The VFX of “Bad Land: Road to Fury”

by Graham Edwards

Nicholas Hoult and the Simulit Shadow in "Bad Land: Road to Fury"

Science fiction films aren’t always set in the future. Nor are they always packed full of exotic hardware. Sometimes, science fiction exists in the cracks, walking that fine line between the everyday world and a subtly different reality.

One such film is Bad Land: Road to Fury (originally titled Young Ones), in which homesteader Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon) and his teenage son, Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee), struggle for survival in a remote desert land where water is the most precious commodity imaginable.

While the desiccated world created for the film by writer/director Jake Paltrow looks much like our own, what we see on screen also gives us glimpses into an alternate reality. Foremost among these is the “Simulit Shadow”, a robotic mule purchased by the Holms when the harsh desert environment finally takes its toll on their flesh-and-blood beast of burden.

The filmmakers based the design of this lumbering automaton – known as the “Sim” – on Big Dog, an experimental rough-terrain robot developed by Google subsidiary, Boston Dynamics. The Sim was created using a cunning blend of physical and digital techniques, combining the practical skills of Cape Town-based Cosmesis with visual effects by Windmill Lane VFX in Dublin, Ireland.

Watch a video breakdown of the Simulit Shadow effects created by Windmill Lane VFX and Cosmesis for Bad Land: Road to Fury:

According to Windmill’s visual effects supervisor, Ditch Doy, the director’s original intent was to use a fully-functioning robot. “Jake went to Boston Dynamics and tried for a couple of weeks to get a real robot for the film,” Doy revealed. “That just wasn’t realistic, but if Jake had had his way it would have been a completely robotic creation.”

Despite his initial plans being thwarted, Paltrow insisted that the Sim channel the spirit of the Boston Dynamics machines. “Jake wanted it to be clunky,” Doy commented. “He didn’t want it to be a sleek and sexy robot, but more like a piece of agricultural equipment. It was a kind of retro-futuristic look. And he was adamant that it had to look 100% believable – seeing it couldn’t be a visual effects ‘moment’.”

The robot’s robust, utilitarian design perfectly complemented the environment in which the film would be shot: a harsh stretch of desert terrain in Namaqualand, South Africa, just 50 miles south of the Namibian border.

“The locations were fantastic, but they were in the middle of nowhere,” said Doy, recalling his first meeting in the desert with Paltrow and the film’s cinematographer, Giles Nuttgens. “I flew to Cape Town on the red-eye, then had a seven-hour drive up to Springbok, which is a very small mining town. All that for a one-hour meeting with Jake and the cinematographer, Giles Nuttgens. A couple of weeks later I flew down again, and stayed out there for eight weeks on the shoot.”

The faithful Simulit Shadow robot was created by Windmill Lane VFX and Cosmesis using a combination of digital and practical effects techniques.

The faithful Simulit Shadow robot was created by Windmill Lane VFX and Cosmesis using a combination of digital and practical effects techniques.

A Simulit in the Desert

Also making the trip to Springbok was a set of full-scale Sims, each one over two metres long, constructed by Cosmesis. “We built a lightweight version that was hollow, and a fully functional version with hydraulic legs, lenses and functional lights operated by remote control,” revealed prosthetics, puppet and makeup effects designer, Clinton Aiden Smith. “The functional version was not used for walking, but only in scenes where the Simulit was stationary, or needed to stand up from a lying position ready for walking. We also had a version of the Sim that could be dented and take squibs for scenes where it was attacked.”

Cosmesis created three practical versions of the Simulit Shadow robot.

Cosmesis created three practical versions of the Simulit Shadow robot. Left to right: Adrian Smith, Gerald Clark Sutherland, Pierre Smith, Anja Rechholtz, Terri Nicole, Lisa-Marie Bothma. Photograph by Clinton Aiden Smith.

