The Visual Effects of Snowpiercer

by Graham Edwards

Snowpiercer - VFX Q&A with Cinefex

The world has turned cold. A botched attempt to counter global warming has gone disastrously wrong, creating a new ice age and wiping out life on the planet. All that remains is a single train called the Snowpiercer.

Built by billionaire industrialist Wilford (Ed Harris), this monumental vehicle circles the frozen planet on endless tracks. Its carriages contain a highly stratified society of survivors, from the working classes at the rear to the privileged bourgeoisie at the front. It’s an atmosphere ripe for revolution.

Snowpiercer was directed by Bong Joon-ho, and released to both popular and critical acclaim in Asia and Europe beginning in the summer of 2013. Now, after delays caused by – among other things – a dispute between Bong and US distributors The Weinstein Company over proposals to re-edit the film for the English-speaking market – this cautionary tale of an icebound future is finally on release in the USA.

Not surprisingly, a film set in a perpetual blizzard on board a gigantic futuristic train requires no small number of visual effects shots. The man responsible for these was Eric Durst, whose previous films include Batman Forever, Spider-Man 2, City of Ember and Knowing.

Eric Durst Talks Snowpiercer

Thanks for sharing your experiences on Snowpiercer, Eric. Firstly, how did you get involved with the show?

I had been recommended by a VFX producer friend of mine to Bong, who was interviewing candidates for Snowpiercer in July of 2011. We met at his hotel in West LA and, as with many first meetings, you never know what doors it will open, so you walk in and let it unfold. Bong has this wonderful spirit – a lightness mixed with riveting focus that’s truly extraordinary. There’s an instant sense of fun and possibility that just opens everything up from the first moment, and this led to an expansive hour-long conversation.

Bong showed me beautiful concept illustrations showing his vision for the train and the ice environments – really magnificent and inspired work. I had seen a number of his other films – Mother, Memories of Murder and The Host; I loved the way they mix extreme and dark circumstances with humour and irony, exposing the humanity of all his characters. Snowpiercer had many of the same themes, yet unfolding in a totally different way.

Needless to say I was very excited about being involved, and extremely happy to get a call for a second meeting a few weeks later. A few months after that I found myself in Prague with Bong, Production Designer Ondreji Nekasil, Director of Photography Alex Hong (Kyung-pyo Hong) and Special Effects Supervisor Pavel Ságner, figuring out logistics and how to bring the show to life.

The Snowpiercer train cars race through an icy wilderness

You acted in dual roles as both VFX Supervisor (credited as VFX Designer) and VFX Producer. How did that work out?

Taking on these two often opposing roles worked in this instance, largely because of the way the production flowed. Bong has a beautifully organized mind, which displays itself in everything relating to the film’s production – from design and storytelling, to the way he shoots the film. Every step is methodical and well thought out. Working in this kind of environment was a huge asset when it came to filling these two different roles.

How much pre-planning was involved?

Every shot was storyboarded with extreme care and precision. In some productions the storyboards get thrown out of the window, with new ideas evolving as production begins. But in this case the storyboard was the “word” – an accurate blueprint for the production ahead. There had been so much pre-production planning – literally years of work beforehand – so most alternative approaches had already been explored.

From a visual effects standpoint, this clarity was extremely helpful. All that pre-planning, and most importantly sticking to the original layout, gave everyone a large degree of confidence and understanding up front. In turn that meant both the resources required to achieve the work and the representative bid estimates could also be lean and accurate.

How many vendors were involved?

There were discussions with many VFX houses in the beginning. Everyone was smitten by the terrific concept work, as well as a cool teaser trailer that had been created to pitch the show. So the competition to be involved was pretty fierce.

The needs for the show included heavy simulation work for the ice and snow sequences, so Scanline was chosen as the lead VFX house because of their vast experience in this area. Their office in Munich was only a few hours from Prague, so the proximity was also a huge plus.

Method Studios in Vancouver and London were also chosen for their work in both environments and animation, and the terrific UPP in Prague did a wide range of work from CG figures to train interiors. 4th Creative Party out of Seoul did extraordinary work as well, with a multitude of VFX shots and design of the monitor displays.

Watch a before-and-after clip of a scene in the Pool Car:

What sources did you reference to get the creative juices flowing?

