Director Peter Berg depended on a retinue of experienced artisans when it came to creating the look of the film. From his director of photography, Academy Award®-nominated cinematographer Tobias Schliessler (Dreamgirls), to production designer Neil Spisak, Academy Award®-winning visual effects designer John Dykstra, stunt coordinators Simon Crane and Wade Eastwood, and special effects gurus John Frazier and Jim Schwalm, every department worked in tandem with the others.
The overall process began with Steve Yamamoto, who created Berg's pre-visualization renderings. Like storyboards, "previz" footage has become the standard in action films, and on Hancock it was the reference guide each department would look to as the spring board for new ideas.
Schliessler, with whom Berg had worked on The Rundown and Friday Night Lights, teamed with camera operators David Luckenbach and Lukasz Bielan. A good portion of the movie was shot using the hand-held techniques Berg is known for, but with a twist: filming variations of the same sequence using different levels of camera activity and different lenses.
"I didn't want the same kinetic effect I was trying for in The Kingdom," explains Berg, "so we stabilized some of the camera work by varying more with the techno crane and dolly on this film. It also helped protect the epic size of the story of a superhero when a frenetic style just doesn't help."
In keeping with their desire to do much of the film with handheld cameras, Berg and Schliessler even strapped their cameras and operators into harnesses similar to those worn by Smith and his stunt double in order to keep pace with the action.
Stunt coordinators Simon Crane (who also acted as the film's second unit director) and Wade Eastwood supervised the details of the flying sequences as well as overseeing their customary fight scenes and chase sequences. But unlike many action movies, Crane and Eastwood were called upon to come up with less-than-graceful moves for the main character.
"It's not like Superman or Spider-Man(tm), where we would plan a nice, stylistic landing," says Eastwood. "We'd have to test and test to get an accurate landing where Hancock stumbles or falls down on his knees and has to balance himself before he can stand up, which means you have to program every point into your winch and counterweight and we'd simply have to rehearse over and over with Will. I'd always heard he was athletic and fun, and the reports weren't wrong; he was a trouper.
"My favorite gag was when we flew him sideways, lying down, about an inch and a half above the ground," he says. "It was one of our simpler rigs, but it went very fast and visually it looked great. As Hancock flies toward a stranded cop who is hiding behind a downed police car, he's traveling at about 35 miles per hour, head first, toward the car. We needed to use a separate set of winches to pivot him up so that he stops right next to the cop in a kind of sitting or kneeling position, and we had to do it all in one shot. Despite rigging the night before the shoot, we had to remove our lines during the day because of traffic, and then set it up again and test it again with weight bags before putting anyone in the rig."
Smith did as much of his own wire and harness work as was possible. "There were a couple of hairy days," laughs Smith. "Flying 100 feet above the street at night and then free falling until a wire kicks in about two feet from the ground, all in about 1½ seconds -- that drop was a real rush. It's like being on a roller coaster without the coaster. Now that was aggressive!"
Actors and stunt doubles agree the different harnesses can be constricting at the most inopportune moments, sometimes making acting and concentration difficult despite a couple of weeks of stunt rehearsals and flying practice, but rehearsal and staying limber is always the key to avoiding injury.
"Although it may look fun, everything takes planning and preparation," says Crane. "There's a lot of pressure to get the stunts right in one go because if something goes wrong, well, you don't get a second chance. That's why we test and retest. It takes a long time, but you just never want to hurt someone, and I would put my own son in one of our rigs."
"Some of the moves are awkward," explains Smith. "Even taking off from a bench can jolt you because the wires pull with such force that if you tense, you can pull your neck or your hamstrings, or put too much pressure on your knees. You don't even realize it until you do the movement a few times, then suddenly you feel nagging little injuries sneaking up on you."
"We would rehearse with Will in a parking lot," describes Crane. "We'd start slowly at first, because it's a scary move. Will was traveling over 300 feet, 50 to 100 feet in the air, at a maximum speed over 50 miles an hour -- varying his body position all the while -- and when we get up to full speed, that's when the feeling of weightlessness creeps in and we just hope he hasn't eaten too much," he laughs. "We tell every actor the key word when it comes to the harness is 'suffer.' It's going to look great, but can be harsh and sometimes painful."
"We especially rehearsed as much as we could before there was full darkness if it was a night shoot," says Eastwood, "because the most important thing is spotting the lines, spotting the pulleys up high, watching that there's no fouling of the line, everything is running smooth and all of our dynos are reading the same. When it gets dark we still inspect each point with flashlights or work lights, but unless we fell safe, we won't proceed. Some aspects are easier at night because there's no traffic, fewer pedestrians, so in the end, I'd much rather do it that way."
