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April 18
2023

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

CASTING A ‘GOOD-LOOKING’ ELEPHANT FOR A HOLLYWOOD PARTY IN BABYLON

By OLIVER WEBB

Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

The team at ILM was really methodical about their approach to creating a realistic elephant for the film.

The team at ILM was really methodical about their approach to creating a realistic elephant for the film.

Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is an epic tale of the excessive and extravagant antics of numerous characters in 1920s Hollywood. Industrial Light & Magic provided the bulk of the visual effects for Babylon, with 377 visual effect shots being created for the film. “The creation of that insane world fell into visual effects, and that is where we came in,” says Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Cooper. “We had done another movie for Paramount, which is how we found our way onto this project. We started talking with Damien pre-pandemic.”

“The most important thing was casting an elephant that was quite real. … We built this elephant and cast it from Billy the elephant who is at the L.A. Zoo. We went down there and took some photographs and did some motion studies… We put that in front of [director] Damien [Chazelle] and he gave us notes about trying to make sure that it fit into his movie. … This idea that during this insanely raucous time, one of the gags of this Hollywood party was to bring in an elephant. The elephant is used to create effect when they use it as a distraction during the party scene when they need to sneak an actress out of the back door. That’s the jumping off point in this larger story and helping Damien tell this really large tale.”

—Jay Cooper, Visual Effects Supervisor

Katherine Farrar Bluff was Senior Visual Effects Producer on the project. “I was the Senior Producer on Babylon along with producer Keith Anthony-Brown, and we had a full production team on at our San Francisco studio helping to manage the work,” Bluff says. “As the project qualified for a California film tax credit, the work was all done in our San Francisco studio, whereas we typically end up partnering with our global studios on projects. We did the majority of the VFX work, but we also partnered closely with production’s in-house artist, Johnny Weckworth, who did a ton of work.”

Jimmy Ortega as an Elephant Wrangler.

Jimmy Ortega as an Elephant Wrangler.

According to Cooper, one of Chazelle’s biggest concerns was regarding the photoreal quality of the CG creatures. “He didn’t want the audience to be taken back from that in any way. That was his primary concern. He had questions about approach and how to shoot things, but primarily he was reaching out because he was really concerned about getting a good-looking elephant,” he says.

In terms of creative references, Cooper notes that Chazelle had an extensive deck of images that were helpful for evoking time and mood, which he shared with the VFX team, as well as a large list of silent pictures. “Some of those informed some of our design decisions along the way, but primarily the most important thing was casting an elephant that was quite real,” Cooper details. “My feeling was rather than us trying to make an amalgam of different animals that we sourced, we should try to hone in on one thing that we felt that we could really match, and that became our compass for making decisions about texture and lighting and sort of proportion and things like that.”

Diego Calva as Manny Torres.

Diego Calva as Manny Torres.

“We put our heart and souls into making this elephant spectacular. We shot and gathered extensive references. Even the breed of elephant was really important; we had to determine if it was an African or Asian elephant. We were looking all around Northern California for sanctuaries to try and go and shoot the reference. The team was really methodical about how they planned this build-out from the get-go. To see how successful it is in this party sequence, where it fits seamlessly in there, I think that was such an amazing pay off.”

—Katherine Farrar Bluff, Senior Visual Effects Producer

Continues Cooper, “We built this elephant and cast it from Billy the elephant who is at the L.A. Zoo. We went down there and took some photographs and did some motion studies and all those sorts of things. We put that in front of Damien and he gave us notes about trying to make sure that it fit into his movie. Maybe a bit sadder, more juvenile, for example. We took the tusks off it. This idea that during this insanely raucous time, one of the gags of this Hollywood party was to bring in an elephant. The elephant is used to create effect when they use it as a distraction during the party scene when they need to sneak an actress out of the back door. That’s the jumping off point in this larger story and helping Damien tell this really large tale,” Cooper reveals.

Industrial Light & Magic created 377 visual effect shots for the film.

Industrial Light & Magic created 377 visual effect shots for the film.

“We put our hearts and souls into making this elephant spectacular,” Bluff add. “We shot and gathered extensive references. Even the breed of elephant was really important; we had to determine if it was an African or Asian elephant. We were looking all around Northern California for sanctuaries to try and go and shoot the reference. The team was really methodical about how they planned this build-out from the get-go. To see how successful it is in this party sequence  where it fits seamlessly in there, that was such an amazing pay off.”

700 extras were required for the battle scene, and additional CG fighters were digitally added by ILM.

