Ron's Empire

Ron Howard on Angels & Demons

“There was a really great moment where we all looked at each other and realized how cinematically complicated, and more ambitious, this movie would be on a visual level.”—Ron Howard

Photo: Zade Rosenthal. © 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The schedule and the technical complexity of Angels & Demons were among the most challenging of Ron Howard's directorial career. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, Howard calls the time he spent making the movie "a particularly fascinating creative period in my life."

Howard is referring to transitioning out of the acclaimed Frost/Nixon and into Angels & Demons—a big-budget thriller taking place in revered, exotic locations throughout the Vatican and based on the hit novel from Dan Brown. The Angels & Demons production schedule was originally changed as a result of the Hollywood writers' strike, and that change gave Howard and his team a better chance to strategically plan visuals for the film while Frost/Nixon was still in production. That planning time was necessary since this was a film on a much grander scale than Frost/Nixon or The Da Vinci Code.

"[Frost/Nixon and Angels & Demons] are movies with totally different tones and scales that are largely diametrically opposed," Howard says. "And yet, in an odd way, they ended up influencing each other in positive ways. I was intrigued to see how the aesthetic of one was influencing the other during the process. It was stimulating for me. The link is that both stories are essentially un¬orthodox suspense stories, and I'm trying to extract as much attention out of them as possible, to draw the audience into the event. I developed Frost/Nixon to work visually in opposition to its origin as a stage play, and that idea applied to what I wanted to do with Angels & Demons, because it is a contemporary story that unfolds with urgency and immediacy in an ancient place. The camera work feels urgent and real and becomes sort of a character, which is something we did in both films."

If Frost/Nixon was this project's fraternal twin, then The Da Vinci Code was its biological parent—not only because of the similarity of themes and because both stories were authored by Dan Brown, but also because The Da Vinci Code informed the filmmakers' mindset regarding the central technical challenge of the project. That challenge: how to realistically visualize locations they had no hope of ever filming in, such as the Sistine Chapel. On a smaller scale, The Da Vinci Code posed some of those similar challenges, and Howard's team ported over and expanded solutions from that film and applied them to Angels & Demons.

"The Da Vinci Code approach emboldened us," Howard says. "We knew early on that there would be a degree of creating locations and that if we couldn't get into a church, we could build sets and digitally create pieces of it. We did that a couple of times in The Da Vinci Code, and it worked really well. We had here the same visual-effects supervisor, Angus Bickerton, and the same visual-effects producer [Barry Mendel], and they had a very good idea, going back to before the script was finished, about how we could do this. There was a really great moment where we all looked at each other and realized how cinematically complicated, and more ambitious, this movie would be on a visual level."

Artists from CIS Vancouver had to create the famous Santa Maria della Vittoria church digitally, since filmmakers weren''t allowed to shoot there, and then set it aflame for a ritualistic murder.

Artists from CIS Vancouver had to create the famous Santa Maria della Vittoria church digitally, since filmmakers weren''t allowed to shoot there, and then set it aflame for a ritualistic murder.
Photo: Zade Rosenthal. © 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Reconnais-sance missions

Howard's ambition for Angels & Demons was so great that long before it was officially greenlit, certain members of his team were making plans for creating Rome locations in the event the film got made. Eventually, a rapid-fire shoot in and around Rome would occur to capture many of the film's exteriors and some interiors. But the need to collect reference material for Saint Peter's Square, the Sistine Chapel, and two other famous churches—Santa Maria del Popolo and Santa Maria della Vittoria—required filmmakers to begin an ongoing "speculative photo reconnaissance of locations in Rome," in the words of Bickerton, as far back as 2006, when Howard was still polishing The Da Vinci Code.

