CULVER CITY, Calif., Oct. 27, 2015 /PRNewswire/ -- To achieve the groundbreaking and jaw-dropping visual effects in his critically acclaimed motion picture The Walk, Academy Award®-winning director Robert Zemeckis turned to Atomic Fiction – an award-winning and internationally-based visual effects studio – to lead the way in crafting 40 minutes of acrophobia-inducing visual effects.
In addition, Atomic Fiction leveraged the largest use of cloud computing in the history of filmmaking using the company's innovative technology, Conductor.
After working with Zemeckis for seven years of pre-production, Atomic Fiction's Co-Founder and Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Baillie oversaw all effects for the movie. "The Walk has been a passion project of Bob's for many, many years, and I couldn't be happier to play a role in bringing his vision to the big screen," says Baillie.
In addition, Baillie oversaw the work of two additional companies. UPP, a Prague post-production studio, was responsible for recreating Notre Dame, Paris' Latin Quarter and Opera House, and the World Trade Center Twin Towers at night, while Rodeo FX oversaw recreating the exterior surrounding the Twin Towers, building a fully CG asset of the interior lobby, the exterior plaza, and the neighboring areas.
Baillie and the three VFX houses also teamed with acclaimed VFX producer Camille Cellucci on the groundbreaking effects work on the film, which were even further enhanced by the incredible team of stereo artists at Legend 3D.
REBUILDING 1974 NEW YORK – FROM 1400 FEET
While all of Atomic Fiction's work was designed to support the film's immersive caper story, the firm's major challenge was to create the visual centerpiece for the film: a stunning reproduction of New York City in 1974. This includes the World Trade Center, which provides the stage for wire walker Philippe Petit's daring and illegal crossing between The Twin Towers. "We had a 40 foot by 60 foot set piece of the South Tower rooftop to work with," shared Atomic Fiction's Associate VFX Supervisor Jim Gibbs. "The rest was all green screen for us to fill in."
The project required extensive research. Thousands of images, movies, sketches and blueprints went into creating the Twin Towers in a completely digital, period-accurate setting. Baillie even spent two days hovering over Ground Zero in a helicopter in order to get reference for how active New York should feel like from that height. The sheer amount of detail in the city required an immense amount of computing resources to transfer the images to the screen. Every rain gutter, ventilation unit and hot dog stand was built in the computer.
With an exceptionally lean budget, Atomic Fiction needed a more efficient way to do the compute-intensive, and traditionally very expensive, processes of rendering. The company leveraged their cloud-based software Conductor, which allows artists to offload the processing from their own computers and send it to the cloud. By the end of the project, Atomic Fiction had completed 9.1 million hours of processing in the cloud through Conductor.
"This is the largest use of cloud computing in film history and by quite a long shot," said Atomic Fiction's CFO Marc Ostroff. "We're proud to share that using the cloud turned out to be 50% more cost effective than traditional methods."
As is true with some of cinema's most successful effects, there is one in The Walk that critics aren't talking about. While leading actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt learned to walk a wire for many scenes in the film, Jade Kindar-Martin, a former Cirque du Soleil performer, was called upon for complex actions which require decades of experience to master. Zemeckis wanted to see Joseph's likeness on the wire at all times, so Atomic Fiction built an exact, performance-capable digital reproduction of his face. In post-production, Atomic Fiction's Oakland-based crew transferred Gordon-Levitt's acting to the digital face and transposed it onto Jade's body. The result is an indistinguishable likeness to the Gordon-Levitt-acted Petit!
Shortly after completing post-production for The Walk, Baillie remembers a call he received from Zemeckis, who was one of his childhood inspirations for getting in to the film business: "Bob rang me right after screening the finalized film. He sounded genuinely ecstatic, and said that he felt like The Walk was the most spectacular effects film he'd ever done! Given his resume, that's incredibly high praise. I couldn't be more honored that the Atomic Fiction team was a part of making that happen."
