• Zack Snyder and 'D.J' Des Jardin present an escapist film with chicks and guns.

    CGSociety :: Production Focus

    22 April 2011, by Renee Dunlop

    Sometimes we all need an escape. Sucker Punch is a film that not only embraced the concept of escape but allowed its artists to escape into their own imaginations. Under time constraints, multiple studios, and a limited budget, of course.

    Wrangling these limitations is a task that falls to the main VFX Supervisor, in this case John 'D.J.' Des Jardin. It is the Supervisors job to make sure a film is properly planned and handled so as to remain within the budget, to help select and oversee the multiple studios involved, and to make sure the vision stays consistent and meets the requirements of the director, communicating his vision to the FX Supervisors at the various studios.

    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

    Sucker Punch had a very limited budget, which according to 'D.J.' Des Jardin, affected many of the decisions for what was practical, miniatures, or CG. “Normally if you have a decent budget, I’ll say in this scene, we are going to do miniature destruction to get all that in camera, and that is a digital scene.” But under the tight constraints of time and money Des Jardin realized two major obstacles. One, there were going to be some camera moves that he couldn’t anticipate and therefore he didn’t know where to put the miniatures or how the scene was going to be shot. And two, he realized he was going to have to build the [samurai scene] pagoda twice, and he needed it digital for most of the scene. A miniature set would have been ideal for certain circumstances but “I decided I was only going to built it once [digitally] and put a certain amount of money into the sims.” That worked quite well because it allowed for tight choreography of the destruction. “I’m definitely not anti-miniature; it’s just that I had to almost put all my eggs in one basket so the constraints of the project dictated that solution.”

    Born from the creative vision of filmmaker Zack Snyder who is also responsible for films Watchmen and 300, Sucker Punch has four different fantasies in different locations and styles, and therefore is akin to developing four different movies, five if you count the actual world, the asylum, where the characters live. Because of that variety it made work fairly challenging. Because Sucker Punch didn’t enjoy the hundreds of millions of dollars often spent on an FX film, “you want to be very smart about how you work, and make sure what R&D we’re doing, is very targeted. That will let you maximize what you are putting up on the screen.”

    To handle the shots in the most efficient and therefore inexpensive manner, Des Jardin broke them down in terms of environments: the asylum and the four fantasies. “In most movies you’ve got a certain number of gags you are trying to do. Sometimes they are related and can be amortized over the entire duration of the film,” a process that streamlines the assets that need to be developed and helps decide what can be recycled, and what is required to be built from scratch. “But we didn’t have that luxury here because the fantasies are all very unique, they have different looks an all different assets in terms of vehicles or environments. You have to be very targeted in terms of how you develop things, and how you put things together so you can make a film with a really epic scope and a lot of different looks and not have it be crazy in terms of budget. We were able to do that, and put pretty much everything up on the screen, which is pretty satisfying.”

    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
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    Des Jardin’s team generated a great deal of artwork to use as reference, but from a point of realism and detail, allowing director Zack Snyder to go into the DI and put his stylistic stamp on to the film. “That is a normal way we had of working, just to make things very neutral so you can play around with it in the DI. Zack does a lot of DI on his films and we wanted to give him the maximum capability to do that.”

    Des Jardin did have references for how certain characters would animate, how the camera would behave, and certain palettes. They decided ahead of time the dragon scene would be reminiscent of Lord of the Rings. The dragon scene was done by Animal Logic under VFX Supervisor Andy Brown and CG Supervisor Andrew Chapman whose animation department was already working with Snyder on his CG movie, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole. That scene required a lot of post development that couldn’t be done into the initial photography or even the previs.

    The alien planet with the train was partially inspired by Blade Runner. The environment surrounding the asylum, and the fantasy of the bullet train on the alien planet was handled by Brian Hirota of Prime Focus. “They did one of the hardest shots in the movie, a two and a half minute, three girls take out a hundred robots out in two and a half minutes, in one shot.” Digiscope helped with a lot of stand alone and vanity shots.

