Dan Lemmon tells us about working with director Matt Reeves, using LED walls to create the Gotham cityscape, and finding the perfect marriage of practical and digital effects
Dan Lemmon is an industry veteran known for his work on The Planet of the Apes trilogy, as well as The Jungle Book, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 2017.
In the following Q&A he tells us all about his long-standing working relationship with director Matt Reeves; making the golden hour last all day by shooting with LED volumes; and of course, that car chase.
- How the SFX team built four high performance Batmobiles which were jumped 12 feet high through a wall of fire, as well as steerable fishtailing tractor trailer rigs for the hydroplaning part of the car chase. A practical version of nearly every shot was captured, giving the VFX team an excellent foundation for their work.
- How LED walls were used to film the rooftop scenes, requiring the VFX team to produce high fidelity Gotham City assets during the preparatory phase of filmmaking. Using the LED walls gave the team all the lighting advantages of shooting outside with the huge additional benefit of being able to freeze the sun in the sky and have perfect light all day.
- The limitations of LED volumes: the hard surfaces can create acoustic issues, and they don’t combine well with a wet set; shower curtains were required!
- How the VFX team replicated the complex light effects from Greig Fraser’s array of filters and custom anamorphic lenses.
Tell us about your relationship with Matt Reeves and how it informed your work on The Batman.
Dan Lemmon: I am spectacularly lucky to have been able to work closely with Matt Reeves over the last 10 years. Every project we’ve done together has had its own unique problems to solve, but in the broad strokes Matt is very consistent in his desire to create spectacle and drama without compromising realism. He is allergic to anything that may distract the audience, even subconsciously, and take them out of the moment, inhibiting their ability to connect emotionally with the film and its characters. Understanding that, I try to anticipate his notes and help steer the work toward his sensibility.
What can you tell us about his filmmaking style and approach to VFX?
Dan Lemmon: Matt makes character-driven films, and his filmmaking choices reinforce the connection between the audience and those characters. He tends to avoid objective shots that separate the camera from the story’s characters. You really notice this in his action sequences, where there are very few of the kind of wide, disconnected shots that describe larger action moments outside the direct experiences of the characters. Instead, Matt will use subjective shots that show those beats from the point of view of the characters that we, the audience, are invested in.
In the Batmobile chase sequence, for example, most of the shots are hard mounts – unoperated cameras that are literally bolted to the vehicles. They often show the character, the vehicle and the surrounding action in a single shot that is locked off to the vehicle as the world races by in the background. There are only a handful of wides and “Russian Arm” shots in the whole sequence, and even those shots tend to be directly connected to a character’s specific actions and choices.
What did you talk about when you were first brought onto this project? What sort of expectations and creative vision were presented to you?
Dan Lemmon: Matt Reeves works closely with his Production Designer, James Chinlund, early in the process. James, who also production designed the Planet of the Apes movies that Matt and I collaborated on, did a lot of early concept work with Jamie Jones and other concept artists while Matt was still working on the script. Their artwork was quite inspirational, and by the time I came onto the picture a lot of that work had already set a solid course for what Gotham would become.
James worked with VFX Art Director Tad Davis to develop the concepts into virtual sets and we started planning physical set construction and digital extensions in Unreal Engine. Greig Fraiser, our Cinematographer, planned shots with Matt in VR, using the set designs in Unreal Engine, and we used a hybrid chesspiece-blocking / storyboarding process to help Matt develop and articulate the storytelling.
Tell us about your experiences with using LED walls and Unreal Engine on this feature.
Dan Lemmon: Matt saw Gotham as a character in the film, with its own arc and backstory. When our film begins, Gotham is at the height of its decay, riddled with corruption and pock-marked with stalled renewal projects and crumbling icons from a forgotten golden age. Matt and James wanted to put the Batsignal at the top of one of these abandoned incomplete skyscrapers, looking out over Gotham City. That location serves as a meeting place for Gordon and Batman throughout the film, and so we see it at several different times of day, including the half-light before dawn and at sunset. The sets would be wet and very dark, and our characters would be wearing black leather. Greig Fraser, our cinematographer, wanted to light the spaces very naturalistically, primarily using the light from the sky. We toyed briefly with the idea of installing a set on the top of an actual skyscraper, but aside from the obvious logistical, financial and safety issues, our shooting window for the “golden hour” scenes would have been far too short, and it would have taken us weeks to complete those scenes.
