VFX Voice

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.

Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.

Subscribe to the VFX Voice Print Edition

Subscriptions & Single Issues


September 08
2020

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Women All-Stars Power the Immortals of THE OLD GUARD

By TREVOR HOGG

Within four weeks of being released on Netflix, The Old Guard had been seen by 72 million households. The script for the action-fantasy was written by Greg Rucka, the creator of the graphic novel about a group of immortal mercenaries hunted by a nefarious pharmaceutical company as they attempt to find and protect a new member. Filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) partnered with actress/producer Charlize Theron (Monster), along with a strong contingent of female cinematic talent  including Editor Terilyn Shropshire (Miss Bala), Co-Cinematographer Tami Reiker (High Art), Costume Designer Mary Vogt (Crazy Rich Asians), Set Decorator Jille Azis (Inferno), Special Effects Supervisor Hayley Williams (Dumbo) and Visual Effects Supervisor Sara Bennett (Ex Machina).

Sara Bennett, Visual Effects Supervisor

“I loved working with Gina,” states Bennett. “She’s passionate and she knew what she wanted. It was a great experience working with so many female HODs, and I hope we start to see more of this on productions.”

Charlize Theron portrays Andromache of Scythia (aka Andy) who has the ability to regenerate her wounds. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Originally, the number of visual effects shots was looking to be around 450 going into the shoot but this increased to a total of 835. “Time runs out when you’re shooting or locations change, as we all know,” explains Bennett, “and this happened with the scenes that take place in Merrick’s [Harry Melling] penthouse. We found a location in the city of London perfect for these scenes – top floor offices with huge glass windows looking out across London, but unfortunately, we weren’t able to shoot within the building, so we could only shoot the exteriors there. We had to find another building that we could put greenscreen outside at ground level and one that felt like a good substitute for our penthouse; this grew the shot count straightaway. Gina was keen to discuss the vendors that we were going to use. I hadn’t worked directly with Image Engine before, but because of their work on Logan, we thought of them straightaway for the regeneration. We also brought on board strong teams at MR. X and Milk VFX, plus we had a fantastic in-house team.”

Clockwise from top: Matthias Schoenaerts (Booker), Charlize Theron (Andy) and Luca Marinelli (Nicky) are a band of immortal mercenaries. (Photo: Aimee Spinks. Image courtesy of Netflix)

“The regeneration was the main focus initially, and we were keen to start researching and concepting this during the early days of pre-production,” remarks Bennett. “We got concept artists to work straightaway with Gina and we discussed where she wanted to take it. Gina liked to see references as much as possible, and so I was able to reassure her how those shots were going to work. We found a time-lapse of a wound healing on a finger that shows you the healing process over six weeks. It gave us the level of detail we needed to make it as real as possible. The difficulty was we had to squeeze in this regeneration within just a second or two over a series of shots. When we see the regeneration in the Kill Room at the beginning of the film, the audience knows what is happening to The Old Guard characters. This scene was a great way to introduce us to the fact they are immortal. You don’t need to see that level of detail every single time they’re shot or wounded. What we did was to show the various stages over a few shots. In the first shot you start to see the wound close and the blood is beginning to congeal. Two shots later you see the pink scar tissue growing over and the scab forming and so on.”

Milk VFX was responsible for the digital set extensions for the Afghanistan military base Camp Leatherneck, which was built on a private airfield in the U.K. (Images courtesy of Milk VFX and Netflix)

“[For the Afghanistan military base Camp Leatherneck] a set was built at a private airfield in Wentworth, U.K. They poured tons of sand everywhere to recreate the desert environment. We had huge 20 x 40-foot bluescreens on telehandlers that we could drive on and off the set where needed.”

—Sara Bennett, Visual Effects Supervisor

Milk VFX created a 2.5D matte painting to build a whole village and harbor for when Quynh (Veronica Ngo) gets placed inside an iron tomb that is subsequently thrown into the water. (Images courtesy of Milk VFX and Netflix)

“The house that we actually shot in for the penthouse scenes had glass windows from floor to ceiling 270 degrees, so we had extensive greenscreens set up. Suddenly this house turns into a green box. Everything was reflective, so there were a lot of crew reflections painted out.”

