Inside ‘John Wick 4’s’ insane Arc de Triomphe scene and the top-down Dragon’s Breath gunfight
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- May 5, 2023
A John Wick film is often an exercise in the art of invisible effects, and some of the most invisible in Chad Stahelski’s John Wick 4 involved facilitating intense action by adding or augmenting muzzle flashes, bullet and blood hits and finger removals.
But there were also much more extensive, yet still invisible, visual effects sequences in the film, such as the breathless chase and fight scene involving John Wick (Keanu Reeves) at the Arc de Triomphe, and the exhilarating top-down view oner featuring the Dragon’s Breath ammo in the Paris apartment.
Here, visual effects supervisors Jonathan Rothbart and Janelle Croshaw Ralla share with befores & afters just some of the main VFX challenges from just a few highlighted sequences on the film, detailing the planning, shoot, stunts, special effects and final 1500-plus digital visual effects behind them.
In the desert
An early scene involving a desert horse chase was made up of footage shot in Jordan at Wadi Rum. “We were really there, and it just gives you those huge vistas,” declares Rothbart. “However, sand is kind of a nightmare because you can only brush so much sand away and you’ve got horses riding through and everything else, so traditionally you end up replacing a lot of that sand digitally just to hide all of the tracks and the machinery.”
John Ford clouds were inspiration for some sky replacements in the scene. Meanwhile, a pick-up shoot in Los Angeles captured some additional angles and close-ups, including for a moment that Wick comes to a skidding stop on his horse, generating a plume of dust. “Keanu actually did that, of course,” explains Ralla. “Light VFX took all the Jordan footage and created a full CG environment to put that into, and it just worked beautifully. That’s the beautiful thing about a John Wick film, you’re always starting with something real. It’s very, very rare that you’re not.”
Things quickly escalate in the film when the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), a member of the High Table, destroys the New York Continental hotel. This is shown from both aerial level (from the Marquis’ office) and street level.
“A helicopter plate that Chad shot was the basis for the aerial where the hotel is meant to be,” outlines Ralla, “and we removed some buildings, augmented others, and added new buildings to the shot, changing around the geography for a composition that Chad was happy with. The Yard handled the shot. They created a CG Continental, made explosives go off on every floor, and added so much detail, right down to the pool chairs flying off the top floor balcony. It was important that the destruction didn’t demolish the building but only did heavy damage”
For the ground level view of the aftermath, this was filmed on a greenscreen stage to facilitate the insertion of the characters Winston (Ian McShane) and King (Laurence Fishburne). Rodeo FX began that work, with WeFX, Blur and Christian Kessler contributing to the final scene with an entirely CG environment.
The eyes of Caine
The High Table assassin Caine (Donnie Yen) sent to kill Wick in the film is blind. This meant that for scenes where the character’s eyes are shown, visual effects would need to craft a particular eye treatment. WeFX handled the eyes reveal outside the Osaka Continental and various shots throughout the film where the eye treatment is seen behind his glasses.
“We explored a lot of different options,” discusses Ralla. “Later in the film he says he took his own eyes. There were iterations where it went more gory and dark and ones where the eyeballs weren’t even in there. Then we realized, well, if the eyeballs aren’t actually in there, it becomes a really big deal because there’s no emotion anymore when he takes off his glasses, plus the eyelids would droop down if the sockets were hollowed out. We ended up going with a clouded eye look with scars on the upper and lower eyelids from the wound where he would have sliced his eyes enough to go blind but without the eyeballs having to be removed.”
The ‘top-down shot’
A stunning top down view oner seen in the film, as Wick dispatches several gunmen with a 12 gauge shotgun using ‘Dragon’s Breath’ ammo, featured significant visual effects work to seam takes together and enhance the scene with weapon hits, fire and even digi-doubles. It was partially based on the same kind of top down view players saw in the video game Hong Kong Massacre, which drove the design of the all-in-one shot.
“There were a lot of conversations about how high the camera should be and how high the walls should be in the floor plan,” relates Rothbart, who explored the choreography of the sequence in previs with NVIZ (more on their work in a future b&a story).
“It also affected how DOP Dan Laustsen would light that scene,” adds Rothbart. “He wanted to light it all horizontally, from the side, but also make sure that everybody was lit enough so you could see them from above as well and not just feel like a top-lit set.”
Rothbart further notes that the final darker and moodier lighting of the scene aided the visual effects team in orchestrating the fiery Dragon’s Breath weapon shots. “It meant we could have that phosphorus fire really illuminate the room and all the pieces in it. We tried to put as many obstacles and pieces in the room that could be blown apart and make sure that the fights happen around those elements so that you could really see the mayhem and the disaster that was being caused within the room.”
