'Allied': How Robert Zemeckis' Team Crafted VFX for the World War II Thriller

Allied Before and After - Split - H - 2016

For discussions about Robert Zemeckis' World War II thriller Allied, visual effects might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But with 776 of the film's 954 total shots involving effects, it's the latest example of a film that relies on VFX more heavily than most audiences might realize.

To stay within the Paramount film's $85 million budget — while enlisting Brad Pitt as intelligence officer Max Vatan, who in 1942 North Africa meets French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour, played by Marion Cotillard — the VFX-savvy director made the call not to send his cast and crew to film in remote locations such as a vast Sahara Desert and Morocco's largest city, Casablanca.

Rather the majority of the film was shot by cinematographer Don Burgess on sets in London — some quite minimal — with bluescreen and then completed with CG environments and set extensions.

"It was better for the budget, better for control of the elements — sand, clouds — and it's more comfortable for the actors," asserts Kevin Baillie, the film's VFX supervisor and co-founder of lead VFX house Atomic Fiction, who has worked with Zemeckis on films including The Walk and Flight.

Many of the Allied sets were built and filmed in a former Gillette razor factory, while a few additional scenes were shot at Elstree Studios (which Zemeckis previously used for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) and LH2 Studios. "With Star Wars and Marvel films in production, stage space in London is slim pickings," Baillie admits, adding that the former Gillette factory was also recently used by Tim Burton for Miss Peregrine's School for Peculiar Children.

To make the most efficient use of the space, Baillie relates that "production designer Gary Freeman had to devise a construction schedule that had him building sets and other sets on top of sets. So one day we'd be shooting a hospital courtyard that's getting bombed and then two days later, the same area would look like a pub in Soho. We had the space for the biggest sets, but a lot was jammed in a corner. Some of the sets were just 20 ft. by 15 ft. with bluescreen everywhere."

To create the CG Sahara Desert, Casablanca and various small villages in France, Baillie and a small team visited the actual locations to take photographs, digital scans and surveys that were later used to accurately create fully digital versions of the locations.

VFX were also used to extend sets — or in some cases, create central parts of a location. "Bob has such a clear vision of the visual story that he wanted to tell that it's really had to find that on a location," Baillie says, relating that there was some location work in the Canary Islands, for example, for shots that feature the exterior of an art deco cafe in Casablanca. "We couldn't find an art deco building also with beautiful surroundings. But we found an empty square in the Canary Islands that had a great ambiance, so we built the cafe digitally into the location."

Special effects were incorporated into scenes, for instance, of a bombing raid that begins as Max and Marianne are having a party at their London home. Baillie explains that the planes were CG but "special effects supervisor Richard Van Den Bergh and his team built a half-scale version of the plane's wing and engine and set it on fire in his backyard. We incorporated these filmed elements."

Other uses of VFX included digital makeup for Matthew Goode's Guy Sangster, a character who is badly injured during a raid. Explaining that Zemeckis wanted to go beyond practical makeup effects, Baillie says, "digitally, we enhanced the scarring on his head and we removed a bit of his skull as if it had been blown out and replaced it with a metal skull. There's a line where he says 'they blew out my right eye and my left retina is detached,' so we ended up removing his right eye and had to make sure the deformed area didn't feel like a prosthetic but was alive and had muscle."

An overall challenge was the schedule, and to finish on time, Atomic Fiction — which maintains facilities in Oakland, Calif. and Montreal — relied on its cloud-based rendering service Conductor that allows the company to ramp up or down on rendering power as needed by the production. Says Baillie: "From the moment we wrapped to the time we had to be done with the VFX, it was only four and a half months. The final month alone, I think we did 4 million processor hours of rendering in Conductor."