New York - In the dramatic opening sequence of Columbia Pictures’ blockbuster hit Salt, starring Angelina Jolie, which has grossed more than $100 million worldwide in less than two weeks, CIA agent Evelyn Salt is released from a North Korean prison as part of a prisoner exchange. The Phosphene visual effects team, under the direction of creative director/VFX supervisor John Bair, augmented and manipulated the physical environment building 3D computer generated concrete towers and gates representing the North and South Korean sides of the demilitarized zone, and seamlessly integrated a dozen shots they created into the live-action footage, ratcheting up the energy of the sequence.
The film’s visual effects supervisor Robert Grasmere says of his collaboration with Phosphene, “The best thing about Phosphene's work on Salt was that they made it so easy for us. Phosphene just ‘got it’ and delivered great shots. It was almost like pushing a button and having perfectly executed visual effects pop out.”
Phosphene’s Bair explains the scope of work: “We expanded on the art department’s initial design and created concrete structures that reflect the imagery we have seen of North Korean gates and black metal signage, as well as the more complex South Korean side of the DMZ, with its gate and guard towers topped with mirrored glass. We researched border crossings worldwide to get a sense of the technology currently employed at these checkpoints before creating our 3D computer generated models of these structures.
Some of the shots were particularly tricky. Angelina Jolie’s wispy blond hair blowing against the white clouds of the background was particularly problematic. Her hair blended into the clouds and the sky illuminated her from behind. “We had to insert a dark concrete structure behind her head in some of the close-ups, so we had to trace a lot of the hair and recreate her fly-aways in order to make that composite believable. To set her apart from the gates inserted into the background, and to make her hair look like it was really floating in front of this models and stills, required meticulously executed hand work. It is very hard to see light blond hair against a bright white background, so it was a challenge,” he continued.
Only partial sets were built for the sequence, so all the extensions that indicated that the action takes place in North Korea were built by Phosphene. In addition, there was a lot of hand held motion in the scene, so tracking was challenging and the roto required a keen eye. Finding the information to lock onto to place their CG images was difficult at times.
“We had about 10 vendors and 800 shots to manage, so it was a major blessing that Phosphene gave us the white glove service,” Robert Grasmere says. “Creative shot design and concepts came first – then beautiful temps. A few notes went back and forth and then finals were delivered that were so seamless no one has ever detected that substantial architectural structures were added to every shot. No blue screens were used and the star of the movie, Angelina Jolie, was in the foreground with her hair blowing in the wind. These were very difficult shots with hand roto and tracking on every frame. The compositing, color control, grain matching, and all the other technical challenges were well handled in the background. This freed us up to focus on the artistic part. Once again, Phosphene is very strong creatively so all in all it was one of the easiest and most successful collaborations I've had. Working with Phosphene was fantastic. Spelling the name was the only hard part.”
“From the get-go, we were able to work efficiently with Robert and VFX producer Mitchell Ferm. They had a really streamlined, organized work flow when we began the project. Their notes were very specific and clear, even for the most minute details. It enabled us to give them a perfect product. Absolutely nothing slipped though the cracks,“ adds Phosphene VFX producer Renuka Ballal.
The Phosphene creative team, lead by company creative director/VFX supervisor John Bair and VFX producer Renuka Ballal, included lead compositor Scott Winston, compositors Manda Cheung and Mark Friedman, 3D artist Vance Miller, additional compositors Brian Haimes and Thomas Panayiotou, and rotoscoping artist Sergei Martirosov.
Phosphene utilized Nuke, 3D Studio Max and After Effects CS4 and PC’s (Intel Xeon Processors running Windows XP 64-bit and Windows 7 with 64-bit) in the execution of this project.
Sony ColorWorks was responsible for the digital intermediate and Deluxe, New York handled the lab processing.
As a CIA officer, Evelyn Salt swore an oath to duty, honor and country. Her loyalty is tested when a defector accuses her of being a cold-blooded Russian sleeper spy. Salt goes on the run, using all her skills and years of experience as a covert operative to elude capture. Salt's efforts to prove her innocence only serve to cast doubt on her motives, as the hunt to uncover the truth behind her identity continues and the question remains: "Who is Salt?" The film is directed by Phillip Noyce and written by Kurt Wimmer. The producers are Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Sunil Perkash.