- Twentieth Century Fox
- Timur Bekmambetov
- VFX Supervisor (Method Studios)
- Randy Goux
- VFX Producer (Method Studios)
- Jinnie Pak
- Method Studios
The title of this film certainly grabs your attention which is the exact reaction Method’s VFX team in Vancouver strived to maintain for their big effects shots in this supernatural feature. The intriguing plot explores the secret life of America’s 16th president and the untold history of the bloody battle between Lincoln and a horde of evil vampires. The fact that Tim Burton co-produced this gothic tale comes as no surprise. A total of 223 shots were worked on involving the trestle bridge fire scene, digital crowds, a CG Civil War era train and fully digital environments including the Washington Capitol.
Method’s VFX Supervisor, Randy Goux comments on the creative process and collaborating with director Timur Bekmambetov; “As with every show we work on, the creative targets are in a constant state of revision. With Abe, the creative direction became more like "stages" in the film’s style. Timur is most reactive to visuals, which sent us down a very intense look/development process starting ten months before delivery.”
A sense of drama and horror was all important and the artists at Method were keen to get across the sense of foreboding along with the classic ‘jump out of your seat’ moments. Goux continues, “The director’s filmmaking style included the use of extreme slow motion so we had to develop a flexible system for creating complex volumetric smoke effects. Speed ramps in the action were in constant flux editorially, so at the very least we had to create all of our effects at 250fps in order to be able to keep up with editorial changes and the fine attention to detail needed for such slow moving effects.”
One of the main VFX sequences involved the collapse of a burning bridge which also features Abe Lincoln and Will Johnson involved in hand-to-hand combat with a group of vampires. To make it more complicated, all of this action is happening on top of a moving train at night.
The actors were shot on two static box car tops against green screen - the rest of the surrounding environment and effects were all CG with half of the shots needing to be rendered in stereo while the other half were converted by Method’s sister company, Stereo D. Unsurprisingly, there is a dramatic difference from what was shot to what the audience sees in the final movie.
Sean Lewkiw, Method’s DFX Supervisor notes, “This film was a big technical challenge in terms of the pyro and rigid body destruction effects required and we developed many new tools to cope with this task. Many of the shots were needed in full stereo which is particularly daunting for semi-transparent elements like fire and smoke. We often had to sit 2D, shot-on-set elements amid the CG smoke and fire…
“Traditionally, the z-depth space of an effect is not very important, but in stereo, you can't just put an element anywhere, or fill in gaps with practical 2D elements from a library. Doing traditional 2D tricks would destroy the stereoscopic effect so we took our time and produced many layers with incredible detail which were expertly composited under the watchful eye of our Compositing Supervisor Abel Milanes,” Lewkiw concludes.
Method’s CG fire system needed to be both scalable and practical rendering-wise. Using a combination of Houdini and Nuke, the team was able to make sure the right amount of detail at the right scale was available at all times. Using a customized system the crew was able to turn shots over in less than a day, at extremely high quality. The client was able to see fire placement previews at a resolution that was unprecedented thanks to Method’s bespoke workflow.
Building the bridge
In this key scene, the first challenge was building a huge 3D bridge that was a manageable asset. Because a trestle bridge is made up of so many individual pieces, it was possible for it to become so huge as to be un-renderable. Creating the bridge in Houdini using a procedural method meant that the artists could define the curve of the bridge, the height and length of each tier, and then have the customized software create the entire structure with each timber having a unique texture, and attributes describing its size, orientation, texture and position.
Details in the shadows
The fact that the action in the train sequence occurs at night presented specific challenges to the 3D artists and compositors because believable lighting was of upmost importance. The CG tree branches and leaves needed to cast moonlit shadows onto the actors and train and Method also added shadows of the actors into the CG smoke. Not only does the smoke give the sequence a sense of speed, it also adds a great deal of suspense as the vampires appear in and out of the darkness.
Along with the dramatic burning bridge scene, the Method crew worked on several other shots which needed to look just realistic but were more subtle in their nature. Time was spent researching authentic architectural details for the Washington Capitol for Lincoln's inauguration speech scene. Historically, the Capitol dome was under construction at the time and the only reference of the building work was a handful of photographs from the 1860s. The wide exterior shot includes 60 extras, who were filmed in the foreground, along with three thousand CG spectators and the digital capitol building.
The Gettysburg Address
The Gettysburg Address is one of the most famous speeches in US history. This shot was challenging for the Method team as only 40 people were available on-set and the rest of the five thousand strong crowd needed to be created digitally. While this in itself is standard fare when it comes to crowd replication, it was actually an ambitious shot to pull off due to a very graceful crane move - a continuous 1200 frame shot. The VFX crew pushed their crowd simulation system to the limit in order to produce the higher level of detail needed for such a close up camera move.
House Chamber of the US Capitol
Another shot of historical significance involved recreating the House Chamber in the US Capitol where President Lincoln is pictured giving a speech to a joint session of Congress. The podium and a small section of extras were practical and the rest of the chamber, including the politicians, was created digitally by Method’s Vancouver crew.
The smelting factory
Even Abraham Lincoln knows that silver weapons provide the most effective way of defeating supernatural creatures. Method was tasked with building a large "smelting factory" where pieces of silver are melted down to be reconstructed as weapons. Randy Goux comments “We filmed some extras for the workers and placed them throughout the shot, but the rest of the factory was an entirely 3D environment with molten metal, vats of liquid silver, skylights with shafts of volumetric light and glowing furnaces. The factory itself was about 200 meters long, so the amount of detail and machinery was massive. It was a huge shot that took almost our entire schedule to finish.”
Notes from the production VFX Supervisor
“I was totally impressed with the Method team,” states Michael Owens. “Randy and Jinnie were very solution driven but never without great creative and design suggestions and ideas. The film’s director, Timur Bekmambetov, and the filmmakers were extremely pleased with their work. Over several years and quite a few projects, I’ve enjoyed working with Method Vancouver. It’s handy to have the confidence that they’ll always find a way to meet challenges, deadlines and budgets with work that very much pleases the filmmakers’ expectations."
- Crowd simulation