Best understood as the film industry’s answer to gun-heavy video games, Hardcore Henry is bonkers – a bone-crunching, blood-splattering and stomach-churning ride littered with explosions, sky-high falls and highway chases. And you, the viewer, are in the front seat.
From inside the protagonist’s (crazed, short-fused and violent) head, you take pliers to a man’s face, pretty much endlessly duck and shoot, and fall from vertigo-inducing, horribly high places, all in one, unbroken cut just in case the experience wasn’t immersive enough already.
All this up-close action means Hardcore Henry is not one for those scared of heights, loud noises, guns, explosions, torture or dildos. But it was a big ask for its violence-loving Russian director Ilya Naishuller, too – who, you might not be surprised to find out, is also known for quaint titles such as Biting Elbows: Bad Motherfucker (a music video also shot from personal perspective with a GoPro).
So Naishuller enlisted the help of Zero VFX and VFX Legion to work around the complexities of GoPro footage and stitch together some crazy shots.
Unexpectedly, Zero concentrated on toning down the action for the highway chase, so it was more controlled.
Not that Zero didn’t get their dose of explosive eye candy, at one point totally tearing up truck – including debris, the explosion of material when bullets hit, blood and shells from a minigun.
“It was a case of enhancing some of the practical effects carried out on set, and also creating – and then destroying – completely CG vehicles,” said Zero CEO Brian Drewes. Sounds fun.
Then came creating a seamless real-time feel for the film, as if it had all been shot in one take rather than lots of shorter takes stitched together. When it came the crazy highway chase, "these shots were filmed at different times, and some had hard cuts from the camera, that was a major task,” said Dan Cayer, VFX Supervisor at Zero.
At one point, Zero merged two shots facing completely different directions into one, so it simply looked like Henry turned his head.
“We had to do that kind of stitching and blending across each of the 45 different shots, and each was incredibly distinct, so there was little to no opportunity to standardize or repeat the approach,” says Cayer.
Shakey, widely distorted and wide-angled, GoPro output footage can be incredibly hard to manipulate. The footage appears squeezed together and distorted – which is a problem when you want to apply visual enhancements. Zero solved this by making sure adding elements to an undistorted frame, and then unwarp the frame, making sure the additions still looked integrated.
Video: VFX Legion's breakdown
What was it like to work on such a crazy film? VFX Legion put it well: they had to “exercises a great deal of subtlety in a film that is otherwise anything but”. Legion faced many of the same challenges that Zero did.
To work with complex GoPro footage, Legion took the same approach as Zero: first unwarping the footage, adding in visual effects, and then re-warping it back to the original GoPro shooting style.
"You're always going to have a little spherical bending, just because that's the nature of how light comes through a lens, but with a GoPro it's so extreme," said Hattin. "Every tracking task that would take an hour or two on a regular piece of 20-50mm footage takes five or six hours to try and solve. It really was a hugely complex task, but Legion’s artists approached it with intelligence and skill."
Like Zero VFX, Legion spent time morphing shots that didn’t line up (so a ceiling light might appear twice), removing crew and adding incredible, over-the-top detail to blood and gore.
Hattin says that Hardcore Henry was "possibly the hardest work we've ever done". Drewes from Zero agrees: “many of the things you’d usually try to avoid in VFX, this project had in droves”.
And, for some, it’s going to be a pretty hard watch too. Clearly, both VFX teams should be thrilled with the result – even if some of its audiences aren’t so thrilled with the wave of nausea that might follow watching Legion and Zero’s creations.