“Maggie” – VFX Q&A

by Graham Edwards

Maggie - VFX Q&A with Aymeric Perceval of Cinesite

Buy a ticket for a movie about zombies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in for two hours of high-octane, undead action.

Buy a ticket for Maggie, however, and what you’ll get instead is a contemplative independent feature in which Arnie exchanges muscles for melancholy in a dramatic role as devoted father Wade Vogel.

As the world is gripped by a viral epidemic which gradually turns its victims into flesh-eating monsters, Vogel rescues his infected daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin), from a clinical “execution” at the hands of the authorities. Devoting himself to Maggie’s care, Vogel is forced to witness her steady decline … and accept the dreadful truth of her eventual fate.

Maggie is directed by Henry Hobson, with Ed Chapman in the role of production VFX supervisor. A number of key visual effects scenes were handled by Cinesite, under the supervision of Aymeric Perceval.

Cinefex spoke to Perceval about the super-subtle digital makeup techniques used to enhance the look of Maggie, and the challenges of creating the broken-down city environments seen at the start of the film.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin star in "Maggie"

How did you come to be involved with Maggie?

I had been involved with the bidding team as compositing supervisor, when I was asked to have a look at Maggie and come up with a methodology. Henry and I quickly found ourselves on the same frequency and, because it was mostly 2D-orientated, I was appointed as Cinesite’s VFX supervisor.

This was my first VFX supervisor credit, so they paired me with senior VFX producer Diane Kingston to make sure the house would not burn down! At times I also had the input of VFX supervisors Andy Morley (who also jumped in as CG Supervisor) and Simon Stanley-Clamp.

How closely did you work with the director, Henry Hobson?

We worked very closely. We had bi-weekly cineSync sessions with Henry and Ed to catch up on the work, and emails were flying every day for all the extra questions. It was a very constructive and positive atmosphere. Henry’s extra requests made so much sense within the grand scheme of things that we went with the flow and tried to accommodate as much as we could. Even though there was a lot to do in so little time, everybody managed to keep it very smooth, and I’m massively thankful for that.

What was the scope of Cinesite’s work on the show?

The shots can be split into two bodies of work. The first was applying a “Dead World” look to 49 shots. The second was 81 shots that involved zombifying Maggie and other characters.

In total, 60 artists helped to deliver these 130 shots over a period of two months. The work mostly happened in London, but our Montreal office gave us a very helpful hand with prep and tracking, as the first few weeks were quite a rush. We had been asked to deliver final versions of the 70 most complicated shots in only one month for the Toronto Film Festival. However, Lionsgate picked up the distribution of the film and this deadline was cancelled.

Cinesite enhanced location footage with visual effects to create 49 "dead world" shots for "Maggie" – original plate photography.

Cinesite enhanced location footage with visual effects to create 49 “dead world” shots for “Maggie” – original plate photography.

This final composite "dead world" shot includes digital fire and atmospheric effects.

The final composite “dead world” shot incorporates digital fire and atmospheric effects.

What part do the Dead World shots play in the film?

The movie starts with establishing shots of Maggie wandering at night in the streets of an abandoned Kansas City. When she gets arrested, her father Wade travels out of the countryside to bring her back home. Because the rest of the film is focused on the characters, it was very important to make sure the universe of Maggie was clearly defined by the end of this establishing sequence. The worst of the disease has passed and the world has been left in a state of decay and abandonment.

How did you go about creating the Dead World shots?

Because every shot is happening in a different place, we decided to use a 2½D approach. Photoshop matte paintings were projected in Nuke on to cards, sky domes and basic geometry which we modeled with Maya. We created the cameras with 3DEqualizer, using Google Maps as much as we could as we had very little information from the set.

Environment lead Roger Gibbon and his team destroyed houses, burned cars, tagged walls, killed every hint of life and re-invented locations. They also added abandoned football fields, rusty water towers, empty flyovers, dusty debris on the road and a Kansas City skyline. This allowed us to build a Dead World library, which we then re-used in other shots to make maximum use of the small budget.

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How were the digital matte paintings composited into the production plates?

The DMP was passed to comp, who would integrate them into the cleaned-up scans using roto and additional elements from our SFX library. One of the most complex shots needed us to burn an entire field. Senior compositor Dan Harrod did a brilliant job using fire and smoke on cards, and Nuke particles for the embers.

