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March 21
2023

ISSUE

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THE ART OF BEING EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of A24.

Six digital artists led by Zak Stoltz, who doubled as a VFX Supervisor and VFX Producer, created nearly 500 shots.

Six digital artists led by Zak Stoltz, who doubled as a VFX Supervisor and VFX Producer, created nearly 500 shots.

Six digital artists led by Zak Stoltz, who doubled as a VFX Supervisor and VFX Producer, created nearly 500 shots.

If you ever wanted to imagine what it would be like to do a multiverse narrative on an indie budget of $25 million and go on to earn four times that in the box office – and seven Oscars – just ask Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, otherwise known as the Daniels, as they have created the biggest hit for A24 that earned 11 Oscar nominations and reignited the career of a former child actor. That movie is Everything Everywhere All at Once, which unlike a Marvel Studios production that has a multitude of visual effects companies and several hundreds of digital artists to produce thousands of shots, a total of six digital artists led by Zak Stoltz, who doubled as a supervisor and producer, created nearly 500 shots. At the heart of the story is a broken mother and daughter relationship, where Evelyn Quan Wang (Michelle Yeoh) must tap into the experiences of her multidimensional selves, guided by her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), to prevent her offspring, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), from destroying the entire multiverse.

Stoltz was supported by Lead Visual Effects Artist and UI designer Ethan Feldbau, as well as Benjamin Brewer, Jeff Desom, Evan Halleck, Kirsten Lepore and Matthew Wauhkonen. In line with the Daniels’ wild imagination is the matter-consuming bagel created by the evil version of Joy known as Jobu Tupaki. “The bagel was difficult because the bagel did a couple of little things in the script, but there were a lot of things that we ended testing out early on and then coming to,” explains Stoltz. “Then it was a process of shaping it from start to finish.

“We all have a background in low-budget music videos and doing effects ourselves, and we’re directors as well. The Daniels wanted to find a way to scale up that process and essentially make a feature illustrating all of the tricks we have developed. Our film has live-action cartoon qualities [like Who Framed Roger Rabbit] to it, so we could get away with a painterly approach of just highlighting drop shadows and doing these topcoat adjustments to our effects work to further meld it into 3D work without needing a render farm.”

—Ethan Feldbau, Lead Visual Effects Artist

One of the hardest visual effects to conceptualize was the matter-consuming bagel created by the evil version of Joy known as Jobu Tupaki.

One of the hardest visual effects to conceptualize was the matter-consuming bagel created by the evil version of Joy known as Jobu Tupaki.

One of the hardest visual effects to conceptualize was the matter-consuming bagel created by the evil version of Joy known as Jobu Tupaki.

One of the hardest visual effects to conceptualize was the matter-consuming bagel created by the evil version of Joy known as Jobu Tupaki.

“We had our own shot tracker system that we set up, and our own principle was to keep everything open,” Stoltz explains. “Everyone had access to everything at all times. We all had special things that we brought, otherwise such a small team wouldn’t have worked because we had to figure out how these puzzle pieces fit together in terms of the way it worked in the scope that we had.” No Nuke was used on the project. “We all had to do the doughnut tutorial for Blender,” laughs Stoltz. “Building out the workflow was a lot of testing that I did with Aashish D’Mello, who was the visual effects assistant editor. Originally, we weren’t meant to be doing a remote workflow, but it ended up that way because of COVID-19. It was figuring out how to build a virtual NAS system and be able to be working off of the same stuff and communicating. I used Airtable to organize everything.”

“We did a test shoot in the Daniels’ garage. Ethan [Feldbau] and I were there, and it was an actual bagel sprayed black on a string. Then we started to experiment with other random configurations that the bagel could be. It was a freeform R&D. After that, we landed on a CG bagel that we made to look as close to the bagel we shot on the string in the garage.”

—Zak Stoltz, VFX Producer/VFX Supervisor

2D solutions were favored. “We all have a background in low-budget music videos and doing effects ourselves, and we’re directors as well,” Feldbau notes. “The Daniels wanted to find a way to scale up that process and essentially make a feature illustrating all of the tricks we have developed. Our film has live-action cartoon qualities [like Who Framed Roger Rabbit] to it, so we could get away with a painterly approach of just highlighting drop shadows and doing these topcoat adjustments to our effects work to further meld it into 3D work without needing a render farm.” The juggling of vegetables by the hibachi chef involved keyframe animation and hand-drawn elements. “The plate was of him pantomiming as if there were all of these vegetables flying around and he was chopping them up,” recalls Desom. “My job was to retroactively figure out what was flying there and fill in the void. It was the first shot that I did! I used the After Effects brush with my mouse, drew a tomato and gave it some highlights, very rough, and then I started animating with a path I drew out and gave it some motion blur. And with a simple bevel and emboss with globalization on it so the highlights would stay in place when it turned, and the same for the shadows. Somehow it worked!”

The hibachi chef scene involved the actor pantomiming juggling and cutting vegetables that were created from keyframe animation and hand-drawn elements.

The hibachi chef scene involved the actor pantomiming juggling and cutting vegetables that were created from keyframe animation and hand-drawn elements.

The hibachi chef scene involved the actor pantomiming juggling and cutting vegetables that were created from keyframe animation and hand-drawn elements.

The hibachi chef scene involved the actor pantomiming juggling and cutting vegetables that were created from keyframe animation and hand-drawn elements.

The hibachi chef scene involved the actor pantomiming juggling and cutting vegetables that were created from keyframe animation and hand-drawn elements.

