Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto is an intense chase though the jungles of Central America during the days of the decaying Mayan empire, a civilization beset by disease, over-consumption and the human sacrifice of able young men. Visual effects supervisor Ted Rae, who was responsible for the effects on Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ, was called upon again to help to create this ancient world in all its brutal reality.Rae says he was happy to work with Gibson again because the director “trusts and relies on his chosen collaborators.”In this type of project, the idea is to keep things as real as possible, or “invisible.” “If the audience notices the visual effects, then I’ve failed,” says Rae.Some of the most breathtaking moments for Rae were in a jungle scene of a jaguar chasing a young hunter, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood). When he first read the script, he thought the sequence would require split screens and possibly motion control for clean plates. While prepping the movie, Gibson decided to put together a teaser for the film that included parts of that chase. Although it initially seemed counter-productive to be shooting a teaser trailer when there was so much work to be done preparing for principal photography, Rae soon realized that the exercise allowed production to try out methods for the full chase, “Mel was very smart in doing that. It was a lot of work, but it helped us refine our approach to doing the chase. Rudy actually ran in all the shots while being chased by an 180-pound jaguar. And it was all shot live, no motion control.”Relying upon the physical prowess of the actors and the technical finesse of the crew adds a heart-pounding reality to the sequence. Asylum did the shots for the teaser and continued with the majority of the jaguar work on the feature.Visual effects were also used when the actor and the jaguar were both in a tree. The tree was an art department construction that included a wooden platform for the animal that Rae did not want to simply hide with foreground leaves. He gave those shots to Rocco Gioffre and Jamie Venable, of Svengali Visual Effects. “Rocco’s background is predominately as a matte artist, but Svengali was looking to do shots that were not just matte paintings. They painted out the platform, extended pieces of the tree and added the jungle floor through the branches to make it seem like we were higher than we really were.” They also animated moving vines, foliage and even added back a bug that flew through the shot that had gotten lost while taking out the animal trainer’s rigging.Visual effects not only helped keep the actors safe during the death-defying physical action of the waterfall scene, but also eliminated modern structures from the setting. The 150-foot tall waterfall was near the main jungle location in southern Veracruz. The Mayan raiders were first shot standing on the edge of the waterfall, for composition and blocking reference, then they stepped out and a clean plate was shot of the bottom of the waterfall with Jaguar Paw in the water below. The Mayan raiders were later shot against a green screen, to avoid rotoscoping their hair, and composited back in front of where a plaza and shops had been removed by added trees. The composite couldn’t be done simply with a matte painting because the enormous plume of cascading water generated a lot of wind, causing the existing location foliage to constantly move. Rae’s team shot elements looking down on the treetops, then added mist over those elements in post. At the top of the waterfall, there was also a tourist center, the company base camp and part of the camera crane that needed to be removed from the reverse low-angle shots.Jaguar Paw never actually jumped off the waterfall, but the actor did jump off a 175-foot tall building that had one shear wall that went all the way to the ground and the right orientation for lighting. “I had it painted a neutral grey because I didn’t want to deal with the potential bounce and contamination of blue or green screens. We were going to roto it anyway, since Rudy was on a safety rig and we had to paint out his harness and cables. So we had to undistort his body from the harness because he was not in freefall.” Unlike a film such as The Matrix, where the characters are clothed in long trench coats that help hide the rigging, these cable removals, which might be considered de rigueur in VFX work, were made more difficult because the characters were, for all intents and purposes, naked except for a loincloth.”Where do you hide anything?” asks Rae. “You can’t.” Because of all the stunts, Rae knew from his initial script reading that there would be a lot of cable and harness removals and that they would not be restoring cloth, but the taut skin of tanned and muscular bodies.Wires were used to prevent injury to the actors during other stunts including the scene were Jaguar Paw and Coco Leaf are hanging over a cliff. In that sequence alone there were around 42 visual effects shots with two-thirds being strictly cable removals. “None of these cable removals were simple. The cameras were always moving, pulling focus and at times the cables were unavoidably crossing in front of characters faces,” explains Rae, “which had to be reconstructed.” Except for the shots that included matte paintings, which Svengali completed, Luma Pictures did all the cliff sequence cable removals. “They put in an absolutely Herculean effort to get rid of the cables at the cliff,” says Rae. “The artists at both companies said that, without a doubt, these were the most intricate wire removals they had ever done.”One of Rae’s favorite shots is a dolly shot reveal of the massive crowd-filled city square as the young hunters, being led to the pyramid, emerge from the painted gallery that depicts their fate. “From a storytelling point of view, it is used very well,” says Rae. “It reveals the city square as the characters first see it. It is also a very complicated shot.” The four-pass motion control shot replicated the real crowd of extras—moved into different positions in the square—to create the impression of a much bigger assembly. “We physically moved them rather than shooting in one position and optically moving them,” explains Rae. “That never works for me unless it is way in the background.” Trees were also taken out of the background of the shot, as well as most other city shots, so that the urban center appeared free of anything green, adding to the visual subtext of a culture that is consuming its environment.Production designer Tom Sanders built models of his sets as part of his design process. Feeling that miniature buildings would be more convincing than using CG to expand the city, Rae asked Sanders and his team to build a 60 x 80-foot miniature city which Rae shot and used for background pieces behind the live action city set in almost 30 shots. This collaboration also gave added visual continuity to the look of the city. Another of Rae’s favorite shots is a big Technocrane shot up to the top of the temple with the city spread out below. The composite used a matte painted augmentation of the model elements in addition to a painted sky dome. “The shot is not only a technically terrific composite by Stefano Trivelli of Svengali FX, but editorially it is consistent with the idea of not making a big deal of the city,” explains Rae. “You’d miss it if it weren’t there, but I always wanted the background city to be very matter-of-fact and almost thrown away.”The wasp sequence had about 30 shots that included CG wasps. The last live-action piece for the movie, a low-angle wide shot of the wasp’s nest tossed towards camera, Rae shot on a Sunday on the sidewalk by his house. It was cut into the picture on Tuesday. Asylum added CG wasps by Thursday. The picture was locked on Friday and went to final color-timing on Saturday.
“This was a project that went right up to the last minute,” says Rae.Although some slow-motion sequences were shot on 35mm film, the project was lensed by Dean Semler primarily with the Panavision Genesis digital camera, recorded onto HDCAM SR tape. “A great thing about the Genesis—when you’re doing matte shot plates and particularly when shooting motion control—is that there is absolutely no gate-weave. The image is rock-steady,” says Rae.Also, because the tape media is cheaper, use of the Genesis system allowed for a lot more reference material to be shot. It also provided a quick turnaround and did not require dust busting.Rae is enthusiastic about the talented artists at the seven visual effects facilities that posted the 372 visual effects shots on Gibson’s latest epic. Most of the work—three quarters of the VFX shots—were completed in less than 10 weeks, he reports. Shot details were carefully planned to optimize each team’s talents. “And I feel that all those details cumulatively add up to shots that, more importantly than looking real, feel real.” At a recent screening to check the D-Cinema version of the film, Rae was able to watch the entire finished film for the first time. “I couldn’t remember what we shot and what was effects. I was just watching the story.”That’s how real it should be.
Written by Mary Ann Skweres