Image Engine Design, ILM, MPC, Method Studios, Whiskeytree, UPP, Umedia & Mill worked on Visual Effects for Skyscraper. It was approximate 2300 VFX shots in the movie. A team of approximately 150 people at ILM delivered 1300 shots for this movie.
Craig Hammack leading ILM team as Visual Effects Supervisor, Jose Burgos as Associate Visual Effects Supervisor, Jill brooks as Executive Producer for the Skyscraper.
Image Engine worked on 178 shots including the bridge in the park fire and the hanging shots on the side of the building, as well as a few of the erupting fire shots at the beginning of the park fire sequence.
Cabin in the woods
Skyscraper opens with Sawyer’s crack SWAT team creeping through a snow-laden woodland towards a remote cabin, wherein a criminal has imprisoned a family of hostages. Within moments the elite squad will use a shape charge to blow a hole in the side of the wall – the catalyst for a series of events that will see Sawyer lose his leg and adopt a prosthetic for the remainder of the film.
Image Engine’s task was to communicate a serene backcountry feel, before upping the tempo with the first of the movie’s many explosive effects.
First, Image Engine created slowly drifting snow, which floats past the encroaching FBI agents as they skilfully descend upon their unwitting target.
“This sequence was originally shot on stage, so we needed to add in all of the digital snow, which would communicate the ‘calm before the storm’ feel,” says Bernie Kimbacher, VFX supervisor on Skyscraper. “It was 2D-heavy work, including the addition of digital matte paintings to complement the drifting snow. We really needed to dial in the way it moved and fluttered down around the characters.”
The silence of this placid scene is soon shattered by the explosive device attached to the cabin. On set, part of the cabin wall was already removed and shattered, with a real charge inside of the structure that blew out practical dust elements.
“We replaced the missing wall with a CG section, so it looked intact when the charge was placed upon it,” explains Kimbacher. “We then added in an FX explosion, along with wall pieces and debris that flies out following the detonation. It sets the tone for what’s to come!”
Sawyer goes on to lose his leg in a second explosion; is operated upon by a naval surgeon, Sarah, who later becomes his wife and the mother of his children; and then takes up a post at a high-end security company contracted to perform an audit on the nacreous Pearl: a supposedly safe haven for the world’s 1%.
As with any action movie worth its salt, the structure turns out to be anything but safe, with the skyscraper coming under attack from a squad of tactical terrorists whom Sawyer must avoid or eliminate. One catastrophe follows another, and Sawyer is eventually compelled to – in true Dwayne Johnson style – climb outside of the Pearl, rappel down the side of the neon-stripped building, and swing into a room through a turbine; all with the glistening Hong Kong landscape stretching into the precipitous distance below.
“It wouldn’t be the same movie if he just took an elevator went and flipped the switch,” laughs Geoff Anderson, VFX producer on Skyscraper. “We needed to create a sense of acrophobia, and that meant convincing the viewer that they were up high with Sawyer on the edge of this building – not acting on a soundstage.”
Dwayne Johnson was shot on set against a sheet of glass, from which the Image Engine team could extract reflections for use in the final constructed shot. “We ended up replacing the entire Hong Kong background and sky with CG elements as Sawyer creeps across the side of the Pearl,” says Kimbacher. “Most of the plate photography took place across large, green screen blocks, which we replaced with the narratively appropriate surrounding environments. We did a lot of reframing to communicate the danger of the situation, showing Sawyer to be a small figure against the monolith of this towering CG skyscraper. It gives everything a great sense of scale.”
Next, Image Engine added a plethora of FX elements, including the fire burning on the floors below Sawyer and the smoke and embers rising from it. The team also digitally removed Sawyer’s amputated leg and added CGI trousers, working off of plate photography in which Dwayne Johnson wore a green sock. The team also worked on some full-CG shots, such as that of a sconce breaking off of the wall as Sawyer rappels below.
Conjuring a sense of vertigo within viewers was one of the more challenging aspects of the sequence, however. “Vertigo and acrophobia are all about how you perceive depth, so we gave this sequence a very deep depth of field,” says Kimbacher. “Beyond that we used subtle camera tricks and 2D repositioning to add a little more to the scene, such as camera shakes that suggest the wind is blowing the camera around. We also played with the fire and embers, positioning these elements in such a way as to communicate to the audience that what they’re seeing is incredibly high.”
Working as one
Image Engine shared this sequence – and several others – with ILM and Iloura, necessitating a symbiotic relationship and communication on a near-daily basis.
