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Scaling Everest: Dadi Einarsson talks about Everest

Find out how visual effects artist Dadi Einarsson brought together a selection of VFX houses to create the effects for Everest...

Find out how visual effects artist Dadi Einarsson brought together a selection of VFX houses to create the effects for Everest...

All images copyright Universal Studios

Recreating a real-life tragedy when eight mountain climbers were killed by a fatal blizzard which struck Mount Everest in May 1996, required a combination of on-location and stage footage to be seamlessly integrated; in order to do achieve this, Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur (2 Guns) turned to fellow countryman and frequent collaborator Dadi Einarsson (The Deep) to supervise the visual effects for Everest. "The fact that Everest is a real place and the events are true with actual people who experienced them alive and likely to see the film, put an extra burden of responsibility on us,” remarks Einarsson, who owns RVX which was the lead VFX vendor. "I felt it important to be as close to reality as possible with everything we did.”

Mountain to Climb

"Everest was a huge show for Baltasar and I; it is the biggest project we've collaborated on,” states Dadi Einarsson who also recruited Framestore, Important Looking Pirates, Union VFX, One Of Us, Milk VFX, and Stereo D. "I would say the difference with this show and the other three we've done together was primarily that the VFX needed for Everest were such an integral part of the storytelling and believability of the film. There really was an enormous responsibility on us to deliver seamless and photo-real VFX for large portions of the film. The mountain is almost like a character, and as such, needed to be completely believable, beautiful and perilous. The film just wouldn't have worked had the VFX been in any way substandard.”

Two Year Odyssey

The project was two years in development. "We had originally planned to send a mountain unit to the summit to shoot plates and 2nd unit with body doubles for all of our locations,” explains Einarsson. "This had to be called off when they were in Basecamp due to the avalanche tragedy of last year, so there was even more onus on us to create the environments and backgrounds."

"Our base plan for the show revolved around creating a photogrammetry model of the whole mountain and surroundings. This would allow us to fly virtual cameras around, to previs and postvis, to supply a location accurate layout for all scenes in the film that needed background replacement and eventually to create fully CG 'helicopter' shots around the summit, Lhotse Face, Icefalls and more.”

Working with Baltasar Kormakur

"It wasn't any one thing that Baltasar said, but more of an accumulated understanding over time,” notes Dadi Einarsson. "We were in dialogue from the script stage, scouted together, filmed together and worked closely together during the edit and all of post. He wanted to convey the scale of the mountain which is something we felt strongly about when scouting. Standing in Basecamp and flying in a helicopter around Everest, it is very difficult to grasp the sheer giant size of the mountain without being there. We really wanted this to make it to the screen and for the audience to experience it.”

Previs, Postvis & Visual Research

"We did some previs during the shoot for ideas for the camera, for instance the shot where Rob Hall [Jason Clarke] is hit by the storm,” explains Dadi Einarsson. "In the final shot we see a 360 sweep around him to reveal the storm hitting us from below. This was based on a previs which Baltasar really liked. We then did a lot of previs which lead to the fully CG shots around the mountain, and a large amount of postvis to establish correct locations, brief all of the VFX artists, and to help the cut.”

Visual research of the famous natural landmark served as a point of achieve when creating photo-realistic digital enhancements. "We had a full-time photo researcher gathering as much visual material as possible for reference. We had a climber who had summited Everest come to RVX to talk about the experience and show us his slideshow. There are a lot of images out there, and it was just a case of everybody getting as familiar with every aspect of the mountain as we possibly could.”

Stunts, Special Effects & Environmental Challenges

"Special effects and stunts really just did their thing on-set,” states Dadi Einarsson. "They blew a ton of snow onto the actors and that was a good thing. It provided a good base layer of interacting snow effects for us to build on.” Key natural elements that needed to be produced were ice, snow, avalanches, cold breath and a massive storm. "All of these presented their own challenges. We tried to be as realistic and non-fantasy as we possibly could with everything. Cold breath in particular needs to be so well done for it not to be distracting and clearly fake. But as with everything it is based on observation. We studied and then came up with a nice fluid animation rig in Maya, timed breaths to dialogue and exhales, and then animated the wind direction and turbulence to match the practical snow being blown on-set.”

