For audiences watching the end credits of major movies, one of the most impressive lists has to be the huge number of visual-effects contributors. “It takes an army,” says Kyle McCulloch, vfx supervisor on Disney blockbuster “Beauty and the Beast,” pictured above. “Our team spanned the globe, working on thousands of visual effects shots.”
McCulloch, a VES award winner for “Gravity,” credits expert collaborators such as Kelly Port (“Maleficent”) at Digital Domain in Vancouver and Richard Hoover (“Blade Runner 2049”) at Framestore in Montreal. “Because of the distributed nature of the industry, visual-effects vendors have to do work that’s transmittable and shareable.
Framestore and DD shared shots, and complex interactions went back and forth. The role of the vfx supervisor has evolved as technology has expanded.”
It’s a role that can vary, notably on Marvel films, which has in-house supervisors. “I’ve just finished ‘Thor: Ragnarok,’” McCulloch says. “Marvel has five effects films in their pipeline at any one time, and can have 20 vendors on a film. That’s why they’ve developed their centralized model.”
Talent wrangling is a key part of the supervisor’s job, says John Nelson, who oversaw “Blade Runner 2049.” “You need to have an economy of scale, and have enough shots at one place to make the budget work. It’s a bit like casting, but on strengths and weaknesses.”
Nelson, who won the visual effects Oscar for “Gladiator,” employed eight vendors on “Blade Runner 2049,” including Double Negative and MPC. “DNeg did the film’s ménage à trois — the merging of two women to get a third woman’s performance, which I’m very proud of.” MPC, meanwhile, handled the re-creation of actress Sean Young from the original “Blade Runner.” “They did a CG head replacement on a body double. We’ve seen realistic human-looking humans before, but now they have to act too.”
While Nelson filmed in Hungary, Weta Workshop built miniatures in New Zealand and that required 5 a.m. phone calls to review work. “We wanted to photograph physical models as much as we could,” says Nelson. “Still, every wide shot is an effects shot. We partially built cities on stages and extended them digitally. When you build worlds you have to create countless details — like air conditioning ducts — or it won’t look like there’s enough stuff there.”
World building was also essential for “Wonder Woman,” supervised by two-time visual-effects Oscar winner Bill Westenhofer (“Life of Pi,” “The Golden Compass”). That sometimes meant combining animation by MPC and backgrounds by Double Negative. He also used New Zealand’s Weta Digital and Czec Republic’s Universal Production Partners, so “Wonder Woman” never slept.
“There was a lot of asset sharing,” says Westenhofer, which, he adds, gets easier as software becomes more standardized. “It’s a prerequisite now that you’ve got to be able to take objects from various people.”
Because Wonder Woman also appears in DC’s “Justice League,” says Westenhofer, “they did take our digital model, though costumers have a way of tweaking things so that what you did no may no longer be relevant.”
What has become vital in vfx movies is previs work done by such shops as Third Floor and Proof, Westenhofer says. “Previs means vfx studios don’t have to start from scratch.” It even was used during the consciously ‘classic’ approach to visual effects in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.”
As vfx supervisor Andrew Jackson of Double Negative says: “We prevised aerial sequences so that we had a plan for the choreography. But Chris wouldn’t let anyone study the previs, because he didn’t want to constrain people. There’s a randomness in the real world that you can’t dream up when you’re making effects shots.”
Jackson, a visual-effects Oscar nominee for “Mad Max: Fury Road,” captured real elements whenever possible — using water tanks and sets on gimbals. “For lots of aerial footage, I had a cockpit in a car park at Warner Bros. pointing up at the sky. It was on apple boxes being spun around by grips. That became the foreground element, and we put aerial shots of real planes through the glass.”
He also suggested finding a California cliffside location where they could photograph the sky and the ocean horizon together. “Those are usually done on green-screen stages, and you have to add the lighting later. We did use rotoscoping, CG water extensions and digi-doubles, but we didn’t use a single green screen.
“The best compliment is when people don’t know they’re looking at a visual effect,” Jackson says. “Of course, that might not do us any good in awards season, if nobody knows what we did!”