James Bond may be getting old, but he hits the ground running in Skyfall, the 23rd entry in the series of Eon Production films. It’s been 50 years since Dr. No, the first 007 movie, but Daniel Craig, the sixth actor to play the famous British spy, wastes no time getting things moving in what critic Roger Ebert calls one of best Bonds ever. In a chase that races through the first 15 minutes of the film, before the titles, Bond tears through Istanbul and beyond. The non-stop action happens in one of several sequences for which digital visual effects help support the on-set practical effects and miniatures.
Three British visual effects studios— Cinesite, Double Negative (DNeg), and The Moving Picture Company (MPC)—handled the largest portion of the visual effects work, with MPC providing previs for the opening sequence and finale. Steve Begg, who received a BAFTA nomination for best visual effects in the 2006 Bond film Casino Royale, supervised the visual effects and miniature work. Chris Corbould, who received an Oscar for Inception, supervised the special effects.
Oscar-winner Sam Mendes (for American Beauty) directed the film. Nine-time Oscar nominee and multiple ASC award-winner Roger Deakins was the cinematographer.
Double Negative extended the Grand Bazaar for live-action shots during the opening sequence chase.
“For me, the main draw visually for the project was to work on something photographed by Roger Deakins,” says Andrew Whitehurst, visual effects supervisor at DNeg. “When you can get plates as beautiful as those we got, it’s such a tremendous help for adding CG. That isn’t something I just learned, but this film confirmed it in my mind.”
Deakins shot the film on Arri Alexa digital cameras. “That camera is incredibly sensitive to low light levels,” Whitehurst says. “It gives the film a certain look. Most of the sets had practical illumination, lights put there by Roger [Deakins]. But, not 10,000 watts of key light. Everything felt quite natural. Stylized, but grounded in a realistic lighting style that was interesting to see.”
Die Another Day
The opening chase takes place in Turkey, where Whitehurst spent five weeks on location in Adana and three in Istanbul. “One of the nice things about the Bond movies is the heritage of using as much stunt work and practical shots as possible,” Whitehurst says, “but I would say we had 200 effects shots in that sequence.”
Cinesite created digital environments in the London Underground and added CG train carriages to those filmed on set.
In Istanbul, Bond discovers a murdered agent and a missing hard disk, and the chase begins, putting Bond, at various times, in the passenger seat of a Jeep driven by aspiring MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris), on a motorcycle racing over the Grand Bazaar rooftops, inside a CAT backhoe that Bond drives along the top of a train, and, finally, running across the top of the train. He and an assassin are fighting on top of the train as it crosses a bridge, and M (Judi Dench) orders Eve, who has followed in the Jeep, to take a shot. She does, and hits Bond. He falls into the water below, slides down a waterfall, and the titles begin.
The visual effects included CG environments, a digital double of Craig, and rig removals done at DNeg by artists using a pipeline based on Autodesk’s Maya, Pixar’s RenderMan, and The Foundry’s Nuke. LIDAR data provided a starting point for the Grand Bazaar shots. Approximately 200 people at DNeg worked on the show during the postproduction, which ran from around the end of May to the end of September.
DNeg added 60-plus stories to the neon-blue office building and hotel in Shanghai.
“We built full-CG environments for some shots in the Grand Bazaar when we had greenscreen close-ups of the actors and no plates,” Whitehurst says. “And we added pedestrians running away and hiding. For the environments, we used some matte paintings and a lot of projections on geometry from HDRIs and reference photos of the environments. We’ve been developing a physically plausible-based rendering pipeline for the past couple years or so, and raytracing is now at a level where it is possible to do that.”
Dark Knight Rises was probably the first show for which the DNeg crew used the new RenderMan-based pipeline, but Skyfall was close behind. “Our physically plausible lighting and rendering made a huge difference,” Whitehurst says. “The lighting on the characters comes from light sources bouncing in the environments they’re in. If we hadn’t had physically plausible lights, we would have struggled. But, our CG lights did the same thing as the real ones on set. It’s unquestionably the right way to be rendering things in 2012.”
