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February 27
2024

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

ZACK SNYDER GETS SPACE OPERATIC WITH REBEL MOON: PART ONE – A CHILD OF FIRE

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Netflix.

A parallelogram was implemented for when Tarak seeks to tame a Bennu, which is a hybrid of a crow, raven and tiger.

A parallelogram was implemented for when Tarak seeks to tame a Bennu, which is a hybrid of a crow, raven and tiger.

As Akira Kurosawa was a major influence on George Lucas’ The Hidden Fortress in particular, Zack Synder was inspired by Seven Samurai for what was initially meant to be a Star Wars pitch that has since been retooled for Netflix as a multiplatform original IP. A feature film was shot that has been divided into two parts with the first being Rebel Moon: Part One – A Child of Fire followed by Rebel Moon: Part Two – The Scargiver. Participating in what Synder has termed a “giant atmospheric space adventure” is Visual Effects Supervisor Marcus Taormina who previously collaborated with the filmmaker known for speed ramping, hyper-real, painterly compositions and lens flares on another Netflix production, Army of the Dead. “What has been nice about working on both movies simultaneously, both shooting them and doing post-production, is that we’re looking at both movies at the same time,” Taormina states. “A lot of what is set up in Part One we use in Part Two.”

Planetary skies were peppered in when needed to give scenes the proper tone.

Planetary skies were peppered in when needed to give scenes the proper tone.

Nemesis lethally wields two swords which are a combination of molten metal, a streaking light effect and a heat signature.

Nemesis lethally wields two swords which are a combination of molten metal, a streaking light effect and a heat signature.

A flashback of when Kora was a soldier for the Imperium.

A flashback of when Kora was a soldier for the Imperium.

Overall, 1,380 visual effects shots were created by Framestore, Luma Pictures, Mammal Studios, Rodeo FX, Scanline VFX and Wētā FX for Rebel Moon: Part One – A Child of Fire, which revolves around an adopted daughter of a despot standing up against him by assembling a gang of notorious renegades to protect a planet that she now calls home. What makes the production somewhat unusual is that Synder doubles as his own cinematographer. “It’s nice to have a director/DP because I only have to go to one side of the set versus splitting time,” Taormina notes. “Days of Heaven was a huge inspiration for this movie, which means organic filming, daylight dependent, lots of lens flares, and we also had a custom one-of-a-kind anamorphic package that Zack created for the film, which in itself was a huge challenge. What was nice was that I could go to him about things that I needed. ‘I love the lens flares, but I need you to do a clean pass as I have to erase that flare and put it back over the work later on.’ He was understanding to that and granted me those opportunities on set.”

A hard job for Framestore was incorporating energy tracers into 300 shots for the Gondival gunfight.

A hard job for Framestore was incorporating energy tracers into 300 shots for the Gondival gunfight.

While playing JC-1435 (aka Jimmy) on set, Dustin Ceithamer listened to the voice of Anthony Hopkins to make sure that their two performances were in sync with each other.

While playing JC-1435 (aka Jimmy) on set, Dustin Ceithamer listened to the voice of Anthony Hopkins to make sure that their two performances were in sync with each other.

Skies set the tone for scenes, and Snyder sent a whole library of them to Taormina. “It would always be, ‘I like this and that reference,’” Taormina explains. “I would pull them together and go, ‘What do you like about this one?’ I would smash them all together. We had a lot of discussions about the gas giant Mara at the beginning of the movie, which is not a sky, but it’s [related] enough that it’s an important part. Zack found a colored look that he liked that was a dirtier orange. Obviously, he had to put the lightbox up there, which was headache in itself because the flare contaminated the lens a lot. There was a lot of compositing needed to put those shots together, but it adds to the believability because when you get this dirty orange wash over Kora [Sofia Boutella] it feels cohesive.” Over 38 worlds had to be conceptualized with the main ones being Veldt, Neu Wodi, Daggus, Castor, Sharaa, Gondival and Motherworld. “It starts with our production designers,  Stephen Swain and Sefan Dechant; they sent a lot of reference packages our way. Obviously, if there were practical pieces, we would try to infuse those back into our digital worlds. But trying to make them unique yet familiar was a challenge. Atmospherics, the mood and lighting, all of those things were important and played a role. When going to Sharaan we meet King Levitica. It’s moody because it feels like we’re not supposed to be there as the viewers,” Taormina remarks.

To make Neu Wodi more threatening, rocky spires caused by a collision with asteroid were added to the arid terrain.

