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Argo

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Argo, the political drama from director, producer and actor Ben Affleck, has received much critical acclaim on its journey around the 2012 independent film festival circuit. Set during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, the story unfolds as the United States and Canadian governments’ partner to rescue six U.S. Foreign Service members who have evaded the takeover of the American embassy in Iran. The governments were able to convince Iran that the six hostages were members of a Canadian film crew who were scouting the area for a movie titled Argo. 

While the premise seems farfetched, the drama is based on real life events and Affleck was keen to get across a sense of gritty realism and the authentic style and feel of the late 70’s. Method Studios relished the opportunity to create several key VFX heavy scenes to help realize this goal.

A TOWER WITH A VIEW


The sweeping aerial shot of the Azadi Tower, a well known landmark based in the heart of bustling Tehran, was one of the biggest challenges for the Method team. The aim throughout the entire feature was to produce invisible effects and yet this shot needed to be created entirely using CGI. Matt Dessero, Method’s VFX Supervisor, worked with the mountain of research material his team collected, to fine tune an accurate 3D rendering of the tower and surrounding buildings along with matte painted cityscape backgrounds. He comments “In order for this shot to look believable we had to dive into the details – you’ll see leaves moving on the trees, of-the-era cars circling the ring road, long shadows affected by the pollution haze, hundreds of aerials on the top of buildings, posters and banners, digital people going about their lives and even dirt on the camera lens. All of this helps sell the realism of the shot and maintains the grainy hand-held documentary feel Ben was after”.

Making the most of experience gained from working on previous projects certainly helped the VFX production of this shot. Vray was used for rendering the ray traced atmosphere and specula highlights glinting from the buildings (techniques also used on Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and Method’s team in Vancouver were able to utilize their digital crowd pipeline previously refined during their work on the film J.Edgar.

BURNING HATRED


Another shot integral to the storyline is the opening scene which depicts the burning of the American flag on the balcony of the US Embassy in Iran. While the flag was burnt practically on-set, the material burnt too quickly and so the entire flag needed to be removed and replaced in post. Once again, Method spent time on the details and worked up an FX simulation which took into account the effects of the wind and the burn rate of the different thicknesses and types of material on the flag.

This dramatic scene contains footage of buildings shot in LA (the VA Hospital) and Turkey. Method 3D artists produced CG elements of the embassy along with trees while compositors concentrated on matching the lighting conditions and mixing CG components with the practical footage and crowd plates to extend the scene.

TAKING FLIGHT


Towards the end of the film, a climatic set of events culminates in the Foreign Services team making their getaway aboard a Swiss jumbo jet while being chased along the runway. Once again, this sequence of shots needed to be totally believable in a section of the film where the audience is completely wrapped up in the action. Dessero notes “It’s incredibly rewarding to surprise people with the fact that all of these shots contain a fully digital plane. These were not close up fast cutting shots where we could disguise CG elements – the plane is seen in full view and we had to make it utterly convincing”.

Time was spent researching the plane model making sure the CG asset matched the 70’s design style and numerous layers of shading, dirt and debris, light effects and heat distortion were fine tuned to help bring the shots to life. The plane needed to feel ‘heavy’ and the VFX team concentrated on making sure the aircraft animation and timings of the chase vehicles portrayed this convincingly.

Matte paintings were used to transform the footage that was shot at Ontario airport in California to show the mountain ranges surrounding Iran. While Affleck often tweaked shots to improve the scene from an artistic standpoint, the Method team always presented an accurate landscape ready for the initial review stage.

Dessero concludes “It was phenomenal to work with Ben and the DP Rodrigo Prieto who took the time and effort to make a gritty drama and completely capture the mood at that time which makes this film such a success”.


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