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Inside the spectacular Sicario effects you aren't meant to notice

Eye-popping effects are standard in superhero movies, but "realistic" films like Sicario: Day of the Soldado use cutting-edge digital trickery, too.

Richard Foreman/Sony Pictures

Movies have never looked so spectacular. Whether it's spaceships and alien planets or superheroes and entirely animated characters, cutting-edge digital visual effects have reached a level where anything that can be imagined can be put on screen. 

Computer-generated (CG) effects, however, aren't just used to create the impossible illusions of big-budget fantasy blockbusters. Even films like Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which depict grounded real-life stories in a world that seems recognisably "real", use CG to tweak shots, transform locations and give filmmakers more flexibility.

Making effects look so realistic we don't even notice they're there is the job of Alexandre Lafortune and Melanie La Rue, who supervised the work done by effects company Rodeo FX on the sequel to 2015's Sicario. We asked LaFortune about the challenges of blending visual effects into Sicario 2.

CNET: What are the challenges of working on a "realistic" movie set in the "real world", as opposed to a fantasy film where we know the things we're seeing are impossible?

Alexandre Lafortune: In a superhero movie, we know the characters and the magical effects are not real, but they're a part of the reality of the movie, and, as a result, they're accepted by the audience. But the visual codes for magical effects and for realistic effects are different. With realism, you have to stick to certain rules that the audience is used to. On top of that, we also must balance this with the director's vision. In Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the challenge was to create effects that are true to the real world and also fit into the movie's own violent, gritty universe. This required its own set of aesthetics.

What might Sicario viewers be surprised to learn are visual effects?

Hopefully every effect in the movie! The VFX had to be seamless, from explosions to vehicles, enhancing makeup and smoke, and environment extensions for the Corpus Christi military base and at the US-Mexico border. Whether it's filling an empty runway with stationary helicopters or turning a stretch of road into a heavily guarded border, our ongoing goal is to make sure you can't guess what's real and what's not. 

What was the smallest visual effect in the movie?

Muzzle flashes are a perfect example of 'small' effects, since they only last one frame. Even with these effects, our research needs to be thorough and impeccable -- for instance, we need to know exactly how the light leaves the barrel of a gun in order to look right. Other small effects include wire removal -- when a group of border agents are caught in an explosion early in the film, we need to take out the wires that allowed them to safely get sent flying.

Inside the shot

Sicario opens with a single shot depicting a terrorist attack on a suburban supermarket that lasts one minute and 13 seconds, an unusually long time for the camera to hold without cutting away. This shot was Rodeo's biggest challenge, as the location -- a real store -- couldn't actually be blown up. Instead, the actors were filmed in the store, giving the effects animators a "plate": a clean shot with no effects that is used as a starting point. The animators added the shelves and products and more customers into the background, working hard to match the lighting to make it look as if they were all in the same place at the same time -- a tricky process, as our eyes are attuned to seeing when something looks off.

Then they blew up the store -- but only on their computers. Skilled animators employed special software that simulates explosions and flying debris, which uses algorithms to render natural-looking phenomena like flames and smoke.

All told, this single shot lasting a little longer than a minute took 350 days worth of work by the effects team... and you're not supposed to even know it was a visual effect.

CNET: In the world of modern digital effects that can do pretty much anything, how do you choose whether to do something in-camera -- for real -- or in the computer?

Alexandre Lafortune: In my mind, it's always a plus if the real thing can be shot, even if it's just to be used as reference. When we match with something real, we are sure to jibe with reality. I love having practical shots and using them as final shots or reference shots. At Rodeo FX, we have our own Live Action studio where we shoot practical elements; one or two days of well-planned shooting can give us the equivalent of 15 days of simulation for an artist.

What's the difference between visual effects and special effects? Do we still need special effects when we can do everything digitally?

Visual effects are done in post-production, after the movie has been shot. Special effects are shot live and require careful preparation: fire, debris, gunfire, in order to create a particular effect or to set up a particular mood, like fog in a cemetery, for instance. If the result is satisfying, we keep it, and then enhance it by touching it up digitally. If it doesn't match what the director had in mind, VFX will complete or substitute for it. SFX make the atmosphere on set more immersive and improve actors' performance as they react in a more realistic way.

What's the next big thing in visual effects?

I think the next big thing in visual effects will be digital actors. It's already being used in some films but for now it's just incorporated for limited periods of time, usually just a sequence. To create a star who would act during a whole movie is another thing altogether! It would gather all the greatest VFX challenges we encounter in texturing, modeling, creature FX -- muscles, facial expressions -- motion capture, animation... All departments would be involved. The goal would be for the audience to fully believe they're seeing a human being instead of a digital construct.

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