To make Neu Wodi more threatening, rocky spires caused by a collision with asteroid were added to the arid terrain.

While Jena Malone is strapped to a rig to limit her movements, stunt performers dressed in green shift the legs of Harmada.

While Jena Malone is strapped to a rig to limit her movements, stunt performers dressed in green shift the legs of Harmada.

While Jena Malone is strapped to a rig to limit her movements, stunt performers dressed in green shift the legs of Harmada.

“It starts with our production designers, Stephen Swain and Sefan Dechant; they sent a lot of reference packages our way. Obviously, if there were practical pieces, we would try to infuse those back into our digital worlds. But trying to make them unique yet familiar was a challenge. Atmospherics, the mood and lighting, all of those things were important and played a role.”

—Marcus Taormina, Visual Effects Supervisor

Clean plates were shot at times with the distinct lens flares caused by the custom-made anamorphic lenses added later in post.

Clean plates were shot at times with the distinct lens flares caused by the custom-made anamorphic lenses added later in post.

Clean plates were shot at times with the distinct lens flares caused by the custom-made anamorphic lenses added later in post.

For arid Neu Wodi, the ranch was a real location; however, when the creature known as a Bennu takes flight, the entire environment becomes digital. “We talk about how we wanted to get a lot more claustrophobic,” Taormina states. “When we fly through the spires, it feels like they’re closing in on us, and then the Bennu [nicknamed Beatrice] smashes Tarak [Staz Nair] off onto the cliff. We have to make sure that when Tarak jumps that he jumps down into a huge ravine, which feels threatening. We let it open back up towards the end where there’s this majestic scale and beauty to it. Designing that was fun.” The Bennu harkens back to Pegasus. “It’s neither a raven or crow but both at the same time, and a gryphon,  too.” Stunt performer Albert Valladares was placed in the middle of a parallelogram with his colleagues holding on to ropes that were attached to his backpack to simulate what it would be like trying to restrain a rearing Bennu. “Every take I was like, ‘Zack, hang on. I’ve got to give a note.’ I’m giving notes to special effects and creature stunt performers while Zack is giving notes to Staz Nair. On occasion I would say, ‘Staz, just imagine that at this moment that you’re going to get ripped apart, and now you have a subtle moment where you get to interact with him. Live in that moment. And also let Albert do some of the performances and lead you, in a sense,” Taormina says. Nair was subsequently captured sitting on a gimbal setup in a parking lot for the aerial sequence. “I said to Zack, ‘I know that we have these anamorphic lenses, which are great. However, let’s do one camera anamorphic and shoot the other three spherically. It will be super sharp, but don’t worry, we’ll add our optics later on to it to make it feel anamorphic.’ We basically reanimated and recomposed all of those shots and scaled them down so that it feels like he’s flying through.”

Stunt performers provide the resistance on set of a person being captured by ecto-shackle, otherwise known as the ‘Beetlejuice Chair.’

Stunt performers provide the resistance on set of a person being captured by ecto-shackle, otherwise known as the ‘Beetlejuice Chair.’

Stunt performers provide the resistance on set of a person being captured by ecto-shackle, otherwise known as the ‘Beetlejuice Chair.’

“We talk about how we wanted to get a lot more claustrophobic. When we fly through the spires, it feels like they’re closing in on us, and then the Bennu [nicknamed Beatrice] smashes Tarak [Staz Nair] off onto the cliff. We have to make sure that when Tarak jumps that he jumps down into a huge ravine, which feels threatening. We let it open back up towards the end where there’s this majestic scale and beauty to it.”

—Marcus Taormina, Visual Effects Supervisor

The CG went up to the rib cage of Jena Malone to believably integrate her into the body of a spider to create the Daggus-dwelling creature known as Harmada.

The CG went up to the rib cage of Jena Malone to believably integrate her into the body of a spider to create the Daggus-dwelling creature known as Harmada.

The CG went up to the rib cage of Jena Malone to believably integrate her into the body of a spider to create the Daggus-dwelling creature known as Harmada.

The CG went up to the rib cage of Jena Malone to believably integrate her into the body of a spider to create the Daggus-dwelling creature known as Harmada.

