The highly-anticipated giant robot franchise made for sci-fi junkies and extreme VFX superfans has finally returned, and much like the first Pacific Rim installment 5 years ago, Pacific Rim Uprising didn’t disappoint on its biggest attraction: special effects.
While most movie reviews go in-depth on the action and cinematography, not much credit is given to the unsung film crews who create the foundation for the production to build upon. We’re talking film crews that capture plates that other film crews use to create the scenes.
These guys make all of the magic possible. Let’s look at how the film’s stunning backdrops were acquired.
High in the Sky
Naturally, a movie with giant robots involves a lot of movement and perspective, so capturing background & action plates for the film required precise angling and positions in many hard to reach places. Instead of using helicopters and cranes, the VFX team employed the latest in cinema tech to get the shots needed: drones.
XM2 was brought on for the task. An international drone cinematography company, XM2 has played a major role in the VFX of blockbusters like Thor:Ragnarok and Pirates of the Caribbean 5, as well as upcoming Aquaman and Westworld Season 2. XM2 worked closely with VFX Supervisor Peter Chiang to get the right shots.
“We get the opportunity to work with the biggest visual effects companies in the industry, and coming from a cinema background myself, I know exactly what kind of shots our producers want,” explained Stephen Oh, CEO of XM2.
“These companies trust what we do not only because we know how to shoot cinematically, but also because we develop, program and manufacture the drones 100% ourselves. We make them specifically to handle the demands of major film productions.”
The obvious challenge in capturing footage of jaegers and kaijus is the framing. Realistically, they would be at least 270-300 feet tall, and require shooting from the air at precise angles to have the perfect look. But the real challenge is actually having the right tools for the job. Here’s the setup employed by XM2 and the VFX team:
XM2’s Romeo is designed to carry cinema cameras and fly at high velocities, which made it perfect for this type of workflow. It also has an above-drone housing unit with integrated gimbal stabilizer, allowing the Alexa Mini to shoot at an upwards angle (cinema drones typically shoot downward).
Connected to the Alexa Mini was the Teradek Bolt 3000 transmitter. This sent an instant wireless feed all the way down to the receiver on the ground, which pushed the video to the crew’s Atomos Shogun monitor.
Stephen used the live feed to pilot the drone, while the 1st AC controlled FIZ using the Teradek RT controller, a zero-delay wireless camera/lens control system.
Drone Cinematography Essentials
2 jaegers duke it out in downtown Sydney, Australia, destroying buildings, roads, cars and each other. This scene required the camera to pull some crazy maneuvers, including environment shots that spanned the entire vertical length of the jaegers from bottom to top, wide and close-up, under/over bridges and around buildings.
“We’re filming the scenes the robots will be fighting in, and one particular shot required us to fly under a highway overpass, stop, fly between buildings, over another highway and stop in the center of Sydney,” Stephen explains.
“Remember, these are 300 foot robots, so any movement from them at all is a massive undertaking for the drone. When a jaeger falls over, their body length spans 6 city blocks, and we have to capture the entire scope of that space in one take on the drone. The only way to see all of that is with wireless video.”
This can only be done using reliable, high-powered wireless video solutions like the Teradek Bolt & RT systems. Piloting a drone and controlling camera functions remotely requires a way to see a real-time view of the shot - the main purpose being that operators need to see where they’re flying.
But another reason is to maintain proper visual continuity when rotating and panning. If the drone is facing one direction and rotates 180, natural lighting has shifted completely that the focus puller has to readjust the lens. This requires remote, zero-delay monitoring and instant camera control tools.
“We have animated storyboards that show us what the robots will be doing at these scenes, but it’s up to us to make sure the environment looks realistic and compelling on camera. What we capture is the end product, so it has to be perfect.”
“Our gear is the most important tools in getting our job done. These are multimillion-dollar sets that expect us to arrive prepared and ready to operate. With our reputation on the line, there’s no room for failure here.”
That’s why XM2 trusts Teradek for all of their major projects. The RT motors are lightweight and smooth, helping to keep weight low on the Romeo drone. Also, controls are transmitted instantly to the lens, even around major obstacles like concrete walls and ultra-tall buildings. Similarly, the Bolt gets a robust signal to the monitor at incredible distances, allowing Stephen and Peter to ensure they acquired plates worthy of the Pacific Rim franchise.
“Bolt acts as our eyes and RT acts as our arms when we’re up in the air, and they’ve never failed us a single time on set. Teradek allows us to meet the demands of major cinema productions. We never leave home without them.”
- VFX Supervisor: Peter Chiang
- Director of Photography: Danny Mendel
- 2nd Unit Director: Tommy Harper
In the next few weeks, XM2 will be announcing the launch of “Sierra”, the cinema industry’s first drone to support the Alexa 65 cinema camera. In addition, expect big announcements from XM2 at the largest Hollywood trade show, Cinegear 2018.