    The World War I scene used British and French warfare reference inspirations from the Kubrick film Paths of Glory, and from Saving Private Ryan “in terms of the skitty shutter, strobey, crisp image look. And hand held, it was all hand held through there, something Snyder wanted to experiment with.” That was one stylistic approach that was built into the actual photography. The FX were handled by Rainer Gombos and Pixomondo, recommended to Des Jardin because of their work on the movie Red Baron. They rebuilt the assets with a slant towards steam punk, again, streamlining the process as much as possible.

    While juggling multiple styles and inspirations, juggling the number of studios involved in Sucker Punch was a piece of cake in comparison to some films. “We usually juggle more, like eight to ten. That is why you have producer coordinators to keep all that stuff straight. Each fantasy had one facility working on it. The hardest thing was making sure it looks like it’s all in one movie. Zack is really communicative and the supervisors really got what we were after early on, so it made it easy to propagate that idea through a number of shots through a sequence, usually between 200 and 300 per sequence, and around 1100 CG shots for Sucker Punch.”

    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
    Director Zack Snyder during filming.

    It was decided the samurai scene would have elements of an anime-type style, reflected in the ways that Des Jardin and Snyder played with the bullets and tracers and the sword fighting action. Case and point, there is a moment towards the end of that sequence where you see one of the samurai fighters get slashed by Babydoll. The camera cuts to a close-up of a crows head, then a close-up of a crows’ eye, then cuts to some feathers, then you see the flock of birds fly away. Then you go back to the courtyard with Babydoll and the samurai. That sequence was a combination of images from Snyders’ storyboards and clever editing. “When I see that progression of images I just go ‘anime art film, right there!’ It’s quite beautiful actually, I like it a lot.”

    One of the challenges in this sequence was how to execute scenes in which 12 foot samurai characters are fighting a five foot girl. They did testing in LA in June, 2009 with stunt supervisor Daman Caro, while Des Jardin worked with MPC Vancouvers’ VFX Supervisor Guillaume Rocheron defining what would be a live action girl and what would be digital, focusing on the heightened anime realism. “I knew those guys would be good. I worked with the MPC team on Watchman and it was a really great relationship.” Rocheron handled the destruction scene for the samurai fantasy. “He’s great. Guillaume and MPC were the first group I brought on to the show. We needed to do a lot of destruction inside the pagoda when Babydoll fights a samurai that has a 50 caliber thing that just tears everything apart.” That scene required the destruction of wood, still a challenging effect to accomplish realistically. Over the years various studios have developed sims for the destruction of glass, concrete and steel, but wood is particularly tricky because it bends before it breaks, and when it breaks it splinters and creates more debris than you think is possible for the object that is breaking. MPC had to go back into their sim program and add parameters to get the wood to work. “It was really, really beautiful, what they did.”

    The samurai scene and the bullet train scene went hand in hand in terms of solutions. In June, 2009, Des Jardin, again working with Guillaume, thought he had developed and approach to the Samurai scene. It’s difficult to do R&D while shooting but Des Jardin had to keep thinking about the robot scene that was coming up in December. Stunt Supervisor Caro would show Des Jardin the chorography video tests. “Damon always videotapes his stuff and cuts it himself and shows it to Zack, and Zack does any course correction he has to, then Damon shoots it again. Then once he has it pretty close he will show it to me and we start to tear it apart technically.” The shot with the robots was going to be particularly challenging because Snyder wanted the camera to go everywhere it could in the train car. “It seems obvious now, but wasn’t at the time, that if we just broke it up into a bunch of really discreet moments shooting the live action girls we could get everything we needed photographically and we could stitch everything in CG afterwards. When I realized that, I looked at the samurai scene” and realized he could use that very solution. “It’s sort of a philosophy for living. You can’t look at a problem as a huge insurmountable problem, you have to look at these little bits you have to climb.”

    Sucker Punch
    John 'D.J.' Des Jardin, VFX Supervisor
    Velvet Elvis Studios
    Moving Picture Company
    Animal Logic
    Prime Focus

    Writer: Renee Dunlop

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