Mitchell Drain began his career in 1985 as a roto artist at Robert Abel and Associates. Subsequently, he worked on the Flame and Inferno systems. He has participated in projects such as JUDGE DREDD, INDEPENDENCE DAY, BLACK HAWK DOWN or MINORITY REPORT. In 2004, he joined Asylum and became VFX Supervisor and will handle films like MASTER AND COMMANDER, NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS, THE UNBORN or G-FORCE.

What is your background?
I studied Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. I came to LA in 1985, and found work as a roto artist at Robert Abel and Associates. There I learned about old school opticals and the emerging digital effects techniques. I then became a Paintbox/Harry artist which led me to film compositing on the Quantel Domino system. I then moved to Flame/Inferno. Soon I was supervising shoots for Cinema Research Corp and subsequent jobs, while continuing to composite. I’ve been supervising « full-time » since 2004.

Can you tell us how Method Studios got involved on this show?
The show was originally awarded to Asylum, however they closed during production. Fox has a good track record with Method so it was an easy decision to move the show here.

How was the collaboration with director McG?
McG is an extraordinarily collaborative director. Right from pre-production he gave vfx a seat at the table, so to speak. He was open to ideas and solutions to achieve the vfx most efficiently within time and budget and his requests were mostly reasonable!

What have you done on this movie?
We had about 400 shots. Most of the heavy lifting was in the action sequences – the opening fight on the Asian city rooftop and the climax on the unfinished L.A. freeway. There were also many one or two-off type shots which involved replacing backgrounds. Some wire work, breath removals and monitor composites. Almost every sequence utilized some sort of digital enhancement such as speed ramps or small vfx to enhance the action or the comedy. We created digital buildings to build out the opening cityscape, created a CG drone, a CG freeway end, environments for the climax among other things.

About the opening sequence in the Asian City, how was the shooting and the real size of the set?
We were fortunate to have an excellent full size rooftop set with 180 degrees of bluescreen. The facade of the building was created digitally. The helicopter was a practical set piece however, the rotor blades had to be created because of noise and safety issues.

Can you tell us in detail the creation of the huge environment and the city?
Originally the city was to be comprised of practical plates shot in Shanghai. As post production evolved, there was discussion about having the city be more generic. When sending a crew to Shanghai didn’t materialize, we contacted a location scout and photographer to go to the top of the highest possible building, and they shot bracketed stills and footage on the Canon 5d. We shot with a 50mm lens to minimize lens distortion and allowed for about a 20% overlap of the plates. Since the city was to be generic, we painted out any landmarks that were too identifiable. Those plates were then projected onto a sphere and tracked into the bluescreen plates. Much color correction and tweaking was necessary to match the film and video elements.

How did you take the materials from the set to recreate the city?
The set itself was only the rooftop. The Art Department provided architectural plans of the set. We created a model in Maya for tracking and also to use as a basis for the CG building extension. We tried to design a building that would match the architecture of the set but still look as though it existed within the generic Asian city.

Does the night aspect cause you some troubles to take the reference materials for the city?
The difficulty with the night mostly arose from the fact that the dynamic range needed to be higher than what we were able to capture with the video from the 5d. This is where the bracketed stills came in. Those images had detail in the blacks that the matte painter could use to fill in the negative space. The photography from the bluescreen shoot was rather bright. We lifted the background exposures so that in the DI they would have plenty of leverage to color correct the scenes darker and not clip in the blacks.

Are you involved on the shots showing the fall of Tuck and JDR on a table in the restaurant?
Yes, that was a 2-pass composite of stunt doubles falling into a greenscreen pad, and a lock-off plate of the restaurant floor below. In composting, we created a slight camera move with 2d parallax to give the shot some added excitement.

The final sequence happens on a unfinished freeway bridge. How did you approach this sequence?
This is the 110 south to the 105 west freeway interchange. This was selected because of the height and the great view of LA. The freeway is, of course, fully complete. Our job was to create the illusion that it is incomplete. We needed to create a section of the freeway in CG to represent the unfinished freeway edge. We went to the location and took measurements and texture reference. It was also necessary to make the two lane freeway appear to be one lane for the illusion of danger. Plates of the freeway below were taken from another location to be used as tiles, much like the city in the opening sequence.

