Conjuring VFX Magic
July 11, 2016

Conjuring VFX Magic

Framestore knows a thing or two about magic: from breathing new life into the much-loved Paddington Bear to working on the VFX of every Harry Potter film. In 2015 the team was presented with a new challenge by Director Jon M. Chu, to create the extravagant illusions for Now You See Me: The Second Act.
The picture revisits The Four Horsemen, a troop of amateur magicians, one year after outwitting the FBI and winning over the public with Robin-Hood style spectacles.

Framestore worked on over 200 shots that covered everything from building London in full CG, making the rain stop in mid-air, conjuring CG doves, illuminating light shows, vanishing characters behind a shower of CG playing cards, and animating a CG jet.

“We were tasked with creating and embellishing the tricks that the magicians perform throughout the film… it was exciting to be able to contribute to the final look of the film and have so much creative input into the VFX,” said Anthony Smith, VFX Supervisor (Framestore).

Reappearance of The Four Horsemen
Having successfully hoodwinked the FBI, The Four Horsemen (Jesse Eisenberg, Lizzy Caplan, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco) plan a spectacular return to the limelight by exposing a young tech magnate, Walter (Daniel Radcliffe), and his unethical practices. In this sequence, the London team extended the crowd of 300 extras to 1,200, although the artists weren’t dealing with empty seats.

“Usually turning up to set for scenes such as this, I’d expect many empty seats to fill with the CG crowd,” said Smith. “But in this case I was surprised to find that the spare seats were filled with hundreds of dummies dressed up in costume with wigs on!” 

Smith’s team used the dummies in the shots where the crowd was out of focus in the background, with the compositing team subtly adding some movement to them to give them life in the distance. For closer shots they completely replaced entire sections of dummy-filled seating with CG seats and crowd.

Now You See Me...
One of the most spellbinding sequences in the film shows magician Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) stopping rain in mid-air, moving the droplets around with some deft hand movements before falling back into a puddle and disappearing into the water. This is all set in front of a live-action crowd of cheering fans in Greenwich. As well as the huge technical challenges involved in these shots, it was also important to strike a balance between creating beautiful on-screen wizardry and keeping a strong sense of realism. 

Said Smith, “We experimented with various levels of defocus to get the right look, intentionally deviating from the real world camera settings when required to make sure that the foreground droplets weren’t distracting for the viewer. The effect also required lots of development on how the rain drops should behave while they’re hanging in the air, especially given that the magical effect had to based on a physically plausible idea which is explained in the film.”

Head of FX, Andy Hayes, and CG Supervisor Stefan Putz got to work simulating, lighting and rendering the whole sequence with just the right look and feel. Once the simulations were approved, the millions of beautifully refracting droplets were rendered with deep data, which allowed the 2D team, led by Compositing Supervisor Alex Payman, to creatively adjust the depth of the rotoscoped crowd layers and therefore the amount of rain in front of them in each shot. It also allowed them to generate an impressive looking depth of field and bokeh effect.

The team spent a lot of time developing the look for how the rain should come to a stop, and just how much influence Atlas’ movements should have on the rain around him. In test screenings the end result proved to be one of the most-liked sequences in the film.


Sleight of hand
“The work was very collaborative. Jon gave us creative freedom and was very open to suggestions and personal inputs and the shots were a lot of fun,” said Stephane Nazé, VFX Supervisor.

Another trick sees Jack (Dave Franco) throw a deck of cards into the air in front of an expectant audience, disappearing behind a shower of CG cards as they hit the floor. The shot actually required a complex FX simulation of many thousands of cards falling from the top of frame, encompassing Jack entirely, before he vanishes into thin air; all achieved within a 10 second shot.

Getting the illusion right proved a challenge as Chu specifically didn’t want Jack to disappear from top to bottom; it had to be a complete vanishing act. Therefore the simulation had to contain enough cards to completely cover the character for at least one frame, so that he could be removed in an instant.

It’s common for FX simulations to run into problems when lots of simulated objects have to come to a rest on a surface, and this was also the case with this shot. Firstly, the team added the additional cards to the deck Jack scatters into the air, then came the issue of the how the CG cards were to land. 

“We put a lot of effort into making sure all of the cards came to an attractive final rest position without creating a pile that was unreasonably tall, or bounced around unrealistically,” explained Smith. To achieve this, the team combined some gentle wind forces that subtly blew some of the cards outward as they reached the ground with an adjustment that allowed some of the central cards to sink beneath the floor, hidden from view by the cards on top. In the composite a shadow was created from the rendered cards onto Dave Franco and both the environment, and the card render were integrated into the plate with the (amazed) crowd in the foreground.

Conjuring London
Ironically it was Framestore’s Montréal team who took on the challenge of recreating one of London’s most famous landmarks in full CG: Tower Bridge. The team, who tackled over 100 shots in total, recreated the environment for the final act of the film which sees the festivities of New Year's Eve unfold from a barge on the river. As everything was shot in a studio, the team had a lot of replacement work on their hands. 

“Our hero reveal of the Thames barge was shot on a large green screen set with a prop Tressler jet that was only partially built for the actors to interact with. We had to add the jet wings, spotlights, gantry, walls, etc., to blend seamlessly,” explained Jason Quintana, CG Supervisor. “The camera starts up-close on the wing and pulls out, while large walls splash down to reveal the whole barge, numerous props, the River Thames, Tower Bridge, a large screen that drops down, and thousands of New Year's Eve partygoers. This was the basis that we had to match for all the remaining wide full CG shots.”

The environment transition is seamless; the team successfully conjured a very-real looking London using photo references and drone footage with the added pressure of recreating the glorious Tower Bridge structure. Adding a large crowd, camera flashes, festive fireworks, lightbeams and dazzling spotlights, the atmosphere is perfectly crafted to create a buzzing celebratory atmosphere. 

“The client welcomed all our suggestions to create the most festive sequence possible," said Nazé. “The illusion is that the audience themselves are also attending this big party.”

Flying High
Real jets were part-shot for use in the film, but in post production it became clear that there was a need to create CG versions to work in amongst that existing footage. The team got to work, meticulously constructing the aircraft, and animating them to fly in a CG sky.

“My favorite shots are the ones with the CG planes. The three flying in the sky look great and integrate really well in the film,” said Nazé.

The jets, including the black FBI jet and Tressler jet, were built entirely by the Framestore team, and also reappear in the final act party scene. Said Quintana, “We needed to accomplish a time-lapse jet shot that started during the day above the clouds and ended below the clouds at night over the city of London. This was challenging to get the correct timing down, the look of the clouds, reflections onto our CG jets, and give the illusion that we were travelling through space at a very accelerated rate.”

A bold and entertaining film, the project was a great opportunity for Framestore’s London and Montréal teams to create some fun and visually creative work for the client. Said Matt Johnson, VFX Supervisor: "Working with the terrific artists at Framestore was 'Magic!' They produced a diverse range of visual effects sequences for the show and always seemed able to keep pulling rabbits from the hat.”