‘Medical websites, bullet hits and blast wounds – it’s pretty horrific’

UPDATED with VFX breakdown: ‘The Old Guard’ VFX supervisor Sara Bennett on what it took to make immortal mercenaries.

When visual effects supervisor Sara Bennett came on board Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard, the new Netflix film based on the Greg Rucka comic book, she had to help find a way to show the regenerative qualities of a group of immortal mercenaries, led by centuries-old Andy (Charlize Theron).

After being shot, stabbed or much worse, these warriors’ life-threatening – and ending – wounds are able to heal relatively quickly, and that needed to happen directly on screen.

“We scoured many medical websites, got a lot of reference of real-world wounds, bullet hits and blast wounds – it’s pretty horrific. But you have to do it to get real reference,” Bennett, a VFX Oscar-winner for Ex Machina, told befores & afters.

“We looked at how wounds would heal and actually found some time-lapse footage which was of a cut finger that heals over six weeks. Obviously that happened over weeks, but here we had to make it work for the audience to register it over a few seconds or over so many shots within a scene.”

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In crafting those regeneration effects – which would combine both practical make-up and digital effects work – Bennett says Prince-Bythewood was looking for something that didn’t necessarily call itself out as a VFX shot.

“We talked about it should always be in the background, and shouldn’t be a big set piece for VFX,” says Bennett, who hails from Milk VFX but was also the production visual effects supervisor on The Old Guard. “What Gina really wanted was for everything to be as real as possible, that was the main thing.”

Making healing as real as possible

The healing would largely be achieved via digital means by Image Engine. During principal photography, however, a key part of the regeneration shots involved practical make-up effects and prosthetics as a starting point.

“For the Kill Room, for example,” outlines Bennett, “the make-up team would leave residual blood and dirt around what the wound need would be. We would then pop on a tracking marker into those areas so that we knew, going into post, this is the position, this is where we’re going to have the wounds.”

Bigger wounds, such as when the character Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) is left with his intestines exposed, relied on more complex prosthetics.

“For that, we decided on a three-stage prosthetic,” says Bennett. “We’d built the outside of the prosthetic, and then just kept it green within the center so that it was easier for us in post to manipulate that and add in what we needed to.”

Image Engine then carried out regenerative effects that varied in complexity depending on the nature of the shot; the team would model particular human body parts, animate or simulate re-growth, or rely on compositing methods to show healing.

“Image Engine built a customizable/procedural wound healing system in Houdini that was built to run through healing phases based on references,” discusses Bennett. “Each layer was controlled by the FX department to allow them to time and animate each wound based on what was needed per shot.”

“The larger wounds like the Booker stomach regeneration was done with the help of rigging, mostly using deformers and blend shapes in Maya, to show the muscle and bone regrowing inside the wound. The bruising stage was developed inside Nuke with a set of parameters to allow the compositors to adjust the timing and look quickly based on feedback.”

An important part of these healing scenes for both Prince-Bythewood and Bennett was that they reflect the intensity of seeing immortal mercenaries come back to life while also not be just gratuitous effects scenes. Bennett also notes they were often deliberately staged to be subtle moments, despite the sometimes violent nature of the injuries.

“We didn’t want to have to show every time they got wounded that they could regenerate. You don’t need to be told every time. It didn’t have to become a big VFX piece, it was more about the story and Gina’s interpretation of it.”

Just as invisible: environments and other effects

While Image Engine concentrated on the re-generation scenes, Bennett had Milk VFX and Mr. X handle the many other visual effects requirements of the film (an in-house team from Host VFX also contributed).

One of the main environments was an establishing shot of Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan where we meet US Marine Nile Freeman, who turns out to also hold immortal abilities. Milk VFX extended plate photography filmed at a private airfield in Wentworth in the UK. We left the cameras rolling for a large part of the day to gather extra crowd footage that Milk used to populate the 2.5d dmp and they also created CG helicopters and Humvees.

“It was an amazing set piece, actually,” states Bennett. “We’d be running through piles of sand all day long. You end up pouring sand out of your shoes at the end of each day. We extended the plates to give it more production value, you want to establish that this is a real company in Afghanistan.”

Another environment handled by Milk was the dockyard scene when Qyunh is put into the Iron Maiden. Says Bennett: “We shot the main action against bluescreen and then shot some pods of people so we could fill it out in post. Milk approached this as a 2.5D matte painting using reference photography of medieval town architecture which they generated as layers to add parallax and depth to the shot as well as adding in extra props from a 2D library to bring this scene to life.”

Meanwhile, Mr. X handled visual effects for scenes set at the London headquarters of pharmaceutical company executive Steven Merrick, who is looking to take advantage of the mercenaries’ abilities.

“For the Merrick building, originally we found a building in the city, but we weren’t allowed to shoot the penthouse scenes there,” explains Bennett. “We found somewhere that allowed us to put greenscreens all around the outside. We shot Lidar and photography of London so that everything outside looked real.”

At one point, Nile jumps from the penthouse clutching Merrick onto a car below (knowing she will re-generate), with the final shot featuring VFX of the jump orchestrated by Mr X and the regeneration of Nile in the car completed by Image Engine.

“That whole scene gets such a good audience reaction,” comments Bennett. “I watched it with a few of the team at Milk and when you’ve been working on something for months and months and you get this little great reaction to that scene, it’s wonderful.“

Delivering the action

In total, The Old Guard utilized around 835 effects shots which included many other environments, fight and weapon enhancements and blood and gore effects. Says Bennett: “There’s quite a substantial amount of shots in there. It’s nice to have a few key effects parts in there that everybody recognizes, but I think the invisible ones are always more satisfying because no one expects it.”

For Bennett, The Old Guard experience was also a particularly collaborative and memorable one, for a couple of reasons.

“One of the things which was great was working with a lot of female heads of department on the show. And when we started to do the post in LA with Gina and the editor Terilyn Shropshire, that was a really fantastic experience, too. Gina got us very much involved in the process. We’d all watch the film, sit in a room and talk about what we thought of the scene. It felt really nice and personal.”

The effects work was also delivered despite a majority of the post-production schedule ultimately occurring during COVID-19 lockdown, which saw artists having to change to work remotely.

“Everybody was so patient,” recalls Bennett, “and I’m amazed how quickly people got set up and just got on with it. I’m really chuffed we managed to finish it all in this kind of environment. I mean, it’s not always easy sometimes delivering a film, but with that added on top, it added a whole new level.”

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