VFX Voice

The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.

Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.

Subscribe to the VFX Voice Print Edition

Subscriptions & Single Issues


June 06
2023

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

CAPTURING THE WILD ANIMALS OF AFRICA FOR WESTERN SAGA 1923

By OLIVER WEBB

Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Trainers were very confident that the elephants would charge at the camera, though this proved to be the opposite for Kevin Blank and his VFX team as the elephants declined to participate in the charge.

Trainers were very confident that the elephants would charge at the camera, though this proved to be the opposite for Kevin Blank and his VFX team as the elephants declined to participate in the charge.

Trainers were very confident that the elephants would charge at the camera, though this proved to be the opposite for Kevin Blank and his VFX team as the elephants declined to participate in the charge.

Following the events of spin-off 1883 and serving as a prequel to the events of Yellowstone, Taylor Sheridan’s 1923 follows the Dutton Family during the early 20th century. As the family of ranchers struggle through the Great Depression and Prohibition era, they are faced with a number of challenges to ensure the survival of the Dutton ranch.

“The leopard and the elephant had significant CGI contributions. … We did use a real cat and trainers that were brought to set. They trained him to do certain tasks, growling on cue, or dragging large objects, but on the day, a big cat in an environment with film crew has its own limitations. All safety measures were taken to accommodate working with an apex predator, but getting a leopard to simulate an attack on or drag a human being with a level of ferocity and believability necessary was a bridge too far. Ultimately, all of the leopard shots utilize VFX, mostly full CG shots, and some enhancements to a puppet on a few close-ups.”

—Kevin Blank, Visual Effects Supervisor

Kevin Blank served as Visual Effects Supervisor on the series. Blank had previously collaborated with 1st Assistant Director Greg Gilman on Lovecraft Country. Through Gilman, he was introduced to Ben Richardson, series  Director/Executive Producer, and Michael Friedman, Co-Executive Producer, before his involvement with the project. “I subsequently had a call with Taylor Sheridan where he stated his expectations of photorealism and with enough time to review and give appropriate notes,” Blank states. “To do something of this scale from principal photography to completion in six months is pretty unprecedented. This group of filmmakers led by Taylor are very demanding of doing everything that they can in-camera before resorting to visual effects. I can advise on approach and they’ll make a decision, but it’s my job to advise and adapt to their filmmaking methodology.”

The elephant required significant CGI contributions throughout the series.

The elephant required significant CGI contributions throughout the series.

The elephant required significant CGI contributions throughout the series.

Blank’s initial conversations with Richardson regarding visual effects largely revolved around animals and how to achieve those sequences. “A lot of what you see is real. And hopefully when we went with VFX, either through use of CG or compositing real animals from separate shoots, you can’t tell the difference. The schedule really was our biggest challenge,” Blank notes. Principal photography took place throughout South Africa and Kenya for Spencer Dutton’s storyline. Creating CGI animals that were believable for audiences proved to be a daunting task. “The leopard and the elephant had significant CGI contributions. I have worked with lions and tigers before, but I’d never worked with a leopard. We did use a real cat and trainers that were brought to set. They trained him to do certain tasks, growling on cue, or dragging large objects, but on the day, a big cat in an environment with film crew has its own limitations. All safety measures were taken to accommodate working with an apex predator, but getting a leopard to simulate an attack on or drag a human being with a level of ferocity and believability necessary was a bridge too far. Ultimately all of the leopard shots utilize VFX, mostly full CG shots, and some enhancements to a puppet on a few close-ups. It’s a big puzzle. We utilized multiple approaches, multiple techniques, collaborating with Rodeo FX to see what produced the best results.”

Filming a faux tree was done on a soundstage in Cape Town surrounded by bluescreen to capture the actor’s dialogue for the lion-hyena stand-off sequence. Drone footage from the location surrounding the original tree site in South Africa was used as background in the bluescreen. Five separate locations were used to make the tree scene work, with Crafty Apes completing the task.

