Based on Frank Miller’s brilliant and bloody graphic novel series, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is the sequel to Robert Rodriguez’s 2005 film Sin City. The ultra-stylized, high contrast black and white action returns with the addition of 3D and an all-star cast of new and returning characters, including Mickey Rourke as Marv, Jessica Alba as Nancy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Johnny, Josh Brolin as Dwight, and Eva Green as Ava. Sin City: A Dame To Kill For was directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, based on Miller’s cult graphic novels, and is distributed by The Weinstein Company.
The film is Prime Focus World’s largest undertaking to date. As the exclusive stereo VFX partner on the film, Prime Focus World has been integral in helping to bring the movie to the big screen.
“Throughout our development as a company, whether in advertising, television, Bollywood or Hollywood, we have always taken on certain challenges,” said Namit Malhotra, Founder and Global CEO, Prime Focus World. “These are the challenges that allow the company to step up to the next level – that push us to become better. Sin City: A Dame To Kill For was our biggest challenge yet.”
Achieving Rodriguez and Miller’s vision for the film, and translating Frank Miller’s unique style from comic book page to big screen, meant that each and every shot would be heavily reliant upon the talents of PFW’s global VFX and stereo conversion teams. The massive 2,282 shot workload would also need full concept and production design, VFX and stereo creation within a short schedule of just 8 months. The stage was set for a truly groundbreaking project.
Said Prime Focus World’s Chief Strategy Officer Bobby Jaffe, “There have been examples of other very good companies doing large portions of movies – maybe even 2,000 shots on a movie – but no other company has ever delivered all the VFX and all the stereo conversion on a movie of this complexity.”
With director Robert Rodriguez and his team at Troublemaker Studios working out of Austin, Texas, and Prime Focus World’s teams of artists primarily stationed in Vancouver and Mumbai, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For required engagement on a global level, putting PFW’s global business model to the ultimate test.
The plan included developing the VFX and stereo conversion pipelines, with the intention of ensuring Sin City: A Dame to Kill For did not to max out PFW’s global capacity. The goal was to find efficient ways to handle the massive amount of work and data generated by Sin City whilst running a raft of other high-profile shows in parallel, allowing business continuity and stability while PFW invested in the most creatively ambitious project in its history.
“Our production teams worldwide were managing a show of immense scale, which would traditionally go to a number of different companies,” said Merzin Tavaria, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Director, Prime Focus. “We have a track record of taking the impossible and making it possible – this is how we have done it all these years and this is what we did on Sin City.”
A Global Team
With teams crossing a total of four time zones and three continents, coordination was key to managing Prime Focus World’s work on Sin City: A Dame to Kill For - 24 hours a day, 6 days a week. Established global data pipelines allowed for new shot iterations to be constantly turned over from team to team around the globe, and director Robert Rodriguez was able to quickly review and approve shots and sequences through a unique delivery mechanism built to make the latest work available directly to his studio in Austin, Texas on a daily basis.
In addition to the workflow advantages, PFW’s global locations are also strategically placed to make best use of international tax incentives and labor arbitrage to maximize budgets.
“Sin City has taught us what the word ‘collaborative’ really means,” said Namit Malhotra. “To witness that collaboration work seamlessly across different teams, different people and different time zones is another proof of concept for our business model.”
A Unique Creative Experience
Early conversations with Robert Rodriguez revealed that the vision for Sin City: A Dame to Kill For was a complete upgrade from his original 2005 movie - delivering a film for which each frame was stylized to match the look of Frank Miller’s graphic novels was only the beginning. Unlike the previous film, which used partial sets and production design, Robert Rodriguez sought to push the visual effects further by shooting exclusively against green-screen, encouraging Prime Focus World to develop the world of Sin City from the ground up.
“It was exciting to have the chance to take a film all the way from script to final product,” said PFW VFX Supervisor Jon Cowley. “Robert Rodriguez made it clear from the very beginning that it wasn’t just about creating Sin City 1.1. We were designing Sin City 2.0.”
Jon led the Vancouver-based concept team along with lead Concept Artist Jelmer Boskma, guided by the film’s VFX Supervisor Stefen Fangmeier. “It was a dream project to take on as an artist,” said Jelmer of the unique opportunity. He and a team of a dozen concept artists worked on the art direction of the film, beginning with mood boards and concept art, allowing the world of Sin City to start coming together.
“Essentially, everything except the live action performances had to be created by the artists of Prime Focus in the computer,” said Stefen Fangmeier. “It really required the creation of the entire film, which was very exciting.”
The team took inspiration from film noir classics of the 1940’s and 50’s, with set design taking cues from architecture of the period, and careful use of lighting and texturing used to imbue each scene with the style and attitude of these stylish Hollywood crime dramas. The most inspirational source of all, however, remained Frank Miller’s original graphic novels.
“The main inspiration was always Frank’s work,” recalled lead Concept Artist Jelmer Boskma. “Robert Rodriguez was adamant that we look in detail at the graphic novels, seeing how Frank Miller frames his scenes, where he might put the emphasis on a piece of glass, or how he would draw smoke.”
