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May 19
2020

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Breathing New Life and Limb Into THE INVISIBLE MAN

By TREVOR HOGG

A high-tech genius fakes his death and wears a suit that makes him appear to be invisible as he terrorizes his former lover. The Universal Pictures horror thriller by filmmaker Leigh Whannell transforms the literary classic The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells into a modern day-parable about domestic violence. Looking after the visual effects was Jonathan Dearing, who previously collaborated with Whannell on Upgrade, which also explores the idea of advanced technology being used for personal vengeance. About 350 visual effects were created over three-and-half months, with the main vendor being Cutting Edge. Around 120 visual effects shots were storyboarded and 150 additional shots needed to be accommodated during post-production.

Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) discovers in the laboratory of her vengeful ex-lover his invisibility suit. (Photo: Mark Rogers)

“Some of the direction from Leigh was definitely a focus on portraying long,  languishing camera moves in empty frames with a wider shot,” explains Dearing. “Right from the start he wanted to give the audience a sense of there’s someone in the room but you can’t see them. It was almost a ‘Where’s Wally?’ situation. The audience had the time to look and wonder, ‘Where is he?’ If a knife was removed or the gas increased on the stovetop, how would we pull that off? Special Effects Supervisor Dan Oliver and I workshopped each practical effect, how well it could look in camera, and what the cleanup ramifications were for visual effects. There were instances where they couldn’t do a practical effect so it had to be a visual effect.”

Jonathan Dearing, Visual Effects Supervisor

An important element was the invisibility suit. “How did it turn on and off and what did that look like?” explains Dearing. “How could we justify the technology behind it? It’s projecting camouflage of what’s behind and in front of Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). We had to think about what is actually technically possible and quickly realized that there have been attempts at that technology. Working with the actual ingredients and the technology that is available now, what would it look like? We came up with micro lenses moving all over a suit. There were electronics behind everyone of them, processing, mapping, imaging and projecting 360 degrees of environment back onto the character.

“Luckily,” continues Dearing, “we didn’t have to expand upon the technical aspects too much. When Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) is in the laboratory and discovers the iPad, which is an interactive control, that’s the first point where we see the suit go through the process of shutting down. We did macrophotography, and that was a full CG rendering of what those lenses were doing and how they were trying to achieve it. You can see some of the hardware that we built under the lenses moving around. There weren’t many times where we had to show it in that fine detail.”

A choreographed fight sequence takes place in the hallway of a mental institution. (Photo: Mark Rogers)

“Right from the start [director Leigh Whannel] wanted to give the audience a sense of there’s someone in the room but you can’t see them. It was almost a ‘Where’s Wally?’ situation. The audience had the time to look and wonder, ‘Where is he?’ If a knife was removed or the gas increased on the stovetop, how would we pull that off?”

—Jonathan Dearing, Visual Effects Supervisor

Storyboards were created for the major fight that takes place in a mental institution.

Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) is being watched by an invisible intruder in a scene that appeared in the trailer but not the final film.

“We had to think about what is actually technically possible and quickly realized that there have been attempts at that technology [of invisibility]. Working with the actual ingredients and the technology that is available now, what would it look like? We came up with micro lenses moving all over a suit. There were electronics behind everyone of them, processing, mapping, imaging and projecting 360 degrees of environment back onto the character.”

—Jonathan Dearing, Visual Effects Supervisor

When Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) reveals her invisible adversary by throwing paint on him, minimal digital augmentation was needed.

Because of the tight production schedule and limited budget there was not much time for storyboards and previs. “I have done multiple jobs with DP Stefan Duscio and know Leigh well,” remarks Dearing. “I was on set every minute that they’re on set, listening to every conversation and interjecting when I had to. It’s a team sport. The scene is well thought out. We do rehearse it and storyboard what we can, but obviously things always change when you get something on camera. You have to be flexible and creative in your decision-making on set. It’s integral, the relationship that I had with Leigh, Stefan and the stunt coordinator in this instance, as there was always a guy in a green suit who was performing the actions of the invisible man, whether it was him on his own or interacting with the talent. We were making a lot of decisions on the fly, but we’ve walked onto the set knowing what we wanted to do and achieve.” Three major scenes were shot with motion control cameras. “There was a lot of setup and lead time for those. The obvious moments are the fights that take place in the kitchen, and the cell and corridor of the psychiatric hospital. They were choreographed and rehearsed for quite a few weeks with stunt people before Elisabeth Moss came to Sydney to rehearse with them.”

