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April 27
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

JUSTICE PREVAILS WITH THE ARRIVAL OF ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Weta Digital and Warner Bros. Pictures except where noted.

An HBO documentary series could be made about the making of the original Justice League, which resulted in filmmaker Joss Whedon (The Avengers) finishing what Zack Snyder (Watchmen) had started by implementing wholesale changes to the storyline. Flash forward four years later and Warner Bros. provides Snyder the opportunity to complete his vision following a worldwide #ReleasetheSnyderCut campaign, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the entrance of HBO Max into the streaming services wars.

Unlike the theatrical version, the four-hour programming event on HBO Max has a R rating and is showcased in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio rather than 1.85:1. “We all believed in what we were trying to do with Zack,” states Visual Effects Supervisor John ‘DJ’ DesJardin (Sucker Punch). “It was a heartbreaking experience between his daughter’s death and him pulling back on the project. Zack, [producer] Debbie Snyder and I agreed that cathartically we needed to make this right because from our point of view it went horribly wrong.”

When asked if there was a particular storyline and/or character he enjoyed revisiting/introducing the most, Snyder responds, “I think all the characters that we had met briefly in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but especially Cyborg. In a lot of ways, Justice League is a Cyborg origin film. It was a fulfilling experience to explore his origins, as this was the first time many viewers were introduced to this character.” As for why it was important to have a 1.33 aspect ratio, and how did that impact the composition and framing of shots, Snyder explains, “The answer for me is two-fold. First, I am a big fan of the 1:43 aspect ratio and was simply obsessed with the concept of a 1.43 IMAX release for this film. Second, I had designed that over the course of the three films that the viewer’s experience would go from 2.35, the widescreen anamorphic Man of Steel, to the widescreen and 1.43 of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and finally ending in this heroic square of Justice League. It ultimately affected the framing as everything is viewed through a square, an entirely different framing aesthetic. For example, if you look at the shot of Wonder Woman standing over the arrow at the shrine of the Amazons, you can see the square framing to its fullest.”

Making his cinematic debut is Darkseid, who was to be the overall antagonist for a trilogy of Justice League movies.

“I think [I enjoyed reintroducing] all the characters that we had met briefly in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but especially Cyborg. In a lot of ways, Justice League is a Cyborg origin film. It was a fulfilling experience to explore his origins, as this was the first time many viewers were introduced to this character.”

—Zack Snyder, Director

Approximately 2,700 visual effects shots were produced over a period of seven months with the returning vendors being Scanline VFX, Weta Digital and DNEG. “It is not fair to assess that tally as new shots,” notes DesJardin. “There is a subset within the 2,700 where we’ve already done a lot of work on but never finished. Then there was work that we did finish, but Steppenwolf is in that shot and we’re going to change him out completely for the old design because it was much better. Or this shot is completely done, but it’s the wrong aspect ratio, so what do we have to do to make it the right aspect ratio now? It gets weird fast.”

A major task was de-archiving assets and shots. “Going back to that ended up being like a cul-de-sac because we had a limited archive at Warner Bros.,” states DesJardin. “[VFX Producer] Tamara Watts Kent and I went directly to the facilities and asked, ‘How much do you have backed up?’As it turned out Weta Digital had kept a lot of stuff online for years, so we had a lot more cached than we thought over there. Bryan Hirota had a harder time at Scanline because they didn’t have a lot of the finalled [cut] in that state backed up. We had to play a lot of games to get the 1.33:1.”

The whole movie needed to be addressed as the narrative structure was completely different. “It was well laid out,” observes DesJardin. “We still had a lot of postvis that we had gotten through and the designs for Steppenwolf, Darkseid and DeSaad were nearly final. The Junction Rescue [where the Flash saves Iris West from a car crash] was far along in terms of animation and DNEG had a lot of Cyborg shots when he’s flying over rooftops learning about his powers that were probably 80% done before we pulled the plug on them.”

The advances in technology since 2017 compensated for the inability to do additional performance capture for the alien antagonists of Darkseid, DeSaad and Steppenwolf because of the coronavirus protocols. “Both Scanline and Weta Digital have robust facial animation systems,” says DesJardin. “We did get other reference for Ciarán Hinds doing Steppenwolf because Zack fleshed out the conversation, and the same thing with Darkseid and Ray Porter. You could have witness cameras in the ADR sessions. We didn’t have anything near the reference I would normally try to get, but I wasn’t as worried as I would have been years ago when we were starting this process.”

Weta Digital looked after the History Lesson sequence that depicts the ancient invasion by Darkseid, who was defeated by combined forces of Atlanteans, Amazonians and mankind. “The History Lesson was cool because it was always supposed to be this big, ancient, sci-fi The Lord of the Rings scene – that’s the way Zack presented it to us,” remarks DesJardin. “The Tunnel Battle [by Scanline] was supposed to be much scarier, like Alien. They go into the chamber, which has these eggs being used by Steppenwolf to turn the kidnapped humans into Parademons. It is creepy, goopy and gross. That’s what we wanted to do but didn’t have anything photographically to support it. We stilled used the Tunnel Battle that we had before as a template and added stuff back in, like Cyborg’s dad getting kidnapped by the Parademons. The confrontations between Steppenwolf and Wonder Woman are more severe. We established a rule a long time ago that Flash can’t just hyper speed, grab somebody and take them away – he would kill them if he did that. Our Flash is killing Parademons by pushing them with a lot of kinetic force, and saving the scientists by guiding them out and trying to keep the debris from hitting them.”
Weta Digital created the History Lesson, which recounts Darkseid attempting to conquer Earth for the first time.

