By TREVOR HOGG
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.
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By TREVOR HOGG
After stepping behind the camera for an episode of Westworld, which she co-created with Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy makes her feature directorial debut with Reminiscence, set in the near-future where war and rising water levels caused by climate change have ravaged the world. Private investigator Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) operates a machine that allows his clients to access lost memories, and becomes obsessed in solving the disappearance of femme fatale Mae (Rebecca Ferguson). Assisting their Westworld colleague are Cinematographer Paul Cameron (Collateral) and Production Designer Howard Cummings (Side Effects), with Visual Effects Supervisor Bruce Jones (The Italian Job) being a new addition to the team.
A hybrid of different genres, Reminiscence is set in Miami, though principal photography primarily took place in New Orleans. “There wasn’t a lot to reference,” notes Cameron. “The important thing is to get the cues for Lisa [Joy]. It’s 2050 and the water comes up three stories. It’s too hot to be outside in the daytime, so people work at night. It’s not blatantly dystopian in any kind of Arthur C. Clarke or Ray Bradbury way. It’s like we had gone through certain digital stages of our lives and have gone back to an analog reality.”
Joy was open to collaboration. “What I found to be refreshing about Lisa was she had a definite point of view and knew what she wanted, but when we actually went to look at locations, I could ask, ‘What do you think about this place?’” states Cummings. “[For example], we ended up shooting in an abandoned Six Flags amusement park called Jazzland, and that wasn’t in the script. What she had written in the script was something akin to an underground tunnel. Because it was such a beautiful ruin of a place, Lisa reshaped the script to make it fit.”
“There is a wonderful opening shot that takes us right off the ocean where we see waves crashing, starts to rise up, and we see the whole opening of this city partially submerged in water. It’s a 3,000-frame shot with multiple levels of composites, and it’s almost all made of whole cloth. We rebuilt Miami completely digitally and raised the water 30 feet. Then we added bridges to places. Everybody gets around in their little boats.”
—Bruce Jones, Visual Effects Supervisor
An emphasis was placed on practical effects including using actual water for the submerged city scenes. “Any set that had water in it looked amazing!” enthuses Cummings. “Lisa had this vision that after becoming flooded, Miami turned into Thailand where people have adapted to living on the water. Next to the amusement park was a boardwalk, and we turned that area into the water market. We had to rewire everything and add lighting as if it was still operational. On the other side of the park was what used to be a recreation of Bourbon Street. I had to take what was meant to be specifically New Orleans architecture, and all of the ironwork and balconies, and turn it into Art Deco South Beach, which is completely different. Our special effects department, run by the father-son duo of Pete and Peter Chesney [Vice], figured out a way to build dam walls so we could flood this entire street. We added bridges and floating docks. Parts of the movie were shot in Miami to tie it to things that we were shooting in New Orleans.” In order to have Hugh Jackman interact with the reminiscence projection in a believable manner, Cameron used a past experience to come up with a solution. “There is a material called Hologauze used for rock concerts, theatrical events and industrial presentations that you project onto it. Once we had the set design for where the machine and tank would go, I had to go through and figure out roughly where Hugh Jackman or Thandiwe Newton would be on any given scene and what their relationship would be to the projection during principal photography.
Not only did I have to shoot the scenes on location, but I also had to shoot the projection angles for projection in Nick Bannister’s office, which happened towards the end of the schedule. You’ve got to know your lens, distance, height and, of course, the machine is off the ground a couple of feet. It’s a combination of doing the math and saying, ‘This feels right.’ There were three 20K projectors rigged on set.”
The requirements of the storytelling lead to the creation of approximately 600 visual effects shots. “The reminiscence machine was Scanline VFX, the water was Rise FX, and Hollywood VFX did simple composites and paint-outs,” remarks Jones. “More important than anything for me is key art. We had great key art that gave us a visual palette in which to work with. Then we did a fair amount of previs and techvis because some of our shots were complicated.”
A lot of conceptualizing went into devising the look of the reminiscence machine, Jones recounts. “Howard built the bottom portion. We had to build the top part and the cables. With all of these things, we want to make sense of it. How does the machine work exactly? Are there electrons being positively charged by somebody’s memory? There was a lot of research that went into it that you don’t actually see in the screen.” The reminiscence machine was affectionately referred to as ‘The Hamburger,’ he adds. “It has a cyberpunk sci-fi look and an hourglass shape. A 24-foot diameter round pedestal sits up on the floor. Then there is another disk that sits on top, and the two grow out. The final look of the hologram was more like beads of light that are volumetric.
