Visual Effects Break Downs
Our story begins with our team of GI Joes getting ambushed. Beach Head was trying rewire an entrance way's security system when the booby-trapped device blows up in his hands. This opening shot actually wasn't in the script. I came up with it on set when I started to see how much production value the smoke machine was adding to the project.
In the original footage, Joe (Beach Head) runs through a puff of smoke from the smoke machine. I filmed multiple takes with the Canon 7D set at 720p 60 fps which enabled me to slow it down smoothly in post. In After Affects, I layered a digital asset of an explosion, multiple smoke elements and sparks. To enhance the explosion in the beginning of the shot, I ramped up the brightness of the entire composition for a couple of frames. A carefully place digital asset of a dust cloud follows the explosion as if a debris cloud is hitting the camera.
I added custom-made tracer elements as an homage to the original cartoon's laser fire. The tracers were created in After Effects by creating two overlapping eliptical shapes - one white and the other orange. The orange one is under the white one and slightly larger so you can see its edges. Both shapes have their edges feathered to create the glow. Lastly I change the blend of the shapes which adjusts how accelerated the light values drop off and how they affect the footage under them. Tracers in the film are all animated by hand by me. I toyed with using perspective, 3-D effects in After Effects but I was never satisfied with how they integrated into the original footage.
The shot turned out better than I had hoped so, I went on to add Beach Head's getting hit in the back at the very end.
Flint regains consciousness for a second to see Road Block (actor Alex Jones) fire back at a Cobra advancement. In this shot, Alex fires a "non-gun" - a prop gun that has no firing pin and is equipped with an electronic trigger that ignites magician's flash powder to simulate a muzzle flash. The orignal flash is very small but it does light up the room so the environmental reflections are real. I added another, larger muzzle flash and increased the effect of the light reflections.
There are also multiple smoke elements, sparks and fire cracker elements, and custom-made tracers composited through out. Lastly, I added artificial camera shake to enhance the chaos. At times throughout filming, I actually shake the camera by hand- something I learned to regret in post-production because it makes compositing some elements like smoke and blood splatter an extra hassel. (I expand on this in later shots below.)
Beach Head regards his hands. These are geletin hands molded by the effects company, Monster in the Closet LLC. Each hand was molded onto metal poles that actor Joe Barbagallo was holding in the sleeves. If you look closely at this shot, you can see the bulge of Joe's real left hand in the sweater sleeve.
To convey what I was looking for to the effects artist, I drew some concept art (sketches really), and told him that I wanted to to appear as if the hands were trying to open something that was booby-trapped with a small bomb, blowing most of the fingers off.
To achieve the effect of the hands' bleeding, the effects artist loaded the palms with very viscous fake blood right until I called, "action!" then stepped right out of frame. In this way, we didn't need to use hose rig to pump blood out. That was beyond the budget I had. In a couple unused shots, we tried to set the gloves on fire so they smoke and it would appear as if the explosion had literally just happened, but the blood kept extinguishing the flames.
One great thing I learned from working with professionals like Monster in the Closet, is how they used at least 3 different types of fake blood- each of varying levels of viscosity! The finger wounds were smeared with a version that was almost like peanut butter, where scenes where the blood had to actually flow was closer to the viscosity of water.
Road Block dishes out returning fire to push back the advancing Cobra guard. Actor Alex Jones is using an AK-47 modelled "non-gun" here - a prop gun that has no firing pin and is equipped with an electronic trigger that ignites magician's flash powder to simulate a muzzle flash.
Because of this, some of the light reflections in the room are real, the others are simulated digitally in post production (not telling you which is which ;). I added muzzle flash elements and multiple smoke elements too.
As Flint and Bofficles struggle to communicate with Snake Eyes, they witness his single-handedly decimating a team of Cobra guards. This shot is actually a longer one that was divided into two separate shots. What we see here is the tail end of the shot after the camera stops tracking. This footage was orginally not meant to be security footage, but it just ended up working this way in post production as I was simultaneously editing and completing effects in After Effects.
In this shot, our stunt lead, Jae Greene does an impressive fall off the tower of boxes in the shot. To make it look even more dangerous and deadly, I added an explosion and smoke elements as the cause of his fall. I made the lights flicker on and off to coincide with the explosion. This alone added so much more realism to the explosion effect. Other things that helped seal the effect: static and digital degredation of the feed, smoke clouds when Jae lands on the boxes, and some camera shake as if the explosion's force is shaking the security camera mount. My favorite part of this shot is the lights flickering.
