Breaking down the coolest ”X-Men” FX
Okay, so some of the effects shots in X-Men: The Last Stand (see EW’s review and cover feature) are less than special. Did anybody else out there think, as EW’s Tim Stack complained to me, that Halle Berry’s flying scenes as Storm make her look less like a graceful superheroine than a stilted penguin? (I wish you could see Tim’s imitation — hilarious. Whatever happened with the wire work, Berry’s arms look awfully rigid at her sides every time she’s pulled aloft. Is that Halle’s bad, or the riggers’ fault? Discuss.)
But catcalls aside over the odd weak moments, Last Stand has some of the season’s most interesting, complicated trick images so far. We got hold of the movie’s FX supervisor, John Bruno, a six-time Oscar nominee, for a guided tour. (He masterminded effects for Alien vs. Predator, won the Visual Effects Academy Award for The Abyss, got nominated for Batman Returns, True Lies, and Cliffhanger, designed effects in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and consulted early on in the making of Titanic.) John hasn’t gotten much rest in the past year, due to extreme deadline pressures on this movie. He started work on it last April, at which point he recalls there wasn’t a final director assigned or an art department set up. He kindly agreed to chat while on yet another deadline, packing for a visual-effects seminar in Australia. Here’s what he’s proudest of:
THE OPENING FLASHBACKS. Did you notice how incredibly young Professor X (played by Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) look in the opening ”20 years ago” scenes, when they visit the childhood home of future supermutant Jean Grey? Their faces were digitally rejuvenated by a computer-effects company called Hydraulx, based in Santa Monica and owned by another firm called Lola Visual Effects. These firms, according to Bruno, do a lot of work using CG to make so-called vanity fixes. ”They remove blemishes and scars, or knock a little weight off somebody’s butt if it’s too big.” He’s quick to add, ”Not for this picture!” Whew — it’s good to know Hugh Jackman isn’t in fact the size of J. Lo and in need of gluteal erasure.
Early on in planning this scene, there was talk of getting younger actors to stand in for Stewart and McKellen. But Hydraulx got the gig instead, and the scene was shot normally with McKellen and Stewart. Then digital artists plumped McKellen’s features out a bit. Stewart’s mug basically just needed smoothing. Through various experimental attempts, the artists eventually went a little too far with the fountain-of-youth touches — ”it got creepy, so we pulled back,” says Bruno. But he knew, from the first test footage he saw, that the effect would work, and he says it’s a true innovation, never used in such a sustained manner before. ”When I saw it, I called the studio and said, ‘No matter what happens, we have a movie, because this works. We will not have lost the audience in the first five minutes of the film.”’
Will this kind of trick make Botox less prevalent among actors? Hmm… of course, it doesn’t solve the issue of public appearances. Stay tuned.
THE ATOMIZATION OF JEAN GREY’S HOUSE. It starts out with real actors and physical sets. But once Jean Grey, a.k.a. Phoenix, starts screaming and the windows blow out, everything switches over to CG. ”That was done in London, at Moving Picture Company,” says Bruno. ”It’s sort of an overall virtuoso sequence. You really see every piece of that room come apart, and it was all created digitally. Including Professor Xavier’s clothes shredding.” One hazard of working with London effects houses: architectural differences. ”One firm wanted us to take reference photographs for them of shingles,” Bruno recalls. ”Because they don’t have shingles in England.”
GOLDEN GATE IS FALLING DOWN. Back in the early ’50s, effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen animated a giant octopus hauling itself up the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and yanking parts of it to pieces. The picture was It Came From Beneath the Sea. And among the film’s most ardent fans over the years was… John Bruno. ”That’s the movie that made me want to get into effects,” he says.
How fitting, then, that Bruno got to top Harryhausen definitively with X-Men‘s state-of-the-art, ever-so-elaborate Golden Gate sequence. Magneto brings a crew of rebel mutants out onto the bridge and summons his metal-bending powers to yank the whole thing up, fly it across the bay, and land it on Alcatraz, where a pharmaceutical company has developed a mutant-gene cure.
”It’s the first scene we started and the last one we finished,” says Bruno. He can’t talk budget numbers, but does say that this sequence alone was initially slotted to take up one-sixth of all effects spending on the movie, which has a reported total budget of around $210 million. If the effects budget within that figure was, say, $18 million (a lowball estimate), that’s $3 million for the bridge. If it was way up at $36 million (probably on the high side), that’s $6 million. Sounds like a bargain, considering that by comparison, the real bridge would likely cost more than $1 billion to build today. (It was completed in 1937 at a cost of $35 million, in Depression-era dollars.)
Initially, Bruno and director Brett Ratner considered having Magneto actually rip the bridge to pieces, then re-create it. ”All the debris would follow a magnetic field,” recalls Bruno. ”It would be like paper clips, when you stick a magnet on one side and they line up in a row. The bridge would pull itself apart and reassemble in a long, stretching arc, all the way to Alcatraz Island.” But with a stretch of only about 10 full months to complete the effects work, that very complex approach was junked for the stronger, simpler image of the bridge just being moved wholesale.
The first thing Bruno’s team had to do was amass an archive of reference photographs and background footage. That was tough, because research began in the middle of last summer — a time of year when San Francisco is typically socked in with fog. ”Any time we could get a sunny day, we took a shot,” says Bruno. The effects planners were also restricted in how close they could fly to the bridge in a helicopter to get reference footage, an especially sensitive matter post-9/11: ”You get too close, you get waved off.”
Bruno used every kind of trick he knows to build his shots. Among the components: a giant full-scale set in Vancouver, where McKellen did his emoting and 30 real cars were filmed on a concrete span surrounded by giant greenscreens, with backgrounds put in later; physical miniature models, very useful for lighting reference; CG versions of the bridge spans; and lots of CG enhancement to miniatures shots, to show snapping cables, crumbling concrete supports, and people fleeing the bridge before it comes unmoored. The main company involved in all the CG work was a London firm called Framestore CFC. The chief sequence supervisor there, Craig Lynn, used to live in San Francisco — and thus knew the visual territory well. Toughest images to do: the long shots revealing the entire airborne bridge span, because of the complexity of the computer models required and how well the public knows what the real thing looks like.
Last Stand had an ironclad opening date of May 26 in the U.S. (and had to be unveiled several days earlier at Cannes and in Europe). So when did Bruno and company complete their last bridge shot, which shows winged X-Man Angel soaring around the structure? On May 8. What a close call — and what a money-shot-laden sequence. ”It’s such a crazy event, it should feel magical,” says Bruno. ”It did, and I’m really pleased with that.” At the Cannes premiere, Bruno reports, ”When the bridge moved, they applauded. I looked around thinking, Are they laughing at us? But no, they loved it.”
As a fan of great effects, Bruno says he’s really looking forward to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean sequel in July. Meantime, what do you think of the work that he and nearly 1,000 other effects artists turned in? The bridge scene was the priciest and the most difficult, but was it the best? How does it stack up to other visions of urban destruction in movies like A.I. Artificial Intelligence, War of the Worlds, Deep Impact, The Day After Tomorrow, Superman 2, the creature-on-the-loose Harryhausen flicks, and others? Tell us what you think via the message board below, not telepathy. We have no superpowers here.