‘Controlled chaos’, ‘clean mess’ or ‘slow fast pace’ contradictory ideas to gauge yet these have come true in the Russian-American movie Hardcore Henry. Directed by Ilya Naishuller, this film based on an action thriller plot was released on 8 April, 2016. But, what set this film apart from other action packed films? This film has a first-person perspective which means that you witness all of the unfolding events from inside the head of the protagonist through his eyes. To put it in a simple way – you are ‘Hardcore Henry’, the lead character of the film.
To create such a film where the perspective was entirely changed from the usual cinema, visual effects was the sole key to achieve perfection and commence the whole setting of the sequences. VFX Legion and Zero VFX were the major studios that created the believable shots for the film while there were other studios like Mammal and Hydraulx involved too.
As the script demanded a first person perspective, the film was shot using GoPro cameras and thus the footage appeared squeezed together due to the wide-angle lens, had a lot of distortion, things were big in the middle but then smaller and warped along the edges. Therefore VFX Legion first had to unwarp all of it.
VFX Legion, creative director, James Hattin explains, “You’re always going to have a little spherical bending, just because that’s the nature of how light comes through a lens, but with a GoPro it’s so extreme. Every tracking task that would take an hour or two on a regular piece of 20 to 50mm footage takes five or six hours to try and solve.”
Legion tackled over 70 shots across Hardcore Henry and many of these were in aid of the film’s blistering non-stop pace. The team was needed to help support the illusion that the entire film is experienced in one long take, rather than numerous shorter takes stitched together in post.
“There was a case for one sequence set in a rundown apartment complex. Like a lot of the movie, many takes had to be seamlessly stitched together as one contiguous piece of action. In this particular shot, the cameras never quite lined up, so the lights hanging from the ceiling would double up as we switched between takes. As the camera panned, we found a way to morph seamlessly between the two shots ensuring there was never a break,” explains Hattin. “We also had to remove some crew members from the background.”
The team also faced a tough time in a sequence when Henry jumps off of a five-story building into a dumpster. The real shot wasn’t so reckless as the actor wearing the GoPro was affixed with safety harnesses, which needed to be removed in post. Legion’s job was in digitally erasing the multicoloured ropes, and then once again blending the multiple cuts into one continuous sequence.
Apart from this, the look of the blimp and surrounding clouds, blood spatter and muzzle flashes, crucial shots of bullets and outrageous violence were among the VFX work which was delivered by Legion.
Whether pursuing a fleeing enemy on foot or escaping from a floating mid-air fortress, Zero VFX worked on the chase sequence in the film which consisted of 45 different shots stitched together in post from start to end, creating a plethora of CG elements within the confines of frenzied GoPro footage to bring the scene to life.
What begins with the lead character Henry and sidekick Shartlo Copley pursuing a convoy in the distance soon turns into a non-stop, screen-shaking action set-piece, replete with vans torn apart by miniguns, motorbikes riding through the innards of trucks, and grenades hurling vehicles high into the air as one of the major sequence of the film.
The action was so over-the-top that it felt it could break free from its careful choreography at any given moment. That’s where the challenge lied as Zero instilled a feeling of ‘controlled chaos’ in that sequence to maintain chaotic consistency throughout.
To begin with, Zero created a full-CG convoy, witnessed in the distance. As the heroes got closer, the convoy was replaced by real trucks, which the pair attack with a side-mounted minigun.
Zero, CEO, Brian Drewes explains, “We worked on a lot of full-CG elements like the full-CG convoy, witnessed in the distance. As the heroes got closer, the convoy was replaced by real trucks, which the pair attack with a side-mounted minigun. We added muzzle flashes, as well as all the damage caused to the truck,” says Drewes. “We tore it to shreds, creating all of the debris, the particles flying off from the bullet hits, the blood, and the shells pouring from the minigun. The Zero team also simulated these shells to follow the speed and action of the motorbike, peppering them across the road whenever Henry looked back.”
Zero, VFX supervisor, Dan Cayer explains, “Given that these shots were filmed at different times, and some had hard cuts from the camera, that was a major task. Also, we joined the project after it wrapped, so had to utilise a lot of our creativity to ensure each shot matched up without on-set scans and lighting information.”
The stitching and blending across each of the 45 different shots had to be done. And, as each shot was incredibly distinct, there was little to no opportunity to standardise or repeat the approach. Zero had to implement elements such as CG blood and sparks into the flattened, undistorted frame, then make sure that these additions still looked well integrated when the distortion was added back in.
The team Zero created a digi-double character who flies through that windshield following a collision. Smoke, sparks, engulfing fireballs and other debris were also added to enhance the effect.
All in all, a peculiar film Hardcore Henry which had a unique shooting perspective altogether needed the backing of visual effects to gain the momentum and realistic visual experience. The film demanded a distinct kind of VFX work as the audience were not watching the film as third person but actually being the central character and entering every sequence and every frame.