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October 15
2020

ISSUE

Fall 2020

The Resurgence and Revitalization of Practical Effects

By IAN FAILES

Legacy Effects crafted a robotic arm for the character George Willard (Paul Schneider) in Tales from the Loop. (Photo by Jan Thijs, courtesy of Amazon Prime Video)

The Jakob robot was both a practical on-set puppet built by Legacy Effects and a digital creation made in VFX for Tales from the Loop. (Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime Video)

You might be able to do anything in CG, but in recent times there has been a major resurgence in the audience and filmmaker demand for physical effects. VFX Voice looks at the state of play in this field of filmmaking with a range of creature and makeup effects practitioners, special effects supervisors and model and miniature makers.

 

THE STATE OF PLAY IN PRACTICAL EFFECTS

The diverse range of work covered by practical effects – animatronics, prosthetics, puppetry, mechanical effects, pyrotechnics and more – means that artists need to rely on a varied range of approaches to achieve them. Several innovations have led the charge in the past few years.

“3D printed clear materials are fantastic for visors and helmets, and sintered metals have now become cost-efficient,” identifies Legacy Effects Co-owner and Animatronics Effects Supervisor Alan Scott, whose recent experience includes overseeing robotic arms and robots for Tales from the Loop. “Also, new robotic servos have really transformed a lot of what we’re able to do with animatronics. We could have 12 of them working and moving for the robotic arm in Tales and it didn’t affect dialogue once.”

Weta Workshop Co-founder and Creative Director Richard Taylor concurs, stating that “over 60% of all that we make today utilizes robotic manufacturing technology.” The studio has had a hand in several practical robot and costume builds in recent films such as Ghost in the Shell, I Am Mother and The Wandering Earth.

Special Makeup Effects Artist and Supervisor Jason Hamer of Hamer FX, which delivered full-scale and miniature water creature builds for Wendy, also agrees. “I think the use of digital artwork and 3D printing has been the biggest game-changer. The level of detail and precision that can be achieved is astounding. Mechanical parts that used to take weeks to machine can be produced at a fraction of the time and labor cost.”

Silicones, a makeup effects material used for some time, have come a long way as another go-to material, adds Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. (ADI) Co-founder and Character Effects Artist Alec Gillis, who counts Bright and It as the studio’s latest highlights. “For a while, there weren’t really paints that would stick to silicone, but now the quality has just skyrocketed.”

Gillis’ ADI partner, Tom Woodruff, Jr., offers up a slightly different change in the state of play in creature effects, where studios with extensive experience in the area have been called upon to tackle direct digital design work. “Director Michael Dougherty had us and other studios do just the designs for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which started as clay sculpts and ended in ZBrush.”

What has changed, too, is the use of digital techniques to drive what gets built practically, as Creature and Special Makeup Effects Supervisor Neal Scanlan’s studio undertook for several recent Star Wars films. “I decided the thing to do was to flip it the other way around and to use digital technology as a huge assistance in the builds. It liberated us in a way that we could never have done during the ‘analog’ period.”

For Hitchcock, Howard Berger helped transform Sir Anthony Hopkins into the famous director. (Image courtesy of Howard Berger)

At KNB EFX Group, partners and Special Makeup Effects Artists Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger have been busy with large projects like The Orville, The Walking Dead and Space Jam: A New Legacy, while also approaching the management side of the business in new ways. “I wanted to diversify a little bit about nine years ago,” says Berger, “so I started department heading, where I run the whole makeup and effects department. It’s been a great and new experience.”

A feature of the creature effects experience is being able to have something on set during production, with DDT Efectos Especiales Co-owner and Special Effects Makeup Artist David Martí noting that directors have made a concerted effort to incorporate practical creations further into the actor experience. “On A Monster Calls, J.A. Bayona had the creature there and he would even do a special introduction to it for everyone. It wasn’t just another animatronic thing, it was another actor.”

Lead Application Artist Christopher Nelson, left, actor Joel Edgerton and Makeup Effects Artist Joe Badiali work on Edgerton’s orc makeup for Bright. (Image courtesy of Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc.)

