5 stunning VFX scenes from ‘Gangs of London’

dupe vfx reveals their work for the series, including that shocking exploding head.

A city is shown upside down. Cows get upturned. Someone loses their head. A building is destroyed. It’s all part of the television series Gangs of London from The Raid’s Gareth Evans and Matt Flannery and which deals with the impact of rival gangs taking on each other in the UK capital.

The show features a whole bunch of shocking moments, many of them crafted with the help of visual effects studio dupe vfx. Here, befores & afters looks at just five of dupe’s sequences from the series, including the opening London shot, how driving scenes were accomplished with the aid of LEDs, the cow shot, the shocking head shot, and the underground car park explosion.

1. An upended London view

Gangs of London begins with an upside-down fly-over of London. As the camera flips up, it is revealed that the scene is a POV of a man hanging by a rope over the edge of a building (he is eventually set on fire by another man and falls, in flames, to his death).

dupe vfx’s CG London.

“Gareth wanted to create a very Gotham-y underworld view of London,” outlines dupe vfx CEO and visual effects supervisor Jonathan Harris. “For the fly-over, it was going to be too cost-prohibitive to shoot that with a drone or helicopter and get the look required, so it’s a fully-CG shot.”

dupe developed an 8 kilometer area of digital London, complete with procedural buildings and animated vehicles and movement in the scene. More than 120 assets were crafted for the shots.

“We put everything into it and we spent four to six months on that build,” adds Harris. “And in fact we built a new CG department around that sequence. We’re really proud of it.”

2. Through city streets

The series required a number of driving scenes which might normally have been shot against greenscreen with backgrounds composited in. Instead, the dupe vfx team relied on a hybrid greenscreen/LED screen approach to take advantage of interactive light from the real locations.

The driving rig set-up.

This started with a plate shoot to acquire 270 degree backgrounds that were edited into running footage dubbed ‘9ups’. During studio shooting of a static car, the 9ups were projected on the LED panels for front, back and side views. The result was in-camera interactive lighting onto the car and actors for later compositing with those 270 degree plates.

“There is a dream set-up,” acknowledges Harris, “where you have the exact footage you’re projecting at the exact moment that you’re comp’ing. In reality, that happened maybe in one or two shots out of 110. They were doing multiple takes, and shooting on a loop so you would lose that footage or see the same background.”

The 9ups.
Greenscreen plate.
Final shot.

“But because it was the same environment, shot within the same 10 minutes, it all tied back together really well. You get some really nice moments where, for example, there’d be a red bus passing by and you see a tint of red pass through the car.”

3. Cows take a tumble

At one point, some cows suspected of carrying heroin on a truck are intercepted. The truck hits a mine and the camera follows the cows inside the overturning vehicle. That shot saw dupe vfx deliver partial CG cows, while also marrying up two different trucks from the live-action shoot.

dupe’s CG cows.

“We had to transition from the moving truck to a destroyed truck,” says Harris. “Unfortunately on the day the two trucks were far more different than originally planned, different dimensions, different windows, everything. So most of the plans that we did have for the shot went out the window and it became one of those shots that you just had to figure it out once you received the plates.”

“The biggest challenge,” continues Harris, “was understanding what was happening. Gareth wanted it to be abstract but he also wanted the audience to know that the truck traveled over a mine and flipped.”

“The creative challenge was covering the takeover and CG cows with dust elements and lens effects whilst still seeing out the back so that you read the horizon flipping and could make sense of the weight of the cows flipping up.”

4. When heads explode

For a sequence in which a sniper with a high velocity rifle takes out ‘enforcer’ Mark (Adrian Bower), dupe vfx co-ordinated a spectacular bloody head explosion and aftermath. An on-set shoot involved specific stunt choreography, including for the moment after the head shot where Mark’s body falls to the ground, which was carried out by a stunt performer in a rugby helmet.

The head shot.
The scene also included the body falling over.

Visual effects supervisor Paddy Eason captured as much reference for the head explosion scene on set as possible. He made use of a Ricoh Theta camera for fast 360 degree HDRIs, as well as taking photogrammetry stills of the actor with a DSLR to use for head geometry and textures.

“Then we had a couple of extra days at a small studio to shoot specific SFX gore elements,” outlines Eason. “We had a bluescreen stage, an SFX crew led by special effects supervisor Alexander Gunn, and a camera crew. We shot bullet hits, blood hits, splinter hits, dust hits, blood spraying out of eye sockets – everything we could from every angle. It was all about giving us a bunch of ragged real elements that we could use.”

An SFX shoot day aided in providing elements for the final shots. Photo courtesy Paddy Eason.

The final head explosion transitions from the real actor to a CG version, combined with simulations of head and blood chunks and the SFX elements. “The director, Corin Hardy, liked the idea of a mist of blood in the air,” says Eason. “We started calling that ‘pink mist’, so there’s some of that in those shots as well.”

On the ground, Mark’s shot-open head also required detailed visual effects work. Notes Eason: “You get quite an explicit view of the bottom part of the head with a bit of jaw and a geyser of blood spurting out. That was probably a bit more than we planned for, but you roll with these things. We had the raw material so it was quite fun in a disgusting kind of way to do that.”

5. Underground blast

The final episode sees the destruction of the Belvedere Tower via an explosion orchestrated from a van in the tower’s underground car park. The explosion is seen on screen in extreme slow motion with a shock wave of flames that also begin to take out the building’s concrete supports.

Part of the final blast.

Eason kicked off the look development for the sequence with VFX storyboards, helping to establish a shooting methodology for the explosion scene. This began with empty plates of an underground car park and van. Later, a different van was used to film pyrotechnics plates with the aid of a Phantom high-speed camera.

“We were allowed to destroy various parts of it,” explains Eason. “There were explosive blasts that went through the windscreen and another one close to the front of the grill. For that, the grill was actually placed on the floor and the camera was shooting straight down so that the hot air rising would help us with the flames rising up.”

VFX supervisor Paddy Eason’s storyboards for the initial explosion.

Further practical fire elements were captured using a blue-painted tunnel set-up. “One end was air cannons and the pyrotechnics,” says Eason. “The other end was our Phantom camera in a perspex box. One amusing moment was when the explosive force was enough to actually blow the roof off the top of our plywood tunnel.”

Shots of the concrete pillars shattering began with half-scale columns – positioned at 90 degrees – rigged to explode. “These cylinders were made of crumbling material and had a cable built into them that could be yanked from below,” explains Eason. “Gravity held us make the columns snap in half and have pieces falling down.”

Boards for the fireball and shockwave.

The team at dupe vfx augmented the practical explosion moments, wrapping fire elements around solid pieces in the scene and adding additional Houdini sims to the mix. “Special effects gave us very nice unfurling fire that looked very, very pretty and interesting in slow-mo,” notes Eason. “But we needed to add a bit more of that concussive, high-explosive feel. I’m a big fan of practical effects and practical elements and shooting stuff for real when you can, and then combining it all at the end.”

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