The hibachi chef scene involved the actor pantomiming juggling and cutting vegetables that were created from keyframe animation and hand-drawn elements.

Working smart within the time constraints was the mandate. “We’re not trying to make the best most photoreal visual effects that you’ve ever seen,” observes Stoltz. “We’re trying to help tell the story.” The Daniels also create visual effects. “They’re not going into the edit without all of these things in mind; that helps a lot because the Daniels are in the room with the editor Paul Rogers, who is a friend of ours.” An example of the directing duo’s expertise with visual effects is a high-speed multiverse jumping shot of Evelyn. “Daniel Kwan would shoot most of those plates on a 4K pocket camera while he was on vacation or visiting anywhere. They were prepping for it months before production began. That was also a pickup shoot where Michelle Yeoh was in Paris. That was a shot that bounced around a few people.”

Footage was captured by frequent Daniels’ collaborator Larkin Seiple. Feldbau states, “Larkin would bend and be comfortable with slight adjustments, or working with us in a way that a DP might otherwise be a little too proud to do.” Editorial turnover was immediate. “We would get early drafts so we could do spotting sessions, but we also got shots that we knew a version of was going to be in the film, and Aashish had access to all of the raw files and would make plates on demand for us,” Stoltz remarks. “We were doing final visual effects shots halfway through the edit. Some of those shots got cut or we didn’t end up doing, but for the most part we made sure that temp effects were usually done on the full plate when we could.” Matte paintings were utilized to create full buildings of the laundromat and IRS building locations, with sets built in the garage of the latter, such as the apartment and Alphaverse RV interior.

Proprietary work was done on the UI that allowed for the animation to have a specific sheen.

Proprietary work was done on the UI that allowed for the animation to have a specific sheen.

Proprietary work was done on the UI that allowed for the animation to have a specific sheen.

“The plate was of [the hibachi chef] pantomiming as if there were all of these vegetables flying around and he was chopping them up. My job was to retroactively figure out what was flying there and fill in the void. It was the first shot that I did! I used the After Effects brush with my mouse, drew a tomato and gave it some highlights, very rough, and then I started animating with a path I drew out and gave it some motion blur. And with a simple bevel and emboss with globalization on it so the highlights would stay in place when it turned, and the same for the shadows. Somehow it worked!”

—Jeff Desom, Visual Effects Artist

Visual aesthetics drove the UI design, which were produced with Adobe Photoshop and After Effects, with the layout done in Illustrator. “For the Alphaverse UI, multiverse maps, phone apps and computer screens, we came up with a working process where Zak would talk to the Daniels about what the basic needs were and then do simple vector line art to do basic timing passes with them,  to plot out what had to be there,” Feldbau reveals. “Then it was passed to me to come up with what the aesthetic should be. Fortunately, this film is incredibly anti-style, and the Daniels weren’t interested in following trends. I dove right in to make some of the most hideous retro computer graphics! There is a logic and thought process to it. What would your mother make if she was trying to design a computer program, opposed to the apocalyptic universe where you could only cobble together Z80 computer chips and 8-bit hardware? We did a lot of proprietary work, so all of that sheen happening on the animation was something that I built. We did not use a lot of off-the-shelf plugins on this movie.”

2D solutions were favored, such as utilizing the confetti effect from Adobe After Effects.

2D solutions were favored, such as utilizing the confetti effect from Adobe After Effects.

2D solutions were favored, such as utilizing the confetti effect from Adobe After Effects.

2D solutions were favored, such as utilizing the confetti effect from Adobe After Effects.

2D solutions were favored, such as utilizing the confetti effect from Adobe After Effects.

“Usually, a director prepares the reference material and says, ‘Copy.’ But this film was allowed to arrive on its own visual style through a logical thought process of figuring out how to communicate the story and what it would be. That’s why Everything Everywhere All at Once has such a unique took to it.”

—Ethan Feldbau, Lead Visual Effects Artist

Unique visual effects styles were established to distinguish the universes from each other. “There was a visual language to the film that we had to adhere to,” Stoltz notes. “The glass-shattering effect and the transformation of Jobu Tupaki is very jump-cutty. The Daniels said early on that they wanted to have an idea of the destructiveness around the bagel. We took a lot of those things that we knew were important to them, and it gave us a structure for the type of visual effects, so there was never a moment where we would look at an effects shot and say, ‘We have to create something out of nothing here.’”

For the verse jumping, Daniel Kwan shot plates on a 4K pocket camera while on vacation, and later on there was a pickup shoot with Michelle Yeoh, who was in Paris.

For the verse jumping, Daniel Kwan shot plates on a 4K pocket camera while on vacation, and later on there was a pickup shoot with Michelle Yeoh, who was in Paris.

For the verse jumping, Daniel Kwan shot plates on a 4K pocket camera while on vacation, and later on there was a pickup shoot with Michelle Yeoh, who was in Paris.

For the verse jumping, Daniel Kwan shot plates on a 4K pocket camera while on vacation, and later on there was a pickup shoot with Michelle Yeoh, who was in Paris.

For the verse jumping, Daniel Kwan shot plates on a 4K pocket camera while on vacation, and later on there was a pickup shoot with Michelle Yeoh, who was in Paris.

There was no look book to serve as a visual guide. “Usually, a director prepares the reference material and says, ‘Copy,’” remarks Feldbau. “But this film was allowed to arrive on its own visual style through a logical thought process of figuring out how to communicate the story and what it would be. That’s why Everything Everywhere All at Once has such a unique took to it.”


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