Building a Thriller with Invisible VFX
Montreal, Que: April 1, 2011… Visual effects supervisor Louis Morinâ€™s latest project, Source Code, comes to the big screen across North America today. Modus FX, who collaborated recently with Morin on Barneyâ€™s Version, was one of six facilities that contributed stunning, seamless CG for the new thriller by emerging British director Duncan Jones. The film is just the latest in the new generation of films blending brilliant, yet imperceptible, visual effects with live action.
â€œSome people still think of visual effects as something artificial,â€? said Louis Morin, â€œbut digital tools are no different from any of the other illusions that we use to tell great stories. I think it is because some of the early CG work was not as sophisticated, that visual effects got a bad reputation, but that time has passed. Visual effects have become a powerful tool for the filmmaker at the same time as they have become mostly invisible for the audience.â€?
VFX supervision is actually Morinâ€™s second turn in the international limelight. In his teens he was a competitive freestyle skier. â€œWhen I was 14, I saw the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey,â€? he recalled. â€œI decided then that my first goal was to become a world champion skier, and after that I wanted to become a filmmaker.â€?
He came very close to realizing his skiing dream, reaching the World Cup, but ultimately knee surgery forced him to retire from competition. Meanwhile, in 1981, the young Morin had started film school, and soon after that moved to Europe where he spent several years making ski films.
â€œI learned as a director and camera man about shooting, lighting, lenses and so much more,â€? said Morin. â€œThat experience was so important for the work I do now. Filming forces you to think constantly about how to grab reality with a camera, how reality is perceived by the audience, and how to capture it and make it look great on the screen.â€?
Back in Montreal, Morin moved on to producing commercials and became involved in visual effects. â€œCommercials are a great place to learn the craft,â€? he related. â€œYou have good budgets and the best tools.â€? His breakthrough came in 2004, as VFX supervisor on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which was nominated for a VES award. Since then, Morin has worked on a range of high-profile projects, including Brokeback Mountain, The Aviator, Mr. Nobody, The American, Barneyâ€™s Version and Source Code.
Bringing Source Code to Life
The new film, Source Code, is a sci-fi thriller. While the storyline involves obvious fantasy, the visuals for the film are almost entirely based on live-action reality. Visual effects shots for the film involved CG trains, snarled traffic, complex set extensions and incredible explosion scenes.
â€œTo create photo-real effects, I try to make as many live elements as possible available to the artists,â€? explained Morin. â€œFor example, on Source Code we went to a quarry and set off all kinds of explosions, shot at different speeds and angles, to use as plate elements. Later, we bring the live elements into compositing, and only then do we go to CG for enhancements, or to fill in any gaps.â€?
In total, Source Code has over 850 visual effects shots, the majority of which are set inside a commuter train. These included hundreds of greenscreen windows showing passing landscapes or train station backdrops. Here the use of CG in post allowed the director and the actors to work without outside distractions during production. â€œI wanted to give the director total freedom inside the train, so that he could focus on storytelling,â€? said Morin.
Set extensions on the train station in Source Code provide another example of the critical link between digital and traditional filmmaking tools. Production designer Barry Chusid based the set design on an actual train station in Chicago. The postproduction component called for extending the train station building and the surrounding parking lot. â€œAt some point in post we decided to change the parking lot,â€? recalled Morin. â€œAs a result, in the final sequences the whole side of the train station is digital. That meant more than 65 new shots, but it was a small price to pay. This is how CG gives the director more room to maneuver, not only in planning the shots, but also in the final stages of fine-tuning the story.â€?
Director Duncan Jones, whose first feature, Moon, won him kudos from audiences and critics alike, worked closely with the team, designing transition shots and carefully storyboarding the filmâ€™s climactic scene. â€œDuncanâ€™s background is also in commercials, so he has an excellent understanding of the tools,â€? explained Morin. â€œHe has a very respectful and collaborative way of leading that was critical on a complex project like this.â€?
Editorial was done in tandem with the visual effects. â€œAs they were cutting the film in L.A., I had a VFX editor with me with a mirror image of the cut,â€? explained Morin. â€œAs the editors worked, we got the new EDLs, so if they changed the cut, we knew right away where weâ€™d have to change the effects. This way we were always ahead of the curve.â€?
Six facilities, including Modus FX, participated in the project. Rodeo FX crafted most of the greenscreen windows for the train interiors. MPC Vancouver handled the big explosions and crash sequences. Fly Studio provided key transitions, Mr. X did additional window backgrounds, and Oblique FX created bomb interiors, a virtual stuntman, and slow-motion explosion sequence.
Modus FX on Source Code
Modus started early on in the project doing pre-visualization, including the filmâ€™s climactic explosion scene. Once those sequences were roughed out, the shots were handed over to MPC Vancouver for completion. Modus also created the CG commuter and cargo train models for the team at MPC, as well as producing shots depicting enormous traffic jams.
â€œThere is widespread panic at one point in the story and everybody is trying to escape the city,â€? related Morin. â€œModus created virtual crowds and cars for plates of the superhighway in Chicago, which we had shot from a helicopter.â€?
The focus of Modusâ€™ work on Source Code, however, were the exteriors of the train and the station, including reflective windows and the metallic surfaces of the train.
â€œEven though itâ€™s a science-fiction story, visually the film is set in our everyday world,â€? explained Morin. â€œThe story takes place in modern Chicago, so the audience should never imagine that they are looking at anything but a real train.â€?
Modus has shown considerable skill at creating hard surface vehicles on projects like this, having recently completed a full-CG water plane in Barneyâ€™s Version.
â€œIn terms of the final product on the screen, the distinction between visual effects and physical elements is becoming almost irrelevant,â€? reflected Morin. â€œIt is now sometimes cheaper to create a shot in CG than to build a set or use an expensive prop. We had this on Barneyâ€™s Version where we decided to create a large water plane digitally for the filmâ€™s central scene. Financially, it made sense to do this, but of course we had to achieve it visually and artistically.â€?
â€œThis kind of CG work is not easy,â€? he continued, â€œbut Modus has built digital trains and planes which are completely believable when we see them on the big screen.â€?
â€œWe are big fans of Louis Morin,â€? said Marc Bourbonnais, president of Modus FX. â€œIt was a pleasure to work with him and so many great facilities on this challenging and exciting film.â€?
Source Code was produced by the Mark Gordon Company and Vendome Pictures, and is a Summit Entertainment release. The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga, and was directed by Duncan Jones. Source Code premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in March and sees theatrical release on April 1, 2011.
About Modus FX
Since launching in 2007, Modus FX has become an industry leader in high-end feature film visual effects, boasting an international clientele and a talented team of hand-picked artists from around the globe. Led by co-founders Marc Bourbonnais and Yanick Wilisky, Modus has developed a unique approach to creating digital effects, combining a cutting-edge production pipeline with personalized ongoing project coordination. The studio collaborates with each director through the artistic process, from editorial script and on-set supervision to final delivery. Based just outside Montreal, Modus offers a full scope of services in its modern 12,000-square-foot studio. For more information, visit