Argo's Invisible Effects Create 1970s Tehran
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Debra Kaufman : Argo's Invisible Effects Create 1970s Tehran
When director Ben Affleck and producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov decided to make Argo, a dramatic recreation of the rescue of six Americans from Tehran, he had a dilemma: how to place nearly all of the action in the Iranian capital of Tehran when it was impossible to shoot there. The fact that events were set in the year 1979 was an additional complication.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of the movie takes place in Tehran, not a single frame was shot there. (L-R) SCOOT McNAIRY as Joe Stafford, KERRY BISHÉ as Kathy Stafford, TATE DONOVAN as Bob Anders, CHRISTOPHER DENHAM as Mark Lijek and CLEA DuVALL as Cora Lijek.
Argo is the latest and quite notable example of the power of digital effects to do what they arguably do best: unlike VFX heavy movies that use digital technology to create super powers, fantastical environments and otherworldly effects, Argo features the very best in invisible effects, that are completely unnoticeable to audiences but without which the movie could not have been made.
Argo opens up on the angry demonstrators around the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, who eventually climb over the walls and overrun the buildings. We follow six Americans who escape and find refuge in the Canadian Ambassador's residence where they hide out, until one CIA agent with a crazy idea arrives to extract them and bring them to safety.
One CIA agent with a crazy idea arrives to extract the hidden Americans and bring them to safety.
Method Los Angeles, Method Vancouver, Shade VFX, Christov Effects and Design, Pixel Playground, and Furious FX all contributed to the film's masterful invisible digital effects. Creative COW spoke with Method Los Angeles visual effects supervisor Matt Dessero and CG supervisor Michael Sean Foley about the work their facility did on the film.
The most pervasive digital effect is the location; despite the fact that the vast majority of the movie takes place in Tehran, not a single frame was shot there. "The production was shot in Turkey," says Dessero.
In line at the airport.
(Clockwise from left) BEN AFFLECK as Tony Mendez, VICTOR GARBER as Ken Taylor, PAGE LEONG as Pat Taylor, TATE DONOVAN as Bob Anders, KERRY BISHÉ as Kathy Stafford in Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor's home.
The U.S. Embassy was shot at the Veteran's Affairs medical building in North Hills, outside of Los Angeles.
"The airport sequence was shot at the Ontario International Airport in Ontario, California CA, the Canadian Ambassador's home was in L.A.'s Hancock Park neighborhood, and the U.S. Embassy was shot at the Veteran's Affairs medical building in North Hills, outside of Los Angeles." According to Richard Verrier in the Los Angeles Times, although the production spent two weeks in Turkey and one in Washington, D.C., the bulk of the movie was shot in L.A. area in Summer 2011 with the help of a $6.4 million California film tax credit and a large number of local Iranian-American extras. Los Angeles is home to the largest expat Iranian community outside of Iran.
The first invisible effect takes place in the first scene: a shot of a demonstrator waving a burning U.S. flag. "The original flag was shot practically," explains Dessero. "But the nylon flag used simply burned too quickly and didn't have the drama needed to start the film, so we replaced it with a CG flag." The job of replacing the flag was more challenging than it sounds. Method artist Sergei Kofareff used Houdini to texture the flag and create the burning holes. "We painted the original flag out, but we were still tied to the demonstrators performance. Sergei had to match the movement of the flag to the flag pole that the man is waving," he says. "We really had to art direct that shot and we went through lots of iterations. To complete the shot, we had to extend the crowd, add the Embassy, and matte paint the distant mountain scape.
In fact, every view of Tehran -- wide shots of the city surrounded by snowy mountains, the nighttime city views outside Affleck's hotel window -- as well as extensions to the U.S. Embassy and other buildings, and virtually all the backgrounds -- are digital.
Every view of Tehran and virtually all the backgrounds are digital. Photos by Claire Folger.
The artists relied in part on Google Earth for images of Tehran's natural and manmade environments. "We looked at top down satellite views of the towers and the terrain that surrounded the city," says Dessero, who also noted that the team found as many images as possible of Tehran in the 1970s in order to build the world as accurately as possible.
(L-R) MATT NOLAN as Peter Genco, TITUS WELLIVER as Bates and ŽELJKO IVANEK as Robert Pender
One landmark in particular stood out: the Azadi Tower. "We're flying a helicopter around the Azadi tower and we see the bustling city below," says Dessero. "Director Ben Affleck wanted to the city feel more congested so we broke from reality a bit. During that time period, the city immediately surrounding the Azadi Tower was pretty bleak. There were a few buildings but nowhere near the amount we added to the final shot. To further the sense of congestion, we also added lots of people and a traffic jam that goes on for miles and miles."
