The VFX of T2 Trainspotting

by Graham Edwards

T2 Trainspotting Quad Poster

In 1996, director Danny Boyle tapped into the fashionable ‘Cool Britannia’ movement with Trainspotting, adapted from the novel by Irvine Welsh. With its colorful characters, frank depiction of heroin use, and Ewan McGregor’s unforgettable dive into a public washroom toilet, the black comedy enjoyed both critical acclaim and box office success, and captured the zeitgeist of an era.

When Boyle set out to make a sequel – loosely based on Welsh’s follow-up novel Porno – he turned to long-time collaborators Union VFX to realize some of the new film’s more memorable images. For T2 Trainspotting, a team led by visual effects supervisor Adam Gascoyne handled over 400 shots, running the gamut from broad fantasy flourishes to the invisible doctoring of the film’s bleak Scottish locations.

“As with the original film,” commented Danny Boyle, “we were faced with the challenge of visually depicting Irvine’s particular style of written fantasy on screen in a way that remains true to the characters and situations depicted in the book, but is consumable by audiences. Having worked with Adam numerous times before, I knew that together we could come up with creative ways to tackle these challenges and tell this story. We’re both really proud of how it’s turned out.”

Watch a breakdown reel of Union VFX’s work on T2 Trainspotting:

In T2 Trainspotting, Simon ‘Sick Boy’ Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller) is running a pub in a run-down part of Leith, near Edinburgh. Production shot a suitable building in Glasgow, leaving Union VFX to remove the surrounding architecture and blend in background plates shot separately at Leith docks.

Union VFX altered the environment surrounding Sick Boy's pub. The image on the left shows the original Glasgow plate. To create the image on the right, artists replaced architecture and added photography shot at Leith docks.

Union VFX altered the environment surrounding Sick Boy’s pub. The image on the left shows the original Glasgow plate. To create the image on the right, artists replaced architecture and added photography shot at Leith docks.

“We created environments that enhanced the narrative,” said Adam Gascoyne, “ensuring Sick Boy’s pub was in a virtually derelict setting where almost everything else had been destroyed. The actual pub was near a train line – we moved it closer and created a CG train to travel through frame. The idea was to reflect the status of the characters’ lives visually in their habitats, and Sick Boy’s pub is situated very much at the end of the line.”

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Visual effects also enhanced the apartment block home of Daniel ‘Spud’ Murphy (Ewen Bremner). Production photographed exteriors in Greendykes, Edinburgh, and interiors on a stage backed by bluescreen. Scheduled for demolition, the building goes through three distinct levels of decay as the story unfolds. “The change is very subtle over the duration of the film,” Gascoyne commented.  “We end the film watching the tower block collapsing, symbolizing Spud moving away from his self-destructive past as a junkie and onto pastures new.”

Youthful characters from the original "Trainspotting" appear projected on the walls of Spud's flat, in this composite shot by Union VFX.

Youthful characters from the original “Trainspotting” appear projected on the walls of Spud’s flat, in this composite shot by Union VFX.

During a flashback sequence, images from the youthful lives of Spud, Mark ‘Rent Boy’ Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Francis ‘Franco’ Begbie (Robert Carlyle) appear in a railroad warehouse. Union VFX used head replacement techniques to combine footage of the younger actors from the original Trainspotting with live-action shot on location. “We placed the actors in an approximate position in the warehouse,” explained Gascoyne. “Then it was a fairly meticulous comping task, done in Nuke. We aligned the actor performances with the archive footage mostly by eye – we didn’t want to over-complicate the process. The images then appear projected on a wall in Spud’s flat, which allowed us to introduce optical effects and smoke to bed in the footage, with pretty seamless results.”

Renton and Spud flee the scene of the crime in this replay of the opening sequence from "Trainspotting," which visual effects artists enhanced with cartoon faces.

Renton and Spud flee the scene of the crime in this replay of the opening sequence from “Trainspotting,” which visual effects artists enhanced with cartoon faces.

Director Danny Boyle referenced the original film on another occasion, with a replay of its opening sequence in which Renton and Spud flee the scene of their latest shoplifting spree. Visual effects artists tracked the original footage and superimposed cartoon faces inspired by a 2015 advertising campaign for the department store Harvey Nichols.

Union VFX helped Renton and Sick Boy play out their sporting fantasies by transplanting a soccer pitch into a pub interior.

Union VFX helped Renton and Sick Boy play out their sporting fantasies by transplanting a soccer pitch into a pub interior.

“Other effects provide subtle accents to moments in the story,” said Gascoyne. “Like when Spud demonstrates his forgery prowess by scribing signatures in the air with light, and deer gambol across the walls and ceiling. It was really rewarding to see the outcome of that on the screen.”

Spud shows off his forgery skills in this composite shot for which Union VFX animated an airborne light trail.

Spud shows off his forgery skills in this composite shot for which Union VFX animated an airborne light trail.

The ‘trainspotting’ theme continues in a lengthy traveling shot created by Union VFX, in which turned Renton’s railroad-themed bedroom into a seemingly endless tunnel. “We created a set extension so we could pull back at great speed,” said Gascoyne, “like a train departing the station, for about a minute whilst the credits roll at the end of the film.”

Renton's bedroom becomes an endless tunnel, courtesy of a CG set extension.

Renton’s bedroom becomes an endless tunnel, courtesy of a CG set extension.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be part of Danny’s creative team for nearly 17 years,” Gascoyne reflected. “Our work is always collaborative and knowing the creatives involved really helps. This project was particularly creatively liberating given Danny’s history of illustrating Irvine’s stories and characters through fantasy, flashbacks and hallucinations.”

T2 Trainspotting is currently on limited release in US theaters, and on wider release from March 31, 2017.

“T2 Trainspotting” photographs copyright © 2016 by Sony Pictures Releasing. Special thanks to Lucy Cooper.

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