The opening stunt sequence of the film was one of the most difficult to film, taking several weeks in different locations, plus filming on stage against green screen to complete. When a small gang of street hoods flees the scene of a crime in an SUV, Hancock tails them in hot pursuit.
"This freeway chase was the biggest chunk of our job and the biggest challenge," Crane continues. "Not only did we close down the 105 freeway for five days and bear the wrath of a detoured public, we had to use handheld cameras to shoot cars flipping and blowing up or one car shooting over the top of another. You have to have countless meetings with Pete and the transportation department, and we worked closely with the visual effects and special effects departments. I'm a great believer in doing as much as we can for real, so the challenge is to come up with new ways of doing live action as well as effects."
Special effects veterans John Frazier and Jim Schwalm produced the physical special effects, whether producing thousands of bullet hits during a shootout, blowing up an intersection, dropping a car from the sky, throwing a bad guy through a liquor store window, or yanking a refrigerator through the wall of a house, their contribution is a fundamental ingredient in the recipe that turns creative imagery into reality on the big screen.
"The stunts and special effects were half of the process," explains Berg, "then we turned to our visual effects designer, John Dykstra. We depended heavily on all of his guys working together with stunts, camera, wardrobe, and just about everyone."
"I met with Peter Berg and Ian Bryce and got a glimpse of how Pete's mind works," says Dykstra. "He explained he wanted everything to look real, not as stylized as most superhero movies are. For lack of another term, I'd say 'documentary style': it's aggressive, using hand-held cameras, which is unusual for a very technical film. So that was the challenge."
Dykstra was also drawn to the project by the chance to work on the full range of visual effects, from digital human work for the scenes in which Hancock flies to CG destruction and the creation of virtual environments. However, the greatest and most exciting challenge for a visual effects artist is the chance to do something that's never been done before. As Dykstra explains, it goes with the territory. "One of the issues with visual effects is that the technology that exists when you begin a film is obsolete by the time you finish it, so you have to go in making assumptions that you're going to be able to invent some new technique to raise the bar," he says.
The scale of the visual effects invented for the film by the team at Sony Pictures Imageworks, led by visual effects supervisor Carey Villegas and digital effects supervisor Ken Hahn, ranged from the minutiae of falling rubble, to the intricate movement of clothing and skin against the wind in flight, to the enormity of destroying a city block seen from a distance as well as close up. The same principles in building the environment and weather conditions applied, whether the artists were creating twisters or a falling big rig or destroying a hospital.
Although it should not even enter the viewer's mind, the intrinsic problems inherent in building Hancock's clothing had more to do with the number of outfits rather than the technology. Like the average person, he changes clothes every day. He does not have a secret identity that would require him to slip into a cape and tights every time he flies or accosts the bad guys.
"Hancock flies at mach five through Los Angeles in a hoodie and shorts," describes Dykstra.
"Making cloth move properly is a challenge, and then translating that movement from one type of cloth to another, keeping it consistent, and making it look real or making the patently incredible look credible (which was Pete's primary concern), is difficult, but it's also fun."
Even as he and his team faced these technical challenges, Dykstra never forgot that visual effects exist to serve the story, and not the other way around. "Hancock uses his powers on a whim," Dykstra continues, "and not everything he does is spectacular. Sometimes his actions just reflect his personality and the way he thinks or feels at the moment. That's when we stop thinking so much about the technology and engineering of what we're doing and concentrate more on how to advance the arc of the story."
Interestingly, being true to that arc of the story represented a fun change of pace for the animators, who've never worked with a superhero like Hancock before. "Because Hancock's flying style is so fast and loose, rather than being smooth and gracefully sweeping as with most superheroes, it was a challenge for the animators," Dykstra says. "Hancock just plows through whatever is in his way as fast as he can."
Green screens popped up everywhere, including San Pedro, where the production utilized the services of the city's Harbor Red Line Trolley tracks to shoot Ray Embrey's near death experience.
"If you shoot an outdoor film indoors, it shows," explains Imageworks' visual effects producer Josh R. Jaggars. "Filming real exteriors actually gives us some photographic advantages. For example shooting in hard sunlight as we did on the train tracks when Hancock saves Ray gives the scene a level of credibility that's immutable but it also challenges us to invent new ways of doing things while we're shooting."