BRYAN CRANSTON as Jack O'Donnell, TOM QUILL as Alan Sosa and CHRIS MESSINA as Malinov
Method LA CG Supervisor Michael Sean Foley notes that research for 1970s imagery was easier than finding contemporary images from Iran. "There is a blockade so you can't go to Iran and shoot," he says. "I was able to find more 1970s footage than present day." That includes research on what the U.S. Embassy looked like in 1979. "The US Embassy is now their version of the CIA," Foley says. "The only image we saw was from circa 1980. If you look at Google Earth, the building that was the U.S. Embassy is totally different now, so we had to rely on photos."
Tony Mendez, John Chambers, and Lester Siegel creating the illusion of planning and filming a science fiction fantasy story.
That included looking for such details as what make cars would have been on the streets of Tehran in that era, which would have been several American-made cars such as the Ford Granada as well as Fiats. "In order to make the shot look real, it's about adding details," says Dessero. "First we built the city, then we added grass and trees that rustle in the wind, and then we added CG leaves on the ground."
lDetails such as what make cars would have been on the streets of Tehran in that era, which would have been several American-made cars such as the Ford Granada as well as Fiats, were part of creating a realistic landscape. (Clockwise from left) SCOOT McNAIRY as Joe Stafford, RORY COCHRANE as Lee Schatz, KERRY BISHÉ as Kathy Stafford, BEN AFFLECK as Tony Mendez, TATE DONOVAN as Bob Anders, CHRISTOPHER DENHAM as Mark Lijek and CLEA DuVALL as Cora Lijek.
"We imagined there would be restaurants, so we added puffs of smoke, that helped add to the texture to make it feel real," says Foley. "We started out with walking people, and then we realized that not everyone would be walking in a real city. We added people waiting at a bus stop and pockets of people mingling around. For the cars, we started off with simple shaded cars with maybe five variations of them, but ended up putting more and more texture detail into them until we had 20 car variations. Then we started throwing props into the backs of trucks to give them more randomness and detail. There was a beer keg in one of the trucks, pipes and tires in another. We started raiding our prop library to create some fractal detail into the props."
Dessero says that they added smoke and lens flares to create more realism. (Clockwise from left) SCOOT McNAIRY as Joe Stafford, BEN AFFLECK as Tony Mendez, RORY COCHRANE as Lee Schatz, CHRISTOPHER DENHAM as Mark Lijek, and TATE DONOVAN as Bob Anders.
"We added organic nature to everything we touched," adds Dessero. "The idea was to create complete randomness as well as atmosphere by adding smoke, lens flares and specularities."
He points out the scene where the Tower is in the middle, surrounded by grass and, on the periphery, the building that surrounds it. "The light reflects off the various windows and you get a little scintillation break-up of light," says Dessero. "It was a photoreal aberration that Ben [Affleck] really keyed into. We started adding a bit of camera shake and bit of high frequency bumps and jostling as well as a really dirty lens flare, and he responded well to those."
Another tricky shot was making the grounds of the U.S. Embassy barren and empty prior to the attack. "There were no people on the grounds, which gave the viewer no scale to judge what the buildings looked like," says Foley. "Matt came up with the idea of bringing a bit of scale with a truck going through the shot, and leaves rolling across the ground." Method LA also added a little water pool, waving flags, soldiers running and other details. "These were very subtle bits," says Dessero. "We'd scatter leaves into crevices and corners and add bird droppings, a few more leaves and a little bit of trash. We built up the reality of the scene through layering."
According to Foley, one of the biggest challenges was to "hit the mark with the cinematography and how they were treating their film." "We had to match that," he says. "The challenge here was to make the set extensions as real as possible." Dessero also notes that there were lighting inconsistencies due to the fact that some of the production was shot in Turkey and some in southern California.
The challenge here was to make the set extensions as real as possible.
"We had to take liberties when designing each of these Embassy shots," he says. "We decided to save the shot rather than trying to force all shots to mind a single lighting direction." The ultimate challenge, however, was creating digital planes on the tarmac at the Tehran Airport. Dessero relates that they set the look of the planes in three critical shots. "When they showed George Clooney, he asked where we got the plane to shoot the footage," Foley recounts. "Right there, we knew we'd achieved our goal. We knew we had it and had to keep bringing it home."
Selling the reality of the planes involved attention to minute details of animation. "The plane fills the majority of the frame and there are cop cars chasing after it as it's preparing for take off. We added wing bounce, little rocks being churned up," Dessero says. "If you look at the shots where you see underneath the plane, you can see the subtle touch of the engines moving up and down with the bounce of the wings. You look at the engine, it goes up, a second later, the cars go up. It's all choreographed and all the subtleties make it real including heat distortion and blur."
"Our goal was to hide every single effect in Argo," he says. "Argo is a period piece, not an effects movie. Hopefully nobody will ever know we were there."
It's in these movies full of invisible effects that digital artists do their most stellar work, and Argo is a great example of effects in service of recreating a reality. Anyone who has seen the movie knows how visceral the experience is, in large part because nothing distracts from the story. Kudos to everyone who contributed the invisible effects to make that possible.
All images kind courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.