“The Commuter” — VFX Q&A

by Graham Edwards

The Commuter - Cinefex VFX Q&A

In The Commuter, businessman Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) embarks on his daily commute home, only to be caught up in an explosive criminal conspiracy. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, the action-packed film features 860 shots by lead visual effects vendor Cinesite, which created a CG train and digital environments, set extensions, explosion effects and the film’s climactic train crash, under the leadership of production visual effects supervisor Steve Begg. Nvizible handled previs and additional visual effects, with further shots delivered by Iloura.

Cinefex spoke with Cinesite visual effects supervisor Stephane Paris about his team’s work on The Commuter, with CG supervisor Luke Wilde and lead effects artist Alexandre Aillet chipping in.

Liam Neeson stars as Michael MacCauley in "The Commuter."

Liam Neeson stars as Michael MacCauley in “The Commuter.”

CINEFEX: Stephane, you spent about six weeks at Pinewood Studios near London, working alongside production visual effects supervisor Steve Begg. Tell us about the sets they built there for the train interiors.

STEPHANE PARIS: They set up two stages. The first was a single train carriage adapted and dressed to look like multiple carriages – this was used to film all the main action on board the train.

CINEFEX: Was this a bluescreen set?

STEPHANE PARIS: Yes. The carriage was surrounded by bluescreen and shot on a hydraulic system to give realistic shake and movement. In one notable shot, the camera pulls back through the entire length of the train and through the carriage walls. A camera rig was set up on the roof and programmed to repeat the same pullback move through each iteration of the carriage – this was subsequently stitched together by our visual effects team.

CINEFEX: What about the second stage?

STEPHANE PARIS: That was mainly used for stunts. It had sections of two rear parts of the train on a raised 50-foot platform. One example of where this was used is a sequence where Michael jumps from one moving train to another at the climax of the film.

Watch a behind the scenes featurette about The Commuter:

CINEFEX: Michael’s journey begins in the New York City Subway. Was the production able to film there?

STEPHANE PARIS: Only limited filming was possible in the subway, due to strict restrictions. Space was also limited because of the narrow structure of the carriage, so three cameras were pointed out of a side window to achieve a 130-degree panorama, with a front-facing camera about 30-50 feet away. Because of the distance between the two rigs, it was not possible to stitch the front and side views together. In addition, what was shot was not particularly dynamic and did not really show the distinctive cavernous stations with their large pillars.

CINEFEX: So you used that footage as reference to create a CG subway environment?

STEPHANE PARIS: Right. The live-action was shot in the dressed bluescreen carriage at Pinewood Studios and we built a flexible CG asset for the environment which could be used in multiple shots. We created the walls, platforms and exteriors in CG, complete with cable systems, columns, tracks and so on, and joined it all together to create a half-mile-long section of tunnel, rendered through eight cameras and projected onto geometry. This meant that for any shot we could track the camera, drop our asset into the environment and have the required control over the lighting to ensure it matched the lighting on the actors. Using this system, we were also able to achieve continuity between shots and limit environment repetition. Although the setup was heavy, the flexibility that this asset gave us really paid off and we ended up using it in approximately 200 shots.

The Commuter - visual effects by Cinesite

CINEFEX: The action moves above ground as the train journeys towards Tarrytown. Did you use digital environments there too?

STEPHANE PARIS: Well, whenever the audience sees the outside of the moving train en route to Tarrytown, it is CG – so is the environment – apart from a few shots filmed from a helicopter. To create these environments, Steve Begg and his team went in and around New York and filmed 360-degree elements from the back of a truck, and also from trains and a helicopter. While the journey is based on a real route, it was not possible to shoot the exact line from the story, so similar environments and locations were selected, based around New York’s Northern Line. Steve and editorial then picked backgrounds and matched them with the appropriate section of the action.

Cinesite composited moving backgrounds into live-action shot on train carriage sets at Pinewood Studios.

Cinesite composited moving backgrounds into live-action shot on train carriage sets at Pinewood Studios.

CINEFEX: Was it a tough job to composite the live-action train interiors with the exterior views seen through the carriage windows?

STEPHANE PARIS: Reflections and lighting from the shoot with the actors often did not match the selected exterior environments, so these required clean-up and extensive keying. Sometimes we toned down the live-action, and at other times it was necessary to add additional lighting.

CINEFEX: Tell us more about the CG train that you built.

STEPHANE PARIS: We modelled a full train of six carriages, inside and out, for wider shots where the various locations along the route were established. The art department sent reference, including a blueprint of the train, but the underneath was entirely made up by the visual effects team. We had to create this area at particularly high resolution, with textures, grease and surface scratches, so that it would stand up to very close scrutiny. This was particularly important for a sequence where Michael, in an effort to engage the emergency brake on the dangerously speeding train, climbs underneath and hangs precariously just above the track.

