“Big Eyes” – VFX Q&A

by Graham Edwards

"Big Eyes" - Cinefex VFX Q&Q with Mark Stetson of Zoic Studios

Most Americans who lived through the 1950s and 1960s will be familiar with the paintings of Margaret Keane, an artist who specialised in pictures of teary waifs with extraordinarily large eyes. Yet for an entire decade the paintings were passed off as the work of Margaret’s husband, Walter Keane. Only after Margaret went to the press in 1970 was it proved in a federal court that she was the originator of the artwork – and thus was a pop-culture legend born.

In Tim Burton’s film Big Eyes, Amy Adams delivers a Golden Globe-winning performance as Margaret Keane, with Christoph Waltz as her manipulative husband. While Burton’s cinematic canvas is considerably smaller than on many of his other films, a number of visual effects shots were required to not only create Big Eyes’ period settings, but also to give audiences a glimpse into the imagination of the artist herself.

Visual effects for Big Eyes were handled by Zoic Studios, with Mark Stetson and Ralph Maiers acting as co-VFX supervisors, delivering a total of 155 shots. In this Q&A session, Mark Stetson reveals how his team transformed present-day Vancouver into the San Francisco of yesteryear, and what it took to give Amy Adams a set of giant-sized baby blues.

Watch VFX breakdowns by Zoic Studios for Tim Burton’s Big Eyes:

How did you get involved with the project, Mark?

Well, the short answer is that the show’s executive producer/first assistant director, Katterli Frauenfelder, called me up. The longer answer is that I’d worked with Tim Burton and the production designer, Rick Heinrichs, on two previous films. My former company, Stetson Visual Services, made the miniatures for Edward Scissorhands, and we built (and blew up!) the old abandoned zoo park for Batman Returns.

Also, here at Zoic Studios our matte department is headed up by legendary matte artist Syd Dutton, who served as VFX art director on the film. Syd grew up in San Francisco in the 1950s and 1960s, and he vividly remembers the life and culture of the city during the time of the story. I myself remember enough of Margaret Keane’s work and American culture of the period to make the story a very personal experience.

Finally, Zoic Studios has offices in Vancouver, with a features VFX team including VFX supervisor Ralph Maiers and VFX producer Lauren Weidel. That whole team had recently worked with Katterli on another project. Happy with that experience, Katterli was the first to suggest Zoic Studios for the visual effects for Big Eyes. The fact that I also had a happy history with Tim made it a great fit.

How long were you working on the film?

Katterli’s first call came in May 2013. Tim kept polishing the movie through the summer of 2014, which resulted in a few added shots as cuts and takes changed. We got the final approval for our last shot in November 2014.

Washington Square Art Show - original plate

Scenes of an art show in San Francisco’s Washington Square were shot in several park locations in Vancouver – original plate.

Washington Square Art Show - final composite

Washington Square Art Show – final composite with digital environment extension by Zoic Studios.

How closely did you work with Tim Burton?

I worked as a department head on the film, so I had a lot of interaction with Tim, Rick Heinrichs, Bruno Delbonnel, J.C. Bond and the rest of the filmmakers. On this film, the whole crew was small and Tim was pretty approachable.

When I first interviewed with Tim for Big Eyes, we talked briefly about the miniature effects my company had created for Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns, and visual effects in general from the electro-mechanical, photochemical era. He asked me, “Do you miss those days?” I said I really missed the tools and processes of making tactile things by hand, with a team. But we do make better shots now, and standards of production quality are much higher.

I think those shared experiences helped make Tim comfortable with us, knowing that we had those skills to draw from and knowing that he would be looking for economies in the VFX work for Big Eyes. Tim was very conscious that the production would be much more constrained, and he was responsible to those constraints.

Was there much discussion about how “Burtonesque” to make the film, visually speaking?

Discovering how Tim was planning to give Big Eyes his unique perspective was really the fun part of this project. It was easy to see why Tim has an affinity for the themes in Margaret Keane’s life and work. It was also essential to appreciate the work of Bruno Delbonnel, the cinematographer, and to understand how Bruno and Tim’s styles and themes intersect.

Most of the time, Tim was restrained and subtle in applying those themes to the real places where this true story unfolds, but within the apparent reality of the world of Big Eyes, Tim’s story is still told through very carefully composed shots. The shooting style which Tim and Bruno used – mostly a single camera mounted on a tripod – may have been a creative choice but it also made low-budget VFX work much more achievable.

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There are some shots that stand out as having Tim’s stamp. For example, Tim kept to a really stark vision of the numbing suburbia that Margaret escapes at the beginning of the film. And then, Tim’s choice to freely place the Golden Gate Bridge in a convenient place to establish Margaret’s arrival in San Francisco was a surprise to all of us. The Furniture Factory interior scene with all the painters trapped in their crib cages, the New York Times exterior establishing shot, and the swinging San Francisco nightlife scene are all quite surreal.

