Plus, how a ‘simple’ paint shot on the show turned out to be one of Luma Pictures’ toughest.
A third act confrontation in Niki Caro’s The Mother, now streaming on Netflix, called for the titular character (played by Jennifer Lopez) and her daughter Zoe (Lucy Paez) to face off against several mercenaries in the Alaskan snow.
This included some dynamic snowmobile action, and even a moment when a bomb resting on a snowmobile launches into a cabin and explodes.
Working with visual effects supervisor John Berton Jr., Luma Pictures was given a number of VFX tasks for the snow-bound climax. The studio would help orchestrate the scene of the snowmobile heading across the ice towards the cabin, while also augmenting a practical cabin explosion.
Furthermore, they enhanced a number of chase moments, implemented some blood splatter consistency, and provided several invisible effects shots–one of which proved to be one of the toughest on the show–to help deliver crucial action beats.
befores & afters asked Luma Pictures visual effects producer Michael Perdew and visual effects supervisor Jared Simeth to break down the work.
b&a: Could I get a general overview of what Luma Pictures was called on to do for the film?
Michael Perdew (visual effects producer, Luma Pictures): We were called in to help out with the third act, for the snowmobile chase. Our big sequence is the snowmobile drifting across the icy lake and then exploding into the cabin. Then we took on all the rest of the shots in that sequence. The Mother kills one of the mercenaries and then puts on that person’s snowsuit, which has blood on it. We had to add that blood into all the shots. Then there’s a bunch of muzzle flashes, snow kick-ups and just good old violence–all the fun stuff.
b&a: When you’re coming on board like that, after principal photography, what’s the first thing that you have to do in terms of breaking down shots or getting turnovers?
Jared Simeth (visual effects supervisor, Luma Pictures): They had a postvis done when we came on board, so they had very rough versions of what they wanted. Sometimes they’re very tied to it and sometimes it’s a placeholder. I looked at the postvis and then would go over it with the production-side VFX supervisor, asking, ‘What elements did you shoot that we can use versus where do we need to go CG?’
A big part for them was trying to make it as ‘invisible’ as possible, in terms of the visual effects. So, a lot of it was trying to find out how much we could use of things that they did shoot, and augment it, versus completely replacing things.
b&a: There’s a signature shot of the bomb on the snowmobile going towards the house. Before it blows up, what visual effects were required there for, say, the environment and the actual snowmobile?
Jared Simeth: When they shot the sequence, they shot it over a couple days. There were multiple plates of icy lake with trees that had no snow, and then snowy lake with snow on the trees. They wanted snow on the trees, but still ice on the lake. So the first thing we did was bring all the shots together so that they all lived in the same world where it was snowing and there was snow on the trees.
For the snowmobile shot, they would always shoot an element of a snowmobile doing some sort of action, which might not necessarily work for the actual shot because it might only be a guy going over a little hump. It was really just reference for most of the shots, but still good reference to see what the snowmobile would do.
We would then build that in CG, and add the bomb to it. There was one shot where it was a practical snowmobile, and then the rest of the shots with the bomb on it were a fully CG snowmobile and then a combination of matte painting and plates for the background.
b&a: And then it does go into the cabin and causes an explosion. What was the combination of practical effects and any augmentations there?
Jared Simeth: They did shoot an explosion element. It was not the full cabin exploding, but a setup outside the front of the cabin with an explosion. It was also shot without snow on the trees, so we had to go in and augment that to make it look like the actual cabin exploded. Plus, we had to have the snowmobile roll into the cabin prior to that and then have all the snow coming off the trees. It was very much keeping that real explosion where we could and then augmenting it to get the story point across.
b&a: What kind of team was on it from Luma Pictures, and how long did you have?
Michael Perdew: We had a 12-week schedule, and it was probably 30 or 40 people for about three months, primarily compositors, plus people building the snowmobiles, building proxies with the cabins, developing the FX rigs for snow kick-up and for the explosion.
b&a: Tell me about some of the snowmobile traveling shots–there’s a fair few close-ups with the actors and also some action scenes.
Jared Simeth: They did use stand-ins or stunt performers for the most part. Then we’d use B-plates and bluescreen plates where we’d take bluescreen characters from one plate and put those onto snowmobiles on the mountain. It was definitely a lot of back and forth, trying to find the right plates for the backgrounds that would fit the actions and adding all the subtle additional camera movements and trying to make it feel like we’re there with the characters. It was a lot of ‘dirty’ comp’ing to get that to work, which is oftentimes more difficult than CG, but I feel like it leads to often a more invisible feel.
b&a: What do you mean by dirty compositing, there?
Jared Simeth: Well, normally we might have Lidar of everything and we would track it all perfectly–there can be a whole pipeline to get it mathematically correct. By dirty, I mean, we didn’t have Lidar of the mountain, say. You’re making things work more by eye. You have to figure out what looks correct and works with these elements.
b&a: I wanted to ask, too, about the blood additions that Michael mentioned on the suit of the character that Jennifer Lopez’s character kills and then dons the suit herself. I think this work is always much harder than most people think, mainly for consistency, but also simply tracking on paint elements. Tell me about how you did approach that work.
Jared Simeth: It was to make sure the audience knew who the character was, especially when you see them all covered up with a helmet. We looked at the first shot when it happens and where the blood would fall. We did a pass at that to make sure it connected with the action that initiated it. Then it was a combination of 2D and 3D matchmoves depending on the shot, depending on how far away we are, how much the clothing was moving. We had a whole team on that aspect of it to make sure it all worked out.
b&a: One of the things that I don’t always get to ask VFX producers about, Michael, is communicating with production, including communicating with John. How did you do that?
Michael Perdew: We primarily used cineSync. We’d have a couple calls each week. John is the most pleasant, fun person to communicate with. So, it was always good spirits and good times getting on there. We use what we lovingly call the magic cineSync, where you just go in, punch in your key, everything automatically downloads, and then you can just draw on the screen together. We’ve been using cineSync for years and years and years, so it’s always our tool of choice.
The production was also using ShotGrid. Elaine Thompson was the production side VFX producer and she was also just fantastic.
b&a: Any other shots you’d like to mention?
Michael Perdew: I was thinking we should talk about that one hardest paint shot.
Jared Simeth: Oh yeah.
Michael Perdew: It’s funny because there’s always one shot on a show that just stands out, where you think it’s going to be the easiest shot and then it turns out to actually be one of the hardest ones. The daughter is in a truck and they wanted the truck to feel like it stopped, but it didn’t actually stop in the plate. I think they wanted it to bounce and it didn’t bounce.
It seems like it would be a simple paint-only task, something you might even outsource. But, no, we had to build a CG version of the girl, re-project the plate, and it was just weeks and weeks. I think that shot alone took four months of just the most hardcore effort you’ve ever seen put into a shot. And it’s impossible to tell what we did.
Jared Simeth: Yeah, the timing wasn’t quite right when they shot it. We had to already produce a moving reflection of the environment over her, but she kept moving when they wanted her to actually stop in the frame. So, yes, we had to rebuild her completely in 2D for her face and keep her performance.
Michael Perdew: It really was the hardest shot that we did. The explosions went down much easier.
b&a: Oh, I love it. I’m so glad you mentioned that. I mean, I think when I’ve talked to VFX supes over the years, they sometimes even remember the names of shot numbers that are the hardest or most unexpectedly hard shots they’ve worked on.
Michael Perdew: Yeah, I feel like people just don’t talk about that enough, where you always think the most ‘wow’-ing shot would be the hardest technical one, and this is almost never the case.