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May 03
2022

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

THE POWER OF INVISIBLE VFX ON FULL DISPLAY IN THE POWER OF THE DOG

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Netflix and Alt.vfx, except where noted.

Benedict Cumberbatch portrays malicious rancher Phil Burbank while Kodi Smit-McPhee takes on the role of his brother's effeminate stepson Peter Gordon in The Power of the Dog. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Benedict Cumberbatch portrays malicious rancher Phil Burbank while Kodi Smit-McPhee takes on the role of his brother’s effeminate stepson Peter Gordon in The Power of the Dog. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

With the exception of the Red Mill Inn, the town of Herndon, Montana was CG.With the exception of the Red Mill Inn, the town of Herndon, Montana was CG.

With the exception of the Red Mill Inn, the town of Herndon, Montana was CG.

While movie critics praised the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Power of the Dog, nothing was ever mentioned about the visual effects work supervised by Jay Hawkins (Wolf Like Me) and produced by Alt.vfx which amounted to over 200 shots. The lack of awareness and recognition is not something that bothers Hawkins. “People ask me, ‘What did you do on The Power of the Dog? That’s not a visual effects film.’ I show them the breakdown and they’re always quite surprised, which makes me happy.” Digital doubles were made to increase the herds of cattle, set extensions were required for the ranch, a town had to be digitally constructed, CG wounds were placed on animals and actors, and the outline of a dog was etched into the rolling hills.

“People ask me, ‘What did you do on The Power of the Dog? That’s not a visual effects film.’ I show them the breakdown and they’re always quite surprised, which makes me happy.”

—Jay Hawkins, Visual Effects Supervisor

Based on the novel by Thomas Savage, the cinematic adaption by Jane Campion (Bright Star) is set in the 1920s Montana where Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) wages brutal psychological warfare against the new bride (Kirsten Dunst) and stepson (Kobi Smit-McPhee) of his brother, George (Jesse Plemons), that unfolds on their family ranch. New Zealand doubled for Montana during principal photography, which was conducted by Ari Wenger (Lady Macbeth) who received an Oscar-nomination for her contributions. Campion had done some extensive scouting in Montana where Thomas Savage lived. “I thought it was going to be alpine trees and big logging forests, but that wasn’t the look or terrain that Jane was going for. She wanted vast and open fields which we found in New Zealand. In terms of changing New Zealand for Montana, we weren’t doing any of that.”

Part of a ranch house was built on a farm in the Hawkdun Range in Maniototo by Production Designer Grant Major (Mulan). “The house had to service all of these different story beats and lines of sight,” explains Hawkins. “On one of early recces there was a small-scale 3D printed model of the house. We walked out to the location, which wound up being used for the film, and placed and rotated the model around in the light and starting thinking about where the rest of the buildings should be placed.” Extensive previs was utilized for the interior shots as there was not a budget for big translights, and the preference was to avoid greenscreen or bluescreen. “We came up with this idea of vinyl backdrops [of which we had three],” notes Hawkins. “I did previs for what we would shoot outside of the window, what would be the set’s field of view and what would be the set’s horizon, given that we had a limited size for the backdrop that could be used outside of the window.”

Rocks were digitally constructed to integrate the railroad tracks into the landscape.

Rocks were digitally constructed to integrate the railroad tracks into the landscape.

Rocks were digitally constructed to integrate the railroad tracks into the landscape.

Rocks were digitally constructed to integrate the railroad tracks into the landscape.

A drone captured aerial plate photography of the ranch. “We didn’t do a whole lot of drone footage on the show, and, on that day, it was the arrival of the governor for the dinner scene,” remarks Hawkins. “We had to make sure that the drone stayed at the right altitude so you could see enough of the top of the house, given the fact only half of it had been built. Some practical snow blankets were laid down while the cowboys are running to the front door. In the rough cut before seeing the shot with the full house and snow, we weren’t sure, but when we started adding snow and post rendered the house, it came alive.” Grant Major produced concept art for the fictional setting of Herndon, Montana. “While scouting, we couldn’t find something that spoke to Jane,” adds Hawkins, “so the only physically constructed building was the exterior of the Red Mill Inn, which was located a couple hundred meters from the ranch house. The rest of the town is CG.” Drone photogrammetry scans were taken of the ranch house and Red Mill Inn. “When we went to rebuild it,” he says, “we were able to take the real-world measurements of photogrammetry scan, marry those with the original concept and build from there with texture reference from the practical build.”

“[T]he only physically constructed building was the exterior of the Red Mill Inn, which was located a couple hundred meters from the ranch house. The rest of the town is CG. When we went to rebuild it, we were able to take the real-world measurements of photogrammetry scan, marry those with the original concept and build from there with texture reference from the practical build.”

—Jay Hawkins, Visual Effects Supervisor

Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Hawkins thought the terrain was going to be alpine trees and big logging forests, but director Jane Campion wanted vast and open fields.

Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Hawkins thought the terrain was going to be alpine trees and big logging forests, but director Jane Campion wanted vast and open fields.

Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Hawkins thought the terrain was going to be alpine trees and big logging forests, but director Jane Campion wanted vast and open fields.

Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Hawkins thought the terrain was going to be alpine trees and big logging forests, but director Jane Campion wanted vast and open fields.

Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Hawkins thought the terrain was going to be alpine trees and big logging forests, but director Jane Campion wanted vast and open fields.

