‘The CG shots are stunning. Some of the strongest reactions I’ve heard have centred around the amazing ‘cinematography’ of the shots around the summit. It was a real pleasure working with Framestore. I hope we have the opportunity to work together again soon.’ Dadi Einarsson, Production VFX Supervisor
Icelandic film-maker Baltasar Kormákur presents his 10th feature, Everest, charting the 1996 true story of two fateful expedition groups caught in substantial storms whilst attempting to reach the world’s most treacherous summit. Drawing on five different non-fiction accounts of the disaster, the film stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Jason Clarke as group leaders Scott Fischer and Rob Hall respectively, with Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Keira Knightley, Michael Kelly, Sam Worthington, Emily Watson and Robin Wright in supporting roles.
The film, which opened the Venice Film Festival on 2 September, is a major release for London-based Working Title. Framestore delivered over 200 shots on the project, the majority coming from a London-based team, with additional support from Montreal. Framestore were approached to assist on the project as the scale of the VFX involved grew with the filmmaking, and were delighted to collaborate once again with Kormákur and Production VFX Supervisor Dadi Einarsson, the first occasion being 2012’s Contraband.
With a true story of human tragedy at its fore, it was Framestore’s task to create an accurate setting for the film, reflecting both the beauty and intense majesty of the mountain.
Work included the creation of full CG sequences; significant digital matte painting to supplement green screen shooting and set extensions; and visual effects to emulate the snow and cloud formations which have become synonymous with the world’s highest peak.
For Framestore CG Supervisor Rob Allman, capturing and creating the recognisable peaks, climb stages and soaring views of Everest formed much of the challenge. ‘We knew from the start that there were certain shots – the wide, majestic establishers – that were extremely important to the team. It had to be recognisable, a recreation of the views people the world over have learned to associate with ‘Everest’. In these cases, we created fully CG shots, in order to get the details just right’.
The aerial sequence over the South Summit is a prime example, as the camera tracks above and beyond the highest point on Earth.
Glen Pratt, Framestore VFX Supervisor, says of the shot: ‘We really wanted to capture the feel of helicoptering round the summit of Everest, even though this would not be possible at such heights. We really pushed the stark photographic nature, the very hot highlights and punchy shadow, that you get at such altitude. The shot was an opportunity to bed the real world environment into a fully CG shot, making the audience truly feel like they are witnessing the characters’ final climb to the summit’.
Says Allman, ‘This is an extremely distinctive view. Although it feels like we start to track downhill, it’s actually that we’re levelling out, finally, at the famous summit. We added the small bundle of coloured flags, left by previous climbers, to mark the exact spot.’
‘The spindrift was a permanent fixture of Everest - the light, swirling patterns of snow that’s been kicked up by the wind on the surface. It’s a real threat for climbers in such highly exposed spots, in its speed and the way that it impairs vision. It formed an ongoing task for our VFX team, creating the right spindrift volumes, renders, and simulation’.
Framestore Compositing Supervisor, Alex Payman, notes that at times, it was important to keep the spindrift in check. ‘The storms would have created full-on white-out conditions; however in order to maintain the audience’s sense of place on the mountain, as they take this journey with the climbers, we had to bring it down. Considering too, the sound that had to be added, we didn’t want the effect to be completely overwhelming. On the other hand, it couldn’t look too clean, too CG - it was a fine balance to strike’.
Backgrounds were informed by helicopter footage, gained from various shoots at the highest possible altitude between Lhotse and Everest. This was then tiled to create the background surface, with small amounts of matte painting slotting the pieces together. ‘Some of the views are really quite appropriate to a tiling technique, thanks to the long, flat faces involved’, said Allman. ‘The lighting on those came straight from the shoot; the CG was then lit to match the backgrounds, to create a seamless environment’.
Painting the picture
Significant portions of the film were shot in the Italian Dolomites. In one key view of Everest, live action is used in the foreground; from mid-way up the scene CG takes over, taking us smoothly from Italy to the South Summit.
Digital matte painting was added to accurately recreate the rock textures, again with lighting matched from the shoot plates. To aid the DMP team and to cut time overall, full CG renders were created first, meaning that the artists had a solid base from which to work.
‘The models marked the underlying forms and shapes of the mountain, with some lighting, shading and shadow', said Allman of the renders. ‘Certainly, every matte painting we did was a lot more successful, not to mention more efficient, than it would have been doing it from scratch. They gave the artists parameters within which to work in Photoshop. Without them the task would have been enormous, in both scope and detail’.