Filming a faux tree was done on a soundstage in Cape Town surrounded by bluescreen to capture the actor’s dialogue for the lion-hyena stand-off sequence. Drone footage from the location surrounding the original tree site in South Africa was used as background in the bluescreen. Five separate locations were used to make the tree scene work, with Crafty Apes completing the task.

Filming a faux tree was done on a soundstage in Cape Town surrounded by bluescreen to capture the actor’s dialogue for the lion-hyena stand-off sequence. Drone footage from the location surrounding the original tree site in South Africa was used as background in the bluescreen. Five separate locations were used to make the tree scene work, with Crafty Apes completing the task.

Discussing his approach to capturing the elephant sequences, Blank explains that he was ultimately relying on dialogue with Richardson on what he wanted and what the trainers thought the elephants could and could not do. “Everything that the trainers said that they could do, they ultimately did not do, and they did some things that we didn’t expect they ultimately would do,” Blank adds. Trainers were initially very confident that an elephant could charge at a moving camera, for example, though this proved to be the opposite for the visual effects team. “You set up a camera rig on the back of the jeep, and the elephant could charge at it as it is driving away. The elephant really didn’t want anything to do with that,” Blank admits. “Conversely, there is a sequence where car is flipped upside down and there is an elephant stalking the occupants. Once the car was flipped over and the elephant is stalking around the car, the trainers were really good about prompting the elephants to move around and change direction and do a lot of stuff. We just rolled the cameras and reset over and over and got great practical stuff.” Much of the visual effects work for Blank and his team involved painting out trainers and prompting sticks.

Production had a real tugboat, and a digital stand-in was created for collisions.

Production had a real tugboat, and a digital stand-in was created for collisions.

Production had a real tugboat, and a digital stand-in was created for collisions.

There were other sequences involving lions and hyenas, but schedule was limited as to what the visual effects team could build digitally, so they relied on real animals and bit of trickery. “There is a lion charge at the top of the show that is practical,” Blank reveals. “That’s a real lion running at the camera. The trainer did a phenomenal job of getting him to run a good 30-meter sprint. So we had a real lion charge in an open field, but what we didn’t have was a dense jungle around him. So we brought in greenery to be what he would charge through. Ultimately, we created supplemental digital greenery and jungle to interact with his charge. Everyone is staring at the real lion and less so at the digital moving greens. It’s taking cues from simple card tricks, ‘Where is the audience looking?’ At the lion and not digital greens.”

“You set up a camera rig on the back of the jeep, and the elephant could charge at it as it is driving away. The elephant really didn’t want anything to do with that. Conversely, there is a sequence where car is flipped upside down and there is an elephant stalking the occupants. Once the car was flipped over and the elephant is stalking around the car, the trainers were really good about prompting the elephants to move around and change direction and do a lot of stuff. We just rolled the cameras and reset over and over and got great practical stuff.”

—Kevin Blank, Visual Effects Supervisor

CG water work and photography on real water dominated the majority of visual effects work done by Zoic Studios. The ghost ship was created digitally and the impact was all CGI and water simulations.

CG water work and photography on real water dominated the majority of visual effects work done by Zoic Studios. The ghost ship was created digitally and the impact was all CGI and water simulations.

CG water work and photography on real water dominated the majority of visual effects work done by Zoic Studios. The ghost ship was created digitally and the impact was all CGI and water simulations.

CG water work and photography on real water dominated the majority of visual effects work done by Zoic Studios. The ghost ship was created digitally and the impact was all CGI and water simulations.

CG water work and photography on real water dominated the majority of visual effects work done by Zoic Studios. The ghost ship was created digitally and the impact was all CGI and water simulations.

