‘Man of Steel’s’ VFX: Building a Better Son of Krypton

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The vfx gurus behind Man of Steel reveal some of the the behind-the-scenes secrets of this summer’s spectacular Superman blockbuster.

Superman certainly doesn’t look his age.

With the comic-book icon celebrating the 75th anniversary of his first public appearance in the pages of Action Comics No. 1, the progenitor of the entire superhero genre has returned to the big screen in Warner Bros.’ Man of Steel.

But this isn’t your father’s superhero. Director Zack Snyder and his crew have updated Superman—played by chiseled Brit Henry Cavill—for modern times, delivering a more hard-edged take on the character that required some very different visual effects work to bring to life on the big screen.

Man of Steel

Man of Steel

Visual effects supervisor John “DJ” DesJardin says Snyder wanted the movie to look more realistic than his previous films, which include 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch.

“He said, ‘This is going to be 24 fps, we’re capturing action real time, that’s our camera style. Now, go!’” says DesJardin. “That’s kind of all we needed to hear to get us going down that path.”

Re-imagining the character from scratch, Man of Steel begins with an extensive sequence on Krypton, where Jor-El (Russell Crowe) plans to save his son from the depleted planet’s imminent destruction. Deviating from previous visions of Krypton, the planet was designed to have a completely organic look that posed significant challenges for visual effects artists working on set extensions.

“On Krypton, there are no straight lines, there are no rulers, there are no circles, there are not even radiuses,” says Dan Lemmon, senior visual effects supervisor at Weta Digital, which handled the Krypton sequence and Kryptonian elements. Other facilities that worked on the movie include MPC, Double Negative, Scanline, Blur Studio, Look Effects and TeamWorks Digital. “We were extending environments and adding on to and kind of fleshing out that world, so we had to follow the same kind of rules.”

Man of Steel

Man of Steel

The scope of Krypton was essential to Snyder’s vision, requiring shots that conveyed distance and depth but also were full of the kind of detail and native lifeforms that make an environment believable.

“We certainly worked to pack the frame; keep it broad, keep it big, but pack it with those details so it was a world that had function and purpose,” says Lemmon. “Because it’s a depleted world, we were looking at strip mines and quarries and areas that had had the natural landscape abused and pillaged, and then looked at ways we could adapt that to the Kryptonian landscape.”

From an animation standpoint, one of the big challenges was the “h’raka” — the flying beast Jor-El rides through the city on his mission to steal the Codex containing all Kryptonian genes. Lemmon says they took a design from production designer Alex McDowell’s team and referenced dragonflies for the flying motion as well as dogs and horses.

“The character needed to be able to fly and look like it was a beast that could stand up in a battle, but it also needed to be sympathetic, so we looked at a dog, we looked at horses, we tried to pull some of those facial features and qualities into that animal.”

Man of Steel

Man of Steel

The Kryptonians’ armor was another big animation job, as General Zod and his soldiers wear large suits of armor that were created digitally and include forcefields, a heads-up display and other moving elements. Lemmon says Weta used a variation on mo-cap technology, using a traditional video camera for acquisition of actors’ data and then using that as the basis for animating them.

“It wasn’t directly a key-frame animation kind of thing, but it was extracted directly from the actors’ performances,” he says.

The story posed different visual effects challenges when the setting moves to Earth, among them the handheld, documentary camera style that had to be emulated in digital shots, creating a digital cape and the damage caused by the Kryptonians’ fighting.

Going with a digital cape for the flying sequences was a technique adopted from Bryan Singer’s 2006 feature Superman Returns. DesJardin says it allowed Cavill to be clearly photographed as well as give the filmmakers complete control over how the cape looked and moved.

Man of Steel

Man of Steel

“I knew the guys who worked on that and I remember them telling me they replaced every real cape with a CG cape,” says DesJardin. “That was not a problem for Zack when I went and told him we’re going to want a lot of cape acting, so we’re going to want [to shoot] him without a cape most of the time. He was all for that. There was some early R & D with [effects vendor] MPC to get that right.”

The handheld camera style—emulating in some ways a look pioneered by Zoic Studios’ work on the recent Battlestar Galactica series—required a significant change in how Superman was filmed flying. For Richard Donner’s 1978 classic Superman: The Movie, the camera moved and floated around actor Christopher Reeve, who was suspended by wires against blue-screen or rear-projection footage. That style of shot, which DesJardin describes as a kind of “God’s eye view” was tried for Man of Steel, but felt very out of place in rough cuts.

A tornado had to be created for a flashback sequence involving Clark Kent’s adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, played by Kevin Costner. CG tornado effects are no longer as groundbreaking as they were in 1996′s Twister, but getting the cars to fly around and footage shot over multiple days required significant vfx resources.

DesJardin says the more dramatic tone of Man of Steel is reflected in Snyder’s lighting design and helps set apart the effects work from other recent films showing a lot of urban destruction.

Man of Steel

Man of Steel

“When we got into Metropolis, [Snyder said] ‘I want the sun to be going down, I want this to be an endless magic hour so we can really get some great, colorful skies,’” he says.

Metropolis itself was created from a mash-up of Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, with Double Negative having rendered some 32 square miles of the fictional city. Creating the city in the kind of detail necessary—where the damage peels back the outer layers of buildings and reveals the structures and functions underneath—was a major research and development project on the film, DesJardin says.

The fights themselves were all based on human movement, with stunt performers choreographed, recorded and then cut together into rough sequences, says DesJardin. The footage was then broken down to determine when in each shot a performer would have to be replaced with a digital version. Even shots of characters being punched down the streets or into the sky were based on those performances.

“We wanted to be able to animate the CG takeover so that we could have the camera choreographed to the action and not the action choreographed to the camera,” says DesJardin. “How much of it is CG versus real is hard to say. It might be 50-50 when all is said and done.”

Man of Steel

Man of Steel

DesJardin’s favorite effects scene, however, is when Superman first tries to fly, fails and then succeeds in one of the few closeup shots of the character as he flies.

“The ability to fly was in Christopher Reeves’ eyes, and I believe it’s the same with Henry. You get a real sense of it there in those close ups and I like that a lot,” he says. “Those moments anchor all the wider camera shots of him flying and I think it makes you accept the reality of that a little better.”

Warner Bros.’ Man of Steel is currently playing in theaters worldwide. The film broke all previous June opening weekend records and made over $200.3 million worldwide during its first three days at the box office.

Correction: A previous version of this article had an erroneous sentence about Weta rendering Metropolis for the movie. The vfx house responsible for building the city is Double Negative. We regret this mistake.