Making rivers, rain and whole towns for ‘News of the World’

VFX supervisor Roni Rodrigues from Outpost VFX explains how.

Paul Greengrass’ News of the World, set in 1870, stars Tom Hanks as a former member of the Confederate Infantry who is asked to return a young girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel) to her family.

To help re-create a number of period-correct locations in the film, the filmmakers looked to VFX supervisor Roni Rodrigues and Outpost VFX to craft a raft of visual effects—from desert environments, to whole towns, to a wagon crash, a dust storm, animals and even rivers and rain. Here, Rodrigues shares details with befores & afters on the principal VFX sequences, complete with behind the scenes images.

Town building

We used a Western town—Bonanza Creek Ranch—to stand in for several towns: Wichita Falls, Red River and Dallas. Even though we use the same set, we knew that those three towns are very distinguished between them. Wichita Falls is a very tiny village. Red River is supposed to be very characteristic for trading and for cows passing by. And Dallas was supposed to be the big town, the most developed place.

Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.
Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.

I collected quite a lot of data, historically accurate data, of all those three towns, including pictures, maps, props, the way people dress. And then we were very careful to mimic all this for each town. For the final shots, we used as a foreground a combination of what was shot on set and some CG placed on the top, and a lot of atmospheric and volumetric elements, just to bring that dusty feeling of a Western.

Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.
Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.
Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.

For the arrival in Red River, for example, it’s supposed to be a highway all the way to Dallas. Because we have a flooded river, the cattle couldn’t actually cross the river. So we want to give the sense of thousands and thousands of cattle arriving in the town and not being able to go any further. We shot with a drone (for a plate). Then we created the cattle digitally, but there was a not a single extra or person in the town, so everything there is digital—the soldiers, people washing the clothes or talking around the fire, cooking, cleaning—just to bring that lively feeling to the scene.

Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.
Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.
Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.

San Antonio was different, it was shot in a car park. San Antonio had more Spanish-based architecture. In post-production, that was a lot of fun, because that was the sequence we had the most creative flexibility on.

Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.
Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.

One funny aspect on that—at a certain point, San Antonio’s church was destroyed five years after the year our story’s set in. So a lot of the pictures we saw of San Antonio’s church were misleading because it was different than what we initially had. So we needed to actually go back and then use a very accurate representation of the church for that specific year.

The dust storm

The characters are enveloped in a large dust storm which they see from a distance and then are right in it. We worked in collaboration with the SFX team, with some very big fans that let us kick up a lot of the debris.

Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.
Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.

The idea in that sequence is that in the beginning the storm is so thick that you almost have no visibility whatsoever. And gradually it starts to clear up. The storm was simulated in Houdini.

Making rain

For the whole first part of the film it needed to be raining. We shot that scene in August using rain machines to enable all the water interaction with the actors. Then in November, Paul invited me to his trailer for a conversation, to say they needed to re-shoot the rain scene. But now it was very cold that you couldn’t really use the rain machine. Water would freeze almost instantly. That created the challenge of preserving real water interaction with the actors but not using any rain whatsoever.

Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.
Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.

So, we need to come up with quite a lot of water simulations. The test was to preserve every single droplet of water coming off people’s hats, people’s hands. We tried to respect all those details that make someone ‘feel’ wet on their coats and everywhere.

River building

There were quite a few rivers that we needed to simulate in the film. One of them was at night when Johanna ran towards the cliff and she sees the Kiowa cross the river.

Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.
Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.

Paul always wanted to make the scene very menacing and very dangerous. We shot that with Helena in a studios in UK against bluescreen, and then we designed the whole cliff, a muddy, slippery cliff and 3D environment.

Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.
Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.
Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.
Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.

To achieve the perfect feeling of the river we built the model of the bed of the river using photo reference. And then when you actually threw the water simulation on there, the water was running the way it should be running.

The wagon crash

In this scene, Tom Hanks and his co-star are riding a wagon. The wagon starts to go down a steep hill and that’s when they lose control and then have the crash.

Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.
Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures.

For safety reasons, we shot everything on a very flat terrain. The whole idea was to trick the camera in such an angle that we could actually just replace the whole environment. We had the flexibility to create a very steep hill and then create a cliff edge, as well, on the right-hand side. We could also speed it up just to create more of a sense of danger.

We worked together with the SFX team to create a system where we could control the wagon rolling down the cliff. We picked a completely different cliff, more like a steep hill, and we used that for the wagon rolling down the cliff. Then we could actually isolate the wagon and bring it back to the real environment, just to match the rest of the sequence.

The falling horses were all done in CG. We photogrammetry’d the horses from on set. One thing we were very careful with, regarding the horses falling down the cliff, was that we initially animated everything without dust or without any particles, which gave us a very gory result, which wasn’t very family friendly. After we got that right, we started to work with the FX team, just to create a very realistic cloud of debris and dust to cover that gore. No one want to see a horse dying on film, you know?