The brief Comen VFX received for the film developed in stages because the Director David O Russell had planned his project intending to avoid visual effects as much as possible. The story, characters and setting include very little glamour, and he wanted the film's look on screen to reflect this fact. Instead, any effects were dealt with individually as the need arose, and applied to achieve a look.
First discussions centred on a scene in which Dick Eklund, the fighter Micky Ward's half-brother, poses as a police officer one night in a scam to steal a car. To prevent the viewer from immediately recognizing Dick, the production chose to use visual effects. "We generated a visual fog to permeate the scene, working on the lighting to augment the light shining from the cars' headlamps and the flashing police car lights, and darkening down the details of actor Christian Bale's face. We turned a flatly lit, overcast shot into to a backlit silhouette with lots of flares and atmospheric effects to mask his face," Tim said.
"We could complete the entire process in Nuke, starting by rotoscoping out all the foreground characters to isolate the foreground, mid-ground and background layers independently and adjust the amount of fog; then tracking the lights, generating lens flares, god rays and shadows coming off of characters, to the final composite."
At the heart of this movie are the historical fight sequences, which involved several characteristics that Comen VFX worked on. Most obvious for viewers was the video look of the footage, as if they were watching the fights on TV. The director's plan was to shoot the fights in a manner matching the true sports coverage style from the period, the late 1990s, as far as possible. They hired a HBO live sports coverage crew to record three days of boxing as though it were an actual match, played out in real time. The shoot involved eight HBO video cameras, using sports style camera moves and angles, plus another four production cameras to capture more dramatic angles telling the story, such as looking up from the crowd and sides of the ring.
"All of this footage was shot on conventional video, 60 fields per second. It was up to us to convert this footage into a format that would play well on the big screen, to preserve the emotional intensity of feeling of a boxing match while maintaining a video feel to contrast with the rest of the film which was shot on 35mm film.
"The sequences were shot on a genuine boxing ring, dressed differently for each fight. Authenticity was critical. Having to achieve a low-tech look but demanding some high tech tools put some pressure on the team here. Because we were already starting with regular interlaced video footage with inherent video characteristic, the task was making the scenes work with the rest of the movie and meet the requirements of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, 24 frames per second projection."
The production had experimented with generally available means of up-converting with hard or software solutions, but they were not completely satisfied with the looks of the results. "Because the shutter speed of the video cameras is so much faster than a film camera, there is almost no motion blur. Everything looks very choppy and crisp, inappropriate for an earthy, organic fight scene," Tim explained.
"So our first requirement was controlling the motion blur, to extend that shutter speed and make it feel a little more cinematic - as the production described it after the first up-conversion tests, 'less like and old silent movie', undercranked and moving too fast, even when we played it frame by frame in real time.
"But boxing involves a lot of very rapid moves, punches, directional changes, with the camera swinging around from side to side. Quick movements coupled with the narrow shutter made the action look almost comical, like a Buster Keaton film. We had to control this and be able to dial it up and down on different shots based on the type of move and feel of each sequence."
The other parameter they faced arose as they started using various tools on the video. It wasn't to look too much like film, and had to feel quite different from the other footage. "We found ourselves getting into a situation where making it fit too well with the film just looked as if something was slightly wrong, that there had been a mistake in the shoot. We needed to send a clear message to the audience, 'This is a different experience – the video world of TV coverage.' So we experimented with the types of plug-ins that would let us dial in just a little say, crispness for example or interlaced scan lines to feel a little more like video."
The most critical factor turned out to be sharpness, in fact, the definitive characteristic of video that signaled to the audience what was happening on screen. "We did extensive tests with different levels of sharpness to find that sweet spot for making it look good, but also reminding the viewer of this different experience. Some of the more successful plug-ins we used for our treatment were Magic Bullet Frames, which was originally made to help de-interlace video, and Real Smart Motion Blur to control and add motion blur."
VFX Producer Josh Comen said, "During the testing phase, it was important to carry out several iterations to show the director our capabilities and what was possible to achieve. Once he locked in on a look, that became our process for the project. The sequences generally turned out to be bigger and longer than anticipated, once the cut had been refined and they understood the role each one played in the story."
The climactic, Championship Neary fight at the end, especially, turned out to be about 200 cuts, each of which became a VFX shot mainly because they had to tweak the look shot-to-shot. Long shots had to be processed differently to close ups, zooms had their own settings, as well as speed ups and slow downs in the fighting.
In the ring on set, the boxing was essentially real. The actors were boxers themselves, either currently or formerly. Though only a handful of shots needed to be enhanced with additional blood to help the sequence cut together properly, a few crowd replacement shots were required. Tim said, "The production had done a good job of assembling a big crowd to cover 180° or so in front of the ring but since this was a multi-camera shoot with 12 cameras going at once, there were inevitably shots without sufficient crowds in view. "We ended up working on just over 20 crowd shots, cutting out a crowd from one plate and pasting it into another, mainly using match moving with Syntheyes and Maya. We built a rough, low-polygon version of the ring to help with the match-moving. But because of the low resolution of the video footage, temporal and spatial, the match moves were often quite difficult and we had to turn to several other packages at times, including 3D Equalizer."
VFX got involved with the film just after the main shoot in November 2009, but because a series of reshoots and some pickups for the boxing were required, the team could be on-set for these, which were shot on a sound stage set up with banks of lights and props, not at the original ring. While the camera angles were kept low to avoid having to worry about crowds, they had to replace some of the distinctive blue lights, big loose spot lights set at a distance from the ring and box seats in the background.