Total Recall, starring Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale, leaped onto the big screen today towing awesome visual effects behind it. The strength of the movie is its ability to blend practical set making with advanced VFX techniques to create imaginary worlds with features only movie makers can dream up. This remake of the 1990 film that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone was actually inspired by the short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick.
If you saw the original film or read the story, you may recall that a company called Rekall is in the business of turning dreams into real memories (Fig.1). This come-on inspires a factory worker named Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) to take a shot at a new life for a while--a vacation from his hum-drum life if you will, and from his attractive wife (Kate Beckinsale). He’s supposed to have his dreams of a life as a super-spy turned into real memories. But when the procedure goes awry, Quaid is taken for a wild ride, not to Mars as in the Dick story, but to a far-in-the-future earth dominated by two nation-states – United Federation of Britain and The Colony.
Besides the VFX work in the film, a unique engineering feat helped in shooting fast paced scenes with hover cars, of all things. I had a chance to witness these effects and the blazing camera work first hand at a private screening for the press. The Columbia Pictures film was produced by Neal H. Moritz and Toby Jaffe and directed by Len Wiseman, with Peter Chiang the Visual Effects Supervisor.
Practical Sets vs. VFX
Wiseman’s approach to Total Recall was to build practical sets wherever possible. “Of course, there’s a lot of CG in this movie, because there are certain things you just simply can’t do,” he notes. “But if you can make it real, then I try to do it. I love to build it and draw it, create it and shoot it.”
Wiseman asked his friend and colleague Patrick Tatopoulos, who directed Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, to design the production. Tatopoulos said he is most proud of his work on The Fall – the giant elevator going through the earth, connecting United Federation of Britain with The Colony (Australia) – because it is nothing like anything he’d ever seen onscreen before. He said that he actually designed The Fall around the concept of a 747 airplane, so that it would feel familiar or real to people watching the movie. Personally, I did not see the resemblance, but enjoyed watching The Fall take its passengers to and from The Colony at speeds you wish a 747 could duplicate (Fig. 2).
When visual effects were employed – as with a chase scene that involved hover cars – Wiseman used a mix of the practical and the virtual where possible. The team actually built the hover cars and fixed them on top of street racing cars (Fig. 3). The actors sat up top and the drivers were down below. “I like that better than the actors sitting in a shell on green screen. You see the vibration and you have the actors’ performances reflecting the reality of it at every turn.” Jaffe explained.
This combination of techniques produced a spectacular chase scene, which was easily the best scene of the movie for me. We’ll talk more about the hover cars later.
One of the most challenging scenes to coordinate according to Wiseman was the first fight sequence between Quaid and the police at the Rekall den, controlled by Chancellor Cohaagen, who was played by Bryan Cranston. You may recognize Cranston as the chemistry teacher turned meth cook from the hit television drama series “Breaking Bad.” The den is where Quaid first discovers that he may not be who he thinks he is and has abilities he never knew he had. “From a character standpoint, I wanted the sequence to feel like he didn’t have a chance to catch his breath,” Wiseman explained. “I wanted the audience to experience the same thing.”
But filming such fast-paced, non-stop action was a challenge. The stunt team had to choreograph and train Farrell for the fight sequence, which involved multiple moving cameras. Wiseman relied on the state-of-the-art Doggicam camera system. This consisted of a hybrid super-slider track and high-speed camera, which are typically utilized in action-packed car chases (Fig. 4). But in this case Wiseman required three sequential Doggicam set-ups, all attached to computer winches, which is unprecedented. The computer winches gave the crew conversion points for the three lenses at the exact point every time, so it looked like a continuous shot as they went around. The cameras travelled at 15 to 20 feet per second and were all synchronized, so the action moved very quickly.
More About The Visual Effects
The film’s visual effects were overseen by Visual Effects Supervisor Peter Chiang, along with Visual Effects Supervisors Adrian de Wet and Graham Jack. Visual Effects house Double Negative (a/k/a DNeg), headquartered in London, handled the vast majority of the 1600-1700 VFX shots in the movie.