This entire shot was filmed on boxes that were only 4 feet off the ground. I was filming the action blindly with the Canon 7D almost touching the ground and pointed upwards to make it look like they were fighting dangerously high up. The wide angle lens (10mm) and the 7D's crop factor work together to stabilize motion so that's why the shot doesn't look any choppier than it does. I liked that the final shot isn't dolly-smooth because it helped convey extra chaos in the clip.
All elements here were motion tracked by eye ball including smoke, sparks, and fire.
Here's a good shot of the tracer fire, the false illumination it casts on the ceiling, and the sense of danger the low angle creates as these guys battle it out hand to hand.
Another lucky miracle was how Snake Eyes (actor Raymond Blong) punches the Cobra guard (played by Erik Van Wagen) with such force that Cobra insignia patch flies off and down towards the camera.
The first of a many custom-made computer screens. This was actually the first one I made too ( I tend to work chronologically). These were created in Photoshop and imported into After Effects. I had preplanned the animation and had each element in it's own folder or flattened in its own photoshop layer.
To fill out the interface and make it look like Cobra's operating system was somewhat real, I added links to fake applications but used the names of several online GI Joe web communities that I had joined and that had helped me with feedback and GI Joe mythologoy. HissTank.com is a great online community of fans. Pit Viper Studio sold me costume and prop elements for the film.
I wanted to visually show how the camera mics were all recording the sounds of everything in the Cobra compound.
With some actors and a beautiful cosplayer, I filmed the short sequence where the Cobra character, The Baroness, yells at some guards to arm themselves and organize. I filmed them at 60 frames per second orginally so I could slow down the entire single shot that involves me capturing medium and close up shots of various noise-making elements in the scene. With the enitre shot conformed and slowed down, I used After Effects' time ramping capabilities to speed through certain aspects of the travelling shot and linger on others.
Once I had the speed ramping set up, I used a plugin called Shine which uses the dark and light values of the image to create a faux stencil through which simulated light rays pass through. It's these simulated light rays that I use to represent "sound." You can control and animate a central point in the composition from which "light" will emit and I defined and animate that point as the where I wanted "sound waves" to eminate from.
The last element to help seal the effect is the placement and animation and fading of the hallow ring shape. I made a couple different versions of these in varying sizes to simulate noises like foot steps, yelling, and guns loading.
This shot was achieved by my running at top speed after actor Raymond Blong who filled the role of Snake Eyes in the majority of the action scenes. The wide angle lens smooths out a lot of the bumps. We used a smoke machine to fill Ray's run way which helped create a sense of speed.
We filmed this about a half dozen times and reviewed the footage after each take. I liked how Raymond would lean into the curve when he rounded the corner. We tried to accentuate it in subsequent recordings. One time he leaned too far in and stumbled. I was running so close to him and we were both running so fast, that we crashed into each other and into a wall of boxes. Miraculously (or possibly because of skill?), the camera sustained no damage as I was able to hold it up in the air, letting my elbox smash onto the cement floor below. I wore an elbow pad for the rest of filming, one left over from an extra Cobra costume.
I fell a second time on the next take because Raymond's uzi replica fell off his back while running at top speed. I stepped on it while running also at top speed and tumbled into more boxes. The special effect in all this was that no one got serious hurt!
I added dirt charge, firecracker, and smoke elements in the foreground here as the camera moves forward to simulate a line of fire. I had originally filmed this shot thinking that I'd have tracer fire flying higher but I abandoned that idea in post because it would be too difficult to add damage to the environment around Snake Eyes (Raymond Blong).
I liked this way much more because the motion of the camera rushing forward matches the advancing line of fire. I had to place the dirt charges right out of frame to avoid dealing with showing holes in the ground. Smoke and debris elements weren't motion tracked with the software. I just eyeballed it as I went along.
Muzzle flashes, smoke elements. The most "special" effect here is that most people don't see the black floor padding on the ground for Snake Eyes to fall on after his "wall running" stunt.
For Snake's run up the box steps, I compsited multiple dirt charges and smoke effects to add to the chaos. There were also some lighting adjustments to make Snake's signature visor more visible throughout his run.
This was a great unscripted moment! The script called for a "Matrix-styled" wall run across the box tower to evade incoming fire. This was going to show how smooth Snake Eyes is in battle!
Since we didn't have the budget for wire rigs, Raymond was going to have to do a real wall run to pull this off! In rehearsals, it was no problem. On set however- with costume, boots, and a sword strapped to your back - it was tough getting the requirement momentum and angle. Gravity kept dragging Snake down in mid run.
In post-production, I came up with the idea to composite a mini explosion into the shot, as if the Cobra guard hit a fire extinguisher nearby or something. Placed at the right time, it appears as if the explosion cuts short his wall run... what does Snake do instead? Improvise!