Complications arose with green-suit stand-ins for the title character. “It was nervous times for me because every time we get a potential of the guy in the green suit to get between the camera lens and the performance of the actor, it’s highly stressful and something that I was constantly trying to avoid,” admits Dearing. “I don’t want to be trying to patch people’s heads or hair back onto them. It had to happen because we needed to have the grabbing, holding and force of someone interacting with the actors. We workshopped clean plates with no one there. Then I would always get a mimed plate of the actor repeating the action that they did with the stunt guy in the green suit. I had the potential to either replace an arm or leg or foot or hand with a mimed clean pass of their performance. I used it a lot but there were other times where it was impossible. For instance, in the fight in the kitchen where Elisabeth is wearing a blue cashmere-looking jumper, she was hanging by a wire, holding a knife in one hand and the wrist of the green man in the other hand because he had her by the throat. There was no way to avoid him covering her jumper. We tried to get as much clean plate on the motion control rig as possible; however, we couldn’t achieve the same performance as the energy wasn’t there. We actually needed someone pushing her while she was on the wire because Elisabeth couldn’t move herself. It did end up requiring a full digital double and a cloth simulation to replace her jumper.”

A dramatic moment occurs when it looks like Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) has murdered her sister in a restaurant.

“We do rehearse it and storyboard what we can, but obviously things always change when you get something on camera. You have to be flexible and creative in your decision-making on set. It’s integral, the relationship that I had with Leigh, Stefan and the stunt coordinator in this instance, as there was always a guy in a green suit who was performing the actions of the invisible man, whether it was him on his own or interacting with the talent. We were making a lot of decisions on the fly, but we’ve walked onto the set knowing what we wanted to do and achieve.”

—Jonathan Dearing, Visual Effects Supervisor

A guard at a mental institute discovers that Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) is not delusional.

Extensive CG was required for the kitchen fight as the stuntman obscured most of the body of Elisabeth Moss.

A stunt double for Elisabeth Moss gets thrown around.

Elisabeth Moss maintains a sense of humor despite standing next to a looming big green man.

“[E]very time we get a potential of the guy in the green suit to get between the camera lens and the performance of the actor it’s highly stressful and something that I was constantly trying to avoid I don’t want to be trying to patch people’s heads or hair back onto them. It had to happen because we needed to have the grabbing, holding and force of someone interacting with the actors. We workshopped clean plates with no one there. Then I would always get a mimed plate of the actor repeating the action that they did with the stunt guy in the green suit. I had the potential to either replace an arm or leg or foot or hand with a mimed clean pass of their performance.”

—Jonathan Dearing, Visual Effects Supervisor

A crane was used to create rain for a nighttime scene.

A dramatic moment occurs when Cecilia throws a can of white paint down a ladder leading into an attic to reveal the rough outline of her invisible assailant. “We did one take of that shot,” reveals Dearing. “It was mostly practical. I asked if we could have a green or blue suit that matched the black practical suit. We couldn’t afford to do the whole suit. It was complicated to build that black suit. What we did was commit to the hood, chest and half of the arms of a green version of the same black suit. The stunt guy was up on the ladder and a can of paint was thrown at him. I got a clean pass, took a picture of the contours of the suit and put it over the rest of his arms. I had enough in camera to be able to patch him and make it all look seamless. In 2D, I extended behind him the paint that was naturally dripping. It was a locked camera held dramatically. Originally, it was going to be a motion-controlled shot because we wanted the camera to go from the black down the hole into the light and follow the paint but we couldn’t get the rig up into that space. There was a lot of cleanup and compositing work in post-production to pull that off.

“I always thought when we reveal the suit was going to be the thing that everybody would be focusing on,” notes Dearing. “It ended up being a CG character who is the main protagonist in the film. We had a short time frame and schedule, and didn’t have a big budget and team. If it looked cheesy in any way, shape or form that would pull the audience out of the film, that could be with the animation performance, the design, and how well it was rendered, composited and integrated in every shot. It had to be 100% photoreal and believable. It had to look like a guy in a suit and whatever he was doing he was actually doing. I didn’t want anyone going, ‘That’s a cheesy looking suit.’ Or, ‘The animation looks crap. I don’t believe it.’ We haven’t heard any of that. I think we pulled it off.”


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