The lion and hyena stand-off didn’t involve any CG animal work, but to accomplish the illusion the production had to shoot in five separate locations to make the sequence work. First was the real tree location in Bela Bela, South Africa. “This was the location Ben liked, but we couldn’t bring lions or hyenas here. Ben didn’t like the reverse angles, and it was impractical to shoot a dialogue scene in a real tree. Additional shoots were needed at the lion trainer’s facility. We recreated the environment and filmed where the lions were. We went to an animal park in Johannesburg and filmed a pack of hyenas in their own natural habitat. We found a reverse angle that Ben liked and shot that side of the scene there. Finally, we filmed a faux tree on a soundstage in Cape Town surrounded by bluescreen to capture the actor’s dialogue. When we were at the original tree location, we shot drone footage of the surrounding area to be the background we used in the bluescreen tree section,” Blank remarks. Ultimately,  the five location shoots were necessary to accomplish the scene and visual effects used, including compositing, split screens, matte painting, CG greens and a CG elephant carcass to glue it all together. The work was done seamlessly by Crafty Apes.

Creating believable CGI animals such as leopards proved to be a daunting task for Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Blank and his team. Multiple approaches and techniques were utilized in this effort in collaboration with Rodeo FX.

Creating believable CGI animals such as leopards proved to be a daunting task for Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Blank and his team. Multiple approaches and techniques were utilized in this effort in collaboration with Rodeo FX.

Creating believable CGI animals such as leopards proved to be a daunting task for Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Blank and his team. Multiple approaches and techniques were utilized in this effort in collaboration with Rodeo FX.

“There is a lion charge at the top of the show that is practical. That’s a real lion running at the camera. The trainer did a phenomenal job of getting him to run a good 30-meter sprint. So we had a real lion charge in an open field, but what we didn’t have was a dense jungle around him. So we brought in greenery to be what he would charge through. Ultimately, we created supplemental digital greenery and jungle to interact with his charge. Everyone is staring at the real lion and less so at the digital moving greens. It’s taking cues from simple card tricks, ‘Where is the audience looking?’ At the lion and not digital greens.”

—Kevin Blank, Visual Effects Supervisor

The latter half of the series involved lots of CG water work and tremendous amounts of photography on real water, which dominated the majority of the visual effects work done by Zoic Studios. Says Blank, “We had a real tugboat, and we created a digital stand-in for collisions. There was an equivalent digital tugboat made. The ghost ship was created digitally and the impact was all CGI and water simulations. It was another large time crunch, and Zoic came through with flying colors.”

All of the leopard shots utilized VFX, mostly full CG shots, as well as enhancements to a puppet on a few close-ups.

All of the leopard shots utilized VFX, mostly full CG shots, as well as enhancements to a puppet on a few close-ups.

All of the leopard shots utilized VFX, mostly full CG shots, as well as  enhancements to a puppet on a few close-ups.

In terms of capturing 1920s Montana, Production Designer Cary White and Supervising Art Director Lisa Ward were responsible for researching the look of the time period. “We were handed a pretty comprehensive art department look book and reference images,” Blank says. White and Ward worked around the clock to set dress the streets in downtown Bozeman, and the cars are real and practically staged. “Most of our visual effects work involved sign replacements, bluescreen building replacements and a lot of modern removal, such as satellite dishes and neon signs that shouldn’t be there.” The visual effects team dressed in mountains in certain places where they weren’t noticeably visible, as well as giving the surroundings a bit of a facelift in order to get rid of all of the things that aren’t meant to be seen. “We only had control of two city blocks, so beyond those city blocks would be running modern traffic, so we would frequently have shots with modern cars going back and forth in the background that all had to be taken out. It was a fair amount of clean-up to do all of that,” he says.

There were many shots with real cattle and sheep, with more being digitally added. Outpost VFX were responsible for digitally creating the bulk of the U.S. animals in Montana.

There were many shots with real cattle and sheep, with more being digitally added. Outpost VFX were responsible for digitally creating the bulk of the U.S. animals in Montana.

There were many shots with real cattle and sheep, with more being digitally added. Outpost VFX were responsible for digitally creating the bulk of the U.S. animals in Montana.

