The secrets of A Good Day to Die Hard's explosive VFX

Two McClanes meant double the carnage in the latest Die Hard movie. Method Studios' Dan Mayer discusses the art of wholesale destruction.

When John McClane inadvertently found himself battling terrorists in an LA skyscraper back in 1988, few would have guessed his bad luck antics would have quite such an impact with audiences, much less have kicked off one of the longest-running action movie franchises.

In the years since, Bruce Willis' vest-clad cop has had his peaceful existence shattered almost as often as the bones in his body over a series of films. In the latest, A Good Day To Die Hard, McClane teams up with his own CIA-recruited son.

Not surprisingly, double the McClanes means double the carnage, with director John Moore calling on Method Studios to bring the movie's most spectacular firefight to life.

"There was a definite sense of excitement taking on this project," says Dan Mayer, CG supervisor, Method Studios. "It's one of those franchises which I'd started watching as a kid, so it was kind of cool to go from being a viewer to a participant."

The big bang

Fandom aside, Mayer says the fact that series is so well-established also helped in terms of instantly providing a feel for the signature Die Hard style of action. "It comes with a long history of blowing things up for real, so we had a big responsibility to make sure that our work felt very much like live action. Every single step of the way, we thought very carefully about how a camera operator would handle the shots in real life."

Access to the real copter helped determine how it should look

With Budapest filling in for Moscow during production, Method was tasked with making suitable alterations to the cityscape. At the most basic level this involved dropping some iconic Moscow buildings into the skyline, though the main task involved creating a fully CG, high-detail building for a sequence depicting a helicopter assault on the McClanes. Specifically, the director wanted the real Moscow University to double as the hotel under attack.

"Recreating something that's real definitely makes things easier," says Mayer. "There are few artistic choices to try to cater to, and of course when it looks like the actual building then you know you're done. But obviously it does come with its own set of challenges. Rather than simply trying to capture the spirit of the building, we needed to match this one as faithfully as possible."

While Method wasn't present on set, overall VFX supervisor Everett Burrell ensured they had everything they could possibly require, including extensive onset data plus detailed photography taken in Moscow of the university building. As well as providing reference for surfacing detail, these also helped with its construction via photogrammetry tools.

Get to da choppa

For the MI-24 Hind helicopter that rains bullets down on the good guys, Mayer says they'd originally been told not to worry unduly, as the presence of a real copter on set would ensure good coverage. "But as the edit was put together, director John Moore decided that he was missing some key shots. Luckily we'd been expecting it and had already prepared a pretty high-resolution version of the real copter."

This was built with the help of LIDAR data, as well as extensive photography of the real vehicle. "Because it was going to be cut alongside shots of the real thing our model had to be accurate down to every panel," says Mayer. "We covered everything from the weather vanes on top to the rocket launcher mounts, plus the rotor detail that you don't even see when it's moving, but which the brain subconsciously picks up. But perhaps the biggest advantage access to the real copter gave us was the ability to model the interior accurately."

While the exterior shots presented multiple challenges, Mayer says it was an indoor sequence showing the devastating effect of the helicopter attack as McClane and son run through the building and out of the windows that ultimately proved most painstaking. "It was one of the first shots we received and the last we delivered. Obviously you can't put actors in dangerous situations with live pyros, so from the off we needed multiple takes of the same action. But because it wasn't done using a motion control camera, every take was different. So immediately a lot had to be done to get everything sitting in the same world."

Once all the live plates were combined it was felt the shot still looked too safe and sterile, so Method manipulated the footage to induce a greater sense of vertigo at the final jump, as well as adding CG elements just prior – with bullet holes ripping through the walls, tracer fire all around, falling chandeliers and more explosions. "One thing that really helped sell it all was that John [Moore] was willing to have bits of debris hitting the camera and water droplets causing refractions," says Mayer. "Those imperfections helped sell the feeling that it was all achieved practically. I'm really pleased with the way it turned out."

"The difficult thing was making the architecture look beautiful, then getting the helicopter to respond to the lighting in a way that didn't dull it down," says Mayer

So, too, presumably was the star of the show. "We do seem to have a bit of a history with Bruce Willis," says Mayer. "We worked on Red, Red 2, and now this. We're following his career very closely!"

This article originally appeared in 3D World issue 175

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