The Anatomy of a Disaster Scene in the Movie 2012

In some ways, it really is magic: Visual-effects artists can take a blank blue screen and create whole worlds from nothing. Here, 2012 director Roland Emmerich and the film’s visual-effects supervisors take us behind the scenes of the film to show PM how a team of 100 artists created the ultimate disaster sequence.

By Erin McCarthy:

Roland Emmerich is no stranger to cinematic disaster. The director froze New York City in The Day After Tomorrow and blew the White House to bits in Independence Day. So he wasn’t sure about directing 2012. The movie is based on the idea that the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012, portends a global apocalypse. “When I realized how much disaster was involved, I got a case of cold feet because I’ve done that, you know?” he says. “So I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to make this the mother of all disaster movies.”

More than 100 artists created 2012’s 1300 visual-effects (VFX) shots, including volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, floods—and a massive earthquake that rips California apart. In this three-minute sequence, failed science-fiction writer Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) drives through Los Angeles as the city crumbles around him. In the past, Emmerich might have filmed on location and swapped in CG crumbling buildings, but that approach didn’t make sense for 2012 because every edifice had to be destroyed. Instead, artists at the VFX company Uncharted Territory built a 3D photorealistic version of several city blocks using 60,000 high-dynamic images as a reference. Then they made every mailbox, tree and building shake and crumble.

As animators molded the virtual city, Emmerich was filming his actors in front of a blue screen. He put the actors on a “shaky floor,” an 8000-square-foot steel platform on airbags. Special-effects coordinators jiggled the bags with pneumatic pumps to inspire authentic reactions from the actors. “It was the most complicated scene we created,” Emmerich says. “And it’s one of my favorites.” Below, Marc Weigert and Volker Engle, co-CEOs of Uncharted Territory and visual-effects supervisors on the new movie, explain how they put the apocalyptic effects together.


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