Movies don’t come much bigger than Dwayne Johnson blockbusters – with regards to both action spectacle and the size of the leading man himself. Skyscraper adds another dimension to The Rock-starring action-adventure epic: it’s pretty tall too.
Skyscraper sees former FBI agent and amputee Will Sawyer relocate with his family to the highest and supposedly “safest” building in Hong Kong. Known as “The Pearl”, the titular skyscraper is a seeming utopia, opulently stretching above the urban Chinese sprawl and housing its own self-contained paradisiacal society. However, The Rock smells trouble cookin’ and, true to his belief, the building, Sawyer’s family, and his own reputation come under threat from a team of terrorists.
Image Engine came onto the Skyscraper project towards its final stages, contributing to 178 shots across three key sequences. The team immediately dived into action, delivering a plenitude of fire effects, vertiginous action sequences, and CG set extensions designed to augment Dwayne Johnson’s battle through The Pearl’s flaming heights.
Cabin in the woods
Skyscraper opens with Sawyer’s crack SWAT team creeping through a snow-laden woodland towards a remote cabin, wherein a criminal has imprisoned a family of hostages. Within moments the elite squad will use a shape charge to blow a hole in the side of the wall – the catalyst for a series of events that will see Sawyer lose his leg and adopt a prosthetic for the remainder of the film.
Image Engine’s task was to communicate a serene backcountry feel, before upping the tempo with the first of the movie’s many explosive effects.
First, Image Engine created slowly drifting snow, which floats past the encroaching FBI agents as they skilfully descend upon their unwitting target.
“This sequence was originally shot on stage, so we needed to add in all of the digital snow, which would communicate the ‘calm before the storm’ feel,” says Bernie Kimbacher, VFX supervisor on Skyscraper. “It was 2D-heavy work, including the addition of digital matte paintings to complement the drifting snow. We really needed to dial in the way it moved and fluttered down around the characters.”
The silence of this placid scene is soon shattered by the explosive device attached to the cabin. On set, part of the cabin wall was already removed and shattered, with a real charge inside of the structure that blew out practical dust elements.
“We replaced the missing wall with a CG section, so it looked intact when the charge was placed upon it,” explains Kimbacher. “We then added in an FX explosion, along with wall pieces and debris that flies out following the detonation. It sets the tone for what’s to come!”
Sawyer goes on to lose his leg in a second explosion; is operated upon by a naval surgeon, Sarah, who later becomes his wife and the mother of his children; and then takes up a post at a high-end security company contracted to perform an audit on the nacreous Pearl: a supposedly safe haven for the world’s 1%.
As with any action movie worth its salt, the structure turns out to be anything but safe, with the skyscraper coming under attack from a squad of tactical terrorists whom Sawyer must avoid or eliminate. One catastrophe follows another, and Sawyer is eventually compelled to – in true Dwayne Johnson style – climb outside of the Pearl, rappel down the side of the neon-stripped building, and swing into a room through a turbine; all with the glistening Hong Kong landscape stretching into the precipitous distance below.
“It wouldn’t be the same movie if he just took an elevator went and flipped the switch,” laughs Geoff Anderson, VFX producer on Skyscraper. “We needed to create a sense of acrophobia, and that meant convincing the viewer that they were up high with Sawyer on the edge of this building – not acting on a soundstage.”
Dwayne Johnson was shot on set against a sheet of glass, from which the Image Engine team could extract reflections for use in the final constructed shot. “We ended up replacing the entire Hong Kong background and sky with CG elements as Sawyer creeps across the side of the Pearl,” says Kimbacher. “Most of the plate photography took place across large, green screen blocks, which we replaced with the narratively appropriate surrounding environments. We did a lot of reframing to communicate the danger of the situation, showing Sawyer to be a small figure against the monolith of this towering CG skyscraper. It gives everything a great sense of scale.”
Skyscraper Vfx Breakdown
Acrophobia and pyrophobia: Image Engine pumps up the tension to Dwayne Johnson bicep proportions for Die-Hard-meets-The-Towering-Inferno summer blockbuster, Skyscraper. Read on to learn how the studio closely collaborated with ILM and others to immerse audiences in the the years biggest – and tallest – action-adventure spectacle.