By CHRIS McGOWAN
Images courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.
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 CHRIS McGOWAN
Images courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.
When Union VFX started talking to the Poor Things team in March 2021, they were instantly intrigued. “Projects like this don’t come around often,” says Simon Hughes, Creative Director/VFX Supervisor. Indeed, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ award-winning film inhabits its own category.
Poor Things is both a surrealist, sci-fi-edged fantasy and a darkly comic adventure. It starts out in a stylized Victorian-era London where Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) has been brought back to life by the brilliant, eccentric scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). In doing so, he equips her with an embryo’s brain in another of his mad experiments (he already had stitched together animals to create a strange menagerie of hybrids like a pig-dog and a duck-goat), and becomes her guardian and father figure. Bella evolves from a naïve woman-child to a totally unconventional young woman eager to learn about the world and explore her budding sexuality. She runs off with rakish lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) on a picaresque tour of Lisbon, Alexandria and Paris. Bella is free from the constraining prejudices of her time, and her experiences inspire her to stand for liberation and equality and making the world a better place.
The wildly imaginative plot is reflected in the audacious, striking visuals. “We really got to flex our creative muscles collaborating with the amazing creative team to produce such a stunning film. We had to up our game to meet the extremely high level of detail on the set designs and the expectations of a true master director at the peak of his artistic vision. Everyone involved is at the top of their game and pushed even further to create the truly unique world that is Poor Things,” Hughes comments.
The movie, which won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, has affinities with Pygmalion (the education of an innocent, unrefined young woman) and The Island of Dr. Moreau (a mad scientist creating hybrid creatures), not to mention Terry Gilliam’s fantastical, dystopic black comedies. Searchlight Pictures is the distributor and Stone the co-producer of Poor Things, which has a Tony McNamara screenplay based on Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel. The crew included Robbie Ryan (cinematography), Shona Heath and James Price (production design), Holly Waddington (costume design) and Gabor Kiszelly (Special Effects Supervisor). Union VFX handled the visual effects.
Before Union’s first meeting with the filmmakers, Hughes recalls, “We were already coming up with ideas for the design, such as the use of inks and paints in water tanks and shooting slow-motion to create surrealistic liquid-sky effects that had cloud-like properties. We also looked to the art world for further inspiration and uncovered artists using these techniques in practice. This led to the production designers’ discovery of Chris Parks, whose liquid photography experiments were then incorporated into the skies.” He adds, “From the get-go, it was a very creatively collaborative project, and we were heavily involved throughout pre-production.”
“VFX are a key piece of the puzzle in making almost all films, and this project is a great example of how they can be part of getting such an imaginative vision onto the screen.”
—Simon Hughes, Creative Director/ VFX Supervisor
The shoot happened in the midst of the COVID pandemic restrictions, which required additional planning and logistics, but in August 2021 the visual effects team went to Origo Studios in Budapest for five weeks of pre-production and test shoots. “Principal photography started with the filming of the ship LED sequences at Origo and then moved to OneScrn Studio in Dunakeszi, Hungary, to shoot the miniature sequences. The shoot wrapped in December with Union providing on-set supervision throughout as required,” says Tallulah Baker, VFX Producer.
The movie’s look was rooted in Surrealism and elaborate period dressing, with hyper-realistic embellishment. “We worked closely with Production Designers Shona Heath and James Price. Shona was at the center of the overall look and design. She has a particular inclination towards Surrealism, [and went] into a very intricate level of detail with particular attention to color palette and how it is used to create worlds. From the early stages of development, we collaborated with Shona to develop her ideas and help envisage how they could be translated into achievable VFX,” Hughes says.
VFX played a part throughout in finishing the details. Dean Koonjul, DFX Supervisor, comments, “Each set had a significant VFX component, and merging our work into the overall design and palette of the sets was integral to building the worlds [of the film] – we had to maintain consistency with the original photography, as well as emulating and integrating the various film stocks used.” Some filming involved custom-made Ektachrome 35mm. Koonjul notes, “Yorgos and Robbie [Cinematographer Robbie Ryan] both come from the world of experimental photography and are keen explorers of different film stocks, formats and their usage in storytelling, art and design. The Ekta footage had a high contrast and saturation feel in comparison to the rest of the stocks used, which added to the look development of scenes such as the reanimation sequence and London Bridge.” Black-and-white and color film were both used, which posed another challenge. “We had to be mindful of our work – in particular around Baxter’s residence and the hybrid animals we created that feature in both black-and-white and color sections of the film,” says Koonjul. “We had to design the VFX to work across both formats.” Koonjul adds, “Working with and combining the various color stocks used on the project did present some challenges, and we needed to adjust our internal color pipeline for the more bespoke requirements of this film.”
Ryan also used a number of extremely wide-angle fish-eye lenses, including 8mm and 4mm lenses, that helped create the surrealistic world of Poor Things. Hughes notes, “The use of these lenses can have both an immersive ‘goldfish bowl’ effect, as well as a disorientating or alienating effect, as the perspective becomes so extreme and distorted from what is usually considered normal or real.” He adds, “These elements mirror Bella’s experience of the world in which she is contained and play into the overall feeling of almost living in a bubble. [This is] added to the almost psychedelic visual language used across the film.”