"[Executive Producer/Second Unit Director] Todd Hallowell was very prescient when we wound up The Da Vinci Code," Bickerton says. "He and a photographer went to Rome and photographed a lot of key locations back then, since he knew there might be a sequel. We knew shooting in Rome would be even more problematic than shooting in Paris for [The Da Vinci Code]. The speculative photo reconnaissance of Rome allowed us to use some of those images and textures, but it also helped in script writing—it gave [the writers] a photo library to refer to, and let us know which key environments we would have to extend."

Angels & Demons fire

Photo: CIS Vancouver © 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Those photo missions to Rome continued over the next couple of years—with various artists from CIS Vancouver, in particular, making several trips, since their team would be responsible for digitally building the three key churches where much of the action takes place. These were "almost spy missions," as CIS Visual Effects Supervisor Mark Breakspear puts it, in the sense that film¬makers were free to take photos only as tourists.

Howard admits that he empowered such teams to collect reference in Rome, although he coyly declines to get too specific about what some of the reconnaissance techniques were.

"We knew the Vatican wouldn't be cooperative, but my job was to take people in as authentic a way as possible into [these locations]," he says. "So, we used techniques old and new. I don't want to get into details about [the research trips], but we had a lot of different units going at various times, and we were trying, by hook or by crook, to gather all the visual material we needed to make it exciting and realistic. But as to how the research was gathered—did we steal shots, get permits, sneak in through back doors? I'm not going to say, but I will say it was a very long process."

Howard also greenlit an extensive digital previsualization effort, spearheaded by animatic artist Christopher Glass, while still in production on Frost/Nixon. This process helped the visual-effects team and editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill launch their efforts before principal photography began.

"When we were still on the mixing stage for Frost/Nixon, Ron had the visual-effects guys send over early previz of the first couple of sequences, including the [film's climactic antimatter] explosion sequence," Hanley says. "Ron wanted me to start getting the feel of those scenes right away. He wanted me to start visualizing how those final sequences might look, and to start tightening some of those initial previz sequences, and so, I went in and made some trims here and there. The explosion sequence was the most concept-oriented sequence in the film, since many of those shots couldn't be filmed practically, so it made sense to get started on the early construction of that sequence."

Greenscreen shots of the College of Cardinals were later combined with real pieces of a detailed set of the Sistine Chapel and digital extensions of that set.

Greenscreen shots of the College of Cardinals were later combined with real pieces of a detailed set of the Sistine Chapel and digital extensions of that set.
Photo: Zade Rosenthal. © 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Digital extensions

These processes were invaluable, but largely as a tool to supplement the design work of Production Designer Allan Cameron and his set-design unit. The plan was to build pieces of the historic church locations on extensive sets at the Sony lot and then digitally extend and manipulate them as necessary.

"We all visited our key locations to get the essence and flavor and took a lot of stills," Bickerton says. "But we used a lot of other texture reference as well. Actually, there is a surprisingly large amount of reference available on the [architecture] of these famous churches online and other places. But, you can't just sit a tripod down and do hours of exposures in those places. And, besides, in places like the [Sistine Chapel], there are light levels where you couldn't get a lot of depth of field anyway, so you get guide reference and you build from there. But we eventually realized a lot of our work would involve scale and perspective cheats anyway. To extend an actual set to the actual size or dimensions of the real place was not imperative for the exact shots we needed. What was more important was to get the essence of the place and enough reference to make our specific shots work. So in truth, we were making heightened representations of these places. Allan Cameron built a fabulous replica of the Sistine Chapel with 40ft. walls, and it was an amazing facsimile. It was a faithful replica in the spirit of the place, but not absolutely true in all aspects."

CIS Vancouver played a key role in digitally stitching together the three primary churches. CIS had largely earned the work because the company it evolved from—the former Rainmaker Visual Effects facility of Vancouver—had pioneered some of the techniques on The Da Vinci Code. The basic approach, Breakspear says, was for the art department to build particular set pieces, shoot 360 degrees of greenscreen, and then methodically build out the rest of the environment in the computer. The difference in Angels & Demons was the scale of such work compared to that of The Da Vinci Code.

