A world of hurt

Note: Plot Spoilers!

article by Kevin H. Martin

Cinefex Magazine, January 2000

First rule of Fight Club:
You do not talk about Fight Club
Second rule of Fight Club:
You do not talk about Fight Club

So warns Tyler Durden, the anachistic leader of a band of misfits who, having forsaken the trappings of yuppiedom and the consumer-good-driven-lifestyle, seek truth and meaning at an elemental level - through pain.

In the months leading up to the fall release of Fight Club, director David Fincher and the film's stars - Brad Pitt, Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Cater - seemed to take Durden's directive to heart off-screen as well as on, diligently maintaining the secrecy of the project with silence or, at best, vagueness in the pre-release interviews. Such carefully guarded secrecy was understandable given the movie's third-act revelation, its disturbing themes and its sometimes shocking displays of violence - sure to stir up heated controversy in the current, post-Columbine political climate.

Based on Chuck Palahniuk's slyly subversive novel, Fight Club features a nameless lead character and narrator (Edward Norton), a chronic insomniac who finds himself drawn to the charismatic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Finding in bare-knuckle brawling a cathartic release for pent-up rage, the two men form Fight Club - a secret society of similarly disillusioned and disenfranchised everymen who gather in alleys and basements to bond by beating each other senseless. As Fight Club spreads across the country and its objectives expand to include attacks on sacred-cow institutions, Durden's true nature is called into question, as is the narrator's very sanity.

A principal challenge in the transformation of Fight Club from literary to cinematic experience was depicting the way the narrator views the world around him - a slightly skewed state of reality, for which much of the imagery would have to be realized with effects rather than through live-action photography. Fortunately, David Fincher - having toiled at Industrial Light & Magic as a cameraman prior to making his big-screen directorial debut with Alien 3 - was well-versed in the arena of visual effects, and had no qualms about using high-tech means to solve the dilemma. "For Fight Club," Fincher noted, "demonstrating the narrator's thought processes became an important part of my setup - those first forty minutes when audiences are taught how to watch the film. Providing a 'mind's-eye' view would help audiences understand the way this story was being told." The point of view Fincher intended to employ to illustrate the narrator's mind at work was a specific and subjective one. "We wanted an incredibly myopic framework, one that was valid given our intent to tell the story from the viewpoint of this particular guy - who turns out to be crazy. We wanted to leap out-of-body, moving the camera in a very free way to visualize his all-over-the-place thoughts as he tries to work things out for himself."

Making the narrator's sardonic, darkly humorous thoughts palatable for an audience was part of the challenge. "Chuck Palahniuk's novel is written in a funny, but clinical style," observed Fincher, "in which the narrator provides various recipes for disaster - this is how you make nitroglycerine, here is the formula for napalm. I needed to zip right through the narrator's verbal diarrhea; and to do this, I decided to illustrate his asides in a way that brought out the menace of these everyday, found objects. This approach used camera moves and effects to complement his voice-over, taking hold of the audience by their eyeballs, providing a frantic, slightly otherworldly quality."

As was the case on Fincher's previous film, The Game, Kevin Tod Haug acted as Fight Club's overall visual effects supervisor, with Robin L. D'Arcy returning as visual effects producer. Haug elected to divide the work among several facilities. "I've found that the best way to control visual effects is by divving up the work vertically rather tthan horizontally," said Haug. "With forty shots of a particular type, it makes no sense to split them between different companies, because achieving the same look with two separate facilities is nearly impossible. Far better to let one company do all the CG modeling for the shots, a second do the animation, whhile another handles the compositing, and yet another performs the scanning. We selected the best people for each aspect of the effects work, then coordinated their efforts. In this way. we never had to play to a facility's weakness."

One of the first companies contacted was Pixel Liberation Front, which previsualized logistically challenging main-unit shots as well as a number of scenes that would require effects enhancement. "Previz is something I favor whenever possible, just as a means of problem-solving before getting to the stage," remarked Fincher. "I do this because I've found that the shortcomings in one's technique are often among the key factors that define the moviegoing experience for the audience - so eliminating these problems beforehand is always preferable. Aspects of reality can intrude during the shoot, especially on location. But by learning about them in advance through previz, I can avoid those problems, working cheaper, faster and without a lot of unnecessary coverage."

The previsualization effort commenced at PLF's Venice facility, then was brought into production's own offices while the film was being prepped. "We spent three to four months working with David to design these sequences in a rigorously detail-oriented manner," noted PLF founder Colin Green. "We shared an office with Kevin Haug, next to the art department, just down the hall from David's office; so he could come in, either to look over our shoulders, or to move virtual cameras around and experiment with lenses," PLF's previsualizations, realized in Softimage, allowed Fincher to work out - cost-effectively - both the composition and length of each effects shot, as well as the exact number and nature of elements required.

With an efficient approach for tackling the effects in place, next came the matter of how best to uniformly treat footage destined for enhancement. "Scanning and recording should almost never be handled at the vendor level," Kevin Haug noted, "not because they aren't good at it, but because everyone does it differently," Haug selected Command Post/ Toybox for the scanning assignment. Another veteran of The Game, Toybox owned the Medallion Photo Lab, a facility staffed by traditionally trained photochemical people who processed and handled film on a daily basis. This made it an ideal choice for scanning the plates, which was accomplished on a Domino, with Efilm applying an up-rez algorithm to the image prior filming them out via laser. An exception to this procedure was made in the case of effects contributor Digital Domain, which handled its own scanning after agreeing to match whatever it was given - even if that meant timing elements differently than the company would have on its own.

