‘Pilgrim’ brings comicbook vfx to screen

Effects team storyboarded entire movie first

When Universal’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” opened Aug. 13, some hoped the fanboy pic’s earlier Comic-Con buzz would attract enough younger auds to help it hold its own against “The Expendables” and “Eat Pray Love.”

But “Pilgrim,” fronted by slacker superhero Michael Cera, proved no match against the Sly Stallone starrer or the Julia Roberts vehicle — continuing the disappointing responses for bigscreen graphic novel fare that had plagued “Kick-Ass” and even “Watchmen.”

Still, what it lacked in B.O. muscle, “Pilgrim” made up for in dazzling comicbook visuals never before seen in a feature. Translated from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series to the screen by helmer Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”), the film shows viewers a world where story suddenly breaks into fight sequences with bodies hurtling across space, where graphics of, say, the word “crash” appear onscreen when a character smashes through the ceiling, and where pyrotechnics, animation and vidgame-like levels meld into an action-packed, twentysomething love story.

None of this could have been done without the team headed by vfx supervisor Frazer Churchill, who, from the outset, engaged in a constant round of brainstorming sessions with Wright, d.p. Bill Pope, production designer Marcus Rowland and concept designer Oscar Wright. Together they storyboarded the entire movie. “We had in our mind’s eye every single shot of the film,” Churchill said.

But that was just the start. “It’s quite a jump to go from a flat panel of one man punching another to a full-bodied scene with graphics, a manga background, girls with wings, fireballs hitting the stage, music playing and a kung fu fight going on,” he said.

The film’s effects were created by London vfx house Double Negative, Churchill’s home base. “Pilgrim” was filmed in Toronto. Churchill, who was there for the entire shoot, set up a workflow whereby material was constantly being sent to the U.K. for processing and back again for review.

“Every day I sent them plans of the sets,” he said. “They would build CG elements and send back previous sequences with those elements in the set, with all the measurements. Then, say, when it came time to shoot the Demon Hipster Chicks, everyone knew how they look, and we could work out exactly where everything was going to be and how to shoot with elements that weren’t really there.”

The physical connection to D-Neg was via a fast Internet line installed at Toronto’s Cinespace Film Studios, where vfx editor Richard Ketteridge downloaded each day’s submissions. Additional material was sent by Mr. X, the Toronto vfx house that gave a comicbook feel to the film’s exteriors.

At the receiving end, D-Neg CG supervisor Andrew Whitehurst and vfx producer Rupert Porter oversaw the vfx work, which they then sent back to Toronto as QuickTime files, often at full HD resolution.

“It can be a punishing process,” said Churchill. “You’re on the floor all day, you go back to the office at lunch or after you wrap and give (D-Neg) notes on work they supplied the previous day, and review the work they just sent through. Then you take it down to show Edgar when he’s got a free moment, which isn’t very often.”

Signings & Bookings

Montana Artists signed line producer/UPM Jan Foster (“Inception”), d.p.’s John R. Leonetti (“Piranha 3D”) and Jerzy Zielinski (“The Lazarus Project”), production designer Ondrej Nekvasil (“The Illusionist”), and 1st a.d. Richard Denault (“Glee”).

Agency booked line producers Tracey Jeffrey on Disney Channel’s “The Suite Life: The Movie,” Tony Mark on Mario Van Peebles’ “Mine That Bird” and Bob Rolsky on NBC’s “The Paul Reiser Show”; d.p.’s Charlie Lieberman on NBC’s “Love Bites” and Bruce Finn on Salim Akil’s “The Game”; production designers Sandy Cochrane on “The Suite Life: The Movie,” Mayling Cheng on TBS’ “Franklin and Bash” and Alec Hammond on Asger Leth’s “Man on a Ledge”; costume designer Lorraine Carson on Damian Michael’s “Marley and Me: The Terrible 2”; Peggy Stamper on a Josh Berman project for Lifetime; and Leah Katznelson on David Gordon Green’s “The Sitter”; 1st a.d.’s Hillary Schwartz on TBS’ “Franklin and Bash”; and David Sardi on Scott Hicks’ “The Lucky One.”; 1st AD’s Hillary Schwartz on TBS’ “Franklin & Bash” and David Sardi on Scott Hicks’ “The Lucky One”; and and editor Pam Wise on Bennett Marc’s “Should’ve Been Romeo.”

Murtha Agency has signed editors Allyson Johnson on AMC’S “Rubicon,” Elizabeth Kling on AMC pilot “The Killing,” Ronald Sanders on David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” and Mark Sanger on Alfonso Curaon’s “Gravity.”

peter.caranicas@variety.com

Read previous columns at Variety.com/Caranicas

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