The 2012 version of Total Recall may not feature the former governor of California, but it does contain more than 1600 visual effects shots, the majority of which were delivered by London-based studio Double Negative. Although the film contains numerous examples of complex computer graphics work, director Len Wiseman made an effort to keep the FX practical whenever possible. “Of course, there’s a lot of CG in this movie, because there are certain things you just simply can’t do,” he notes. “But if you can make it real, then I try to do it. I love to build it and draw it, create it and shoot it.”
Adrian De Wet, Visual Effects Supervisor at Double Negative, was not dismayed by Wiseman's decision to shoot most of the film practically: “It’s great to have something physical to start with,” he says. “No matter how good you are as a CG artist, actually having a basis in reality is important. The film has to be convincing.”
Hover car bodies were custom-built and affixed over top of street racing cars.
Graham Jack, also a Visual Effects Supervisor at D-Neg, points out that combining practical and digital effects can sometimes facilitate 'happy accidents.' “During the car chase, there’s a shot of a car being crushed. We originally shot it as a practical effect, but we had to almost completely replace it digitally because we had to make the car look more futuristic. We were able to base the VFX on the practical effect that was shot, and we got things like the parcel shelf being flung across the back of the car. That’s something we wouldn’t necessarily have thought of if it had all been done in post.”
The VFX supervisors on the project focused on furthering Wiseman's vision of two vastly different worlds: the gritty -- and often wet -- Colony, and the futuristic United Federation of Britain. “It was key for us to give the audience coherence to the story – you have to believe that you’re in the UFB when you’re in the UFB and you’re in The Colony when you’re in The Colony,” says de Wet. In this effort, they certainly succeeded. The difference between the two territories is palpable.
The Colony (left) is dark and threaded with deeply saturated colors; the UFB (right) is luminous and sterile.
The film delivers countless examples of practical effects flawlessly integrated with digital, like the robot suits created by Legacy Effects which allowed for live-action filming of the UFB synthetic police force. Unfortunately, in many cases, it turned out to be too difficult to digitally remove certain areas of the actors' bodies and replace them with empty space and wires. “A lot of [the synths] were digital," says Visual Effects Supervisor Peter Chiang, "where it was too difficult to adjust the live-action that had been shot. In other cases, we could keep the live-action and replace an elbow joint, or a knee joint, or a waist joint.”
Chiang and his team actually benefited from Wiseman's decision to shoot much of the film's effects practically. "We nerdily analyzed all of the fine detail from the principal photography and based all of our decisions on that – decisions on how we were going to light, how we were going to set extend, all of the objects we were going to put in. It really gave us a quiet, subconscious understanding of what Len liked, so we could use that to our benefit to make that blend more seamless.”
As to the process of building the complicated futuristic environments of The Colony and the UFB, "We drew upon 20 different assets that were close-up, 40 that were mid-distance, and then we got into matte paintings for far-off into infinity," explains Adrian De Wet, "we could then put in all the fine details, like stanchions, elevators, streetlamps, road signs, little barriers that would appear on the side of the road, the detail on the road, the types of tarmac."
“Generally, the set would account for one level of The Colony,” says Graham Jack. “We would extend up or down to see other levels. The bottom level of The Colony was generally water, and we’d create a large body of water with other waterfront environments around it. The amount of set extension varied considerably – some shots were pretty much contained within the set, while other were shot on green screen and completed by set extension. Most fell somewhere in-between.”
To complete the set extensions for The Colony, Chiang explains “We took the boats and assets that were built on set, extrapolated all of the details from that, and then started to create another whole world. We created 20 more boats, multiple buildings based on the same design idea, and again, created the whole world."
The hover car chase sequence was one of the most complicated shots for the VFX team. “When I saw the pre-viz footage, I was blown away," says De Wet, "It was so ambitious. It’s done in the daytime, so nothing is hidden in the dark, which I like – I want to see everything, the gritty, grainy realism of an industrialized city. All of the environments were laid out; you could see beautiful aerial shots flying through the layout of the city. It was both amazing to look at and terrifying for me, because that’s what we would have to create."
The actors sat at the wheels of race cars steered by professional drivers located beneath their seats.
Chiang says that Wiseman’s practical approach ultimately benefited the film. “When many directors create an all-CG shot, they tend to hang on the shot – the VFX is put in and it looks great. But when you’re shooting an action scene, like a car chase, a director usually tries to keep the flow of action going. Len made the whole sequence look real. He’d ask for a blur of background and blend in the action – you’d only see the whole world when the cars were coming toward the camera, and then he’d quickly pan off of it. The backgrounds became secondary to the action – we pulled back so the real-life cars could pop out.”
All photos by Michael Gibson, © 2011 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.