TRIPLE FRONTIER: Mark Russell – Overall VFX Supervisor

In 2011, Mark Russell explained his work on TOWER HEIST. He then worked on many films such as THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, THE PROMISE and DEEPWATER HORIZON.

How did you get involved on this show?
I had worked with JC Chandor on A MOST VIOLENT YEAR and we get along very well. I was excited at the idea of doing something bigger in scope and scale with him. He is a really wonderful filmmaker and a great collaborator. He know what he is after, and he’s not afraid to try new things in order to get there. A the same time, he very much lives in the moment with a film.

How was the collaboration with director J.C. Chandor?
Terrific! JC really allows the characters to tell the story, which is something I truly appreciate. The VFX in his films are there to serve the story and the characters in the same way he treats everything else in the film. At the same time, he is happy to let me explore within each of the moments and present what I think works best.

What was his expectations and approach about the visual effects?
His approach to VFX is a bit reluctant. He would most often like to find way to do things in camera where-ever possible. This was a philosophy that we embraced for TRIPLE FRONTIER, in that we shot in locations that gave us 50 percent of what we wanted. We then used VFX to get us the rest of the way there. Many of the precipitous locations in the film were hard to get to and difficult to shoot which really helped get the performance right and the feel of each spot to be believable.

What are the main differences since his latest movie A MOST VIOLENT YEAR?
The most obvious was that we had more resources at our disposal. A MOST VIOLENT YEAR was very much an independent film and we really struggled to get things done within our budget. On TRIPLE FRONTIER, we had more leeway to do things properly, which for this scale of action and drama was essential. The environment plays such a large role in the story, we needed to make sure we could pull it off believably. The helicopter sequence was another area where, with the full support of Netflix we had just the right amount of resources to get it done the right way.

How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
I had the privilege of being able to prep the film three separate times, each with slightly different parameters before we actual got to filming with actors. When we got to the third and final round, I was fortunate enough to get Susan Macleod to join the team. Not only was she able to bring a fresh set of eyes to the project, but she was able to pull from her vast experience to really streamline the process of planning, budgeting and finding the right partners. After sorting through a number of different scenarios and approaches, we made the choice to work with DNEG in Montreal and Mumbai while also utilizing some of the talent pool in New York where were cutting the film. I really relied on Susan for everything from the numbers and schedule to covering the set when I was with 2nd unit or in another location. I found her to be a terrific partner.

Can you tell us more about the previs and postvis process?
Because the movie had been through prep a number of times, I was able to build a really solid previs for the helicopter sequences with a team that was built for the show by The Brigade in NY. It started in early 2017 in the first round of the film we built the bulk of the sequence and had something to work with. I was also able to pre-shoot a good deal of the background plates for the helicopter flying sequences during that first round. After the film shuttered and then came back with Netflix a few months later, I was able to integrate the live action background plates into the previs, so that we have a really strong previs using actual footage for all of the wide shots. This was great for me, because it allowed me to discover the holes in that first round of plate photography and very clearly identify what I still needed to shoot.

The movie is taking us to various locations. How did you enhance the various environments?
We shot the film mostly in Hawaii with a few locations in Mammoth, CA and also in Bogota, Colombia. As you may or may not know in Oahu, there is no snow and the mountains are very tropical, so very early on, I identified that our biggest challenge was going to be connecting the locations in the jungle of Hawaii to the Andes locations in Mammoth and bridging the two together. This is where we relied heavily on Greg Berry, our production designer, and Chris Keller and his team at DNEG Montreal. They did some wonderful concept work for us during and toward the end of production setting the look for each of the locations, so that we had a unified design to the whole Andes Trek.

How did you catch all the materials to recreate these environments and especially the Andes?
As we were prepping the film (the final time) we mounted and expedition to the Patagonian Andes to capture the look and feel of the mountains that integrated into our design. We had narrowed down the mountains near Fitz Roy between Argentina and Chile as having the most value in relation to the location in the story. We were able to clearly identify which specific locations would work for each of our story points through scouts and photos, so we sent a plate photographer from DNEG down to South America to capture the environment. That combined with a number of days in a helicopter flying around Mammoth Lakes and Lone Pine, CA we were able to get most everything we wanted. There were a few additional days in Colombia where Fred North and David Newell (our incredible aerial team) went out on their own to get some of the lower jungle pieces and larger vistas.

Did you received specific indications and references for the environments?
Greg Berry and I collaborated really well together from the beginning. He and I designed the basic look and feel of the environments that would require extensions. He built a really amazing team of artists and we were able to layout the initial ideas that way. Once we started shooting and had actually plates to work with, we brought in DNEG to do more realistic environmental concepts for the matte paintings.

