He Arose: VFX Breakdown

The idea sounded simple enough: Let’s do a short video of the arrest, death, and resurrection of Jesus with only six scenes. It will be kind of like The Mannequin Challenge but far more serious. Nobody will be moving, and there won’t be any lines of dialogue. Easey peasey lemon squeezy! Right?! Not so fast, my friend. I’m going to take a few minutes to break down the process of one scene and also talk about a few of the other bits of production that were necessary to complete all of the visual effects for He Arose.


The scene with the most excitement—at least as far as VFX go—was the Golgotha shot. There were a few practical things for us to prep on the front end to even get the shot in the first place. We borrowed a 9’ cross with a base from a local church. Prop Master Lisa installed a seat, handles, and a footrest on the cross and built a nail for Jesus’ foot that was a lot like Steve Martin’s old arrow-through-the-head prop.

Caitlin mixed up a container of fake blood for Jesus and “dirt” spray she could use to make the extras and costumes look like they belonged in the environment.

You can see in the breakdown video that we had a bit of a green screen to help with post-production, but we ran into an unexpected issue. We moved through our earlier shots so quickly that when we got to the Golgotha scene, all of the extras who were hired for the first half of the day were able to stick around. That gave us 23 bodies in the shot! As exciting as that was for us, it also created more work in post.

Caleb, blocking extras during the Via Dolorosa scene.

Caleb, blocking extras during the Via Dolorosa scene.


When we got the shot back to the office, I took stock of the things in the shot that needed to be corrected:

  • Giant concrete wall in the background
  • Costumes blown around by the wind (the scene was supposed to be frozen in time)
  • Actor blinks (eyes also needed to be frozen in time)
  • Inevitable movement by the actors because it’s just hard to stay still
  • I needed a new background to replace the wall
  • Removing any dust or bugs that flew through the shot
  • Depth map for a stylized transition
  • Adding Depth of Field to the shot

The first order of business was to track the camera. I performed a tiny bit of stabilization on the shot and then ran the After Effects Camera Tracker which gave me a number of points represented in 3D space and a virtual camera move that matched the shot.

To remove the giant concrete wall, I only really needed to roto the top half of each extra, so I knew I didn’t have to concentrate on the whole person. The contrast between the extras and the wall, however, was not significant enough to use the Roto Brush. I ended up useing a combination of KeyLight, animated masks, and Mocha AE. For any of the more prominent characters like Mary, Mary, and John, I brought the shot into Mocha AE and did a track. Mocha did a pretty nice job! The shots were all 4k so it took a little while for each track, but I was pretty pleased with the ease of use. I discovered through trial and error that tracking a lot of things with one mask creates more work than it needs to be. Tracking each person in a group is more efficient than trying to track them all three with one mask.

Shooting the scene at Caiaphas' house.

Shooting the scene at Caiaphas' house.

There was also the concern of people that passed behind other people. Mocha AE is not really set up to do that kind of tracking, especially if someone would disappear altogether. For those tracks, I selected a few of the camera tracked points for an individual and created a solid in that 3D location. Because of the camera move, the solid roughly followed along with the person. Therefore, a mask created on the solid would, more or less, stick to the person. Of course, there was a certain amount of parallax to account for, but the mask tweaks were minor over the course of the shot.

I realized at some point that some of the extras didn’t have any noticeable rotation. So I found as much of their bodies over a few shots as I could get and used Photoshop to recreate the areas that were hidden. I used the AE Camera Tracker results to locate their positions in 3D space and dropped their 2D “cards” in place behind the rotoscoped foreground elements.

One of the most difficult things was accounting for the costumes that were blown around by the wind. This involved locating the costume’s position in 3D space, reconstructing a still of the costume from various angles, and making sure it was angled in such a way that it matched the parallax of the shot as the camera moved through the scene.

Setting up for the Golgotha scene.

Setting up for the Golgotha scene.

In the end, I just cut out the guard at the cross, Jesus’ feet, and the cross out of the shot and placed them as 2D cards in 3D space so I could cover up the flappy guard uniform and Jesus’ footrest. This separation also made it a little easier for me to tighten the focus of the scene to draw attention to the feet of Jesus when they enter the shot.

Once I removed the background from the Golgotha scene I needed to replace it with a suitable environment. Our Director of Production, Andy, created the city scene and hillside, and I placed some fog and birds in the space between the hill and the actors. There is also a little more dust in front of the Marys placed as 2D cards in 3D space.

It certainly took a while to rotoscope each person, but having everyone individually cut out of the scene made it much easier for me to create the depth map for the stylized transition at the end of the scene. I needed only to duplicate the After Effects composition and fill each of the characters with a shade of gray. That allowed me to use the Gradient Wipe effect to transition the darkness in the scene from the storm in the background all the way through to the cross.

We're fortunate to be located a few hours away from "Capernaum Village," an authentic-looking recreation of what a first-century, Mediterranean village would look like.

We're fortunate to be located a few hours away from "Capernaum Village," an authentic-looking recreation of what a first-century, Mediterranean village would look like.


Many of the other scenes happened at night so we needed to simulate light from torches. Propmaster Lisa created torches for us that each had a socket for a light bulb and a cord that ran down through each of the guards’ costumes. All of the lens flares were real, and through a bit of camera tracking and manual tracking, we were able to place frozen-in-time flames on the torches to help sell the effect of the shot happening at one moment in time.

Wires, gear, and blinks were removed with some masking and tracking. Atmospherics were added with Trapcode Form and Trapcode Particular. Then a color grade was added to each shot.

When all was said and done, the production wasn’t as simple as “six shots with no dialogue or action,” but we are pleased with the results and the hard work that everyone on our team put forth to complete the project. May this mini movie be a blessing to you and your church, and a reminder of the hope we have through the great sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Contributed by Trent Armstrong, our resident motion graphics and visual effects guru. Follow him on Twitter.