Warner Bros.’ new release Pan is an inspired retelling of J.M. Barrie’s classic tale of the boy Peter Pan and his adventures in Neverland. Directed by Joe Wright and starring Hugh Jackman, Rooney Mara, Garret Hedlund and Australian newcomer Levi Miller, the movie delivers an engaging, emotional story filled with thrilling action, warm comedy and dazzling visuals.
Working under the direction of Wright, Visual Effects Supervisor Chas Jarrett and Visual Effects Producer Dan Barrow, Rising Sun Pictures produced 164 visual effects shots for Pan. The studio assembled a team of 130 artists whose assignment centered several key sequences from the beginning of the movie. The extended sequence begins as the baby Peter is left by his mother at a London orphanage and carries through to his abduction at age 12 by pirates piloting an airborne galleon during World War II’s Battle of Britain. The team also contributed to a sequence that marks Pan’s breathtaking conclusion.
RSP’s effort spanned 16 months and was led by VFX Supervisor Marc Varisco, VFX Producer Ian Cope, Second Supervisor Alana Newell and Sequence Supervisor Brian Kranz. Highlights of the work included an historical recreation of World War II era central London; a photo-real aerial battle involving British Spitfires, German Henkel bombers and a flying galleon, digital set extensions, pyrotechnics, digital character replacements, fluid effects and a magical star field.
The opening sequence of the movie is a transition from the main titles to a glittering star field. Although it appears to fill the night sky, the star field is quickly revealed to be a mere reflection in a puddle in a London street. The illusion is broken by Peter’s mother Mary as she splashes through the water while on her way to leave her newborn child at the door to an orphanage. RSP artists applied warps, matte paintings and other elements to create the effect of Mary’s foot tramping through the water.
The team also enhanced the following shot, a sweeping crane move from baby Peter at the orphanage door to a panoramic view of 1930s London. That city view was produced as a procedural system by RSP artists and based on exhaustive historical research. The city system appears in a number of scenes early in the film set near the orphanage. The basic city architecture was detailed with textures and augmented by mist, fog and other environmental effects.
RSP’s most ambitious work centered on several scenes set during the historic Battle of Britain when German planes carried out nightly bomb attacks on London and British fighter planes attempted to knock them out of the sky. Artists produced precise digital models of Heinkel bombers and Spitfire fighter planes and orchestrated air battles complete with tracer fire, spotlights and barrage balloons.
During one such attack, a pirate galleon, the Ranger, appears inexplicably in the night sky and dives toward the orphanage. Pirates snatch Peter and several of his mates. For this scene, RSP created a digital model of the pirate ship, based on concept drawings and a maquette provided by the production. The digital model was also made to match set pieces representing a deck and hull. LIDAR scans of the practical set pieces were provided to RSP to ensure that the digital model moved in tandem with live action elements (which were controlled by a gimbal).
“The challenge of seamlessly marrying the digital and live elements was especially keen when it came to the rigging of the ropes, sails and masts,” explains Cope, “as they had to react as they would on a traditional sail ship, albeit flying through the air!”
As the galleon departs, the camera turns back to the orphanage. “The digital model was combined with a practical piece of roof that a pirate jumps onto,” Cope notes. “An extreme attention to detail was required to ensure that the digital model matched the live action set pieces in order to create a seamless experience for the audience following Peter on his journey.”
The orphanage escape is capped by a dogfight over London as British air command mistakes the galleon’s appearance for a Luftwaffe attack. Fierce fighting is punctuated by a comic moment as a boy riding a train out of Charing Cross station watches in amazement as the Ranger dives down to the surface of the Thames. Digital elements used in the sequence included the ship and aircraft, water effects (when the Ranger touches down on the Thames), clouds, tracer fire, explosions, cannon blasts, steam, flames and digital doubles.
The London city environment was a mix of procedurally-created buildings and landmarks, including Big Ben, The Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral and the orphanage. Look development for these assets was completed individually and they were then brought together as the assembled city. Additional elements such as search lights, barrage balloons, smoke and fog were combined with digital matte paintings and smoldering embers (from previous attacks) to produce the finished environment.
“Our city system allowed for the modelling of a number of different building styles that were then procedurally laid out on a map of London,” explains Cope. “That ensured historical accuracy in terms of building types for the various areas of the city.”
RSP’s work concluded with the movie’s final scene depicting the departure of the Jolly Roger from post-war London. Artists utilized technology created for the earlier Ranger sequences, modified to fit the Jolly Roger, in order to blend digital and practical elements. The digital London set, modified to represent its post-war state of the city, was employed in all shots. “The final shot is a complex handover from a full live action element of the deck of the ship to the fully digital Jolly Roger galleon as it flies over London and heads toward its eventual destination.”