Which one was the most complicated location to create and why?
We had a few that proved to be somewhat elusive. The first was the location for the money drop, where the guys ultimately toss away the burden of the heist. We were looking for something near the snow, but not too snowy where we could use or create a canyon in which our soldiers could leave the money and have it never be found. We ultimately found the edge of a cliff to shoot the A side of this ravine. in CG we built the opposing side and created the drop from reference we were able to survey in Mammoth, CA.

From a technical perspective the most challenging location to create digitally was the vista from inside the helicopter as the team nearly makes it over the final set of mountains to the ocean. This was a particular challenge because we were connecting lots of different terrain that is rarely found together. We were in the snowy Andes, but high enough that the tops of the rocks are without snow. Beyond that we had to lay in an environment that feels more like the surface of the moon where the subsequent shootout takes place. Then we had to descend rapidly to the jungle with the ocean beyond. All of this had to be seen from the cockpit of a helicopter and read in less than 2 seconds.

Where was filmed the different locations?
The majority of the film was filmed in Hawaii. Everything from the entrance into Brazil, through the raid on Lorea’s mansion in the jungle through the helicopter leaving entering the snowy mountains. The scenes with the Mules where mostly shot in Hawaii as was the beach chase at the end. It wasn’t until the guys reach the snow that we move to Tioga Pass in California. Finally, we photographed the Discothèque and the St. John’s scenes in Bogota, Colombia.

How did you work with the stunt and SFX teams?
Guy Norris and his stunt team were excellent to work with. We overlapped in a few sequences, mostly the beach chase and the helicopter. In addition to my previs, they provided their own for the opening scenes at the discotheque and the beach chase, which were very helpful in understand where I would have to take over.

Which stunt was the most complicated to enhance?
The most complicated stunts that we enhanced involved the helicopter crash. They shots with Benny charging toward the helicopter as it comes to rest in the coca field was probably our most complicated set of shots. Purely from the amount of roto and CG integration that was required to bring the shots together. We had CG coca plants, CG helicopter and lots of dust and debris. The actor in these shots is real.

How did you create the digital doubles for the actors and the mules?
We knew from the get-go that we would be replacing Pasha, out hero mule, with a CG double, so we took many, many photographs and some extra footage from all sorts of angles in oder to aid DNEG in building the double. As to the actors, we photographed everyone in a traditional 360 neutral environment, in case we need to replace them anywhere along the way, but we were fortunate in the end we only need to create a digi-double for Benny, as he’s hanging out of the helicopter dangling his legs.

Can you explain in detail about the helicopter?
The helicopter was the centerpiece of the VFX work in the film. JC was really determined to get a really large heavy lift helicopter for the film. We settled on a Russian made Mi-8 helicopter as the one that would pick the guys up. After many months of searching the globe, the production team was able to find an operational helicopter in the United States as well as a « buck » that we could use for the interior scenes. We then used the flying helicopter as our base for the look of the buck and the CG. There were some subtle differences between the two helicopters which were were able to eliminate with a combination of art direction and VFX so that they appear the same in the film.

We mounted the buck to a motion controlled gimbal on a stage in Hawaii and surrounded the helicopter in 360 degrees of white silk. The gimbal rig was able to pitch nearly 30 degrees as well as spin almost 360 degrees around. We spent a few days photographing the actors on the gimbal well before shooting any of the exterior helicopter scenes. Then, we were able to land the real flying helicopter at the airstrip and the pit mine for the night scene when the team drops off Yovanna and her brother. However, because it’s such a large helicopter with a huge displacement of air and noise, anytime the helicopter is idling on the ground, VFX provided the spinning rotors.

For the crash in the coca field we had a rig where the buck version of the helicopter was able to spin around a few times and strike the ground. This was mostly useful from inside the helicopter, and it provided a great lighting reference for us for the final shots, but we were only able to use one shot from the exterior with this rig without replacing the helicopter completely. The crashing helicopter was all CG, with integrated CG smoke and debris as well as coca plants. For the moments leading up to the crash we were able to use a number of shots of the real helicopter flying by adding smoke, the money bag and sometimes Benny’s legs to the underside of the chopper.

How does his extra weight and the high altitude affects the animation work?
Clearly, a helicopter flying at 2,000ft is very different than a helicopter flying at 15,000ft. Fortunately I was able to get some first hand experience at the difference while flying with Fred North to capture the plates near Lone Pine, CA. We were flying at very high altitudes and you just don’t get the lift or control that you have at lower altitudes. This was a challenge for the animators, but I think the bigger test was finding a balance between showing the massive weight of the helicopter while giving it enough movement to make it feel perilous. The reality is that an Mi-8 helicopter does not move quickly, it certainly doesn’t make sharp turns, so we struggle with keeping it exciting while attempting to keep it real. I think we found a good balance in the end.

