By Mark London Williams
Perhaps a man who began his career at the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency – the quasi-secret government incubator of such things now known as GPS and the Internet – is the perfect choice to supervise the visual effects on a film where the last man on earth, himself a former military scientist, is involved in the last government project of all: Curing the zombie-like infection that plagues the “survivors” of a genetically engineered attempt to cure cancer.
That would be Jim Berney, visual effects supervisor at Sony Imageworks, who oversaw the considerable digital work on I Am Legend, the Will Smith-starrer currently co-opting the sci-fi action adventure slot among holiday film offerings. The film is based on both the now-legendary 1950s Richard Matheson novella of the same name and the screenplay written for one of the story’s previous film iterations, the pre-NRA Charlton Heston vehicle The Omega Man. The current version is directed by Francis Lawrence, and is now set in New York instead of Los Angeles (the shame being that audiences are deprived of seeing Southern California freeways drivable at last).
Berney worked in concert with the film’s overall visual effects supervisor, Janek Sirrs, but since Imageworks was the main post house on the production – an anomaly in this era of multiple digital houses working with radically compressed posting schedules – Berney has both an intimate, and bird’s eye view of how the production came together.
Contrasted to much of his post-DARPA film work — a list that includes the last two Matrix installments, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, among others, Berney says “that’s what was different about this project – it’s much more real.” Real not in the sense we’ve had a population-thinning global pandemic, but in that one of the main characters in the film was the city of New York — albeit a depopulated, near-future New York, with just one remaining diurnal citizen.
Unlike Narnia or Middle Earth or the inside of a computer program, viewers know what New York looks like – whether audiences have been there or not, they’ve been saturated with media images of the real place. So the Big Apple had to still look real while looking altered. At a subliminal level, audiences would know if it was visually wrong, whereas there was always more latitude in creating, say, a Hobbit-filled shire.
“A lot of it involved removing things that were there,” says Berney. His Imageworks team was called upon to augment the location shots of vacant streets and shuttered stores by going over “all signs of life” in the background. “It required a lot of painting out of neon signs, (the glow from) inside office buildings, and traffic lights.”
Then, after painstakingly taking out every sign of a still-inhabited world, there was the matter of aging the remains of New York’s infrastructure.
There was a futurist hired to consult on the film, an academic who prognosticates about Armageddon and answered questions like: What happens to cities in the case of evacuation or a widespread viral malady? How long before it decays and reverts to a natural state?
Thus, a kind of “apocalypse bible” (not referring to “Revelations” in this instance) was created for consulting by the production. Berney’s crew had to “age fabric, (add) bird poop on awnings,” layer on the “cracking” of roadways and sidewalks — and then there were the weeds.
When the film opens, Smith has had the city to himself for three years. The visual effects team would add back certain species of birds expected to repopulate the urban landscape, along with specific types of plants that would thrive in the absence of gardeners or city maintenance crews. The weeds had other benefits: The film crew could “cover up a store that wasn’t playing ball with us” by closing during shooting and park a truck in front of it.
Berney and his crew could in turn cover the truck in plant growth, giving it that post-collapse abandoned look.
And while there were a lot of actual greens brought in to dress sets and streets, Berney points out that “a lot doesn’t go very far when you’re trying to reclaim the boulevards of Manhattan.”
Additionally, since the original plague hit at Christmas, there had to be enough weathered Yuletide decorations added in, all given a further twist by the fact the movie was shot in winter, yet set in summer. On top of everything else, Berney’s gang had to add 3-D trees for the warmer time of year.
But initially, using the in-hand research, when the expected amounts of vines, plants, bugs and birds were added to a Homo sapiens-less metropolis, the Imageworks crew quickly realized that 36 months “post-man,” New York looked too abandoned. The existentialists were perhaps right: Everything is transitory, fleeting.
And so the scenes didn’t read necessarily as a near future city, but one that could have been 50 or 200 years into the future. So the state of decay and reversion was scaled back so that the scenery could be, at once, both familiar and chilling.
But infrastructure decay wasn’t the only thing that had to be tweaked, augmented and refined. The look of the “infected,” those viral victims who aren’t strictly zombies – in that they’re not technically back from the dead, but who exhibit vampiric traits – constantly shifted during pre-production and early production.
What should the symptoms be? The results? What strengths or weaknesses would the infected have as a result? Finally, a “syphilitic state” was agreed upon, one where “the skin becomes jaundiced and semi-transparent,” and a high metabolism results in an ultra-lean, way “post-Atkins” body type, Berney says.
The original idea was there would be people in suits and latex applications as the main nightfeeders, but the final array of symptoms and fragilities wasn’t arrived at until relatively late – everything about the production was set hurriedly into motion due to a hole in Smith’s schedule – so the vampire-zombies (“vambies?”) had to all be rendered digitally.
Smith, for his part, found himself battling gray-suited actors, all of whom were painted out later. Along with the fact that Lawrence opted to shoot the whole film with handheld cameras, giving it a documentary feel but making the shot tracking for all the digital work even harder for the Berney bunch.
In addition, the rampant sprouting of weeds meant there was lots of digital grass to blow in the end, react to the passing hooves of repopulating deer, or woosh to and fro as Smith raced by in civilization’s last well-maintained muscle car. To get the blades of grass to react, Berney found he had to use algorithms and software originally created for the digital movement of hair follicles.
Large-scale problems kept Berney’s crew busy as well, including a rendered-from-scratch Times Square sequence shot entirely against blue screen. But not all was challenging algorithms in that scene, and Berney was able to have some fun with the made-up signage. One movie marquee of the near future was slated to boast an already-cleared in-house Warner Bros. property as Berney and Sirrs decided that Batman-Superman would be the big holiday film, circa 2010. Not only is it a great premise, but for that movie, Metropolis – or would it be Gotham City? – won’t have to be so painstakingly depopulated.
Written by Mark London Williams