When visual effects supervisor Louis Morin and VFX producer Annie Godin were nominated for a VES Award for their work on Duncan Jones’ Source Code, the Montreal-based facilities involved in the film had reason to celebrate as well. Under the guidance of Morin, the VFX facilities each took on different parts of the project, sharing assets and coordinating deliveries on the film.
“Louis Morin is a very effective and creative VFX supervisor,” said director Duncan Jones. “He found really excellent boutique facilities that were able to craft individual, and very different kinds of effects that we needed in the movie.”
The four Montreal-area studios included Modus FX, who handled complex digital crowd shots, CG trains, environments and dramatic pyrotechnics; Rodeo FX, who crafted the crucial greenscreen windows for the train interiors; FLY Studio, who created the futuristic CG pod sequences and key transitions; and Oblique FX, who created the CG bomb, a virtual stuntman and a poetic slow-motion explosion sequence. Toronto-based Mr. X contributed to the greenscreen train window backgrounds and MPC Vancouver handled the exterior shots of explosions and a train crash sequence.
“In the grand scheme of things, this was not a big-budget film,” said Jones. “That meant we had to be fairly specific about the FX we wanted. We couldn’t play around with too many ideas. We really couldn’t afford to make mistakes.”
“We had 850 shots to manage and a budget of $3.5 million dollars,” said Morin, “and for most of the film you would have no idea that visual effects were even used. The train, the cabin interiors and the station all look like real. The goal was seamless visual effects where the audience is simply immersed in the story.”
The Source Code Story
Released in theaters on April 1, 2011, Source Code is a psychological sci-fi thriller that tells the story of a U.S. soldier, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who wakes up in the body of another man on a Chicago commuter train. Shortly after that, the train blows up. As part of an experimental military mission, Gyllenhaal’s character is forced to repeat those final eight minutes on the train, working out how it was blown up, and, ultimately, how to prevent it. In the process, he forms a bond with a fellow passenger (Michelle Monaghan), and begins to solve the larger mystery of how he got there in the first place. While the film makes extensive use of visual effects, the digital achievements never overwhelm the essentially human story of Source Code.
All of the interiors were shot on a set in Montreal. Equipped with greenscreen windows, the whole set was placed on a gimbal that replicated the rocking movements of a train in motion. Exteriors used second-unit photography shot in Chicago. Commuter trains were digitally resurfaced, and a fictional train station was created using extensive digital set extensions.
“Some of the most subtle VFX work they had to do, like the insets for the greenscreen windows in the train, could make or break a movie like this,” explained Jones. “Even a small mistake with the simplest detail, like defining where the line of the landscape is, would have made a scene immediately and noticeably unrealistic. The guys did a beautiful job matching the moving patterns of Don Burgess’s ingenious lighting schemes, so it doesn’t pull the audience out of the movie.”
Rodeo FX – Light and Windows
Along with delivering a variety of explosions, Rodeo FX took the lead on greenscreen windows, compositing in the moving backgrounds outside the train. In total the facility contributed over 360 shots to Source Code.
Sébastien Moreau, president and VFX supervisor at Rodeo FX, put particular focus on the use of interactive light. “Greenscreen windows are usually detectable,” Moreau said, “but we were able to create a seamless look using interactive light.”
According to Moreau, the most interesting part of the project was dealing with continuity between shots, both in terms of the quality of the VFX work, and with the illusion of the train’s speed. “Even though we had all the necessary footage from a real train, shot with a three-camera rig to cover a very wide view of the background, we worked hard to maintain the illusion of constant speed and the position of the horizon line from shot to shot.”
“Imagine yourself in the train next to the window and you go past trees and buildings and there’s light occlusion,” added Morin. “There are highlights, lowlights, and, with the movement, there is constant variation. The ‘imperfection’ of reality is really subtle, but it’s critical to capture that imperfection for the CG to be invisible. Rodeo achieved this by applying the difference in positive and negative highlights to blend the plates of the exterior shots with the interior lighting. This was painstaking postproduction work.”
Oblique FX – Explosion and Stunt Double
Oblique FX contributed 46 shots to the film including a complex CG bomb, a dramatic interior explosion shot in slow motion, and a digital stunt double of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character as he jumps off a moving train and rolls to a stop on the platform.