For scenes in which the Sim was required to walk, the lightweight version was used. Legless, it was supported and puppeteered by two performers, most frequently a pair of South African free runners hired for the task. Depending on how it was dressed, the mobile prop weighed in at anything from 23-55kg. “The weight was important, because the parkour performers needed to be able to operate and control its movement in very rocky terrain where temperatures could reach 110°.”

The Sim was initially developed as a 3D computer model using Autodesk Maya. “After we had basic approval of from Jake Paltrow, we projected the front and side views on to cardboard to establish the final size, keeping in mind the weight and the needs of the two performers,” Smith explained. “Once the basic size was locked off, we created a cardboard and PVC pipe mock-up, which we took to the location to get an idea of what we were up against. We realised that the Sim had to be even lighter than the mock-up, as the conditions were so demanding.”

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Adrian Smith, Jake Paltrow and others assess an early cardboard and PVC mockup of the Simulit Shadow. Photograph by Gerald Clark Sutherland.

Adrian Smith, Jake Paltrow and others assess an early cardboard and PVC mockup of the Simulit Shadow. Photograph by Gerald Clark Sutherland.

The Cosmesis team created the final lightweight version of the Sim using vacuum-formed PVC components moulded from CNC-cut Superwood formers for the body and legs. The resulting hollow shell was reinforced with aluminium, which also provided anchor points for the puppeteers to grip. The cargo basket perched on top of the main superstructure was constructed using carbon fibre pipes.

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While Paltrow was keen that the Sim should have an ungainly quality while walking, nevertheless it had to remain balanced and level regardless of the terrain – a considerable challenge for performers who were bent double with poor sightlines. A distinctly low-tech solution was devised to deal with this. “We hung four strings with weights from the bed of the Sim to remind the performers at what height they needed to operate,” Smith revealed. “This was crucial in showing them how much to bend their knees or backs while performing.”

Lightweight though the final rig was, operating the Sim was punishing. Desert conditions made dehydration and overheating a constant concern, despite the battery-operated cooling suits worn by the puppeteers. “The parkour performers were used to controlling their bodies, which was a plus for us,” remarked Smith. “But there were some days where I and Adrian Smith, our key Sim fabricator, had to stand in to relieve them – believe me, it is not as easy as it seams! Our main performers, Ryno Keet, Chris Jones and a local town boy from Springbok, went beyond expectations to breathe life into the Sim.”

Nicholas Hoult as Flem Lever in "Bad Land: Road to Fury"

Nicholas Hoult as Flem Lever in “Bad Land: Road to Fury”

A Digital Sim

Not only did having the practical Sim on location create a tangible robotic presence for the cast and crew, but for many shots it provided Windmill with a starting point for their visual effects. “A lot of the time we just painted out the puppeteers and stuck in our CG legs,” remarked Doy. “So what we got was a practical robot for the actors to interact with, that also had some nice organic movement. That was very important for Jake. He wanted the Sim to have a way of correcting itself gyroscopically. So whenever you see it, it’s always got a bit of life about it, as if it’s trying to self-adjust and stay upright. We could have done that with straight animation, but this way we got a more quirky performance.”

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Despite Doy’s confidence in the approach, not everyone was convinced by what they saw. “It was a bit worrying on set, because it didn’t always look fantastic,” Doy admitted. “We were getting some very strange looks from the cast. In fact, Nicholas Hoult said to me, “You are going to make this look cool, aren’t you? Please?” I had to tell everyone, “Honestly, I know it looks weird now, but we’ll make it look great!”

Windmill also created a fully digital Sim for scenes in which it was not feasible to use the practical prop. By mixing and matching techniques, Doy and his team aimed to keep even the most attentive audience member guessing as to how the Sim had been created in any one shot: “Sometimes we used the puppet rig. Sometimes it was fully CG. We were always moving around the connection points, so hopefully you’ll never be able to spot which shots are purely digital, which ones are half-and-half, and where the joins are.”

Windmill's fully digital Simulit Shadow peers into a treacherous pit on a desert trail.

