©2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC., WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. IMAGE COURTESY OF FRAMESTORE

My journey to "Blade Runner 2049"

POV: Richard Hoover, VFX Supervisor, Framestore Montreal

Richard Hoover, Visual Effects Supervisor at Framestore's  Montreal office, has been close to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, in varying degrees, since accidentally finding himself behind the scenes of the 1982 original. So it seems somehow natural that he would come to oversee some of the most demanding sequences for the 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Here, Richard shares details of his background, his history with the franchise, and how Framestore pulled off some of the most visually compelling VFX shots filmgoers have yet to see.


 



Still from Blade Runner 2049, courtesy of VFX animation studio Framestore
©2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC., WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. IMAGE COURTESY OF FRAMESTORE



AN UNUSUAL PATH TO VFX

I had an unusual path into the industry. Growing up, I enjoyed movies like anyone else but wasn’t fixated on the visual elements, per se. I entered the University of Oregon, majoring in Fine Arts and Architecture, and then one day a graduate student delivered a guest lecture in one of my visual design classes on what was then called backlit animation, something that was in heavy use in commercials at the time. I thought it was really cool.

For the next year and a half, I worked on animation and backlit techniques, and that was a fairly easy transition because architecture provides you with a strong background in planning and executing a design. With that apprenticeship completed, I contacted that same graduate student, who had entered the film industry, and he found me my first job – making commercials.


“I was directing a commercial for Levi’s Cords [and] Mark Stetson was my model maker for the shoot.”

 



Still from Blade Runner 2049, courtesy of VFX studio Framestore©2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC., WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. IMAGE COURTESY OF FRAMESTORE


Still from Blade Runner 2049, courtesy of visual effects studio Framestore©2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC., WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. IMAGE COURTESY OF FRAMESTORE



MY (ACCIDENTAL) INTRO TO “BLADE RUNNER”

In another twist of fate, I actually got behind the scenes of the first Blade Runner movie. I was directing a commercial for Levi’s Cords, an offshoot of their denim company, and we needed miniatures. Mark Stetson was my model maker for the shoot. When I went to speak with him in his workshop, it just so happened that he was shooting the opening scene to Blade Runner with the camera operator, Don Baker – the shot of the Tyrell Corporation building smothered in smoke. All of that was done in miniature, and I got to watch them shoot it.


FATE STRIKE AGAIN: THE FINAL CUT

When Warner Bros. started looking to revamp the original Blade Runner for The Final Cut (2007), I was working for Sony Pictures Imageworks. Apparently, Ridley Scott had a list of things he thought could be better, or that he hadn’t had creative control of during the original Blade Runner shoot, so Warner Bros came to us, and we agreed to help update those specific scenes.


Still from Blade Runner 2049, courtesy of VFX animation studio Framestore©2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC., WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. IMAGE COURTESY OF FRAMESTORE



Still from Blade Runner 2049, courtesy of VFX studio Framestore©2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC., WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. IMAGE COURTESY OF FRAMESTORE 



Warner Bros. began by going through their archives, which were housed in boxes in some massive warehouse in Burbank, digging up the original film reels, as well as the miniature models that were used. Our job was to rebuild the sets and then scan them in digital and high-definition to bring them up to date. That was the most straightforward thing we did.


“Harrison wasn’t available for the reshoot, but his son owned a restaurant just down the street [so] we approached him to see if he could do a credible impression of his father.”



For the scene in which Deckard is talking to an Indian snake maker in Chinatown someone had changed the dialogue in post-script, so in the original version, there is no relationship to Harrison Ford’s mouth and the words that are coming out of it. Everything was terribly out of sync. Harrison wasn’t available for the reshoot, but his son owned a restaurant just down the street from the Imageworks studios in Culver City, so we approached him to see if he could do a credible impression of his father. I ended up superimposing his son’s lips and part of his face over Harrison Ford’s mouth in that scene and using the original dialogue.