Like the creature effects specialists, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Isle of Dogs modelmaker Simon Weisse has been utilizing 3D printing in his miniatures work, as well as 2D milling. “We are using 3D printing with liquid resin, and also doing 2D milling. You can very quickly cut shapes in metal, wood or whatever you need.” Weisse notes, however, that he uses 3D printing and 2D milling only as part of a wider range of available tools among other handcrafted techniques.

Fellow modelmaker Mike Tucker from The Model Unit, with credits on projects such as Good Omens, Doctor Who and Gerry Anderson’s Firestorm, identifies improvements in high-speed digital cameras as a major change, too. “We were constantly being pressured to move away from film, but the fact was that until ARRI came up with the Alexa, there was no camera that really did the job the way that my DP and I wanted. The Alexa was a game-changer.”

For special effects supervisors, leaps and bounds have come in areas such as computer control. “We use computers to control hydraulics, pneumatics, computerized winches – right across the board,” says Special Effects Supervisor Chris Corbould, who recently worked on No Time To Die, one of several James Bond films on which he has overseen the special effects. “Computer control gives us consistency. Once you press the button, it’s going to do exactly the same thing every time.”

The Rise of Skywalker character Babu Frik was a rod puppet operated on set by greenscreen-clad puppeteers, and also operated by its voice-over artist, Shirley Henderson. (Image copyright © 2019 Lucasfilm Ltd)

Creature and Special Makeup Effects Supervisor Neal Scanlan, left, with Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker director J.J. Abrams discussing the mono-wheel droid D-O. (Image copyright © 2019 Lucasfilm Ltd)

Weta Workshop Co-founder and Creative Director Richard Taylor works on Geisha molds for Ghost in the Shell. (Image courtesy of Weta Workshop)

The use of a rotisserie rig on Terminator: Dark Fate by Special Effects Supervisor Neil Corbould, VES, exemplifies that same precision in engineering now common in practical effects. “A lot of those rigs just rotate on one axis, but I wanted to make it a little bit harder for myself and have it tilt in as well,” he says. “It took eight months to design and build and weighed upwards of 85 tons.”

Special Effects Supervisor Jeremy Hays even had to craft an actual flowing river for The Call of the Wild after he had previously supervised a raging storm on The Equalizer 2. “The river contained approximately 355,000 gallons of water,” he says, “and had a water circulation rate of approximately 75,000 to 80,000 gallons per minute.”

Water was also a requirement for Special Effects Supervisor Joel Whist on Bad Times at the El Royale. Here he was called upon to deliver a large indoor rain sequence. “We filled the entire soundstage with 42 rain heads. We were dropping 2,000 gallons a minute on the floor, and for all that water we had to design the set so it was sloped and [the water] re-circulated.”

For The Call of the Wild, Jeremy Hays orchestrated the building of an actual flowing river set for shooting scenes involving panning for gold, swimming and canoeing. (Image courtesy of Jeremy Hays)

WHERE DIGITAL AND PRACTICAL MEET

Certainly, digital visual effects have edged their way into being the predominant effects solution today. But that doesn’t mean practical has lost its place in filmmaking. Instead, the common theme noted by the experts VFX Voice talked to was that early discussions between the visual effects and practical effects teams always lean towards simply what works best for the story and the shot.

Practical effects practitioners have also been conscious of a feeling out there that CG could accomplish the things that they had been doing for so many years, and cheaper. However, in the past few years it has become clearer that both approaches have different aesthetic and cost benefits.

“I have always seen the strong want and desire to use practical effects in filmmaking and that the trend seems to swell and fade with the various styles and genre of movies that are being created at the time,” observes Hays. “With any creative, ever-evolving industry, fluctuations in the methods of telling the story are to be expected, and really should be welcomed.”

“Some areas have certainly changed over the years, such as miniatures,” acknowledges Taylor. “This was the largest department at the Workshop for the first 20 years of our company, but due to the versatility of digital solutions for architecture in film today our miniature department has become smaller, relative to our other departments. Thankfully, many directors continue to enjoy working with practical effects on set, and I believe that this will be an ongoing aspect of filmmaking for many years to come.”

“I think we’re probably stronger now than we have been in many years,” declares Neil Corbould, whose recent projects include the latest Mission: Impossible films. “To work on these films is a practical effects person’s dream; they want Tom Cruise to do as much in-camera as possible. There is a lot pushed into practical effects, and my input is greatly appreciated by them and the visual effects supervisor as well.”