Margaret Keane leaves suburbia to drive to San Francisco - bluescreen plate.

Margaret Keane leaves suburbia to drive to San Francisco – bluescreen plate.

Margaret Keane leaves suburbia to drive to San Francisco - final composite.

Margaret Keane leaves suburbia to drive to San Francisco – final composite.

The enlarged eyes of Margaret Keane’s paintings are similar to Johnny Depp’s “Mad Hatter” eyes in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Did you draw any lessons from that film?

Ha-ha! Close! Actually we looked at how Tim had transformed Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen of Hearts. But Tim never mentioned either of them. Margaret Keane is a living artist and there’s a lot of material out there about her and her work. Tim owns a few Keane originals, a couple of which he shared with us. Then, when we scouted San Francisco locations, we visited the Keane Eyes Gallery there. It was pretty amazing to be surrounded by so many of Margaret’s pieces.

How did you tackle the “hallucination” scenes, in which Margaret Keane imagines that the people around her – and ultimately she herself – have enlarged eyes?

This was a very low-budget film, so we kept all our visual effects solutions as simple and straightforward as possible. As we were prepping the film, Tim said he was planning to do a couple of shots where the audience experience how Margaret “sees” her world. Using our VFX producer Lauren Weidel as a test subject, VFX supervisor Ralph Maiers and compositing supervisor Kenton Rannie developed a series of looks to explore how far they could distort a human face to the proportions of a big-eyed waif, without breaking the mood by making it too grotesque.

Watch Zoic Studios’ original test shot for the “big eyes” effect:

Drawing on our experiences with digital cosmetic work, we made a series of still frame grabs as target looks, which Tim reviewed. When we got close to what he was after, we used facial tracking, warping, scaling, and painting and patching techniques to make the gag work in motion. Tim was most restrained with Amy Adams’ face. His dictum conforms with one of the primary rules I tell new VFX artists: “Protect Your Actors!”

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A large part of your work involved turning present-day Vancouver into 1950s and 1960s San Francisco. Where did you start?

Syd Dutton dove right into the research, pulling much of what he needed right from his own library. Syd has some great books of the San Francisco scene from that period, many of which Tim also used as reference. The production designer, Rick Heinrichs, also kept us pointed in the right direction with his research. Funnily enough, the best reference we found for the images of suburban hell, from which Margaret escapes at the beginning of the film, were from Edward Scissorhands.

North Beach Nightlife - concept art by Syd Dutton.

North Beach Nightlife – concept art by Syd Dutton.

Syd then created a series of concept sketches, based on location photos around Vancouver and enhanced with backgrounds that he’d found: photography from 1950s and 1960s San Francisco. Key scenes that he illustrated included the view of the Bay Bridge and Coit Tower from Walter’s apartment, the art show scene in Washington Square (based on two or three alternate park locations around Vancouver), the view of Alcatraz in the bay beyond a Vancouver police station, and the neighbourhood around the Keane Art Gallery, shot in the Gastown area, and developed to look like San Francisco’s North Beach. These illustrations were a huge confidence builder for Tim and the producers.

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Soon Rick Heinrichs was feeding us photos of locations from other scenes, using Syd and the rest of the Zoic team as a resource to develop the location requirements for sequences including the suburban hell from which Margaret escapes as the film opens, the furniture factory where she finds her first job, the Hungry I nightclub where the Keane paintings find their first success, and others.

Once the concept art was approved, where did you go from there?

Syd and I developed a rhythm of sharing VFX concepts between Rick, Bruno and Tim. For Syd, the real fun was in blending details from different historical locations to convey the romance of the period to a modern audience. He was decidedly not literally accurate, and he had an intuitive feel for what was important to Tim. Often simply inserting a steep side alley was enough.

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As Tim started approving the location-based concepts, producer Lynette Howell asked for a set of Syd’s illustrations to forward to The Weinstein Company, as part of Rick Heinrich’s plan presentation, which led to the green-light for the film. We very proud to be so closely involved in the process, and I was very happy with the location choices that this development work led to. It gave us some influence over how the locations were chosen and shot, and also gave us a preview of how the shots would be finished.

Additionally, I think the costume design by Colleen Atwood, and the cars found by Picture Car Coordinator Rick Rasmussen and the rest of the transportation team, went a long way to setting the scene in the period, so we had a great canvas to start our matte shots.

At one point we get a view of the 1964 NYC World’s Fair. What was involved with recreating this historical panorama?