020a_Cinesite_The Commuter ©2018 STUDIOCANAL. All rights reserved

CINEFEX: Things start going wrong when a bomb goes off, destroying the train’s brakes. How did you tackle this dramatic moment?

STEPHANE PARIS: We did an entirely CG shot that included the train, environment, brakes, explosion effects, tracks, smoke, sparks and CG water complete with explosion reflections – it was very challenging! Also, this was a long sequence, shot under different lighting conditions and environments that had to play within the CG environment surrounding it. There were a lot of live-action lighting cues that were very difficult to reconcile with the creative requirements for time-of-day and location. Making this work required a lot of back and forth with layout and lighting to get buildings, trees, and other occluding objects lined up properly with the on-set look and camera cuts. There was also significant animation work required to reconcile live-action performances with the physics of an accelerating train, and the optical illusions introduced by shooting a foreground live-action character from a low-angle with a wide lens against a large object.

CINEFEX: There’s a fight on the train that plays out in a continuous two-minute shot, no cuts. How did you put that together?

STEPHANE PARIS: The fight scene was filmed as 17 separate plates, which the visual effects team stitched together. The shot included action inside train carriages with interactive live-action lighting effects, so we had to create a seamless CG background to be displayed outside the carriages that included this interactive lighting. Despite the excellent quality of the takes, there were significant camera and pose differences take-to-take, in what was supposed to be continuous action – this required a lot of creative matchmove and comp work to hide the transitions. We also created bridging CG elements to track across these takes.

Cinesite created full CG shots of the train crash that occurs at the climax of the film.

Cinesite created full CG shots of the train crash that occurs at the climax of the film.

CINEFEX: Let’s fast-forward to the train crash.

STEPHANE PARIS: Oh, that was our most complicated effects sequence. The team built a one-and-a-quarter-mile asset of the environment approaching Beacon and the wide station yard, dressed with buildings, tracks, trains and general industrial content. The CG environment included a large curved section of track to match with the action. The environment needed to align with a section of real set, captured using photogrammetry, which was built at Longcross Studios in England for shots where the passengers disembark the end carriage.

CINEFEX: Did you have previs to work from?

STEPHANE PARIS: During the preproduction phase, the previs for the full CG shots was not totally locked off, so some adjustment was still required for editing, camera movement and set dressing. We knew that the train, once derailed, would have to hit some electrical pylons, breaking them and making wires snap. The big question during preproduction was which pylons – we had at least four variations –and how could we keep to the schedule, pre-empting possible last-minute changes? We came up with a procedural solution, switching from a two-mast set to a three- or four-mast set, so that we would not need to start the shot from scratch all over again if the requirements changed.

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CINEFEX: In addition to building a big station yard asset, you must have churned out a heck of a lot of effects simulations.

STEPHANE PARIS: Yes! The impact of the train crash required realistic simulations of bending and crumpling metal, dynamic interactions between the derailing train and the destruction of the environment, and the generation of a large number of secondary dust and fire/smoke simulations from the resulting carnage. We ran the majority of the heavy effects work in Houdini using the finite element model solver and cloth components to art-direct the train destruction, simulating the bending and shearing of metal panels and the shattering of windows. We used the results as collision objects for the environment destruction and volumetric effects such as explosions, smoke and dust, all using Houdini’s rigid body destruction, particle and fluid simulation processes. We simulated the crash interaction with the environment and destruction of track rails and sleepers, track gravel ballast, dirt and particulate passes, as well as subsequent dust kick-up and smoke trails from these elements.

The Commuter - full CG train crash by Cinesite

CINEFEX: Quite a challenge.

ALEXANDRE AILLET: Strangely enough, the challenge was more about finding proper references which would fit our action movie requirements. Footage of derailing trains is difficult to find, and when you do find it you quickly notice that train carriages are not designed to tear and break the way you would like them to in an action movie! Naturally, they are constructed to be safe, with lots of energy absorption compartments and equipped with auto triggering safe mechanisms. So, putting reality aside, we devised a visually exciting and dangerous movie train crash for Jaume, complete with lots of metal crumbling, shattering windows and multiple large-scale impact explosions.

The Commuter - full CG train crash by Cinesite

LUKE WILDE: As a result, we had to ensure we were maintaining the destruction continuity across the sequence of shots as the train progressively derails and crashes. We applied a high number of re-simulations to the train and environment destruction whenever there was a change to one of these in a shot earlier in the sequence. Devising efficient workflows using in-house tools to streamline this where possible was key in order to deliver a large number of effects-heavy destruction shots, whilst maintaining accurate continuity and remaining responsive to the clients’ notes during the show.

CINEFEX: Stephane, Alexandra and Luke – thank you for talking to us.


Special thanks to Sophie Hunt. All images copyright © 2018 STUDIOCANAL. All rights reserved.

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