Bond’s Aston Martin DB2 is sometimes real, sometimes a mash-up of a Porsche and Aston Martin, and sometimes CG
When the chase moves to Adana and onto the train, Double Negative artists again lent a helping hand. “The special effects guys built a remote-controlled digger that they could drive on a train at 50 mph,” Whitehurst says. “But to do that safely, they held it on with a complicated armor arrangement. So, the CAT is real, but the environment surrounding it has a lot of digital work. There’s a shot where the digger [extending on a long boom from the CAT] rips the back off a train carriage. It falls on the track and slides along, and we did all that digitally.”
Lastly, the DNeg team helped make it possible to film Bond falling off the train into the water below the bridge and over a waterfall. The shots begin with Craig filmed in front of a greenscreen, transitions to a stunt actor with a CG head filmed on location, and then ends with a digital double.
“The bridge is 250 feet up from the water,” Whitehurst says. “The stunt actor fell down 20 feet off the bridge on descender cables. So, we removed the rig and replaced his head with Daniel’s head, and then used a digital double for the rest of the fall.”
Because Craig has stubble in some of the film and appears clean shaven in other shots, the artists created two digital doubles using the studio’s scanning system and photogrammetry software. “Our system gives us high-quality geometry and texture information in one pass,” Whitehurst says. “We could use the same photographs to build geometry and for textures. One capture gets everything.” To create the background, the artists stitched together multiple images from plates shot on location.
A miniature helicopter crashed into a miniature house in some shots. In others, MPC’s CG helicopter was used to create more impact and to send the propellers slicing through the stonework.
We next see the supposedly dead, but very dissolute Bond drunk in a bar somewhere on a tropical island. The television is on, and he views a report of an explosion that ripped MI6 headquarters apart and killed several agents. M, we discover, is the target of a vendetta by a cyber-terrorist who has the data on the stolen hard disk and has hacked into the MI6 network. Bond goes home.
When MI6 tracks the assassin to Shanghai, Bond follows. The assassin goes into a 90- story office building. It’s night. Candy-colored neon lights punctuate the black sky, and graphics created with LED lights dance across the dark, glass-fronted buildings. “The idea is that the lighting is just this side of believable,” Whitehurst says. “Believable, but with huge style to it, especially in Shanghai. The neon and LED light sources look spectacular.
When the assassin walks into an elevator, Bond grabs the underside of the lift and rides it to the 67th floor. There, in a dark, empty office, the assassin positions his gun to shoot a target in a hotel room across the way. Inside the room, a man sits in a chair with his back to the window and looks at a painting. We—and the assassin—see only peekaboo images of this target. An LED graphic, a huge, bright-white, moon-like sea creature on a blue background, slides up and across the window repeatedly, casting light on the assassin in the office.
At the Albert R. Broccoli 007 Stage within Pinewood Studios (Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire, England), a three-story set with two walls and an elevator stood in for the ride to the room. “Any sequence with Bond on the lift has mostly CG environments,” Whitehurst says. “They also built one floor of the hotel and one floor of the office block that Roger lit beautifully with neons. But, looking down from the 67th floor, it’s all CG.”
The production art department supplied digital models of the hotel and office building that the modelers at DNeg rebuilt to fit into the studio’s pipeline. “The modelers treated the geometry almost as if it were LIDAR data,” Whitehurst says. “So, the modeling was straightforward. The surfaces were a complicated shading exercise, though. The producers wanted a brushed-metal look, and you can see the reflections of the hotel in the metal front of the building. Having the physically plausible rendering helped.”
The digital matte department artists at MPC created the frozen lake and the mountains behind Skyfall, Bond’s family home, and reinvented the filmed location in southern England as the Scottish Highlands.
To create the surface, the shader artists turned to real measurements, feeding into the shaders such data as Albedo values, which represent the diffuse reflectivity and reflecting power of a surface, and IOR values, which define how much a ray changes direction. “Any glossy surface is tough,” Whitehurst says, “because subtle changes in the shading model parameters have a profound impact on the look. We were careful to get scientifically correct data rather than determine shader values artistically. The more physically-based your rendering is, the more rigorous you have to be about using physically correct values in the shaders to get a result that looks like the material it’s supposed to be. We could tweak if needed, but we needed little tweaking; we made sure the surface shaders did the right thing. We did play fast and loose with the lights, though.”
