The Invisible Effects of “Tracks”

by Graham Edwards

Mia Wasikowska stars as Robyn Davidson in "Tracks"

Small film. Big country. Interesting times.

Add these things together and what you get is Tracks. Adapted from the book by Robyn Davidson and directed by John Curran, Tracks tells the true story of one woman’s trek across the Australian outback. Accompanied by four camels and a dog – and observed by National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan through his camera lens – Davidson endures hardship and finds inspiration in the one of the most unforgiving environments on Earth.

Australia’s iconic desert landscape has provided a dramatic backdrop for countless memorable films including Walkabout, the Mad Max trilogy and Baz Luhrman’s Australia. In Tracks, the dusty wilderness not only presents the ultimate challenge to its protagonist Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) as she faces up to the harsh realities of nomadic desert life, but it also marks a rite of passage for the Australian movie industry as outback filmmaking marches into the digital realm.

“This was one of the last feature films in Australia to be shot on film and processed locally,” observed Tracks’ visual effects supervisor James Rogers. “In addition it was shot with period anamorphic lenses. It was beautifully lensed by Mandy Walker, and was a fond farewell to film for many of us.”

I mentioned interesting times. These are what were experienced by Rogers and his team while working on the film. The VFX work on Tracks was begun under the Method Studios Australia banner; since then the feature film team of Method has now been incorporated into Iloura. Both companies are owned by Deluxe Australia, which has nationalised the Iloura brand in a move to grow its feature film capabilities.

“Now that we’ve come together as one brand,” asserted Rogers, “Iloura’s combined feature film and television teams are further strengthened, enabling us to work on a greater volume and complexity of projects. Method Studios Australia is now 100% focussed on the Australian commercials market.”

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With a reported budget of just $12 million, Tracks is about as far from a Hollywood summer blockbuster as you can get. But even the smallest film can feature some great visual effects work.

The modest budget both allowed for and demanded close collaboration between the visual effects department and director John Curran. “I’d worked with some of the key crew, including production designer Melinda Doring and post production supervisor Colleen Clarke,” said Rogers, “but I’d never had the chance to work with John, though I’d previously discussed projects with him. This time around, everything came together.”

Pre-production on Tracks involved sourcing as much real-world reference as possible, to inform the look and feel of what Rogers describes as “a ‘non-VFX’ show with an emphasis on realism”. One important reference was the drama-documentary The Story of the Weeping Camel. Set in Mongolia, it follows two boys on a trek across the Gobi Desert in an effort to save an imperiled white camel colt. Also useful were a number of 1970s documentaries about the Australian outback.

“Intrinsic to the story are the photographs of Rick Smolan (Adam Driver),” Rogers added. “These really formed the best reference, and Rick himself was very generous in providing us with as much information as we needed.”

In all, Iloura delivered 133 shots on Tracks, over a period of around 3 months. They also designed the titles and credit sequences. Visual effects shots included a number of matte-painted vistas, sandstorms, extending an underwater sequence and various composites.

One of the big challenges was the camels – in particular the scenes showing these beasts of burden being shot and killed. Early on, it was thought that fully 3D CG camels would be required but, as production progressed, the team began to favour a 2D approach.

“While we explored the options of making CG camels,” said Rogers, “we pulled back to something which was very live-action based. This wasn’t just a consequence of budget, but also factoring in the look of the film. I think we ended up making something that sat elegantly within the edit. The subtle, almost matter-of-fact appearance of the killings underscores the profound effect it has on the lead character, and is a turning point in the drama of the film.”

For the shooting scenes, shots of tranquilised camels were enhanced by Iloura

For scenes in which the camels are shot, Iloura added bullet entry and exit wounds, and CG patches on the animals’ flanks to make the flesh appear to spasm

To create the sequence, male camels were filmed being dosed with tranquiliser darts.

“We manipulated the way they fell in comp, so they crumpled, shook and came down in a quietly dramatic way,” Rogers explained. “We did this using spline warps and rotoscoping appropriate elements from various takes. We added small bullet entry and exit wounds, as well as small CG patches on the flank which ripple and spasm.

“Additionally, we added froth to the camel’s mouths, using a base of motion-tracked 3D and live action elements. For the blood that pours out of the camels, we mixed up a few litres in the kitchen at work using recipes we’d found on the web. Then we filmed appropriate pours over objects in the car park, which we then composited in. The mouth foam was glycerol, art glue, and shaving cream – we shot it with a puppet camel mouth we’d made. There were quite a few elements included in the sequence, but ultimately it was a very simple, old-school approach.”

The limited budget encouraged the visual effects team to apply the same approach throughout the rest of their work on the film.

“We looked to create solutions that were a combination of camera, digital matte painting, and compositing work,” remarked Rogers. “The domestic Australian film industry is quite small, and demands a nimble approach to logistics and general approach in any aspect of production – including VFX. With tools like Nuke and Mari, we can dip into the simpler 3D side directly from comp software. But we did turn to 3D simulation for the heavy lifting in the sandstorm and rutting camel sequences.”

Reflecting on Iloura’s work on the film, Rogers concluded: “We had to come up with the most efficient way to approach a problem, without compromising the look or feel. We moved to an increasingly heavy element collection process, so that we were making bespoke elements that would work well. Coupling the elements with more modern, efficient workflows for projection and 2.5D manipulation meant we were able to turn shots around pretty rapidly. All in all, it was a good show for stripping back current, conventional solutions for VFX and rethinking them or bringing them back to basics.”

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Special thanks to Hayley Davis. Tracks photographs copyright 2013 See-Saw Films.