Flying cars in a still from Blade Runner 2049, courtesy of VFX studio Framestore©2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC., WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. IMAGE COURTESY OF FRAMESTORE



And probably the craziest thing we did involved the scene where Deckard is chasing the snake woman through a clothing store, jumping through windows and all of that. We initially put a wig on a stuntman and tried to pass him off but the wig didn’t match well, and you could just tell it wasn’t the same person. It looked bad. So, we ended up finding the original actress and either she still had the original costume, or Warner Bros. did. Either way, she agreed to come down to the set, and I shot her on a green screen, performing the same actions the stunt guy did. We tracked her head and hair and even part of her costume back onto the stunt guy and then rebuilt all the shots.


“All of our work on The Final Cut was accomplished using Maya, which I’ve been working with since its inception, Arnold, and Flame.”



The Final Cut
, released in 2007, was a challenging project technically. We felt pressure knowing we were working on a beloved movie with a cult fan base, but from an image and design standpoint, it was just so much fun as well.

All of our work was accomplished using Maya, which I’ve been working with since its inception, Arnold, and Flame. This was my first introduction to Arnold. I had been doing some form of ray tracing for my entire career, but to finally have a piece of software that worked quickly and was able to do a high level of two ray tracing was phenomenal. And having the image-based rendering ability was a significant step forward.


Officer K (Ryan Gosling) in the ruins of Las Vegas in a still from Blade Runner 2049, courtesy of VFX studio Framestore©2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC., WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. IMAGE COURTESY OF FRAMESTORE



Officer K (Ryan Gosling) in the ruins of Las Vegas in a still from Blade Runner 2049, courtesy of VFX studio Framestore
©2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC., WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. IMAGE COURTESY OF FRAMESTORE



BLADE RUNNER 2049

Blade Runner 2049 arrived at Framestore before I did. Bill Carraro, the executive producer on the film, was making a tour of our facilities after I’d joined, so I met with him and made my pitch. I told him what kind of work we could do, how we might help them make the movie they wanted to make. On a second tour, John Nelson, the Production VFX Supervisor for Blade Runner 2049, came as well -  I’ve known him for 30 years. John knew my background, knew what I had done and how I work, so there was a level of trust there that I think made it easier for them to give us so much of the workload.


“The goal there was to really “wow” people, to cause their jaws to drop.”



AND WHAT A WORKLOAD

We were tasked with creating two of the main environments in the movie: Trash Mesa, a wasteland of garbage south of Los Angeles, and a futuristic Las Vegas. The goal there was to really wow people, to cause their jaws to drop. We also worked on character models, such as Joi, a hologram played by Ana de Armas, and a scene involving a swarm of bees, which were deliberately subtle. The Spinner Car – K’s police car, with a drone attached to the roof – was our design, too. We delivered about 300 shots.


Still from Blade Runner 2049, courtesy of visual effects studio Framestore©2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC., WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. IMAGE COURTESY OF FRAMESTORE



Those who have seen the film will know that the environment plays a very big role. We were trying to communicate an oppressive atmosphere, to convey this sense that the world has grown too vast and inhospitable for human beings, who just pale in comparison to the size and scope of everything around them. It is industrialization gone mad.

To begin, we looked at landscapes and architecture that fit with this theme. We found an array of solar farms in Spain, some barren landscape shots from Iceland, a shipyard from Bangladesh used to harvest metal from retired anchors; we did a lot of shooting in Budapest, because they were occupied by the Soviet Union for so long and the architecture they left behind – these concrete, block-like structures that just seem to convey austerity so perfectly – fit nicely with our aesthetic. 


“We [placed the assets] on top of the USGO point card data for the Vegas valley, and started building from scratch: every road, every building, every tourist attraction.”



