We were fortunate to work with Oscar award winning producer Simon Chinn (Man on Wire, Searching for Sugar Man) on his latest documentary ‘Drug Lord: The Legend Of Shorty’. This unique job for Painting Practice turned out to be quite a family affair – in an effort that combined concept, 3D, live action, VFX and animation, we created an opening sequence to the feature length film about cartel kingpin ‘El Chapo’.

In his glory days, Chapo managed to traffic millions upon millions of dollars worth of cocaine and marijuana out of Mexico via a tunnel beneath his lawyers’s house. This tunnel came to be known as ‘Cocaine Alley’, and we worked closely with director Angus Macqueen on a sequence which would set up the story of this cunning strategy.

The initial task for Painting Practice was to propose the best routes for recreating the illicit journey. It became apparent after some initial R&D that a combination of live action and CG would give the best results. We researched materials and lighting sources based on real-life footage and imagery captured by journalists.

It was essential to nail exact timings and key moments, as the sequence would be accompanied by a song composed for the film. The lyrics would literally be describing what we see on screen from A to Z, so previs was a key tool for determining all the beats before we got stuck into the details. It also helped us plan the speed and amount of packages to be loaded up, as well as the positioning of practical lighting down the tunnel.

We originally did some moving type which essentially translated the lyrics into english as we moved through the tunnel. However, Angus preferred to keep it as stripped back as possible, tying in better with the rest of the film.

The sequence ends with a camera move over the cart of bails and into the end of the tunnel, where we see the legs of several dead Mexicans! We R&D’d this trying all sorts of techniques (including 3D scanning for the bodies) but it turned out that shooting these guys for real was going to be the winning plan.

So while the tunnel was being meticulously built in CG at Painting Practice, we put our Art Direction hats on and organised a live action shoot for everything else.

Our technical previs can be watched here. It shows a moving comparison for what was filmed at Black Island, next to its position in the composited scene.

A huge objective for the live action shoot was to film the bails themselves then do our camera move from the front of the cart and over to the aerial shot of the dead bodies. We made bails of drugs (loaded onto a manual motion rig for the ‘journey’), had lights on helicopter rigs and of course created the muddy burrow at the end of the tunnel where we would film our dead Mexican workers.

VFX elements were also filmed in the studio and along with the footage, was eventually composited into the 3D tunnel back here at Painting Practice. In the end, some of the bails were re-created in 3D but the compositing is so good we doubt you could spot it!

The documentary made its world premiere earlier this year at the SXSW 2014 and its European premiere at the Biografilm festival in Italy. Now Gravitas Ventures, PBS’ Frontline and Submarine Deluxe are teaming up to release the film this fall. Submarine release theatrically on November 14th, 2014, with Gravitas handling VOD. PBS will broadcast the Frontline film in 2015. You can watch the trailer here.

Check out the end result here!