World War Z: Location Production for the Zombie Apocalypse
COW Library : Cinematography : Debra Kaufman : World War Z: Location Production for the Zombie Apocalypse
When World War Z producers knew they would be taking the production to a variety of tough locations, including Malta in the middle of a sweltering summer, they knew who to call: Video Hawks' Tom Loewy and Dan Moore and Technoprops' Glenn Derry. The trio had worked together on a variety of tough assignments, including making virtual cinematography a reality for director James Cameron during the shooting of Avatar. Together, the three designed and built a video assist cart, a color correction cart and the FIZ (Focus Iris Zoom) Logger to capture lens metadata.
World War Z depicts a world overrun by ravenous, fast-moving zombies. Shooting this cataclysmic environment was no walk in the park; the production went to numerous challenging locations including Malta (in the middle of a sweltering summer), the West coast of England and Ireland where all the ocean sequences were filmed, an abandoned water treatment facility on the East coast of England, a city building in Glasgow, Scotland that doubled for Philadelphia City Hall, and Budapest.
Video Hawks Founder/President Tom Loewy, Principal Dan Moore and Technoprops Founder/President Glenn Derry weren't too surprised to get a call from World War Z Unit Production Manager Colin Wilson asking for some help with video assist, camera and VFX support. The trio had worked with Wilson on Avatar, to create that production's virtual cinematography workflow.
"Video Hawks primarily rents out equipment for on-set use such as video assist," explains Loewy, who says the company has a 16,000 square foot facility in Valencia with complete design engineering and manufacturing capability. "We also fabricate head rigs and HD recording systems for motion/facial capture." Video Hawks handles rentals and Technoprops does the technology development and sales; the synergism of the two companies has resulted in solutions for The Adventures of TinTin and The Avengers as well.
Video Hawks Founder/President Tom Loewy and Principal Dan Moore
"The World War Z production first came to us for video assist, for the multiple ARRI Alexa cameras," says Moore. "We knew it would be in hard locations, with a lot of wireless and hard run-and-gun style shooting." Knowing that, engineer Derry factored in the tremendous heat that the gear would receive in mid-summer in Malta. His idea was to build the integrated cart, with its circuit boards, as open as possible to avoid over-heating.
Technoprops Founder/President Glenn Derry
Video Hawks put the cart together with Blackmagic Design's Micro Videohub and Smart Videohub routers, Mini Converters and HDLinks. "I like to build the gear knowing it is going to work right out of the box in the field," says Moore. "So much was going on: actors in zombie makeup, actors wearing motion tracking suits, areas where CGI would go, explosions, and smoke. That's why it was imperative for the director and DP to make sure they were getting the shots they needed and, if not, to adjust them right away. I could sleep at night knowing that we put the system together with the best products possible."
Derry and Moore took the video assist cart to Malta to set it up in time for the beginning of the shoot; they ended up being on location there and elsewhere for eight weeks.
Moore reports that the video assist cart input wireless signals from Steadicam and cameras in a helicopter as well as those on the ground. "The equipment was cumbersome to use but needed enclosures so we could use them in an efficient way," he says. "Time is money so we had to be quick with turning things on and making sure they're working, with no conflict with transmission signals. That was a challenging job on set but it worked flawlessly."
"Our system was a way to monitor picture integrity," Derry adds. "Cabling to the camera wasn't really possible in Malta so we had several wireless systems to get the signal to these carts. [Cinematographer] Bob [Richardson] was recording to Codex and, on the cart, we could switch between the Codex Log S RAW or the Rec 709 monitor. We were wirelessly controlling the Codex so we could control the metadata and transport over WiFi and check to make sure the picture was fine."
On location in Malta, Video Hawks also set up a color cart with U.K. post facility DigiLab Services, a specialist in Codex ARRIRAW among its other capabilities, providing all the near-set grading services with the assistance of Video Hawks. "We helped them set-up dailies system Colorfront and a full FilmLight Baselight color correction system with Dolby monitor in the hotel," says Derry. "The production, with DigiLab Services at the helm, was doing full online grading back at the hotel."
"I set up the dailies pipeline and got all the machines up and running, and DigiLabs was in charge of all that," he adds. "Bob [Richardson] had very specific looks in mind that couldn't be achieved with a one-light grade. I was the workflow manager, an intermediary between production and DigiLabs to make sure all the pieces fit together and the metadata was being catalogued properly."
Video assist and color correction cart
In addition to the video assist and color correction carts, Video Hawk brought one more important piece of gear on location: its FIZ Logger. "We had built a box called the FIZ (Focus, Iris, Zoom) Logger that captured lens data and was used on Real Steel," says Derry. "That film was a run-and gun shoot on which cinematographer Mauro Fiore used various lenses from different manufacturers and would hand-zoom during the shots. The challenge was how we captured that lens information when he's zooming by hand. He couldn't use the ARRI system because this is before the Alexa Studio Cam support was available."
On World War Z, the Technoprops-designed-and-fabricated FIZ Logger was used to feed the correct lens information into the computer for real-time composites. "We handed over the data from the FIZ Logger with the Codex metadata information to DigiLabs," he says. "It's a very big VFX movie with lots of zoom lenses, and we needed to get that zoom information for use in visual effects."
The FIZ Logger, about the size of a deck of cards, is installed on the camera. "The production did all these complicated moves with the camera," says Moore. "The VFX supervisor needs to know what is the lens size at any given point. Derry prepped the Camera Assistants on location on how to use the FIZ Loggers, which were controlled by the iTouch. A lot of these controls were handled by an app Derry developed that allowed the assistants to dial in various settings and record the timecode and any other metadata important to the shot."
Moore describes shooting days on Malta as very intense. "We'd have these 14-hour shoot days and then we'd stay up until 3 AM working on things that would have been minor had we been in the U.S.," says Moore. "The power supply wasn't a given, for example, and the Camera Assistants would give us feedback. This is inevitable with new technology, but had we been in Los Angeles, we could have called up our shop and gotten what we wanted right away. Still, it all worked out."
He jokes, "It would be nice to work on a romantic comedy at the Beverly Hills Hotel," and adds seriously, "but when you have 'World War' and 'zombies' in the title, you know there are going to be lots of explosions and effects. The biggest challenges were being on location and the elements...and being able to deliver within the challenges of time. Malta was incredibly hot and full of 500-year old buildings with no ramps or elevators. Then throw in rain, dust and explosions and you have equipment that is very stressed. We could never relax."
Between Loewy, Moore and Derry, the trio has over 60 years of engineering experience, says Moore, which helps them make solutions that are practical and robust.
Derry is nearly finished with productizing the FIZ Logger. "I added pan, roll, tilt in the version that's upcoming," he says. "We'll be able to track the camera in XYZ space in real time. On Avatar, we helped create virtual cinematography with a motion capture system with many cameras. Now it's a box the size of a deck of playing cards that you install on the camera and it can be used in real time." FIZ Logger is expected to go on the market within two months.
In an era in which software gets all the attention in the creation of visual effects, it's important to remember that hardware and engineering innovation still play an important role. Video Hawks and Technoprops played a crucial and largely unsung role in creating virtual cinematography for Avatar. Their work on World War Z extends the work they've done, making it smaller, and more powerful and agile. Once FIZ Logger is productized, it will be interesting to see where it goes.