Scenes of Baxter bringing Bella back to life “were shot with dynamic lighting and projections on set. We added ethereal, fluid-like chromatic aberration and lighting effects across the glass above Bella’s face,” Hughes explains. This was intended to mirror the fluid, liquid language used across the production design. “We also added the electrical currents and Tesla arc effects seen traveling from the mechanics within the room to Bella and randomly throughout the room to create a sense of chaos,” Hughes says.
Dr. Baxter’s residence involved an extensive set-build for the location. “So, most of what you see here was in-camera,” Koonjul notes. “However, we did enhance the environment where required with VFX, including sky replacements and background set extensions, not to mention the addition of some furry and feathery residents at the property.”
To create those residents, “Yorgos was keen to try and find as much of an in-camera and 2D solution-based approach as possible to avoid the potential scrutiny and flaws of using full CGI – he wanted to embrace the random physical nuances of animal movements that are inherently difficult to capture in CG,” Hughes says. “We felt that if we embraced the unpredictable nature of the animals, we could find a way to literally stitch live-action elements of different animals together.”
Tim Barter, On-Set VFX Supervisor, explains, “Our solution was to overshoot and come back with multiple takes and multiple animals, then test different combinations to see which animals and moments worked well when combined together. This started with a series of test shoots with an animal trainer.” When it came to creating hybrids, some proved more difficult than others due to a combination of their independent movements, the camera moves and distorted lenses. “There was a significant degree of rebuild, and some CG was used to help with the joins. 3D scans of the animals were used to help us align the different elements and create the textures and scarring where they join together. The scar designs were based on paint-over concepts that we showed Yorgos for approval beforehand,” Hughes says. “In this way, we were able to preserve the naturalistic movement of the real animals while still creating a more fantastical layer of ‘strangeness’ to them in keeping with the film’s tone. The animals presented some of the most significant challenges in the show, but we all felt that using real animals as much as possible produced a far more effective end result which was incredibly surreal and, at times, hilarious.”
Union supplied LED screen footage of the skies and oceans for all the scenes on board the ship, which were developed in-house based on art department concepts, according to Barter. For other scenes in Paris, Lisbon, London and Alexandria, static printed backdrops were used on set, which were later modified and enhanced in VFX to incorporate additional layers of detail and movement to the skies.” Hughes notes, “The choice to shoot LED proved a good one as the sets inherited their ‘natural’ lighting, but this was also challenging in some places as the LED footage needed [to be] recomposed to further augment ocean and sky movement – especially when sailing. We also had to address the inevitable fixes that come up when shooting this way: moiré, seams between screens, shooting offscreen due to the sizes achievable, etc.”
There were various alterations of London, according to Koonjul. “We added CG zeppelins based on art department designs, as well as miniature scale firework displays that were generated using Nuke particles and comp effects to maintain the feel and blend into the surreal miniature set builds used on the shoot.” The main bulk of the London work centered around Bella’s jump from the bridge, which involved combining miniature sets and miniature scale matte paintings with miniature scale water effects and smog. “We also added boats, chimney stacks and lights into the miniature set-builds used on the shoot, all of which had to maintain the scale and feel as though they were real effects used on set,” says Koonjul. “We worked on a number of sky replacements adding a stylized and surreal, textural movement to them.”
The Lisbon and Alexandria scenes were filmed as studio shoots on interior sound stages. “The set-builds were designed around the idea of landing at their ports; they also needed to have very different feels to demonstrate the journey between them,” Hughes says. “The Lisbon architecture revolved around a central square leading to a dock and ultimately onto a balcony with a view onto the entirety of the port. For all these areas there were significant set-builds at Origo that we needed to extend up from, [such as] a miniature-scale cable car system, liquid skies, greenery and floral details, ocean extensions and CG ship masts rocking on the water and birds in the sky, all ultimately leading to the big reveal from the balcony which was a 2.5D matte-painted extension of the model set.”
Hughes continues, “Alexandria and Paris had very similar challenges but very different sets. Alexandria involved a much heavier CG build component to achieve the big pull-back reveal of the combined set-build, miniature model and CG worlds as one, as we follow Bella down the stairs after witnessing the horrors of the slum below. There are many similarities of challenges of Lisbon, Alexandria and Paris, but each location had several extra layers of variation to help differentiate them.” Hughes adds, “Paris involved set extensions up and out from the buildings around the brothel. We also needed to take the matte-painted backdrops out and bring them back with additional signs of life and a more defined Eiffel Tower under construction in the distance.”
Another VFX highlight is Alfie’s mansion, which is one of the standout examples of combining miniature set-builds with CG, matte painting, plates of the cast, birds, trees, colorful smokestacks, flags from masts, all of which needed to remain in our miniature surreal colorful world,” Hughes describes, adding, “There is a series of shots showing the surreal ferry boat traveling between locations. This again was a miniature build that we needed to augment and integrate with the live-action plates and CG miniature-scale water.”
For Hughes, meeting the challenges on Poor Things created rewards beyond the project. “There were two fundamental challenges on the show: creating the hybrid animals – combining real animals and dynamic camera movements – and building a world that maintained a miniature surrealistic feel while also feeling photoreal. The latter is a contradiction in a way, making it incredibly difficult to know when it is working well and how far to go, but a really fun challenge that pushed us to set a new bar for the work we do at Union,” Hughes offers. “VFX are a key piece of the puzzle in making almost all films, and this project is a great example of how they can be part of getting such an imaginative vision onto the screen.”