As for Trash Mesa and Las Vegas, those presented serious challenges to us. We had the basic theme, and a lot of reference shots, and an enormous number of models, but we only had a few key shots from direction editorial. We took the visual assets we had and placed them on top of the USGO point card data for the Vegas valley, and started building from scratch: every road, every building, every tourist attraction. And then we added the atmospheric details.


City ruins in a still from Blade Runner 2049, courtesy of VFX studio Framestore©2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC., WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. IMAGE COURTESY OF FRAMESTORE


City ruins in a still from Blade Runner 2049, courtesy of visual effects studio Framestore©2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC., WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. IMAGE COURTESY OF FRAMESTORE



In the end, it wasn’t easy to integrate the model buildings with the digital ones, and with every iteration we delivered, we kept receiving one common message: make it bigger. So eventually we reached a limitation, which was that the miniature stuff could not deliver the kind of scale they were after in the movie. At this point, we had exhausted our photo scanning material. Our original expectation was that no more than 25-35 percent of the sequences would be digital, but it became apparent that we were going to have two enormous sequences done entirely in CG, and by the time we realized this, we only had about five months of work left. We had to mobilize pretty much all our personnel – everyone we possibly could – on this project, about 175 people in total, to pick up the slack and build everything out.


"We used Maya and Arnold together on Blade Runner 2049. The pipeline between them is extremely robust.

 

Officer K (Ryan Gosling) hero shot from Blade Runner 2049City ruins in a still from Blade Runner 2049, courtesy of VFX studio Framestore©2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC., WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. IMAGE COURTESY OF FRAMESTORE



THE TOOLS FOR 2049

We used Maya and Arnold together on Blade Runner 2049. The pipeline between them is extremely robust. Not only do I appreciate the fantastic images and animation they produce together, but I also appreciate the flexibility they offer. There isn’t just one way of doing things; you can develop your own method or approach to the work. That freedom is empowering; it gives greater license to the artists to achieve their unique creative vision.


"I think [Shotgun] works great...Shows now are too complicated to just wing it."



I should also add that, even though I hadn’t used Shotgun before coming to Framestore a couple of years ago, I think it works great. When you’re dealing with this level of scale and detail, you have to have some way to track everything. Shows now are too complicated, there are too many layers, too many versions, and too much content to just wing it. I’ve come to appreciate the management-viewing experience Shotgun offers.





HOW FAR WE’VE COME

It’s amazing to look back on how far we’ve come. Having worked on the Blade Runner: Final Cut production to this latest sequel, it’s incredible how much has changed, and in a way, I guess there’s still a lot that’s familiar. We’re still pushing our processors to their limit, still maxing out disc space – we’re always operating at the limits of the possible. But nowadays it really does seem like you can do anything you can imagine. Whatever you need, there’s a tool for achieving it. And you can see that transition in just how much we relied on models back then: so much of the original Blade Runner was accomplished using miniatures, and very little actual CG was used, even in the Final Cut, and now it’s exactly the opposite.


"In the early 2000s, a lot of our job involved...finding some clever workaround...Now...you have all the tools you need, and the limit is your imagination."



Today, miniatures don’t hold up as well. You can reliably use a computer to design a building that looks full-scale, whereas even quarter-scale miniatures don’t offer the same level of realism. In the early 2000s, a lot of our job involved tweaking the software, writing new code, or finding some clever workaround to exceed the limitations the technology imposed on us. Now, it’s more about pure design work: you have all the tools you need, and the limit is your imagination.



Framestore Montreal delivered 300 incredible visual effects shots seen in Blade Runner 2049 using Autodesk Maya and Arnold, both available in the Media and Entertainment Collection. Shotgun tracked it all.

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| 1 year ago
Love thus movie. Am very familiar with Alang in Bangladesh, in a former life I worked in the shipbuilding industry and at least one ship I worked on , The Arahanga which sailed between the north and South islands of New Zealand died there. For Inktober2017 I did a sketch portraying that scene, you can find it under charliemcgowan1104
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