Filming the top shot involved rigging a cable-cam system above the room sets. Scenes would be filmed room-by-room. As soon as Reeves transitioned to a different room, the crew would reset and then overlap a little between the two planned pieces of action so that these pieces could be married in comp. “That was certainly a lot of work on the visual effects end to try and make sure all those scenes were stitched together and feel like a single take.”
Some of the gags in the Paris apartment sequence involved characters crashing into mirrors. For safety reasons, these mirrors were empty of glass. Instead, GoPro cameras were placed in the frames to help with reflections. All the reflections would be digital visual effects shots, even digital-doubles reflected in the mirrors.
At one point, one of the adversaries is set on fire and lurches from the kitchen to another room. Production set a stunt performer on fire and had him run out of the room. “When he comes back in the room on the other side, that time,” explains Rothbart, “we actually hung these tube lights that were LED lights so you could cycle in this fire look that they had dialed in, and so we were able to illuminate the set with the lighting, but not necessarily top-lit. We did one take with the guy on fire and then as we were doing other elements of the take, we would have him just with that lit setup so we still have the interactivity of all the lighting and everything, just trying to create as many opportunities for passes and interactivity.”
For the Dragon’s Breath look itself, the visual effects teams needed to craft a look that was as if tiny pellets were being expelled that would hit and explode. “The real dragon’s breath is amazing,” notes Ralla. “It’s like a flamethrower, to the point, though, where it also has a bit of a glittery look to it. We didn’t want it to look like fireworks going off, so there is a little bit of an art direction going on where it’s not too sparkly and is more fire-based, but also not as crazy big as a flamethrower, because otherwise the whole place would just catch on fire and burn down and you wouldn’t look at anything in the shot except the dragon’s breath.”
Wick eventually exits the Paris apartment by jumping from a high window and landing on the roof of a van, rolling off, and continuing on his way. This scene was a mix of expert stunt work, special effects and some visual effects intervention.
“Keanu’s stunt double Vincent Bouillon jumped out of a third-story window,” outlines Rothbart. “He landed on all these boxes as high as the roof of the van. After we did the stunt, we just cleared out all the boxes and we put the van in.”
“Special effects supervisor Gerd Nefzer set up a hydraulic system with the van. Vince then stood on top of the van and jumped as high as he could, then fell back onto the van, and then rolled off, and Gerd had the hydraulic system pull the van in so the roof would collapse as he landed on it.”
Pixomondo blended seamlessly between the two elements using a bit of digi double and some expert warping and compositing, completing the look with CG glass and debris.
The triumph of the Arc de Triomphe
In what may be the film’s centerpiece action sequence, John Wick faces down scores of adversaries in a chase then showdown around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. This includes car to car gunfights and hand-to-hand combat amongst speeding cars (which circle the monument as if it is a massive roundabout).
Shooting at the location was deemed near-impossible, given the level of traffic and the stunts involved, so an alternative location at an abandoned airport in Berlin at Tempelhof was arranged. Visual effects would then insert the Paris environment digitally, and deal with a number of stunt and CG parts of the sequence.
“Scott Rogers, the second unit director / stunt coordinator, and I first started designing the action that was going to happen with the cars,” outlines Rothbart. “Keanu basically does all his own driving. He’s probably the best actor driver out there. He was training out on that runway for months preparing for the sequence.”
“We actually used Matchbox cars to choreograph the action, and then with our iPhones, we would line up shots and design each shot for how each hit was going to work. From there, we took it to previs.”
For the shoot, the stunt team arranged red cone lines that Keanu Reeves would drive within, while others stayed within blue cones. There were also black cones that a drone was to fly within. Later, too, a motion based rigged by SFX supervisor Gerd Nefzer was used for close-up Paris car scenes shot in a studio.
At various moments in the chase and ensuing fight, Wick and his attackers are hit by moving cars. These, says Rothbart, were largely practical. “Our special effects supervisor Gerd Nefzer had built this car sled system. It was almost like a tumbling mat, so it was softer, but it was still out there on the tarmac under the same lighting because Chad wanted them actually hit by cars.”
One particular challenge with the sleds emerged during a night test where it was realized that they would need to have ‘fake’ headlights, as real cars would. “So now we had to pivot quickly and get power into those sleds,” recalls Rothbart. “Having to figure out a system of putting headlights on them and being able to be powered independently and still being able to be driven by the mechanism and everything else was a little bit of a thing at the last minute. Butm we got it worked out, and it really helped a lot with integration. It really added to the final effect when we incorporated the CG environment, CG cars, glass breaking, and everything else.”
