×

‘John Wick: Chapter 3’ Tones Down the Blood and Gore to Keep Look ‘Totally Real’

When Jeff Campbell, a visual effects supervisor with VFX studio Spin, initially set to work on the first “John Wick,” the 2014 action-thriller from director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad, he started with an industry-standard test: Establish a single, simple kill-effect meant to get a sense of the look of the violence the filmmakers were after. “We did different levels of blood and gore,” Campbell remembers. “Everything up to the look of “300” (2006), where it’s slo-mo blood flying everywhere.”

What Campbell found was surprising: Stahelski and Kolstad, both former stuntmen, asked for the violence to be stripped down, understated and “totally real.” “They wanted us to dial it all back [using] just a little blood mist and muzzle flashes,” he says. “These are stunt guys, right? They claim they have seen all these effects before. They’ve witnessed broken limbs, gunshots. They’d sometimes catch us and say: ‘that’s not what a gunshot looks like,’ or ‘No, the limbs shouldn’t break like that.”

One of the striking things about the “John Wick” movies, including “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum,” which Lionsgate released May 17, is this commitment to authenticity when much of what happens in the films is over-the-top. The violence in the “John Wick” series is often brutal, as Keanu Reeves, playing the titular hit man, cruises the streets on quests of ruthless vengeance. But even at its most extreme, the VFX artists and the directors treat the look of the violence with the utmost consideration.

Rob Nederhorst, VFX supervisor on “Parabellum,” worked closely with director Chad Stahelski to achieve a style tempered with truth. According to Nederhorst, Stahelski’s devotion to authenticity never flagged. “If Chad could do the whole movie for real and actually do this to people for real, he would,” Nederhorst says. “It’s authentic. That’s what he wants.”

One of the most memorable set pieces in the third film involves a gang of hit men squaring off against Wick and throwing an array of deadly knives. Though the kills in the scene are bloody and brutal, it’s all done with seamless CGI. “Any time you see a knife being thrown, it’s a digital knife,” Nederhorst explains. The crew shot reference footage of Reeves throwing knives at the camera, and then composited them into shots to suggest spectacular damage. “Obviously when we stab knives into people’s heads, chests, bodies, arms or crotches, it’s digital,” Nederhorst says. “There are digital knives everywhere. It’s amazing.”

In scenes such as this, says Nederhorst, the key is not being able to notice the CGI: “I want everything I do to be as invisible as possible,” he says, “so it never takes you out of the film.”

Stahelski and Kolstad have used this approach from the beginning.

“A lot of times when you’re doing special effects for action movies, when someone gets shot, the blood explodes out toward you, toward the camera,” says Kirk Brillon, who was visual effects supervisor on 2017’s “John Wick: Chapter 2.” “But when you’re actually shot by a bullet, the blood’s coming out the back.”

That means that all the gore and viscera “is mostly hidden by the body,” Campbell notes. The “John Wick” movies are true to this detail. “The blood’s gonna be there,” Campbell says, “but it’s gonna be subtle, and it’s gonna be behind them.” 

This requires VFX artists like Nederhorst, Campbell and Brillon to get creative. Campbell recalls having to put a lot of effort into the blood mist, which spurts out from victims in a little cloud, as well as the exit wounds, which they expand digitally. For the most realistic look, the artists favor shooting fake blood on a black or green screen “so we can isolate it and add it to the film,” explains Campbell, who keeps syringes of fake blood in his office. “Sometimes I’ll just squirt it in the air and add it to a shot,” he says. Adds Brillon: “Blood days are my favorite days on set.”

Campbell points out that in a film as stylish as “John Wick,” depicting gunshots to the head are a particular challenge to VFX artists. Brains exploding out of a skull might “end up looking like worms,” while the bursts of blood can have “bad highlight matching” that makes the result look far too “candy-colored” on-screen.

Brillon says the most important thing to avoid when making blood effects is comparisons to the battle scene in comedy classic “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” in which a knight’s limbs are all lopped off and blood gushes out even as the character diminishes the severity of his injuries. “‘It’s just a flesh wound!’ Brillon says, quoting the film. “You want to avoid that.”

Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • The Handmaid's Tale -- "Household" -

    ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Crew on Why the Lincoln Memorial Shoot Was Worth the Effort

    Shooting on location at a national monument may seem glamorous, but it often involves extensive prep to comply with strict regulations, restrictions and crowds — all for a short on-screen moment. For the cast and crew of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the seven months of planning and negotiations required for a one-day shoot at the [...]

  • Producer and crew on set. Twelve

    'Driven' Kept Shoot in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria to Help Locals

    Behind-the-scenes featurettes have long enumerated the many obstacles any movie or TV show has had to overcome to reach the theater or TV screen. But few films faced hardships as severe as those overcome by “Driven,” the real-life hero-to-zero story of automaker John DeLorean (played by Lee Pace) and his misadventures with ex-con pilot-turned-FBI informant [...]

  • The Righteous Gemstones Adam Devine, Danny

    How Televangelists, Elvis Inspired Costumes for HBO's 'The Righteous Gemstones'

    HBO’s new comedy series “The Righteous Gemstones,” about a famous family of televangelists whose dysfunction runs far deeper than its Christianity, seems to exist in its own time and place. Set in present-day Texas, the inspiration for the Gemstone family — played by John Goodman, series creator Danny McBride, Edi Patterson and Adam Devine — [...]

  • A Wrikle in Time

    New Zealand Offers Breathtaking Locations, Trained Crews, 20% Cash Grant

    With its heart-quickening vistas and magnificent views, New Zealand is a prime location for savvy investors seeking to maximize the incentive on their next project. Consider the production value of filming amid the daunting heights of the Southern Alps, or along the stunning shores of Lake Gunn. There’s also Auckland, with its magnificent Sky Tower [...]

  • DESCENDANTS 3 - DESCENDANTS 3 -

    'Descendants 3' Choreographer Mixed Dancing, Acting and Sword Fighting

    For a generation of dancers, Jamal Sims is one of a handful of choreographers who’ve pushed the boundaries of dance in film, TV and onstage. With a career that’s included stints working alongside Madonna and Miley Cyrus, he brings his edgy pop style to the dance numbers in “Descendants 3,” which premiered Aug. 2 and [...]

  • Avatar

    Manhattan Beach Studios, Home to 'Avatar' Sequels, Sold for $650 Million

    Hackman Capital Partners has acquired the Manhattan Beach Studios, home to James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels, as part of a $650 million deal. Hackman announced Wednesday that it had bought the MBS Group from global investment firm the Carlyle Group. The MBS Group operates the MBS Media Campus — a 22-acre, 587,000 square foot production facility [...]

  • The Kitchen Movie

    How 'The Kitchen' Production Team Cooked Up 1970s-Era Clothes, Cash and Guns

    Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss play women who take over their husbands’ criminal business in Warner Bros.’ “The Kitchen,” adapted from the DC/Vertigo comic book series by Andrea Berloff, who also directed. Costume designer Sarah Edwards and prop master David Schanker used their skills to create a supporting parallel story for the characters that evoked the look and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content