Each shot in this sequence was loaded with digital elements of all kinds - muzzle flashes, firecrackers, smoke, dust, dirt charges, blood spurts and tracer fire. There was some artificial camera shake add to augment the chaotic feel too.
You'll notice in this sequence here that there are 3 Cobra guards together on screen. That's the most I could have because I only had the budget for 3 Cobra costumes, or to be more precise 3 Cobra helmets. There might be a shot later on that has 4 guards, with one of them not wearing a helmet.
For this sequence where Snake trips and then slices a guard in half, stunt lead, Jae Greene, did a jump off a mini-trampoline and landed on a pad beside the camera.
In the first take, I leaned to close in to get right under Jae and he landed directly on top of me and the camera. The footage is painful to watch as the camera does a digital hiccup. Freeze frames and heavy pixelation were invovled.
For the final shot of the slice, blood elements were added in.
Time to set up a Road Block! Like Snake Eye's scene above, this sequence just has a ton of digital elements poured on. Some of the smoke is real from a smoke machine on set. I took steps to make the muzzle flashes appear to emit light on the surroundings including actor, Alex Jones' face and chest.
This Cobra unit really gets decimated here. I composited a number of dirt charge elements in the environment to simulate stray gun fire chopping up the environment. I was really pleased with how chaotic it all looked.
To light this scene, I had a tripod-mounted light on the ground pointing upwards to create a back light on Road Block. As he strides away I pan the camera down and caught this glow in the bottom right of the frame.
In post-production, I dropped a fire element there and the glow sealed the effect! The sound engineer's work is just frosting!
This was the last of the computer screens I made for the film. The actual interface I designed was quite large and only half of it is captured on camera.
As in other computer shots, I filmed this off of my flat screen with a shallow depth of field to help focus attention on the digital progress counter.
We filmed this sequence at the end of the day. We had an AK-47 and a Berreta pistol non-gun with us.
Non-guns, an industry term, are props that look like guns, are made with no real gun parts, and that are fitted with a battery operated circuit board that ignite magician's flash powder when the prop's trigger is pulled. Each "shot" can be fired only once and they are purchased individually.
Since it was the last shot of the day, I loaded up all of our non-guns with the remaining muzzle charges and had the actors let loose with them. I filmed it at 60 frames per second and conformed the footage to play at 24 frames per second- in smooth slow motion. In post, I then added more muzzle flashes to simulate more fire and exaggerate the real flashes caught on camera. Some smoke elements were also added.
I particularly like the rose petal flashes from the AK-47 on the left. The small puffs of smoke from the muzzle are real too.
Here's another use of the shot earlier. The first one was played in real-time, this one is slowed down for dramatic effect.
Some of the smoke is real. The smoke machine operator is hiding under one of the tables. A couple of our takes were not usable because you could see him hunched under there. Smoke can be a little unruly on set because it doesn't take direction well and it transitions from "too much" to "too little" very quickly.
There are four guards in the shot here, but only three have helmets. The budget only afforded me three helmets. Different members of the stunt team specialized in different things though so through the course of the day, those guys would trade off wearing the avialable helmets. For this shot, I wanted them all there though to make the numbers look high to exaggerate the odds Beach Head is up against.
Beach Head leans on the shoulder stocks of a half dozen AK-47s whose triggers are resting against a mounted bar. You gotta love it!
Most of the assault rifles here are rubber and you can probably see that some of the barrels aren't even hollow, but I did try to cover that up as much as possible with muzzle flashes of all kind and smoke elements. In a lot of my automatic gun fire shots, I combine multiple muzzle flash types. Here, I use these beautiful "rose petal" flashes, single fire flashes, as well as smaller, "suppressed fire" flashes to simulate the tail end of a blast.
There's some camera motion in the beginning of the shot so the smoke and flashes are animated to match the camera movement. This was done by eye.
The Cobra advancement gets chopped down. I exaggerate the size and behavior of the tracer fire intentionally in a lot of the scenes including this one as a bit of an homage to the cartoon I used to love where laser fire was everywhere.
The tracers and blood elements do a great job at enhancing the action, but the actor performances are really key here too. They serve as the skeleton of the action. When an actor falls, or simulates getting hit, I take those all as cues as to how and where the digital elements should be composited.
This particular frame from the shot is a favorite to me because of how exaggerated the tracer hit and ricochet is. This poor guy just took one in the ribs.
I include this shot here because it was note worthy to me in a way that I almost view it as a special effect.
