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White House Down

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Directed by Roland Emmerich, White House Down tells the action packed tale of a secret service agent who is inadvertently tasked with saving the life of the US President after the White House is overtaken by a terrorist group. True to the film’s name, the White House is physically brought down and Method, as lead VFX vendor, rose to the challenge of delivering the epic hero shots, many of which were entirely computer generated.

A total of 185 shots were delivered which included the explosive destruction of the US Capitol dome and crashes of three Black Hawk helicopters. Relatively little plate photography was shot for the action sequences and about 20% of Method’s shot tally had either no plate footage or contained only a small component that was practical.

"We visited Production VFX Supervisors Volker Engel and Marc Weigert in their war room" recalls Method’s VFX Supervisor, Ollie Rankin.  "The walls were lined with frames from the most challenging shots in the film, which they categorized as Big Shots, or for the toughest, Big Ass Shots.  The majority of them were marked as belonging to Method and it's fair to say that their creation demanded all of Method’s VFX firepower.”

Building the house and then bringing it down


One of the most iconic shots of the film was delivered early in order to appear in the trailer. A bomb detonated within the rotunda of the Capitol building causes a huge fireball within the dome which explodes through the outer walls and ultimately causes the demise of the well known landmark.

The fully CG interior shot looking upwards was constructed using reference photography of the building and Houdini’s pyro toolset was utilized to simulate the explosion.

The following shot, showing the continuation of the explosion, had a beautiful aerial plate filmed, which required significant cleanup to hide construction that was going on around the Capitol. The artists ended up replacing the entire dome with CGI to allow for better interaction and integration between the shattering windows, the fire and smoke of the explosion and the light cast by the explosion onto the building.

Rankin comments, “The White House is a difficult building to make look photo-real, given that even photos of it can look fake. The material it's built from, and the paint it is covered in, gives it a hyper-real whiteness that inherits bounced color from the trees and grounds around it, as well as the sky. We did a lot of work in compositing to balance the subtle nuances of light and shadow and reflected color to make our CG White House look like the real thing.”


Sometime later, the burning dome collapses under its own weight. Even though it takes up a relatively small amount of screen space, an awful lot of very high resolution detail was required to achieve the effect. The CG dome model was broken into pieces by a combination of procedural and sculpted fracturing. Those pieces were choreographed to break and collapse on cue, with subsequent impacts resulting in further shattering into smaller pieces. Layer upon layer of smaller debris, dust, fire and smoke were added, all simulated to interact with each other, to create the whole effect.

Black Hawks down


As the plot thickens, the army sends in three Black Hawk helicopters to take out the group of terrorists stationed on the roof of the White House. Each helicopter is destroyed in turn; one crashing into the White House lawn, the second falls into the fountain and the third loses its tail as it hovers above the roof. Each sequence is dominated by CGI elements from the helicopters themselves to the trees, adjacent grounds, the Capitol and surrounding buildings.

 The lawn crash in particular presented the Method artists with the biggest VFX challenge. It features a burning, smoking Black Hawk, spiraling over the roof of the White House, slamming into the ground, then crashing into a tree directly in front of camera, breaking apart amid a big explosion, before continuing to carve up the ground as it comes to rest. The final comp for this shot uses around 150 rendered elements, each with multiple layers. An added complexity with this shot was taking account of all the interactive lighting and shadowing you would get from the explosion and layers of debris, dust and smoke. The team rendered shadow passes separately where possible to allow the compositor the greatest flexibility in integrating everything together.

Setting the scene


While the audience’s attention is no doubt focused on the key action taking place, the believability of the CG shots of the helicopters and White House would have failed if it were not for the keen attention to detail placed on setting the scene. The Method crew created a 360 degree matte painted cyclorama of the Washington DC skyline surrounding the White House, including layers of trees and buildings at different distances and a card representing the Washington Monument.

The trees were in fact the most underestimated aspect of the project in terms of complexity, given the substantial portion of screen space they occupy in a large number of shots and the fact that they always need to move – whether gently blowing in the breeze, being subject to helicopter rotor wash or being crashed into by a helicopter. Tree animation was generated by a number of approaches depending on the type of the motion required. In some cases the team was able to use a 2D warping approach to introduce movement into static renders or photos of trees. For generic, breeze-driven branch and leaf motion, Speedtree's motion generation was used, while trees being affected by helicopter rotor wash were simulated variously in Maya using Paint Effects or by a proprietary approach using wire deformation within Houdini.

Summing up


Weigert summarizes, “Volker and I were extremely pleased with Method’s work. The team’s enthusiasm and sense of humor made the experience so much easier than it often is.  One of their sequences is the biggest highlight in the film.  It’s simply awesome.  We’re all, Roland included, very proud of the outcome.”



Keywords

  • Environments
  • FX
  • Hard surface
  • Compositing
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