While tracking down the artists responsible for the effects of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, visual effects supervisor Louis Morin confided to me, ‘You’ve got the wrong man. The real magician here is Michel Gondry.’ Normally, the production’s visual effects supervisor is a good barometer for a film’s artistic and technical effects; but Louis was not being disingenuous. As we spoke about the film, it became apparent what a vivid and fantastic imagination the director had, and it would have been fascinating to track down monsieur Gondry, the rock and roll maestro of the avante-garde – another day, perhaps. But time was our enemy, and in fact I had to hand my transcript to my editor, Jody Duncan, due to another pressing deadline. Here is our joint effort, unearthed from the Cinefex Vault, attempting to describe the magic tricks of this unique and charming film.
Random Access Memory – article by Jody Duncan and Joe Fordham
In director Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman plumbs a consciousness-bending story about a man, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), who attempts to ease the pain of a breakup by undergoing a procedure that will erase all memories of the relationship from his mind. Joel’s attempts to interrupt the erasure mid-procedure – all from within his subconscious – set the story in a world that is part reality, part waking dream.
That surreal world was the stuff of visual effects, more than 100 realized by Custom Film Effects. Buzz Image Group took on only 16 shots, but each was a critical depiction of Joel’s altered mind as, one by one, his memories of Clementine (Kate Winslet) are deconstructed, abstracted and, finally, erased.
The memory abstractions are sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle. In a sequence early in the film, Joel – in his car – follows Clementine as she walks angrily down a sidewalk. “This was a hand-held, non-effects shot,” said Buzz visual effects supervisor Louis Morin, “but in the scene, Jim Carrey says a line about everything falling apart – and Michel wanted to emphasize that feeling.” To visually support the idea of a world falling apart, Gondry suggested removing one of Clementine’s legs in the scene. “I said: ‘Okay, it’s possible – but this is a swish-pan, and it is going to be so fast, nobody will see it.’ But he wanted to try it; so we replaced Clem’s real legs with CGI legs, did 3D tracking and remodeled the sidewalk she was walking on.”
The first attempt at the shot bore out Morin’s initial concerns. “Nobody could see it,” said Morin, “because it was so fast. I asked if they had a longer take of Clem walking, and they did – but in that one, she wasn’t turning her head properly. So we combined takes in the swish-pan, tracked the head from the first take onto Clem in the longer take, and put in a whole CGI background.” In that background, a car crashes behind a fence, unnoticed by Clem. “That was a CGI car and a CGI fence. It was a shocking event to keep the audience on their toes, to say, ‘Look – some pretty unusual things will be shown to you in this movie.'”
Joel jumps out of his car and runs up and down the block – his car, magically, situated at both ends. The shot required two months of Inferno time at Buzz. “We had to track all the shots,” Morin commented, “four takes, going from one side of the street to the other. Everything was shot hand-held, so we had to use 3D tracking, and then create transitions. There’s a lamppost and a mailbox there, and we switched from one take to the other, flipping the image so it was a mirror effect as he was running back and forth. It was partly a morph, switching speed, retracking shots into one another. It’s not 100% seamless, but pretty close, considering that everything was shot hand-held and the perspective was off. We had to freeze-frame the shot, track it manually and reposition camera projections. We also erased signs and interiors of the stores along the street using matte-painted projections.”
The street scene ends with Joel falling down, only to bounce up, rewind-style, onto a sofa in his apartment where he eats takeout Chinese food with Clem. Buzz took reverse footage of Carrey falling from a sofa, filmed on the street, and combined it with an element of Carrey seated on the same sofa in the apartment set. “We used an Elastic Reality morph for that,” said Morin. “We also had to add CG chopsticks in his hand. He had actually held real chopsticks in the plate with Clem; but for this shot, we had to remove them and put in CGI ones that would match the chopsticks in his hand when he initially falls.”
In another scene, Joel and Clem sit in a car, watching a drive-in movie from outside the establishment’s fence, inventing their own dialogue for the characters on the screen. As the memory is erased, Clem and the car flicker in and out. The fence then disappears, slat by slat, chasing after Joel and Clem in the animation style of Norman McLaren’s National Film Board of Canada. Carrey and Winslet were shot in a real car – once with Winslet inside and once without, to capture elements for the flicker effect. Buzz then replaced the car with a CGI car as the characters run out of the vehicle. “We modeled different parts of the car,” said Morin, “then sliced away the 3D objects, like an MRI brain slice.” Buzz also created the fence animation by removing the fence in the live-action plates and replacing it with matte paintings rendered in Photoshop and projected onto 3D geometry.
Buzz’s biggest shot is near the end of the film, when a house on the beach in Long Island – the setting of a pivotal moment in the couple’s relationship – crumbles, a visual metaphor for Joel’s losing grasp of Clementine. Buzz began work on the shot based on Gondry’s first directive to create a stop-motion look; then revised the approach to include more real-time elements such as animated bricks falling from the chimney, tracked into a CGI house. “Michel thought that was going in the right direction – but he wanted more,” said Morin. “So we found some reference footage of real houses collapsing, and then animated the whole house with hard-body dynamics. What you see is a house collapsing in four seconds – all CG.”
The surreal images in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – digital effects sprinkled with in-camera and forced perspective gags, all achieved without the use of bluescreen or motion control – sprang from a filmmaker who approaches visual effects more as a magician than a technician. “A magician makes you look at one place while the trick is happening somewhere else,” said Morin. “Michel does that with effects. You expect an effect at one point in a shot, but the effect is already done by the time you get there. He fools you – and that’s part of his cleverness. Everything is possible in his mind.”
Photos copyright © 2004 by Focus Features.