Entertainment

How Visual Effects Pros Created Catastrophic Events in ‘Moonfall’

In making “Moonfall,” his latest world-destroying sci-fi epic, Roland Emmerich once again tapped talent from his native Germany to bring his apocalyptic visions to life.

“Moonfall” follows two former astronauts and a brilliant but discredited scientist, played by Patrick Wilson, Halle Berry and John Bradley, who team up on a mission to save the planet after the moon is knocked out of its orbit and begins hurling toward Earth, creating catastrophic environmental devastation in the process.

Of the four VFX companies that worked on the film’s massive action sequences, two originated in Germany, Scanline VFX and Pixomondo, while the others, DNEG and Framestore, are British.

Scanline, which is being taken over by Netflix, has been a regular partner for Emmerich since the 2009 disaster film “2012.” That project coincided with Scanline’s arrival in Hollywood, says Stephan Trojansky, the company’s president and senior visual-effects supervisor.

Scanline had also just made a major splash with its proprietary fluid effects software Flowline, which won the company a Scientific and Technical Achievement Academy Award in 2008.

“That was just when I arrived in Los Angeles and Roland had this little movie called ‘2012,’” Trojansky recalls. “The last 25 minutes of it was literally just flooding the world. And he trusted us on this. He saw some demos and said, ‘Let’s do it!’

“I said, in honor of you giving us this chance to make this movie, I will be forever your destruction movie buddy and take on the hardest stuff.”

Scanline, whose recent credits include “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “The Batman,” will continue to operate as a standalone business following the Netflix deal, which is expected to close this quarter. Its continued relationship with Emmerich also appears solid.

“Our team looks forward every couple of years to do a movie with Roland and I don’t think anything will change in that, otherwise there would be a revolt in my team,” Trojansky adds.

Noting the difficulties in navigating today’s visual-effects business, Emmerich expresses appreciation for the artists who have worked “really, really hard” on his films. “From the big four companies that worked on ‘Moonfall,’ two of them are German-run — that says everything.”

Indeed, both Scanline and Pixomondo also worked on the director’s previous film, the World War II actioner “Midway.”

Emmerich has supported companies and artists from Germany since his early films, making a major contribution to the country’s VFX sector.

On 1996’s “Independence Day,” Emmerich teamed up with visual-effects supervisor Volker Engel, who went on to win an Oscar for his work on the film. Engel continued working on nearly all of Emmerich’s subsequent movies through 2016’s “Independence Day: Resurgence.” “And because of that, Volker was always drawing in German companies,” Emmerich recalls.

In “Moonfall,” Scanline put its Flowline effects to good use. In one striking scene, and one of the most challenging sequences for the VFX team, the film’s heroes take off in a space shuttle as Earth begins to lose gravity and a massive tsunami approaches.

While movie audiences are familiar with scenes of zero G in space, depicting increasing weightlessness on Earth was particularly demanding, says Trojansky. “What does it even look like when a tsunami approaches you in negative gravity? Does it create tendrils? We developed blobs of water that rose into the air — swimming pool-sized blobs.”

Another challenge was making the approaching tsunami look massive while keeping it in scale and moving at a realistic speed. The scene depicts a colossal event that could have been in two separate movies, Trojansky notes. There’s the space shuttle launch that has to look big itself, but is then dwarfed by the immense thousand-foot wave and water shooting up into the sky. “The shuttle barely escapes the rim of the wave. We had plenty of iterations. Will the water touch it or nudge it just a little bit?” It had to be believable, he stresses.

Scanline was also instrumental in helping promote the project to potential backers early on. While working on “Midway,” Scanline produced a 90-second “Moonfall” teaser for the director to present in Cannes. “It was a shot of the moon coming up behind the Earth showing a hint of destruction,” says Trojansky. “That was our first involvement.”

The shot not only impressed producers and distributors in Cannes, it also made it into the final cut of the movie.

Like “Midway,” which was backed by Starlight Entertainment and Ruyi Films, Emmerich independently produced and financed “Moonfall” with Chinese partners, namely Huayi Bros. “My movies are always a little bit too expensive for a normal studio film,” he says. “They’re always like, ‘Can you not make this for $70 million?’ And we can’t, because we’re already on the edge of what you can do.”

The visual grandeur of “Midway” made a lower budget impossible. At $100 million, it ultimately became one of the priciest independent films in history.

With “Moonfall,” Emmerich went a different route, seeking to auction the project at Cannes. “The beauty is you can do that in Cannes,” he adds, noting that it’s where everyone comes together, key Chinese film industry reps, equity sources and the big distribution companies. “So you can pretty much put a movie together in one swoop. And that was good for us.”

The film, reportedly budgeted at $140 million, shot entirely in Montreal and also received public funding from Quebec. The Lionsgate release is scheduled to hit U.S. theaters Feb. 4.

With the pandemic still wreaking havoc in the industry, Emmerich says he hasn’t decided on what he’ll be doing next despite having both film and series projects in the works.

The previously announced historical feature “Maya Lord” has been postponed, but Emmerich is still looking to shoot the film in Mexico. The project is based on John Coe Robbins’ historical novel about the first encounter between the Spanish and the Maya.

Emmerich’s Centropolis Entertainment is also set to produce the ancient Rome series “Those About to Die” with Vienna-based High End Prods., the recently launched joint venture between Constantin Film and Herbert G. Kloiber. Based on the 1958 book by Daniel P. Mannix, the historical series will explore Rome’s savage games and spectator sports.




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