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Immersed in Movies: Stepping Up the VFX for 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood March 29, 2013 at 2:55PM

After viewing the bang-bang antics of "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," it made perfect sense that Jon Chu became the director. His dance experience with "Step Up 2: The Streets" and "Step Up 3D" provided the perfect training for the choreographed action he devised for the "G.I. Joe" sequel starring newcomers Dwayne Johnson as Roadblock and Bruce Willis as the original Joe. The stealthy overthrow of Cobra after the Joes have been decimated and disgraced involves a series of escapades that are as remarkable for their balletic brilliance as their explosive firepower.
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GI Joe Retaliation

Then, for Firefly's weaponized motorcycle that deconstructs into missiles for an explosion, DD had to choreograph a difficult shot with the camera move and the CG breaking up of the bike that required artful hand animation and algorithms to smooth the effect.

But DD's most challenging shot lasts less than 10 seconds: the impersonation of the President by the Cobra henchman (played by Arnold Vosloo) with the help of nanomites, the microscopic robots that form a living mask on his face, and reveal it in an unnerving scene where he appears to cut through his own skin to expose them.

Beier and the DD team took the approach of creating CG models of each actor's head and using blend shapes, hand animation, and plate photography of the President to create the seamless transition from one to the other. Madigan worked directly with DD animators to art-direct specific facial movements.

"In the end it looks mysterious and leaves you wanting more," Beier observes.

Meanwhile, ILM (supervised by Bill George) got to tackle a stunning Himalayan fight sequence involving a group of ninjas hanging from ropes on the side of a sheer rock face. Interestingly, the sequence is based on the '84 G.I. Joe comic, "Silent Interlude."

"We shot in an old warehouse where they constructed NASA rockets outside of New Orleans," George explains. "They created a green screen wall at a very steep angle with a lot of rigging above to swing the stunt people through for the fighting. But they couldn't move as fast as they wanted, so that's where we came in.

"We tried to capture the action with the stunt people going at it on ropes. So we'd take a performance that was 90% there and augmented it by, for instance, replacing an arm and having it swing in more aggressively. Getting onto the zip line was done CG. For us, it was the perfect scenario for doing digital doubles because they were completely covered up and the only face you saw was through their eye holes. It was a fairly easy match without cloth sim or hair sim to take it up to another level of difficulty."

Finally, Method in Vancouver and New York (supervised by Ollie Rankin) handled, among other things, an all-out assault on the G. I. Joe camp by a squadron of CG Apache attack helicopters, raining down machine gun tracer fire and missiles, blowing up every vehicle and killing almost everyone.

"A lot of people get into VFX specifically for the opportunity to blow stuff up and 'G. I. Joe: Retaliation' offered us at Method Studios many such opportunities, with Apache gunships on the attack, exploding robotic fireflies, Cobra ball grenades, and a catastrophic cooling system meltdown," enthuses Rankin.

With "G.I. Joe," they all got to be kids again.

This article is related to: Features, Immersed In Movies, VFX, G.I. Joe: Retaliation


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.