San Andreas: VFX from Method Studios and Cinesite brings peril and destruction to the big disaster movie

Method Studios and Cinesite deliver major visual effects sequences for the Brad Peyton-helmed Warner Bros. production

The action thriller San Andreas is packed with catastrophic destruction, achieved in part through 247 complex visual effects shots executed by Method Studios, with some other key sequences aided by VFX from Cinesite.

In Brad Peyton's moveie, the infamous San Andreas Fault finally gives way, triggering a magnitude 9-plus earthquake in California.

A search and rescue helicopter pilot and his estranged wife make their way together from Los Angeles to San Francisco to save their only daughter.

However their treacherous journey north is only the beginning, and when they think the worst may be’s just getting started. 

As one of the main visual effects vendors on the film, Method was responsible for the entire downtown Los Angeles sequence, in which an earthquake decimates the city, and also contributed to the San Francisco sequence.

Method VFX Supervisor Nordin Rahhali was on-set for two months of the shoot, overseeing select shots in both Los Angeles and Brisbane to ensure efficient integration with CG elements and surroundings in post production. 

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The focal point of the Los Angeles sequence is a continuous 3-minute shot beginning with an aerial view into the top-level restaurant of a mid-rise building that then tracks actress Carla Gugino through the chaos as she attempts to escape the impending carnage via rooftop helicopter piloted by her character’s husband, played by Dwayne Johnson. 

Comprising 4,500 frames, the shot was carefully pre-visualised by director Brad Peyton working with The Third Floor. 

To completely reconstruct downtown Los Angeles in photo-real CG, Rahhali and his Method team captured extensive Lidar scans of the area from both street level and rooftops, and collected aerial shots to use as photography and lighting references. 

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Artists used the data to build CG environments, which were stitched with the live action plates shot in Australia, then added atmospheric effects such as smoke and pyroclastic clouds to bring everything together in a cohesive scene. 

"The Los Angeles sequence was a huge challenge in terms of the scale and the complexity of what was needed," commented Rahhali. "We had full CG environments where everything from high rises to trees are collapsing and everything needed to look photo-real and behave realistically, even down to the type and behavior of the smoke clouds."

Method also contributed to the San Francisco sequence in San Andreas, sharing assets, cameras, models and textures with Scanline and Hydraulx.

In one particular scene, Method completed all foreground destruction of the city itself as Scanline destroyed the Bay Bridge.

For both the Los Angeles and San Francisco sequences, Method also delivered helicopter composites and CG crowds to bring a heightened level of realism to the devastation. 

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Approximately 90 Method artists worked on San Andreas, with the project spanning nearly a year.

Method’s synchronised pipeline included Maya for layouts and tracking, Houdini for VFX and lighting, Side Effects Mantra for rendering, NUKE for compositing and Massive for CG crowds.

Artists also used Autodesk’s Shotgun and RV for realtime shot and asset tracking, and review, respectively.

Cinesite also had a destructive role to play in San Andreas. 

As the first earthquake of the film strikes, a young woman driving alone in the Los Angeles mountains veers off the road, through a barrier and over a cliff. Hanging precariously in her car above the canyon, she phones for help.  

Cinesite’s visual effects team covered this entire sequence, as the team attempt to rescue her from their helicopter.

Much of the car, landslide of rocks, crumpling road barrier and even the actress were recreated digitally, as local rangers in the protected area were keen to avoid environmental impact.

Work was completed at Cinesite's Montréal and London Studios, overseen by VFX Supervisor Holger Voss.

Original photography for the sequence was filmed in Australia, with the actress in a car hanging from a hydraulic rig.  

Holger Voss subsequently flew to the Glendora Mountains in Los Angeles to join the crew, filming the car leaving the road.  

“Based on the extensive photographic reference taken in both locations, our team created a full CG environment including multiple cliff faces with animated plants, rocks and bushes,” explained Voss. “This environment was blended seamlessly with the live action portion of the set.  Our work made it the more dangerous action in the scene possible.” 

The helicopter was created using a combination of the hydraulic rig with CG rotors, and a full CG version.  

Both required the addition of realistic dust and atmospherics, and realistic downdraft impact was added to the surrounding cliffs.

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