Can you explain in details about your work on the final sequence at the beach?
For the final chase in the film, we photographed the scenes at a location that was a flat industrial site with a beach. We had to replace or extend the environment in three directions here. During prep we found a beautiful beach with gorgeous lush hills that were perfect for the story, but we were unable to do things we wanted to with the vehicles there. We photographed the beach we liked at sunrise and from those plates, we were able to create a matte painting that everyone could get behind.

Is there any other invisible effects you want to reveal to us?
There are many VFX shots in the film that hope you will never be aware of. There is, however, one random sequence that came out so well, it would be a shame if no-one ever knew about it. In the end of the film our guys are being chased down the beach on their way to meet Benny, and they spot him in an old fishing boat. As photographed the boat was an inflatable zodiac (military style) boat which was used for a number of reasons including safety. The team at Method Vancouver replaced the inflatable with a fully CG fishing boat complete with rubber tires, tarps and gas cans. What’s remarkable about it is that the actors climb into the boat from the water, and as you can imagine the inflatable is like a giant inner tube with great bouncy mass and we replaced it with a hard surfaced thin ribbed boat. The team did a spectacular job.

Can you tell us how you choose the various VFX vendors?
I always try to find vendors who have a history of great work as well as some familiarity with the type of work were doing, but I think it’s really important to give them something that will allow them to stretch and grow a little with each sequence. I think when teams are challenged – even just a bit – that the work as a whole is often better. We looked for companies who had strong creative chops as well as a wealth of photo real VFX work.

How did you split the work amongst these vendors?
This was the first time in a while for me where I put such a large portion of the work in the hands of one organization. By comparison, our film was not huge, but I was still nervous about putting so many eggs in one basket. We awarded DNEG about two thirds or the total work in the film, and they did a terrific job. For the remaining work, we wanted to stay in NY. We went to companies staffed with people I had some experience with in the past and who I believed to accomplish what we were looking for with in the best way possible.

Can you tell us more about your collaboration with their VFX supervisors?
I think it’s really important as a supervisor to find vendor supervisors who understand (or can learn) your POV without too much back and forth. I want to know that I don’t have to explain things multiple times in order to get them where I need them to be. This is alway the gamble, but with Chris and the other vendors supes, I was very comfortable with the communication and very happy with the results.

The vendors are all around the world. How did you proceed to follow their work?
It’s always a challenge to track the shots across the span of a project, even when the work isn’t spread out. I find I need to be organized internally with my team first and foremost, so that we all know what each vendor is talking about. I like to use an online database like Shotgun to keep everything in one place, so that I can see the progress of any given shot at any time. Then interacting with the vendors on a regular basis become much easier. We cineSynced with DNEG at least once a week, and then more often as we got closer to the end. Between those more official meetings, Chris and I would speak to fill in the gaps. With the NY and Vancouver vendors, it was fairly similar, with a bit less back and forth. I try to make myself available whenever I can relate additional information that will make things smoother.

Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
The most challenging shots for me where the ones that involved the views down to the ocean from the mountains. There were a number of shots as the guys descend from the peak where it took a long time to get the right mix of elements to work together to make what JC was after.

What is your favorite shot or sequence?
I love the shots of the helicopter spinning with all the dust and debris. I can really feel the weight and impact of the helicopter as it scrapes the ground before impact. I was really pleased with how this scene came together.

What is your best memory on this show?
It think for me the best memory of the show was shooting the aerial plates in April 2017 with Fred and David. It was a great experience and an eye opener to realize that that central California looks and feels a whole lot like the Andes.

How long have you worked on this show?
I started TRIPLE FRONTIER in February of 2017 and finished in February of this year. There were a number of months in the middle when I was not active on the film, but it’s been a long process.

What’s the VFX shots count?
The finished total shot count is 689.

What was the size of your team?
My amazing team was 6 people besides myself. They are:
Producer – Susan Macleod
VFX Coordinator – Monica Berraza
VFX Editor – Jeremy Newmark
Data Wrangler – James Dornoff
Production VFX PA – Selah Chung
Postproduction VFX PA – Austin Adams

What is your next project?
I am taking some much needed time off before I jump back into the fire. I have nothing booked yet.

A big thanks for your time.

TRIPLE FRONTIER – TRAILER

WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Netflix: TRIPLE FRONTIER is streaming now on Netflix.
DNEG: Dedicated page about TRIPLE FRONTIER on DNEG website.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2019

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Vincent Frei

Founder & Editor-in-Chief // VES Member // Former comp artist

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