Method Studios has just shared some details and pictures with AWN and VFXWorld showing their VFX work on Searchlight Pictures' dark comedy Downhill. In the film, directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, a couple reevaluates their relationship after barely escaping an avalanche during a family ski vacation in the Alps. Although originally filmed on location, the central avalanche sequence was largely a work of Method's digital magic.
To prepare for the show, Method VFX supervisor Josh Simmonds and his team examined shots of various types of avalanches that are both natural and explosive-related, such as the one shown in the film. On the set in an Austrian ski area, Simmonds took extensive reference photos of the surroundings and the mountain topography with which his team constructed 3D mountain models.
"Avalanche snow has a distinctive way of refracting light and is also bright white, which is both a light challenge," said Simmonds. “The sequence was also filmed over several days at different times of the day. Therefore, some experimentation was required to find the right lighting angle and to make sure everything went smoothly. The avalanche is an important point of action, and we are committed to doing it just right. "
Simmons noted that while the location in the restaurant was picturesque, it was a logistical challenge that required equipment and crew to be transported to and from half a mountain up and down with a chairlift or snowcat. In order to best serve the story at the request of the directors, Simmonds and his artists digitally changed the mountain landscape shown during the sequence, using the surrounding topography to update the mountain depicted in the avalanche.
"It was incredible to be there and to work with the directors at an early stage," he said. “The fact that everyone had spent time together, surrounded by the imposing alpine landscape, provided a collective vision of what snow and topography should look like. The mountain range that we ultimately created was actually a few kilometers from the resort – you could say we moved mountains for this project! It was a lot of fun. "
In order to perfect the avalanche movement, methodologists went through a considerable amount of research and development and finally found their desired results through a mixture of rigid body dynamics and fluid simulations. These basic simulations were the driving influence for subsequent volumetric and particle details, which the artists then adjusted to timing and art direction. In addition to the avalanche, Method also created set extensions and digital environments for the film.
Source: Method Studios
Dan Sarto is the editor and editor-in-chief of Animation World Network.