Windmill’s fully digital Simulit Shadow peers into a treacherous pit on a desert trail.

The digital Sim was modelled using Autodesk Maya, and rendered in Solid Angle Arnold. “This was the first feature where we used our new Arnold renderer, which is very good at doing metals and hard surfaces,” Doy observed. “For every shot we would take HDRIs to use as lighting guides. Mostly we were in desert sun, but we had some night shoots, and also had to shoot in the rain. The shots were composited in Nuke, and our whole pipeline is built around Shotgun.”

In a key scene, a highly emotional Jerome vents his anger on the Sim, attacking it with a sledgehammer. The direct physical contact between boy and machine created significant challenges for the Windmill team.

“We had to use a fully digital robot for that scene,” Doy explained. “I don’t think the puppeteers would have liked us abusing them that much! Originally, Kodi was just going to be swinging the sledgehammer through thin air. I said, “No, we have to have a contact point, because otherwise he’s just going to be swinging through nothing.” So we hastily rigged up some crates, and got Kodi to hammer away at those.”

For a scene in which Jerome attacks the Simulit Shadow with a sledgehammer, actor Kodi Smit-McPhee struck crates covered in green fabric. Windmill later replaced these with their digital robot, timing its animation to McPhee's performance.

For a scene in which Jerome attacks the Simulit Shadow with a sledgehammer, actor Kodi Smit-McPhee struck crates covered in green fabric. Windmill later replaced these with their digital robot, timing its animation to McPhee’s performance.

Even though the crates were covered in green fabric, the lighting conditions meant it was almost impossible for Windmill’s visual effects team to extract Smit-McPhee and the sledgehammer from the background, allowing the Sim to sit behind them in the frame. Much of the keying work was therefore done manually, with artists rotoscoping the action frame by frame, and manipulating the end of the sledgehammer digitally to ensure a good visual lock wherever it made contact with the CG robot. Windmill’s 2D supervisor for Bad Land: Road to Fury was Andy Clarke.

Most importantly, close attention was paid to the animation of the digital Sim, in order to maintain its indomitable spirit throughout the ordeal, despite the abuse being hurled at it. “Jake was adamant that he wanted the robot to have no emotions,” stated Doy. “It’s not stupid – it just doesn’t have any feelings. Jerome is going at it with the sledgehammer, but the robot is unflinching. It just keeps trying to re-stabilise itself and get back to a neutral position.”

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The rough, agricultural design of the Sim is carried through to its navigation system – a single laser-equipped lens that constantly scans its surroundings. The Sim’s routine recording of everything it scans ultimately becomes an important plot point, when Jerome accesses its memory and discovers a dark secret. The filmmakers were therefore keen to get the look of the robot’s “Sim-vision” just right.

“Jake wanted to go for a retro, monochromatic display,” Doy explained, “and he didn’t want it to look like it was created through photography – no light or shade. But it still had to put across important narrative points, and you had to recognise certain characters. Jake also wanted a 3D aspect to the Sim-vision, so we projected footage on to crude geometry, and then animated it.”

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Shannon as Jerome and Ernest Holm, accompanied by the Simulit Shadow.

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Shannon as Jerome and Ernest Holm, accompanied by the Simulit Shadow.

Life Support and Future Tech

Visual effects were also used to enhance the appearance of one of the film’s human characters. Ernest Holm’s wife, Katherine (Aimee Mullins) resides at a medical facility, having suffered catastrophic injuries in a car accident. Paralysed, and missing her lower legs, she is able to move around using a complex ambulatory apparatus hooked up to a mobile life-support system.

Mullins, who underwent a double amputation as an infant, found fame as a successful para-athlete, model and actress. For her role in Bad Land: Road to Fury, Mullins wore specially-designed prosthetic legs, while the Rube Goldberg contraption that both keeps her alive and stimulates her spinal cord was added digitally by Windmill.

