vfxblog

Beautybots and robot dogs: just another day in the life of Sony Pictures Imageworks

Sony Pictures Imageworks is behind a whole range of shots in Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle, from robot dogs, to the beautybot (inspired by Claudia Schiffer), the surrounds of Poppy’s diner environment, a robotic arm, the destruction of the Kingsman mansion and that crazy one-shot fight scene at the end.

Visual effects supervisor Mark Breakspear tells vfxblog how working on some of these hilarious shots was different from the usual VFX assignments – a bag of weed transforming into a forest environment was one of many challenging tasks Imageworks had to pull off, for example. And that was nothing next to mincing one of the bad guys…

vfxblog: What is the hardest thing about making a robot dog that people might not think is so tricky to pull off?

Mark Breakspear: Essentially everything. How it looks… does it look photo-real and fit into the plate so you don’t get taken out of the movie? How does it move? Is it a robot dog, or dog robot? We had to answer all these and more. The trickiest thing at first was answering the robot dog/dog robot question. Animation would be based on whether these were in the truest sense, dogs made out of metallic parts and thus had strong dog like behaviors that you would associate with dogs. Or, whether they were robots with robot traits, that happened to be dog shaped but didn’t really conform to typical dog actions.

In the end, Max Tyrie, our animation director, pushed the very successful line that these were mostly robotic mechanisms with occasional glimpses of your typical and often loveable dog traits. Does a robot dog bark? What would be the logical point? Or growl? If not, how do you sell the fierceness of the robots if they look like dogs, but don’t sound like dogs? It took a while, but the final sound does have barks and growls, which has been treated to sound very 8-bit to match the mechanical feel of the bodies.

Motion-wise, Max and his team kept the robot dogs mechanical with occasional dog physical characteristics. We wanted the dogs to occasionally snap at each other, or scratch themselves etc. But Matthew felt some of the motions were too strong dog-wise and we dialed them back. We did employ subtle motions in the ears, and general body shapes that matched the Boxer and German Shepherd breads that they were based on.

In the final scene where Jet is bashed to death by a bowling ball, the stuttering, violent and spasmodic shaking was very robotic, but also Max kept a certain level of “life struggling to survive” in there which spoke to the dog side. I’d just got a German Shepherd puppy at home, so to watch that every day was pretty tough.

vfxblog: For the Beautybot, was it tougher to get feedback from a director or a super-model? And how did you find the bot’s right ’personality’, given you had robotic movements and relatively unmovable features?

Mark Breakspear: Actually, Matthew Vaughn and Claudia Schiffer are husband and wife. I can only imagine the conversations over breakfast about which direction to take the Beautybot. On one hand, she has to be this killer Beautician, but also, on the other, she has to be as her name implies, beautiful. Two quite tricky things to mesh together. We ultimately got notes from both Claudia and Mathew and I think they meshed well.

Regarding her movements, it was decided early on that she would skate around on wheels, and not have a moving jaw, or visible moving mouth. Stylistically, I think that was the right way to go when you want to mix violence with beauty. If the machine was too “human” it would be hard to sell the inhuman quality of her actions. But by keeping the shapes, curves and look of Claudia, it became beautiful.

vfxblog: There’s a crazy transition between, er, something in a bag, through a lush forest, all the way through Poppy’s re-creation of Americana and into her diner – what’s real and what’s not in a shot like that?

Mark Breakspear: Ah the weed shot! It didn’t start out as a weed transition shot. It was always just a fly over of a forest into Poppyland. At some point, thankfully near the end, so we couldn’t panic and freak out for too long, they changed the concept to what it is now. We are with Eggsy and friends in an old flat, with a bag of weed on the table. The camera goes down to the table and through the side of the plastic bag and over the weed, slowly transitioning to a forest.

Part of the long shot into Poppy’s diner. Imageworks also developed a new jungle technology for the film called ‘Sprout’.

The Weed, the bag and the forest are all fully CG. Poppyland is also fully CG until we push through the main gates, at which it’s half CG and half plate from the shoot in the UK.

We shot the plate at Longcross Studios just outside London. They built a version of Poppyland’s main street, a diner, theatre, bowling alley and salon. There were some other store fronts, but we had to build this in CG for hook ups and other full CG shots. Mostly we added stores, and BG architecture as well as trees, bushes and forest all around the compound.

The fly down the main street was shot in three main parts. Initially on a cable cam, then a techno crane, and finally inside the diner on a steady cam. We linked the three shots together, smoothing out the tracks, re-projecting the environment around them to hide the transition moments. On top of all of that we added the extra buildings, forest and heaps and heaps of CG monkeys.

Initially the weed shot was shot on set, with a bag of (how do I put this kindly) what the folks onset in the UK thought was weed. Now, I’m no expert in this field but I have, one might suggest, green fingers and a certain knowledge on how certain plants look at various stages of their life cycle. Living in Vancouver where marijuana is only a few months away from being legalized, I wasn’t surprised to hear many other team members wondering what it was that had been shot in the bag of supposed weed. It looked more like tea leaves than your standard buds of weed. Again, I’m no expert on this.

Our modeling team built various types of buds, varying in size and shape and then the layout team placed them in the bag so that the upper surface of weed buds, corresponded to the position of trees in the full CG forest.

Our look-dev team dedicatedly focused on making sure the weed looked just right, added all the THC crystals on to the leaves and giving it that sticky deliciousness, sorry I mean, photo-real accuracy that you would expect should a person have any experience with something as deplorable such as this. Don’t do drugs kids, build them in CG instead.

vfxblog: As you were crafting Charlie’s robotic arm shots, what were some of the typical notes you might get from the director or overall VFX supervisor?