—Sara Bennett, Visual Effects Supervisor

Not all the wounds were entirely CG. “Squibs were important to have on set so people could react to them,” remarks Bennett. “They looked great and gave us good reference for additional blood hits added in visual effects. Gina loved the look of them. The makeup department added residual blood on set. and we planned the placements of our wounds around this with Gina in advance so we were maximizing time when we got into post. There was a three-stage prosthetic setup for the stomach regeneration. It gave us the placement, size and scale that Gina was after and helped the actor with his performance and interaction. We kept the center green as this was all going to be CG anyway. We had to do a lot of work on the initial prosthetic to get it to work in the short with our CG.”

Image Engine was responsible for the regeneration work. “I researched tons of medical websites, from blast wounds to broken bones and gunshots, to find out what every stage of what a healing wound should look like,” continues Bennett. “Image Engine set up a customizable, procedural wound-healing system in Houdini. It would go through realistic phases of healing for the individual component, based on the references and medical research we gathered.”

A fight takes place on a flying cargo plane between Andy (Charlize Theron) and Nile Freeman (Kiandra Layne), with the former showcasing her superior skills against the U.S. Marine. “It was great,” states Bennett. “I loved the wound on the elbow. When Nile kicks Andy in the leg, it breaks and we get to see the bone re-heal. We couldn’t have the bone tear through the cloth, so we had to show it healing under her jeans. It looked very comical in the early versions, as if her leg was bending like rubber. It was a balance of seeing a couple of joints healing back into place and a little bit of strangeness, and we put a little twist here and there. We went through quite a few iterations on that shot. We could never use the word ‘gore’ because Gina wasn’t about that. She wanted it real. Her take on it was, if it really is that bloody in real life, then fine, but it can’t be gory for the sake of being gory.”

An underwater shot of Quynh (Veronica Ngo) with a half-built headpiece that was captured in a studio tank with scuba divers. (Images courtesy of Milk VFX and Netflix)

“When we see the regeneration in the Kill Room at the beginning of the film, the audience knows what is happening to The Old Guard characters. This scene was a great way to introduce us to the fact they are immortal. You don’t need to see that level of detail every single time they’re shot or wounded. What we did was to show the various stages over a few shots. In the first shot you start to see the wound close and the blood is beginning to congeal. Two shots later you see the pink scar tissue growing over and the scab forming and so on.”

—Sara Bennett, Visual Effects Supervisor

Andy (Charlize Theron) severs the hand of an adversary during the church fight. (Images courtesy of Milk VFX and Netflix)

“I researched tons of medical websites, from blast wounds to broken bones and gunshots, to find out what every stage of healing wound should look like. Image Engine set up a customizable, procedural wound-healing system in Houdini. It would go through realistic phases of healing for the individual component, based on the references and medical research we gathered.”

—Sara Bennett, Visual Effects Supervisor

A flashback shows Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), the immortal companion of Andy, being placed into an iron casket, which is subsequently dropped into the sea; the eyes and mouth are left exposed causing her to continually drown. “The actual environment was a bluescreen with a couple of people and the Iron Maiden,” remarks Bennett. “Milk VFX created a 2.5D matte painting to build the whole village and harbor.” There is an underwater shot of Quynh. “We shot it in a tank at a studio with the half-built headpiece and scuba divers. Veronica was brilliant. She had to squish in underneath it and put her head in. We got the shots that were needed and in visual effects added more bubbles, depth and particulate.” Milk VFX also did the environment for the Afghanistan military base Camp Leatherneck. “A set was built at a private airfield in Wentworth, U.K.,” Bennett adds. “They poured tons of sand everywhere to recreate the desert environment. We had huge 20 x 40-foot bluescreens on telehandlers that we could drive on and off the set where needed.”

Minimal wire work was used in the movie, such as for the church rectory fight when Andy acrobatically defeats a group of soldiers. “There was a wire for when she jumps from a platform and for the hanging scene in front of the castle,” states Bennett. “There were some safety wires on Nile for the scene in the back of the Humvee. Charlize and Kiki did a lot of their own stunts. They got straight into doing the fight scenes from day one of shooting. The stunt team was brilliant and did their own stunt videos, which Gina would sign off on and that would help all the HODs work out what was needed per department. We would discuss between us where the characters get shot and which weapons would need extensions or face replacement work. which was minimal.”

