To achieve the historical accuracy and photorealism desired by Director James Mangold, Production VFX Supervisor Olivier Dumont drew from extensive reference materials from the time period in guiding the feature’s visual effects and had VFX shots filmed practically to capture the real-world lighting. Dumont charged Method Studios with creating the climatic Le Mans race sequence, which was overseen by Method VFX Supervisor Dave Morley.
“Visual effects were important for building the 1960s world in which this story takes place and transporting audiences to that era. James and Olivier put a strong emphasis on practical effects, so our challenge was to create CG elements that held up to the scrutiny of close-ups, and blend practical and CG elements in a way that felt gritty and authentic,” said Morley.
The pivotal Le Mans race was largely filmed at Agua Dulce Airpark in Santa Clarita, CA, though four other locations stood in for various portions of the track. Method artists digitally augmented partial set builds created by the art department, extending the grandstands and adding spectators, and building out the racing pit. They also created an assortment of CG GT40 Ford racecars, an epic crash and tense racing moments, and added environmental effects such as fog, rain and smoke to shots. Artists built a detailed GT40 asset based on LIDAR scans of clean vehicles from on set and photography, then created different versions of the car using texture variations for both team colors and numbers as well as the dirt progressions throughout the 24-hour race period.
“Scanning a car is problematic because they are so reflective, but the LIDAR provided a good basis to start,” Morley noted. “Since the Le Mans race takes place over 24 hours, the cars end up with significant wear and tear, and accumulate dirt so we adjusted our designs accordingly.”
To animate the CG cars, Method built a one size fits all driving rig, then customized the exteriors. The rig allowed animators to control steering and automate various metrics, such as vibration and suspension, which would change depending on the vehicle’s speed. Then, they fine-tuned the movements. To accurately depict the road, down to the smallest bumps and imperfections, LIDAR was used to scan the track where filming took place. This information helped Method animators incorporate micromovements that, while not overtly perceptible, gave the CG cars a natural feel.
Additionally, around 200 extras were scanned via photogrammetry to provide the basis for the CG crowds, with their wardrobes and coloring documented to create an asset library. Select individuals were processed in more detail, and a motion capture session was conducted to capture specific reactions, such as a response to a car zipping by. This technique gave artists a solid foundation to craft a realistic, period-authentic crowd. Considering the long duration of the race, the crowd changes over time, as spectators come and go, and the day progresses into night.
While a portion of the Le Mans racing pit was built practically at Agua Dulce, Method created a complete digital replica to allow for greater flexibility in blending shot elements. For the high intensity race start, where the drivers have to sprint to their lined-up vehicles, roughly 20 of the drivers and cars were practical, with Method adding another 30 or so drivers and cars digitally. The in-camera drivers were used for reference in animating the digital drivers and motion capture was also used.
Shortly after the start of the Le Mans race, a car is clipped, resulting in a large wreck as the drivers approach Dunlop Bridge. During filming, a stunt car was catapulted off the back of a truck, creating an impressive impact. Method helped smooth out the transition by doing a CG takeover of the car just before the collision but preserving the practical crash. Morley noted, “We worked backwards from the crash to get the car in position so that the hit felt real. Physics are different if a car is swerving as opposed to being towed, but going full CG wouldn’t have been as effective. This was approach helped us get the best of both worlds.”
Interior racing shots were filmed on a stage using a sort of hovercraft system to mimic the car’s movements and LED panels to generate reflections, and indicate a sense of speed and movement. Background imagery was based on plate shoots captured using 360-degree cameras. Much of the weather that the drivers encounter during the race was filmed practically, though artists added extensive fog, which was simulated and rendered volumetrically for dynamic interactivity. They also augmented the rain, adding layers of wetness to the road and flinging off the vehicles.
“Given the logistical challenges of filming, it was tough to keep the road wet enough between takes so we added a lot of CG water, reflections and fog,” explained Morley. “We also did extensive water simulation when the rain is hitting the windshield. I could not imagine being the driver of a car going 200 miles per hour in the rain; it definitely adds a sense of danger.”
Leading up to the race’s big finish, Miles completes a perfect lap in a stylized moment that was full CG. “We basically had full reign on designing this shot since it was completely CG, which was a lot of fun,” concluded Morley.
In addition to the 1966 Le Mans race work, Method added flames to Shelby’s car at Le Mans in the film’s opening, creating a wide shot of Miles ahead of the Riverside raceway crash to heighten the imminent danger, and extended the production line of the Ford factory.