Studio Daily: Cinesite’s VFX Add Finesse to Practical Special Effects in Skyfall

Just as James Bond traditionally likes his martinis shaken, not stirred, the James Bond franchise has preferred its effects shots to be practical, not CG-driven. “Bond always likes to do things in camera,” says Jon Neill, VFX supervisor for Cinesite, which worked on 87 shots in four sequences in the latest Bond adventure, Skyfall — a CG Komodo dragon sequence and three sequences that are part of a chase set in the London Underground.

Neill is referring specifically to a spectacular tube-train crash that was staged on a massive set at Pinewood Studios. Cinesite didn’t create the trains or the crash, but it had to erase some elements from the shots that weren’t meant to be seen, and fill in a few more pieces that were missing.

The production built a set representing catacombs underneath the tube lines in London for filming the scene, in which a train crashes through a hole in the ceiling, smashes off the floor, and hits a wall in the back as Bond jumps clear. The shot was executed using full-size train carriages, and it was captured by a total of 10 ARRI Alexa cameras.

“We started taking reference pictures of the set while they were building it,” Neill recalls. “When they started shooting, they had 10 cameras locked off, hanging from the ceiling and coming up from the floor. They shot the actors in the scene one day and the train crash the next day, and the cameras didn’t move. The idea was to comp them both together.” Green screens were a no-go, because any screen that was hung would get in the way of the view from at least one of the cameras. So Cinesite simply had to roto Bond into the shot. Fortunately, James Bond has short hair and the scene was pretty fast-moving, so the roto job wasn’t as demanding as it could have been.

The mocked-up train carriages were flown into the set, suspended by a ceiling rail. Cinesite had to remove all traces of the rail, the brackets the train cars hung on, and the dust trails those brackets created. The set was actually shuddering as the train approached, so Cinesite stabilized it digitally. It also added a driver to the train and applied several more fixes, removing cinematographer Roger Deakins from some shots, replacing part of Bond’s body with a digital double, and erasing cameras. Cinesite added dust and debris as needed to enhance the realism of the scene, and set extensions expanded its scale.

Cinesite built a 3D version of the set in Nuke based on its reference surveys, pulled in clean plates from each of the locked-off camera angles, and projected them onto the CG geometry in Nuke. “With all the explosions, big sparks, and lighting effects going on, the trickiest part was getting the lighting interaction in our 3D to match what was happening on the real set,” Neill explains.

The train crash is the culmination of a chase through the London Underground system that required some other Cinesite contributions, including shots where the team removed a metal slide that was built over an escalator for a scene in which the villain, Silva, is chased by Bond. (The scene was shot in a tube station with a working escalator, so the slide was built to protect the performers from injury.) “We took lots of reference stills and measurements and used [Science-D-Visions] 3D Equalizer to help create a simple 3D model with the roof and the ceiling and the ground,” Neill says. “That helps with clean-up. On this project we did it all the time — if you take an object into Nuke, from there it’s easier to map on any reference pictures to help clean it up.”

Creating Komodo Dragons

Before: Komodo Dragon

Before: Komodo Dragon

Cinesite also worked on some CG train and tunnel extensions for other parts of the chase sequence. But the most challenging portion of Cinesite’s work on Skyfall was something completely different — director Sam Mendes wanted to have a Komodo dragon in the film. “I think it was an homage to the crocodiles in Live and Let Die,” Neill says. “They’re in a pit in a casino lit by candles, and the Komodos are lurking in the shadows. They gave us the task to see if we could do a photoreal one. Well, we decided that if we could do it in daylight, we could do it in candlelight. So we did it, and they loved it, and they gave us the go-ahead.”

The Cinesite team found its model Komodos at the London Zoo, where a photographer went into an enclosure with the animal’s keepers and set up flat lighting before the Komodo was let into the room. “We got really close up with the eyes, the detail around the mouth, the feet, and the scaling — top-quality images,” Neill says. “And then we took pictures of it with more dramatic lighting for the modelers. They don’t like flat lighting, because they can’t really see the shapes.” The Zoo’s other Komodo was a wilder beast, but Cinesite set up three cameras to record its movements, synchronizing the views later so the animators could watch the animal move around from different angles. That helped them understand how best to breathe life into the creature model.

After: Komodo Dragon

After: Komodo Dragon

“We modeled it in Maya and then took it into Mudbox and painted up a really high-res displacement map,” Neill explains. “The main thing was that the model looked great. Even an occlusion render looked fantastic. It’s really nice craftsmanship, and it shows.”

When it came to lighting the animals, Cinesite appreciated the interest cinematographer Roger Deakins took in making sure the look was right. “Deakins was very precise about what he wanted,” Neill says. “Normally the DP disappears near the end of a shoot and it’s left to a bunch of 3D geeks to produce the lighting. But he was sent the shots and he gave comments and asked questions. He asked about depth-of-field issues, and we had taken care of all that. It was nice to have confirmation that we were on the right track.”

Cinesite says the resulting shots represent the first appearances of CG creatures in a James Bond film — a fine bit of history for any VFX firm to be credited with. “They were very nervous, telling us, ‘You can’t muck this up — this has to be photoreal,'” Neill recalls. “It was a lot of pressure. And the establishing shot for the Komodo was a big hero shot, quite close to camera, so once we got that right, we had a system for all the rest of them. That was a big challenge. And very rewarding.”