Though the task of creating an entire film from start to finish provided a unique and prized experience for Prime Focus artists, it was also a tremendous artistic challenge. From the opening to the final shot, Robert Rodriguez pushed the teams towards achieving a consistent look and feel that flowed through it all.
“What’s great about Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is you constantly have to go back to the storytelling side of things,” commented Jon Cowley. “What we are trying to do is use the 2,282 shots and 66 sequences to tell one story. The creative continuity required to achieve a film that looks consistently beautiful all the way through is why it is so impressive from a visual effects point of view.”
The Prime Focus team knew from the start that the scale of the project was going to be big… but little did they know, as production began, just how big it would become.
“The number of assets, the number of locations… it all increased - it was tremendous,” said Merzin Tavaria. “The fun is in the liberty of actually creating different sets, but once you start adding it up it really becomes a huge number - 65 separate CG locations. We created every individual asset - right up to tables, lamps, light switches – tiny details for every location that we created. I am very proud of the teams in Mumbai and Vancouver. We had 700 VFX artists working on this movie for eight months - dedicating their time to making this dream come true.”
Every shot started with the live action plates that Robert Rodriguez shot months in advance. Prime Focus analyzed them closely, within the context of the story, and from this starting point storyboards would be drawn up to determine the assets required.
“From that point on, we would go to style frames,” described Jelmer Boskma. “We would take the shot and sketch out a more detailed or intricate rendition that would more closely reflect the final frame. Those were sent to Robert Rodriguez for sign off or feedback - he would pick his favorites and we use those as our baseboard to really go into layout. We were creating a world here, so every little bit of trash, every minute detail in a room or on a street has to be built by our modeling team. It had to be textured, then lit and finally composited together. Our goal was to match the concept art that Robert signed off on, but then add so much more to it when possible. That’s really where the polishing happens; the smoke elements, the sparks and all of the finesse that makes the shot look beautiful. That times 2,282, and you have Sin City.”
Realising Sin City in stereo
Prime Focus World’s stereo team was also integral to the development of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. PFW Senior Stereographer Justin Jones oversaw the stereo needs for the show, leading the stereo teams in Vancouver and Mumbai to deliver the directors’ vision in 3D
“The native photography that Robert captured looked spectacular,” said Justin. “Add to this the control that we brought to the depth in the environments, and to the look of the native capture when we needed to, and you have the best of all worlds. I’m extremely proud of our work on this movie, and I think it brings the world of Sin City to life for the audience in the most exciting way possible.”
To read more about PFW’s stereo contribution to the film, click here.
While the creative teams were determined to meet the high expectations that Robert Rodriguez had envisioned for Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Prime Focus World was growing to meet the other challenges that the show presented. Technology teams worked closely with the R&D department to generate and deploy tools that promoted consistency between shots and seamless integration across locations. Production teams in Vancouver and India were challenged with building a workflow that allowed quick, transparent movement of assets around the world and ultimately into the hands of the Director. Additionally, the global leadership team orchestrated the balance of resources that allowed Prime Focus World to simultaneously deliver some of the biggest films of the summer alongside Sin City.
“We had to ensure that we were absolutely aligned as a global group,” said Namit Malhotra. “We had to be joined at the hip to make sure that we could deliver the expected outcome, creatively, financially, and from a timing perspective. This is a big step forward for any company, and I’m proud to say that we have been successful.”
While Prime Focus World completed its work on Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, the company also delivered stereo and VFX work on films such as Edge of Tomorrow, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Maleficent, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Guardians of the Galaxy, Noah, The Expendables 3, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Hercules.
“I’m incredibly proud of the team and way the whole global construct of Prime Focus has come together in achieving something that I don’t believe any other single company worldwide would have been able to do,” concluded Namit Malhotra. “This was an opportunity to not only put our best foot forward creatively and technically, but also to take the next step financially. This was a huge commitment: to our filmmaking partners, in helping to make this film happen; to the industry, in showing that there is another way for companies such as Prime Focus to engage; and to our own future. I’m delighted with the way this has played out.”
RELEASE: August 22, 2014
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Studios / Distributors: The Weinstein Company
Show VFX Supervisor: Stefen Fangmeier
PFW Creative Director: Merzin Tavaria
PFW VFX Supervisor: Jon Cowley
Associate VFX Supervisors: Tim McGovern / Joshua Saeta
Senior Stereo Supervisor: Justin Jones
Art Director: Jelmer Boskma
Show VFX Producer: Pat Sandston
Head of Production (Vancouver): Rohan Desai
Head of Production (Mumbai): Stephen Mascarenhas
VFX Producer (Vancouver): Darren Bell
VFX Producer (Mumbai): Shome Das Gupta
Head of Global Production: Anshul Doshi
Chief Strategy Officer: Bobby Jaffe
Chief Executive Officer: Namit Malhotra