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Immersed in Movies: Pulling Off a New VFX Twist for 'White House Down'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood June 28, 2013 at 1:01PM

Uncharted Territory, which has become a model of efficiency and innovation during these precarious times for the VFX industry, came up with a new concept for handling Roland Emmerich's "White House Down": management and quality control rather than creating the bulk of the effects in-house.
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Channing Tatum in "White House Down"
Channing Tatum in "White House Down"

Uncharted Territory, which has become a model of efficiency and innovation during these precarious times for the VFX industry, came up with a new concept for handling Roland Emmerich's "White House Down": management and quality control rather than creating the bulk of the effects in-house. 

That's because Uncharted had only 12 months to deliver 1,000 VFX -- the shortest schedule ever for partners Volker Engel and Marc Weigert, who also serve as co-producers and close collaborators with Emmerich.

"We're very fortunate that we already came up with this process many years ago and not have a company that we have to feed with shots and have 100-150 artists," Engel explains. "We are able to do it in different ways depending on the project. On '2012,' we did a third of the movie's VFX in-house because it made sense and we had the preparation time. On 'Anonymous,' it made sense because it was a contained number of shots (300) and it was all London in the 16th century. But on this movie we didn't have much preparation and setup time and we couldn't hire artists just from our own infrastructure."

Production management is Uncharted's specialty anyway, so it just meant tighter control and oversight of the shots turned in by a host of VFX companies that included Method, Hybride, Image Engine, Scanline, Prime Focus, and Luxx. The biggest challenge, of course, was getting around White House limited access and the no-fly zone around the perimeter and Lincoln Monument. 

White House Down

This required a lot more analysis and creativity in delivering the most unique and spectacular White House environment ever made. They utilized a combination of stills and aerial photography wherever possible and then relied on the CG craft to build a photorealistic DC. The modeling, lighting, and texturing are especially believable. And all the better when blowing it up and tearing up the White House lawn.

The second difficulty was shooting in early fall to capture a beautiful, crisp day as a contrast to the explosive mayhem. Hurricane Sandy made it even more restrictive. They got only half a day's worth of aerial photography. Still, Method of Vancouver and Hybride of Montreal managed to stitch together the backdrop they needed. Method did most of the asset building, which was shared with other companies: the White House, the grounds, the East Wing, the West Wing, the Capitol, and the Black Hawks. Not only was the CG authentic-looking but there were also multiple interacting dynamic simulations. Trees, in fact, proved the most underestimated aspect.

Then Hybride came in and shared the Black Hawk sequence, creating an entire virtual city down to the smallest detail, through a combination of procedural animation, including traffic lights, street lamps, bicycle racks, and vegetation (with the aid of a cutting edge tool to populate trees and simulate movement), as well as buildings and landmarks done from scratch.

Speaking of detail, the most mysterious aspect was dealing with the abnormal White House paint, which appears to have a secret ingredient. "Our theory is that it was developed somewhere in collaboration with the Pentagon because it's really amazing once you start analyzing it," Weigert suggests. "In sunlight it almost has this ethereal glow and almost looks unreal. So how do you make something look real in CG that already looks unreal? That was Method's task. And there's almost no detail that you can put into the model. Only when you get real close do you see the little uneven pieces -- the stone edges and so on." Turns out that Weigert got the best stills from his camera phone after exiting a tour of the White House.

This article is related to: White House Down, Roland Emmerich, Immersed In Movies, Features, VFX


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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.