Dredd 3D: Finding the fear in Mega-City One
This article originally appeared in IF magazine, Issue #150
Unlike many other blockbuster movies, Dredd 3D used only one VFX facility to create its effects instead of depending on multiple digital agencies. In fact, Prime Focus was hand-picked to work on the effects even before the director was brought on board.
Prime Focus VFX supervisor Jon Thum says involving the visual effects studio from the start of the production process helped deliver a great film. "We were able to eliminate the wasteful use of effects, which usually happens on movies when the digital companies are contracted further down the line. By integrating the effects so closely into the storyline, we were able to find clever ways of making high-level visuals on a relatively low budget."
The gritty, futuristic-set film, based on the 2000 AD comic strip Judge Dredd, follows Dredd (played by Karl Urban) and a trainee (Olivia Anderson) as they attempt to take down a gang that deals the reality-altering drug called SLO-MO.
Prime Focus' art department was asked to create the design concepts for the film sets in collaboration with the producers and filmmakers, even before the production designer was hired. And when the on-set team started work, Thum's crew worked closely with them on the look of the buildings, which made it easier to add digital extensions to the real life footage and practical sets.
"This level of teamwork with the filmmakers is very unusual these days," adds Thum.
Thum, previously with Framestore, joined Prime Focus specifically to work on Dredd 3D. He was keen to sign up, mainly because the VFX company would have a seat at the top table with the filmmakers and writer Alex Garland, from beginning to end. As a result, the decisions on the overall aesthetics and effects were locked down right at the start, allowing everybody on the production to sing from the same hymn sheet.
"Those ideas didn't change throughout the life-span of the film," recalls Thum. "It meant we could be very efficient and had less problems to fix in post because the chances of something going wrong on set were minimised. I think in some films, you get a famous director at the top who acts like a dictator. He/she usually changes their minds at the last minute and everybody has to jump.
"But that's not how this film was made. When people watch this film, they will notice it has a consistent look all the way through."
Thum says each major effect was designed with the intention of moving the story forward. "This led to the environments looking like a real place, grounded in the real world and that's exactly what we wanted. The VFX also added to the scale and atmosphere. Even the slow-motion effects were used to tell the story."
When it came to building Mega-City One, Thum says the early discussions were crucial for making sure the look and feel of the tower blocks were authentic to Dredd's world.
"We talked about the buildings looking really cool, with massive outside spaces and protrusions sticking out from the sides. The idea of those protrusions changed in our minds and as time went on, they eventually evolved into skate board parks, which then became a key part of the story. In the end, we decided to use the skate board parks to introduce the buildings, where Dredd ends up during the most significant moments in the film."
Thum's team was determined to use 3D technology in a far more imaginative way than in most other movies.
"The most difficult shots involved the wide shots of Mega-City One. To get the 3D right for these scenes, we tested the 3D stereo in pre-viz even before the cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle was hired. But when Anthony joined us, one of the big attractions for him was the chance to experiment with the stereo filming. He examined what you should and shouldn't do and then he decided to break all of the rules.
"As a result, the film includes a lot of foreground footage shot out of focus in stereo, which is generally not done. We also produced layered slow-motion sequences to create as much depth as possible and make the scenes appear hyper-real. This was achieved by shooting as many elements as possible and adding CG effects to each layer before putting it all together. So we tried to push the stereo inside the slow-motion. I think the film feels much more expansive than the original thanks to this approach."
Mantle used pairs of Red MX cameras across three rigs and SI-2Ks on a Steadicam rig. The shots were matched via a custom-made colour matrix as part of Berlin-based post production facility Post Republic and Prime Focus’ on-set digital lab process. (The Post Republic later graded the film using Nucoda Film Master in 2D on the right eye – the 2D grade was then eye matched with the help of Prime Focus’ VFX department, before a final 3D pass.)
Thum admits that the CGI would not have worked so well without the use of carefully selected footage from the set. Many of the massive tower blocks and buildings, which exist in the foreground, were created out of real buildings and practical sets shot on location in Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa. They were stitched together with one of the striking old tower blocks from the South Bank in London, which was used multiple times.
Once the production had the shots they wanted, Prime Focus augmented the footage to create the helicopter and car chase sequences in the movie. This involved adding a huge digital freeway in the middle, cleaning out a number of whole tower blocks in the frames and replacing them with big roads, cars and vehicles to make the whole scene look dizzy and claustrophobic.
"We used the two-tiered freeway in Johannesburg to shoot the car chase, which was surrounded by buildings," adds Thum. "It was ideal and allowed us to present glimpses of the Mega blocks as the main car chase unfolded, without having it in people's faces.
"We wanted the striking buildings to sit in the background so the audience would think it was just a real place where the film was shot. This meant that we didn't have to spend so much money on the effects to remind people all of the time where the action was taking place."
But filming the production was challenging even for the director Peter Travis, who has a single camera, shaky-cam, reputation from his days on Vantage Point. He had to adjust his filmmaking methods to allow the 3D to work as planned, which involved filming a number of test shoots before working on set. This allowed him to feel more comfortable with the stereo.
"In the end, he took on board the stereo very well, which required him to be disciplined about slowing the camera down to feel the stereo and the depth of the scene.
"But we were still able to use his quick action style, so long as we did it now and again and not all of the time. He got the balance right. Sometimes you have to slow the camera down to see the whole scene in stereo and he did that well."
Thum says The Matrix is the last film he worked on when so much advance planning went into the effects.
"I think doing it any other way is completely wrong," reflects Thum. "When you work in a hierarchy that keeps you so far away from the production, you feel distanced from the creative part of the team. I remember on The Matrix, all of the VFX supervisors from the effects houses were involved in every single pre-production meeting with the heads of departments.
"This is because the Wachowski brothers were very keen on bringing the VFX professionals into the core of the filmmaking and they wanted the effects to drive the film. They were able to achieve this by involving everybody from the start."