HOW THAT CRAZY DRAGON’S BREATH TOP-DOWN SHOT IN ‘JOHN WICK 4’ WAS PLANNED OUT

One of the stand-out sequences in Chad Stahelski’s John Wick 4 features Wick moving through a Parisian apartment armed with a 12 gauge shotgun using ‘Dragon’s Breath’ ammo. The gunfight is also shown from a ‘top-down’ view.

befores & afters previously spoke to VFX supervisors Jonathan Rothbart and Janelle Ralla about how that top-down was filmed and the visual effects work involved. But, here, NVIZ visual effects supervisor Richard Clarke breaks down in more detail how the top-down shot was choreographed with previs. This includes a glimpse at some super-fun planning documents which we don’t always have access to.

b&a: What kind of reference did you look to for the look and feel of this – both in terms of the stuntvis/art dept designs but also say any other action scenes or games, or from inspiration given from the director?

Richard Clarke: We got a very specific brief from VFX supervisor Jonathan Rothbart. The director had a clear vision of what he wanted as it was inspired by a 2019 video game (Hong Kong Massacre). We were shown some really cool stuntvis where they had been testing the flow of the violence within mocked up sections of the set and exploring what they could and couldn’t achieve with the camera. There was a close collaboration between stunt and art dept as one needed to inform and shape the other.

Production layout.

Production artwork.

b&a: Can you talk about the ‘build’ you needed to do for this previs? How did you take art dept designs and collaborate with depts to craft the sets and props needed? What tools did you use for this?

Richard Clarke: We were sent art dept models which were used as a base for blocking out the previs. We started with lining up key views on a set design that had three floors. It quickly became apparent that it was going to be very too difficult to shoot on that many levels and so the apartment interior became mainly one space on a single floor with a main staircase.

We would create top down stills for the client to work out of the main beats of the scene. They would send us the still with annotations so we could then block out the scene

We decided to use Maya for pretty much everything so we could utilize its FX and scattering tools and have all steps in one package. Also, we managed to get some cool results just using Maya’s HW which looked similar to the game that inspired the scene.

Production sketch.

Production planning document.

b&a: How did you animate and stage gun shot and fight moments? Was this all keyframe? Did you do any mocap for gross movements? What were some ‘moves’ that were imagined in previs that may have been kept all the way to final shots?

Richard Clarke: The requirement for previs was to choreograph the scene from start to end within the apartment in terms of John’s journey, where he tackles a henchman and how he deals with them using weapons or the items within the apartment. There was no need for the previs to visualise the finer details of each fight as stunts had worked out each fight. What was really needed was working out the camera with the main beats.

Production test footage.

b&a: How did you depict the Dragon’s Breath moments (in terms of FX and animation)?

Richard Clarke: Normally creating FX for previs is not an easy thing. FX requires time and a considered workflow whereas previs can be the opposite. Plus, it is difficult to be animating with FX sims that cannot be scrubbed in the timeline. So, based on this, we decided to create a Dragon’s Breath sim that was cached and could be laid out and animated like an anim cache. The cache contained some light sources so it illuminated the set which helped sell the dragon’s breath.

Previs frame by NVIZ.

b&a: Can you talk about camera movement, lensing and other cinematography aspects of this prefvis (and getting into any necessary techvis) for the top-down views?

Richard Clarke: The main areas of consideration were the camera’s orientation and overall height. As the sequence is inspired by a 2D top down video game, we wanted to stay true to that as as much as possible. However, to achieve that it is extremely tricky to keep the camera within the set. If we keep the camera from seeing off the top of the set it is too close unless we go for a fisheye lens. But also, it is then too tight and the audience lose out on seeing who is coming to attack John next. On the flip side, if we go higher, you see the top of the set and would like that jar with the audience. In the end the latter was by far the better option.

I think the final result works really well and I don’t think the audience was concerned by this as the action is so fast you are not noticing it. Plus, it gives the sequence a deliberate and unique style.

Previs frame by NVIZ.

b&a: How did the stunt team utilize the previs and techvis?

Richard Clarke: It was an iterative process between stunt dept, art dept, camera dept. With us visualizing a version to then be assessed by each team. In the end with each department contributing it boiled down to the apartment design you see in the movie, wth the action utilizing the space and props as part of the choreography. For example, some props are in place so John can use them in a specific way. As are some of the walls, doors, holes in the floor etc.

Previs frame by NVIZ.