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June 19, 2009

Visual FX from HELL


One of the most memorable aspects of the much-loved (by both critics and fans) but sadly underseen DRAG ME TO HELL is the ending of Sam Raimi’s supernatural thriller (SPOILER ALERT: that conclusion will be discussed heavily in this piece, with photos from the sequence—so if you haven’t seen the film yet, read no further). Even if you see it coming, as some people have claimed to, it’s a hell of a note to end on, and has sent audiences out buzzing.

When it came time to bring this finale to the screen, Raimi (who also scripted the Universal release with his brother Ivan) looked to Academy Award-winning visual FX house Tippett Studios (CLOVERFIELD, BLADE II, STARSHIP TROOPERS), which also ended up contributing to the opening sequence and the moment in which heroine Christine (Alison Lohman) snorts and swallows a fly. Matt Jacobs, who has been at Tippett for 13 years now and served as co-visual FX supervisor on the project, found DRAG to be anything but one. “I was a huge fan of Sam Raimi’s pictures, like ARMY OF DARKNESS and the other EVIL DEAD movies. I didn’t actually realize when we were working on it, until we actually got to see it at the premiere, just how much DRAG ME TO HELL was like those films.”


It was actually DRAG ME TO HELL 2nd-unit director Bruce Jones who led the production to Tippett, as he also supervised the digital assignment alongside Jacobs and Thomas Schelesny. “[Jones is] somebody we’ve worked with often here in the past,” Jacobs explains. “He has produced shows for Tippett Studios and he knows what our strengths are. DRAG ME TO HELL needed rather large sequences—we did about 40 shots in total. There were a lot of elements that went into them. He wanted to come to us because we’re used to dealing with elaborate scenes like that.”

And elaborate that final setpiece is, as Christine, who has incurred the wrath and the curse of an aged gypsy woman (Lorna Raver), meets the fate promised by the movie’s title on railroad tracks. Jacobs explains just how much went into creating that one last spine-chill, between coming up with a visual scheme and crafting the precise moments that occur within it. Tippett Studios didn’t rely solely on pure CGI, but blended practical (including actors and a miniature) and digital elements to create the best look they could, each picking up where the other left off. “That was shot mostly against a greenscreen, after Christine falls back on the tracks,” Jacobs explains. “There were train tracks built, and actors with monster arms on who actually reached up and grabbed Alison. We ended up augmenting those arms, which were made out of rubber, and color-correcting them, as well as adding CG arms we built to augment the effect, trying to have more of them clutch at her at certain cues. And we also had to find a way to make the practical arms look longer. We ended up having limb extensions that kind of looked like burning stumps. They basically resembled charcoal in red-hot light, and could really extend out of the environment so we wouldn’t have the truncated arms just end.”

The detailing didn’t end there, as Raimi’s overseeing of the FX sequences involved specific notes about when and where everything should take place. “He definitely knows the picture he wants to make, and he’s got a really good memory for what he has shot and what was in each take,” Jacobs explains. “When we were making Christine’s skin look like it was peeling and blistering at the end, he had a definite idea of how much of the actress he wanted to see. He wanted her to look affected, but also very recognizable. A lot of the other back-and-forths between production and the visual effects department had to do with editorial decisions, such as, ‘What’s the proper time for him to come up and grab the girl?’, or when the effects should actually turn on in that whole ending sequence. There were certain cues that we had to address. When the train comes by and streaking over Christine’s head, Sam wanted to see her at certain phases of her desecration, so the train actually became a device to create this staccato effect over her. He had definite input on what those beats should be, and that rang true of the work we did for the entire picture.”

That’s not to say that Jacobs and his crew, including lead compositors Jonathan Knight and Joseph Bailey, animation supervisor Tom Gibbons, set constructors Andy and Bart Trickel and lighting TDs Jim Aupperle and Larry Weiss didn’t make their own creative additions to the film. “We heard that part of the effect of Christine and Juan [the boy who suffers a fiery fate in DRAG’s prologue] being dragged down would actually involve seeing into hell, so instead of going with a digital approach and doing a matte-painting type of thing, which is industry standard these days, we went for building a miniature,” Jacobs reveals. “We had some model-shop people come here to the studio and help us build a stage where we could shoot practical elements like that. We shot the miniature, supervised by Lorne Peterson, and that went into all the shots where you see down into hell, which was supposed to look like an infinite cavern with white-hot embers and fire, to give the impression that she’s really getting dragged down into an inferno.

“We used the RED hi-def camera [provided by Miguel Ortega, one of Tippett’s modelers] to shoot it,” he continues, “and that was great, because it gave us flexibility and more rapid feedback on what we had just shot. And we also shot some high-speed elements—mostly fire and smoke—which we filmed at several hundred frames per second. Using that made the flame effects actually look bigger. That was one of the more interesting parts of working on the picture, being able to shoot a miniature.”

The blending and cooperation of CGI and physical FX is heartening to hear about at a time when there still seems to be a struggle (and debate in fan circles) between the two approaches. Jacobs, a compositing artist for many years before becoming a supervisor, weighs in on the subject: “Well, there’s a time and a place for everything. And some things you can’t do practically all the time, especially today with the rapid turnarounds. Most of the talent pool these days is in the computer graphics side, and there are fewer people who have the knowledge of how to build and shoot a miniature and other practical effects. The design that goes into doing those two types is different, and so the talent pool for doing that kind of work has changed. To paraphrase somebody who was talking about this, there’s a certain sense that digital/visual effects look right but practical effects feel right, and that’s why you get away with a lot more when you actually shoot something practically. You know it’s a real thing. And the digital side—not to hate on it myself—sometimes suffers from being computer-generated. You’ll buy a lot when it’s actually shot with a camera.”

Jacobs and his team are currently firing away at their next gig: providing the look of the werewolves in this fall’s highly anticipated NEW MOON, the next film in the TWILIGHT saga, in which he says the creatures will be purely CG. For now, he takes pride in his talented crew’s fine DRAG ME TO HELL efforts, which take a step in the right direction of warming fans’ hearts toward the use of digital elements in genre cinema. (fangoria.com)


Posted by dschnee at June 19, 2009 6:39 AM