VFX Supe Rob Moggach on Making it Not Quite Perfect
All the Little Things Asylum Added to Live-Action Halo Spot "The Life"
The job for Asylum, which did post-production and VFX duty, was to break out its bag of tricks to support the spot’s story and feel, rather than creating VFX for the sake of VFX. Under the guidance of VFX supervisor/lead compositor Rob Moggach, who had worked previously with Sanders on a series of promos for the PlayStation 3 launch campaign, the team at Asylum spent two and a half weeks compositing on Autodesk Flame and Autodesk Inferno systems. The Foundry’s Nuke was busted out for some of the more complicated CG work. 3D work was done in Autodesk Maya and Pixar Renderman. Tracking was done with Andersson Technologies SynthEyes, and roto work was done in Silhouettefx Silhouette. F&V asked Moggach to explain the extent of Asylum’s VFX work, and to talk about the importance of imperfection in getting the shots to look right. Watch the spot, below, then read the Q&A.
ROB MOGGACH: Rupert has a strong idea of what he wants to see and what he’s going to be creating. We’re there to keep his vision consistent. We were involved right from the very beginning. His main thing is making sure that everything feels filmic and cinematic without being perfectly composed. It’s hard to describe. He wants it to feel very real.
I got the impression that he was trying not to have the effects draw attention to themselves.
For him it’s never about telling the story with visual effects. It’s about visual effects making the story complete. Filling in the holes.
Totally. We worked on about 75 to 80 percent of that film. It’s all stuff you’d never know about, but ensures it has that sense of naturalism that Rupert is known for. He’s a visualist, but he’s also very much about real photography and the natural world. His compositions are strong, but there’s something that’s a little bit off, which makes it feel more realistic and believable and observational.
What you’re saying is, even in shots that didn’t involve explosions, energy bolts, and alien monsters, you were still touching that material.
Take the first shot in the end sequence for example, where you see Tarkov after the Brute has been blown up. That was shot on a studio. We added fire in the background and bits of floating ash. We added dirt to Tarkov’s face, and enhanced a scar on his face. Little things that make it feel grittier, more like what the film needs to be. It’s not necessarily something you have time to do on the day. It was three days of really hard shooting in Hungary, and we only had two and a half weeks from when we got our 2K plates. It was a real mad dash to get it all together for two and a half minutes.
I was going to ask you about the scar on his face, because it’s such a clean transition from the battlefield to the final sequence. You enhanced that?
We did some work across that transition to make the handheld camera have very similar motion through the cut. We linked those up and tried to adjust the perspective a bit, making sure the scars were very similar and the eyes were in the same position. You’ll see the same thing in the first transition ‘ we were just repositioning and tracking to make sure it lines up. That second one, in the end sequence, was a reshoot. They shot it in Hungary at 3 or 4 in the morning and then, when they came back, made the decision to bring the actor in and make him look exactly the same. So we added sweat and dirt to his face. Instead of looking like an actor who just got off a business-class flight from Hungary, he looks like he was there on the day. That was a lot of fun.
I assume you did some work with the buildings and environments.
We had some great locations. If you look at that very first shot, there was a row of windows in the bottom background, underneath those V-shaped things, that we took out. And then there are a few little slits of light within those Vs. Beyond that, there’s not much else we did. We did repeat some of those gravestones, but the rest was in camera. In the next shot, we added flames to all those gravestones. In the next one, we made the gravestone a little bigger and added some frame. On the lady with glasses, we took the logo off. We cleaned up the type on the actual sarcophagus. On a lot of these shots, there were little clean-up things to do. Maybe there was something on a woman’s wardrobe, a speck of white dust or something. It just makes it clean but not unnatural.
In the wide shot of all the soldiers in the big room in the training sequence, we repositioned the soldiers and took one row out so it was more symmetrical, and the composition was a little bit stronger. We took some of the windows out. When you get to the night stuff with the green light, we added some of the red lights in the background and the muzzle flashes on the gun.
For the outdoor battle sequence, what exactly did they shoot? Was that green screen, or a set?
That was, for the most part, in camera. That’s the incredible part. The first couple of shots where he’s falling down in the pod were a CG exterior with a green-screen foreground. We did things like adding water to the glass and putting screens in, that kind of stuff. For the shot of the helmet, the close-up of him looking at the window, we added all those reflections in and did some relighting to make it look like it was front-lit, and added the red flashing light. When you get to the battle sequence, we did do some background matte painting to make the mountains more interesting, and a little bit of sky work, but almost everything on the ground is real.
Including the explosions?
All the fire explosions are real. There’s a little bit of a Halo trademark plasma that happens when the explosions hit that’s obviously something we added. We added the extra pods that had already crashed to the ground. We added the spaceships, the lasers, and the muzzle flash. All the visors were transparent so we made those reflective.
And you created the creature.
No, the creature’s actually in camera as well. He was about six feet tall, so we made him 10 feet tall. We took the plate and did some tracking tricks and a lot of roto to rebuild him at a much higher stature. We shifted him over and moved the soldier around so the integration worked and you still felt he was hitting him pretty hard.
For the final sequence, we did a lot of work. There was a background in there, but there was no fire, no falling dust or ash. The wide shot was essentially there, but beyond the wall there was nothing. It was just black. So we put in the destroyed buildings and fires in the background, some flashing clouds as if there were a battle going on in the background. We added some extra fire to frame the grave and put those little candle fires in as well. It’s all stuff you wouldn’t really expect to be in there. It’s not perfect, the way you would normally expect someone to put it in there. It’s always put in as if it could have been done organically on set in a rushed-art-director fashion. That’s what gives it its quality. He’s so much about finding out how to make the image beautiful, without making it perfect.
In the wide shot, we actually put a hole in right behind them as if there was a pathway heading back into the battle with fire and smoke. When we saw it, it was like, well everything’s perfect. It makes sense. They’ll go into that hole and be in the battle. Taking it out, all of a sudden, made the image feel a little bit stronger.
It sounds like you almost have to look at your first impulse as an imagemaker, whatever it is, and say, “OK, we can’t do that.”
It’s like comparing The Lord of the Rings to Children of Men. In The Lord of the Rings you see a giant helicopter shot that starts in some guy’s eye and ends up on a mountain cliff, and you know right away that’s a visual effect. But if you never know where the visual effects are, you get drawn into the story more. It’s fun to get drawn into that and not get hit over the head with visual effects.