Even story-driven movies benefit from vfx

In this brave new digital filmmaking world, there’s no shortage of grousing that visual effects have overwhelmed story.

Yet two determinedly story-oriented directors have movies out this fall that depend on vfx for critical moments.

“Black Swan,” from helmer Darren Aronofsky, follows the disintegration of an obsessed dancer trying to master the role of the Swan Queen in “Swan Lake.” Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” weaves together the stories of three people touched in different ways by death, including a survivor of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

It was up to Dan Schrecker and Michael Owens, the vfx supervisors on “Black Swan” and “Hereafter,” to make sure the vfx fit with their respective directors’ approach. Both say their directors are “all about story.”

Owens, for his part, says Eastwood “likes the environment to show up when it’s necessary, but it’s not about that. He’s not a kid in a candy store when it comes to what you can do.”

Eastwood’s famously loose, spontaneous shooting style isn’t ideal for visual effects, which thrive on planning. And he doesn’t storyboard or previsualize his pictures. Yet Owens, who’s worked with Eastwood on pics going back to “Space Cowboys,” has made a virtue of that.

“If you stick to (previs or storyboards) too closely, you get something that’s overcrafted sometimes. Clint doesn’t believe in overcrafting or overthinking something.”

Eastwood understood when Owens had to previs the tsunami sequence, in which a French TV reporter has a near-death experience. The whole sequence was a tricky balancing act for Owens, who had to keep the vfx from overwhelming the drama.

“If the tsunami upstaged her hereafter experience, we would have gone too far. And the hereafter experience needed to be dramatic without overstating it.”

Schrecker, whose credits include several Aronofsky pics and last year’s “Precious,” says, “In the kind of effects we do on ‘Black Swan’ and ‘The Wrestler,’ it’s crucial they’re completely seamless.”

Like Eastwood, Aronofsky shoots very fast once setup is done. So Schrecker says, “We try to have a small footprint on set.”

Some moments in the story simply couldn’t be done without vfx, though. For example, while Natalie Portman did her own dancing on “Black Swan” for most shots, there were moments that required a professional dancer. Portman’s head had to be digitally attached to the dancer’s body.

Even in the movie’s more fantastical moments, Schrecker had to ensure there was nothing to take the audience out of the movie.

“It’s all got to be part of the same world, which is different from ‘The Fountain’ or even something like ‘Precious,’ where there are fantasy sequences that break out of the main narrative.”

The bottom line, says Schrecker, is that the approach to vfx on an arthouse drama shouldn’t be different from that on a big-budget tentpole. “Any project we work on,” he says, “the focus is always on story.”

Bits & Bytes

Veteran vfx supervisor Mark Stetson has joined Zoic Studios and will head its feature film division. Stetson’s credits range from “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” to “Superman Returns.” Zoic has established its reputation with high-end vfx for TV series and has been moving into features. Company contributed vfx to the upcoming feature “Red” and to “District 9″ and “Zombieland,” among other pics. … Along with the news that Lucasfilm is building a new facility to house its digital production divisions in Singapore came word on some of the artists who have already relocated there. Among the Singapore staff are Mohen Leo (“2012″ “Speed Racer”), Brennan Doyle (“New Moon” “Red Cliff”), Brian Connor (“Iron Man 2″ “Transformers”), Bryant Griffith (“War of the Worlds,” “Star Trek”), Aaron Holly (“Avatar”), Patrick Cohen (“Valkyrie,” “Beowulf”), Albert Hastings (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Avatar”) … Technicolor 3D, the venerable lab company’s 3D-on-film system, is getting some traction. Summit will release its upcoming “Drive Angry” in Technicolor 3D, and Marcus Theaters will deploy the system on 15 screens in the Midwest… Digital Jungle post has hired Darin Kuhlman as executive producer and director of sales. Kuhlman has been post-production supervisor at Cimarron Group, founder of Picturehead and a producer on several pics. … Creatasphere will hold its Entertainment Technology Expo Nov. 3-4 at the Burbank Marriott and will hold a post-production master class Nov. 5-6. … Motion capture/animation service company Vicon House of Moves has been contracted by a joint venture of Guardian Media Entertainment and SLG Entertainment led by Stan Lee to develop animated content for new superhero franchise “The Guardian Project.” … Christie has introduced its 4K DLP Cinema Solaria line of projectors. Premium gear is 3D capable. Christie claims simple maintenance and low cost of ownership among the line’s benefits … NEC has also introduced a new 3D capable 4K digital cinema projector intended for screens 60′ and wider. … Dolby Labs, MikroM, USL and XDC have formed an alliance to promote interoperability within digital cinema. Alliance, dubbed the Digital Cinema Open System Alliance, is working to establish open interface standards for core system components … Meanwhile, Dolby announced it has shipped more than 6,000 Screen Servers, more than 5,500 3D systems, more than 4,000 CP750 Digital Cinema Processors and installed Dolby Surround 7.1 in more than 1,000 screens globally. … Tomorrow, Oct. 15, is the deadline for submissions for the Annie Awards… Nvidia has expanded its Quadro line of pro graphics solutions based on the Fermi architecture. Also, Tippett Studio has upgraded over 200 artist workstations to include the Nvidia Quadro. … Light Iron Digital used a Quantel Pablo 4K to do color grading on Sony’s “The Social Network.” Pic is the first feature shot with the RED One 4K Mysterium-X sensor. … Boinx Software has updated its live-video production software, BoinxTV … The production department for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs has acquired three Panasonic AJ-HPX3000 high-def camcorders …

david.cohen@variety.com

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