Whipping up a classic British storm on screen

The special effects teams have been hard at work on The Avengers movie.

STEED AND Mrs Peel defined Britain in the Sixties: modern yet traditional; stylish; imperturbable; the definition of cool. As The Avengers, they became British television's biggest ever export, selling to 120 countries. Now they are back - on the big screen from this Friday.

This time the roles of Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg are taken by Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, but the style remains the same. Achieving it has become a lot more costly, however. Where streets were always deserted because they needed to save money on extras, the movie-makers have turned to computers to achieve the same effect.

Besides digitally removing people, traffic (except for Steed's Bentley and the occasional 1930s London taxi) and the cranes working on London Underground's Jubilee Line extension, the special effects computers have been enhancing the weather.

This is because the movie's plot revolves around the country being held to ransom by a larger-than-life, Bond-type baddie, Sir August de Wynter (Sean Connery), who can control the weather. Of the 250 or so special effects in the movie, the most spectacular include tornadoes roaring up the Thames and smashing through Lambeth Bridge, the view from inside a lightning bolt and a bonsai tree going through all four seasons in 20 seconds in de Wynter's museum of weather.

With so many effects to do, the director, Jeremiah Chechik, turned to three of the UK's leading effects houses: Cinesite, which spent a year working on more than 140 digital effects shots; the Computer Film Company (CFC), which did 40 effects; and the Magic Camera Company, which not only did 65 digital effects shots but also created many miniatures (including de Wynter's lair and a snowbound Trafalgar Square) and physical effects for the movie.

"The Avengers is an action-packed movie, with a lot of green-screen composites, people hanging off wires, weather effects and digital matte painting," says Angie Wills, a producer at the Magic Camera Company. It is one of the few companies anywhere that can do all types of effect (physical, digital and models) under one roof. "That's why jobs like The Avengers or Lost In Space [where they also did a huge number of effects, including the opening space fighter sequence] are tailor-made for us."

It did an assortment of animation effects on the British-made Quantel Domino, a complete digital film production system that "is particularly useful for the more complex tracking shots", says Wills. It also did many green-screen effects (where an actor is shot against a blank background and digitally inserted in the final scene) on Silicon Graphics Unix workstations using Avid Illusion software.

At CFC in Soho, it took several months of research to discover how to create weather effects they could control precisely without losing the chaotic and organic nature of weather. Because the storms were to be seen from different angles and moving cameras, they needed to be very complex and had to be three dimensional, with lots of lightning, snow and shadows across the city as the storm moves in. This meant creating 3D models of parts of the city "so that as clouds come over, the shadows creep across the architecture," says Sharon Lark, CFC's visual effects producer. "This meant a lot more work, but is very, very effective." The clouds were built up from multiple layers and some shots took up to 80 passes through the computer.

The climax of the storm includes the destruction of Big Ben by concentrated lightning, an effect which combines models and physical pyrotechnics done at the Magic Camera Company with storms and lightning added at CFC.

Nearby at Cinesite, they were unleashing devastating tornadoes on London, the biggest of which heads up the Thames towards Parliament, smashing through bridges. It was created using the new Alias Maya particle system, with seven separate layers of particles, such as water spray, wrapped around a cylinder animated with twists, changes of speed and direction, then had it smash into a computer-modelled bridge. "The tornado has physical properties and rotates at a certain speed, so we were able to tell the computer to affect other things which it whipped off the bridge (such as lampposts), so it self-animated. This saved us a lot of time. Rather than having to individually animate more than 100 objects, we only had to do the largest objects by hand," says Alex Bicknell, senior digital effects producer at Cinesite.

One nice sequence shows a glass globe within which a bonsai tree goes through four seasons every 20 seconds - growing, shedding its leaves and being covered with snow. This happens during a camera move, which made it more difficult, in a living museum of weather curiosities. It was produced by Cinesite using Maya/Dynamation particle systems for the snow and Alias Wavefront for the tree modelling and animation.

"A lot of work we did was digital matte painting, to get rid of traffic and people. It had to look deserted," says Bicknell. This included creating several unique London locations, such as where Steed drives under the Thames to Mother's office. In reality, Ralph Fiennes twice drove into the entrance to an old underpass near Holborn while the traffic was stopped for a few minutes on either side of the street. Combining the two shots it looks as if the street is deserted. To this was added a view of the river at Greenwich and large government-type buildings.

One of the longest effects sequences in the film (with more than 40 shots that took five months to complete) sees a swarm of remote controlled Bee-copters (four-foot metallic bees armed with gatling guns and explosive stings in their tails) attacking Steed and Mrs Peel as they drive to Sir August's mansion in her E-Type Jag. Originally, this was intended to be mainly done with model bees, "but they didn't work as well as the computer- generated ones," says Bicknell. Instead, the models were used mainly for reference, such as being walked through the set so the 3D animators could see how the lighting conditions affected the metallic surface. The bees required so much work because they have six legs jointed in three places, pneumatic pincers, a six-segmented thorax which can rotate and swivel, and a head that can move, as well as rotors.

Because the actors were shot on location, from helicopters and cranes, Cinesite had to use motion-tracking software to fix the animations to the live action. There were also lots of physical pyrotechnic effects used during the chase, such as shots and explosions, including some where nine bees crash into a low bridge. "It was a great release to us every time we had an explosion, because it meant we had one less bee to animate," Bicknell says. The 3D renderings were composited into the live action on Kodak's Cineon system. Animated shadows give extra realism, and tracer fire was added to coincide with bullet hits on the road, as were the "stinger" missiles let off by the bees compressing and releasing their thorax.

Cinesite also did a lot of what are now "bread and butter" effects, such as inserting video graphics into shots of computer monitors. "It has become so easy and quick that there is not much price difference between shooting live or doing it in post-production. However, post is much more flexible, as it is easy to replace the shots at the last minute," Bicknell says. It also means that the director doesn't have to worry about timing the shot to hit a particular mark in the graphics and can concentrate on the actors instead.

One effect to watch out for gives us a glimpse of "Invisible Jones", the non-entity at the Ministry, as he walks in front of a slide projector. See if you can recognise the famous actor playing the cameo role in the subtle, semi-opaque glass character reflecting the light.

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?