Academy Award-winning director Spike Lee’s latest American war drama, Da 5 Bloods, which is available to stream on Netflix, features some interesting and challenging VFX sequences, with MR. X delivering a total of 118 shots. VFX producer Adnan Ahmed worked on those shots in Toronto and, along with VFX supervisor James Cooper, oversaw 40 artists across MR. X’s Montreal, Toronto, and Bangalore studios.
Here Ahmed walks us through the making of three key VFX sequences for the film from a production perspective and in his own words. Ahmed, who also previously worked on shows The Boys and Vikings, tells us about the different challenges and requirements of each VFX sequence and how it all came together.
A big flashback to Vietnam, it's a sequence where our heroes are flying through a jungle in a Huey helicopter. Anyone who's seen footage of Vietnam or documentaries would be very familiar with the quite distinct but boxy shape of the Huey helicopter, which was used as the major transport vehicle for a lot of the troops especially in the jungle. What we had to do was to basically recreate that helicopter in CG in those plates.
There were two ways that this sequence was shot. One was they had a modern version of the helicopter actually flying in the shot and the other was there was a set or the shell of the helicopter on a gimbal on a stage, which was used for the closeup shots. So our research was mainly to get the look of the Huey right and that involved a bunch of footage and also some reference that we had gathered with James' (Cooper, VFX supervisor) help. So we were doing two things, one was building out the helicopter to look correct in the shot (and the other was) making sure the two versions of the helicopter – the one on the gimbal and the one on the plates – actually looked the same and correct.
From the production side that involved being able to manage that consistency and making sure we're building it correct from the ground up as far as what was required so that we can switch between the two looks and still have a consistent look and feel of the helicopter. That involved having dirt and wear on it and making sure that the modern version of the helicopter being used in the aerial sequence didn't line up if you looked at it in a profile or silhouette. From a producer point of view that involves potentially more iterations and cycles, so we had to be conscious of that with the deadlines to build that into the schedule and our budget.
The first shot (in this sequence) is you see the helicopter emerge from the silhouette, we're silhouetted by the sun and it's very much a classic scene you see in war movies, it's a very iconic kind of way to start a scene or reveal a big sequence where we see a helicopter emerging from a low sun kind of coming into view. The last shot was a full CG, full close-to-camera crash of the helicopter with dirt flying and rotor chopping up the ground and breaking off. We had digi-doubles, basically CG versions of our characters in the helicopter. The reveal of the helicopter and the final demise of it were the first and last shots of that sequence and they were the most challenging and time-consuming and also probably the coolest shots in the sequence for us to work on.
The second sequence is one of our main characters is out in a jungle and he encounters a snake and it ends up biting him on the arm, but he pulls off the snake and shoots it up. So we had to do a CG snake that gets blasted into a bunch of pieces as it tries to slither away. A snake or CG creature like that requires a different way of modelling and texturing an asset requires a different skill set. Our creature guys worked on that. Interestingly, because we had to animate all the movements of the snake, and the snake is a particularly malleable mover, the rig is essentially the skeleton underneath our CG model that allows an animator to move the character in different ways. Think of it like joints where those planes are movable or you can bend them so you get the correct movement as the creature moves.
Like most studios we're constantly updating our pipeline so that snake rig was being updated as we were working on it and evolving as the demands of the shot became more apparent. We were supposed to just break it up into two pieces when it got shot once but quite late in the game Spike came back and said, when they watched the shot in the mix with the sound, 'hey this snake should be breaking up into a bunch of pieces' so we had to go back and figure out how to do that. Essentially every place where the snake was being severed, we had to build in the texture and geometry so that you saw those parts as they broke apart. That was an interesting challenge. It happened from a process that goes through those evolutions, so we had to be on our toes and turn those notes around in pretty quick time.
The last sequence is our same character Paul who got bit by the snake, it's his death, where he's kind of ambushed by some soldiers and he eventually gets shot at close range. What was really challenging about this sequence is that they had not planned this as a particularly heavy VFX scene. When Spike and the team reviewed the footage, they decided they want the scene to look and feel a bit more visceral, so our team acted quickly to figure out a solution to meet this request.
They wanted us to basically replace the whole torso of this character because when he's getting shot up, they wanted to see all the interaction that would happen when the bullets ripped through our character's clothes. So everything had to move and perform in the same way. But because this was originally going to be practical or some sort of augmentation, there was no 3D data for this shot, there was no scan of the environment, there was no scan of the character. So for us to place our CG character in that scene and recreate that scene in 3D in our software and then have him move and interact, lining that up with him in the plate, was very challenging.
(WATCH: Da 5 Bloods VFX breakdown from MR. X)
We had a vehicle, a creature, and now what we call CFX, which is like cloth simulations and things like that. Not only did we have to build a very good likeness of the character from scratch, we also had to simulate all the cloth movement and the spurts of blood, which is done by our FX and CFX teams. All the fluid simulation and the cloth simulation when the guy gets hit, that involved our talented CFX and FX artists and our matchmovers. The artists who actually move and line up our CG character to what's happening on the plate kind of came together to pull these shots off in not much time at all. – thefocus.com