“It was very much a back-and-forth between the other studios and ourselves,” explains Anderson. “ILM built many of the main assets, but we would be looking in closer detail at specific angles of those objects, meaning we would have to uprez them for the shot in question. In doing that we had to make sure we were maintaining the visual consistency of the assets, with some sequences cutting from an Image Engine shot, to an ILM shot, and back to us.”
This need for consistency also applied to the flames licking up the side of The Pearl. “ILM had a lot of hero fire shots, with some witnessed from the perspective of a helicopter, while we were working on shots from the spectators on the ground, where it was more about the smoke being lit up by the fire,” says Kimbacher. “The challenge here was in matching what we did with the work of ILM: our work needed to be narratively consistent with theirs.”
Continual communication was pivotal in ensuring that audiences were never jolted out of the experience by an inconsistency. “We needed to be extremely efficient, but thankfully our pipeline enables us to do that. We could make changes quickly and efficiently, whenever necessary; all in service of creating a fantastic, exciting sequence that places viewers alongside Sawyer on the outside of that skyscraper.”
Later, Sawyer and family are trapped inside the Pearl Tower, pursued by both the attacking terrorists and the all-engulfing flames as they run through the structure’s Jade Park – a series of floors containing once-beautiful foliage now enveloped in the encroaching inferno.
Image Engine was responsible for the original breach of the flames, nicknamed “the fire snakes”: tendrils of red-hot blaze that burst through the silhouette of the parks’ trees. On set, Neve Campbell reacted to flickering lights and a blue screen background. Image Engine replaced this with the full-CG fire asset, which furiously bursts from the ground and sprays jets of fire across the screen.
“Overall it was a really great experience,” concludes Kimbacher. “We had the opportunity to meet the director, and it was a total pleasure collaborating with the other studios involved. It was a real team effort – the results of which have made the Image Engine team very proud indeed.”
MPC’s team lead by VFX Supervisor Kevin Hahn worked with director Rawson Marshall-Thurber to craft effects for 250 shots for Skyscraper. These included two key sequences, the observation deck battle and the dome intro. Key work included creating photo real full CG environments, fire and explosions FX and complex compositing.
In the Observation Deck sequence Will Sawyer battles against and a team of terrorists at night time, inside the dome. The battle takes place within a wall of mirrors intended to confuse the characters and the audience alike. The action starts on the outside deck where the characters have their first confrontation.
The sequence was shot in Vancouver at Catalyst Studios, entirely on green screen with black reflective flooring. Metal frames were used to indicate the position of panels, and light sources were used to simulate fire. It was challenging to film, with up to 5 cameras filming at the same time to capture the main action and multiple element plates for the panels – to create the perfect illusion of a room full of mirrors. The sound stage was only built as a part of the original scale and required a huge amount of planning to shoot the live action plates.
MPC’s environment team created a fully digital environment for the interior and exterior balcony extension of the observation deck. A huge amount of variation of panels from pristine to destroyed were designed and built. The environments were created in Maya and were based on architectural guidelines, based on references from a 10 day shoot in Hong Kong, which were used to create the CG environment backgrounds. Substance designer was used to create the majority of textures and were rendered using a combination of V-Ray and PR Man.
The biggest challenge in creating the illusion was working with multiple plates within a single shot. MPC’s team worked closely with the client side editorial department, to ensure continuity throughout the sequence. After ingesting the hero plates and render camera, MPC’s compositing team was responsible in laying out the panels with the element material, following direction from the editorial team as they pieced the scene together. The complexity of the sequence and the amount of plates created a huge challenge not only from a coordination and tracking point of view, but also in terms of the amount of prep work required for each shot.
The Dome Sequence takes place on the observation deck and was also shot entirely on green screen. MPC’s task was to create the directors vision of a geodesic dome, which could display photo realistic images of any kind.
The idea was to start from an empty canvas and slowly introduce different types of footage and backgrounds to the audience. This was also the first time the panels revealed and it’s functionality as an art instillation is displayed.
A highly flexible and customizable dome was built in Maya which was then rendered with custom shaders in V-Ray to maintain flexibility and quick turnarounds. The full potential of the dome is revealed at the end of this beat and a complex blend of CG renders and high level matte paintings were created to visualize this illusion for the audience and the hero character.
One of the most demanding challenges of the sequence was to create full scale fire and destruction of the entire dome. Complex fire simulations and CG smoke interactions were created by MPC’s FX team and combined with destructed assets and lighting renders.
MPC also created digital props of the weapons including grenades and swords and a digital parachute was brought to life by MPC’s tech-anim team.
Method Studios worked on approximate 500 shots for the movie including set extension, leg replacement of Actor, crane climb/jump sequence, helicopter crash sequence.
ILM worked on the major challenging shots for the movie including detailed destruction, fire & large establishing shots.
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