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April 06
2022

ISSUE

Spring 2022

SHADOWS AND FOG, WITCHERY AND TRICKERY HAUNT JOEL COEN’S THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH

By KEVIN H. MARTIN 

Images courtesy of east side effects, Inc. 

Digital mimicry was used for more expansive views.

Digital mimicry was used for more expansive views.

Digital mimicry was used for more expansive views.

Digital mimicry was used for more expansive views.

“Visual effects people, by virtue of expectation and experience, almost automatically plan and execute with an eye toward photorealism. But The Tragedy of Macbeth was not about that at all – not in the slightest. The work involved matching to live action, yes, but the live action had this thrilling and unique approach that straddled Shakespeare’s theatrical history on stage with the visual splendor of films like Murnau’s Sunrise and the innovations of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.” 

—Michael Huber, Visual Effects Supervisor 

Shakespeare’s Macbeth has been a frequent subject for cinematic adaptation. Orson Welles labored under poverty-row conditions – shooting on sets left over from Roy Rogers westerns – to fashion the first sound version, released in 1948. Nearly a quarter century passed before Roman Polanski tackled the project, but after that, a bevy of versions appeared on television. In 2015, a lush new Macbeth feature was directed by Justin Kurzel. This exploited the natural beauty of expansive location work, enhanced by significant VFX background replacements by BlueBolt and augmented by Artem’s pyrotechnic floor effects and makeup prosthetics. 

Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, eschews the naturalism of that most recent adaptation. Finding an appropriate tone for the visual effects was principal among the challenges for east side effects, Inc., a New York-based VFX company with credits for directors ranging from Charlie Kaufman, Darren Aronofsky and Ang Lee to Rob Marshall and Peter Berg. 

Having created the bulk of effects on Coen’s previous film (his last to date with brother Ethan), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Co-founders and Visual Effects Supervisors Alex Lemke and Michael Huber boarded the project very early in prep. “Visual effects people, by virtue of expectation and experience, almost automatically plan and execute with an eye toward photorealism,” says Huber. “But The Tragedy of Macbeth was not about that at all – not in the slightest. The work involved matching to live action, yes, but the live action had this thrilling and unique approach that straddled Shakespeare’s theatrical history on stage with the visual splendor of films like Murnau’s Sunrise and the innovations of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. So that was a bit of a rethink – a welcome one, certainly – to bring our thinking in line with Joel’s, and that was the most interesting part of it. We’d enhance what they had done, but also come up with our own creative contributions that blended with production’s work.” 

Visually, the Coen Macbeth intent fell between that of a theatrical presentation and the stylization that marked numerous Expressionist films, requiring VFX to take a more artful and less photorealistic tact. The three witches encountered by Macbeth manifest both physically and as reflections, but not with consistency, enhancing their ethereal presence.

Given the film was being produced independently, very much an issue, so the head-start helped facilitate planning and maximize resources. “A lot of our process involved approaches we’ve used on past projects for Joel,” notes Lemke. “These often consist of looking up various visual references to get on the same common visual ground with him and achieve the exact look he is after.” “At first, Joel just wanted to discuss conceptual aspects and kick around possible approaches,” recalls Huber. “Even without Ethan being involved this time, it was still very much a collaborative process that included Director of Photography Bruno Delbonnel and later on Production Designer Stefan Dechant for every meeting. We prevised a couple of sequences, which later helped everybody see what was needed, and even aided the actors by showing them more about what would be happening beyond the confines of the set build.” 

A rather elaborate technical previs resulted. “It wasn’t anywhere near on the level of what happens on a Marvel show,” admits Lemke, “but it did reveal that nailing things down the way you do on heavy VFX pictures might not be the way this time. When Denzel sees a raven in the apparition chamber, we initially worked out an exact flight path, and production set up speakers on set so you could hear exactly where the bird would be in the room if it were actually flying through instead of being done in post. It seemed like a much more useful approach than just waving a tennis ball around. But then we all realized that when you’re dealing with these extraordinary actors, you don’t want to limit Denzel Washington’s responses by tying him to some prearranged series of beats. So we turned things round, and in the end matched our animation to what he did.” 