"In The Da Vinci Code, we had about 40 shots involving a CG church," Breakspear says. "Here, we have three different churches, each very different in appearance, including St. Peter's Basilica. We were responsible for all the CG environmental work in those buildings. Each location has specific events going on—we had to augment a practical burn in the Santa Maria della Vittoria church, adding bigger flames, smoke, heat, haze, and embers. The set department cleverly doubled up two churches into one [Santa Maria della Vittoria and Santa Maria del Popolo], and then we had to make each one match the real locations in Rome. It was very complicated because you have to match everything. The architecture, all the statues, and every surface needs to reflect, bounce, and light accurately, or you won't believe it.

"Our set church had seven chapels on either side, and in reality, the real locations needed only five chapels. That's a big deal, because when you build a CG church, your set should be accurate to the church that exists. When you don't follow that rule, suddenly you have columns connecting to nothing, and places for actors to wander into that don't actually exist. So it was a real challenge to take a real church and do some pretty involved rebuilding of the model to make it fit the church we shot in Los Angeles. Our job was to meld the two environments together and make it all look invisibly realistic."

St. Peter's Basilica posed a different problem for CIS artists: It features 300 years of detailed, intimate, mosaic-based textures that are extremely complicated to replicate.

"Our first trip to Rome was just to get a general sense of the space—how does it feel at different times of the day, what does it sound like in there, and so on," Breakspear says. "Then we went back on another trip to take more extensive photos of the space, and that helped us create basic projection modeling. We then took pictures from different angles, and when you put them together, you can build a model of the image you are photographing. That gave us a good, basic model of the environment, but without the tops of the columns or statues and other little bits, which our modeler added.

"Meanwhile, on set in L.A., we had a full 360-degree greenscreen with a little bit of floor made to match the real location. We previsualized how we would need to move the camera and actors through the set to simulate the basic areas of the church for the particular shots we needed. Then we went back to Rome and shot more stills from the specific camera angles we developed on set. There was no way to shoot every nook and cranny—that would take forever. But we did get the angles we needed, taking close to 10,000 images using both digital and 35mm still cameras. This gave us great flexibility for everything we shot in L.A. We ended up with a model that is perfect from any angle that we needed to shoot for the movie. For our textures, we spent months painting out people who were there when we took photos, touching up floor patterns, and removing any real strong light, since we needed to relight it in CG to specifically match [DP Salvatore Totino's] lighting on set. Just about every frame had 25 to 30 different elements per frame to create the look and lighting that we wanted."

Characters were filmed greenscreen and inserted into digitally woven pieces of St. Peter''s Basilica.

Characters were filmed greenscreen and inserted into digitally woven pieces of St. Peter''s Basilica.
Photo: CIS Vancouver © 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


While CIS handled much of the environmental work among the close to 1,000 digital-effects shots in the movie, Bickerton involved three other facilities in the project, with several crucial sequences going to Double Negative in London. London's Moving Picture Company and The Senate were the other two facilities involved.

All the wide shots of Saint Peter's Square in the movie, plus the crucial antimatter explosion that takes place in the skies over the square, were handled by Double Negative, and Bickerton says they were some of the movie's most complex shots. The shots required extending a 400'x400' set of the square—which was built at Hollywood Park in Los Angeles—filling it with digital crowds, and then having the crowds and architecture react to a massive explosion that takes place in a helicopter over the square.

"It's an explosion in which matter and antimatter collide and create a huge event in the sky," Bickerton says. "We started with the idea that it would look nuclear, and we studied DVDs of early nuclear explosions. But Ron Howard said he wasn't sure that was the way to go. He suggested we go more in the direction of a supernova, as we've seen from images through the Hubble telescope. [Double Negative] did tests for us to simulate clouds being blasted apart and this idea of expanding matter, and as the matter expands, a shockwave parts the clouds and also hits the assembled throng on the ground [in Saint Peter's Square], throwing them around like dolls. And then you see the atmosphere charged up and the blast creating an aurora
across the skies."

