In June of 2007 I came on board for pre-production of The Incredible Hulk for Kurt Williams. As someone I consider a Visual Effects Director, Kurt had been one of the first people attached to the project along with director Louis Letterrier. The film, being the second project financed directly by Marvel's new studio after Iron Man, gave the studio new creative control over adapting one of their flagship characters to the silver screen. Their concept for the project was to approach it as a action film with strong character performances and as a re-boot to the previous Ang Lee directed Hulk film released in 2003.
Working on the production side for a new studio, combined with very much admiring Loui's previous film Unleashed (UK title Danny the Dog), was very exciting. Danny was a film that really stood out to me from other action pieces due to it's strong characters performances. Any time I find a piece of cinema that impresses me, I make an effort to find out who directed it in an effort to familiarize myself with their body of work. After having seeing Danny and Le Transporteur, knowing who Loui was for that reason, so having the opportunity to work with Loui directly would certainly prove to be a learning experience. Loui's ability to not only capturing very edgy and original action sequences but also enlist impressive results from the actors, were two of the main reasons Marvel awarded him the job.
Although the majority of principal photography was to shoot in Toronto, the film takes place on the East Coast US. My initital role on the project was to fly to New York City to shoot HDR photography on rooftops around Columbia University and Harlem for two sequences in the final act of the film. The nature of the work was similar to what we had previously shot in New York on Fantastic Four, but this time the subject matter was quite different and posed some interesting new challenges.
All the panoramas for the film were taken with a Canon 1DS mounted on a Manfrotto 3416 Spherical Multi-Row panoramic tripod head that I own in my set kit. The 3416 is great because it had degree incrimination notches that allows the head to snap in place with every turn as you tile the environment. This feature is a crucial time saver when shooting at night on windy rooftops with little or no light. All the panoramas were taken with a 50mm lens in 15 degrees increments at horizontal and 25degree increments at + - 30 degrees. Two of the Hulkoramas can be found here in QTVR: mid town /parkour
After their initial pre-production New York shoot, I then served as an Associate Visual Effects Supervisor for Kurt during 5 months of principle photography in Toronto. Since visual effects is literally the only department whose spectrum of work can bleed into virtually every other department of a film, it is extremely easy for a studio Visual Effects Supe to get spread thin quickly. A practice that has become increasingly more common in the industry on visual effects heavy productions, is for the studio supervisor to hire an additional or associate supervisor (as well as supervisors from the vendors) to come on board to do extra leg work to keep the production above water during principal photography. That was exactly what I was hired to do for this film. My specific focus for the visual effects department was managing and dealing with all aspects of the upcoming schedule that we not only had to be expecting, but prepare for. My roll could best be described as a sort of plate planning supervisor if you will. This included helping prepare and oversee script breakdowns, sequence layouts, storyboards, pre-vis, motion capture, contour capture, lidar & cyber scans, location surveys, green screen setups, lens mapping, texture & hdr photography, vfx plates, and communicate to other departments visual effects related needs during the shoot.
Since both the protagonist and antagonist of the film eventually become computer generated characters, the shoot required extensive motion capture work. The capture was done by Giant Studios on location at Tornoto Film Studios as well as numerous contour capture sessions with Edward Norton and Tim Roth. The two primary individuals preforming as the Hulk and his nemesis, The Abomination, were two incredible physical actors, Cyril Raffaelli and Terry Notary. Cyril is a French parkour actor/stuntman of District B13 fame, (a action film that comes very highly recommend by The Hollywood Saloon) and Terry is a former Cirque Du Soleil performer who broke into Hollywood in the late 90's as a motion and stunt choreographer.
While each actor played a variety of performances for both characters, to keep the two characters performances & fighting styles different and unique from one another a overriding rule was put into place during their capture sessions in the volume. The concept, broken down to it's base level, was to think of hulk as a circle and abomination as a square. Meaning The Hulk, while having phenomenal super human strength and incredible agility, swings and kickes in wide arching shapes while Abomination, being lager and stronger, has a longer reach and would move in more straight lines with quick, sharp jabs. This coincided with the traditional story telling theme of the hero being smooth and the villain sharp and jagged.
Any film featuring a computer generated main or supporting character requires a great deal of pre-planning prior to shooting. In order to go into each shooting day where those characters are to eventually be added in post, Rhythm & Hues had developed two rigs which we deemed the Hulkinator and Abominator. They were comprised of a harness that were worn like a backpack, and extended up two poles with an armature at the top to represent the characters height and shoulder position. These rigs became extremely valuable during shooting for the actor's eye lines, the camera department's framing, and consistency in terms of character height.
One of my main responsibilities during the shoot was working with PLF to map out the positions and paths the characters took for each scene and create what we called "a road map to success". Kurt had hired an arsenal of storyboard artists to visualize the key character sequences of the film. There's a debate to be had about the future of storyboarding, but a truth in film making on large big budget productions is that if you put up boards, you make your shooting days and if you don't put up boards, you run the risk of not getting everything shot that was intended to shoot. The road maps served the same use as a storyboard - a visual communication of what you are trying to film. Being analogous to storyboards, they showed the crew what the characters actions were through the scene, and thus got everyone on the same page regarding what we were shooting, which inevitably made the scene move much better. They're basically just overhead views of a particular location with all the beats of the scene mapped out in chronological order. Shots make beats and beats make scenes. For any scene we shot with ether of the two characters involved, he would create an overhead which after Kurt and he had developed and was approved by Loui, we would distribute to the whole crew prior to shooting the scene. Google Earth actually turned out to be an extremely valuable film making tool for this process.
One sequence that required the most preparation and planning for me along with just about every other department on the film, involved shutting down the busiest street in Toronto, Yonge Street, for four straight nights from September 13th through 16th, 2007. Yonge Street was chosen for it's similarity to 125th Street in New York, the location of the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem. This location sets up the initial stand off between Hulk and Abomination and required closing off four city blocks to foot traffic and subsequently populating them with around 70 picture cars and 200 extras. I spent the better part of two weeks figuring out the layout for where each car was to be positioned through how the two CG characters interacted through the sequence. It proved to be an interesting exercise in film continuity.
With an sequence of that size, many, many meetings are held leading up to it shooting to get every department fully repaired and on the same page. In order to do so, the art department will usually construct a practical model of the location. Although often crude and approximate, the model serves as a very invaluable proxy for the sequence, thus becoming a powerful tool for the director and the camera, special effects, and visual effects departments to plan out each beat at the location and work through the problems presented before shooting at the location where the clock starts ticking and money can really burn.
On a last note, probably the biggest ongoing enjoyment of the show was witnessing what is quite possibly the most impressive piece of film equipment being used in the industry today - The Russian Arm. It's a newer technology and is essentially a jib mounted on top of a Mercedes M-Class SUV. The combination of the two has created the ability to capture a new level of dynamic action shots. Specifically car chase footage. Apparently directors such as Dug Liman, Michael Bay, Paul Greengrass, as well as Loui are in love with the thing. There was hardly a single day on set where we didn't use it. And for a $7500.00 per day rental price tag, it better be worth it.
Getting to work with Gale Ann Hurd was a pretty daunting experience for me as well since I've known and admired her work her since I was a little kid.