Said director Robert Zemeckis, "The realism and visual impact that Atomic Fiction brought to The Walk is an incredible feat in visual effects, and a tribute to their team of artists. I love the gang at Atomic because they're so ahead of the curve. Somehow Kevin and the team always come up with a solution, no matter how insane the challenge."
A TICKET FOR PARIS
Approximately 90 graphic artists worked on the film for over half a year, under the guidance of UPP's Visual Effects Supervisor, Viktor Muller.
Some of the studio's most challenging work came in the Twin Tower scenes. In the film, much of the action on the roof of the World Trade Center takes place at night, as Petit and his crew rig the wire between the towers. UPP's primary assignment was to execute these scenes; while Atomic Fiction provided the base model of the Towers, UPP developed intricate lighting and texturing to create a realistic night-photography effect – a fine line between the nighttime darkness hiding much of the world, but with enough light on the towers for audiences to experience the scenes.
UPP handled some challenging daytime down-angle shots as well, from the towers to the crowds. One of the most thrilling shots of the film is when camera is high on Petit laying on the wire and rushes all the way down the length of the towers to the street below. This was accomplished through an intricate handoff back and forth between UPP and Atomic Fiction.
UPP was also responsible for the effects in the first portion of the film, which is set in Paris, and required digital recreations of Notre Dame, the Latin Quarter, and the Opera House.
"For Notre Dame, the production provided us green screen footage encircling the actors on an extremely small set piece. It became our responsibility to replace everything except the actor and the wire with photoreal 1970's Paris, including the majestic cathedral itself," says Muller. The UPP team spent a full day and night photographing the Gothic architecture masterpiece. "We were extremely lucky, because we had access to the Bishop's Tower, which is off-limits to the public. The Bishop's Tower allowed us to climb out onto the roof and shoot all the elements we needed."
Though the film was shot in Montreal, UPP's work enabled Zemeckis to make it look like Paris. "To get the long, sweeping shots Mr. Zemeckis is famous for required seamless blending between the usable pieces of Montreal with VFX matte paintings," explains Muller. "We spent numerous days with still cameras and a Red Dragon camera, shooting many Paris streets and districts that we used as elements. Then, of course, all of them had to be modified to represent the period."
RECREATING THE LOBBY, ENTRY, AND PLAZA
Rodeo FX was responsible for recreating the plaza, entry and lobby of the World Trade Center towers. The lobby set that was constructed for the shoot corresponded to 1/8 of the actual facade of the entire World Trade Center Building, which means half of one side's facade. Consequently, the studio recreated a fully CG asset of the interior lobby, the exterior plaza, and the surrounding areas.
But the challenge was even greater. In 1974, The Twin Towers were at the foot of the island; the team at Rodeo FX recreated that whole section of lower Manhattan. New York City changed dramatically every six months in the 1970s and today the island has extended and looks considerably different than it did 30 years ago.
"We had to find images from the dates that match the story and be clear about which direction we're looking," said Fabrice Vienne, CG Supervisor at Rodeo FX. "Because of the large number of shots, we knew it required a 360-degree view of the Plaza."
The assets of the building exteriors were a mix of CG and matte painting. The exterior glass, as well as mirrors on the lobby elevators, reflected the surrounding environment and meant that Rodeo FX needed to create a matte painted 360-degree cylinder to show the reflections for set extensions in every direction. It used Nuke to adapt the distortion of the CG elements of the reflections to match the live action.
"When we're looking out of the lobby windows, in the plaza, or seeing reflections in the elevator doors, we had to be sure what was reflected was accurate," said Xavier Fourmond, Compositing Supervisor at Rodeo FX. "We created a 2.5D solution, a low-res mesh to match the set extension and the plaza environment, which were all CG."
Two sequences show Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) standing on a platform beside Lady Liberty's torch, talking to the audience, as the camera slowly moves towards him. The shots are striking because of the Manhattan skyline that is in the background. The actor was shot against greenscreen on a small model of the base of the Statue's torch. Rodeo FX used material provided by the Statue of Liberty Museum to build an accurate CG version, taking only the actor and contact shadows from the greenscreen shot.
