By TREVOR HOGG
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.
By TREVOR HOGG
Visual effects have proliferated far beyond Hollywood productions, with talented filmmakers and digital artists in China, South Korea, Mexico, Germany, Australia and India collaborating to produce a wide range of stories. “One of the major changes that I’ve seen over the past four to five years is the model changing from outsourcing to insourcing,” states Sudhir Reddy, Senior Vice President & Head of Studios, Canada & India at Digital Domain. “Almost every major post house has set up in India physically or virtually. India is playing a big part in work sharing. There is so much content being created that there is work for everybody. The domestic studios are thriving doing local and outsourcing work.”
Visual effects for films and television are common nowadays in China. “A lot of small productions and even online series have access to visual effects in China,” remarks VFX Supervisor Samson Sing Wun Wong. “The use of AI and game engines, and virtual LED screen stage shooting, are allowing visual effects companies to finish a huge task with less time with more contained teams. The size of a company will no longer determine the quality of work; it eventually will change the way companies are structured and formed. There is always demand for visual effects, but it’s really about how a company and the artists are able to readapt themselves with new technologies and skillsets within the new platform. That’s the future.”
“The central question as a visualist is what method will be the best way to express that core emotion of a character or to drive the narrative forward,” notes acclaimed South Korean director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden), who digitally simulated fog, extended a mountaintop set, had CG ants crawling over the face of a corpse and inserted crime scene photographs onto a wall when making Decision to Leave. “Visual effects is one of the important tools. But you have to be cautious and only use visual effects when it’s absolutely necessary. Visual effects have great advantages, as directors can imagine executing things that were not possible in the past, and it cuts down on the production costs, too.” In Decision to Leave, Detective Hae-joon has a fatal obsession with murder suspect Seo-rae. “The one scene that I would want the audience to never miss out on is the finale where we see the whirlpool that is made on top of the tomb of Seo-rae,” remarks VFX Supervisor Lee Joen-hyoung, who has collaborated with Park ever since Oldboy. “That whirlpool or vortex is something that I wanted to put in different places throughout the film because it represents Hae-joon’s emotional entrapment to Seo-rae. When he makes coffee, the steam that comes out produces a little vortex movement, and when Hae-joon is scattering the ashes of the dead mother of Seo-rae, they swirl around him before going away, as if it’s Seo-rae’s presence.”
Renowned Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) achieves his ambitious visions with the help of Visual Effects Supervisor Samson Sing Wun Wong. “My first show with Zhang Yimou was Shadow in 2018, which is stylized like a traditional Chinese ink painting and has a lot of visual effects,” he explains. The partnership has gone on to produce Cliff Walkers, Snipers and the upcoming Under the Light. “In the last five years, the movies that Zhang Yimou directed are all invisible, seamless visual effects, requiring lot of environment extensions, effects elements and paint-outs.
My role requires a close collaboration with the action director, art director and cinematographer to find the best methodology to achieve the best results. We shoot lots of references and avoid right-in-your-eyes visual effects, but help the storytelling in a subconscious way. Visual effects are no longer about fanciness, it is about precision.” A creative challenge was the car chase in Cliff Walkers. “In one or two cases where certain driving actions were slow, we did a full background replacement, but for the majority we managed this by increasing the speed of the snow,” explains Adam Hopper, VFX Supervisor at House of VFX. “For each shot requiring a little more danger, stunt vehicles were used to perform the action. We used these quite successfully as animation reference, but since the stunt vehicles were slightly larger and heavier, we had some alterations to consider in getting the weight distribution correct.”
Getting award circuit nominations for Best International Feature Film and Best Visual Effects is the German remake of All Quiet on the Western Front. “Visual effects did little things in the background where we had planes chasing each other to illustrate that even when they are in the barracks resting, there is still a war going on in the skies,” explains Production Visual Effects Supervisor Frank Petzold, who reunited with German director Edward Berger after working together on the television series The Terror. “We had to do research as to what planes existed at that time and the same goes for guns.” A tank travels over a trench. “That was one of my favorites,” Petzold notes. “I come from the film days of multiplane downshooters and optical printers. To make it look absolutely photoreal, I wanted to use as much photographic stuff as I could get and stay away from CG models or particle simulations for explosions. The tanks going over the trenches is traditional A and B plates. We shot the foreground, and literally on the day we rushed to our special set where there was a narrower trench dug out like a car pit, we rested the camera. Then we did a quick video lineup and had the tank drive over the camera. In CG, we had to fix a lot of stuff on the closeup shots, because when you look under the tank, the wheels and chains were slightly different.”