I just ran at top speed along side stunt man Jeff Orens (Snake Eyes) as we sprinted the length of our warehouse location. I set up the camera to give us an adequate depth of field and tried to keep that distance consistent during the run. I filmed this blind and just pointed it to my right as I ran.
The end result looks as if the camera is desperately trying to keep up with a running ninja and only just barely succeeding.
Road Block (Alex Jones) chokes a Cobra guard (Chris Szefler) to death.
I loved the action choreography here- the way this guard tries to bat Road Block's forearms, his last frustrated kick!
The hallway was pretty stark and plain though, so I added artificial blur to the right of the shot to simulate a shallower depth of field and to focus attention on the two actors.
Snake Eyes (Jeff Orens) exits a dark hallway into a larger storage area. I digitally added the smoke in this scene to match early shots of Snake running. The smoke elements were manually tracking to match the camera movement through the environment. I also animated some masks around the smoke to create the effect of Snake Eyes entering, then exiting the wall of smoke quickly.
How does the smoke enhance this shot? I don't quite know but it somehow adds something to the poetic exit from darkness into the light. That sounds really vague I know, but it's one of the great things about being the director and visual effects artist of your film- you don't need to struggle with articulating why you want something!
Flint's decryption software completes its task and begins to stream video footage. This is the second half of a computer screen animation I built in Adobe After Effects. The first half plays earlier in the film.
The animation was constructed so I could just set the numerical value of the software's "progress" status and the animation would count up from there. When it reaches 100%, the decryption window dissolves and is replaced by the loading video sequence which then leads to a "de-pixelation" animation I created. The sequence was filmed off of my flat screen in my studio and was playing on a loop in the After Effects program.
The shallow depth-of-field was partly out of necessity, but revealing it in a skewed perspective was a stylistic choice.
I'm a software developer in my other life, so I really like the, "Logged in as: Flint" status at the bottom of the application.
Scarlett is found. I wanted Scarlett's short screen time to be a memorable one to the audience and also needed to convey its dramatic significance to Snake Eyes who witnesses it.
I desaturated and inverted the last frames of each shot of Scarlett to convey these images getting burned into Snake Eyes' memories forever.
In the scope of the story, I also needed to convincingly show that Snake Eyes was experiencing something personal and dramatic enough that even he would be caugh off guard for what happens next.
Someone or something is cloaked and attacking. You can find tons of tutorials online about how to do cloaked camoflage, so there's really no reason to try to do it on your own. With that said, I realized that I did not exactly film the actors and the environment in the way that would have made the cloaking effect easy.
My solution was to use footage of the background as my primary canvas (or "empty slate" as it's often referred to), and to do a "garbage matte" - a manual composite of my actor on top of that canvas. Use of the displacement map filter and manually adding camera shake help seal the effect.
Snake Eyes manages to fire off a short burst from his uzi before he's disarmed by some type of blast. Muzzle flashes and smoke were inserted for the uzi fire, and a firecracker element was used for the disarming blast. I increase the realism of the uzi fire, I added some carefully placed custom masks around Snake Eyes and on the ground beside him to make it look like the flashes were illuminating his clothes and the floor beside him.
In the following shot of the uzi sliding away, the actor actually tosses the weapon to make it slide. It took a couple tries to time the camera movement with the weapon slide. I added subtle smoke elements as well and manually tracked and scaled them to the motion of the camera and the distance it moves away from Snake Eyes.
Bofficles reveals his true identity. This shot was achieved by filming each actor in the same position, one after the other. The camera was locked down on a tripod to make sure the background environment would match in both sequences. The basic idea for the effect was to stack the "before" and "after" shots on top of each other in After Effects and selectively make the top (before) layer transparent to reveal the bottom (after) layer. This was done by creating and animating various masks for different portions of the Zartan's costume.
During filming, we took some precautions by doing some guerilla blue screen work. Two assistants held up large pieces of blue poster board behind Zartan (played by Mack Kuhr) while filming his shots. This way, I would have clean lines around the edges of his costume in post which would give me more flexibility when dealing with the background. It ended up helping immensely because it wasn't until post-production when I started on the effect that I realized how much the two compositions were off. Zartan's face and torso did not line up correctly with Bofficles' (Chir Miskiewicz) body. I ended up having to resize the Zartan footage to get the faces and bodies to align as closely as possible.