700 extras were required for the battle scene, and additional CG fighters were digitally added by ILM.

The crew wanted to shoot in locations that were tied to the story.

The crew wanted to shoot in locations that were tied to the story.

“We shot in The Orpheum Theatre [in L.A.] that was built for the City Lights premiere, which I thought was amazing. It’s an amazing theater. We used that for the interior for where they show The Jazz Singer. In that theater we did this really large crane shot where we are stitching together multiple plates for the crowd. Of course, we have to add The Jazz Singer onto the screen. Some of the complicated stitching was sometimes tough, but it was really exciting to be in places that existed at the same time and to be shooting in locations that felt like they were really tied to this story,”

—Jay Cooper, Visual Effects Supervisor

“One of the things we decided early on was that we were going to build a puppet, and the puppet was basically four people inside of a gray cloth with a proxy head for the elephant,” Cooper explains. “That would be the thing that we walked through the hotel that later became the interior location for the Wallach party. Doing that in terms of approach was fantastic because all of the actors have a great understanding in terms of physicality. Damien was able to direct the puppeteers to give some level of performance. It wasn’t everything that you’d expect from an elephant, but at least in terms of scale, position and timing, to get that to work with our camera, and it paid off brilliantly.”

Motion picture magazines from the time period were also an important part of research.

Motion picture magazines from the time period were also an important part of research.

“We also did a lot of really beautiful seamless 2D work and some fantastic matte painting work. Enhancing the Wallach mansion, for example, was a big design process with Damien. He was very particular about what it was going to look like and the kind of a silhouette it had against the sunset sky, but it turned out beautifully and sits really nicely in that sequence. There was lots of de-modernization work that we did throughout that was also really successful,” Bluff says.

Discussing the collaboration with Cinematographer Linus Sandgren, Cooper explains that it was a working relationship on set. “He was asking us questions to make sure that we had what we needed. It was in that vein when he gave us passes and elements when we requested them. Damien didn’t really want to change process for visual effects. Almost as a matter of process, it was our role to fit into a production that was very traditional in its construction. There is no greenscreen or bluescreen work in the strict sense in this movie. At one point, we wrapped the buck with greenscreen just in order to do some matting so we could get our CG elephant to work. There’s no greenscreen shoot per se, no Stagecraft shoot. Damien and Linus wanted to go to real places and locations,  and they wanted to have a very grounded and real feeling for the movie.”

The crew shot in The Orpheum Theatre in L.A. that was built for the City Lights premiere.

The crew shot in The Orpheum Theatre in L.A. that was built for the City Lights premiere.

Another particularly challenging sequence to capture was the battle scene. “There is a massive battle between 700 extras on the day, which we helped fill out with more CG fighters. That was really exciting,” Cooper says. “There was a lot of interesting camera work that we were able to help seam together multiple plates. This was a location in L.A., and there were elements of this environment which we had to clean up. There’s an undercurrent of that kind of thing across the movie, moving things that weren’t period appropriate or got in the way of the story. In this case, we cleaned up the grass and moved things that weren’t meant to be there. There is a spear that flies through the air that was on a cable, and removing the cable and re-creating the tent were required. A lot of it goes to extending and supporting the style that Damien has about long takes and swish pans, and almost crafting the movie like it’s set to music, where there is a rhythm to it that he is very specific about.”

“One of the things we decided early on was that we were going to build a puppet, and the puppet was basically four people inside of a gray cloth with a proxy head for the elephant. That would be the thing that we walked through the hotel that later became the interior location for the Wallach party. Doing that in terms of approach was fantastic because all of the actors have a great understanding in terms of physicality. Damien was able to direct the puppeteers to give some level of performance. It wasn’t everything that you’d expect from an elephant, but at least in terms of scale, position and timing, to get that to work with our camera, and it paid off brilliantly.”

—Jay Cooper, Visual Effects Supervisor

The fictitious Kinoscope Pictures stands in for Paramount Pictures.

The fictitious Kinoscope Pictures stands in for Paramount Pictures.

Concludes Cooper, “Obviously, L.A. is not what it was in 1928 or 1932. We shot in the Orpheum Theatre that was built for the City Lights premiere, which I thought was amazing. It’s an amazing theater. We used that for the interior for where they show The Jazz Singer. In that theater we did this really large crane shot where we are stitching together multiple plates for the crowd. Of course, we have to add The Jazz Singer onto the screen. Some of the complicated stitching was sometimes tough, but it was really exciting to be in places that existed at the same time and to be shooting in locations that felt like they were really tied to this story.”



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