As mentioned, Wiseman’s approach was to build as many sets as was practical and shoot whatever he could in principal photography, but even with this approach, this futuristic thriller required heavy visual effects work – from set extensions that built the Total Recall world into many tiered layers to the extensive hover car chase at the center of the film to the “synths” that make up Chancellor Cohaagen’s security team.
De Wet said that he was not at all surprised that Wiseman shot most of the film practically, and was, in fact, encouraged by the decision. “It’s great to have something physical to start with,” he explained. “No matter how good you are as a CG artist, actually having a basis in reality is important. The film has to be convincing.”
Wiseman wanted the actors to interact with the world as much as possible and he wanted to shoot as much as possible, so that he could get a feeling of what the end shot would be. “It was a great benefit to us, too,” said Chiang. “We nerdily analyze all of the fine detail from the principal photography and base all of our decisions on that – decisions on how we’re going to light, how we’re going to set extend, all of the objects we’re going to put in. It really gave us a quiet, subconscious understanding of what Len liked, so we could use that to our benefit to make that blend more seamless.”
When shooting practically, the result often winds up with “happy accidents.” The VFX team designs visual effects to give them an organic feel. One example the team noted was during the car chase: there’s a shot of a car being crushed. This was shot originally as a practical effect, but the VFX team had to replace it almost completely digitally because they had to make the car look more futuristic. They were able to base the VFX on the practical effect that was shot, and got things like a parcel shelf being flung across the back of the car. “That’s something we wouldn’t necessarily have thought of if it had all been done in post,” said Jack.
As with the other departments, the VFX supervisors’ primary goal was to create a sense of two different worlds. To give the story coherence, viewers have to believe that the characters are in the UFB when they’re in the UFB and in The Colony when they’re in The Colony. This certainly worked in the movie, but not at first for me. Since it was always raining in The Colony, I just assumed it was Britain. Eventually, I realized that this was not the case.
“We actually assigned separate teams to UFB and The Colony,” said Jack. “They brought their own methodologies to the process, which also helped give the environments a unique feel.”
The VFX teams began with Patrick Tatopoulos’s concept artwork for UFB and The Colony. When the first team started on UFB, they had very illustrative designs and certain selections on the structures of things, but they went through a whole design process into order to turn those into a three-dimensional world. They started looking at the buildings that Wiseman and Tatopoulos liked, and they selected through photographs of London certain neoclassical architecture and design. But there was a twist to that neoclassical design in that it needed to reflect the future, so Wiseman added a lot of holograms and glass. Thus the UFB became a very grand world, with very big concrete plazas, a lot of glass, a lot of fountains and open walkways that then had freeways threaded in-between that contained the magnetic cars.
Once the architecture had been designed, the artists used a propriety computer model to help them build an entire city. They could create any layout of buildings and draw from their fundamental building blocks – called assets – and mix them up to design UFB. Instead of having to map out every single building in a view, they would get the gross structure by pulling various 3D points around, and then assign a randomizer to it that would take the assets from the buildings that Wiseman liked and populate the buildings, in effect almost wallpapering the layout to create the numerous buildings.
It would have been too labor-intensive to go in and sculpt each individual building separately, so the team drew upon 20 different close-up assets, 40 mid-distance, and then matte paintings for far-off into infinity. They could then put in all the fine details, like stanchions, elevators, streetlamps, road signs, little barriers that would appear on the side of the road, the detail on the road, the types of tarmac, and so forth. “We were really building a city that Len and Patrick had laid out, from the ground up,” Chiang said.
On the other side of the world is The Colony. It’s very polluted, constantly overcast with noxious gases, and as mentioned always raining with a slightly acidic rain. It has a very underground, funky vibe, with a lot of neon lights. “Generally, the set would account for one level of The Colony,” said Graham, “and we would extend up or down to see other levels.”
