This really cool featurette reveals some of the amazing visual effects used to create some of our favorite scenes in the DIVERGENT movie. Below is an in-depth write up from the VFX team in which they talk about the challenges they faced, techniques used, and the thought processes behind each decision.
Visual Effects Producer Greg Baxter (Jack The Giant Slayer, Jonah Hex), Method Studio’s Visual Effects Supervisor Matt Dessero (Iron Man 3, Cloud Atlas), and Visual Effects Supervisor Jim Berney (Batman Forever, The Matrix Reloaded, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) were tasked with bringing author Veronica Roth’s vision of the future to cinematic life. In tackling the roughly 1024 visual effects shots, however, the trio made every effort to use a light touch and keep the audience’s attention focused on the characters.
“Neil Burger was clear that he didn’t want it to be a Blade Runner-type world,” Berney recalls of his early conversations with the director.
“You don’t want your eye to gravitate towards the effects to the point where you start to really question them or tear them apart."
"Nowadays, there’s VFX everywhere and people stop following the story,” he points out, hinting at the overindulgence of recent blockbusters. “You want it to be beautiful and you want the audience to be pulled into this world but to me it’s more about tone than anything else.”
“The story in this one,” Baxter explains, “wasn’t so much the events that took place to create this society. It’s more the society these people are in and just how they function. So unlike some of the other more apocalyptic movies, the world that we were enhancing wasn’t really created. It was more about taking modern-day Chicago and then aging it appropriately to the story.”
The majority of the VFX problem solving done for Divergent focused on the ‘AT’ sequence – or the ‘aptitude test’ sequence – which begins roughly nine minutes into the picture. “It was the biggest sequence in the movie for us. There was a lot of VFX work with the train, the pit, the zip-line and the landscapes, but I think the thing that stands out as fairly unique is the Mirror Room,” Berney says, of the sequence that Burger repeatedly had to explain in great detail. “It was funny because we’d act it out in the office once a week. We’d think we got it and then it was like ‘Okay…let’s just act it out one more time’.”
As Tris walks towards a mirrored wall she notices something is not quite right. As she slowly turns, more and more walls are revealed, all of them mirrored and causing hundreds of her reflections to populate into the distance.
“I’ve never dreamed of anything that complex, to be honest,”
Everyone involved had an equally hard time wrapping their heads around what needed to be done. “I’ve never dreamed of anything that complex, to be honest,” Dessero agrees. With its multiple mirrors and infinite reflections, “it’s an impossible shoot – there’s no way you could shoot that in the physical world.” Successfully accomplishing it required careful preplanning, according to Berney. “The previs was different than usual. Usually you create the sequence to tell the story and then you ask the studio for money by showing them how cool the sequence will be. And then, you go shoot something else. This had to be exactly what we were going to shoot.”
“When Jim first showed us The Third Floor’s previs for it,” Dessero remembers, “I was ecstatic but I knew it was going to be tough.” Though their first idea was to “go the easy route” and generate CG reflections of Tris, Berney insisted on filming the actress’ reflections live and then repositioning them digitally. “I remember him saying, ‘Well, I don’t want the first reflections to be CG because it won’t look as photo-real as it needs to.’ He knew how he wanted to approach it, and we obviously agreed.”
Berney had production designer Andy Nicholson build a small mirror box and he put a doll inside. “I stared at that box for an hour a day for a month,” Berney says. “I acted out the scene in a conference room over and over.”
To successfully accomplish the sequence – in which Tris finds herself surrounded on all sides by mirrors and interacting with her own reflections – Dessero’s team relied on the previs to chart a course for their cameras in the 100 by 80 foot green screen stage. A central origin point in the space was decided upon and then the team began reverse-engineering things to mimic their mock-up.
“We’ve never gone the route of taking something out of the computer and putting it back in the real world, but it saved time. We did four shots in the test shoot and we had to plot 24 cameras basically and it was tough. We were manually out there with tape measures trying to mark all these camera positions.”
“From there we exported all of the camera positions into our robotic survey head. We actually plotted every camera position, which was something we had to write some custom code to do,” Dessero recalls. “It’s ridiculous! I don’t know how anyone can wrap their head around this because it took us six months to figure it out!”
Special attention had to be paid to Woodley’s height and position within the space, to ensure she wouldn’t stray from her marks. “It was such an exacting shoot that if she walked off a camera – one of the six reflection cameras out there – then we wouldn’t have the data.”
“This entire sequence of 36 shots was incredibly challenging both on set and in post, and ultimately very gratifying to see accomplished and one we’re very proud of” summarizes Matt.