“There is a wonderful opening shot that takes us right off the ocean where we see waves crashing, and starts to rise up, and we see the whole opening of this city partially submerged in water,” states Jones. “It’s a 3,000-frame shot with multiple levels of composites, and it’s almost all made of whole cloth. We rebuilt Miami completely digitally and raised the water 30 feet. Then we added bridges to places. Everybody gets around in their little boats.”
Digital set extensions appear in a number of shots. Observes Jones, “A lot of being able to extend a shot and making it feel like it goes for miles involves studying atmosphere and how black levels of buildings become milkier and bluer as they get further off into the distance. We distressed all of the buildings, we added vines and busted out holes in roofs. The villain lives in an old industrial plant that is half underwater. There are rope bridges between things. Life goes on. People just figure it out.
“Our hero takes the train from Miami to New Orleans, and we wanted to use that as an opportunity to show the water has risen so much that even a bridge is now about a foot underwater,” remarks Jones. “The CG train was modeled on the 1940s style of heavy metal engines with more of a modern twist because it’s a parallel reality that has occurred. We looked at Spirited Away, which is a classic Japanese animation film that has those types of visuals. Howard built a train set for us so we could put our actors inside of the car with bluescreen out of the back for the CG water world. Broken and half-sunken windmills allowed us to cut between interiors and exteriors that boom up to show the train going off in the distance.”
Originally, the plan was to have more shots with digital doubles. “For the most part we were able to get away with just the stunt work and the angles,” remarks Jones. “This was a balance of a film noir detective sci-fi love story. There were a number of action sequences, and Hugh is such a great action actor. He just handled it. Our villain jumps from a four-story building literally 20 to 35 feet down to a lower building. We had Hugh on wires on an eight-foot piece of steel deck with bluescreen. At one point in the air, because it was one continuous shot, we took that over as a digital double. We had avatars of all of our key actors, but we didn’t have to blend to them often.” Eels were recreated in CG, he adds. “Hugh confronts a drug lord who has these fish tanks filled with eels. The real eels never left the bottom of the tank because of being timid, so we made some hybrid futuristic eels that stick to the face of Hugh. He had some cues and we reverse engineered the animation.”
“Our special effects department, run by the father-son duo of Pete and Peter Chesney, figured out a way to build dam walls so we could flood this entire street. We added bridges and floating docks. Parts of the movie were shot in Miami to tie it to things that we were shooting in New Orleans.”
—Howard Cummings, Production Designer
Not everything happens above water. “Hugh knocks down the top of the piano lid and it gets somehow caught on Cliff Curtis’ arm,” remarks Jones. “The floor breaks free and we do a cut to a mostly CG shot of the piano going down in the distance in this dark, gloomy and even bigger auditorium. Hugh can’t let Cliff go because he’ll never uncover the mystery of what happened to Rebecca Ferguson. We literally only had six feet or so to show them sinking underwater from below. We would hook up our stunt players, or in this case Hugh and Cliff, to a cable that they would hold onto with their arm and we would pull them across a couple of feet below the surface back and forth in the pool. Then we rotated that in post and added a CG piano to make it look they were sinking 30 feet in this gloom. Rebecca is revealed in the light like an angel and Hugh starts to swim towards her, gets back to the surface and is saved. We had Rebecca do a series of poses, faces and mouthing some of the lines to Hugh in anticipation that she would have to move onto another show. The CG scan of her face tracked perfectly onto the double who was underwater and backlit.”
Jones has particular fondness for the train shot. “That was fun! Whenever we had a chance, we wanted to show off our world without being overly didactic and keeping it in the story. The whole holographic world that we built is something I would hope that effects nerds can enjoy. It feels like you’re interacting and yet it’s not real. The underwater fight is a neat sequence. We did it in such a way that it tells the action of the story, you feel the tension, and it is open enough that you believe that they really did fall into this giant 40-foot auditorium where things are rotted and seaweeds are growing.”
Cameron has a certain philosophy. “Once onboard,” explains Cameron, “I establish a relationship with the production designer and visual effects supervisor immediately, because as you’re conceiving a film with a director you want to make sure that everyone is on the same page with the look and feel. What are going to be the big CG shots? What is that going to feel like? How much of a set do we need to build? How will the color palette translate to wardrobe? We started getting some concept drawings done of what Miami might look like in 2050, and when Lisa said, ‘That’s great,’ we all knew what to do.”
Cummings enjoyed the collaboration that went into making Reminiscence. “I remember standing on set when Hugh Jackman stepped out on the bridge for the first time and said, ‘Wow. This is one of the most beautiful sets I’ve ever seen.’ That was most gratifying. It was such a team effort for everybody.”