“Most of our visual effects work involved sign replacements, bluescreen building replacements and a lot of modern removal, such as satellite dishes and neon signs that shouldn’t be there. … We only had control of two city blocks, so beyond those city blocks would be running modern traffic, so we would frequently have shots with modern cars going back and forth in the background that all had to be taken out. It was a fair amount of clean-up to do all of that,”

—Kevin Blank, Visual Effects Supervisor

There were 2,652 visual effect shots overall throughout the series and an additional 800 final omits, so nearly 3,500 shots were completed in total. The production crew included Addie Manis, who served as VFX Producer, as well as Asmita Bharati and Ron Pogue. Brad Tobler was On-Set Supervisor, and Becky Collins and Laura Williams spearheaded the production team. Adds Blank, “We had 28 people on our staff, and that’s a really big staff.”

More sheep were frequently added to scenes. Nearly 3,500 visual effects shots were completed in total throughout the show.

More sheep were frequently added to scenes. Nearly 3,500 visual effects shots were completed in total throughout the show.

More sheep were frequently added to scenes. Nearly 3,500 visual effects shots were completed in total throughout the show.

There were numerous vendors on the show, including Rodeo FX, who were responsible for the hero CG animals in Africa, while Outpost VFX did all of the U.S. animals in Montana. “There are many shots with real cattle and sheep, but frequently there are many more than were actually there. Many of those shots have additional CG additions to them,” Blank notes. Folks VFX helped to digitally create complimentary animals such as zebras, wildebeest and giraffes, which were peppered into the background shots in Kenya and South Africa. “They also did a CG train that was traveling to Nairobi as well as the Yellowstone lodge. It wasn’t complete by the time they started filming, so in many places the lodge has large CG set extensions. The mountains that surround the location at the Yellowstone location in Darby, Montana are surrounded by the Bitterroot Mountains. However, this was filmed in another location in Butte, Montana, so many shots of the Bitterroot Mountains and hillside are added around the Yellowstone lodge, and that was all Folks VFX.” Crafty Apes helped to create gun battles and CG prosthetics, and Mavericks in Toronto crafted the Bozeman street extensions as well as the Mombasa port. “The backdrop of Mombasa was shot in South Africa, which had very tall mountains, but Mombasa in Kenya is flat as a pancake, so we were basically chopping mountains and getting rid of lots of modern buildings in the background. The government school with the three buildings in the middle of nowhere are CG set extensions, and that was done by Mavericks as well,” Blank explains. BOT VFX helped with additional work, and a number of vendors were brought in at the end, including WeFX, MARZ, Incessant Rain, AB Studios, Blackpool Studios, Impossible Geometry and MAS FX.



Share this post with

Most Popular Stories

THE CONSEQUENCES OF FALLOUT
15 April 2024
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
THE CONSEQUENCES OF FALLOUT
Westworld team brings Megaton Power to game adaption.
SINGING PRAISES FOR UNSUNG HEROES
15 April 2024
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
SINGING PRAISES FOR UNSUNG HEROES
Recognizing ‘hidden’ talent pivotal to making final shots a reality.
AGING PHILADELPHIA FOR THE WALKING DEAD: THE ONES WHO LIVE
03 April 2024
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
AGING PHILADELPHIA FOR THE WALKING DEAD: THE ONES WHO LIVE
The final season of The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live follows Rick Grimes and Michonne Hawthorne.
LAS VEGAS’ SPHERE: WORLD’S LARGEST HIGH-RES LED SCREEN FOR LIVE ACTION AND VFX
15 April 2024
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
LAS VEGAS’ SPHERE: WORLD’S LARGEST HIGH-RES LED SCREEN FOR LIVE ACTION AND VFX
World’s largest high-resolution LED screen immerses audiences.
NAVIGATING LONDON UNDERWATER FOR THE END WE START FROM
05 March 2024
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
NAVIGATING LONDON UNDERWATER FOR THE END WE START FROM
Mahalia Belo’s remarkable feature directorial debut The End We Start From follows a woman (Jodie Comer) and her newborn child as she embarks on a treacherous journey to find safe refuge after a devastating flood.