Merrick’s penthouse was the biggest CG environment build and was handled by MR. X.  “We got onto the rooftop of the building that was our Merrick building location in the city of London and did LiDAR scans and took stills photography,” explains Bennett, “as we couldn’t shoot those scenes inside this location (only the exteriors), so we had to find an alternative location. The house that we actually shot in for the penthouse scenes had glass windows from floor to ceiling 270 degrees, so we had extensive greenscreens set up. Suddenly this house turns into a green box. Everything was reflective, so there were a lot of crew reflections painted out.” Postvis was created for Nile’s dramatic leap outside of Merrick’s penthouse. “The shot changed a couple of times because the story and location changed. That was the only VFX element that we did postvis for. The rest of it was based on storyboards and concepts from the art department led by Paul Kirby.”

Prop weapons were digitally extended to ensure on-set safety and to make them more lethal. (Images courtesy of Milk VFX and Netflix)

“When Nile kicks Andy in the leg, it breaks and we get to see the bone re-heal. We couldn’t have the bone tear through the cloth, so we had to show it healing under her jeans. It looked very comical in the early versions, as if her leg was bending like rubber. It was a balance of seeing a couple of joints healing back into place and a little bit of strangeness, and we put a little twist here and there. We went through quite a few iterations on that shot. We could never use the word ‘gore’ because [director] Gina [Prince-Bythewood] wasn’t about that. She wanted it real. Her take on it was, if it really is that bloody in real life, then fine, but it can’t be gory for the sake of being gory.”

—Sara Bennett, Visual Effects Supervisor

The COVID-19 lockdown occurred a third of the way into post-production. “Everyone was very patient and the vendors got set up quickly remotely,” states Bennett. “I would sit with Gina looking at shots every day while we were in post in L.A. and then suddenly we had to find another way to do it. We had Avid running via the streaming platform Evercast. The quality wasn’t great but good enough to watch shots cut into the edits.  We would send Gina high-resolution 4K QuickTimes so she could review the work on a 4K TV at her end in L.A. It took a lot longer because we had to get the shots ready 24 hours in advance so that everybody globally had a chance to get a hold of it.

A signature fight sequence takes place on board a cargo plane where Andy (Charlize Theron) subdues new recruit and immortal Nile (Kiandra Layne). (Photo: Aimee Spinks. Image courtesy of Netflix)

“Overall,” says Bennett, “in terms of the work itself, Nile leaping out of the building was tricky because we had to adapt our methodology a number of times. I loved the audience reaction to that sequence during the test screenings – at the moment where Nile regenerates. The fight scene and regeneration in the Kill Room was great fun and demonstrates that The Old Guard is not just an action film, but one with an element of fantasy too. It sets the story up.”

Bennett concludes, “I really enjoyed being part of Gina’s team and happy we managed to deliver it during lockdown with everyone safely working remotely.”


Share this post with

Most Popular Stories

The Miniature Models of <strong>BLADE RUNNER</strong>
02 October 2017
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
The Miniature Models of BLADE RUNNER
In 1982, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner set a distinctive tone for the look and feel of many sci-fi future film noirs to come, taking advantage of stylized production design, art direction and visual effects work.
The New <strong>Artificial Intelligence</strong> Frontier of VFX
20 March 2019
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
The New Artificial Intelligence Frontier of VFX
The new wave of smart VFX software solutions utilizing A.I.
Converting a Classic: How Stereo D Gave <strong>TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY</strong> a 3D Makeover
24 August 2017
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
Converting a Classic: How Stereo D Gave TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY a 3D Makeover
James Cameron loves stereo. He took full advantage of shooting in native 3D on Avatar, and has made his thoughts clear in recent times about the importance of shooting natively in stereo when possible...
THE PEARL: THE SUPER ALIEN MODELS OF<strong> VALERIAN</strong>
02 August 2017
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
THE PEARL: THE SUPER ALIEN MODELS OF VALERIAN
Among the many creatures and aliens showcased in Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are members of the Pearl, a beautiful...
2018 – Year of the Rapidly Expanding <b>VFX Moviemaking Vocabulary</b>
03 April 2018
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
2018 – Year of the Rapidly Expanding VFX Moviemaking Vocabulary
Industry leaders discuss trends and issues.