How motion control, practical suits, stunts, CG and SFX combined
In The Invisible Man, Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss) is terrorized by her abusive ex Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). A spoiler warning here: It transpires that Adrian, an optics expert, has invented a highly advanced suit made of cameras that renders him invisible, allowing the wearer to go largely unnoticed.
Scenes requiring interaction with ‘the Invisible Man’ were made possible with a combination of effects techniques. And plenty of interaction there was; at times the Invisible Man attacks Cecilia (and others) in fully cloaked mode, while also coming under fire. This necessitated the staging of scenes with actors to appear as if they were fighting against nothing while also giving rise to moments when the suit ‘glitches’ or is revealed by water, smoke and, at one point, even paint.
Ultimately, such scenes were executed via stunt performances, costume effects, on-set special effects, motion control, CG animation and other visual effects work. The VFX was led by Cutting Edge, overseen by visual effects supervisor Jonathan Dearing, who had collaborated with director Leigh Whannell previously on Upgrade.
“For The Invisible Man,” states Dearing, “Leigh really wanted to have the audience always seeking where Adrian is with long wide shots where the audience would feel like someone else was in the room, with a composition of Cecilia on one edge, making us wonder what else was filling this other space. So that didn’t involve any effects, but then it did quickly expand into VFX when he fights and hits people and people grab him – it’s not a magic suit, it’s built out of technology, so it had to react in some way.”
Fighting the Invisible Man
Fight moments involving the Invisible Man were generally going to make use of a greenscreened stunt performer who would then need to either be painted out of the frame, or who performed in rehearsal takes and then stepped out of frame for a ‘clean’ plate. It was determined, then, that two of the most significant action sequences in the film would benefit from the use of motion control. These were when Cecilia is attacked in the kitchen, and later when she and a whole series of guards battle an invisible force – whose suit is now beginning to glitch – at the psychiatric hospital.
“Both Leigh and DOP Stef Duscio brought up motion control at an early meeting, and that’s what we were going to suggest, too,” outlines Dearing. “It just enables you to get a clean plate and repair any changes in between takes, especially since we were staging a number of fight moments. If you’ve got a big guy in a green suit walking around interacting with talent, he’s going to be covering a lot of the background. So how do you re-create that background? You either lock the camera or you re-create the move.”
On set, production shot with D2 Motion’s Argo motion control rig. For the kitchen sequence, stunt coordinator Harry Dakanalis and fight coordinator Chris Weir oversaw choreography of the planned fight, paying close attention to specific timings that the motion control camera would then follow as it performed pre-programmed moves along tracks and also even following Cecilia as she is flipped over a table. Stunt performer, Luke Davis, who was in the green suit, carried out the scenes with Elizabeth Moss or her stunt double Sarah Laidler, the idea being that interacting with another person would provide some realistic resistance and interaction during the fight. There were wire gags utilized here, too, and mimed moments. Special effects supervisor Dan Oliver handled on-set practical effects.
Cutting Edge then had to deal with the meticulous task of painting out any parts of the mo-co rig or the greenscreened performer in frame, as well as wires and extraneous details. “One of the toughest things was that Cecilia is wearing a jumper, and that’s one of the harder things to patch back on,” explains Dearing.
“We actually ended up using a CG jumper for most of the full-on interactive moments, as well as CG hands or CG feet wherever they were blocked by the green.”
“Sometimes we ended up using a shot where the green man was in the plate and we did have to clean him out,” adds Dearing. “Or sometimes we could do a mimed version of the scene and the actors would pull off something that looked convincing. Sometimes you just need the weight of someone hitting someone. If they’re grabbing them, you need that resistance from a guy on the green suit.”
Another tough part of the kitchen fight visual effects was dealing with clean-up where things such as crockery had been smashed or where drop sheets over parts of the furniture had moved slightly between takes. Says Dearing: “We had to isolate to the minute level one bit from one plate and one bit from another plate and get them all back together. It was a hot set but we had lots of moving things and lots of malleable things.”
The even more elaborate psychiatric hospital sequence employed the motion control rig to move up and down a corridor as the Invisible Man is firstly stabbed by Cecilia and then takes out several security personnel. The scene was broken up into specific moments to allow for a number of effects gags such as a glass window breaking that was set off by explosives and squib hits when one guard’s knee is shot.
“We systematically broke each one of those moments up and then the motion control rig could seamlessly pick up from a blend point, and we just stitched them all together,” details Dearing.
“The corridor moment happened over a day and a half of shooting in one location, and in fact we actually broke location, went somewhere else in Sydney based on schedule requirements and then came back to that corridor three or four days later. We put the motion control rig back in the same place and then carried on. If you’ve got a good video assist and can align everything back up and mark the exact points on the floor where the rig sat, you can literally just pick up from where you left off.”
Cutting Edge performed clean-up, wire removal and stitching for the hospital shots. A significant – and invisible – effect here was that the whole floor in the corridor was “a CG floor that we re-created and replaced and obviously roto’d feet out,” says Dearing. “We were basically using every trick in the book to take out that motion control rig track that was in the frame.”