Can you tell us more about the challenge for the creation of the environment?
Since the environment was to be stitched together from the plates, we needed to remove the moving cars because, if they were to cross a stitch point, they would disappear. This meant that we needed to replace the moving vehicles. There was no time left for CG cars so, the artists used stills and moved them 2 dimensionally, added shadows, lighting changes and motion blur to complete the effect. There was also the issue of lighting direction. Since the plates were shot at a different location, and at a different time of day, lighting direction was inconsistent with the first unit photography. This was solved by the compositors painting the shadows into the right direction.

What was the real size for the freeway sequence?
The width of the freeway was actually 52+ feet. This had to be reduced to about half to give the illusion of a single lane freeway ramp. The sequence was comprised of about 66 shots.

Some shots are in super slow-motion. How did you manage them and did have you some troubles with those shots?
Those shots were shot at 150 fps. The purpose here was to give the editor the latitude to change the speeds for dramatic effect. This did not really cause any issues. Editorial would provide us with the frame rate that they wanted and we would re-time the plates to that speed and composite from there. In some cases we needed to re-time our composite elements to match the final frame rates. For shots that were returned to 24fps, it was necessary to add motion blur to the final composites to avoid ‘strobing’.

How did you create the final cars fall? Is it full CG or did you used some real elements?
The SUV is a practical element. Special effects built a catapult to launch the car over the side if a structure in Long Beach and composited into a plate generated by photos and other elements. Production did not launch the jeep but it became clear in editing that we would need to see the jeep as well. There was no time left to create a CG jeep from scratch. The compositor (Scott Balkolm) imported an obj file of a matching jeep into Flame, where he textured, lit, and animated the jeep per McG’s direction.

You have used Flame intensively on this show. What were the advantages for the it?
Both Flame and Nuke were used extensively on this show. Certainly both have their strengths. Flame was particularly useful because of the quick turnaround of iterations of shots that needed to have elements created for one-off shots. The jeep explained above is a great example. There is also a sequence in a dog pound where the Chris Pine character wrestles with a dog. This was a stuffed prop with no animatronics. In post, McG asked what could be done to animate the prop. 3d was not an option. The intuitive nature of Flame allowed for experimentation and many iterations in a very quick turnaround. These are two of many examples where the Flame workflow allowed us to get a lot of production value.

Were there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
In truth, I tend to lose sleep over any effect until I have a solution that I believe in 100%! On THIS MEANS WAR, the opening and closing sequences created the same amount of headaches not only because of the scale of the vfx, but also due to some of the limitations placed upon the production with budget and time. The movie is, at its core, a romantic comedy but the action sequences needed to be on par with much larger budgeted films.

What do you keep from this experience?
I had a great, great experience on this show, mostly due to the crew, McG and the team at Fox. We were given a lot of freedom to take the work to a higher level and the faith that the director showed in us was rare and appreciated. It wasn’t all smiles and rainbows, but in the end, we were all working together and that spirit of collaboration was very rewarding.

How long have you worked on this film?
From pre-production to final delivery was about 16 months. This was mostly due to re-shoots.

How many shots have you done?
Final shot count was around 400 shots.

What was the size of your team?
We had a relatively small team. In the neighborhood of 50. Additional shots were contracted to Method Studios NY, Digiscope, Shade and With a Twist Studios.

What is your next project?
I am presently doing a television pilot for Fox.

What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
What a great question! It is difficult to name only four. When I was young I became fascinated with classic horror films. FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, WOLFMAN etc. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and BLADE RUNNER both had a profound impact on my desire to work in film. Since I began my career in non-digital visual effects, opticals, special make-up and miniatures were my focus. With the advent of digital vfx, I became only more passionate about vfx.

A big thanks for your time.


Method Studios: Official website of Method Studios.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2012


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