In a striking scene, we see Bond and the assassin fighting only as black silhouettes against the blue LED light. And then, Bond tosses the assassin out the window.
The Spy Who Loved Me
After dispatching the assassin, Bond finds a chip in the gunman’s case, which leads him to a casino. From there, he sails to an island where he comes face to face with Silva, the villain, played by a bleached-blond Javier Bardem. Silva tickles a homoerotic fantasy at the expense of a handcuffed Bond, and then releases him for a shooting competition. But, this is Bond, James Bond.
007 disarms Silva and some of his henchmen and activates a radio given him by MI6’s Q. Q sends three helicopters to the island in time to rescue Bond from the remaining henchmen and to arrest Silva. The helicopters were digital in these shots, as was much of the island.
We first see the island as Bond approaches it from a sailboat. “We filmed the yacht off Turkey,” Whitehurst says, “But the island is fully digital.” In close-up shots, a three-story set served as a background for the actors. Artists at DNeg added three stories to the set pieces, added height to a computer room to give it an industrial cathedral feel, and extended the set with other CG buildings.
Based on Hashima, a former coal-mining island off the coast of Japan abandoned since 1974, Silva’s island has, as does Hashima, empty concrete buildings in various states of ruin. In the story, Silva caused people to flee the island in fear of a chemical threat, and you see bicycles and other detritus left behind on the streets.
“We decided to use a modular approach with the design,” Whitehurst says. “We picked eight architecturally interesting buildings from reference photos taken in Hashima that would be suitable for re-use, and picked three that would hold up to a higher standard. Then, we laid out the island, working with Steve Begg and Sam Mendes. The modular approach made it comparatively easy to make changes.”
By rotating buildings, tweaking surface properties, and darkening the color of selected buildings, the artists multiplied the eight buildings into approximately 100. “And, we did all the usual tricks to give you depth down the streets,” Whitehurst says. “It’s quite a big island. In the establishing shots when you don’t get the sense of street-level depth, we added things to the roofs to break up the silhouettes and simulated some trees blowing in the wind.”
To flow water around the digital island and have huge waves crash onto the CG sea wall, compositors at DNeg started with plates of water filmed in Turkey. “Those plates were shot with deep water,” Whitehurst says. “It didn’t work for the large waves, so we dressed in elements of waves splashing. It was an awful lot of compositing work.”
This was one sequence in which the visual effects artists decided to “cheat” the lighting. “We backlit the buildings more than was correct to create the menacing look everyone wanted,” Whitehurst says. “We played with lighting, hazing, fog, and had dust elements blowing across the island to give it the sense of desolation and make it look scary. In an homage to Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, we also had a plastic bag blow through the street, which he thought was funny.”
After Bond tosses an assassin out a window in Shanghai, he discovers a chip in the gunman’s case that leads him to a Chinese casino. The entrance to the brightly lit building is across a bridge, and in the pit below are two Komodo dragons, possibly the first CG creatures in a Bond film.
“The scene is at night, with typical [cinematographer] Roger Deakins silhouettes,” says John Neill, visual effects supervisor at Cinesite. “The pit is candlelit. But, we did our test in daylight. They were trying to decide whether to use a crocodile or a Komodo dragon. Although they didn’t want to use a crocodile, they could have one on set. The Komodo dragon would have to be CG. We spent six weeks creating a nice Komodo dragon test, and they gave us the sequence.”
For reference, the artists visited the London Zoo, which had one hand-reared Komodo dragon and another wilder one. The crew set up photography equipment and lights with diffusers in a room connected to the tamer Komodo’s enclosure. “The zookeepers opened the door, and the Komodo came in,” Neill says. “Then, our photographer went in and got close-up, highly-detailed images in perfect lighting. He also took images in more dramatic lighting for the modelers who like to see shapes.”