Windmill Lane VFX used digital effects to create a futuristic life-support system for Katherine Holm (Aimee Mullins) in scenes where she meets her son and husband (Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Shannon) in hospital.

Windmill Lane VFX used digital effects to create a futuristic life-support system for Katherine Holm (Aimee Mullins) in scenes where she meets her son and husband (Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Shannon) in hospital.

“The rig is a weird back-brace thing that goes up to a life-support machine,” Doy explained. “Jake wanted something that was driven by pistons and steam, rather than an expensive piece of medical equipment. The spinal cord coming from her back joining her to the overhead machine is all CG. Some of the cables are real, but during post, Jake hit on the idea of making Aimee look almost like a marionette. So we were tasked with sticking on extra cables. We weren’t really anticipating that, and it made the tracking much harder, and the shots more involved. But it works.”

Watch a video of Aimee Mullins as Katherine Holm in Bad Land: Road to Fury:

In the film’s later stages, water finally comes to the desert, and crops begin to grow. Despite the arid conditions at the Springbok location, the production initially attempted to cultivate real plants. “We did try to grow some greenery,” Doy commented, “but the sun was so fierce that everything just shrivelled and died. So all of the greenery towards the end of the film is mainly matte painting work. We also did a time-lapse shot of a wheat field growing, which involved a lot of complicated work in Houdini.”

During a brief trip out of the desert to a city across the border, Jerome encounters Anna (Liah O’Prey), a young woman who provides him with safe passage through the high-security checkpoint. Illustrating the difference in technology between the down-at-heel desert world and the neighbouring urban sprawl is Anna’s cell phone, which opens up like a Chinese fan.

“The fan was Jake’s creation,” revealed Doy. “He wanted to show that, across the border, they have nice cars and flashy mobile technology. On the set, it literally was just a fan. Alex opened it up, and we added all the graphics inside. It’s one of those moments in the film where you realise that this isn’t our universe.”

Windmill created interactive graphics for Anna's quirky futuristic fan-phone.

Windmill created interactive graphics for Anna’s quirky futuristic fan-phone.

A View of the Desert

In total, Windmill Lane Pictures VFX delivered around 250 shots for Bad Land: Road to Fury. As well as the practical Sim, Cosmesis also created special dentures for the main characters, while makeup artist Natasha Du Toit managed a progressive range of dry skin, dirt, sweat and tattoos. A number of scenes were enhanced by blood effects and prosthetics, including two broken legs – one human, one mule – while a range of prosthetic bellies simulated the various stages of pregnancy of Mary Holm (Elle Fanning).

Having worked on Bad Land: Road to Fury for about a year, Ditch Doy’s abiding memories are of his time on location in South Africa. “It was the hottest, driest place on the planet – and I think it shows on the screen,” he reflected. “That’s not visual effects – it really was as hot and dry as it looks. It was the toughest film experience I’ve ever had. We all went a bit stir-crazy. But we’d all fallen in love with the desert a little bit by the end. To watch the sun rise and set over that kind of landscape … it really is something you don’t get to experience every day.”

Clinton Aiden Smith craved only one thing while on location in Namaqualand: “Shade! At times, base camp was a long way from the set, so crew were hiking up steep, rocky hills with heavy bags and cases of gear. Man, if you could find some shade under a rock or a tree, you were lucky!”

Fittingly, Doy’s favourite “effects” shot in Bad Land: Road to Fury comes courtesy of Mother Nature. “It never quite rained where we were, but one day, in the distance, we saw a thunderstorm. Jake was smart enough to whirl the camera round and say, ‘Film that!’ So we did, and we caught this great lightning bolt, which is in the film. I’m hoping people don’t know is real, so I can say it’s one of our effects!”

Bad Land: Road to Fury is currently available from Signature Entertainment on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital HD. Watch the trailer:

Special thanks to Signature Entertainment and Witchfinder. Photographs copyright © 2014 by Signature Entertainment and courtesy of Windmill Lane VFX and Cosmesis.