With only a few exceptions, effects were divided among vendors and effecs supervisors that Haug or Fincher had worked with previously. Digital simulation work on The Game's climactic glass-ceiling crash-through had been handled by a long-time associate of Haug's, Richard 'Doc' Baily and his largely one-man operation, Image Savant. "Kevin and David both liked my style of working," related Baily, "while I found that communicating with Fincher involved more than the usual painter and film references - it was more like poetry. He'd explain the feel of a shot by saying something like, 'This one's like dropping ten tons of butterflies - got it, Baily?' 'Got it, Dave.'"

Among the first vendors Haug had contacted for Fight Club, Baily was offered, and subsequently bid on, all of the principal effects sequences in that version of the script. These included an opening credit sequence depicting a passage through the human brain, which was ultimately handled at Digital Domain; a runaway multi-ton objet d'art globe rolling through a corporate plaza, realized partly through the on-set efforts of physical effect supervisor Cliff Wenger, and later with digital enhancement by Toybox; and the picture's final scene, featuring the demolition of several highrise office buildings. Reluctant to increase the size of his facility for fear of sacrificing quality control, Baily eventually elected to take just the latter - dubbed the 'buildings-collapse' shot - which, from conception to completion, was to occupy him for fourteen months.

Baily's preferred method of working involved generating material that could be composited elsewhere - an approach that was in sync with Kevin Haug's vertical division of effects labor. "Doc does strange and interesting CG work, always delivering incredible elements," Haug remarked, "but he doesn't believe compositing is his strength. Finding a compositor capable of seeing eye-to-eye with Doc - a man who once noted that his report card on life would read, 'does not play well with others' - turned into a kind of matchmaking process, with Gray Marshall, visual effects supervisor at Gray Matter FX, proving to be the perfect fit." Marshall's compositing track record included work at Digital Domain on Fincher's brobdingnagian Rolling Stones music video, "Love is Strong," and Apollo 13. More recently, after forming Gray Matter with ex-Digital Domain member Margaux Mackay, he handled composites for the explosion of the Federal Building featured in The X-Files movie.

A fourth key effects sequence envisioned for the film was an explosion that destroys the narrator's apartment, a sequence that underwent several rethinks before an acceptable methodology could be settled upon and an effects house engaged. "In voice-over, the narrator muses about what arson investigators will determine about the blast," said Fincher, "and in his imagination he sees the stove left on while gas leaks out and fills his apartment, and then the moment when a refrigerator compressor clicks on and everything blows up." Fincher decided that he wanted to show the moment of the stove's ignition in fine detail, excruciatingly drawn out. "At fifty thousand frames per second, you'd see gas molecules catching fire, which would be a lot more interesting than cutting outside to see furniture flying into the trees."

Fincher considered all-practical approaches to the sequence that included oversize set pieces and motion control; but after reviewing PLF's previsualization, the notion was dropped. "It would have taken forever to eliminate camera shadows on the 'macrotures,'" Fincher state, "and the chrome teapot and spatula in the shot would have reflected a snorkel lens. Then there were the requirements for shooting it high-speed while still exposing properly for the propane explosion, which would blow out all the detail. The refrigerator door opened during the blast, which meant that I'd have needed a 10K refrigerator light to save the film stock from the lost foot-lumens."

These limitations invited a new approach, but rather than working from whole-cloth CG, Fincher was still inclined to pursue something with a real-world basis. Enter BUF incorporated, a company that had pioneered CG image-based modeling and rendering techniques to great advantage on the Rolling Stones music video "Like a Rolling Stone," creating its own version of the kind of 'frozen time' effect featured in commercials and, most recently, in The Matrix. Working from a choreographed series of still photographs, BUF reconstructed camera subjects as 3D geometry, then dressed these digital models by mapping the original camera stills over them. Once fully textured, the CG subjects could be recorded by a virtual camera that was capable of moving freely - in both space and time - around the subject, defying physical laws and introducing an element of the fantastic to reality-base imagery. Combining the precision of previsualized action with the flexibility inherent in CG to refine and reconceive throughout the process, this image-based methodology held certain obvious attractions. Even so, when Kevin Haug brought up the approach with Fincher, he doubted it would find favor. "After showing him BUF's Rolling Stones video," Haug recalled, "I told David I didn't think it was his thing. Everyone had already seen this effect in a ton of commercials. At first he concurred; but then the idea of using BUF's tools in a different way had some appeal."

At BUF's sixty-person facility in Paris, founder Pierre Buffin had installed both programmers and artists in the same workspace, an arrangement that allowed technical and aesthetic concerns to be communicated immediately. Among those concerns, presented to BUF early on, was a specific quality of light Fincher wanted to see in the ignition sequence. "Pierre's first test - which blew us away - suggestion the kind of luminance I associated with high-speed footage of the of the Trinity atomic bomb blasts," Fincher said. "Virtual lighting let me deal with light in an incredibly plastic way. Unencumbered by the size of a physical spectral source, it became simple to illuminate the cracks behind a virtual refrigerator - whereas having to figure out the fiber optic package needed to light a real or oversized fridge would have been a nightmare." To create more detail than was present in the still photographs, BUF rebuilt the linoleum floor, kitchen table and chairs as 3D models, then devised a depth-of-field tool to simulate the shallow focus inherent with macro views. "BUF addressed these technical aspects and freed themselves up to deal with the poetry of the shot's choreography - how rags blew off the counter and when a glass shattered on the stovefront." BUF's image-based CG proved to be a vital tool for producing the mind's-eye imagery Fincher envisioned, and more of these shots were added after production got underway in mid-1998.(Continued)

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