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Public Enemies

Public Enemies: Fast and Loose VFX

by Bill Desowitz
VFXWorld, a division of Animation World Network
July 9, 2009

Robert Stadd divulges the invisible vfx secrets behind Michael Mann’s Public Enemies.

Public Enemies is summer counter-programming at its best: a prestigious biopic about gangster John Dillinger starring Johnny Depp and directed by Michael Mann, with definite Oscar potential. Not a lot of flashy CG, but noteworthy vfx nonetheless. VFX Supervisor Robert Stadd discusses the challenges of doing period work and collaborating with Mann in this VFXWorld exclusive.

It’s really hard to pull off period gangster isn’t it?

Robert Stadd: I think Michael had a good take on all that.

Sure. Dillinger as the last of the outlaw gangsters made obsolete by technology and social engineering. And who would’ve guessed 400 vfx shots? You did a terrific job of hiding them.

I’ve worked with Michael before—this is my fourth film with him—and the thing is he gave me very little direction during filming, because I know. What he wants is it to be invisible, seamless and not to slow down the story. Nobody should ever know it’s a visual effects shot.

That’s pretty much the mandate for everything unless you’re doing fantasy, sci-fi. And even the comic book movies want to be more naturalistic.

They do but they’re not always successful. I have to say that I spot them most of the time. It makes you crazy. But we should never for a second think there’s anything out of the ordinary. And that just goes back to old school, traditional lighting, matching, lenses, all that hard stuff. That’s basically it. And I use everything in the book, from CG to split screen to bluescreen, greenscreen. And really I looked at this as anything it took to get the job done. There was some CG, certainly, when Dillinger gets killed in the end, all the blood is CG. There was no other way to do it. And also Michael shoots at a pace. I mean, we shoot fast, even though it’s at a reasonable schedule.

Maybe it’s that early TV background.

Who knows? I think what it is: he wants to stay in the dream, in the story. And when he’s there, he wants to be looking while we’re filming and get every bit of it. He never wants to slow down, he never wants to stop. And the other thing is, you have to be ready. You just have to read the signs and be ready. He’s not going to say, “I want a bluescreen here and we’re going to shoot from this angle.” You just have to know. The first time we see them robbing a bank, there’s a shot of Dillinger jumping over the transom, which required a face replacement. That came up like five minutes before. There’s a lot of that going on.

How much previs did you do?

We prevised the very end when Dillinger gets shot—and the way we shot it was completely different from the previs. And that was just one shot. Sometimes I try to do a lot of storyboards. On this one, I did just a couple to give him an idea of framing. Nine times out of 10, it’s not what we end up doing. On the shot of Johnny jumping over, that was a case of the stuntman doing an amazing job—he was like a gymnast pausing in mid-air. Johnny couldn’t do that. Then we shot Johnny doing it mostly for lighting. Then afterward there was a scanning session for his head and also for the end. So we had some CG heads that we could use and we used them a lot in the bank robbery.

Who worked on that shot?

CafeFX. They also did some interim work on Dillinger’s death, but, really all that blood stuff was Hammerhead. We built about 60% of it in CG with 3ds Max and then using Nuke we just manipulated it. And then Hammerhead shot a bunch of live-action elements of blood just pouring out of him (using a Styrofoam head).

What were some of the other vfx sequences?

The whole prison break in the beginning. That was done at Stateville Prison in Illinois. Pixel Playground did that. Dietrich is held by Dillinger then released. These shots involved greenscreen, CG tires and Dietrich’s hand.

When they’re inside marching, the whole bottom half of the prison is CG matte painting courtesy of Illusion Arts because there was a giant wire fence behind that was strictly not period, so I had a bluescreen covering most of the wire, but I couldn’t cover it all because of wind issues. I shot lots of reference pictures of the prison and for the entire prison break that was a tiled matte painting. And then for the outside of the prison, we had a huge bluescreen covering the old entrance and then that was a matte painting which just reveals a new entrance off of the right there. So the whole prison break was a lot of shots.

And we had a lot of fix it stuff. Because of the speed that we move, there wasn’t a lot of time for doing tests, and, as I said, Michael never wants to leave the dream. So there were a lot of makeup fixes on Billy Crudup’s J. Edgar Hoover.

All that stuff inside the movie theater for the Movietone News was bluescreen and a lot of crowd replication. VFX Collective did the shot in the Movietone News where Dillinger and his guys are walking up the aisle, out of the theater. Invisible Effects did the shot in the theater where we go from color to black-and-white, and the shot that immediately follows it. VFX Collective did all the other shots in the sequence, including the two shots (crowd tiling) of the crowd looking left and right behind Dillinger.

And there were a lot of gunshots during the Little Bohemia Lodge battle. It was a crazy filming we had there and really cold in the 20s. And there wasn’t time to reset for special effects so I added a lot of bullet hits and muzzle flashes (in After Effects). Also, when Homer gets shot by Purvis, when he’s machine gunned and bullets and blood fly out of him, that was many, many takes of VFX Collective’s work: cutting and pasting and putting in blood puffs and hits.

What were some of the other vendor contributions?

Invisible Effects did wound removal (we created shots where we filmed characters with wound make-up already applied, then up until the point where he’s shot, we paint out the wound, revealing it when the bullet hits); compositing work in the first bank robbery (including the very tricky shot of Dillinger throwing the bank manager against the vault. The vault was a plate, and this huge moving camera shot was accomplished without motion control), creating moving backgrounds while they fled that first bank robbery. . .

Wildfire VFX did paint work, compositing work, creating an elevator button in the Sherone apartment scene, adding blood to the towel under Tommy Carroll in his interrogation, split screens in the Biograph sequence (changing the timing of one part of the frame with another).

Lowry Digital did noise reduction for the shot of Tommy Carroll in the hallway of the Sherone apartment. That shot was so noisy, it was almost unusable. It was then composited by Invisible Effects. Lowry also did noise reduction on shots of Dillinger battling Winstead just after Little Bohemia, and just before Purvis kills Homer Van Meter and Baby Face Nelson.

Animated images:

Jailbreak scene: Exterior Stateville Prison. The left side of the prison contained a modern “sally port” (entrance), which was bluescreened, and replaced with a matte painting by Illusion Arts.

Racetrack scene: Shot at Santa Anita, which doubled for Hialeah racetrack in Florida. The San Gabriel mountains were replaced with actual Florida skies and is a composite/tile of pictures stitched together by Illusion Arts.

-- donated by emma

-- additional photos added by Zone editors