Shooting ‘Speed’s’ opening titles almost destroyed the miniature elevator

‘We shoved so much light into the miniature that it was literally melting and coming apart.’

#speedvfxweek is brought to you by YellowDog
#speedvfxweek is brought to you by YellowDog.

Has there ever been any opening titles quite like those in Speed? For the uninitiated, the three-minute long sequence follows the path of an elevator shaft from above the 40th floor right down to the basement, immediately segueing into the film’s action. All the while, composer Mark Mancina’s score is introduced, while the titles themselves wipe on and off the elevator beams.

Amazingly, the titles ‘oner’ was filmed with motion control using an 85 foot long miniature crafted by Grant McCune Design that lay horizontal during shooting. It was made up of eight shafts, with one working elevator car and counter weight, and 400 miniature florescent tubes as lights. Since it ended up being a 4,000-plus frames shot, the model had to be filmed in multiple passes with large amounts of lighting causing, at times, some near melting-moments for the materials that made up the miniature.


Here’s the story, via members of Speed’s visual effects team, behind that near melting, the huge renders (just of the titles themselves) and the optical compositing required to bring it altogether.

‘Jan de Bont loved the titles previs’

Frank Foster (previsualizor: main titles, Speed): I heard that Jan de Bont had gotten the idea for the titles wiping on and off from when he was working on Die Hard – he was of course a cinematographer on several John McTiernan films. Jan was very hands-on with that whole titles sequence. It was definitely his baby from font selection to animating the ‘Speed’ logo into place and editing it with motion blur.

‘The blue text were my nightmare renders.’

We previs’d the entire thing, with the titles wiping on and off, at Sony Pictures Imageworks. Jan de Bont loved the titles previs. We specially set up a laptop for him because normally we were working on workstations and we brought the laptop to the set. He himself took the mouse and set the cameras in 3D Studio. It was the first time that I ever saw a director get hands-on with previs, and really accept, and actually embrace the previs.

With 3D Studio, unlike Wavefront and some of the other software at the time, you could just literally pick up a camera and move it and see the perspective and everything changing. You could set your lenses that matched the 35 millimeter camera lenses. Jan didn’t have any translation problems. He immediately understood.

The trials and tribulations (and melting) of the miniature elevator

Boyd Shermis (visual effects supervisor, Speed): I’ll be honest with you, that was maybe the hardest miniature shoot I’ve ever done. I think it was something in the order of 4,465 frames long. And when you’re doing motion control miniature photography with multiple repeat moves, that’s a very tough thing to do. It was a very enclosed space in there to run a camera through it. And so, when you think about miniature photography, one of your goals is to get a very deep depth of field.

So, you close the shutter down, we went to F11, which means very long exposures, and/or you balance that with killing it with light. I mean, we just shoved so much light into the miniature that quite literally it was melting and coming apart. I mean, we had panels that were glued to the walls and all that sort of thing. And they were coming unglued. It was just so much heat, so much light going in there in order to get that deep stop.

The opening title miniature was shot in two sections because it had to be so long. The miniature was effectively half the length it needed to be. So we had to do a hookup in there in the middle of it, which meant we run the camera through and you get the first 20 stories or 30 stories, whatever it was. Then you run it through again and you get the next 20 stories.

But the thing about it was that we were shooting with VistaVision and it takes twice as much film, so the magazines would otherwise be twice as large. But we had to cut it down because this was a pretty small miniature and it’s crawling through this little tiny space, so we had to use really tiny film magazines, which meant that we had to do it in even smaller sections. So, we’d run 200 feet of film through it and get us two or three floors. And I always load up a magazine and get another couple of floors.

‘It was the first time that I ever saw a director get hands-on with previs, and really accept, and actually embrace the previs.’

I mean, that shoot went on for well over a week for three minutes of footage. It was done in multiple passes. So, you’re exposing for the fluorescent lights so, you get one exposure for the fluorescent lights and you get another exposure for the walls. Another exposure for shadow detail, that sort of thing.

The crew was running seven days a week, 18 to 20 hours a day. The studio put us up at a hotel that was just a block away, just so we could all walk over and crash and then come back in the morning and do it over again. And we had the usual film nightmares where you’d be in the middle of one pass and the magazine would jam. And then you had to go do it again. And then a light would burn out and then you’d have to do it again. And then a panel would come unglued because there was so much light in there and you’d glue it back and you’d have to do it again. And it took forever. Just took forever. But it was in the end one of the coolest things. You don’t know where the hookups are or anything.

Keeping all those cables taught in the elevator miniature was one of the hardest things. Remember, the miniature was on its side. When you stretched those elevated cables out, gravity has its effect. And you run a pass and all of a sudden the cables are sagging. Or the motor that’s driving the elevators, which were moving, burns out. It was just a whole series of things where anything that could go wrong did go wrong during that shoot.

Rendering the titles….in 4K

Rachel Nicoll (digital artist, Sony Pictures Imageworks): The blue text were my nightmare renders. The problem was, I had dialed up the object motion blur and the camera motion blur to 11 in 3D Studio. When you’re doing samples at TV resolution, it’s not a big deal. But when you have to render it to 4K, which we did here, well…

Obviously, we got it done. But there was like only one computer at Imageworks that could do some of those frames where the titles take up the whole screen. So normally we’d render at 2K back then, but for some reason we did it in 4K, which made my motion blur issue exponentially worse. At 4K it was like, ‘Welcome to my nightmare.’

Actually, the 4K renders turned out to be sort of fortuitous in a way, because at one point I wasn’t there – I was at my brother’s college graduation – and they added that punch-in to the ‘Speed’ title. So they needed to change it, but then they were like, ‘Rachael’s not here and only she knows how to run this thing!’ I mean, I couldn’t render it by the next day anyway because it took days and days and days.

Luckily, we had a compositor named Karen who knew Wavefront Composer at the time. She said, ‘We can just fix it in Composer, right?’ I think it was her who ended up doing the punch-in. Luckily, because I rendered at 4K, it was high enough resolution to handle that kind of thing.

It’s not over yet: how the titles and miniatures were combined, optically

Frank Foster: The titles sequence was one of the last things that was getting done on the film, since it was a photochemical composite being done by an outside company. This was at a unique moment where film scanning was still expensive and difficult. So it was one of the few times where we did the actually titles digitally, but we had to do photo-chemical compositing for the final shots.

‘I’ll be honest with you. That was maybe the hardest miniature shoot I’ve ever done.’

However, that presented some difficulties for us. The titles disappear behind beams in the elevator shaft. We had to do holdout mattes for the titles to disappear and come back. That had to all be contact printed because the original footage of the miniature of the elevator shaft was too long of a sequence to film scan at the time – too expensive.

And we were re-doing the composite, basically the titles compositing into the elevator shaft background over and over, trying to eliminate matte lines. Of course, Jan de Bont wanted to be very precise about that. He wanted it to look exactly the way he wanted it, which was of course understandable and what we wanted, too. With camera weave, and with slight discrepancies, and using different pieces of film, working with a company we weren’t familiar with, it was pretty hair-raising.

We were shooting around the clock trying to get new versions outputted to film and sent to the company to do the composite. That was my biggest memory. It’s probably one of the worst deadline situations that I can remember because we were holding it up. We were the thing that was the last thing that was holding up the film. There was a lot of pressure on us.

Explore our in-depth ‘Speed’ 25th anniversary coverage during #speedvfxweek, Coming up: dragging a bus into a plane, and shooting crashing train miniatures…

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