Dirtying the Frame: ‘Star Trek Beyond’ and the Gritty Work of VFX
By Ian Failes
STAR TREK BEYOND’s dramatic space battles are impressive CG sequences orchestrated by visual effects studio Double Negative. Whereas purely digital shots can often be subject to the ‘CG curse’ and look too clean and unrealistic, Double Negative strived to dirty the frame and the camera moves and fit into new franchise director Justin Lin’s action aesthetic. Visual effects supervisor Sean Stranks, who worked with fellow supe Raymond Chen under overall VFX supervisor Peter Chiang, sat down with One Perfect Shot in London to tell us how the shots were made grittier.
The General Approach
A huge amount of the shots are just full CG shots, and especially in the space battle when things are just kicking off and there’s explosions everywhere, or the Enterprise is coming into the atmosphere and we’ve got fire hitting the lens, it’s pretty much all CG.
So to make feel less like CG, we’re putting dirt on the lens, we’re putting scratches on the lens, we’re letting the exposures burn. Sometimes in real photography, things gets too bright and the exposure just can’t cope, and it blinds and you just can’t see the detail, and then it comes back again. That’s what we’re trying to replicate digitally.
Dirty and Visceral
Something will come whipping by and there’s just a big frame of white with dirt on the lens and even like a hair in the corner and there’s like a scratch over here, maybe it burns it, it anodizes it a little bit – it’s just like trying to put the viewer right behind the camera on each shot.
Detail is Always Important
We throw a boatload of stuff at it, whether it’s smoke, flame, fire, scorch textures, burning textures, burning edges, dirt on the lens, shake to the camera, anodized, like a burnt glass, or a kind of oily side to the lens on top of that. But we go super-high detail on the renders of the ship, so even though the whole thing’s shaking about, and there’s smoke everywhere, you feel the detail underneath just poking through.
So there’s something that is highly detailed but you just can’t get a clean read on it because it’s being messed about so much. I think if we’d just gone the easy route and not put any of that detail in there, and not made those small models or the small little textural changes and things like that, it would just read a bit, it would be messy but it would be flat.
Experimenting with Lighting
One of the first things we do with the Enterprise is we render a grayish shape, and because it’s in space you’ve got a planet and you’ve got a sun. So there’s the key light and the bounce light. So one of the first things we did was we rendered that just to say, let’s do some wedges, let’s move the light around, and just see what looks best. What’s the coolest angle for this particular shot while trying to keep your head around where you actually are?
Because, the thing is, you can light a planet from the top right, and then as soon as you put the light from the bottom left just because it looks cool well nothing really jibes. So we had to, you know, we had to be consistent in where we were moving the lights to.
Meg-Halation: From Clean to Dirty
The renders come out looking really beautiful right away, but they’re too clean. So in compositing, we get a first pass going, and then we beat the hell out of it! That’s what I told the guys. Have fun, throw everything at it, crunch the values down, blow out the highlights.
We have something called ‘meg-halation’. Normally you would put a little bit of halation on an edge to make it ring a little bit, and add some chromatic aberration. There’s the lens distortion. But we came up with ‘meg-halation’, which is basically all of that times ten, but reigned in, so the hot values are super hot and they spread those colors really strong in that area that is being affected.
Hair on the Lens (and Why It’s Okay This Time)
We added localized lens dirt. And there’s like a tiny little hair and there’s all this kind of stuff. It’s the first time I’ve worked on a film where the director’s been open to putting hair on the lens, which you would never, you would never do that.
When CG Isn’t Always the Answer
A lot of the tasks that I think would be sometimes left up for effects artists like explosions we would try to add in as 2D live action elements. It’s always good to embed 2D live action elements into that because you can just grasp onto something real. You suddenly just buy that, those real explosion elements or those real fire elements ripping by. It’s something your brain just says, ‘Oh yeah, I know that’s real.’
Raiding the Element Library
They didn’t really have time to do a full element shoot, so at Double Negative we have a massive element library, absolutely massive going back to the beginning – our first films – all the way back to Pitch Black and Below, which is a submarine movie. In fact, when we first started doing the explosions we investigated making ways of finding cool semi-alien-looking space ship explosions. An alien craft exploding in space, what would it do?
So we came up with all these things and we used some elements from our library that were shot fifteen years ago for Below, which is a sub movie with underwater explosions. And they give a really cool, really, really cool effect. If there’s a little bit of murk in the water and you explode something in it, you can’t make that up. You cannot get that in effects.
Past Experience is Key
I worked on Fast & Furious 6 with Justin Lin and we had the sequence of the Antonov crashing, and a lot of it was sort of similar in a way. They filmed a massive set, a massive rig on set with explosions where the Antonov is coming down the runway, and they blew it up, and it was great live-action photography, so we had a very good reference of where it needed to be.
And a lot of the stuff we were seeing in Star Trek, from my point of view and where I led the team, was hearkening back to that. Furious 6 was on film and Justin wanted it to be dirty and messy and grimy and the black levels were just like crunched right down, you know, hot hot whites and dark blacks and no detail, lens flaring, there’s grain. You know, really really dirty, and this is the same kind of thing.
So from Fast & Furious 6 to In The Heart of the Sea to Bridge of Spies and this one, I’ve really had fun with creating dark, crunchy, dirty lenses. It’s all about
grittiness. Water on the lens, flares on the lens, smush on the lens, but all working with photographic elements. So I think I’d be scared to death of doing a film, say a CG animated film, that was meant to be totally clean!