They don’t come much bigger than a Roland Emmerich movie, which is why Prime Focus World is so excited to have been one of the main VFX facilities on White House Down, Emmerich’s summer action blockbuster which releases in US theaters on 28 June 2013. The film is released by Columbia Pictures, and stars Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx.
Prime Focus World called up for duty its crack VFX teams in London, Vancouver and Mumbai to deliver the 326 shots it contributed to the movie, creating two big action sequences – the ‘Chase’ sequence, in which the presidential limo is pursued across the White House gardens by terrorists in SUVs; and the ‘Bomb’ sequence, which sees three F22 Raptors fly-in over Washington to blow-up the White House.
VFX Supervisor Alex Pejic creatively led the global PFW teams on White House Down, working closely with frequent Emmerich collaborators Volker Engel and Marc Weigert, who served as both co-producers and VFX supervisors on the movie.
“Not only are Marc and Volker hugely experienced, hands-on VFX supervisors – they have also worked with Roland Emmerich many times in the past, and have a unique relationship with him,” commented Alex Pejic, VFX Supervisor, Prime Focus World. “The direction they provided on this show was incredible – from the detailed pre-viz they provided, to the daily reviews and feedback, to the way they managed the sharing of assets between the VFX vendors. It has been a joy to work with them.”
The London PFW facility took the lead on the show, splitting the allocated work between the three main PFW hubs and managing the interaction with the client, as well as developing the ‘Chase’ sequence and modeling the CG assets. Vancouver completed the ‘Bomb’ sequence, and Mumbai provided roto, prep and matchmove, as well as delivering final comp on 74 shots. In total, 172 PFW artists across London, Vancouver and Mumbai worked on White House Down over its 6-month production period.
The ‘Chase’ sequence follows the president (Foxx) and our hero John Cale (Tatum) as they attempt to escape from the terrorists in the presidential limo – nicknamed ‘The Beast’. The terrorists give chase in two Secret Service SUVs equipped with Gatling Guns, pursuing them across the White House grounds. Meanwhile the terrorists on the roof of the White House open fire on the US Army, who are massed outside the White House gates, alongside a media circus and a crowd of thousands of onlookers.
“The ‘Chase’ sequence was our main body of work on White House Down,” commented Alex Pejic. “It was over 100 shots, and involved modeling ‘The Beast’ and the SUVs to a very high level of detail, as well as rendering the CG White House model to look completely photo-real, and convincingly placing it in a 100% accurate CG environment. We were also required to create the environment outside the White House gates, including the modeling of military vehicles, news reporter vans, CG crowds and soldiers – with up to 20,000 people in a single shot.”
“There were a number of challenges to overcome in creating the White House gardens environment,” added PFW 2D Supervisor David Shere. “Lots of digital matte painting, CG trees, CG lawn, CG White House, set extensions behind driving plates, blue-screen studio shot foreground plates, CG limo and SUVs, and lots of FX – muzzle flashes, bullet hits, rockets, CG smoke billowing out of the White House, smoke enhancements for the exploded tank. You name it, it was in that sequence! The challenge was tying it all together to ensure that it all looked completely believable and photo-realistic.”
In addition to lighting and rendering the CG White House model provided by the production, the London team also modeled and comped in CG Treasury and Eisenhower buildings, and other shot-specific elements. The trees in the White House gardens were another big consideration.
“There are about 140 different types of tree in the White House gardens, and as with all the CG recreations of the environment around the White House, it was important that the gardens were 100% accurate and true to life,” said Rob Allman, CG Supervisor, Prime Focus World. “Every tree in the gardens is animated, and they are 1 – 2 million polygons each, so that is about 250 – 500 million polygons in shot, just for the trees.”
The animation of the trees was complicated, with three layers of movement required; the general movement of the tree from the trunk, the movement of the branches against one another, and the movement of the leaves on the branches.
“Accurately animating this movement so that the trees were moving realistically, and then rendering all of that information was quite a creative and technical achievement in itself,” continued Rob Allman.
In addition to taking on all the roto and the bulk of the prep work on White House Down, the PFW Mumbai facility also composited 74 final shots, including a slew of shots in the ‘Chase’ sequence set inside the vehicles, looking out through windshields and side windows.
At the end of the chase, with ‘The Beast’ flipped by a terrorist rocket into the White House swimming pool, our heroes take cover in the Pool House; but the terrorists hit a petroleum container, exploding the Pool House and sending rolling flames towards camera and chunks of masonry, smoke and other debris flying into the air.
“We built the Pool House in CG and used rigid bodies in Houdini, with a fair amount of scripting, to create the explosion,” said Rob Allman. “We used Mantra’s physically-based renderer to do the explosion shading and lighting, and there was also collusion with Solid Angle’s Arnold to render the discrete bricks that make up the chunks of masonry that come flying out.”