The team also worked on establishing a palette and defining a look for the digital intermediate, which turned the beautiful green landscapes of the original photography into darker, more ominous tones.

Maggie-Cinesite-Interchange-2

There’s a fully CG shot looking down on a freeway interchange. Did you do many shots like it?

No, this is the only one.

Can you describe what part it plays in the sequence?

As Wade drives closer to Kansas City, Henry needed a final shot to mark the transition between the empty highway and the decayed urban area. So he had the idea of using some altitude and showing the desolation from above.

We first approached this shot thinking of degrading an actual area of Kansas City – we would have rebuilt it from satellite views. But we quickly moved towards mixing different areas so as to be sure the transition idea was conveyed.

How did you build up the shot?

Our DMP artist Marie Tricart blocked out the view and the core additional elements. We then projected these on basic geometry in Nuke to work out the camera and the length of the shot. Once blocked, we started layering the interchange, introduced multiple levels and heights to make the parallax interesting.

While Marie was adding more elements, changing, refining and destroying areas in Photoshop, modeller Michael Lorenzo added geometry to project on to. Finally, senior compositor Ruggero Tomasino gave the shot some extra 2D love by adding atmospheric elements – like flying newspapers (Nuke particles) and an animated 2D truck which the production team had shot.

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Okay, let’s talk zombies. How does the disease affect people in Maggie’s world?

The zombification is a very slow process. Weeks pass by between the moment Maggie gets bitten on the arm and when she finally loses control. Henry’s idea was to show the disease spreading from the wound by a network of dark veins gradually covering Maggie’s whole arm, her shoulder, her neck and finally her face. At the same time, her eyes would start to cloud, the skin around them would begin to rot, and dry scabs would appear around the veins.

The whole idea is more about disease than gore. With the visual aesthetic of the movie, it had to be nearly poetic. Not a word you often use on zombie movies!

Abigail Breslin as Maggie

How much of the zombification had been done using makeup?

Because we arrived on the project after filming, we had to start from what had been done on set. The makeup team had painted veins on Abigail and used liquid latex for the scabs and the rot. Henry was happy with how the first stages were showing in camera but he felt that the last ones needed more work.

What did you add to the makeup?

The budget and timing did not allow for CG skin, so we worked around the existing makeup. We used the painted veins as a base, adding more and covering them with multiple layers of bruises and scabs. About twenty displacement layers were sculpted in Mudbox layers, together with additional displacement using textures created by senior texture artist Laurent Cordier. This gave us a flexible and non-destructive approach. Throughout our work, we kept track of the spread of the disease so as to keep the chronology accurate.

Cinesite delivered 81 shots in which subtle visual effects were used to enhance the effects of the zombifying disease on Maggie and other characters.

Cinesite delivered 81 shots in which subtle visual effects were used to enhance the effects of the zombifying disease on Maggie and other characters.

There are lots of extreme close-ups of Maggie’s body, often with low depth of field. Was this particularly challenging for you when applying digital makeup?

That visual style was one of the reasons why we enjoyed the project so much. It is very intimate – it felt like fresh air to our greenscreen eyes! But yes, it was definitely challenging. Abigail’s skin was completely baby smooth, so the tracking team did an incredible job, frame by frame. Imagine all these close-ups of body parts subtly twitching, with a focus point constantly traveling … and no tracking markers!  As the disease progressed and more painted veins appeared on Maggie’s skin, this task became a little easier.

Close-ups of Maggie’s feet going in and out of focus, with their subtle twitching, were massively tricky to track, even with the existing makeup. Senior matchmover Matt Boyer came up with sets of distorted planes which proved very helpful, and matchmove lead Arron Turnbull and his team did a magnificent job.

For some parts, we created geometry from the on-set pictures. Our head of assets, James Stone, modeled Abigail’s head based on photos provided to us. Incidentally, when we did receive measurements, our digital model was only 2mm out!

Abigail Breslin in "Maggie"

How many stages of decay were there altogether?

In total, we ended up with five Maggies. “Maggie 0” is the Maggie we meet at the beginning of the movie. She has just a tiny bit of red, flaky skin around the eyes. We did no work on her. “Maggie 1” sees her iris starting to cloud, some veins appearing on her forehead and in her neck, and the redness around her eye getting stronger.