Influencing the aesthetic of the cobalt-mining planet Daggus was Blade Runner. “I wanted it to feel dark, dingy and moist,” Taormina states. “A lot of narrative and production design determined that environment as we had a lot of built pieces to the set.” Dwelling in the basement level is a native spider/humanoid hybrid called Harmada (Jena Malone) which abducts a child and in doing so comes into conflict with Nemesis (Bae Donna). “The stuntvis or previs was a combination of digital shots and stunts in motion capture suits. Because that space was so small, stunts had to be careful about the movements. Jena Malone is on this huge swivel rig, which is best described as a cart that she is strapped to because we didn’t want her body moving too much, as we needed to see her just below the navel or bust to make it cohesive. We had three to five stunt performers swiveling the rig while having it going up and down to the performances. They also have noodles that are interacting with Donna. It was a harmonious integration of everything together because we didn’t want to replace Jena as her performance was too great.” Nemesis wields two swords that avoid being replicas of lightsabers. “When I had that initial conversation with Zack. all we knew is that we were going to have acrylic rods with LEDs in them that had a warmer amber color. I had this light painting of streaking sparklers. I was like, ‘That’s cool. I think we can do that almost like a synthetic shutter or delayed shutter on the swords, add a heat signature and smoke and then add what we call ‘sword popcorn’ as well. It’s those sparks that came off of it.”

Tony Amendola gets transformed into King Levitica.

Tony Amendola gets transformed into King Levitica.

Tony Amendola gets transformed into King Levitica.

“Every take I was like, ‘Zack, hang on. I’ve got to give a note.’ I’m giving notes to special effects and creature stunt performers while Zack is giving notes to Staz Nair. On occasion I would say, ‘Staz, just imagine that at this moment that you’re going to get ripped apart, and now you have a subtle moment where you get to interact with him. Live in that moment. And also let Albert do some of the performances and lead you, in a sense.”

—Marcus Taormina, Visual Effects Supervisor

The three massive explosions that occur during battle on Gondival were entirely CG.

The three massive explosions that occur during battle on Gondival were entirely CG.

The three massive explosions that occur during battle on Gondival were entirely CG.

Anthony Hopkins voices a robot called JC-1435, also referred to as ‘Jimmy,’ that decides to participate in the rebellion against the oppressive Imperium led by Kora. “I asked Zack if we could video record and do a ADR scratch session with Anthony Hopkins,” Taormina reveals. “If you don’t have your performer listening to the way that Anthony delivers the lines then there may be a mismatch, and when you put them all together in the end, your brain is going ‘something is wrong or odd here.’ The inflections and body movements are not right. We made the Jimmy suit for Dustin Ceithamer that had chest plates in the front and back, shoulder pads, a face plate and some hands, but the hands had to be replaced digitally. When we got into post, Dustin’s performance and Zack’s direction were so great and minimal that it was less robotic and more human. I actually mandated that when we could, which is about 90% of the shots, to keep the practical chest and face plates, which is a lot more difficult to do because it was so beautiful in the way Zack captured them in the available light.”

Augmenting natural elements like mountain ranges and waterfalls helped to make the Southern California location for Veldt unrecognizable.

Augmenting natural elements like mountain ranges and waterfalls helped to make the Southern California location for Veldt unrecognizable.

Augmenting natural elements like mountain ranges and waterfalls helped to make the Southern California location for Veldt unrecognizable.

“When I had that initial conversation [about the swords of Nemesis and avoiding the lightsabers of Star Wars] with Zack. all we knew is that we were going to have acrylic rods with LEDs in them that had a warmer amber color. I had this light painting of streaking sparklers. I was like, ‘That’s cool. I think that we can do that almost like a synthetic shutter or delayed shutter on the swords, add a heat signature and smoke and then add what we call ‘sword popcorn’ as well. It’s those sparks that came off of it.”

—Marcus Taormina, Visual Effects Supervisor

The Bennu gimbal was shot in parking lot while the aerial environment was fully digital.

The Bennu gimbal was shot in parking lot while the aerial environment was fully digital.

The Bennu gimbal was shot in parking lot while the aerial environment was fully digital.

Another interesting approach was for the restraining devices that have a mechanical base resemble a crab. Explains Taormina, “Those are called ecto-shackles in the script, but we named them ‘Beetlejuice Chairs.’ We have stunt performers grabbing the cast when they get thrown back, and then we swap out and put the practical prop in there. Like for Gondival or in Providence when the gentleman gets captured, we do the stunt followed by the digital version of it and then swap it out, and we had special effects create this RC-controlled base of the ecto-shackle. We put him on that with only the spine and added all of the digital pieces of it walking. Again, with your brain you’re trying to do the trickery of ‘what’s real and not.’ That’s a great example of stunts, props and special effects doing a fantastic job. We get the plates and go, ‘Let’s make this look cool.’”


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