"We tracked our model of New York to match move the camera of the live plates," Vienne explained. "Then we projected the shoot on top of the model to make the correct lighting and distance from the Statue of Liberty."
The background of the city was a matte painting based on helicopter shots of the city provided by production. Rodeo FX added historical details such as docks, roads in construction and cranes next to the shore, in addition to making the city bustle with moving images from the live action plates, including cars, a crane, and smoke, as well as birds and boats on the water that it added in CG. The movement of the camera created parallax that meant that Rodeo FX could not rely only on the matte painting. The final touch was to animate the sunlight on the towers to give a magical look to the shot.
"It's a wonderful achievement to recreate such iconic landmarks and help tell this amazing true story," said Sebastien Moreau, Rodeo FX's VFX supervisor on The Walk and President of Rodeo FX. "It was a real honour to work with Robert Zemeckis, one of the greatest visual storytellers, and we are extremely proud to have contributed to bring his unique vision to life," concluded Moreau.
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ABOUT "THE WALK":
Twelve people have walked on the moon. Only one has ever, or will ever, walk in the immense void between the World Trade Center towers. Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), guided by his real-life mentor, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), is aided by an unlikely band of international recruits, who overcome long odds, betrayals, dissension and countless close calls to conceive and execute their mad plan. Robert Zemeckis, the master director of such marvels as Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Back to the Future, Polar Express and Flight, again uses cutting edge technology in the service of an emotional, character-driven story. With innovative photorealistic techniques and IMAX(r) 3D wizardry, The Walk is genuine big-screen cinema, a chance for moviegoers to viscerally experience the feeling of reaching the clouds. It is also one of the rare live-action films that is a PG-rated, all-audience entertainment for moviegoers 8 to 80 - and a triumphant true story to boot. It is unlike anything audiences have seen before, a love letter to Paris and New York City in the 1970s, but most of all, to the towers of the World Trade Center. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Produced by Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, and Jack Rapke. The Screenplay is by Robert Zemeckis & Christopher Browne, based on the book "To Reach the Clouds" by Philippe Petit.
About Sony Pictures Entertainment
Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) is a subsidiary of Sony Entertainment Inc., a subsidiary of Tokyo-based Sony Corporation. SPE's global operations encompass motion picture production, acquisition and distribution; television production, acquisition and distribution; television networks; digital content creation and distribution; operation of studio facilities; and development of new entertainment products, services and technologies. For additional information, go to http://www.sonypictures.com.
About Atomic Fiction
Founded in 2010, Atomic Fiction is an award-winning visual effects studio making waves in the industry by combining talent and technology in innovative ways. The company has embraced cloud computing, which provides a scalable big-shop infrastructure while allowing the organization to maintain a small-shop culture. Atomic Fiction employs an exceptional, creative team that wields a generalist approach to get the job done. The studio has worked on films such as Flight, Looper, the upcoming release The Walk, and two Oscar-nominated films: Star Trek Into Darkness and The Lone Ranger. In addition, Atomic Fiction's Emmy-nominated work can been seen in Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. The company is headquartered in Oakland, CA, and has offices in Los Angeles and Montreal.
About Rodeo FX
Founded in 2006 by Sébastien Moreau, Rodeo FX has grown to 300 accomplished artists and professionals with studios in Montreal, Los Angeles, and Quebec City. The company has delivered award-winning visual effects for more than 70 feature films, including The Walk, the Academy Award®-winning Birdman, Furious 7, Tomorrowland, Unbroken, Lucy, Edge of Tomorrow, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Pacific Rim, and Now You See Me. The studio won a VES award for its visual effects work on Birdman and two Emmy Awards for its work on the TV series Game of Thrones (in 2014 and 2015). Rodeo FX's advertising division created the opening sequence for NBC's Sunday Night Football and this year's NFL Super Bowl. For more information, visit www.rodeofx.com.
SOURCE Sony Pictures Entertainment