The crew also took video reference of the wilder Komodo dragon. “That was in a separate room, and no one went in,” Neill says. “We had three HD cameras sync’d together. The zookeeper threw in a dead mouse and the Komodo did its thing. We got great reference for the animators.”
The artists sculpted the creature in Autodesk’s Maya, textured it in Adobe’s Photoshop, and then brought the model into Autodesk’s Mudbox. “We used the texture map as a guide, then handcrafted it so it was perfect,” Neill says. “We went to town and made a high-res model. We got high-detail scaling around the toes and mouth, and that really paid off.”
We first see one Komodo as Bond crosses the bridge to enter the casino. Later, Bond fights a bully in the pit. “Sam just wanted the Komodos walking in the background,” Neill says. “He didn’t want them to rise up on their legs; the sequence is about Bond and the baddie fighting. So, we see the Komodos edge out of the shadows. One sneaks into the middle of the pit and bites the bad guy, and we see it in a close-up dragging him into the shadows. The other one comes out, runs across the pit to help with the feeding.”
As an homage to Live and Let Die, in which 007 runs across crocodiles, Bond in this film jumps on the Komodo’s back and out of the pit. To make that possible, the Komodo dragons grew bigger than life-size—three meters rather than two. On set, the art department put a stuffy in the shadows and a wooden green box for Craig to jump onto.
“The stuffy wasn’t as shiny or specular are our Komodos, but it helped us see what the shadows were doing,” Neill says. “The box gave us trouble. It was static, but the Komodo needed to move underfoot, so it looked like he was sliding. We had to bend his leg in 2D to stick it onto the Komodo.”
The most difficult shot, though was the close-up when the Komodo bit the bad guy. “Komodos don’t move much,” Neill says. “And, we saw so much of his head, which is all skull, that he looked like a Komodo on a stick. So, we changed the animation. But when we turned his head, it was easy to lose the sinister character of the Komodo. When we twisted his neck, even though the twist was realistic, his neck looked younger and less flabby going away from camera. So we cheated it back to the camera and worked on getting the mass of the neck back. And, we gave him an eye blink—a membrane that goes across one way and then goes down like a shutter a split second later. The blink had to look sinister and dangerous.” –Barbara Robertson
Die Another Day
Back in London, Silva is now a prisoner, trapped in a round glass cage. But not for long. He escapes and bursts into parliament, guns blazing, in an attempt to kill M. Bond stops the attack and chases after the fleeing villain, who disappears into the London Underground. Close to 40 artists at Cinesite under the supervision of Jon Neill worked from January through September to create CG environments and elements for the three subsequent Underground chase sequences.
The chase begins on one of the long, steep escalators leading to the train. “Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins filmed the sequence in a disused but still functional Tube station below Charing Cross,” Neill says. “Silva jumps into the middle of an escalator and slides down, and then Bond follows and slides. Special effects built a metal slide to make it smooth for them. They landed on a soft mat with a floor-tile texture, but that was too obvious in the shot and didn’t have the correct reflections, plus it was wrinkled. So, we replaced the practical slide and the background, including bits of bodies for passengers on the escalator, removed the safety wires and mechanical things, and roto’d out and replaced all the passengers walking on top of the floor mat. It was a big cleanup job.”
To replace the slide on the escalator and parts of the background that they would remove from the plate, the crew built a 3D model in Maya of the entire environment from photogrammetry, and took reference stills.
“When we got the shots, we projected the reference stills onto the geometry in Nuke,” Neill says. “The interesting thing was that Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins didn’t want to add any new lighting. They just used the strip lighting in the Underground. So because the lighting was in the photographs, we took our HDRIs into [Adobe’s] Photoshop, cleaned them up, and brought them into Nuke.”
Above ground, Q has a layout of the Underground tunnel system on his computer and can track Bond through the CCTV network. Bond follows Q’s voice while searching for Silva. But, when Bond needs to dodge an oncoming train, Q leads him to a stuck door. “On the 007 Stage at Pinewood, they had a Tube that we extended and half of a carriage that they drove toward Bond,” Neill explains. “We extended the train behind the carriage, and when he jumps through the door at the last second and the camera looks back, our CG train whooshes past.”
