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Ice, cars, fire and a submarine: just another day on ‘The Fate of the Furious’

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When the first trailers for F. Gary Gray’s The Fate of the Furious surfaced, they showcased a stunt sequence involving a submarine and vehicles driving along a frozen lake that seemed outlandish even for what has become a franchise that seems to up the ante with every new film.

Mixing real photography, practical effects and complicated visual effects work, the submarine chase is an absolute thrill-ride. vfxblog heard from Digital Domain visual effects supervisor Jay Barton and CG supervisor Scott Edelstein on how it was achieved.

vfxblog: What was the main work Digital Domain did for the film?

Jay Barton (visual effects supervisor): A majority of our work is the third act of the film when our main group of heroes – Dom at this point has clearly gone rogue – they’ve tracked him down and they know the next target he’s gonna hit and they are waiting on a ridge line above a Russian military base where there are decommissioned old warships and submarines. And of course true to form Dom comes to attack it all by himself with a host of goodies that he has access to, and our guys come in to try and capture him.

They get chased out onto the frozen barren sea chased by a bunch of these Russian separatists who are running the base currently. The nuclear submarine that Dom has brought to life from in their bay to be decommissioned chases them all out into the ocean, fires torpedoes and launches missiles and all kinds of mayhem which leads them to the culmination of the film.

vfxblog: How was something like this filmed? I saw filming was happening in Iceland.

Jay Barton: We were in Iceland for quite a long time shooting on a frozen lake. I want to say about two months of shooting both on a frozen lake and even a stand-in for the military base, and you’d be surprised how much we did shoot. Now, these movies are always a moving target while you’re working on them so we were coming up with new gags based on the landscape or based on things that we had available to us.

And the things that the stuntmen did and what they came up with in second unit to shoot were absolutely spectacular. I mean just really amazing what these guys and gals put together while we were out there, including explosions and crazy rigs for jumping the cars and flipping cars and doing all kinds of crazy stuff. All out on a couple of feet thick ice surface. It wasn’t like we were in a nice controlled asphalt parking lot for a lot of this stuff. We were literally out on frozen ice coming up with gags to flip cars and jump cars and giant explosions for when the sub would breach the ice, and it was really spectacular.

vfxblog: Knowing though that you would obviously be adding in CG elements and environments, what things did you do in Iceland to acquire textures or survey the world there?

Jay Barton: Well, one of the things that happened out there was we had some inclement weather, we had some pretty bad weather early on in shooting, and it compromised some of the areas on the ice that we wanted to shoot so we ended up having to augment more than we anticipated from the beginning. But we went out and we had a ton of photography and HDRs, we had aerial photography from helicopters. Plowman Craven was hired for the Iceland portion to come out and survey and scan all of our locations, all of our props, all of our cars. So we had really good Lidar and survey data of all of the locations and pretty much anything that got picked up, handled, thrown, drug, driven, blown up, you can imagine we had all of that in mini-digital format.

vfxblog: Let’s talk about building some of the assets including the submarine and vehicles in environment. What did that involve?

Jay Barton: The submarine had been picked by production. They knew what kind of submarine that they wanted to use. It was a Russian Akula-class submarine of which there were a few, I think it was three pretty standard revisions to it mostly in length and placement of the conning tower. They were all quite similar and there was a decent amount of information online to be able to track down dimensions and that sort of thing.

Ultimately they built a few sections of the sub on set the actors had to interact with, so we had to modify ours a little bit to match the dimensions of the set pieces that were built for hatches and things like that that our actors had to climb in and out of so that it would be a seamless transition. But then even when all was said and done we had a pretty accurate Akula-class sub and the director saw it and was like, ‘Yeah, but we gotta make it cooler than that. I want it to look killer. What’s it gonna take to make this thing killer?’ And so we did a few little redesigns here and there, mainly in the tail section. It’s one of the few pieces you see when it’s poking up through the ice traveling along to really give it that mean quality that I guess a regular nuclear submarine doesn’t have.