The other major sequence undertaken by PFW was the ‘Bomb’ sequence, which comes towards the end of the movie. With the president missing in action, and fearing that the terrorists are about to launch nuclear weapons, the newly sworn-in president orders an air strike, dispatching three F22 Raptors to destroy the White House and everyone within it.
The London CG team built the F22’s to an incredible level of detail, modeling rather than painting all the panels of the planes and ensuring accuracy down to individual rivets. “We wanted to ensure that Roland had the ability to move his camera right up to the F22 model without any loss of detail,” said Alex Pejic.
And just as in the ‘Chase’ sequence, the secret to delivering convincing results came down to creating a totally photo-realistic look for the planes. “The difficulty is that, even in real-life, Raptors just don’t look very real,” said Rob Allman. “They are so perfectly engineered. There is no unnecessary or wasted detail – they are essentially blocks of metal with wings. The key to this model was capturing the subtlety of the shading – the contrasts of texture, surface and light. Because they are such a smooth, simple shape, you are looking for detail – like the rivets – to sell the scale.”
The approach of the F22’s from south of Washington meant that they were flying in over a very recognizable landscape, which again had to be recreated with complete accuracy. There were two types of aerial shot for the PFW team to create – firstly, the audience’s view of the F22’s flying in over Washington, passing the Washington Monument, the Ellipse, and other famous landmarks as they approach the White House itself; which is by now a different CG model with added smoke and fire damage.
The second type of shot was a POV shot from the high-resolution cockpit monitor of the F22’s, which can be zoomed in by the pilot. There was a degree of monitor degradation added to these shots, but they were still required to look completely convincing.
“The aerial views of Washington are so recognizable that these shots had to be 100% accurate,” said David Shere. “We also had to add huge crowds of CG figures, and the gridlocked Washington freeways, full of slow-moving traffic. Both of these elements were created using Massive simulations.”
PFW’s Vancouver facility worked closely with the London facility on the ‘Bomb’ sequence, sharing pipeline, assets and elements. The sequence involved a number of fully CG aerial shots, as well as some partial CG shots with aerial plates, though these backgrounds also had to be treated for continuity.
“We completed about 15 shots involving the F22 Raptors, and 7 additional close-up cockpit shots,” commented Fred Sundqvist, Associate VFX Supervisor, Vancouver. “The Vancouver FX team also contributed contrails, and afterburner heat haze and ‘shock diamonds’.”
In addition to the F22 shots, Vancouver also created a number of monitor inserts for interior scenes in the White House and the NORAD command centre, and were responsible for the Press Room explosion, which sees Cale ducking behind the presidential lectern to avoid a suitably over-the-top hand grenade explosion!
“We created a clean version of the plate, and then added CG chairs back in so that we could blast them away again. We generated the massive explosion and flying debris in Houdini,” said Fred Sundqvist.
Working on White House Down provided some interesting new challenges for the Prime Focus World team.
“Our last couple of big VFX shows have been of a very different nature,” said Alex Pejic. “The Great Gatsby was set in the 1920’s, and Total Recall was set in a futuristic, sci-fi environment. The challenge with White House Down was that it is firmly rooted in a modern-day reality that everyone is familiar with. There is very little artistic license here – in order to be convincing, every CG element on screen has to look completely recognizable and realistic. This adds a whole new level of complexity to the VFX process.”
“In order to achieve this hyper-reality, we had to make some crucial pipeline decisions right at the beginning of the process,” continued Alex. “Using particular rendering and lighting set-ups really helped us to push the reality on this show to the next level.”
With a number of VFX houses delivering shots for the show, consistency and accuracy were also high on the agenda for Marc Weigert and Volker Engel. They organized and managed a system for the sharing of production assets between VFX houses, which meant that PFW took delivery of models for some assets, and shared its own models and assets with other companies working on the show.
“White House Down was an intensely collaborative show,” concluded PFW Head of VFX Production Tim Keene. “From sharing elements, assets, scenes and sequences internally between our worldwide facilities, to sharing assets with the other VFX houses working on the movie, it was as though we were one global team working towards a common goal – which we were. The goal was to help create an absolutely stunning, VFX-fuelled action movie – and I think that’s exactly what we achieved.”
RELEASE: June 28, 2013
VES Awards 2014 - nominated for Outstanding Supporting VFX
People's Choice Awards 2014 - Favorite Thriller Movie
Director: Roland Emmerich
Producers: Roland Emmerich, Bradley J. Fischer, Larry Franco, Laeta Kalogridis, Harald Kloser, James Vanderbilt
Studio / Distributor: Columbia Pictures
PFW Supervisor: Alex Pejic
PFW Producer: Nick King
PFW Scope of Work: VFX, 326 shots
PFW Lead Facility: London
PFW Associate Team(s): Vancouver, Mumbai