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Angels and Digits

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“Is the Pope Catholic?” one often hears as a rhetorical rejoinder to an obvious question—questions like, “Will Dan Brown’s latest book be turned into a movie?” or “Will the Church refuse to cooperate when it is?”

However, if somebody else asks an obvious question in your presence— ”Will the movie version star Tom Hanks?” don’t snidely reply with something like, “Is the Vatican in Rome?”

Because, you know, it isn’t. At least, not the “Vatican” used for Ron Howard’s film version of Angels & Demons, the exteriors for which were mostly recreated on some rented land in the Hollywood Park racetrack’s parking lot.

That’s where Double Negative’s Graham Jack comes in. Working with Dneg’s own supe, Ryan Cook, and overall VFX supervisor Angus Bickerton (who oversaw The Da Vinci Code among other films), Jack was charged with recreating the Vatican on the outskirts of Inglewood.

But in order to make their partial sets, and ultimate green-screen fill-ins as believable as possible, Dneg sent “a couple guys there with cameras,” Jack notes. Not in violation of Vatican edicts that the film should have no official help, (though they were allowed to film elsewhere in Italy), but rather “as tourists.”

The “survey data,” as Jack refers to it was used to get Vatican dimensions right—so that the sets and renderings, most built to 90 percent scale, would seem and feel authentic even to those perhaps seeing such details as the Holy See for the first time, on screen.

Those details also included the Colonnade, those long rows of iconic pillars, among which are statues of saints and martyrs, which was rendered at a smaller scale than the rest of the Vatican itself.

There were also helicopter plates, taken just outside Vatican airspace, in an attempt to provide as many further corroborating details, all of which allowed Jack and his crew to recreate the look of the Vatican’s buildings, but leaving out another key element of life at church headquarters—and germane to this movie in particular: tourists.

Not just the one or two snapping pictures for productions denied filming permits, but rather, the thousands of tourists that are in St. Peter’s Square on a regular basis, and who would especially be there on the eve of a new Pope’s election—where the book’s story opens.

Extras were shot in groups of 4-5 people, “mini-scenes, against green screens” here at the Park, and then the look and motion of the disparate groups was captured, and used as part of a “crowd motion database,” that Jack describes as a proprietary part of Double Negative’s pipeline.

“When we rendered a crowd,” he notes, they were able to “skin them.” Not in the sense of course of the flaying that say, Hypatia of Alexandria received, when running afoul of official doctrine, but rather, in the far more practical way of multiplying the L.A.- captured extras into, legions of variegated Vatican visitors.

While much of the skinning was done inside Maya software—combined with a particular simulator program that helped randomize the movements— Jack had one final task that couldn’t be referenced from photographic or historical sources, or built upon by virtue of digital replication. For the film’s climax, which takes place in and over the Vatican, Hanks’ character tracks down the Illuminati— the secret society-cum-villains in this piece—and discovers their own particular ace up their sleeves: an antimatter bomb.

Happily, antimatter bombs don’t really exist (yet), but Jack’s Dneg group needed to come up with a convincing explosion for same at the end of the film (high in the air above the Vatican as the day is, presumably, saved for another installment in the series). But what does such an explosion look like?

Whereas Jack had several months to wrangle phantom crowds onto a digital Vatican reproduction, the job of “antimatter finale” fell to him at what was relatively the last minute.

Or specifically, he knew he’d be doing an explosion, and had come up with something that looked like “a conventional nuclear bomb,” replete with “custom shader,” to keep the big boom “lit from within.” They had also developed some “really nice techniques for clouds being evaporated.”

Then, “about four months from the end, they changed direction. A thriller became a disaster movie.”

The idea in the book is that Vatican, secret archives and all, is “destroyed by light,” a particular kind of light representing “the birth of the Universe.”

So a few weeks before production wrapped, Jack was tasked with creating a convincing, yet contained, “birth the of the universe” explosion as the bomb is happily ratcheted away from ground level via chopper.

It had to look “100 percent real”—in whatever sense an antimatter explosion does— and was thus kind of a capper to what Jack calls “the most complex lighting environment I’ve ever come across.”

Think of the Colonnade again, with the statues, and now think of them with bright night lights casting shadows on and over the milling virtual crowd, every which way. Now add antimatter to your palette!

In the end, with the help of matte paintings, they settled on a more “cosmic” look with the unfolding explosion looking more like a small nebula.

This made the shot that followed it—Ewan McGregor parachuting down from having deposited the bomb, strapped to harness against green screen—positively elementary by comparison.

But Double Negative was able to cover for themselves, despite the last-minute surprises, and sometimes in the most literal sense. Cook also directed “a bit of second unit stuff as well, making sure we had the coverage we wanted”, Jack says.

That included enlisting Bickerton in the advocacy of “small HD cameras on every film camera,” so there would be tracking marks for shots, many of which were shot on “very long lenses.”

“We only really needed it for the square sequences,” Jack says, referring again to the virtual crowds, both awaiting a new Pope and fleeing the small cosmos exploding over their heads.

“We didn’t use it in every shot,” he says. Whether that was “free will” amongst the FX crew, or completely preordained on some higher level, we’ll leave to the theologians.

But Double Negative’s worldly FX crew was certainly able to get the job done.

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