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All of the vehicles which are also the stars in a film like this, they have a tremendous amount of attention to detail put into building all of these vehicles and how they’re set up to be driven and do the stunts that they do. So those all started life as scans which we would then bring into the computer with tons of photo reference and track it all together and make sure that we could do faithful reproductions, down to rivets and bolts and screws and the proper brakes and suspension pieces that you would see for the cars. And a pretty extensive library of surfaces and shaders were created so we could match them one for one.

There were a lot of times where a car starts off as a real car and then goes to CG, or starts off as CG car and then there’s a real car, or any combination of the above depending on how the shots are designed and what happened.

And the third main component of this was the Russian base, and we shot that in two locations. One location in Iceland that was a whaling station, and we loved it for the landscape and the environment but there were very few buildings, and the buildings that were there weren’t applicable to the type of architecture that we wanted. And then there was a second location which was an industrial location. At least part of it on the ocean was like a canning factory where they did processed fish. Let me tell ya, that smells great.

And so again we started with a scanning and photography process including aerial photography from a helicopter to blanket all of these locations and recreate them in the computer, and then a ton of digital photographs and HDRs so that we could capture the correct shaders and textures and lighting to match the environment. But still even that was a very small amount of our location that we needed to build, so we had to extrapolate from there and find, you can only imagine how much a canning factory might look like a decommissioned nuclear submarine base. So you know you have to go to the trusty Interwebs to find all kinds of neat naval references to flesh out the rest of it. It took quite a while but it was a really rewarding experience, it was a lot of fun to kinda make this environment take shape.

vfxblog: What were some of the CG challenges of the submarine sequence? Such as the underwater look and when it breaches the surface.

Scott Edelstein (CG supervisor): Some of it was just finding the right look. There’s so many different ways you can view something underwater. There was an awful lot of shots that we had to do in a really short amount of time, and then the effects that go into it.

Jay Barton: Yeah, we had about 800 shots but probably about 500 of them were out on the ice surface itself, you know, and it’s a huge expanse. They’re driving for something like twenty minutes of the movie out on this ice surface. So coming up with an environment that allowed us to change as we move along was important. It’s not just one ice slab and they drive back and forth over it multiple times. You have to really see a progression to the ice and a change in the landscape even though it all is frozen sea. So we worked on a lot of shaders and geometry to create all these different ice surfaces so there was a progression from, here’s where we are on the shore to here’s where it is you know ten miles from shore as you’re approaching open ocean. What that could look like, and of course rendering ice with transparency and subsurface scattering and Houdini shattering all this stuff, it was quite taxing.

Scott Edelstein: Yes, especially the sub breaching the ice and coming from underwater and trying to figure out how it interacts with the cars, and fun with that sequence where they’re running on top and cars interacting with the effects animation and then water…

Jay Barton: There’s a sub-sequence of what we’re doing towards the end of the third act that was called the roller coaster sequence. And in the roller coaster sequence the sub actually comes up through the ice underneath our heroes and one of the bad guys was still chasing them at this point, one of the Russian separatists, and it’s like a conveyor belt of ice that the nose of the sub, is breaking the ice and it’s going up and over the top of the sub while all the heroes are trying to navigate it and slip and slide back and forth while the sub’s travelling forward. It’s pretty hair raising.

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vfxblog: That’s actually a sequence I really wanted to ask you about just in terms of how you pulled it off because it’s such a signature shot that I’ve seen. What kind of things did you want to make sure you communicated there in terms of the breaking ice and the interaction with the cars?

Scott Edelstein: Houdini’s definitely how we do all the effects and break the ice, but then there’s a second layer on top of that of animation where the clients and Jay and everybody wants to direct individual pieces that interact with the cars to tell the story. So there’s quite a process there where you start with a previs of the submarine and really block in ice in there that the car is driving around. And then from there you have the effects artists go in and do a simulation of more detailed ice chunks flowing over the surface, and animation has to get that and actually animate the cars and tires.

