Los Angeles, Calif. – True Grit, from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions, opening nationwide today, marks the fourth collaboration between Luma Pictures and Academy Award-winning directors Joel and Ethan Coen. The Los Angeles visual effects house produced some 360 VFX shots for the new film, the highest shot count on a Coen Brothers’ film to date. Still, if all those CG elements attract little special notice from audiences, the Luma team will be pleased. It will be a sign that they have done their job.
One facet of Luma’s effects work for the film involved the creation of struggling horses, wriggling snakes, a roaring river and a turn-of-the-century town, all rendered in meticulously detailed CG. Visual effects of this sort go unnoticed by the audience when executed properly as they blend seamlessly with principle photography, and as a result are often referred to as “invisible effects.”
“Invisible visual effects provide a way to sculpt, contain and control nature in ways that are impossible to do on the set,” explains Luma Pictures Executive Visual Effects Supervisor Payam Shohadai. “It can help the director to tell the story or add drama to a scene without the audience being aware that what they are looking at isn’t real.”
The 3D town that Luma Pictures built for True Grit provides a perfect example. The film called for a community of wood-framed buildings typical of the Western United States in the late 1800s. The town scenes were filmed in Granger, Texas however those shots required considerable digital restoration work in order to turn back the clock and make the environment look as it did a century ago. Luma’s team built out whole city blocks, extended streets, replaced modern buildings and removed trees that were too aged for the period.
Luma artists used period photographs in designing the buildings that make up the town, carefully matching their dimensions, materials and textures. They then lit the town, using lighting data gathered on location, in order to seamlessly blend it into its background environment. Lastly, artists blended real elements—actors, animals and set pieces—into the digital town to make it fully come to life.
“The digital town needed an incredible level of detail in order to be believable as a whole,” observes Visual Effects Supervisor Vincent Cirelli. “To achieve that within the tight production schedule, our team created a 3D turn-of-the-century toolkit that allowed them to quickly populate the world with 3D elements and textures in a way that holds up under scrutiny.”
On the outskirts of the town is a river that the main characters cross at a dramatic point in the story. Although the scene was shot practically, the Coens thought the river seemed too placid. Luma turned calm waters into a swift current by blending in CG fluid simulations and particle systems. “To add to the complexity, the water effects needed to interact with the actors as well as with a horse that was also digitally enhanced,” notes CG Supervisor Richard Sutherland.
A further complication that applied to all the effects work was the fact that they needed to be executed at 4K and therefore required extra attention to detail and longer rendering times. “Working at 4k makes everything more exacting,” Visual Effects Producer Steve Griffith says. “Textures, lighting, rendering, compositing all need to stand up to a higher quality.”
In terms of replicating nature, an especially challenging effect involved a cluster of snakes that is encountered by the film’s main character, Rooster (Jeff Bridges), who proceeds to blow them to smithereens. “The digital animals needed to blend perfectly into the 4K plates, hold up close to camera, and integrate into a wide variety of environments,” states Animation Supervisor Raphael A. Pimentel. “As part of our research, we brought in a snake handler and real snakes so that the animators could observe how they move and strike—from a safe distance, of course.”
Much of the effects work involved subtle details applied to scenes as a way to enhance realism or capture phenomena difficult to film practically. “We added environments, characters, muzzle flashes, breath, sweat, snow, blood, dust, smoke and water,” notes Digital FX Supervisor Justin Johnson. We augmented skies and other environmental details. We even created a few human fingers.”
As work on the film continued, deadlines became tighter while the workload grew. Luma’s shot list, which originally numbered 120, nearly tripled to 360. “Right up through the last week new shots were added, others omitted and takes swapped,” recalled VFX Supervising Producer Steven Swanson. “We worked with unusually long handles—sometimes 48 frames on head and tail, rather than the typical four to eight, all to allow flexibility in the edit. We’re proud of the work but equally proud of our agility in giving the Coens the latitude to make the film they wanted to make.”
Luma Pictures’ current projects include Thor, X-Men: First Class, Fright Night and Now. It recently completed work on The Green Hornet and Battle: Los Angeles.
Visual Effects Team
Bob Graf - Producer
Catherine Farrell - Post Production supervisor
Katie McQuerrey - Associate Editor
Stephanie Allen - VP Visual Effects
Vincent Cirelli - VFX Supervisor
Steve Griffith - VFX Producer
Richard Sutherland - CG Supervisor
Raphael A. Pimentel - Animation Supervisor
Steven Swanson - VFX Supervising Producer