“Watchmen” is a notoriously complex story, much like the process used to bring the graphic novel to life on the bigscreen.
To make this transition, director Zack Snyder relied on about a half-dozen visual effects houses to execute the highly detailed look he wanted for the film.
Most complicated were the effects for Dr. Manhattan. Snyder wanted a process that would allow actor Billy Crudup to deliver an unimpeded on-set performance and still produce the raw materials needed to match the book’s visual of a glowing blue, and often nude, super-powered scientist.
In creating all the Dr. Manhattan effects — some 400 shots and 38 minutes of running time — Sony Imageworks vfx supervisor Pete Travers’ crew had a suit built for Crudup that included motion-capture markers and 2,500 LEDs to create the character’s blue glow. Getting all this done without slowing down production was also a requirement, and one Snyder made sure to accommodate.
“He wanted that stuff to look good, so he had the patience for us when necessary,” Travers says.
That was an experience shared by the Moving Picture Co., which created the altered New York environments, the Owl Ship and Nite Owl’s nuclear nightmare. The facility’s vfx supervisor, Jessica Norman, says having clear and consistent direction from Snyder — usually channeled through overall vfx supervisor John “DJ” DesJardin — allowed her artists to focus on the quality of their shots.
“DJ was just in total sync with Zack,” she says. “It was very rare that we ended up getting any contradictory feedback.”
Canadian vfx house Intelligent Creatures also had a character-focused task, creating the morphing inkblot of Rorschach’s mask. The job required replacing actor Jackie Earle Haley’s head in each shot in which he wore the mask, re-creating the type of fabric used, matching the actor’s facial movements and lighting, adding the inkblots and fitting it perfectly back into each shot.
The facility’s vfx supervisor, Darren Bell, says again they had clear direction from Snyder.
“We actually did the show off his boards, which was pretty amazing because probably 90% of the film matched exactly what he boarded,” he says.
And some of the visual effects work still has yet to be seen, such as shots completed by Rising Sun Pictures in Australia that will serve as transitions to the animated “Tales of the Black Freighter” segments in the ultimate DVD edition.
Despite being among the last effects done for the film, vfx supervisor Dennis Jones says Snyder was still paying attention to the details.
“He was kind of picking up things, crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s,” he says. “He wanted to keep it as real as possible and as authentic as possible to the material.”