Much of this effect was created in CG at Double Negative, but in addition to those elements, other lighting elements were created practically on set at Hollywood Park. For the bright light from the explosion that illuminates the square, filmmakers used old carbon lights on rods, touching the rods together to create a unique light flash.

"We wanted to do a little bit of the explosion light in camera," Totino says. "It's the way Hollywood used to create lightning effects, where you create a little electrical short and hold a huge spark in place. Modern lights create lightning that is quick and does not have a lasting effect, so we tested carbon scissor arc lights. With the right safety precautions, we achieved that Frankenstein-type lighting."

The explosion also required sophisticated crowd work as people in the packed square interact in response to the blast's energy wave. Bickerton says typical crowd movement in the square throughout the film was accomplished using a standard sprite technique (mapping images to controlled, moving particles), but when crowd members are knocked about during the explosion, Double Negative largely relied on motion capture.

"We used motion capture, along with [Side Effects Software] Houdini to manage the crowd elements," Bickerton says. "This is a combination that they developed internally at Double Negative to give them better control, and it let us more realistically throw people around."

Bickerton spent a great deal of time pondering the best way to obtain tracking information for elements going into visual-effects plates without slowing down production.

"Ron doesn't shoot lock-offs—his camera is always moving," Bickerton says. "So the key thing was to go there prepared as possible for the greenscreens, and that meant looking into a variety of methods to make sure we could track the shots. We mulled over the idea early on of some sort of mix and overlay, meaning some realtime tracking of the camera to preview the overlay of set extensions onto the actual set. The problem with that was that I knew we would be shooting with as many as five cameras at a time. Normally, you would prep the system for the main camera. But we couldn't always dictate which camera would be the 'A' camera, and anyway, Ron and Salvatore wanted to keep turning and shooting as they saw fit and leave some of that decision-making to post."

"So that meant no on-set overlay. However, there were several interesting systems around to get the data in real time for tracking purposes only. We looked into optical motion capture of the camera itself. The downside to that was you have limited volume—you usually need eight or nine cameras to cover a 60'x60' area, and we had a set that was 400'x400' at Hollywood Park. You could never mocap that entire area, and to do it in units, or volumes, would just be too cumbersome.

"We therefore went to a system created by 2d3 [creator of Boujou tracking software) for the film [Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street]. That involved mounting a little videocamera on top of the film camera—a 1K-resolution Motion Analysis-type camera. They put barcoded markers on the greenscreen, called 'fiducials.' They then took multiple digital stills of the markers and, using Boujou software, worked out where the markers were by doing a track of those stills. Knowing that information, they can take the live feed from the videocamera and get a realtime track.

"It's an interesting approach, but the downside is you have to be tethered to a desktop PC capturing data and imagery. Therefore, I thought about not doing it live on set—just putting the camera on there, recording the pictures separately, and tracking it later. We did tests that were promising, first with a mini HD handheld camera from Sanyo. We tried mounting it with a bracket on top of the film camera with a wide-angle adapter on it to see if we could possibly track off a wide-angle view on that camera and translate it to the film lens just a few inches below."

Bickerton calls those tests "extremely promising," but before implementing the system, he switched to a then-new Canon Vixia HF10 AVCHD (1920x1080) camcorder, which is capable of shooting 24p.

"That camera was small enough and discreet enough, so we bought nine of them and mounted them on every camera body that might possibly be used in the production," Bickerton says. "We put a wide-angle adapter on it and shot the equivalent of a 22mm lens in terms of field of view. It's fair to say that over 50 percent of the shots were tracked using video from that camera and then transposed to the film camera.