As a Plan B, Greig pitched the idea of an LED volume, which he had recently helped set up for the first season of The Mandalorian. An LED volume would have many of the advantages Greig sought from shooting outside – the ability to use the broad, soft light from the environment to light the set – but with all of the practical benefits of shooting on a sound stage. What it also meant, though, was that we in Visual Effects would have to build our complete Gotham City assets to the level of fidelity that we wouldn’t normally achieve until we are finaling shots in Post. And this all had to happen while we were still in Prep.
We sent a photographer and a location scout to a few rooftop balconies in downtown Manhattan, and we shot panoramas from those locations at different times of day to use as both reference and also a street grid and skyline template. We replaced every structure in those panoramas with 3D buildings in a mix of Neo-Gothic and modern minimalist buildings, all designed by James Chinlund’s Art Department. But having the photography as an underlay was invaluable in creating a city that had a realistic collection of buildings, varied in height and style and clustered in blocks in an urban grid that felt like it had a convincing civic order to it.
The LEDs proved to be very good tools, particularly for those scenes where the light would have been changing too fast to shoot our scenes. It’s a huge advantage to be able to stop the sun in the sky and shoot “golden hour” all day long, and to even be able to swing the sun a bit to the right or the left to best illuminate your characters. One of the areas where the LEDs excelled was in scenes that had low value-contrast, but high color-contrast, like a big warm sunset surrounded by blue skies. All of that rich variation in the sky color reflected off the wet set and the burnished black leather of the Batsuit and Selina’s motorcycle gear, and created very convincing integration of the characters to the background. You can imagine if we’d shot on a traditional blue screen set – we would have had blue spill literally everywhere, and it would have been a real fight in Post to try to get a realistic sense of the varied sky colors reflecting off the set and the characters.
We also used our big LED volume for the Gotham Square Gardens Rooftop and the Gotham Cemetery scenes at the end of the film. We used smaller, adjustable LED setups for the windows outside Falcone’s Loft, some of the Batmobile Chase, and also the Wingsuit sequence, where we made a crude wind tunnel with 20 foot square panels which focused the air down a open-sided box made of LEDs and allowed Robert Pattinson to pilot his wingsuit in focused airstream while receiving the interactive light of the streets of Gotham flying past him.
Having said all of that, the toolset certainly has its limitations. You have to be willing to commit to what you are doing. The filmmakers, the studio and everybody else needs to embrace the content you’re putting up on the LEDs or you will be in for a world of pain in post. The dynamic range of the LEDs, while getting better every year, is still limited and you can get into trouble as you approach the top- and the bottom-ends of their output. At the bottom end in particular, strobing and motion-blur artifacts are pretty common. At the top end, color can desaturate and you just won’t be able to achieve the same kinds of contrast ratios you could get with hot lights or outdoors. We had shower curtains hanging everywhere because our sets were wet, but the higher-res LEDs couldn’t handle any water or they would fry. And if you’re not careful, the hard surface of the curved LED panels can create acoustic issues that can wreck havoc with production sound recording. So the system comes with its own distinct set of challenges and limitations, but for many scenarios there is no better tool for the job.
What’s it like working with Greig Fraser? How did his filmmaking style inform the VFX?
Dan Lemmon: Greig Fraser is incredibly talented and hard-working, and one of the most wonderful people to collaborate with. He’s constantly pushing, trying new things, trying old things in new ways, but always in service to the story. I’ll also say he’s got one of the best camera departments in the business and his crew is a pleasure to work with.
One night we were shooting the opening section of the car chase out in the rain, and I saw the 1st AC unloading a piece of glass from in front of the camera. He was carefully wiping water droplets off the glass, but there was still gobs of something else on the glass. I asked him, “Jake, what’s going on there?” And he just chuckled and said, “That’s Greig’s ‘silicone filters.’” I looked over to Greig’s monitor station, and he had this table set up next to him with 8 optical flats – essentially squares of clear glass. And he was holding a caulking gun with a tube of plumber’s silicone in it, and just squirting out gobs of silicone goo onto the glass. And then his crew was carefully loading those pieces of goo-covered glass in front of the camera. And I have to admit they had a striking effect when the car headlights hit the lens. The light refracted through the goo and created this shattered flare of light that danced across the frame. But you can imagine for us in VFX, that certainly doesn’t make our lives easier. Matt and Greig loved the effect, though, so we swallowed hard and committed to replicating the effect in our composites. In Post Anders Langlands and his team at WētāFX shot a ton of bespoke elements and used them to make their digital elements look like they were shot through Greig’s filters.
