befores & afters at befores & afters: The making of ‘Mortal Kombat’

Rising Sun Pictures VFX supe Dennis Jones commentates on befores & afters images from the film.

Oftentimes here at befores & afters I get to interview visual effects supervisors about their overall work on a film. Rarely do I get the chance to ask them about very specific imagery. Well, that’s about to change with this interview with Mortal Kombat Rising Sun Pictures VFX supervisor Dennis Jones.

Jones, who shared VFX supervision duties at RSP with Dan Bethel, discusses a range of shots, from weapon effects, to portals and creature work for the Simon McQuoid film. The VFX supervisors from RSP worked under production visual effects supervisor Chris Godfrey and visual effects producer Prue Fletcher.

Here’s Jones’ breakdown of just some of RSP’s 500+ shots, including original plates and final frames.

Arrival of Hanzo Hasashi: This is Hanzo Hasashi, who becomes Scorpion by the end of the movie, after his eternal purgatory in Hell. We had to tie in themes of the Netherrealm fire which is the area in which he’s trapped, like an eternal burning Hell. This is the first motif of that fiery element, which is his signature, and then obviously sets up the kunai, which is the gardening tool. This shot in particular sets up the first supernatural event in the film where someone dissipates.

Raiden and lightning: On set the mixture of practical and digital was really great. The special effects supervisor, Peter Stubbs, and the grip team as well had set up lots of really good interactive lighting all around. We had light portals, which were are about flashing light onto characters and trying to find that electrical character, rather than just soft pulses. They ended up with this really fast firing strobe-y light, which was really effective. This was the first appearance of Raiden, who’s the God of Thunder and can control lightning. Lightning is just about, I think, the delicacy, the animation, and those levels. Simon McQuoid, in particular, had a thing about preserving tonal range as much as possible. That meant a lot of the fire and lightning was probably not in a realistic exposure, but about trying to keep it quite graphic.

Sub-Zero makes an entrance: This is the arrival of the nemesis of the movie, Sub-Zero. The premise is that basically Sub-Zero is targeting the bloodline of Scorpion—we find out that Cole is carrying the mark of Scorpion, so Sub-Zero is trying to wipe out all the people with marks. We build upon a gentle introduction where we have SFX snowfall, so you get a sense of like it’s the middle of July or something strange, and it starts snowing.

Ice crystal craziness: Sub-Zero is summoning and birthing giant crystals. We were trying to get a real percussive and tidal sense to all this, action-wise. We wanted to get these waves of action so that we could have people freak out but not just do it all in one hit. So, we have this re-occurring charge up, smash down, charge up and smashed down. On set, they had these giant six cylinder ice cannons that would fire blocks of ice, literally the size of your head. I think Peter Stubbs said something like they’d made 800 blocks of these frozen things. Nearly every take, they shot passes where they would fire them out. They were brilliant reference—we used them directly in some shots just to top off on occasional moments. And for us, looking at the qualities of it, the lighting, and then how things fractured, it really helped base a lot of our stuff on that.

Jax gets iced: I remember when matchmoving used to be a bit of a painful art, but it has got easier. Here we had to do a lot of deformation work as well, with the skin and characters. We were doing a lot of shot sculpting and post corrective shapes, just to fit it all and get that tension we needed.

Meet Reptile: Of all our work, this has the longest story and the longest footprint. We were trying to find this kind of slinky gecko stealthy guy that looked menacing. Simon’s words were, ‘He’s a real mongrel. He’s really beat up, he’s sent into do all the dirty work and stuff like that.’ We got some stuntviz which they’d been doing, which gave us a fair idea of some of the shot design. So we knew we had sweeping leg kicks. And the brief we got is at the moment it’s very stuntman driven. So it’s quite bipedal, a lot of the mechanics were bipedal, and we should explore using walls and using tails, and trying to get it more of a lizard attack cycle. And then we had this idea that he’s invisible. We started with him being completely invisible. And then you get into the Invisible Man jokes, where you have floating coffee cups on string. And then you stop. It went from initially some light-based surface effect, where we had this analogy that it’s like he can detect and adapt, but he’s got a slight lag. So you see this artefact of him lagging a bit. I think story-wise that was too subtle and a bit too techie. We ended up going with this more organic ‘Hollow Man’ style, where you’re actually growing and revealing in a structure, and a few layers. We had to get to the point where we had finished one, and everyone could go, ‘Ah, actually they look silly because they’re just punching mid-air.’

Lighting a Reptile scene: There’s a few things going on with the flare lighting here. We had a LED strip, which is trying to give us some kind of localized sense of the flare lighting. We decided to keep the flare pretty smokeless. We had some real tests with flares, and it blows out everything. It’s brighter than the sun sometimes. They would light the flare, and literally all of the sunlight disappears and you just get this cast shadow and the flare, there’s literally no daylight that. So we were trying to capture that ferocity.

Heart attack: For this shot, they had the green bust which was filled with goo and had organs, and it had a practical heart. There’s a guy with a pump, a bucket full of stuff, and he’s pumping stuff out the tubes. Then for us the challenge then comes from extracting Kano’s motion and trying to pivot our creature on top of that. The big thing was getting the read and the silhouette on the heart coming out the back.

Portal power: This is Mileena, who’s one of the baddies. We were doing some of the environments here, where we were taking a quarry setting from two hours outside of Adelaide and creating this lair. She has this portal’ing sneak attack. She has that color from the game as well. Some of the time, Simon had an aversion to being too colorful or too overly saturated, so trying to find the place for some of those strong colors from the game was also a challenge.

‘Frozen coagulated blood’: For a long time we were trying to get this design right for that frozen coagulated blood that becomes a weapon. It really came down to trying to find enough of a shape that was chaotic enough. Where we ended up was almost like a blood version of the kunai.

Face of fire: The big thing was trying to work out the balance of, how much ‘Ghost Rider’ is this? At one point we had a completely flaming skull. In the game, sometimes he’ll just rip off a face mask and he’ll be like Ghost Rider, with flame. We know he’s fuelled by the fires of Hell, so it was initially led by the mouth, and looking at Sub-Zero and how voluminous and how dirty the fire was. Simon liked quite a dirty fire with black smoke. And then it just came down to having a skull matchmove in there and then just trying to work out that timing. You also get the money shot where you’re peeling away bits. There was some CG skin and lighting going on in there as well, and obviously an FX pass that’s disintegrating skin.

Back to Hell: Here we go full circle. He now has control of the power, and that’s his elevator back to Hell. We use principally Houdini for most of our FX stuff, with Arnold as our renderer. We’re also now moving towards a Katana workflow.

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