And the clients really want this feeling of the cars buried in this wave of ice and particles and make it feel dangerous like their thing’s gonna crush them at any given time. So once you have all that then you have to get Houdini to do a bunch of secondary animation like the water and the spray and the little ice breaking and that has to interact with the car as well, and then hopefully you have enough time in comp to put it all together.

vfxblog: What were some of the challenges in matching things like explosions that had been filmed on location, in CG?

Jay Barton: Some of these were underwater explosions that were placed under the ice itself and so they don’t have a fire part to them. It’s all a sixty foot diameter chunk, a hole being blown in two or three feet of solid ice. And it’s water and spray and everything coming flying out. And you’ve got to mix a sub into that, and then those with sub coming out. You don’t get a lot of good z-depth out of a practical explosion like that to be able to composite it.

In the sub breach, for example, there were real cars that were on a wire guided system being driven across where the explosion was going to go, and a lot of the ice and chunks and water and everything interacts with those guys. So we had to match it pretty darn closely and then add our own elements to it, to give some of the sense of forward motion, that the initial explosions didn’t have, to sell that there was a sub buried in there. But again on top of that there were tons of giant fireball explosions that after the fact we would decide, we’ve got these three great explosion shots but we’ve got a sequence that had ten different angles.

Even when you’ve got a fantastic beautiful explosion, it’s either in the wrong environment in some cases or it doesn’t take into account the way that we have since decided we’re going to break up the sub, so we’re always having to add and augment to those anyway. So you end up with something that’s a bit of 2D, a bit of 3D, and you can film it from any angle which gives the filmmakers a lot more freedom to come up with cool shots.

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vfxblog: Is there also a heavy studio or bluescreen aspect to this for close-up shots? And what are the challenges with matching a blown out white environment look for when you have to do that kind of shooting?

Jay Barton: Yes, there certainly is a large bluescreen component to these films. You’d like to think that each one of these actors was in Iceland driving on the frozen lake to do all these performances but clearly the reality of shooting is that’s not possible. We’d be on this movie for ten years if we had to be at the mercy of the weather and the ice to shoot live action out there. So all of the first unit main shooting is done on just giant bluescreen sets in Atlanta. I mean, they are really massive and super cool. They did a fantastic job of keeping everything for the most part in indirect lighting on the bluescreen so that there would be a lot more latitude on the back end to match them into what we were doing.

And then a lot of what we were trying to do in Iceland, as far north as we were the sun never got fifteen, eighteen degrees above the horizon at midday. So there was a lot of dusk time shooting, and they were playing to that for the film. And while I haven’t seen the final color correction [at the time of interview], the plan going into it was always this eternal dusk, eternal twilight that you get when you are that far north. So we were certainly able to accomplish that with a lot of the stuff that we did for big wides out on the ice, and then once you get in tight on that the DI house I’m sure had some of their work cut out for them with working with some of the first unit bluescreen. We could certainly take it to match what we shot in Iceland but even there I think they are probably taking it further to try and match this aesthetic of eternal twilight.

vfxblog: How would you sum up the experience on this film?

Jay Barton: A lot of this crew also worked on Fast and Furious 7, we had pretty much used up all of the jokes that you could make on how fast and furiously we were working to get the previous scope of work done, which was crazy. And so this one literally did turn into the roller coaster, and it was the roller coaster sequence in name and design, but let me tell you it was a roller coaster of emotions trying to get through it and then piece some of the things as we shot and as we created shots to go through. There were a couple of times I really wasn’t sure that we were going to make it except for the fact that we always do. That’s the business we’re in, we always do, we have to. You know, it’s our lot in life. And in this case I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. You know, with time, schedule, resources be damned, it’s a hell of a ride.

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