The best inspiration was really the initial artwork and teaser trailer. Hundreds of images and concepts followed, but those initial images set the tone.

We had an early recce to the Alps in Austria to scout the end sequence location, landing everyone in the middle of a glacier-encrusted ski slope. That trip really helped everyone to understand what a frozen world would be like. While we were there, we took many pictures and panoramas of the ice and snow landscapes so we could understand what gave it the right qualities.

Did you explore any new VFX techniques on Snowpiercer, or did you rely on tried and trusted solutions?

On a technical front we were using known tools. But certainly from an international workflow standpoint, with the degree of international collaboration that was necessary to put all this together, it was a revolutionary production.

This was basically a Hollywood film without any Hollywood, at least as far as studio interaction goes. An English language film, but with the director, producers and the majority of funding coming from Korea. It features an all-star, mainly western cast, with lead crew members from either the US or Europe, all with deep film experience.

During the production process, three languages were constantly in the air – English, Korean and Czech – but this never impeded the fluidity of the production process. On stage you would hear something in Korean, which would then filter down the train set into English and into Czech. Then Czech into English. English to Korean. Back and forth this process would go on throughout the day. It was amazing to see it in action.

In post-production, the editing was done in Seoul and the visual effects in Los Angeles. I had initial concerns about how smooth the workflow would be across such a distance. However, because of the methodical way in which the film was being put together, it worked extremely well. The film was edited in Final Cut so, with two 27” iMacs and all the source material, we were able to assemble daily updates of the edit as it evolved, incorporating the latest VFX shots and sending them back to Korea.

The 16-hour time difference was a good one to work with, especially since, along with Seoul, we also were working with London, Munich and Prague – eight and nine hours respectively from LA. For reviews, our 9am was 5pm for Method London, and 6pm for Scanline Munich and UPP in Prague. In the late afternoon, our 5pm was Korea’s 9am for reviews with Bong and the editor. Vancouver being in the LA time zone allowed for a full day of work on every front.

View from the roof of the Snowpiercer train

Were you closely involved with the special effects department?

There was a very close connection with Pavel Ságner and his team at Flash FX, whose offices reside on the lot at the Barrandov Studios. They did a beautiful job of getting the massive train platform to move back and forth as if we were actually on a train car. Considering the tonnage of all the steel, support systems and people packed into the car it was an impressive feat.

Pavel rigged the car on airplane wheels and drove it from various axis points, allowing different degrees of sway. The train interiors were filled with garbage and debris collected from the 17 years that the train had supposedly been running, so there were a lot of hanging props that needed to move back and forth.

Because of limited studio space and the expense of building multiple train rigs, we weren’t able to use the motion rig for every car stage that was built (around 20 in total). With those stages that had no practical movement, VFX animation was used to add sway to the props and keep the look consistent.

We also had fire and explosions. These were combined efforts between SFX and VFX, taking the original elements and expanding them with CG fire and flame.

The Aquarium Car

The train is an eco-system, where balance must be maintained at all costs and where every train car has its own purpose to sustain the population inside. As we travel in the film from the dismal steerage sections into the more privileged classes, the environments get more and more lush. One of the train cars in the upper classes is the giant Aquarium Car, where hundreds of exotic fish live.

On the set, a very thin structure defining the form of the Aquarium was built to represent where the glass would be. At the other end of the car was a high-end Sushi Bar and a large window. Everything was surrounded within large green screens.

Watch a before-and-after clip of a scene in the Aquarium Car:

It was an interesting lighting challenge, with the water environment on one side and the window looking out on the frozen landscape at the other. Director of Photography Alex Hong had light travel through water trays on top of the aquarium structure. These refracted the light spilling on the actors, replicating the way light would react in an actual aquarium environment. This became a wonderful base to work with so the CG tank and fish could become integrated. Light streamed through the window in the Sushi Bar area, reinforcing the look of the ice and cold outside.

Mark Breakspear and his team in Vancouver really took on the challenge of creating this world, with many visits to the Vancouver Aquarium to study the fish, the lighting environments, the way the light refracted through the water and glass, along with how it distorted the fish as they passed.

Many, many iterations of fish animation were produced to get the right quality of movement, along with the reactions of the fish to their surroundings and the humans observing them. Plants and greenery in the water swayed as fish passed, while an underlying vibration suggested the movement of the car over the tracks.