In order to build that CG environment and the other elements, Rothbart and his team embarked on a data acquisition journey. “Getting the data from the Arc de Triomphe environment itself was actually interesting. There was no way were going to be able to scan it because they just weren’t going to allow us to do that in Paris. However, during COVID, they had allowed a company, The Yard, to go and scan the Arc and do all these scans there because there was nobody around. So we were able to get that scan and surrounding monument area.”
The team was able to heavily photograph the area, too, and then use photogrammetric techniques to combine everything. This data went to Rodeo FX, which had the task of crafting the environment (Pixomondo also worked on the earlier Barracuda chase through the Parisian streets which were also shot in Berlin, while Light VFX handled CG dog shots where Chidi throws the dog in to the car during the fight).
Rodeo’s tasks, of course, included generating CG vehicles and sometimes digi-doubles to augment the live-action cars, wirework and overall stunts. “Most of the cars in the foreground are practical,” comments Ralla, “but there are CG cars woven in to add even more danger and more importantly to populate the environment with more cars than were there on the day. When the Barracuda is hit from the side and comes to a sliding stop before John exits to fight on foot, that’s all cg. The wide shots are all CG, they give perspective to the scene and contrast the close action shots in the middle of the chase and fight.”
“Rodeo’s work was beautiful,” adds Ralla, “right down to the last cobblestone, and even in salvaging things like water spray from the original Berlin footage. A tool was made that could mix in the concrete or asphalt from Berlin with the cobblestone. At first we thought it would be problematic but realized that at the real Arc there’d be a pothole where they may have filled the cobblestone with concrete, so we replicated that in our final shots, too, and were able to salvage parts of the plate that otherwise would’ve had to be full CG.”
On his way to a duel at Sacré-Coeur, Wick again encounters a number of adversaries on a long stone staircase. He fights them, alongside Caine and Mr. Nobody, and even tumbles back down the stairs (more than once) in some spectacular stunt scenes. For the visual effects team–Light VFX, on this sequence–the work would include environment extensions and replacements, finger removals (more on these, below) and CG weapons.
“There was a lot of invisible work in the staircase scene, including a CG pencil that Chidi gets in the hand from Caine,” discusses Ralla. “We added CG blood on Caine’s shirt that sticks with him right through to the duel. There was a lot of stunt pad removal, the addition of CG railings, bullet damage, blood hits and tons of sparks from gun hits. Light FX became experts on sparks as Chad scrutinized every last pixel frame by frame.”
Making muzzle flashes more gaseous, and the art of blood mist and finger removals
“Every single muzzle flash, bullet hit and blood hit were added in visual effects,” says Ralla. “Every one of those also had a matte that Chad would dial in DI. He’s so meticulous about the look of all of that. It’s interesting, too, because he doesn’t like to add light from the muzzle flashes. But to make a muzzle flash look integrated, there has to be a little bit of light. So it’s really this delicate balance of adding light, adding reflection, but not adding too much to where it takes away from the actors and the action.”
Ralla also shares that Stahelski’s favorite note is ‘make it more gaseous’–“so that it doesn’t look like a sticker stuck on, but it also can’t have a digital blur, it can’t have a digital glow look. He is precise in the look of those. And every vendor got very good at it by the end.”
Production filmed a number of muzzle flash and bullet hit elements for VFX vendors to use. Rodeo FX also shared a library of digital muzzle flashes. “At the end of the day, the vendors would pass around setups and do a lot of sharing to make sure there was continuity amongst the guns so that the looks were the same.”
Blood hits were kept at the lower end of the gore scale. “Chad doesn’t like super gory,” notes Ralla. “I actually learned the term ‘power mist’ on this show. Power mist is a nice solid blood hit, but it’s not goopy. It’s not liquidy. It’s, as you can imagine, more misty, a little bit of a spray. There’s so many blood hits that I think it’s important that it’s not looking like buckets of red paint taking up the screen.”
Since Wick had previously lost his ring finger, a large aspect of the film’s visual effects work would be finger removals. On set, Reeves occasionally wore a black finger or ‘chef’ condom.
“One of my jobs on set became, every time, checking to make sure he had that on there, because Keanu hated wearing that thing,” laughs Rothbart. “We were trying to mitigate the work as much as possible by always having this black condom on his finger. Then those VFX teams did an incredible job of removing the finger.”