For ‘John Wick 3’s’ antiques hallway fight, Method Studios color-coded every piece of CG glass

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In Part 1 of befores & afters’ look into the CG glass-breaking scenes in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, we spoke to production VFX supervisor Rob Nederhorst about the shoots for the office of glass and the antiques hallways. Now we dive into the work of Method Studios in Australia, which executed the final shots with incredible invisible effects.

That work started with taking extensive scans, photographic reference and other data from production and beginning to layout and previsualize how the shots would look. “We had to determine where the CG glass was going to be,” says Method Studios visual effects supervisor Glenn Melenhorst. “It’s impossibly hard to tell, sometimes, when you’re looking at an environment like this, where there’s a room, where there’s a wall, where there’s not a wall.”

“Plus,” notes Melenhorst, “the fights go on for so long, so we had to work out the choreography of where our CG glass was going and track it through the sequence. So, if a sword swings down and cracks the piece of glass, 20 shots later we still need to know where that crack is and make sure it’s accounted for in the distance or in a reflection. So, laying that stuff out in continuity, of that kind of damage, was really critical.”

Body tracks of the actors and props, and camera matchmoves, were part of this layout process. This was done both at Method Studios and via outsourcing. There was a good reason to do such extensive tracking, suggests Melenhorst. “We’ve got times where our actors have to disturb the glass on the ground with their feet. There’s one memorable shot where John Wick is being thrown from glass cabinet to glass cabinet to glass cabinet, and they’re all CG, so you want John, when he gets up and moves, to be kicking that glass around and knocking the shards. A really good match move for that stuff is important.”

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In addition, Method Studios needed to reflect him, and the other adversaries, authentically in the CG glass. “Any time we had a character anywhere near a pane of digital glass, we built a 3D version of that character, projected the plate photography onto them so that we could get a more accurate reflection, or a full-CG render of them, to reflect them back into the CG environment correctly.”

Smashing cabinets

For that particula glass cabinets shot Melenhorst refers to, and the way the CG glass needed to break, the VFX studio was guided by director Chad Stahelski. “He had really strong ideas on the way the glass broke, creatively. When glass shatters completely, it still falls in large kind of islands or icebergs of shattered glass that then break again when they hit the ground. Those larger shapes, and how many of them versus how many little shapes, were something that we worked on aesthetically. It was all modeled in Maya but then simulated in Houdini, and what we needed to do was just keep iterating until we hit that perfect recipe for the way that that stuff shattered into those larger shapes. So, it wasn’t a matter of hitting ‘Go’ and getting what you got, a lot of it was quite heavily art directed.”

“Sometimes,” continues Melenhorst, “you wanted it to fall in a way where it wouldn’t be underfoot for a whole bunch of other fighting scenarios. Whilst you wish you had infinite time and money to make these things, there’s times where you just think, ‘Okay, if it fell slightly more to the left, then they’re not going to be standing on glass for the next 15 shots and we save ourselves some VFX dollars, and we can put that into more important things.’ A little bit of art direction for pragmatism.”

Using V-Ray as their renderer, Method Studios experimented with the right level of translucence and sub-surface scattering for the digital glass. “A lot of these glass cabinets had illuminated bases,” points out Melenhorst, “so the glass would often pile onto those bases, and the way that glass was lit from behind or underneath changed the level of opacity.”

Smashing different kinds of cabinets

While the glass cabinets in the glass office required a certain kind of smashing simulation, the glass – also CG – inside the antique cabinets necessitated a different approach. That’s because it was more like leaded glass, and cracked and broke in large chunks. But that wasn’t Method Studios’ first challenge for the sequence; it initially had to plan for all the different weapon uses and stunts as John Wick fights the bad guys.

“The first thing we had to do was track all the knives, where they were all going, who had what stuck into them at what time,” outlines Melenhorst. “And then, similarly, with the glass breaking, we went through and, in every shot, we color-coded every CG piece of glass: it was red if it had previously been broken, blue if it was not being touched and green if it was being broken in that shot. We had a color code because we needed to go through layout and, not only track every cabinet but also track the tiny wobbles in every cabinet and the panes of glass inside the casings of every cabinet to get the wobbles right, then we needed to go through and plan the breaking and honor the damage in each piece of glass for every shot, and also the debris on the floor for every shot.”

Artists at Method Studios established the shattering, cracking and smashing of this antique glass again in Houdini. “We had a sim set up where we could throw a blunt instrument toward a pane of glass and get it to fracture like that,” says Melenhorst. “But then we made choices about how much fracturing it had, because quite often these things would spider-web like crazy, or not quite where you want it to, so we would force cracks in certain areas because you wanted to read those glass edges against contrasting elements in the frame. We would accentuate some areas and not others later on, even choosing to highlight them in lighting and poke a few lights here and there to help it along.”

Melenhorst says that apart from the glass itself, one of the hardest things to pull off in visual effects for this antiques hallway fight was consistency of weapons. “Things got really, really confusing because every weapon had a different handle, a different hilt and a different type of blade. So, if John reaches into a cabinet, grabs five off a shelf, and then throws them at four different guys, we had to track all those assets across the whole sequence. It sounds easy to say, but it was nightmarish.”

“The other thing, too, in this sequence, more so than the other glass office sequence, was that it was critical for us to build CG versions of everybody fighting, so that they were reflected into our CG glass correctly. That was all hand-tracked animation, and re-mapped and re-textured, so that we got all that accurate. It was also necessary to have all the knives sticking out of them, of course. Everybody was slavishly rotoscoped for this sequence.”

Head over to Part 1 for more on the planning and shooting side of these glass-filled fights, and keep an eye out for even more Parabellum coverage coming soon.

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