For the explosion sequences, the studio created two replicas of the train interior. A full-scale model with dummies matching the actors’ positions was used for interior train explosions. A second version was positioned vertically so that Morin and his team could capture explosions at 1,000 fps moving upwards through the interior towards the camera. Oblique FX then artfully combined the live-action plates with CG to create a realistic look with a poetic feel.
“The digital double was an artistic challenge because we had to animate Jake rolling along the platform and bring everything together so it’s believable,” said Alexandre Lafortune, visual effects supervisor, Oblique FX. “The movement is violent and jarring. We’ve done crowds before and wider shots of CG people, but a single figure that needed to blend seamlessly with live-action shots of the actor at the beginning and end of the shot was a new challenge.”
The studio used Natural Motion’s Endorphin software. But Lafortune explained that the sequence is a mix of simulation and keyframe animation. “Duncan wanted us to try simulating it and Endorphin lets you rig the character and throw him against a surface to see what happens. We started with that to get the physics for the motion and the speed of the train worked out.”
“Source Code was a special project for us and we really enjoyed the teamwork with our partners,” said Pierre-Simon Lebrun-Chaput, visual effects supervisor, Oblique FX. “It was a great example of how facilities can collaborate on a film, each bringing their individual strengths to the project.”
Fly Studio – Pod and Transitions
Fly Studio specializes in creative motion graphics as well as visual effects. For Source Code, the company was called on to create the transitional shots between the pod and the train, as well as more than 100 monitor replacements. The pod is the surreal space from which Gyllenhaal’s character interacts with his military controller, played by Vera Farmiga. Fly Studio created the transitions for those shots.
“The transitional shots from the pod to the train and back were pretty much open to our ideas,” explained FLY Studio’s VFX supervisor on the project Jean-Pierre Boies. “We tested lots of different ways of transitioning – different layering of graphics, 3D meshes and a lot of effects added on top of it to create the final result.”
FLY Studio also added condensation to the actor’s breath inside the pod – an example of a subtle effect that enhances the realism of the scenes. “Lots of movies are doing it by creating particles and compositing them in, but we decided to shoot our own live elements for this,” explained Boies. “We brought a Canon 5D camera to shoot some tests inside in a meat freezer at -15 or -20 Celsius. The test shots worked out so well, we ended up using them.”
“We’ve worked with Louis a few times now and we really liked the dynamic of working with him and the other companies,” he added. “Louis knows we have a strong motion graphics team and he knew we would be able to contribute creatively on a project like Source Code.”
Modus FX – Train and Station
“Source Code is the most ambitious and the most challenging project that we’ve tackled so far,” said Yanick Wilisky, VP of production and VFX supervisor at Modus FX. The company was brought on board in pre-production. “We started doing the pre-vis for the main action scenes – how the train would explode, and where this would take place,” said Wilisky.
In total, Modus handled 150 shots for the film including creating the train in CG, involving thousands of individual elements. The train was often used in close-up shots, requiring extensive camera tracking work, especially for scenes where the train has pulled into the station and crowds of commuters enter and exit the train. “The train was seamless,” said Louis Morin. “It doesn’t look CG. It looks just like a real commuter train in Chicago.”
Artists at Modus FX also created the fictional “Glenbrook Station” in Chicago and its surroundings. The CG set extension included everything from the station itself, to digital trees, large crowds of people, and commuter traffic on a busy Chicago street.
Crowd shots were created using Massive Software’s 3D crowd behavioral simulation system. Massive was also used for aerial shots of cars. “We needed to craft some pretty big highway traffic scenes with about 6,000 cars. That’s a lot to render, when you count the number of polygons per car,” Wilisky explained.
The Montreal VFX Community
“All the vendors pushed really hard to make it the best show possible,” said Annie Godin, VFX producer on Source Code. “Duncan and the producers had a lot of trust in us and that was very motivating for everyone. Louis guided the work so well that the vendors got shots approved quickly and could move along to the next tasks very efficiently.”
“I was delighted by how effective those facilities were at dividing up the work like that. They were very professional, and I think they really enjoyed the process themselves,” said Jones.
Source Code was produced by the Mark Gordon Company and Vendome Pictures, and is a Summit Entertainment release. The film has been nominated for a VES Award for outstanding supporting visual effects in a feature motion picture. This is Louis Morin’s second VES Award nomination. His first nomination was for the visual effects on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
The VES Awards will be announced Feb. 7 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles and will air on ReelzChannel.