The other big Greig Fraser-related challenge we had in VFX had to do with Greig’s lenses. He worked with Arri to develop a new package of AlexaLF compatible Anamorphic Lens. He had one set of lenses that met Arri’s exacting technical specifications – very sharp, low distortion, clean, beautiful lenses. But Greig also had them create a sister set of lenses that were heavily detuned – only sharp in the center of frame, distorted, crazy bokeh effects as the image fell out of the plane of focus. Also beautiful, but a real handful in Post when we had to add elements and match all of those unusual optical effects.
How many VFX vendors were there on this production, and how was the work divided between them?
Dan Lemmon: Our primary vendors were ILM, Scanline and WētāFX. Russel Earl’s team at ILM led the Gotham work, and their Stagecraft group created the real time content and ran the rendering engine and hardware as well as the real-time camera tracking system on the LED stage. As part of their Gotham work, ILM also did all the work on the wingsuit sequence, which was created almost entirely in Post. Julius Lechner and the Scanline team did most of the flooding and seawall destruction work as well as some of the other Gotham scenes and a few stunt action pieces. They also did all of the work in the 3rd Act rafters sequence at Gotham Square Gardens, which was shot on a minimal blue screen set and featured a whole lot of set extension and animation. Anders’ team at WētāFX looked after the Batmobile Chase sequence, which was a big collaboration between Dom Tuohy’s SFX department and Anders’ digital team in Post. WētāFX also did all of the work inside City Hall, the fight on the Train Platform, and the Batcave and the bat in the Riddler’s apartment. Beyond our primary vendors, Crafty Apes did a ton of 2D work for us, and so did Static Chair.
How much visual continuity relative to the previous films were you trying to achieve?
Dan Lemmon: There were certain graphic novels from the canon were influential – Year One and The Long Halloween were two particularly important ones for us, but there were many others, too. And there were aspects from the past movies that we knew we wanted to embrace, and also things that we wanted to take in a different direction. Matt decided early on that this was going to be a grounded interpretation of the Batman story, so there are no supernatural powers our fantastical sci-fi elements. In every incarnation of Batman, his gadgetry is one of his signature elements, and that was something we wanted to showcase, but we wanted to do the grounded version of that technology and design equipment that he could have created himself. For Batman’s grapple gun, Matt looked to Travis Bickle’s concealed gun slide from Taxi Driver. In other Batman stories, his cape can turn into a rigid hangglider. That didn’t make sense in our world, but we reinterpreted that idea as a wingsuit in our movie. The Batmobile chase from The Dark Knight was a piece that we admired, and while our Batmobile chase was nothing like it, we aspired to create something that was similarly memorable and unique, but with a vehicle that he could have plausibly put together by himself in his shop. So, while there are absolutely aspects of the Batman stories that came before infused into our movie, everything was interpreted through the lens of our grounded world.
Can you think of a sequence that you’re particularly pleased with on this feature? Why does it stand out to you?
Dan Lemmon: One of the things I most enjoyed on this film was the marriage between the practical and the digital, all in effort to make the adventure and the spectacle of the film as realistic as possible. We’ve talked a bit about Greig Fraser’s work and how that affected our VFX Department, but one of the other key collaborations was with Dom Tuohy’s SFX Department. They actually built four high-performance Batmobiles from scratch. Each car had a specific role to fill, and they were custom engineered from the ground up to that job safely and repeatably. They had considerable input from Rob Alanzo’s stunt team. Mark Higgins, a former UK rally driving champion, was instrumental in developing the driving system and then driving the car through some of its signature stunts in the film. The vehicles featured rally-style switchable 2-wheel to 4-wheel drivetrains that could be controlled from a push button on the steering column, and they had Formula-1-style brakes that could be individually controlled at each wheel. It’s difficult to understand when you’re watching the movie just how big these Batmobiles actually are. The wheel base is the width and length of a military-spec Hummer. They are massive cars. Regardless, Dom’s team stripped one of them down to its bare weight, swapped out the suspension for long-throw springs and doubled shock absorbers, and then proceeded to jump the car through a wall of fire over and over again. The Batmobile was clearing 12 feet high and soaring for nearly 100 feet before touching down on the pavement.
The SFX team also built a number of steerable fishtailing tractor trailer rigs for the hydroplaning part of the sequence. That meant that we could shoot a practical version of just about every shot in the sequence. However we still ended up augmenting or replacing nearly every shot to increase the speed of the action, the wetness of the road and the atmosphere, to bring the vehicles closer together or to make them hit each other harder. Having the photography as a foundation, though, meant that when we introduced the VFX we had a clear road map to what “real” should look like.
Ultimately, that was what it was all about: to deliver action and spectacle in a gritty, grounded world without ever compromising credibility.