'Independence Day': How Visual Effects Have Dramatically Escalated Since the Original Film's Release

Volker Engel recalls shooting the classic White House destruction, which a large contingent of press was actually invited to witness.
'Independence Day'

The war against those destruction-bent aliens isn't the only thing that escalates in Roland Emmerich's Independence Day: Resurgence, opening Friday. The movie's visual effects also mark a quantum leap over those in the original 1996 movie, which were considered state-of-the-art at the time, earning an Academy Award for Volker Engel, Douglas Smith, Clay Pinney and Joe Viskocil. And the work on the new pic illustrates just how much movie VFX have changed over the course of 20 years.

In the first film, which depends heavily on miniature models and practical effects, there were just 430 VFX shots. In the follow-up, using the latest digital technology, the number of shots climbed to a whopping 1,750.

"The first film was produced at the brink of the digital revolution — 95 percent was shot using miniatures with motion-control cameras and combined digitally in postproduction," Engel, the VFX supervisor on both films, says. He singled out "the destruction of the White House as the toughest effect — and it became the signature shot of the movie. Our pyrotechnician, the late Joe Viskocil, and our miniature supervisor Mike Joyce did a fantastic job in preparing a 15-feet wide and 5-feet high miniature of the building — basically a plaster shell attached to a metal body, with individual floors and a lot of furniture and other details on the inside."

In contrast to today's VFX work, which is usually conducted under a veil of secrecy and non-disclosure agreements, the press was actually invited to sit by and watch the filming of the critical White House scene, further evidence of how much things have changed. As Engel recalls it, "On the day of the shoot we saw that bleachers were being set up 100 feet away from our outside shooting location at Playa Vista. We were then told by production that the studio had invited about 50 members of the press to witness the explosion live. No pressure, right? Thankfully we had done a rehearsal the night before with a smaller piece of White House wall to get the timing of all the pyro charges right. On the night of the shoot, besides the press, everybody and their grandma showed up to witness the event. And what we shot that night is what you see in the movie. But this was a different time."

The first Independence Day, with a cast led by Will Smith, Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum, became the top-grossing movie of 1996, taking in $817.4 million worldwide, and its depiction of an alien ship zapping the White House to bits became part of the popular culture. "This is movie magic," Engel said as he accepted the Oscar. 

Looking back, Engel admits that he didn't quite realize what he was getting into when he signed up for the original. "In the beginning and with just a screenplay, it was difficult to imagine the scope we were dealing with," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "At some point during the miniature shoot, a group of us had lunch in an Italian restaurant close to the stages. We were discussing the shooting schedule for the coming week, which sounded like, 'Are we blowing up the Capitol on Wednesday and White House on Friday — or was that Thursday?' Only then we realized that the guests at the other tables had stopped eating and were staring at us. It was all very surreal.

"VFX co-supervisor Doug Smith and I shot about 4,000 different scale-model elements and tabletop miniatures. It had to be meticulously planned," Engel says of the work on that first film, which was made without the digital previsualization tools commonly used today. "We had storyboards and a project management database that my business partner Marc Weigert had developed. To shoot the miniatures took about nine months with up to four camera crews working parallel. All those elements were then combined with then state-of-the-art equipment like Infernos [a compositing system that was made by Discreet, which is now a part of Autodesk], Cineons [which were made by Kodak] and Dominos [which were invented by Quantel, now SAM]."

On Resurgence, the work was radically different. "We still started with storyboards, but they were just the basis for very elaborate previs sequences," Engel says. "Our Uncharted Territory [Engel's production/VFX banner] team also built dozens of CG props, planes and set-extensions so that during the shoot Roland was able to use Ncam real-time compositing to frame his shots. We provided editorial with the Ncam composites and lots of additional postvis, so they would have material to [use in editing]."

Engel explored the possibility of doing at least one long-shot of a miniature as a homage to the first film. But, he says, "it would have been a one-off and monetarily it just didn’t make any sense. Besides, eventually that shot was cut out of the movie."