Framestore was delighted to collaborate with director Noah Baumbach and Netflix on the film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s postmodern classic novel, White Noise. Starring Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, and set in the 1980s the story follows college professor Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) and his family, whose comfortable suburban lifestyle is disrupted by a chemical leak causing "The Airborne Toxic Event" and forcing them to evacuate.
Led by VFX Supervisor Phil Brennan, Framestore's Montréal team completed the train crash shot and created the toxic cloud, drawing on the specialised knowledge of the studio's Visual Development, Compositing, and FX departments.
Hyperreal train crash
Framestore teams worked in close collaboration with film’s director Noah Baumbach to bring his vision for the train crash scene to life, leveraging both Physical Production footage and their own technical expertise.
The train crash scene is brilliantly intercut with another scene where Jack (Adam Driver) and his colleagues Murray (Don Cheadle) give a joint lecture on Elvis and Hitler, while there are flashes of the crash where a semi-truck collides with a train carrying hazardous chemicals. The crash results in a dark, toxic cloud that spreads throughout the town, which is known as the 'airborne toxic event'. The train crash scene is divided into two sections, with the first depicting the train rolling along the tracks and flipping over, followed by the second section which is characterised by explosions, fires, and burning.
In addition to the detailed close-up blasts, Framestore also pushed the boundaries by integrating a wide range of special effects to further augment the fire and explosion.
Production Footage was an important component and starting point towards creating this hyper-realistic crash. ‘We collaborated extensively with the director, understanding every nuance he wanted to incorporate.’ In addition to Physical Production footage, the team employed advanced simulation techniques to achieve the desired look.
Stylised toxic cloud
The train crash caused "The Airborne Toxic Event", releasing a black noxious cloud over Gladney's home, prompting their evacuation. VFX Supervisors Phil Brennan and Jonathan Fawkner were tasked to create an aesthetically propagating cloud with a different set of challenges. ‘Unlike the train crash that was hyperreal, the toxic cloud definitely had a stylized feel to it’, explains Phil Brennan.
The initial view of the cloud is a big wide long shot, and a simulation challenge for Framestore, with the camera pointing away from the burning train and cars, to follow the cloud extending far into the distance. Afterward, Jack's son, who is in his attic, uses his binoculars to observe the little cloud getting closer and closer from the horizon.
Then, the cloud is perceived in another sequence at the gas station. This one illustrates the stylistic vision of the cloud propagation envisioned by the director. In this shot, during the Gladneys’ evacuation, the family stops at the gas station, and while Driver is pumping gas, the cloud is gradually covering the gas station sign. For this shot, Framestore team experimented with hundreds of variations of a cloud covering the sign with lots of simulation and compositing tricks to achieve the director's aesthetic vision.
Another subtle effect aiming to illustrate the toxicity of the air that the team created for the gas station sequence was to add thin and tiny particles in the flare. ‘This shot as well was creatively challenging and interesting to work on, because we wanted to convince something without showing a lot. It’s the type of invisible effect that is there but you can barely see it. So, we had to find the right balance between the animation of the particles, the shape, the light, and the size,’ continues Bories.
After the gas station, the “airborne toxic event” comes to its climax, with the sequence on the highway when the dramatic and threatening cloud appears in all its glory. The team created four shots with the first two being a glimpse of the cloud to illustrate the growing threat approaching, and then two other shots embodying the massiveness of the cloud.
"For these shots, we worked a lot on concepts with various cloud, smoke and even volcano references that evolved well beyond references over time. The cloud had to be impressive and aesthetic, while visually giving a sense of its massive size," details Brennan. The huge cloud wasn’t fully CG, it had a lot of effect simulations, but also DMP work, and plates shot from a cloud tank. "This was a massive puzzle for our compositing team to assemble," says Bories. "We started with a first base of a CG cloud and reshaped it with a DMP. Then we had effect simulations with lighting coming from within that served to give the cloud a sense of volume. And finally, the cloud tank footage that we put in it as well. Added to that patchwork, we had to create specific colours while being in rhythm with specific music, to build up the way the cloud would gradually become more and more visible and threatening," concludes Bories.
Watch White Noise now on Netflix.