Hot on the heels of Framestore’s recent foray into the world of espionage in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy comes a slightly different take on the spy genre. Johnny English Reborn is Rowan Atkinson’s second outing as Britain’s klutziest agent, with a cast that includes Dominic West, Gillian Anderson and Rosamund Pike. Directed by Oliver Parker and produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Chris Clark, the Working Title Films production will be released in the U.K. on Oct. 7 and in the U.S. on Oct. 28.
In his latest adventure, the most unlikely intelligence officer in Her Majesty’s Secret Service must stop a group of international assassins before they eliminate a top politician and cause global chaos. In the years since MI-7’s top spy vanished off the grid in disgrace, he has been honing his unique skills in Tibet. But when his agency superiors learn of an impending attempt against the Chinese premiere’s life, they hunt down the highly unorthodox agent and put him back to work. With one shot at redemption, he must employ the latest in hi-tech gadgets to unravel a web of conspiracy that runs throughout the KGB, CIA and even MI-7.
Contacted by Working Title in early 2010, with a script that was nearly ready to go, the Framestore team, headed by VFX supervisor Rob Duncan, was able to join the production at an early stage. Duncan was involved from the ‘reconnaissance’ stage onwards; something he believes makes a lot of sense. “Crafting a methodology for the work we’re going to do based on good information saves everyone time and money,” he noted, “For instance, we knew that there was going to be quite a bit of greenscreen usage, including ostensibly exterior shots, and I pushed for as much as possible of this to be actually done outside, because studio greenscreen can so easily have a look about it. You can end up spending a lot of time trying to fix problems you’ve created for yourself.”
Between September 2010 and January 2011 Duncan, along with Bruce Nelson, one of the project’s lead compositors, spent much of the shooting schedule on set in studios around London including Long Cross, Ealing and Pinewood, as well as at locations in the city itself and at Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire and later in Hawley Woods in Hampshire. In addition, they traveled to Hong Kong, and Duncan paid a solo visit to Argentina to capture some footage of the Andes which was doubling for the Himalayas for the Tibet sequences. Following the Christmas hiatus, Duncan then went to the Alps where he was able to gather material that proved invaluable.
A team of 65 Framestore artists worked on some 230 shots for Johnny English Reborn. About half of these were for the film’s climactic cable car chase sequence down a mountainside. With the film’s main villain finally revealed, English pursues him as he flees from a building complex atop an Alpine peak. First by parachute and then by snowmobile, English chases the descending cable car. Finally managing to clamber in to the car, he engages the villain in hand-to-hand combat, before toppling out and, lying prone in the snow, launching a missile from an umbrella that brings him an explosive victory. This ambitious sequence has all the hallmarks of a Bond sequence, save for the brilliant gags and laughs that punctuate the action. Framestore was called on to build the mountain.
“During the Alps shoot I was able to commandeer a helicopter for a day,” recalled Duncan, “And we shot some traveling plates, trying to mimic the path of the cable car and getting all the angles we’d need. In an ideal world we would have got more usable material from that, but it became apparent to me early on that the nature of the sequence – particularly the punch-up inside the car – militated against this. We were going to have to generate the mountain and trees ourselves. But the material I shot that day became perfect reference material for what we created, informing and enriching our work. I’m a great advocate of getting real reference material. It’s invaluable. And the shots also, as it happened, came in very handy for creating credible temps.”
Lead environment TD on the sequence was Dan Canfora. “I like to have a clear idea of how the real journey would be,” he said, “Even though it’s a made up environment – how long it would take, when and what the key points are. You can’t be accurate just on a shot-by-shot basis. There has to be an ongoing internal coherence and consistency over the whole sequence. As it became clear that we would be doing a lot more than simply augmenting real material, various practical issues presented themselves.”
Not least of these was foliage. “Trees are everything that’s difficult in CG rolled into one,” noted Canfora. “They’re organic, involve heavy geometry and take some time to render.” Creating an entire mountainside, complete with forestry and sweeping matte vistas was not an option. Instead the Framestore team went for a modular approach, creating sections of basic rocky mountain which could then be ‘populated’ with rocks, trees and snow as and when needed. An off the shelf system was found that creates organic looking trees which was then manipulated to work with in-house tools.
“With a library of 40 or so freshly minted tree-types at our disposal, we then we had to come up with a way of placing them, quickly and wherever we wanted, shot by shot,” explained Canfora. “We developed a prototype of a tool that lets us do this very successfully. In fact, our heaviest shot featured something like 7,500 trees, with each tree created, placed and lit. It involved quite intensive work and the tree placement tool was very successful, and as a result is currently being refined to be used across the company.”
In addition to the mountain building, the Framestore team also created a CG version of the cable car, which could be invisibly substituted for the real thing when lighting or ‘greenspill’ issues meant that it wasn’t looking as good as it could, or when the range of travel on the camera shooting the real car needed to be enhanced with CG. The spectacular overhead shot in which the skidoo leaps in to an abyss as English prepares to board the cable car consists – apart from the skidoo and stuntman – entirely of CG scenery, enhanced with matte painting over the CG geometry and an altered trajectory for the vehicle. The extensive matte painting used throughout the sequence was created by Patrick Muylkens, Carl Edlund and Jason Horley.
Two other sequences involved extensive Framestore participation. In the first, English finds himself in the office of his boss, MI-7 agent Pamela Thornton (Gillian Anderson). Unnoticed by him, her cat is perched on the sill of the high-rise office window. English chooses the wrong moment to close the window, pushing the cat to its doom. Lead compositor on the sequence, (Bruce Nelson) said, “We shot it in the Walbrook Building, in the heart of the City. We set up a fake greenscreen window for the cat to go out of and had to continue the skyline through into this fake window. So we took sets of photos – tiles – from the end of the building and stitched together these into two different panoramas. We then took these two separate panoramas and created a single 3D environment out of them in Nuke. It replicated the location, so that for every shot we could put the camera in the right place in the office and get the appropriate view. Although we initially planned for only a couple of shots to set the gag up and…um…execute it, there was more action in front of the area than we expected. 20 or so shots feature our work during the sequence.”
Later in the film, Johnny English finds himself having to get a wounded Russian agent to a hospital as quickly as possible. Seizing the moment, he commandeers a helicopter. Taking off, he succeeds in cutting the tops off a row of decorative trees and, further en route, decides that the easiest thing to do would be to simply perch the helicopter on top of a speeding ambulance, as that will be heading in the right direction. “It wasn’t clear,” said CG supervisor, John Peter Li, “just how much of the work in this sequence could be handled for real by stunt pilots, but we knew there were going to be at least a couple of shots that would need a CG version of the chopper. Our CG team spent several weeks making one – a very good one, in fact, that the clients were unable to distinguish from the real thing in some footage we created. But in the end the pilots proved able to handle much of the work and the CG version was used in only a couple of shots.” The take-off, with its scene of arboreal carnage, was assembled by the sequence’s lead compositor, Adrian Metzelaar. Working in Nuke, Metzelaar took the plate apart, and rebuilt the whole scene. The trees were blue screen elements, having had their tops blown off with explosive charges elsewhere. Extensive manipulation of the helicopter’s position, timing and animation to properly sit it in the space were also required.