Director Angel Manuel Soto's powerful award-winning coming of age drama, Charm City Kings won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Inspired by the dirt-bike culture revealed in the documentary 12 O'Clock Boys, the film is the story of Mouse (Jahi Di'Allo Winston), a boy who desperately wants to join an infamous clique of bikers that rules the inner-city streets of West Baltimore. It centers on the 14-year old's emotional struggle between a strait and narrow path and the thrill and fast money of a biker's world filled with violence.
VFX Legion was the sole visual effects vendor for Charm City Kings. Led by VFX supervisor James David Hattin and VFX producer Nate Smalley, the company's global team of artists created more than 100 photorealistic visual effects for the film.
One of the most challenging visual effects was for a shot that began with the camera inverted, opening the scene with an upside-down view of a biker driving on a closed-off stretch of road. As the motorcycle passes the camera, we follow the shift in perspective as it rotates to an upright position. VFX Legion's job was to track the sweeping camera move and build out this long shot of the lone dirt-biker with the addition of dozens of photorealist computer-generated cars. Choreographed animation maneuvers the vehicles naturally through the traffic as they change lanes, accelerate and hit the brakes.
The Los Angeles and British Columbia-based company's CG library provided a cost-effect option, eliminating the need to build the automobiles digitally from scratch. Computer-generated cars were selected to match the look of the models traveling in the opposite direction on the practical footage.
The complex shot tapped both the scope and caliber of VFX Legion's worldwide collaborative of work-from-home talent. Puerto Rico-based Ruy Delgado, the studio's go-to artist for challenging tracking shots, worked closely with the company's 3D supervisor Rommel S. Calderon in LA, 3D artist Chris Strauss out of Lake Tahoe, and compositor Eugen Olsen, a resident of Johannesburg, South Africa. The team worked as a single unit, ensuring that all of the iterations fit together, and mattes along with various elements created by the 3D department blended seamlessly.
VFX Legion also delivered several long sequences that required stitching two separate shots together to create the look of one uninterrupted take. Its team stabilized camera movement and then found places to edit the footage that aligned to create the illusion of single continuous shots.
The true-to-life feel of the film hinged on the attention given to small moments and details. A scene shot with Mouse talking to Blax (Meek Mill), a motorcycle mechanic, and another with a group of bikers was shot with Blax garbed in a clean white T-shirt. The spotless duds, clearly out of character for an ex-con living a hardscrabble life, called for VFX Legion to provide a digital solution. Adding dirt and sweat stains to the garment was a complicated process. The way fabric moves and stretches made it extremely difficult to track specks of dirt and stained patches. Artists utilized some newer tools in Nuke to track the vectors and then used the data gathered to apply the soiled and discolored areas to the shirt.
The majority of the 100-plus shots created for Charm City Kings are invisible, enabling the drama to play out in a flawless real-world environment that defies the viewers’ eye.
The artists used a mix of tools to create the range of VFX, including Andersson Technologies' Syntheyes for 3D tracking, Autodesk Maya for 3D modeling and animation, and The Foundry's Nuke for compositing.
"All of our meetings were collaborative events, assuring filmmakers' that we heard their voices and understood their needs," said Smalley. "Efficient workflow allowed us to quickly offer up and execute digital solutions as well as provide innovative options that aligned with Angel's vision of what he wanted to see on the screen."
"Our team is thankful for the opportunity to contribute to this remarkable film and help bring the director’s vision to life," said Hattin. “VFX Legion’s veteran leadership brought its 40-plus years of experience in the visual effect arena to the project. Our work also benefited from the cost-effectiveness and technical ingenuity that comes with working exclusively with a curated worldwide collective of experienced artists for almost a decade, a work-from-home approach that the pandemic has made essential, and the industry has just begun to put in place.”
Charm City Kings premiered October 8th on HBO Max.
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