I grew up on the East Coast in the 1960s, and actually visited the New York World’s Fair in 1964. I dug out my Kodak Brownie snapshots of my trip there and shared them with our team. One or two of which may have been useful, but at that time I was fixated on the Chrysler Turbine Car.

Rick Heinrichs gave us some concept sketches for the interior of the Hall of Education, which CG supervisor Richard Patterson and his team executed. Only the floor, the actors and the painting were real. Syd sketched up the exterior view from the Hall of Education scene. This evolved over many weeks as a digital matte painting, as we worked to integrate as many fair icons as we could into the scene.

The footage of Lowell Thomas’s introduction to the fair was edited stock footage, which required heavy restoration. Our lead compositor John Fukushima spent a long time with this sequence, using Nuke comp and retiming tools.

It started as an HD transfer of 16mm film. We were unable to find any of the original negative, so we were left with the HD QuickTimes. Extensive stabilization was required, and faded color, low contrast, muddy resolution and physical damage all needed to be repaired. A lot of the backgrounds were replaced with painted interpretations of the scene.

Neither we, Tim nor the editor, J.C. Bond, could say how the restored footage would sit within the film, in terms of look and finish. We knew that it would be some kind of cutaway, as if we were viewing a news serial, but all Tim could ask us to do was to make it look as good as the Alexa footage that Bruno shot around it. That was too tall an order, but I must say that looking at the original footage and the restored footage back-to-back is astonishing.

You mentioned that Burton added new shots as he polished the film. How much extra workload did that generate for Zoic?

Shortly after Tim had screened the film for Harvey Weinstein, I was in London on another assignment, and I visited Tim Burton at his editing suite there to see how the VFX work was looking in the cut. Tim told me that he was thinking about adding several establishing shots to the film, all of which would require visual effects.

Hawaiian vista - concept art

Hawaiian vista establishing shot – concept art by Syd Dutton.

He gave me some reference photos he’d found to show how he wanted San Francisco to look for the new shots, and a diagram of a shot he had in mind to establish Hawaii later in the story. Syd Dutton took those cues and developed new concept sketches that quickly got us on track with Tim’s thinking. The shots included two additional establishing shots in Hawaii (the Honolulu overlook and the radio station – matte artist Jim Hawkins helped with this one) and a totally fabricated and stylized shot of the 1964 New York Times entrance in Manhattan.

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Also included was a shot establishing a fictitious French restaurant, Chez Henri, where Walter and Margaret have their first date (I made up the name based on the name of the maître d’ in the film). This was set on Powell Street in San Francisco, on the site of the famous Omar Khayyam Restaurant and surrounded by otherwise authentic establishments of the period.

"Chez Henri" - original plate

During post-production, additional establishing shots were photographed in San Francisco, including the exterior of the fictitious French restaurant “Chez Henri” – original plate.

Chez Henri - final composite

“Chez Henri” – final composite.

The final two shots were an establishing shot of the China Dragon Restaurant (I made up that name too, based on the dragon motifs in the interior location) set in a Chinatown location authentic to the period, and a very stylized shot portraying the Hungry I nightclub in the midst of the swinging nightlife of San Francisco; that was an amalgam of Kearny Street, Broadway, and the International Settlement.

I travelled back to San Francisco and Hawaii to shoot plates, then to Vancouver, where line producer Brendan Ferguson and production manager George Horie had fired up a film unit for a day and night of greenscreen photography, to add people and cars to the scenes. Those shots were the biggest and most challenging of the film for us. They were also the most satisfying, because Tim gave us a lot of responsibility for their design and execution. We packed a lot of production value into a very slim budget and schedule for those shots.

What will you take away from your experience on Big Eyes?

I’m never happy with everything on any show. The work is never done completely to my own satisfaction. I think on my feet, to try to pack as much as I can into a low-budget feature with high standards, and I always feel like there are things that I missed on such a short schedule and tight budget. I guess I learned exactly what I forget each time I start a new project, big or small: to let go.

I also had one of the most embarrassing moments of my career on Big Eyes. As I was leaning in close to Amy Adams on location to shoot reference shots of her hair for roto patching, Katterli whispered, “Mark! Your pants are split all the way up your backside!” And they were. They were a new pair of cargo pants I had bought just for the project! I kept shooting, of course. The kind wardrobe department team stitched them up on the spot, as I was wearing them, right there on the Washington Square Art Show set in Lumberman’s Arch Park in Vancouver!

Special thanks to Lauren Weidel, Jenna Wigman and Joe Fordham. Photographs and videos copyright © The Weinstein Company 2014 and courtesy of Zoic Studios.

One thought on ““Big Eyes” – VFX Q&A

  1. Very interesting read–once again, it’s the “invisible” CGI that the audience never notices that helps a great deal, especially in a period piece like BIG EYES.

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