Visually, the Coen Macbeth intent fell between that of a theatrical presentation and the stylization that marked numerous Expressionist films, requiring VFX to take a more artful and less photorealistic tact. The three witches encountered by Macbeth manifest both physically and as reflections, but not with consistency, enhancing their ethereal presence.

Visually, the Coen Macbeth intent fell between that of a theatrical presentation and the stylization that marked numerous Expressionist films, requiring VFX to take a more artful and less photorealistic tact. The three witches encountered by Macbeth manifest both physically and as reflections, but not with consistency, enhancing their ethereal presence.

Visually, the Coen Macbeth intent fell between that of a theatrical presentation and the stylization that marked numerous Expressionist films, requiring VFX to take a more artful and less photorealistic tact. The three witches encountered by Macbeth manifest both physically and as reflections, but not with consistency, enhancing their ethereal presence.

After providing numerous VFX shots for the Coens’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, east side effects added both atmosphere and backgrounds to many shots requiring set extensions on the shot-on-stage feature.

After providing numerous VFX shots for the Coens’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, east side effects added both atmosphere and backgrounds to many shots requiring set extensions on the shot-on-stage feature.

After providing numerous VFX shots for the Coens’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, east side effects added both atmosphere and backgrounds to many shots requiring set extensions on the shot-on-stage feature.

After providing numerous VFX shots for the Coens’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, east side effects added both atmosphere and backgrounds to many shots requiring set extensions on the shot-on-stage feature.

Like Welles’ effort, Shakespeare’s misty Scottish moors in Coen’s film were achieved on stage. “There was a lot of discussion with the DP about how to handle atmospherics,” Lemke remarks, “and figuring out how much would be done practically on set [by Special Effects Supervisor Scott R. Fisher]. Nobody wanted to try to do the whole shoot ‘clean’ and then add all the atmospherics in post; it certainly wouldn’t have helped the performances, and been far too complicated to sustain anyway. So it was always going to be a mixture, combining a decent amount of practical atmosphere – through which Bruno’s lighting would be working – and VFX. Most sets were just hazed up to a certain level; our end was often a matter of creating some animated structure within the fog, giving it some life and movement. While we could have gone down the CG simulation route, instead we went with a few 2D-shot elements against black. These smoke elements saw a lot of reuse, slowed up and sometimes inverted, just like they might have tried if doing this back in the 1930s. This approach fit Joel’s tone best.” 

Other scenes requiring visual effects were often handled as simply as possible. The opening – with three witches revealing themselves to Macbeth and uttering a prophesy about his destiny – utilized takes with and without the talent present in order to create the eerie illusion that two of them only manifested as reflections in the water. “A lot of the visuals drew upon a huge online look book,” says Huber. “That kept getting added to by Stefan, Bruno and Joel, so we always had style references to examine together. The Night of the Hunter, directed by Charles Laughton, was a really big reference; Throne of Blood by Kurosawa and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc were others.” 

One of the more expansive faux exteriors, called the crossroads set, utilized the largest stage on the Warner lot. While providing a striking showcase for the art department, it also involved east side’s assistance for a largely ‘invisible’ effect. “With respect to the background for that set, we debated the use of bluescreen,” Lemke acknowledges. “And while that made sense from an efficiency standpoint and that of consistency, it meant there would be an enormous number of visual effects required. Instead, we had a digital matte painting created, which was then printed out and enlarged to serve as a practical background on that stage. That worked fine for most shots, but inevitably the backdrop had droops at certain points. So that meant we had to do some fix-it work on certain shots, but it was a lot cheaper than doing all those screen comps.”

“When Denzel sees a raven in the apparition chamber, we initially worked out an exact flight path, and production set up speakers on set so you could hear exactly where the bird would be in the room if it were actually flying through instead of being done in post. It seemed like a much more useful approach than just waving a tennis ball around. But then we all realized that when you’re dealing with these extraordinary actors, you don’t want to limit Denzel Washington’s responses by tying him to some prearranged series of beats. So we turned things round, and in the end matched our animation to what he did.” 

