Framestore's Richard Hoover on "Blade Runner 2049"
Congratulations to the visual effects teams behind “Blade Runner 2049” on their Oscar win!
Richard Hoover, Visual Effects Supervisor at Framestore's Montreal office shared details with us on his history with the franchise, his experience with Arnold, and how the team pulled off some of the most visually compelling VFX shots filmgoers have yet to see.
My (accidental) intro to "Blade Runner"
In a twist of fate, I actually got behind the scenes of the first Blade Runner movie. I was directing a commercial for Levi’s Cords, an offshoot of their denim company, and we needed miniatures. Mark Stetson was my model maker for the shoot. When I went to speak with him in his workshop, it just so happened that he was shooting the opening scene to Blade Runner with the camera operator, Don Baker – the shot of the Tyrell Corporation building smothered in smoke. All of that was done in miniature, and I got to watch them shoot it.
Fate strikes again: The Final Cut
When Warner Bros. started looking to revamp the original Blade Runner for The Final Cut (2007), I was working for Sony Pictures Imageworks. Apparently, Ridley Scott had a list of things he thought could be better, or that he hadn’t had creative control of during the original Blade Runner shoot, so Warner Bros came to us, and we agreed to help update those specific scenes.
The Final Cut, released in 2007, was a challenging project technically. We felt pressure knowing we were working on a beloved movie with a cult fan base, but from an image and design standpoint, it was just so much fun as well.
All of our work was accomplished using Maya, which I’ve been working with since its inception, Arnold, and Flame. This was my first introduction to Arnold. I had been doing some form of ray tracing for my entire career, but to finally have a piece of software that worked quickly and was able to do a high level of true ray tracing was phenomenal. And having the image-based rendering ability was a significant step forward.
"…to finally have a piece of software that worked quickly and was able to do a high level of true ray tracing was phenomenal.”
Blade Runner 2049
We were tasked with creating two of the main environments in the movie: Trash Mesa, a wasteland of garbage south of Los Angeles, and a futuristic Las Vegas. The goal there was to really wow people, to cause their jaws to drop. We also worked on character models, such as Joi, a hologram played by Ana de Armas, and a scene involving a swarm of bees, which were deliberately subtle. The Spinner Car – K’s police car, with a drone attached to the roof – was our design, too. We delivered about 300 shots.
Those who have seen the film will know that the environment plays a very big role. We were trying to communicate an oppressive atmosphere, to convey this sense that the world has grown too vast and inhospitable for human beings, who just pale in comparison to the size and scope of everything around them. It is industrialization gone mad.
As for Trash Mesa and Las Vegas, those presented serious challenges to us. We had the basic theme, and a lot of reference shots, and an enormous number of models, but we only had a few key shots from direction editorial. We took the visual assets we had and placed them on top of the USGO point card data for the Vegas valley, and started building from scratch: every road, every building, every tourist attraction. And then we added the atmospheric details.
In the end, it wasn’t easy to integrate the model buildings with the digital ones, and with every iteration we delivered, we kept receiving one common message: make it bigger. So eventually we reached a limitation, which was that the miniature stuff could not deliver the kind of scale they were after in the movie. At this point, we had exhausted our photo scanning material. Our original expectation was that no more than 25-35 percent of the sequences would be digital, but it became apparent that we were going to have two enormous sequences done entirely in CG, and by the time we realized this, we only had about five months of work left. We had to mobilize pretty much all our personnel – everyone we possibly could – on this project, about 175 people in total, to pick up the slack and build everything out.
The tools for 2049
We used Maya and Arnold together on Blade Runner 2049. The pipeline between them is extremely robust. Not only do I appreciate the fantastic images and animation they produce together, but I also appreciate the flexibility they offer. There isn’t just one way of doing things; you can develop your own method or approach to the work. That freedom is empowering; it gives greater license to the artists to achieve their unique creative vision.
Read more about Richard Hoover's Journey to "Blade Runner 2049" on AREA.