As noted, during the hospital fight, Cecilia is able to stab the Invisible Man with a pen and cause the suit to malfunction. It glitches, effectively turning off and on and revealing part or all of the black camera coverings. The audience had also seen the suit revealed in an earlier scene when Cecilia returns to her and Adrian’s home and finds it in the basement laboratory.
The suit was a practical costume made by Odd Studio that was also built in CG by Cutting Edge. Its design was a conglomeration of input from several key creative forces on the show: Whannell, production designer Alex Holmes, costume designer Emily Seresin, Odd Studios’ Adam Johansen and Damian Martin, and Dearing.
“Leigh wanted something that was really minimalistic – the tech was all within and concealed and it just looked like something no one had ever seen before,” shares Dearing. “We had a meeting where we all pulled out reference. Quite quickly Leigh’s eye went to a very sleek figure hugging black wetsuit style. And imagery of close-up hexagon-like cell technology was on the table, too.”
Odd Studio was brought on board and immediately began building a 3D model of the cell structure that would house the suit’s camera lenses. This was something they could also 3D print, as they quickly built up different parts of the practical suit. At an early fitting, Dearing photographed the suit with both his iPad and DSLR and then brought that imagery back to Cutting Edge for the CG department to begin their digital build.
“We were working in parallel with Odd Studio who were a week or two in front of us,” notes Dearing. “They actually gave us a 3D print of each of the cells. We had to add on the actual lens mechanisms underneath the suit, in terms of the mechanical moving parts of it. Once we had the basic shape and the pattern and the idea, off we went.”
Paint in the face
The first time the audience is given any indication that a technological suit is involved is when Cecilia makes a startling find in the attic, and subsequently throws paint on the Invisible Man. This – only briefly – reveals the hexagonal cell patterns on the suit.
The scene was realized as a practical effect using a performer in a greenscreened version of the black suit, with VFX involved in orchestrating clean-up and extra paint splashes to give the desired appearance of paint having hit up against a transparent body shape.
“When I asked for a green suit version of the black suit there was a bit of pushback for it originally because of the cost of it and the time involved,” recalls Dearing. “Odd Studio didn’t have a lot of time to make the full-scale black suit that fitted every part of the performer, let alone another green version of it.”
The compromise was that only a portion of that green suit, featuring the hexagon shapes, was built. “We ended up with a green version up to the biceps and the front and the head, which is exactly where the paint hit,” says Dearing.
Staging the paint splash moment had been considered as a motion control shoot (since Whannell originally intended the splash to happen as a part of a longer camera move) but there was not enough space in the attic location to place the rig. Instead, a Steadicam move was imagined, which had made Dearing nervous in terms of trying to repeat the move in order to acquire a clean plate. Ultimately, a locked-off camera was employed.
“We did the paint gag and the first shot went right in the face and paint went everywhere,” describes Dearing. “It worked perfectly. We cleaned everyone out and got the clean plate. It was happy days!”
Cutting Edge artists then worked on clean-up, removing the green-suited performer and extended sections of dripping paint. “We filled in paint falling behind the green man,” says Dearing. “We extended paint that was running off all of the rafters and the surrounding hole of the attic manhole, effectively continuing the animation behind him.”
The suit’s glitch went through a number of incarnations. It was originally imagined as some kind of refraction that a viewer would see as the suit’s camouflage went through an ‘on and off’ stage. Cutting Edge’s plan was always to animate a CG character version of the Invisible Man that would influence the background with some kind of ‘icy’ or refractive look. However, this grew in scope to actually include more and more views of the black suit – still turning on and off – as post-production continued.
“Everyone was feeding back about what they really loved, including close-up shots we had done of the suit, the real physical suit and the CG interaction with the lighting and the lenses moving up and down,” attests Dearing. “They just wanted to see more of it. We could hear the language starting to turn into, ‘We want to see more of the black suit in the fight scenes.’”
So Cutting Edge delivered more of these CG suit incarnations, including a glitch effect crafted in Houdini, which was made to look like “a screen breaking down or a laptop when you twist it, where you can see there are bits not working, and then suddenly it does work,” says Dearing.
Ultimately, the final look, explains Dearing, was about a balance between the “fully ‘off’ black suit and the refractive almost invisible background distortion. There was a midway section which was a bit of both and we were dialing that in and out and working out the edge distortion and animation.”
The Invisible Man is certainly not a VFX-driven film, but it did rely on the crucial input of the visual effects team for the suit, the fight scenes and plenty of other ‘invisible’ gags (these include floating knives, guns, and a rain and fire extinguisher reveal of the suit). Cutting Edge also delivered environment effects such as extensions of Adrian and Cecilia’s house.
“The running gag on this film was, ‘The Invisible Man – there’s no visual effects, he’s not even there, right?’” reflects Dearing, who indicates that there was somewhere in the order of 300 VFX shots in the final show. “But we only really did shots where it was necessary and where it was helping to tell Leigh’s story.”