Whether it be creating the impression the entirety of that Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was captured in one continuous take or depicting a graphic grizzly bear mauling in The Revenant, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu astutely uses visual effects, and in the case of Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths he utilizes them to illustrate the mental state of Mexican journalist and documentarian Silverio Gama. “The movie navigates between memories, reality and surrealism,” notes VFX Supervisor Guillaume Rocheron. “You can’t be too stylized because you never want the audience to understand where you enter a visual effects sequence. It’s constantly mixed. When Silverio Gama meets with his dad, they go into the bathroom and start to talk. Over one cut you enter the surrealism where Silverio, who is a 50-year-old man, now has a kid’s body and adult head; he feels like a kid in front of his dad but is still his own self. You have to be mindful of driving things as photographically as you can.” Joining the project during post-production was VFX Supervisor Olaf Wendt. “The sequences involving the digital babies were some of the most challenging work, especially doing a digital human in these long shots that come so close to the camera. There are interesting things, like the opening shot of Silverio’s shadow racing over the desert, just because Alejandro wanted this shadow to communicate the personality of his protagonist. It’s something that I’ve never seen before.”
Becoming an international sensation is the epic action drama RRR [Rise Roar Revolt] by Indian director S.S. Rajamouli, which is a cinematic spectacle that blends CG animals, major action set pieces and musical numbers within the era of colonial British rule of India. A signature moment is Gond Tribal leader Komaram Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) literally battling a tiger in the jungle. “The tight closeup was a benchmark for us when doing the actual tiger asset,” states VFX Supervisor Srinivas Mohan. “I needed to have a log mark on the right side of face that was previously on the left side. We had to build an extra blend mark there and add more detail to it. We did extensive previs for it mainly to determine the speed of the tiger as it can run 50km and he can only do 10km. We added some obstacles because the tiger was reaching him too quickly.” The reflection in the eye of revolutionary leader Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan Teja) as he stands in front of the police station was captured in-camera. “I genuinely thought we were going to be here for a while,” admits Pete Draper, CEO and Co-Founder of Makuta VFX. “But it’s Charan’s eye, a live background, one shot. There are no layer comps and cinematographer K.K. Senthil Kumar got it literally in a single take. Here’s the fun thing: There is no camera paint-out at all. But what there is is digital crowd extension. The guys standing on the hill and the falling watchtower man were digitally added in as well as a few extra flags.” Miniatures were utilized for the bridge explosion and rescue. “The festival area where Ram Charan comes running out chasing the guy, a small piece of road on top of the bridge, two pillars and a full-size train car [for a few shots] were actual set pieces,” explains Daniel French, Producer, VFX Supervisor and Co-Owner of Surpreeze. “But other than that, there was a fairly large miniature that was built with fully functional train cars at 1/8 scale. Because the eight train cars had to be set on fire and blown up, we had to build them in metal to get the proper weight. When you have fire elements you need to construct them as large as possible, but still keep it at a practical scale so you can lift the train cars up, do resets and work with it in a practical manner.”
Australian director George Miller has exacting standards, and for Three Thousand Years of Longing a collaboration was forged with VFX Producer Jason Bath and VFX Supervisor Paul Butterworth to bring to life the time-traveling genie Djinn and his unique relationship with British narratologist Alithea. “Effects simulations play a big part in the shaping of the Djinn’s character, with many different aspects requiring their own look development pathway,” Bath explains. “The Djinn Bottle Vortex that shows his body being ripped apart is the most complex, but he’s also defined by the seductive vapor of his kiss, the energy from his fingertips as he ‘reads’ books and the aura he creates when he ’tunes’ the modern world’s noise into music. The Djinn is subtly scaled up throughout the film with both 2D and in-camera trickery. The scene where the Djinn first appears to Alithea, oversized and squashed into the hotel room, was achieved with classic scaled photography techniques using a 1/5th miniature hotel room set and motion control to film Alithea separately on the full-sized set.” One of the vendors contributing to the 596 visual effects shots was Fin Design + Effects. “The hero Djinn’s legs were originally meant to be filmed on set, and in an effort to match George’s vision for their unique look became full CGI in every frame across over 100 shots,” explains Roy Malhi, VFX Supervisor at Fin Design + Effects. “We created a feathers and scales system in Houdini specifically for this challenge, enabling us to have intricate control and flexibility to achieve the 4K closeup realistic feathers we were required to render.”
Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva is part of a proposed trilogy and cinematic universe known as Astraverse, created by Indian director Ayan Mukerji, that had visual effects support provided by DNEG and ReDefine totaling 4,200 shots. “We shot the climax first, which was the most complex part of the film, and that gave everyone a deep learning,” remarks Jaykar Arudra, VFX Supervisor at DNEG. “Interactive lighting was the biggest thing that was required because fire has to move to various places and different energies are casting so much light. Designing the entire shot and ensuring that so much of the interactive light was happening correctly was the largest part of the on-set stuff. We programmed these large LED screens.” The cosmic energy powers were effects driven. “Even fire didn’t look like real fire,” remarks Viral Thakkar, VFX Supervisor at ReDefine. “It had a lot of details, like galaxy particles. We call it love fire so the color is different, and the embers are connected to the galaxy, so they had to be floaty. We could use nothing from practical fire.” Arudra adds, “Even when you do concept art of a frame, it’s not the entire story. We would take one scene and say, ‘Let’s develop the look of this power based on this concept.’ Once we start putting effects layers into that, it develops more and more and gets refined. The love fire had gone through iterations of development of how exactly we need to add the color and cosmic particles into the fire.”
An ambitious production was a modern interpretation of Wolfgang Mozart’s classic opera The Magic Flute by German director Florian Sigl. “The musical aspect of the production and how it transports into the visual effects were quite challenging in a lot of aspects, but as creative partners and working closely with the client we were able to provide bespoke solutions throughout every step of the project,” states Max Riess, VFX Supervisor at Pixomondo. “The dress simulation of the Queen of the Night took the longest time to develop. We extended the real dress of the singer with five to 10 giant CG cloth ribbons moving in sync with the voice track. We’d never done anything like this before, and it took some time to get the setup right.”
“One of the major changes that I’ve seen over the past four to five years is the model changing from outsourcing to insourcing. Almost every major post house has set up in India physically or virtually. India is playing a big part in work sharing. There is so much content being created that there is work for everybody. The domestic studios are thriving doing local and outsourcing work.”
—Sudhir Reddy, Senior Vice President & Head of Studios, Canada & India, Digital Domain
One year of look development was spent on the Giant Snake, which went through several iterations. “We had versions with dragon-like horns and venomous but, in the end, for colors we decided to create an animal native in its environment with sand colors and realistic animal features. The jaw and teeth anatomy are inspired by several other big creatures, like a shark and crocodile. For a giant snake, it would not make sense to have two venomous fangs. Another challenge was the movement, to find the right pattern, speed and behavior so that the viewer would see the snake as not out to catch and eat the prince, but to taunt and scare him.”
The Korean War drama The Battle at Lake Changjin cost $200 million to make and grossed $931 worldwide, making it the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time. A trio of directors was responsible: Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam, while the extensive digital augmentation was handled by VFX Supervisor Dennis Yeung. “We created two movies in 10 months, and the films also covered a large number of CG,” states Yeung. “In addition to the huge workload, most of the shooting sites were in the suburbs, and we shot many night scenes. There were many details that had to be worked out before shooting scenes, such as the model of the car, and the clothes of the soldiers had to be historically accurate.”
Among the visual effects vendors recruited was DNEG. “There was one plate element for the opening scene that was shot on a crane with the actor, and we had to insert that into the flying camera and make him work in the overall CG world,” remarks Lee Sullivan, VFX supervisor at DNEG. “You see a column of 100 soldiers in uniform marching out of a landing ship, and they built just the big doors as a front. A couple of real tanks and jeeps are driving as well as 20 tents, which is a big build, but at the same time, we had to extend that crane move, transition into a drone shot and extend everything around the beach. Then you cut down to more surface-level shots where we are extending out the tent village, vehicles and planes flying overhead; meanwhile, the burning Inchon is always in the background.” Being able to balance stylization and realism was not an easy task. “I remember there was this tank fight, and you’re following the bullet in a bullet-time type of shot that was full CG,” recalls Philipp Wolf, the film’s Visual Effects Executive Producer and Executive-in-Charge, Corporate Strategy at DNEG. “That was interesting to get it right – to create a stylized shot that ultimately needs to feel real, which is hard when you’re doing something a camera can’t do. But it was neat in the end.”