Mark Breakspear: Angus Bickerton, the overall VFX supervisor typically was always focused on the way the body looked after the arm was painted out. Angus correctly pointed out that painting out the arm does not mean the muscles that held the real arm in place are not still hinting that the arm was still there. So, we would spend extra time removing those tell tale signs.

In many of Charlie’s shots, we replaced his upper torso completely. During the last fight with Eggsy, Charlie’s upper body is mostly CG. His real arm was just causing too much deformation in his body to allow for a simple paint out. But the visual benefits of a full CG upper torso meant we could get creative with his CG arm in ways the standard paint out wouldn’t allow.

There is this one moment where Charlie is rolling over on the ground, and in the plate his is rolling over his practical arm that was underneath him. Obviously, that raised his body off the ground. But by replacing his body in CG, we could adjust for that, keeping his robot arm out to the side and making the action more fluid at the same time.

For the actual arm itself, the notes were really about action and timing. What had been shot on set locked you in to a specific action, but that wasn’t always what Matthew and Angus ended up wanting. We were able to modify with some flexibility what was shot and create the exact action they wanted.

vfxblog: People went nuts over that destruction of the Kingsman HQ mansion when it was in the trailer. Can you give an insight into how many iterations that shot involved, and how it may have changed from trailer to final film?

Mark Breakspear: The destruction shot… or kad1450 as we called it during production was a huge FX shot. Our FX lead, Ian Farnsworth was working on that shot with his team from almost before we finished shooting to the very end of post and delivery.

We shot plates and drone reference at a location in North London that had been established as the Kingsman HQ in the first movie. We used the drone plates to create a rough model which we then worked on to make ready for destruction. We asked the occupants for floor plans but they were a little hesitant at first for obvious reasons! They gave us partial plans for the floors not being lived in and we were able to download the bits they didn’t give us easily off the internet!

The reason the plans were important to us, is that the collapsing building had to feel believable as it fell, and the outer structure would look wrong if the inner structure of the rooms were guessed and made up. We added basic furniture and texture inside the building and placed it on top of a huge cavernous space in to which the FX guys would make it fall.

The biggest time suck on this shot was getting the scale of the explosion and collapse FX to feel correct. A mixture of explosions, plumes of dust and falling trees and earth couldn’t be cheated in the simulations. It all had to feel real otherwise a shot on this scale would feel wrong and wouldn’t carry the impact that it needed to.

The only real difference between the trailer version and final version was the lighting and some key explosion scale fixes. We worked on some great electrical explosions deep in the dust as the house fell. Imagining the electrical feeds being ripped apart as the house fell, causing bright arcs that lit up the whole area from strange places.

We also did hundreds of little comp fixes balancing out the various black levels in the CG environment. Near the end Angus asked us to add lots of twinkling lights in the distance to sell other towns far away. He had shot an element for that which was great at giving the realistic look you would want.

vfxblog: There’s that final ‘oner’ fight in Poppy’s diner – how the hell did you do this shot?

Mark Breakspear: The FOB sequence as it was called, or “Fight Over Briefcase” was this movie’s “Church fight” that we all loved from the first movie. Shot over 3-4 weeks, in multiple different locations we pieced together 100s of plates to make one fluid sequence as Eggsy, Harry and Jack fight.

Initially the stunt team worked out the moves with the director. Once they were happy they blocked out how they would film it if could be shot in one go. They then broke it up as needed to film the pieces, paying specific attention to the join points to make sure they would line up as well as possible. The stunts team also shot their own “cheap-cam” version that they hacked together to make sure it would work in principal and that formed a very useful and helpful shooting guide.

Of course, the devil is in the details, and what worked in the rough stunt viz, wasn’t going to look good unless it was pixel perfect in the vfx version. It took quite a bit of time to just layer the elements together from the shoot and form a base cut from which we could build from.

Everyone had been staring at the stunt-viz for so long that they had sort of become married to it which is a usual draw back we see in vfx and it sometimes means there is no room for improvement. However in this case, editorial, Angus and Matthew were fully onboard with subtle changes that had to happen to link the plates together.

It took several months to just link all the plates together before we could begin the crazy amount of paint work that had to happen to clean it all up. We were also heavily in to making the key CG moments, like the gun grab with the whip, or the wipe being thrown through the air in to the mincer moment.

The camera goes from behind the counter to in front of it effortlessly because for the most part it’s all entirely CG and we added it back in as needed. It’s something you don’t notice first time around, but now you do know, look for it and you’ll realize how impossible some of those moves are!

We shot plates with the real actors and also with stunt actors, replacing their faces with matching camera moves from different plates. We replaced limbs in some shots, added whips, lassos and guns.

It all built up to the final moment where Jack goes head first in to the mincer. Originally that was going to be practical plates with some CG additional work to add the blades and maybe a little gore. It ended up being fully CG as it just allowed us to make a cooler shot than we could if we tried to shoot it practically. We used the practical shoot as reference for the motion of his legs, but everything else, including his body was full CG at the end there.

And finally, you just keep tweaking. Day after day after day. Every time you watch it you find another thing to smooth out, or adjust slightly. In the end, when finally complete, you watch it and the work melts away and you are left with a moment in the film that doesn’t blab its secrets or tell you what it took to make it. For us, that’s a job well done!