The end result was a terrific environment that many have commented on, thinking that it was actually real and built on stage.

The Shootout

Original green screen plate of the shootout with Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov)

Original green screen plate of the shootout with Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov)

Final composite of the shootout with Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov)

“Snowpiercer” shootout – final composite

Another great sequence is the gun shootout that takes place between train cars encrusted in layers and layers of ice and snow. Our hero Curtis (Chris Evans) and Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov) duel it out as the train travels around a large curved section of track. Even though they are separated by 20 cars, the curve allows both Curtis and Franco to see each other.

The shootout begins as Curtis and his band of rebels are storming through the open glassed environment of the First Class Pool Car. Franco unleashes the first round of  bullets that spray through the large windows surrounding the pool and the battle begins, with glass, frozen air and water flying everywhere. Ondreji Nekasil and his team of artists and craftspersons made a gorgeous pool set, with large windows surrounding a pool filled with water, again surrounded with a green screens.

The windows had to be thick – about eight inches – to withstand the cold outside, so having bullets go through the glass was a real design challenge. We came up with three kinds of bullet reactions: one where a bullet would go directly through the glass; another where the bullet would get stuck in the middle (sometimes in front of someone’s face); and another where it would ricochet off the surface.

Mike Mielke and his team from Scanline in Munich did fabulous work in creating all the environments, bullet effects and windows. The amount of detail required was staggering, especially with an ice and snow environment where color is greatly reduced. In this almost monochromatic world, where it’s basically all white on white and shades therein, the level of detail needs to be extreme to keep large surfaces from blocking up and becoming flat. Reflections were placed in the large glass surfaces, along with ice build-up in all of the windows. The windows themselves incorporated broken edges and holes where the bullets would hit.

Original green screen plate of the "Snowpiercer" shootout

Original green screen plate of the “Snowpiercer” shootout

Final "Snowpiercer" composite shows the depth of the bullet tracks through the train car glass

Final composite shows the depth of the bullet tracks through the train car glass

How long did you spend working on Snowpiercer, and how many shots did you deliver?

There were about 850 shots in the show, so there was a lot to keep track of both aesthetically and organisationally during the 15-month production. Pre-production and production out of Prague began in November of 2011 and completed in July 2012. Post production ran from July 2012 to March of 2013 in both Los Angeles and Seoul.

What did you learn from working on Snowpiercer?

One of the first thoughts I had upon arriving in Prague was: “Why are we here? Snowpiercer is being filmed entirely within the walls of a studio, and the magnificence of this city will never appear on a single frame. It’s not inexpensive and a stage is a stage … we could do this anywhere.” Or so I thought. In my uninitiated mind, I thought the castles and architectural wonders of the city were a key asset that would never be taken advantage of.

However, led by Production Designer Ondreji Nekasil, I gained a deep appreciation of the tremendous resources that lay here and what a privilege it was to be around such artistic capabilities. I discovered that the DNA that created this magical place, and the deep beauty found in the elaborate detailing of almost everything you see and touch … all of what is present in Prague is also present in the vision and craftsmanship of the artists who design and build the sets – and therefore in everything that’s being photographed for the film. The castle you can see outside is right in front of the camera on the stage. In speaking with others who have shot films here, this is a shared revelation.

Any final words?

I hope everyone gets to see Snowpiercer in a theater because the distribution, at least in the US, has been limited. Almost every film review – from the New York Times to the LA Times and all parties between – names it as one of the best films of 2014. I was very proud to have been a part of it and I wish the film all the success it deserves, hoping it will parallel the great success it has had in both Asia and Europe.

Catch The Train

Snowpiercer has finally ploughed its way through the icy wasteland of international distribution negotiations, and is currently enjoying a limited US theatrical release on around 350 screens. It’s also available through video on demand.

Eric Durst compiled his answers to my questions in the evenings after working extraordinarily long days on his current production shoot. Thanks, Eric – I hope you get some sleep soon! Images copyright © The Weinstein Company 2014.

2 thoughts on “The Visual Effects of Snowpiercer

  1. Saw this film on the big screen last Saturday. LOVED IT. Grateful that we in America got Bong’s true vision of the film and not some watered down version. Great to see the CINEFEX coverage here.

  2. Pingback: The VFX of “Snowpiercer” – Cinefex Blog – Graham Edwards

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