The first version of the effect was mainly a straight-forward dissolve that lasted a much shorter time. When integrated into the scene, I realized that the shot played too quickly as a dramatic plot point. I wanted it to play out longer and have more visual impact. To rework the effect, I started over with the transition and added different masks to each key part of Zartan's costume- his hood, chest plate, and eye make up - and animated their reveals in unique ways. It was a little tricky getting this 2 dimensional effect to behave in a 3 dimensional way. For example, I wanted Zartan's clothes under his chest plate to "grow" over Bofficles' guard uniform, but had to first animate the chest plate forming first because there was no footage of the Zartan's clothes underneath it. In this case, the footage dicated the sequence of the morph- the hood had to appear before the face, the chest plate and shoulder armor before the underlying clothes, etc.
Zartan shoots Flint. This was one of the first visual effects shot I did for the film. Actor Mack Kuhr (Zartan) used a non-gun (prop weapon that electronically ignites magician's flash powder for the gun shot) in this scene to unload on actor, Matt Hayek. The flash powder made a little popping sound with each fire so Matt was able to time his performance with Mack's firing.
Muzzle flashes were added to accentuate the effect. Blood, smoke, debris and spark elements were also added.
The Predator regards his prey. The predator vision was recreated in After Effects using the Colorama effect to mimick the iconic themo vision style from the alien's films. I added additional textures and digital elements to the simulate the alien's advanced heads-up display interface.
I found a free online font for the Predator's alien language that's often featured in the movies. In one key scene where the Predator decides to release Snake Eyes and fight him in hand-to-hand combat, I actually have the digital display spell out, "Super Human" in Predator letters.
Exit Zartan! This is essentially two alternating perspectives of Road Block firing and Zartan getting hit. Road Block's sequences contain muzzle flashes, smoke elements, and some shell ejections. In a couple of the closer shots, 80% of the smoke is real from a smoke machine.
Zartan's shots here are amongst the last shots completed for the film. I really piled it on here as his death is a major climax in the film, and I wanted it to be really cathartic for the viewer (and Road Block) Smoke, debris, dirt charges, ceiling sparks and dust, fire crackers, welding sparks, tracer fire, and blood. In 2 of the wider shots, I motion-tracked blood splatter on the ground which the effects artist already covered with preliminary blood streaks. I joked with actor Mack Kuhr that I wanted it to look like Zartan got hit with anti-aircraft ordinance!
General Hawk regards his data wall in the GI Joe situation room. This digital animation was projected on to a conference room wall to achieve this effect. Beside each character's photograph, under the MIA message, I added and animated their GI Joe file card data - the brief biography and weapons specialty that appeared on the back of every GI Joe action figure packaging in the 80s.
The inspiration for this data wall is from an early scene in the movie, Aliens, where character Ripley is giving her testimonial to the corporate executives.
The Trans-Dimensional Space Bridge software boots up. This wasn't in the original script. What I wrote and actually also filmed was General Hawk speaking to a line of heroes from other dimensions. I enlisted the participation of comic book cosplayers and had a row of the following characters: Night Crawler (X-men), Marcus Fenix (Gears of War), Batman, Wolverine, Captain America, and War Machine. The script actually called for Master Chief, the Road Warrior, and either a Storm Trooper or Chewbaca.
Several factors contributed to the change. First, the quality of the footage as we filmed changed the overall tone of the film. I did not originally think I would be able to capture such high quality, gritty visuals. Second, I did not count on such stellar performances out of my actors. I had thought the original tone of the film to be like that 80s movie Commando. But the actors showed such dedication to their characters and were constantly adding layers of emotion to their performances. I actively encouraged it and a different tone quickly emerged. Third, it wasn't until I started post-production that I realized how the computer interfaces would contribute the overal production quality of the film. They made things look slicker and high tech. Lastly, I really had my heart set on having Master Chief from the Halo series be the heroic revelation in the end.
The factors culminated into a big Ah-ha moment for me while chatting with the core actors after a photoshoot- I could tell the last part of the story through a series of computer interfaces and by using a "Candidate Retrieval List" window, I was free to add any character I wanted without having to either build a costume or find someone close by with one. That list was also another way I could pay tribute to all my geek culture inspirations.
I will award 1000 geek points to anyone who recognizes all the candidates on the list!
Another advantage of using the computer screens to tell this final plot point is that I can reinterate the trans-dimensional portal concept through the screens, their titles, and the functions that are being displayed. The dialogue between General Hawk (actor Nathan Faudree) and Stalker (Brian Gregory) goes by fast.
The Candidate Retrieval List is where some of my work experience creating interfaces and designing information comes into play. I structured the data in the following way: Character Name + their allegiance + their biography. I found pics on Google and retrieved their biographies from Wikipedia or similar websites dedicated to the series, game, comic, or show. Can you just imagine a regiment of Halo Spartans fighting along side GI Joe along side the Space Wolf Terminators from Warhammer 40K along side the US Colonial Marines????