The much-anticipated release of Watchmen features high-tech mechanical and pyrotechnic effects created by New Deal Studios (NDS). The award-winning effects team at New Deal engineered a water tower to collapse onto a burning miniature tenement rooftop, spilling water onto the fire and allowing a split second window for the superheroes to save the day. A team of 60 artists from design, fabrication, effects photography, and digital combined their artistry to orchestrate the thrilling fire effects and bring the whole sequence to life.
According to Ian Hunter, NDS Co-Founder/Visual Effects Supervisor, this sequence required exact precision of the burning flames to match principal photography. “Our flame effects needed to be controlled and choreographed to the production’s pre-vizualization,” he explains. “A rooftop and a partial wall with windows was built and plumbed with propane lines for the fire effects. One shot required that the camera move around the entire miniature building and pass over the roof through the fire, so the flames had to be very controllable. The balance of the building below the rooftop was extended digitally.”
The planning of the photography for this sequence was crucial because of the pyrotechnics. The NDS art department sent CAD accurate models of the backlot and miniature to the digital department where Supervisor Robert Chapin and CG Artist Jeff Benoit positioned them along with models of effects equipment, huge screens, articulated camera crane and track. Using camera moves from the production provided previz, the NDS team created a real-viz version of the shot.
Camera moves as well as model, crane and screen placement were exported and used by production for the set-up of photography. “We had an extremely difficult camera move which had to cover 180 degrees over the width of the entire set which was going to be engulfed in flames. Not only did we want to match our previz on set, but we needed to make sure our camera rig didn’t go up in flames,” said Chapin. Having real information of all the elements involved with photography matched with the previz allowed the effects and photography team to plan out the difficult photography, saving time and money.
The digital models created of the miniature in the design phase were then used to generate blueprints which gave the fabrication crew the exact measurements needed to construct the 1/3 scale tenement roof and wall. Leading the design and miniature fabrication was crew chief, Forest Fischer. Fischer’s team built the 16 ft. x 40 ft. long rooftop and 4 ft. diameter by 8 ft. tall water tank within a nine week period. The model had substructures built of lumber double-sheathed with a drywall fire barrier. Model makers laminated walls with sheets of brickwork cast in hydrocal, then lined the roof with sheet metal and cut fire pits into the roof for the propane jets that would provide the fire effects.
Lead pyrotechnician Kelly Kerby led a team of four to lace the miniature with propane lines and over 30 gas jets that would be timed to camera for the flame elements. There were additional fireboxes used to simulate the flames from unseen windows that were later created digitally. Each propane jet was equipped with a valve so that the height and intensity of the flame could be controlled. This allowed the fire effects team to bring the flames up to the desired performance level when the camera rolled and then to a safe “idle” position between takes.
The big finale of the sequence was the water tower collapse. NDS’ Mechanical Effects Supervisor, Scott Beverly, designed and engineered the effect in the software program Solidworks, which allowed him to run simulations of the action and find any weaknesses in the design before moving forward with fabrication. The water tank had a steel frame lined with bender board and waterproofed with sprayable urethane with one side of the tank made of breakaway material so that it would crush when it hit the rooftop. The tank was mounted on a hydraulically controlled weak knee which allowed the mechanical effects team to choreograph the movement and control the fall rate of the tower to provide a performance as designed in the previz by the Director and VFX Supervisor.
The camera rolled at 54 frames per second and Director of Photography, Tim Angulo, covered the tank collapse with a Technocrane move that swung the camera toward the tank. Two additional cameras were used to capture a close-up and a higher angle. NDS Supervisor Ian Hunter triggered the button that collapsed the tank and sent thousands of gallons of water across the set in a split second. And that’s how a few unseen visual effects heroes used a bit of movie magic to save the day.
About New Deal Studios:
New Deal Studios was founded in 1995 by Matthew Gratzner, Ian Hunter and Shannon Blake Gans. This artist owned and operated, independent company is housed in two buildings in Marina del Rey, California. NDS has developed over the years into a full-service production and visual effects studio unlike any in the world. NDS contributes to each project by using a diverse palette of artistic tools that range from the art department, workshop, production, to the digital department and DI suite. Creativity and solid management practices are the foundation upon which NDS has grown over the years and why all major studios continue to entrust NDS with high-profile projects such as Iron Man, Hancock, Batman: The Dark Knight and upcoming films Night At The Museum 2, Whiteout, 2012, Alice in Wonderland, Terminator: Salvation and Shutter Island.