The renders brought with them their own challenges. As a detailed CG asset, it was not possible to project on to the mountain in Nuke in the normal way. ‘It had a different outline to the low geometry polygon model that we would have rendered and loaded as an asset’, said Damien Macé, digital matte painter. ‘We would have had certain edges, but they would not have matched exactly with the high definition elements offered to us in the CG render. We had to find new ways around to maintain the detail, working closely with the compositors to identify the areas which might be an issue, and deciding which department was best placed to fix them’.
The workarounds were a success, and the matte painters were able to deliver the accuracy sought for the big establishing shots. ‘We have to thank the Environments department at Framestore, led by James Harmer, who came up with some very good solutions to aid the painting process’, adds Macé. ‘During the shoot, we had a helicopter rigged with six cameras on its underside, capturing continuous 360 footage. What it gave us was a 3D camera position for each picture around Everest, so we were able to rebuild and project all of that base information. Again, this was not an easy task, as it was not automatic - most of that work has to be done by hand - but it did mean we could recreate big chunks of the mountain very, very accurately, then go on to enhance the quality shot by shot with traditional matte painting techniques’.
Naturally, recreating the detail on the world’s greatest mountain was a thrilling prospect for the team. ‘Of course, Everest is a dense, complex, and organic subject matter. You’re re-projecting on to an evolving model’, says Macé. ‘White, too, is the most unforgiving colour to work with. Any small errors will show themselves in the grading and saturation, so a great deal of work went into finding the right snow references with the right lighting from which to colour-match’.
The team had a wealth of reference material at hand, to deliver the detail and accuracy required. Says Compositing Supervisor Alex Payman, ‘From the very start, at brief stage, we started blocking out the shots in order to get everything correct in placement and view. We were granted access to the original IMAX expedition material, plus a lot of GoPro footage from more recent climbs, including some from Guy Cotter of Adventure Consultants. We had a lot to work with, particularly from the Hillary Step up to the Summit. Once everything was blocked and placed correctly, we had a little leeway to move things about, to achieve the best possible compositions’.
For the matte painting artists too, accuracy was of paramount importance: ‘The mountain has very specific stages and areas, which are well-known in themselves’, says Macé. ‘The challenges of each had to be shown on screen, as close as possible to reality. You simply can’t take photo stock and apply it in this instance. Everest demands you get it right’.
Some green screen mastery was needed to help recreate a particular iconic view, that of the climbers coming over the Hillary Step, with both China and the Nepalese Khumbu Valley in sight in the background. There was plenty of existing footage available for reference, though the wide lens of the GoPro cameras used proved problematic. Said Allman, ‘It was all filmed on fish-eye GoPros. The director and team really responded to this originally, and loved the amount of panorama captured – it really brought the sweeping scale of the vistas to life. When you’re shooting on an Alexa, however, a 25mm camera, you just can’t capture it all’.
Says Glen Pratt of the shot, ‘It was one of the biggest challenges, creating the vertiginous vistas that really convey the scale of the environment. This sequence allowed us to have a lot of input into the redesign of what was shot during principal photography. We were briefed to make the Hillary Step more treacherous, to convey the story beat of the perilous nature of the mountain. We achieved this by creating a set extension and redress of the shot set with a digital environment. We augmented the photography, pushing many of the mid-ground characters away from camera to help create a sense of distance. The view down to the ground below really helps to establish the great height at which the climbers are ascending’.
To achieve this height in the shot, and to create ‘what I’m sure will be a tremendous 3D moment in cinemas’, Allman and team had to get creative with the backgrounds: ‘We did what we could to fit in both countries. Looking at it now, you can see all the way down to China, and down to the glacier – the back wall was replaced, and we got both sides in. Everest, however, is on a knife blade, it’s so thin! If it had its real width, you wouldn’t see more than a white slope on either side. Unbelievably, we had to squash Everest, but it was the only way to do it to achieve that view’.
Overall, Everest proved a conquerable challenge for Framestore’s teams, who pulled together the most accurate and intricate portrayal of the peak possible. ‘I think we have some really realistic shots in the finished product’, says Macé. ‘The team did some incredible work. The big establishers, especially, they have a certain thrill which will work especially well in 3D. The hero is the mountain - that’s the main character in the story, and we were lucky to be able to work on the centrepiece of the project’.
Universal Pictures and Walden Media present in association with Cross Creek Pictures, a Working Titles production in association with RVK Studios and Free State Pictures, a Baltasar Kormákur film.