The bottom level of The Colony is generally water, so a large body of water was created with other waterfront environments around it. The amount of set extension varied considerably – some shots were contained within the set, while others were shot on green screen and completed by set extension. Most fell somewhere in-between.
To complete the set extensions for The Colony, the VFX team drew upon the sets that Tatopoulos had made. From that, they had to imagine what four layers of this would be or a whole landscape. They took the boats and assets that were built on set, extrapolated all of the details from that, and then started to create another whole world. They created 20 more boats, multiple buildings based on the same design idea, and again, created the whole world.
The scene that most challenged the VFX team was the hover car chase sequence mentioned earlier. When DeWet saw the pre-viz footage, he was blown away, because it was so ambitious. The scene is done in the daytime, so nothing is hidden in the dark, which he likes. “I want to see everything,” said DeWet, “the gritty, grainy realism of an industrialized city.”
“All of the environments were laid out; flying through the layout of the city you could see beautiful aerial shots. It was both amazing to look at and terrifying for me, because that’s what we would have to create,” said De Wet.
According to De Wet, Wiseman provided him with a great starting point by designing and building so many practical sets and props – including the hover cars. “We needed physical reality, particularly for things like people in cars, reacting to G-forces as they turn corners,” he said. “It’s actually a hard thing to fake, so it’s important to get the right reactions.”
Chiang concurred that Wiseman’s practical approach benefited the film. “When many directors create an all-CG shot, they tend to hang on the shot – the VFX is put in and it looks great. But when you’re shooting an action scene, like a car chase, a director usually tries to keep the flow of action going. Len made the whole sequence look real. He’d ask for a blur of background and blend in the action – you’d only see the whole world when the cars were coming toward the camera, and then he’d quickly pan off of it. The backgrounds became secondary to the action – we pulled back so the real-life cars could pop out.”
The VFX team was also responsible for The Fall – the giant elevator. At the climax of the film, The Fall lives up to its name and is destroyed. Chiang said that knowing The Fall’s demise was coming was part of the key in putting it together. If it was going to break apart in the way that Wiseman hoped to see, with shafts and clamps breaking apart in a certain way, it would have to be constructed in a methodical and sophisticated manner in order to allow that to happen. “Breaking things apart and generally destroying them is something that we’ve done a fair bit of at DNeg,” said Jack. “We used some in-house tools that were written to procedurally break up the component pieces.”
The synths – the security force – was all shot live-action using suits created by Legacy Effects. But Chiang said that Wiseman always envisioned a VFX component for them. He wanted to make negative space within the body to create pistons and views of internal structures of the synths. In the end, pulling it off often required creating all-digital synths. “A lot of them were digital, where it was too difficult to adjust the live-action that had been shot,” explained Chiang. “In other cases, we could keep the live-action and replace an elbow joint, or a knee joint, or a waist joint.”
The total effect of the VFX work in Total Recall is nothing less than spectacular. The movie moves at a very fast pace with lots of hand-to-hand combat as well as shoot ‘em up scenes. Looking at the detail of the finished cities, the creativity of The Fall and the heart-pounding action of the hover car chase makes this a film well worth seeing.
Neat New Gadgets
I brought my wife along with me to see the movie. She was not that fond of all the shoot ‘em up scenes but did like a futuristic cell phone that turns into a decent sized video phone when you place it up against glass. I liked the cell phone, too, but my other favorite gadget was a refrigerator with a door that looked like it came right out of an Apple store. I also liked the steering wheel in the hover car. The drivers do something with it that I’ve never seen done before, especially at high speeds.
One Final Note
I can’t say for certain, but one particular scene in the movie made me think that a VFX artist working on this film might be a fan of the late great Bob Pease. I won’t divulge the scene, but if you read Bob’s final column in the December 2011 issue of Electronic Design “What’s All This Last Column Stuff, Anyhow,” the connection between that scene and Bob’s column is hard to miss.