During live-action sequences shot on a platform at Charing Cross with hundreds of extras and a real train, Silva jumps onto the train. Bond runs after the train. As it’s leaving the platform and about to enter the tunnel, Bond jumps onto the back.
“They had a life-size, but not full, platform at Pinewood Studios and a half-carriage train that Bond jumps onto,” Neill says. The carriage was on a trailer, so Cinesite artists built everything beneath it in CG and also extended the train. When the camera looks back at Bond from the train, the tunnel and platform behind him is the set extended with CG.
“We used reference from the Charing Cross location, but we knew we had to copy what the art department had done at Pinewood,” Neill says. “We got the measurements of the wall from Charing Cross and surveyed the platform and tunnel. Then, we modeled from the real things and blended them into the art department models on set. The posters were different on the platform, and the CG train had to join the half-carriage train.”
The crew also changed the perspective of the tunnel by bending it slightly so that the audience wouldn’t see the end, replaced the driver when the actor in the plates didn’t react strongly enough to the action outside, and composited into the shots 2D images of extras on set.
During the third train sequence that the Cinesite artists helped create, Bond has caught up with Silva in the catacombs beneath the Tube station. Water seeps up through the foundations and around Victorian archways. Silva taunts Bond from a ladder he has climbed, pushes a button, and an explosion behind 007 rips a hole in the ceiling. In the next scene, a derailed Tube train dives through the hole and narrowly misses Bond.
“It was a life-size model,” Neill says. “The catacombs were the size of a massive warehouse. They had 10 Arri cameras hanging from the ceiling and sticking up from the floor. Two life-size train carriages that hung from rails careened through the set and smashed through a back wall. They shot Bond and Silva on set for the first explosions the day before. When the train flew through the set the next day, no one was on the 007 Stage at Pinewood.”
Having 10 cameras meant there was no greenscreen. “We didn’t know which cameras they’d pick for the edit, and the greenscreen would always have been in the way of one. So we decided we’d put the effort into rotoscoping. Also, if we had greenscreen, it would have been an effort to get the right lighting. The lighting was dark and dramatic with fast cuts. We got all the lighting for free.”
At Cinesite, artists replaced the black curtains behind the arches lining the perimeter of the set with CG catacombs by projecting images from clean plates taken by the locked-off cameras onto geometry. “The explosion created splashes of bright lights, so we had to integrate that into our CG lighting,” Neill says.
The train that dives into the set hung from brackets, which the artists also replaced. It hits a black curtain, so the artists replaced the drape with a brick wall, proper lighting, and dust, and smashed the CG bricks.
“We didn’t use 3D destruction,” Neill says. “We had a 3D model of the set that we projected textures onto and added 2D dust elements in Nuke. These sequences were all about adding to what was there and filling in the bits using what we had captured. They tried to get everything in camera, which makes our life more satisfying. We’re not making things up.”
The climax of the film takes place in Bond’s family home, ostensibly in the Upper Highlands of Scotland, but actually filmed in Hankley Common in southern England, which was near an air base. “They shot the sequences in the middle of summer,” says Arundi Asregadoo, visual effects supervisor at the The Moving Picture Company (MPC). “We had to turn that into a mountainous scene in Scotland in winter.”
A team of artists at MPC had worked with Deakins and Mendes earlier to previs that sequence as well as the opening sequence. Then in postproduction, 150 artists at the studio created approximately 300 shots in the finale using a Maya, Nuke, and RenderMan-based pipeline.
On set was a life-size Scots manor—Skyfall lodge, the ancestral home of Bond. In postproduction, the MPC crew put a roof on the lodge, aged the building, added a frozen lake behind, and placed mountains beyond.
Inside the house, Bond, M, and Kincade (Albert Finney), the gamekeeper, prepare for Silva’s attack, a scene shot in on-set interiors. When Silva and his men arrive, they shoot machine guns at the house and at Bond’s Aston Martin DB2. Then, a helicopter attack follows. “There are two waves of attack on the DB2,” Asregadoo says. “First, the machine-gun fire. For that, we had a greenscreen shell of the DB5 that we put digital holes into. Until we realized it should be bullet-proof.” After a discussion with Mendes and Begg, they removed the bullet holes.
