Total Recall: Visual Effects
The film’s visual effects were overseen by Visual Effects Supervisor Peter Chiang, along with Visual Effects Supervisors Adrian de Wet and Graham Jack.
Visual Effects house Double Negative (a/k/a DNeg) handled the vast majority of the 1600-1700 VFX shots in the movie.
Wiseman’s approach was to build as many sets as was practical and shoot whatever he could in principal photography, but even with this approach, it was obvious from the beginning that the film was a futuristic thriller that would require heavy visual effects work – from set extensions that built the Total Recall world into many tiered layers to the extensive hover car chase at the center of the film to the “synths” that make up Chancellor Cohaagen’s security team.
De Wet says that he was not at all surprised that Wiseman shot most of the film practically, and was, in fact, encouraged by the decision. “It’s great to have something physical to start with,” he says. “No matter how good you are as a CG artist, actually having a basis in reality is important. The film has to be convincing.”
“Len’s vision was absolutely right,” says Chiang. “He wanted to have the actors interact with the world as much as possible, shoot as much as possible, so that he could get a feeling of what the end shot would be. It was a great benefit to us, too. We nerdily analyze all of the fine detail from the principal photography and base all of our decisions on that – decisions on how we’re going to light, how we’re going to set extend, all of the objects we’re going to put in. It really gave us a quiet, subconscious understanding of what Len liked, so we could use that to our benefit to make that blend more seamless.”
Jack also notes that when shooting practically, the result often winds up with “happy accidents.” “We try to design visual effects to give them an organic feel – for example, maybe the camera won’t catch the action straight away, and that keeps the effect from feeling too clinical. One example is during the car chase: there’s a shot of a car being crushed. We originally shot it as a practical effect, but we had to almost completely replace it digitally because we had to make the car look more futuristic. We were able to base the VFX on the practical effect that was shot, and we got things like the parcel shelf being flung across the back of the car. That’s something we wouldn’t necessarily have thought of if it had all been done in post.”
As with the other departments, the VFX supervisors’ primary goal was to create a sense of two different worlds. “It was key for us to give the audience coherence to the story – you have to believe that you’re in the UFB when you’re in the UFB and you’re in The Colony when you’re in The Colony,” says de Wet.
“We actually assigned separate teams to UFB and The Colony,” says Jack. “They brought their own methodologies to the process, which also helped give the environments a unique feel.”
“We began with Patrick Tatopoulos’s concept artwork for UFB and The Colony,” says Chiang. “When we started on UFB, we had very illustrative designs and certain selections on the structures of things, but we went through a whole design process into order to realize those into a three-dimensional world. We started looking at the buildings that Len and Patrick liked, and they selected through photographs of London certain neoclassical architecture and design. But there was a twist to that neoclassical design in that it needed to reflect the future, so Len added a lot of holograms and glass. So the UFB is a very grand world, with very big concrete plazas, a lot of glass, a lot of fountains, open walkways that then had these freeways threaded in-between that contained the magnetic cars.”
Once the architecture had been designed, the artists used a propriety computer model to help them build an entire city. “We could create any layout of buildings and draw from our fundamental building blocks – what we call assets – and mix them up to design UFB. instead of having to map out every single building in a view, we would get the gross structure by pulling various 3D points around, and then assign a randomizer to it that would take the assets from the buildings that Len likes and populate the buildings that would almost wallpaper the layout to create the numerous buildings. Obviously it would be too labor-intensive to go in and sculpt each individual building separately. We drew upon 20 different assets that are close-up, 40 that are mid-distance, and then we got into matte paintings for far-off into infinity. We could then put in all the fine details, like stanchions, elevators, streetlamps, road signs, little barriers that would appear on the side of the road, the detail on the road, the types of tarmac. We were really building a city that Len and Patrick had outlayed, from the ground up.”
“On the other side of the world is The Colony,” says De Wet. “It’s very polluted, constantly overcast with noxious gases, always raining with a slightly acidic rain. It has a very underground, funky vibe, with a lot of neon lights.”
“Generally, the set would account for one level of The Colony,” says Jack. “We would extend up or down to see other levels. The bottom level of The Colony was generally water, and we’d create a large body of water with other waterfront environments around it. The amount of set extension varied considerably – some shots were pretty much contained within the set, while other were shot on green screen and completed by set extension. Most fell somewhere in-between.”
To complete the set extensions for The Colony, “Again, we drew upon the lovely sets that Patrick Tatopoulos had made,” says Chiang. “From that, we springboarded into imagining what four layers of this would be, or a whole landscape. We took the boats and assets that were built on set, extrapolated all of the details from that, and then started to create another whole world. We created 20 more boats, multiple buildings based on the same design idea, and again, created the whole world.
The scene that most challenged the VFX team was the hover car chase sequence. “When I saw the pre-viz footage, I was blown away. It was so ambitious. It’s done in the daytime, so nothing is hidden in the dark, which I like – I want to see everything, the gritty, grainy realism of an industrialized city. All of the environments were laid out; you could see beautiful aerial shots flying through the layout of the city. It was both amazing to look at and terrifying for me, because that’s what we would have to create,” says De Wet.
According to De Wet, Wiseman provided him with a great starting point by designing and building so many practical sets and props – including the hover cars. “We needed physical reality, particularly for things like people in cars, reacting to G-forces as they turn corners,” he says. “It’s actually a hard thing to fake, so it’s important to get the right reactions.”
Chiang says that Wiseman’s practical approach benefited the film. “When many directors create an all-CG shot, they tend to hang on the shot – the VFX is put in and it looks great. But when you’re shooting an action scene, like a car chase, a director usually tries to keep the flow of action going. Len made the whole sequence look real. He’d ask for a blur of background and blend in the action – you’d only see the whole world when the cars were coming toward the camera, and then he’d quickly pan off of it. The backgrounds became secondary to the action – we pulled back so the real-life cars could pop out.”
The VFX team was also responsible for The Fall – the giant elevator that connects UFB and The Colony. At the climax of the film, The Fall lives up to its name and is destroyed. Chiang says that knowing The Fall’s demise was coming was part of the key in putting it together – if it was going to break apart in the way that Wiseman hoped to see, with shafts and clamps breaking apart in a certain way, it would have to be constructed in a methodical and sophisticated manner in order to allow that to happen. “Breaking things apart and generally destroying them is something that we’ve done a fair bit of at DNeg,” says Jack. “We used some in-house tools that were written to procedurally break up the component pieces.”
The synths – the security force – was all shot live-action using suits created by Legacy Effects, but Chiang says that Wiseman always envisioned a VFX component for them. “He wanted to make negative space within the body – to create pistons and views of internal structures of the synths,” says Chiang. In the end, pulling it off often required creating all-digital synths. “A lot of them were digital, where it was too difficult to adjust the live-action that had been shot. In other cases, we could keep the live-action and replace an elbow joint, or a knee joint, or a waist joint.”
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