Following the grueling two-day shoot, Method Studios took the footage of Tris and all her various reflections and spent months perfecting the final look of the sequence. In addition to the Mirror Room, however, they also created the CG dog Tris wrestles during the aptitude test, the flock of birds who attack her in another sequence and digitally reconstructed Chicago’s famed L Train.
Several exterior scenes, including some ‘epic’ aerial shots of the destroyed city were completed by using various techniques from projected matte paintings to full CG. Wind turbines and cabling are added throughout the city and modern day street furniture and signage was meticulously removed. Some shots contain over 500 turbines and are populated with hundreds of digital extras.
“There were some big shots we added later on just to start establishing the geography of the city and there’s this one sweeping helicopter shot where you’re going along a fence and see the outskirts and then you pan up over to the city itself.”
"To properly tell Tris’ story, it was necessary to erase a variety of elements from the landscape entirely. “You’re inside this walled city where there are no cars anymore and there’s probably no gasoline,” Berney points out. “So without cars there’s no need for roads other than pedestrian traffic. All signs of cars would be gone, so you get rid of all lines on the asphalt and the crosswalk signs or street lights. That right there changes the tone of it. I didn’t want there to be any signage. I didn’t want an old decrepit McDonalds sign or an old Quiznos sign anywhere – it’s just all gone.”
“For electricity they harvest the wind of the ‘Windy City.’ There’s these large wind turbines that are attached to the buildings and these cables hung between them. I think just between having the silhouettes of them when you look up and having a few broken buildings and all those signs of life taken away just gives it a personality we’ve never seen before.”
I think if you ask people when they come out of the theatre, ‘did you notice they took out all the lamp posts?’ they’d be like ‘what? No, I didn’t notice that at all!’”
“You feel it’s different but you can’t really put your finger on it." Street lights and mail boxes were physically removed from the set at great expense to try and help cut down on digitally erasing in post-production. Green screens were erected around the corners of buildings to also make life easier for the folks at Method Studios. Baxter is quick to point out that their efforts didn’t always pay off. “Jim’s mantra of ‘never underestimate the city’ came true. Every time we were shooting something outdoors in Chicago, it was endless the amount of stuff that had to be painted out or recreated because it’s just such a busy city. All of the cars and the traffic and things happening in the background that we couldn’t really control had to be removed and there was a lot of it.”
For the menacing 130 foot fence that surrounds the city, a 30 foot cement block was shot on location to which Method added 100 foot tall metal towers and guard shacks. A digital vegetation system was created to replace the flowing blue water in the river and Lake Michigan with trickles of brown water, dry grass and swampland.
Method also created numerous versions of Chicago’s famed elevated train, with CG tracks and futuristic train cars.
For one particular action packed sequence where Tris and others arrive at the Dauntless Compound, a variety of brick buildings were created and a huge glass atrium, with digital doubles jumping from train cars to rooftops. Many of the Method built assets used in the construction of the city were shared with other VFX vendors and included digital doubles, turbines, trees and lake beds.
In addition to the work described above, Method also created effects for Tris’ fear test. This sequence begins with her being attacked by hundreds of birds which were created in 3D. The shots are beautifully lit so that the camera catches the light through their feathers and so it was important to finesse both the models of the birds and their aggressive flight action.
The simulation progresses to an underwater sequence that was shot on a stage in a water tank with a stunt double. Method artists added a spider web of cracks to the glass and augmented the large plates of exploding cracked glass in the wide shots.
If trying to keep the effects work “invisible” still somehow led to some of the most complex challenges they’ve faced in their careers, the trio maintains that they were well aware of what they were walking into.
“We knew there was a lot riding on this one and it had to be a really successful first piece in order to get the franchise going,” Baxter points out.
“But the rule of thumb is that they usually don’t put too much money into the first one just in case…so we had a somewhat limited budget for what we wanted to accomplish.”
With plans for sequels already underway in spite of the underwhelming critical response to Divergent, the teams are relieved they gave some thought to what would come next. “We did always have an eye towards the future and how what we were doing on this one would affect the next ones. The next chapters do go into other parts of the environment that we haven’t seen yet, but certain things like the Abnegation neighborhood and the Dauntless pit are going to be part of future stories too.”
Given that Divergent just surpassed the hundred million dollar mark at the box office, they should rest easy. It’s a safe bet they’ll have a bit more budgetary wiggle room the second time around.
Note: This article is from a combination of 3 recent articles on the VFX in DIVERGENT.
Sources: Method Studios | AWN | Studio Daily