“I’m excited anytime I hear somebody say that there is a resurgence in practical effects,” offers Woodruff, Jr. “Well, it’s not really a resurgence, some people say, it’s just a balancing out, but I think it is a resurgence.”

Scanlan is also adamant about the advent of a new wave of practical effects. “I was of the opinion that in so many ways practical effects had run their course. But then when I got that call from J.J. Abrams, it was clear to me that there was a way to make a number of magical ingredients come together for the new Star Wars films.”

In fact, the on-set collaboration between visual effects and practical effects is incredibly close, attests Chris Corbould, who has also recently been concentrating on second unit directing during production. “I always get together with the visual effects people and we discuss what the best way to do it is and what would look best rather than just, ‘Oh, it’s got to be CG.’”

Special Effects Supervisor Chris Corbould on set during the making of Spectre. (Image courtesy of Chris Corbould)

Mike Tucker’s The Model Unit provided a large-scale model of a missile silo, missile and a surface hatchway for Good Omens. (Image courtesy of Mike Tucker)

For Bad Times at the El Royale, a completely interior stage was rigged with rain machines by Joel Whist’s team to provide continual on-set rain. (Image courtesy of Joel Whist)

Scott shares that belief, and Legacy Effects has certainly borne witness to that collaboration recently on projects such as The Mandalorian, where both a puppet version and digital version of baby Yoda were used, and on Tales from the Loop where the VFX team, says Scott, “embraced what we could provide knowing full well that there were going to be times where we’re not going to be able to do what is required.”

“You know,” shares Berger, “my first question is always, ‘Who’s your VFX supervisor?’ Sometimes they have to call the shots on everything, and I want them to. I might be on a project for six months, but they’re often on for a lot longer and they have to live with the decisions that get made.”

Neil Corbould’s rotisserie rig designed for the aerial fight sequence in Terminator: Dark Fate. (Image courtesy of Neil Corbould)

Modelmaker Simon Weisse in front of the 18th-scale hotel constructed for The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Image copyright © 2014 Fox Searchlight)

Special Makeup Effects Artist and Supervisor Jason Hamer works on a makeup effects appliance for a Die Antwoord music video. (Image courtesy of Jason Hamer)

DDT Efectos Especiales’ Montse Ribé and David Martí work on a character from Crimson Peak. (Image courtesy of David Marti)

Meanwhile, Whist sees practical work as being the source of authenticity in a scene, an approach he followed for the blood squib hits in season one of Altered Carbon. “There is just something about the weirdness of shooting on set that makes a blood hit look a bit more random, but of course they are often augmented as well.”

“My first job on any production is to point out what miniatures can offer that digital can’t, whether that be the quantity of shots that we can deliver, or just the raw, organic nature of a practically-achieved effects sequence,” outlines Tucker, saying his experience is that sometimes people see miniatures and just assume they’re digital, even when they’re not.

Hamer argues that a practical approach can also bring unexpected results, such as the solution found to illuminate an area of the ‘Mother’ creature in Wendy. “To do this we attached a series of LED panels on a fiberglass core and sealed in caulking. The wires were sealed in silicone tubes and ran up the control rods to the surface where they connect to a laptop running a lighting program.”

For Weisse, and several other modelmakers, his miniature work often has significant crossover with the physical production on a film, as it did on the stop-motion Isle of Dogs. “They built around 200 sets at seventh scale and then we had about 35 sets done at much smaller scale. They both worked in different ways.”

Martí’s experience on A Monster Calls was that an original push to construct things practically segued into a mostly CG solution. However, what had been built served as extensive practical reference for the actors. “It helped create the mood for the scenes, and it was great they could get in there and touch it. We were happy to be helping to make that magic on set, but it is the case that 95% of the shots in the film were CG.”

“Most people just want it to be awesome,” comments Gillis. “They want it to be big and cool. People do get really excited if you say, ‘We used practical,’ but then if you also say, ‘It’s embellished with digital,’ people also get very excited about that. I think the blend is really where everything elevates beyond the limitations of any one technique.”


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