"Double Negative also added a nice slating technique, putting little LED markers on the slate. Whenever we shot a timecode slate, when the clapper clapped the slate, he held it in front of the film lens and then twisted it 45 degrees. From seeing the slate from those two positions—facing the camera and 45 degrees to the camera—we could work out the spatial offset of our little HD camera. That meant we could shoot handheld and our little camera nested on top of the film camera. And because it shot 24p, I didn't have to synchronize the camera up, and knew I could be a half-frame accurate in terms of the video. It's massively compressed HD, of course, but it was shooting wide enough and seeing enough of the set that you could easily get around compression artifacts."

CERN shots

Angels & Demons was designed to be a film project from the get-go, but some backgrounds and visual-effects plates featured in the film were shot with the Red Digital Cinema Red One camera because a unique opportunity presented itself. That opportunity came in the form of getting footage to supplement an important sequence in the film in which the antimatter material used in the bomb scene gets stolen from a real-world facility that actually does dabble in that sort of thing.

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The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) laboratory near Geneva is where headline-making antimatter tests have been conducted in recent months. In 2007, Howard got permission to film briefly inside the facility, so Bickerton headed up a three-man unit that took a Red camera, secured from a London-based company called Mine Films, into CERN to capture a handful of antimatter shots seen in the movie.

"We went there during our hiatus period before shooting in the U.S.," Bickerton says. "They were very welcoming, but only available before May because they were planning at be in operation May onward [that timeframe later got delayed]. So I went there and shot hours of material on the Red, and we do have some 100 percent CERN shots in the film, cutting with 35mm."

Since the facility is so huge and he was limited to bringing in a tiny crew, Bickerton also wanted to find a way to put the Red camera on a mobile crane to maximize the scope of the footage he could acquire. Bickerton tracked down British cameraman Simon Priestman, from a reality TV show that featured the kind of sweeping crane shots he was looking for, and invited him to CERN.

"[Priestman's Stanton Video Services Jimmy Jib system] is a 40ft. crane with a simple power pod head at the end of it, and the operator can control the head and crane and at the same time, meaning we could go in there with a small crew," Bickerton says. "Simon brought his whole system to go with the Red camera, operating head, and crane at the same time, and that helped us tremendously. We also shot extensive stills in that environment to incorporate backgrounds with foreground plates we would be shooting later in Los Angeles. Our data wrangler and visual-effects assistant Holly Gosnel took those photos, and The Moving Picture Company later projected our stills onto some geometry that CERN was kind enough to hand over. From this, we built an image-projected environment to go behind some of the sets in Los Angeles."

Director of Photography Salvatore Totino lines up a shot on one of the film''s elaborate sets.

Director of Photography Salvatore Totino lines up a shot on one of the film''s elaborate sets.
Photo: Zade Rosenthal. © 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Hard production

The extensive use of digital sets and digital set extensions in the film was necessary, given that Vatican locations were off-limits. Still, Howard insists these state-of-the-art techniques were conceptually similar to what he's been doing for years.

"I'm not a technological pioneer, and I don't lay awake nights trying to imagine how to use new technology," Howard says. "But the minute I bump into a blind alley on an idea we need to make a story work, I start digging around, and virtual sets helped solve problems here. We needed weightlessness for Apollo 13, decided wires were unsatisfactory, and ended up filming weightlessness on [NASA's KC-135 training plane]. As far back as Backdraft, digital fire wasn't working yet, and we had very ambitious fire sequences. So we built up a fire lab and started experimenting with fuels and materials, learning how to get cameras and actors as involved with the fire as we safely could. We're just doing the same thing here. Everything we did technologically was to address the human side of the story."

Despite all the film's digital work, Howard says the city of Rome itself is at the heart of the picture's vibe. Outside of sacred churches and other Vatican-controlled shrines, the production was able to shoot extensively in and around Rome during a brief, grueling, guerilla-style shoot prior to launching into primary production on the Sony lot.