“Maggie 1” is the stage that was lacking the most consistency on set, and so required the most invisible work from us. The effects had to be soft and discreet – very difficult. Because we had all the reels in-house, we managed to create templates to grade the scan with textured irises, veins and marks, based on the shots we were working on as well as the ones we would not touch.

How did the decay progress beyond “Maggie 1”?

“Maggie 2” takes over after she starts eating meat. At that point, we had to start the transition to our final stage Maggie. We pushed the eye cataracts further and used the projected veins pattern of a “Maggie 2.5” stage as mattes to grade, distort and fake a gentle 3D effect on her skin.

“Maggie 2.5” was at first supposed to be a more advanced version of “Maggie 2” – just before she turns into a zombie – but it soon became obvious that at this stage we would have to start using CG, so it earned its own codename. To create it, Laurent simplified down the texture and displacement from “Maggie 3”.

So “Maggie 3” was the final stage?

Yes. “Maggie 3” was the properly CG-enhanced version which we designed as a last stage. Because CG skin wasn’t an option, we blended our V-Ray-rendered CG veins with the live action plate. The lighting had to be spot-on for the transition to work.

Did you pay particular attention to the eyes – those windows of the soul?

Yes, Maggie’s eyes go through a whole evolution over the course of the movie. We would often need to apply some effect to them at the same time as we would apply effects to her skin. We rigged the eyes of our digital model to help the match-move of the skin, so we ended up with usable animated geometry and UV-ed eyeballs to play with.

The eyes of “Maggie 0” have a soft white veil – this was achieved during the shoot with lenses, or in post with grading. We pushed the lens-work a bit further by making a cloudy layer appear within the iris of “Maggie 1” and adding more pronounced little red veins on the edges.

“Maggie 2” goes full-on cataract. These are the most visually surprising. The effect was achieved by mixing the eyeballs with a distorted version of themselves using a network of organic shapes. This allowed us to keep a good part of the performance. We then added some tiny localised grading to give it a warm and humid “yolk” effect.

“Maggie 2.5” and “Maggie 3” see the white cataract disappear. Hundreds of little black veins invade her eyeballs to make it look like the disease is now taking control over her body.

Cinesite tracked production footage of Abigail Breslin as Maggie, then used digital techniques to enhance the practical makeup effects used on-set. Left: original plate. Right: final composite.

Cinesite tracked production footage of Abigail Breslin as Maggie, then used digital techniques to enhance the practical makeup effects used on-set. Left: original plate. Right: final composite.

Tell us about the scene in which Maggie loses her finger.

After Maggie falls and cuts her finger, she starts bleeding a lot; because she doesn’t feel anything any more, she simply cuts it off. On set, they had used a finger prosthetic for the first shots. We started by removing the rig, cleaning up the junction with the hand and removing the wobble. Then we match-moved a cut, sliced a hole at the bottom and regraded the whole to make it look like the inside of the finger was getting soaked with blood. When she cuts it off, we went for a CG stump.

They had done a good job of hiding most of Abigail’s finger on set, but the amount and the dryness of the blood on her hand was inconsistent. So James and Laurent modelled the finger, and lighting and texture artist Peter Aversten created multiple layers of blood textures to aid continuity.

Did you also apply digital make-up to the other zombies seen in the film?

There are not that many of them, but Maggie is certainly not the only zombie in the movie, and they all required enhancement. The best ones to talk about are maybe Nathan and Julia – a father and daughter we meet in the forest just after Maggie cuts her finger. The makeup was good, but unfortunately it was not showing enough on camera. We painted veins over their faces and their hands and match-moved them. And just because we could, we also warped and regraded them to make them look much skinnier and way less healthy.

Maggie was your first project as VFX supervisor. Was it a big learning curve?

Well, because it was only two months, there was little room for error. Luckily, the Cinesite team has been very supportive. Thanks to their talent and positive approach, the ride has been a pretty good one. Hopefully, they’ve enjoyed it too!

Maggie is released on Blu-ray and DVD today, 7 July 2015.

Special thanks to Helen Moody. “Maggie” photographs copyright © 2015 Lionsgate and Lotus Entertainment.

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