Ian Failes chronicles the technological hurdles of realizing Katheryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty

The helicopters – avoiding the game look

Two full-sized stealth helicopters were built in London for the film. Initially, these were designed to be filmed on large gimbals for shots of the SEALs traveling to the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and for exterior views, where rotors and environments would be added. Ultimately, due to changes in the action and lighting issues (discussed below), most of the helicopter exteriors were achieved as Image Engine creations.

However, the stealth helicopter props were invaluable in providing reference for Image Engine in designing and modeling CG versions. “They were all CNC milled so we got the original 3D data for them which was a huge jumping off point,” says visual effects supervisor Chris Harvey. “Then it was a process of taking them and making them look real, with dents, divots, scratches, grooves and bolts. We’d work on the lookdev until you couldn’t tell the difference.”

One of the hardest aspects of the chopper design was that, by design, they looked like game models. “They’re a few flat polygons with sharp edges,” notes Harvey. “So they kind of look CG anyway – even the real ones. Actually even Kathryn kind of called them ‘gamey’. They were really sensitive to reflection angles. When the helicopter moved, it’d be bright and the next time it’d be black. So we had to do some funky curve reflections and some animated reflection cards that we’d track on, just so they wouldn’t pop on with weird reflections.”

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