Digital Doubles, Green Screen & DMPs

"Digital doubles were used on quite a few shots,” reveals Dadi Einarsson. "The fully CG shots around the summit and up Lhotse Face needed digital doubles, as did shots where we extended the backgrounds to see far off into the distance. We would often add climbers walking in the distance. Green screen was used in everything for Basecamp and Camp 4 day shots which were shot in Cinecitta Studios in Rome, the Khumbu Icefalls, Balcony, Hillary Step, Camp 4 night shots, Pumori and Summit which were shot in Pinewood Studios."

"Camps 1, 2 and 3 were shot in the Dolomites and backgrounds were replaced with digital matte paintings or CG environments. Some scenes like the ladder crossing in the Khumbu Icefalls were entirely CG environments. The Hillary Step sequence replaced almost everything with CG and DMP.”

VFX Vendors

"RVX did around half the shots including all of Basecamp, the Khumbu Icefalls, Camp1, 2, 3 and 4 as well as the photogrammetry Everest build, previs, postvis and layout,” explains Dadi Einarsson. "For the remaining work I wanted primarily people who I knew, or had a good understanding of their strengths. I have a long and good relationship with Framestore and was sure that they were the right partner for this; their work speaks for itself and they are a great group of people. I was keen to work with Important Looking Pirates in Stockholm who do great work and have a really nice FX pipeline so they were a good fit for the Whiteout Sequence. One of Us is a good sized studio with some great people whom I know and like a lot; they were perfect for the Summit and Storm hit shots. Union were new to me but after meeting them I was sure they would do really good work with the Helicopter Rescue Sequence. I was really happy with our choices of VFX studios and their work.”

Sharing Assets & Sequences

Assets and sequences needed to be shared among the different visual effects vendors. "The key was the photogrammetry model,” states Dadi Einarsson. "RVX shared this with all other studios; it was the base for creating their environments and backgrounds. Some sequences or aspects of sequences were shared. For instance, RVX did the fully CG shot for the Summit Sequence and Helicopter Rescue Sequence, whereas One Of Us and Union did the sequences respectively. RVX also did around 200 cold breath shots on other VFX studios' sequences after they had been finalized. This was down to schedule, capacity and all kinds of logistics.”

Prayer Flags & Sense of Scale

"One of the things that really bit us was keying and replacing prayer flags,” reveals Dadi Einarsson. "These were incredibly difficult to pull of green screens and often crossed over and above available greens. There really was no way around this in the way we shot it so we had to bite the bullet. It was a massive amount of extra work. There was a large amount of extra roto that needed to be done on all kinds of shots that swept around and over sets that needed to be replaced.” Convey a sense of scale was an issue. "The biggest challenge was being scale and view accurate everywhere on the mountain. The solution to this was building our CG mountain based on thousands of photographs of the region.”

DI & Big Screen Moments

Alterations had to be made during the DI process. "We found that with so much white snow and ice, we became susceptible to green spill suppression,” remarks Dadi Einarsson. "Tiny amounts of green missing would result in color shifts towards magenta in the snow, so we reacted to that and resupplied after an early grading for screening session.” Certain cinematic moments need to be seen in a movie theatre. "I enjoy Basecamp because it feels so natural. The Ladder Crossing Scene is exciting and provides the best moments of vertigo. The Hillary Step shots give us some great views down from very high up and are dramatic, and the big CG shots flying around the mountain are really epic on the big screen.” Einarsson concludes, "Everest was a wonderful project to have had the opportunity to work on. It needed the love, artistry and attention to detail of so many great VFX artists across the different studios; I'm so grateful to them all for their incredibly hard work and talent.”

Related links

Check out Everest on iMDb
See what else VFX studio RVX has completed
Take a look at Framestore's previous work
Grab a copy of Beginner's Guide to Character Creation in Maya

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