—Alex Lemke, Visual Effects Supervisor 

VFX also added some subtle animation to the backdrop’s skies in order to better integrate the whole of the environment with the cinematographer’s use of moving lights in the foreground.

The other bit of largely invisible magic involved birds – single creatures seen zooming around Macbeth and a huge gathering that fills the screen during the film’s conclusion. “We used a mix of hero animation and flocking work for the birds,” say Huber. “There were plates of real birds that got mixed with the CG birds for the end shot; the latter was essentially a particle system that got us such a tremendous volume of them.”

Lemke suggested the use of real bird footage to the director. “I worked on a film 15 years back that featured a lot of ravens,” he relates. “Back then, doing a lot of CG birds was difficult and expensive, and we got some really good footage. I was still on good terms with the production company on that film, so I was ableto get access again to what was shot. We knew the views with the single bird coming close to the camera really needed to withstand scrutiny and so would feature the real thing.” Out of 10 bird shots, only half required CG animation.

Shooting was about two-thirds complete when COVID reared its head, shutting the film down. “During the interim, Joel figured out that rather than just keep sitting around wondering what to do during the interim, he should edit the sections that he could,” says Lemke. “So, since we had all the material that was shot at home, Mikey [Michael Huber] and I started to work up temp comps, then refining them for finals. 

Many of Citizen Kane’s Xanadu interiors featured limited set construction that was embellished through the use of matte art. With Macbeth, a similar approach permitted limited art department constructs to be embellished by digital set extensions. East side effects also previsualized several scenes, which helped actors imagine the missing parts of the environment. They were also responsible for creating the various birds seen in the film, as a mix of existing live-action footage and CGI.

Many of Citizen Kane’s Xanadu interiors featured limited set construction that was embellished through the use of matte art. With Macbeth, a similar approach permitted limited art department constructs to be embellished by digital set extensions. East side effects also previsualized several scenes, which helped actors imagine the missing parts of the environment. They were also responsible for creating the various birds seen in the film, as a mix of existing live-action footage and CGI.

Eschewing an entirely practical approach to atmosphere as too prosaic, production opted for VFX atmosphere extensions – largely 2D real-world smoke elements – that provided structure and animation to the Scottish murk.

Eschewing an entirely practical approach to atmosphere as too prosaic, production opted for VFX atmosphere extensions – largely 2D real-world smoke elements – that provided structure and animation to the Scottish murk.

Eschewing an entirely practical approach to atmosphere as too prosaic, production opted for VFX atmosphere extensions – largely 2D real-world smoke elements – that provided structure and animation to the Scottish murk.

Eschewing an entirely practical approach to atmosphere as too prosaic, production opted for VFX atmosphere extensions – largely 2D real-world smoke elements – that provided structure and animation to the Scottish murk.

By doing 4.5K proofs for him, we presented very solid shots for him to cut into his edit. And during this same time, Stefan continued to work on design concepts. His background as an illustrator really helped us tremendously in terms of communicating ideas; we could send him still images of our shots and he’d just draw right on them to show us what he thought would help complete the visual. Normally, it is a race to finalize and finish once shooting has been done, but we were able to take advantage of the delay. Using a small team over a longer period of time let us explore a lot more options, and dig more deeply, than would have been possible under more normal or typical conditions.” 

Huber was pleased how the situation permitted more sustained input from the DP. “Bruno was also very involved in post, more than was possible on Buster,” he reports. “Having that extra time to talk about things, especially as shots were getting finessed at the very end of post, was another wonderful part of all this. Bruno had been very daring with how he shot the live action, but, having worked things out in advance with his colorist and DIT, he was able to push the look even further during the DI. This was all done in service to Joel’s visual ideas for the film, which involved staying true to the play’s theatrical origins, but also utilized aspects of German Expressionist filmmaking. All in all, it was about helping bring something uniquely Coen to the perspective.” 


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