Making a WWII film with real vintage aircraft

Turncoat Pictures dives into the making of Wolf Hound in the first of this VFX Insight series.

When director Michael B. Chait set out to make a WWII feature film about a fighter pilot who must rescue a downed B-17 bomber crew and foil a dastardly Nazi plot, he looked to craft action sequences using actual vintage aircraft. The result was Wolf Hound, released this year by Lionsgate and their Grindstone Entertainment Group.

Of course, additional elements such as tracer fire, destruction and other visual effects–even miniatures–also became part of the mix, supervised by Turncoat Pictures’ visual effects supervisor (and co-producer of the film), Ryan Urban.

Here, Urban tells befores & afters about the overall challenges of the project, with the starting point being those real planes. And stay tuned for more coverage of Wolf Hound with more in-depth looks at the tracer fire VFX and miniatures work.

b&a: What’s unique about about this project?

Ryan Urban: Wolf Hound featured real, in-camera WWII aircraft. The planes themselves are historic artifacts, which meant we had to rely on visual effects to help bring aspects of the story to life, including tracer fire and any plane damage and destruction. It was also director Michael B Chait’s first feature film.

Mike had used visual effects in some of his other past projects, but nothing to this magnitude. As Wolf Hound’s overall visual effects supervisor, I wanted to give him as close to a traditional, studio film setup as possible; a VFX department and network of companies and artists around the world that could bring their own specialty to the table.

As a result, Turncoat Pictures partnered with the production as both the main VFX vendor and as the VFX department. Essentially everything VFX filtered through us. We took on a majority of the shot work with our Turncoat Pictures team, but also brought on other VFX vendors (OPSIS, Crafty Apes, Anibrain and Incessant Rain). We oversaw their work as part of the bigger picture.

Original plate. Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Final shot. Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

b&a: What kind of visual effects work was done on Wolf Hound?

Ryan Urban: The project kind of had it all. We used visual effects for tracer fire, damage and destruction, enhancing miniatures, adding CG FX such as fire and explosions, shootout enhancements, and a variety of miscellaneous cleanups. This included wires and pads during stunts, pyro and squib rigs, time period inaccuracies, shutter fixes, intricate pilot removals, and miscellaneous camera crew.

Original plate. Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Final shot. Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

b&a: Before discussing all of those, you mentioned pilot removal. Can you elaborate?

Ryan Urban: Most of the real pilots were left in, but there are a few hero moments when the film’s star, James Maslow, is piloting the B-25. In one scenario, we removed the pilots and composited James in from another take.

Original plate. Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Final shot. Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Then there are other shots where the real pilot was sitting next to James operating the B-25. We enlisted Anibrain and Incessant Rain to help with a majority of those. They are incredible shots. They are so good, production was briefly worried if the FAA might ask if James had his license to fly.

Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

b&a: How many visual effects shots?

Ryan Urban: There were a total of 416 VFX shots in the film. 238 made up the aerial sequences.

b&a: Were all the muzzle flashes added?

Ryan Urban: On the planes and waste gunners, yes. Most of the ground combat used blanks and were captured in-camera. We fixed a handful of muzzle flashes that were captured mid-shutter. Usually resulting in only half or part of the intended frame.

Original plate. Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Final shot. Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

We manipulated and added some muzzle flashes to a few moments that didn’t capture or couldn’t be shot like proposed safety issues being too close to another actor. Some were added when changes within the edit were needed to hit specific timing or help enhance actions.

Original plate. Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Final shot. Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

There were a few outside on the tank gunner that were loaded with bigger blanks, but with the angle of sun and exposure they just didn’t capture. We revisited those in comp and amp’ed them up while keeping them feeling natural. Kissing in some additional sparks to elevate the power of the weapon.

Original plate. Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Final shot. Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

b&a: It seems like it could be a lot of fun and benefits in the work of enhancing action sequences. Can you share what you like about that?

Ryan Urban: I find using visual effects in action sequences is very rewarding. You usually already have great stunt performances and engaging plate photography to work with. With VFX you can go back and enhance things for that extra little love–which can increase the performance, the production value and help tell the story. There is still something amazing with wire removals. You know how they should look. Then when the team is done with them, they are fun shots to review and present to directors.

There were a lot of epic pyro explosions filmed in-camera thanks to Matt Stratton and his special effects team. Some of those needed nothing or very little; usually a wire removal to stunt performers’ reaction to a blast.

Original plate. Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Final shot. Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

With safety in mind, they couldn’t always go as big as they wanted to go when inside the hangar.
One that stands out was a really nice hero moment of James Maslow diving out of the way of an inbound grenade. The practical one was great, and added some texture and interactive light for us to build off of. We went bigger to help maximize the drama of that moment.

We were asked to add more gasoline and fire to a handful of explosions. That presented some hurdles. We landed on a great compromise and added a flash just off screen when the practical mortars went off. Those turned out to be some of our favorites. Instead of adding or augmenting things too much, we embraced what was shot. By adding the warmth and glows off screen, you saw just enough to sell that something exploded. Then sound design (Peter Bawiec and team) could push those even further and really help sell the danger.

Original plate. Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Final shot. Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

b&a: Any other subtle effects that stand out more than others?

Ryan Urban: The RPG shots turned out great and a seamless example of how a little comp love goes a long away. The shots already had a fantastic practical effect. In comp, we enhanced those to make them look even more powerful. Adding even a frame or two where the inside of the barrel glows brighter. The added CG projectile pieces really brought them together.

Original plate. Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Final shot. Copyright © 2022 Wolf Hound Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Wolf Hound is available now on all streaming services, including Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV, and on Blu-Ray and DVD at Amazon, Walmart, and Best Buy.

Brought to you by Turncoat Pictures:
This article is part of the befores & afters VFX Insight series. If you’d like to promote your VFX/animation/CG tech or service, you can find out more about the VFX Insight series here.


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