Ben Affleck (Batman), Gal Gadot (Diana Prince/Wonder Woman) and director Zack Snyder. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The forensics involved in making Zack Snyder’s Justice League were nightmarish and made this the hardest movie that I’ve ever work on! There are many scenes that I love all the way through it because I’m glad that people can finally see them. The beginning of the movie is so unlike anything anybody had seen…”

—John ‘DJ’ DesJardin, Visual Effects Supervisor

To avoid visual confusion during the History Lesson, Weta Digital had a simple beam being emitted from the rings worn by Green Lanterns.

“There is a subset within the 2,700 where we’ve already done a lot of work on but never finished. Then there was work that we did finish, but Steppenwolf is in that shot and we’re going to change him out completely for the old design because it was much better. Or this shot is completely done, but it’s the wrong aspect ratio, so what do we have to do to make it the right aspect ratio now? It gets weird fast.”

—John ‘DJ’ Des Jardin, Visual Effects Supervisor

Unlike Aquaman, where characters could speak underwater, an air bubble is created for the conversation between Aquaman and Vulko in Zack Snyder’s Justice League. “That exchange between Aquaman and Vulko in the air bubble was one of the first things that we shot back in 2015,” remarks DesJardins. “With any of these DC movies, Zack brought the cartoon physics into the real world. He developed an aquatic language that you would use as a shorthand if you didn’t want to make an air bubble to get a message across – that’s in the movie, too.”

The Battle of Pozharnov, which is the final showdown with Steppenwolf, was overhauled. “It’s a good, big fight for all of them to have as it plays to their strengths as heroes with powers,” says DesJardin. “That’s what you get with this version. Flash doesn’t fight Steppenwolf. He is trying to do the thing he needs to do to help Cyborg. Cyborg is meant not to fight Steppenwolf, but to break the Mother Boxes apart. Steppenwolf is a badass. You don’t want to engage him unless you can, so the characters who can fight him do and keep him at bay. Everyone has a purpose in the fight.”

A holdover from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the premonition that Bruce Wayne has of the future, referred to as the Knightmare. “The appearance of the Joker was something we talked about, and Zack made a deal to shoot that version of the post-apocalyptic scene,” remarks DesJardin. “It shows where the story was going to go two movies later.”

The concluding scene has Bruce Wayne having an encounter with Martian Manhunter. Explains DesJardins, “We actually shot Ben’s side of the end of the movie at the glass house, and Zack is on the record of wanting to have a John Stewart Green Lantern, but the studio had some other ideas. Zack liked the idea that Martian Manhunter is General Swanwick, because he has been in all of the movies up and until Justice League.”

A major reveal occurs in a hallway where Martha Kent actually turns out to be Martian Manhunter. “Zack didn’t want to have this goofy transition where it looks weird from one to the other. He described it as being more tasteful and magical,” says DesJardin.

“The hardest thing is a boring answer and is something that I never expected,” reveals DesJardin. “The forensics involved in making Zack Snyder’s Justice League were nightmarish and made this the hardest movie that I’ve ever work on! There are many scenes that I love all the way through it, and I’m glad that people can finally see them. The beginning of the movie is so unlike anything anybody had seen, and I’ve always loved it that way. I’m glad that the Themyscira Battle is there with all of the cool stuff back in it, like the notion of the Amazonians sacrificing themselves in the Penetralium. They hit the self-destruct button, throw it into the ocean with themselves trapped inside, and try to kill this thing that is going to kill everybody.

Ray Porter provides the voice of Darkseid.

Spikes appear when the armor of Steppenwolf is in full battle mode.

“The appearance of the Joker was something we talked about, and Zack made a deal to shoot that version of the post-apocalyptic scene. It shows where the story was going to go two movies later.”

—John ‘DJ’ DesJardin, Visual Effects Supervisor

“That great notion of self-sacrifice is back in the movie,” asserts DesJardin. “Cyborg’s dad sacrifices himself so that they can also beat this thing. I love Steppenwolf grabbing the horses by the reins and throwing them across the battlefield. I’m glad that we got to do the third act this way and fine tune it as well. The fighting gets taken up a notch than when we were originally doing it.”

The origins and role of Cyborg gets expanded upon in Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

 

Adopting the original design of Steppenwolf and having to replace him was a major reason why the total number of the visual effects shots amounted to 2,700.

 

Steppenwolf battles the Amazonians as he attempts to lay claim to one of the three Mother Boxes kept hidden on Earth.

 

Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) enter the lair of Steppenwolf in an effort to prevent the synchronization of the Mother Boxes.

 

DNEG had to create a full CG environment for the Wayne Hanger as well as the hologram. (Image courtesy of DNEG and Warner Bros. Pictures)

 

Serving as the main mode of transportation for the Battle of Pozharnov is the Flying Fox. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

 

Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) attempts to restrain Superman (Henry Cavill) with the Lasso of Truth during the Park Battle, which was the responsibility of Scanline VFX. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

 

The original design of Darkseid was brought to cinematic life by Weta Digital. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

 

The role of Steppenwolf was expanded upon to include dialogue scenes with DeSaad and Darkseid. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

 

A key speed cue and lighting source is the lightning generated by the Flash (Ezra Miller). (Image courtesy of Scanline VFX and Warner Bros. Pictures)

Pieces of debris were art directed to create trajectories of impact in order to emphasize the velocity of the car crash. (Images courtesy of DNEG and Warner Bros. Pictures)

Ray Fisher in his performance capture is transformed into his cinematic persona Cyborg for the Park Battle. (Images courtesy of Scanline VFX and Warner Bros. Pictures)

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