle. During photography a real Cessna was used as a lighting, animation and frame composition stand-in (I think that plane stayed in the trailer too). Referring back to reality at every opportunity was very useful because it’s easier to have direct reference in plate, even if that ref has to be removed, than trying to guess how a plane might be reacting to the light, or estimate how it might animate particularly for the plane’s mass and aerodynamics affecting the movement.
Did you receive specific indications and references for the Pegasus?
We were in contact with Pegasus throughout the design process. They gave valuable feedback and direction for taking the step from their concept to something more realistic. For example, too many pitot tubes, suggestions to add track-cans, good supportive information and great references for us. We added landing lights that matched the practical spots on the Fairfax hangar stage. Smaller animation details like a little vibration/deformation of the wings during landing/take-off helped keep it feeling realistic and then we had some interactive sand FX for the beach shots helping describe the unusual propulsion system.
The story is taking us on a beautiful island. Where were these sequences filmed?
Everything was shot in the Dominican Republic, on location at the many beautiful spots around the island and then all the stage work was at Pinewood Studios’ Dominican Republic stages including the tank work for the underwater shots. I think the background plates for the hotel foyer/kidnap sequence were shot in LA but everything else was shot around the island, dense jungle, beautiful beaches, private house for the hotel room sequence, waterfalls, islands, mountains, the locations team were able to find everything that was needed. Apart from the giant volcano. We had to add that and based the design on Stromboli and Arenal-type volcanos.
Can you elaborate about the island creation?
Following Jim Bissell’s production design plans and listening to the brothers’ guidance that the island should be fairly small – 3 or so miles across – we created a rough model to represent the whole island just for framing reference and added an 8,000 ft volcano to gauge the size and visibility from the different locations around the island; Fairfax’s encampment, the Sea Cave entrance to the Well of tears, and the Village. We also took real world locations like the cliffs and sinkhole of Cabo Cabron and added it to the small islands of San Lorenzo Bay where most of the boat shots were completed. More cutting and pasting of real-world to create the desired film version.
Did you use procedural or game engine tools for the jungle?
Speedtree is the principal source for our foliage and vegetation. But depending on the shot these may have passed through the FX department too.
Which location on the island was the most complicated to create and why?
The biggest single asset would be the Well of Tears and the dense jungle-filled sinkhole just outside. Getting the basic size and scale of the cavern containing the Tomb was a tricky endeavour, there were a few story points that the VFX needed to convey. The exit plan needed to be clear, there’s a current of water (FX simulation) that leads to the ocean and this needed to be shown to be their best hope for escaping the exploding island. The exterior sinkhole in particular needed to be off-limits as an escape route so we had a lot of fun adding lava and burning trees as well as massive steam clouds ramping up the chaos and eliminating any thought of escape. Finally the route into the cave (where Fairfax and Rafi escaped through) was closed by another FX sim collapsing that tunnel and a lot of extra dropping rocks.
How did you enhance the various explosions during the rescue mission?
The two main explosions in the movie are the giant pyro event behind the team escaping Fairfax’s dig site and then the final volcano explosion transitioning into the book cover near to the end of the movie. The dig site escape was a single take SFX setup all captured in camera, we did a tiny cleanup for safety wires and other inevitable rigging but the explosion itself is all real. The volcano explosion at the end was a lot of 2d elements layered onto the CG render for the volcano with Matte Painting work projected too.
Later in the movie, the volcano is erupting. Can you explain in detail about that?
The volcano is a ticking clock in the background of the plot, driving Fairfax’s desperation to get his hands on the treasure before an eruption covers the tomb and the treasure beneath a thick layer of ash and lava.
When the heroes are inside the Well of Endless Tears the exterior lava and fire in the sinkhole was the FX department letting loose with their toolbox of things to blow up and set fire too. There is lava falling down the backwall and slowly rolling across the jungle floor towards the tomb, in some places it interacts with the waterfalls and creates a huge steam cloud, ash and embers are floating in the air and multiple trees are on fire. It was a lot of FX work that we started early and were working on right up until the last deadline for rendering to get it right.
The exterior volcano explosion after the heros are safe was a lot of 2d elements layered to give the scale and size of the eruption that would destroy the Well of Tears and the excavation site. The volcano explosion itself was based mostly on one main pyro element. That element had taken quite a few goes to get the right mix of debris, explosive, petrol and framing correct. As with the rest of the film if there’s a real element that can be used it will be. Even takes that were not suitable for the main element were used if they had something to add.
How did you handle the FX simulations?
Waterfalls, lava, rocks, ash, burning trees with falling flaming debris; FX worked really hard on the show!
Which shot or sequence was the most challenging?
Probably the most challenging shots surrounded the bike smash stunt. They involved adding a rocky cliff edge into a palm-filled jungle plate. It was tricky to create a good edge line where none existed. Even though we lidar scanned the area it’s not easy to estimate the actual ground plane with all the debris and small plants, the lidar was useful anyway to make the track accurate because the palms resolved nice and clearly providing good anchor points. But finding a good edges was difficult and lighting it as if there was an open gap where none existed was tricky.
Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
Shooting at night, literally.
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
I can finally claim to have done a “knocked over by branch” shot properly and completely. I feel like I have seen and been near this type of shot in many, many earlier shows at several different companies but never before has it gone so smoothly and been so rewarding to complete. Mainly because the element was shot really well and fit nicely with the stunt action. A small shot for sure, but an intensely satisfying one.
What is your best memory on this show?
FX is a very difficult department to wrangle, the process of creating simulations is so opaque and the turnarounds are so long. So on this show I remember very clearly the huge number of complex FX setups that came together quickly and so close to finished look that I had to pinch myself from time to time. Steam, lava, waterfalls, geysers (not used in the end but beautifully simulated) these all arrived in such a short time in such an advanced stage of completion that I was incredibly proud of the efforts of the FX teams.
How long have you worked on this show?
May 2021 to Mar 2022.
What’s the VFX shots count?
What was the size of your team?
Around 150 across 2 sites.
What is your next project?
Right now I am taking a short break after working non-stop on my past several shows, Uncharted, Death on the Nile and Wonder Woman, back-to-back with barely any rest between adds up to a good few years without having taken a proper break.
A big thanks for your time.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
DNEG: Dedicated page about The Lost City on DNEG website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2022