In two different scenes, the shape of a dog was incorporated into the rolling hills. “There was a lot of time spent rotting in vans and discussing things,” recalls Hawkins. “One evening. we climbed this big hill which was being considered as a possible location for the picnic scene. We were watching the sunset on the hills behind the house, and there were these really long shadows that were winding around them. One looked like the face of a witch and another resembled a tiger. Ari and I were sitting in wonder watching the nose of the witch go from being perfect to abstract. We thought, ‘What if the dog was a shadow puppet like that on a hill?’ When I got back from that recce, I worked with my concept artist on a bunch of different versions of the dog. Maybe it would be sculptural or embedded into a rock formation in the hills. However, the shadow throw was so strong and powerful that Jane loved it. We kept refining that concept. You’re trying to sculpt a ridge line that is also a shadow receiver of the ideal shape that you want when the sun is at a certain part of the day. In the end it was a fully 2D effect.”

While the car was practical, the train was a CG asset. “The carriages were based upon the passenger carriages we were able to get for the train station platform shot when they’re arriving at the station,” states Hawkins. “That was captured by the drone unit during COVID-19. We had all of these different options of plates and found that one. Extensive relighting and reworking were required on the plate to get it to work.” Rocks were digitally constructed to integrate the railroad tracks into the landscape. “Initially,” notes Hawkins, “the shot of the people next to tracks was supposed to have nothing around them. But it felt so naked with just the tracks and the cowboys standing there. We wound up putting in the stockyards, a section of town and additional elements until that shot itself felt correct.” Having the proper number of extras was not an issue. “Our bigger crowd scenes like at the railway station were shot pre-pandemic,” he adds, “and when we were on our interiors, New Zealand was in a fortunate situation where there were zero COVID-19 cases.”

“We thought, ‘What if the dog was a shadow puppet like that on a hill?’ When I got back from that recce, I worked with my concept artist on a bunch of different versions of the dog. Maybe it would be sculptural or embedded into a rock formation in the hills. However, the shadow throw was so strong and powerful that [director] Jane [Campion] loved it. We kept refining that concept. You’re trying to sculpt a ridge line that is also a shadow receiver of the ideal shape that you want when the sun is at a certain part of the day. In the end it was a fully 2D effect.”

—Jay Hawkins, Visual Effects Supervisor

Cattle were an important part of the visual storytelling. A cow library was built in Houdini of different groupable bovine behaviors.

Cattle were an important part of the visual storytelling. A cow library was built in Houdini of different groupable bovine behaviors.

Cattle were an important part of the visual storytelling. A cow library was built in Houdini of different groupable bovine behaviors.

Cattle were an important part of the visual storytelling. A cow library was built in Houdini of different groupable bovine behaviors.

Cattle were an important storytelling and visual element. “Before the film had even started, Ari had a cow breakdown for the different seasons and how many would logically be at the ranch,” remarks Hawkins. “For two or three days, we had real cattle with us. I did a massive texture and behavior study with as many witness cameras as I could. Then I worked with my team to construct a bunch of different groupable behaviors so that Chris Gardner, my technical director, could build them into his Houdini cow library. He had some nice anti-collision things, so if one cow stopped another it would walk around them. It took awhile but was quite good. I’m looking forward to another cow film just so we can use it again!” Not everything could be procedural, he adds. “If they were clumped together in a mass, there was always heaps of art direction because we had to integrate it with what was happening in the plate.”

“Initially, the shot of the people next to tracks was supposed to have nothing around them. But it felt so naked with just the tracks and the cowboys standing there. We wound up putting in the stockyards, a section of town and additional elements until that shot itself felt correct.”

—Jay Hawkins, Visual Effects Supervisor

Development of the ranch house, which was practically built and extended in CG.

Development of the ranch house, which was practically built and extended in CG.

Development of the ranch house, which was practically built and extended in CG.

Development of the ranch house, which was practically built and extended in CG.

Development of the ranch house, which was practically built and extended in CG.

The shape of a dog was etched into the natural landscape.

The shape of a dog was etched into the natural landscape.

The shape of a dog was etched into the natural landscape.

The shape of a dog was etched into the natural landscape.

The shape of a dog was etched into the natural landscape.

Only two shots used greenscreen. “The backgrounds were such a high contrast that I wouldn’t be able to get a nice clean roto, and as a result the shots would suffer if I didn’t use greenscreen,” states Hawkins. “Also, the lighting conditions allowed for it.” On set the wounds were done practically. “It was when we were in the edit that we realized more was needed,” Hawkins observes. “That became a fun exercise of Googling things like anthrax and wolf attacks on bears.” The dissection of the rabbit was CG because real animal parts were not allowed on set. As for atmospherics, extensive dust had to be digitally added. “That was fun too,” reveals Hawkins, “because Murray Smallwood, our Compositing Supervisor, was into experimenting with EmberGen as a kit to use inside of Nuke, and he got some wonderful results with that. We put dust into quite a lot of scenes to add life to them.” There were times that the skies had to be altered. “Everything that we did was based on things that were shot,” Hawkins says. “If I wasn’t shooting for visual effects, then I was capturing sky domes, reference out of the windows and time-lapse of clouds to build a library. In that part of New Zealand, we were blessed with so many potentially beautiful skies.”


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