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Focus on White House Down

Shooting, Lighting and VFX for Another Roland Emmerich Roller-Coaster Ride

Perhaps no filmmaker has been more closely associated with VFX-enabled destruction than Roland Emmerich, the director of large-scale disaster movies that include such apocalyptic scenarios as Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012. White House Down, which recreates iconic Washington D.C. locations on soundstages and as CG environments for maximal chaotic potential, is no exception. Here's a look at how the mayhem was made, starting with a making-of featurette showing lots of behind-the-scenes footage.

Acquisition with the ARRI Alexa and Codex Recorders
Cinematographer Anna Foerster, ASC, who shot Roland Emmerich's previous feature film, Anonymous, with an ARRI Alexa prototype, returned to the Alexa for White House Down, recording ARRIRAW images to 512 Gb Codex Datapacks while SxS cards captured ProRes 444 footage, both as a backup and as a way to capture metadata for VFX. "Codex is a fully developed, fantastic way of working," Foerster said in a prepared statement. The DIT station on set was connected to Technicolor via a fiber-optic link, allowing footage to be quickly duplicated at a secure location off-set. The DI was performed by colorist Steve Bowen at Sony Colorworks.

ARRI's website features an interview with chief lighting technician John Courteau, who talks about shooting convincing exteriors on stages and using HMIs throughout the shoot, including a compact ARRI M40 that was mounted on a 50-foot Technocrane "for a moving sun effect."

City Environments from Hybride

Ubisoft division Hybride (Piedmont, QC) created high-resolution shots showing Black Hawk helicopters flying through Washington, D.C., toward the White House. The company developed tools to create a virtual city environment, including automatically generated traffic lights, street lamps, bicycle racks, and signage. Vegetation and vehicles were automatically populated, and a new tool populated trees and simulated their movement. Here's a sampling of Hybride's work in the film.

(Click on any image to see a higher-resolution version.)

According to Hybride President Pierre Raymond, the use of deep image compositing — a technique that associates Z-depth with each pixel in an image — was key to creating the complex shots at a high level of quality. "This new procedure helped us overcome machine limitations experienced in the past, allowing us to incorporate an umlimited number of elements," Raymond said in a prepared statement. "We're extremely proud of our work and the results of our research will enable Hybride to take on increasingly complex projects, laying the foundation for a very promising future."

Black Hawk Down, Thanks to Method Studios

L.A.-based Method Studios created 185 shots for four explosive sequences in the film under the guidance of VFX supervisor Ollie Rankin and VX producer Christopher Anderson. "One of their sequences is the biggest highlight in the film," said the film's overall VFX supervisor, Marc Weigert, in a prepared statement. "It's simply awesome. We're all, Roland included, very proud of the outcome."

Method shared its CG assets with another 11 vendors working on the film, and said a few shots required that rendered layers be shared with other vendors.

Method said the crash of the first Black Hawk helicopter was its single biggest challenge in all the shots it created. That final comp included about 150 rendered elements, each with multiple layers, the company said.

Here are some before-and-after shots illustrating Method's work on the film. Mouseover the film stills to compare them to the original live-action plates.

Before and After
Plates of live actors hanging from the stage ceiling were just a few of the elements that went into Method's rendering of a spectacular helicopter crash.

Before and After
Set extensions had to convincingly represent famous locations.

Before and After
Real D.C. photography was the model for Method's more combustible versions of local landmarks.

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