"I'm glad we shot [in Rome] first, because of the energy of being there and getting what we absolutely needed to get done," Howard says. "But, no matter how big your production is, you need to become a guerilla operation in a city like that, especially during tourist season. It was a hard shoot, but I'm proud of what we got done, because it set the tone for the entire movie."

Totino adds that the Rome shoot was particularly grueling.

"We had some big locations, and I tend to want to light them in a more realistic way, mimicking sunlight, daylight, and evening light that would look real," Totino says. "So it was a huge location lighting job, and we took some bold steps to bring in big sources of light from the outside. I tried to make Rome feel a little modern by using a little bit of color saturation. Tones are very earthy in Rome, so by saturating colors a bit and warming the light, it is kind of a wonderful day portion, since part of the film takes place in late afternoon. That gave me the liberty to really warm up the film.

"But Rome is a very difficult place to shoot. There is a lot of bureaucracy, and a lot of logistical things that are difficult, because the bureaucracy can get in the way of coming up with alternative approaches for things that you might have to change at the last minute. To be honest, it was the toughest [production] experience I ever had."

Most challenging for Totino was lighting the film consistently, since it consists of location elements, stage elements with sets and without, and digital material.

"I had never done a film with this many visual-effects shots," he says. "It can be difficult in that greenscreen environment, trying to visualize where the light is coming from and what it will look like on the walls. When you light a green space, it's like a void, and you have to remind yourself at the moment what it looks like inside St. Peter's Basilica, rather than on a stage. I just tried to keep the light consistent from one location to another. I used the same lighting units, the same distances, and so on. I used a lot of [Mole-Richardson] 20K and 10K beam projectors to create these big shafts of light.

"For example, when we shot [on a stage representing] the Pantheon [in Rome], my fantastic key grip [Michael Popovich] and gaffer [Raphael Sanchez] helped me create those lights through the hole on top of the Pantheon. At different points in the scene, in this green void, we needed the light to move, so we hung four 10K beam projectors on a tracking-rail system that tracked the distance of the set. It would rotate 180 degrees and tilt 45 degrees in any direction and worked fantastic. I told the boys I wanted the sunlight coming from the ceiling, but asked what it would take to move the light from one part of the Pantheon to the other—to cheat it a little. It required a different kind of lighting instrument, so they thought about it, and came up with this tracking-light system. At times, these guys are like engineers. People don't give enough credit to the crew behind the scenes in situations like that, but they really solved a big problem for me."

Totino used Kodak Vision2 100T 5212 stock for all daytime exterior work on the movie, Vision3 500T 5219 for night and dark interior work, and some Vision2 200T 5217 for a handful of interior locations. He later supervised the 4K digital-intermediate process with Howard and colorist Steve Bowen at EFilm.

"We've been doing the DI process so long, that it was pretty expedited, especially because we really planned things out and had EFilm also do our dailies," Totino says. "They scanned the dailies at 2K, and the metadata information was already sorted and on hand by the time we got to the DI. Steve Bowen could apply those numbers and keep things fairly straightforward for the shots not involving visual effects. Obviously, it took some time to get all those shots, so we had to go back and finish those parts, but the fact that we did the dailies at EFilm really propelled us during post time."

Meanwhile, the editorial team was ensconced on the Sony lot, near the stages throughout the bulk of the shoot. That proximity permitted Hanley and Hill to continually run the cut footage with Howard and discuss any necessary adjustments.

"That's the way we have cut for Ron for a long time," Hanley says. "We cut on Avid [Media Composer] Adrenalines [v.2.8.3], but in standard def [with 8TB of Unity storage]. We were previewing the film straight out of the Avid in SD. Our temp mixes for the previews come from us out of the Avid. Early music and sound effects are supplied by our sound and music editors, and then Angus [Bickerton] and the visual-effects guys were supplying us with early visual-effects comps. That way, we could output to DVCAM tape for preview screenings. It's a simple process that works real well for us."