During the Crusades, Jerusalem was never like this. “We got to shoot in a quarry, on a wet afternoon,” somewhere north of London, recalls Angus Bickerton, speaking about both the actual and digital locales that had to double for real places while filming director Ron Howard’s version of Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code. But even though the quarry had to stand in for a Jerusalem where religious history was being rewritten from the get-go, in order to best serve the needs of a powerful elite, verisimilitude was still important. “It’s not always sunny in Jerusalem,” Bickerton notes, decidedly not speaking in metaphor. However, “the situation was imposed on us,” as were many others during the months the various FX houses under Bickerton’s supervision worked to bring Brown’s controversial novel to life.One such situation was the use of Saint Sulpice in Paris, a church that serves as a critical location in the story. As one might imagine, the official hierarchy in the Catholic church wasn’t rushing to give the production permission to film a story in one of its historical landmarks—especially as the book claimed that the Church itself has been involved in a centuries-long cover-up of world-altering proportions.On top of that, photography isn’t officially allowed there, so the church had a pretty good excuse.That didn’t stop the knight-like FX supes working with Bickerton. Mark Breakspear, credited as Code’s other visual effects supervisor, was the head honcho for Rainmaker, the Vancouver-based post and effects house, which was charged with the Saint Sulpice sequences. Once the production realized it had fallen from film-permitting grace, the decision was made to recreate the holy shrine digitally.But you still need reference photographs to make the blueprint on which you plan to layer your ones and zeroes. Happily, tourists are welcome at Saint Sulpice, and the snapping of their cameras is overlooked in the pantheon of deadly sins. And so, Breakspear and crew “went to the church several times. We were really interested tourists.”Breakspear was charged with recreating Saint Sulpice with scenes shot on a greenscreen soundstage, the kind of work he describes as “invisible effects,” which have to be “100 percent right, or [they’re] wrong.” On top of that, the expectations for getting it right were “tenfold—everyone can go to the place we’re going to build.”He had practical reasons—he wanted to “look at the church and really experience the environment,” since, in the end, he and the Rainmaker crew would be charged not just with replicating a place, but replicating a “feeling you have in that space.”And if none of that was daunting enough, the sequence there was “described as one of the biggest in the movie.”The Rainmaker crew didn’t necessarily have to use new tools—of either the soft or hard variety—to get the job done, but merely “hammered things in with a screwdriver; we maximized what was out there.” That maximizing included using “a lot of photographic plate work,” and yet—as with the historical motifs of the book itself—it was dÃ©jÃ vu all over again. Mainly because Breakspear and his collaborators had already done similar work under Bickerton’s watchful eye in the Harrison Ford thriller Firewall, where “we [digitally] rebuilt Seattle for him” so that city’s skyline could be seen from the office window of a set that didn’t overlook Seattle at all.And while Bickerton knew Rainmaker was one of the “go-to” shops he could use as a result of the Firewall experience, Saint Sulpice wasn’t the only roadblock he would encounter: “The Church of England denied us access to St. Paul’s,” one of the most storied cathedrals in the Anglican religion, an alleged hot spot of Freemasonry and other centuries-old conspiracies, and, of course, a key locale in The Da Vinci Code.But the Archbishop of Canterbury wasn’t finished saying no. Permission was also denied to shoot another key sequence inside Westminster Abbey, involving the tomb of Isaac Newton.The Anglican church—already abroil over issues involving the anointing of gay bishops—didn’t particularly have the stomach for extra doses of controversy. To say nothing of the fact that Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral together constitute the Anglican version of the Vatican. So the production was “encouraged” to film elsewhere. And the production’s Elsewhere Man turned out to be the Anglican Bishop overseeing Lincoln Cathedral, three hours north of London.That particular Cathedral provided a good stand-in for Westminster Abbey, and the expansive Bishop said, “we welcome the discussion” sparked by books like the The Da Vinci Code, since, after all, it gets folks thinking about big subjects, like, well, what God has in mind for us.Of course, the film permit fee, which would help pay for repairs to the cathedral, didn’t hurt either.Nonetheless, bringing such bigness to the screen was more than a matter of finding physical locations to double for places where filming was denied. At Westminster Abbey, after all, as Bickerton notes, “the landscape changes from the present-day” church back to the time of Newton’s funeral. And we see, around the funeral of physics’ greatest pre-Einsteinian thinker, the ghosts of 1727, replete with those landscape changes, all against a blue—not green!—screen.Bickerton is quick to credit another VFX house he oversaw—in this case, London’s Moving Picture Company—with the “Westminster time travel” sequence, as well as with creating a Howard-hatched visual, augmenting Brown’s source material: a journey into the “Cryptex”—a code device built by Leonardo Da Vinci himself. The notion, according to MPC’s Gary Brozenich, was to “fly inside the Cryptex for a visual description of how it works.”In short, if you fudge up the code you release a vial of vinegar, which destroys the information written on the papyrus inside. This was part of the film’s visual storytelling, which, for MPC, also included a “Louvre extension” for other key sequences (involving a certain painting referenced in songs by Nat King Cole and Conway Twitty called Mona Lisa), which included some 3-D recreations of the grand at the Louvre, allowing for both virtual and actual shots “looking down from the ceiling.”And also from across the street. At least, with regard to the aforementioned last rites for the apple-clunked Mr. Newton. The production, Brozenich recalls, was “only given permission to film across the street from Westminster Abbey.” And so MPC did “a full CG of Westminster Abbey,” and a “full CG of the bell tower,” yet was always reminded—per Breakspear’s observation about invisible effects—that Howard insisted “this is not a visual-effects film.”That wasn’t the only information shared between FX houses. Breakspear notes that while Code wasn’t “so much a collaborative process” the way, say, Narnia was—with different post houses literally working on aspects of the same shot—there were, nonetheless, screenings of everybody’s work-in-process along the way.That included other shops like Double Negative, The Senate VFX, and Brainstorm Digital—and “their shots were stunning as well,” adds Breakspear.Not so much collaboration, as being aware you couldn’t slack on the job; everybody was at the top of their game to make their “invisible” work look as great as possible.So invisible that Bickerton wanted to assure Howard he didn’t really have to worry about
the FX at all. “Shoot what you want,” he told him, whether working in greenscreen, bluescreen, or any other “invisible” digital mode.“Yeah, I will,” came Howard’s reply. No code about it: That’s confidence in your FX crew.
Written by Mark London Williams