The second attack on the car is from the Merlin, a RAF helicopter flown onto Hankley Common from the nearby air base. “They built a hybrid DB5,” Asregadoo says, “which was a combination of a Porsche and an Aston Martin, because they needed something with the real body of a car to get the right effect. We shot clean plates of the DB5 in the same position so we could combine it with the hybrid in compositing. And, we built a CG car. There were so many shots, it was easier to have something that we could re-use and re-project. We also added downdrafts from the helicopter, firelights flickering in the windows of the house, and blowing grass.”
When the Merlin destroys Bond’s car, Bond lights two propane tanks that cause the house to explode and the helicopter to crash into the roof. The explosions happened on location; the helicopter crash on a miniature set. “We enhanced the plates and added to them, but the main explosions were at Hankley Common,” Asregadoo says. “It was amazing. A massive mushroom cloud reached over us and everyone started running in all directions away from it.”
Separately, at nearby Longcross Studios, a miniature helicopter crashed into a one-third Skyfall miniature. Later, artists at MPC enhanced the shot using a CG helicopter and digital destruction.
“The shot of the helicopter going into the lodge worked pretty well, but the rig wasn’t very flexible, so we re-animated the helicopter and changed the pitch and orientation to give it the impact we needed,” Asregadoo says. “Steve [Begg] wanted rotor blades cutting through the stonework like a knife.” A proprietary RBD (rigid-body dynamics)-based destruction tool called Kali gave the MPC artists control over fracturing and material properties, and sent pieces of stone flying.
When Silva’s Merlin helicopter attacked the lodge, M and Kincade escaped through a secret passageway and ran across the moor. But, Silva spots them and stalks them. So, Bond chases Silva by taking a shortcut across the frozen lake.
“I think our most challenging shots were in the chase across the moor at nighttime,” Asregadoo says. “They shot them on set at Longcross, and we had to make them feel like the same environment [as Hankley Common]. Also, Sam felt that the miniature shoot of the helicopter crash looked like it was on a stage, so we had to make it feel like it was in an open expanse. He gave us complete control to redesign the shot in terms of distance, the scale of the burning lodge, how the lake looked, and the point of view.”
Tomorrow Never Dies
The artists used reference photography from Hankely Common to help create the sequence. For the mountains in these and the earlier shots, MPC’s visual effects photographer James Kelly took panoramic photographs of Scotland mountains and built 360-degree cycloramas. “We needed to put those mountains into 200 shots,” Asregadoo says. “And, Sam [Mendes] wanted to see what the shots looked like from every angle. Once he signed off on our layouts, we took those images into digital matte painting.”
For the frozen lake, the artists mapped a 2.5D projection onto a simple plane. “Sam was always looking at the composition, adding and taking out details, and moving the mountains around, so we needed to be as flexible as possible,” Asregadoo says. “And, Roger [Deakins] wanted hanging clouds and wanted to control the density of the mist.” The clouds were a combination of elements shot on blackscreen or greenscreen, then animated and layered in Nuke. Ground frost landed on the moor through grading.
“We had latitude to build plates, cut plates up, and create compositions that worked,” Asregadoo says. “I was nervous about doing that. But, the biggest compliment we got from Sam [Mendes] was on a shot we had put together completely. He said, ‘I don’t remember shooting this.’ We told him that we built the whole plate, and he said, ‘Oh. I like it.’ ”
Skyfall, the 23rd James Bond film debuted in the US with a record $88.4 million opening weekend, which was the largest in the 50-year-old franchise’s history. The film also received an average 91 percent critical approval on the Rotten Tomatoes website, a tribute to the director, actors, and writers. And, the effects artists. In a Bond film, the practical effects star alongside the actors, but the invisible digital effects supporting the practical ones helped make Skyfall possible, and the new physically plausible lighting and rendering helped cinematographer Roger Deakins create the dramatic statement he had in mind.
As aspiring agent Eve put it to Bond, “Old dog, new tricks.”
Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at BarbaraRR@comcast.net