About Graham Edwards

I'm senior staff writer at Cinefex magazine. I also write novels. In a former life, I produced animated films for theme park rides and science centres. If you offer me a cold beer, I won't say no.

Orphan Black and Twinning in the Movies

This article was first published in slightly different form on the Cinefex blog on 8 April 2014.

Orphan Black - Season 3

What’s the best visual effect of them all? Which camera trick brings everything together to make a perfect whole – conceptual elegance, technical expertise, editorial sleight of hand, dramatic performance? Which cinematic illusion wins the grand VFX prize? My answer may split opinion.

It’s the twinning effect.

I know. You’re scratching your head in puzzlement. How is creating twins more impressive than blowing up a planet? Does a pair of chatty clones really beat a ninety-foot robot grappling a multi-tentacled mutant from another dimension?

Yes. And yes. Let me tell you why. But first, let me explain what I’m talking about.

By “twinning”, I mean the process whereby a single actor plays two or more roles in the same film. For the performer, it’s a delicious challenge. For the visual effects artist, the challenge comes with the shots where both (or multiple) incarnations of said actor appear on screen at the same time.

"Orphan Black" clone strangling scene

One of the latest productions to use this time-honoured trick is the TV series Orphan Black, the second season of which begins its run on BBC America later this month. In the show, Tatiana Maslany plays a woman who encounters several cloned versions of herself and becomes caught up in a deadly conspiracy, in a remarkable performance that saw her nominated for a Golden Globe. Orphan Black’s visual effects are by Intelligent Creatures; according to visual effects producer Che Spencer, their mandate was “to push the effect and not settle for what was easy.”

Watch an Intelligent Creatures breakdown video of the extended “clone dance party” from the Orphan Black season 2 finale (including a surprise unaired ending):

We’ll hear more from Intelligent Creatures about Orphan Black in a moment, including a breakdown of one of Season One’s most daring multi-clone shots. Before then, let’s take a brief look at the history of the twinning effect.

Old-School Double Acts

A good early example of twinning is the 1944 Bing Crosby musical Here Come The Waves, in which Betty Hutton stars as identical twins Susan and Rosemary Allison. The film uses a fairly standard range of twinning tricks including a body double with her back to the camera, and judiciously-placed split screens.

"Here Come the Waves" trailer image

In many of the shots in Here Come The Waves, it’s easy to spot where split line is (the binary Betties are generally positioned on opposite sides of the screen, with plenty of empty set gaping between). Some shots – such as the one where both characters leave the stage after a dance number (at 1:45 in the clip below) – make effective use of a moving split, allowing the twins to occupy the same physical space, albeit after a small but convenient time interval.

For some journalists of the time, such trick photography was akin to witchcraft, as evidenced in a contemporary article from May 29, 1944 by Frederick C. Othman of Associated Press – here’s an extract:

This piece is going to be complicated; it involves two Betty Huttons and how can anybody expect you to understand what’s going on, when the writer doesn’t exactly understand himself? … The boys are making with the double talk about split screens and synchronous recordings. … If one Miss Hutton is a squillionth of an inch off her marks when she gets out of her chair, the other Miss Hutton is a blur. And, of course, vice versa. That’s because of the split screen (says Othman, who has only the vaguest idea of what he’s talking about).

Olivia de Havilland faces herself in "The Dark Mirror"

If Here Come The Waves exemplifies the early frivolous use of twinning techniques, The Dark Mirror, released two years later in 1946, is its shadowy counterpart.

In the film, Olivia de Havilland plays twins Terry and Ruth Collins, both suspected of murder and both possessing an alibi for the night the crime was committed. While this psychological melodrama uses similar techniques to Here Come The Waves, director Robert Siodmak exploits its darker themes with shots like the one at 1:20 in the clip below, in which moody lighting is used to conceal the use of the ever-reliable body double.

Before we run forward in time, let’s quickly wind the clock even further back to 1937 and take a look The Prisoner of Zenda, in which Ronald Colman plays both the king of Ruritaria and his English lookalike.

The Prisoner of Zenda contains an early example of twins not only appearing side by side, but also physically interacting, in a shot where the two Ronald Colmans shake hands. This quote from David O. Selznick’s Hollywood by Ronald Haver*, makes the intricate matte work used to pull the shot off sound deceptively straightforward:

The camera shot through a plate of sheet glass that had been taped to cover the area of the double’s head and shoulders. After exposing the action, the film was rewound in the camera, the plate glass was retaped to cover everything except the area of the double’s head and shoulders, and Colman changed costumes and stood in. Colman’s head and shoulders were then photographed in perfect register with the double’s body.

Attack of the Clones

Throughout the 20th century, there was a regular flow of twinning films, most of which relied on these familiar visual effects techniques – perhaps most famously when a young Hayley Mills played identical twins in The Parent Trap (1961). Then, in 1988, came a matched pair of twinning films that upped the ante and doubled the stakes.

The first was Big Business, which starred Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin as two sets of identical twins. The second was David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), in which Jeremy Irons played twin gynaecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle. Both films made a bold leap by using motion control to introduce camera moves into their split-screen shots.

Jeremy Irons doubles up in "Dead Ringers" (1988)

Luckily for us, when dissecting the revolutionary visual effects of Dead Ringers in Cinefex #36, Don Shay demonstrated a little more understanding of the twinning process than Here Come The Waves reporter Fred Offman did back in 1944:

The most difficult of the motion control setups was a reverse tracking shot of the twins walking towards camera. To compensate for normal arm and body sway, Film Effects of Toronto had to develop matting sequences that constantly shifted the split from side to side. And since diffused splits of varying widths were required – depending on background light levels – different splits were dissolved in and out as the scene progressed. From start to finish, the shot required four separate split-screen mattes – each with an average of four dissolves.

Once the Pandora’s Box of motion control twinning effects had been opened, there was no going back. From Back to the Future II through Multiplicity to Adaptation and beyond, filmmakers have experimented with ever-more elaborate ways of duplicating the talent. In The Social Network, Lola raised the bar higher than ever when they created the Vinklevoss twins by mapping Armie Hammer’s face on to that of fellow actor Josh Pence. Read all about how they did it in this excellent article at FXGuide.

These recent refinements mean filmmakers can now do proper justice to that staple of science fiction: the clone story. In The City of Lost Children, Pitof/Duboi presented us with more copies of Dominique Pinon than we knew what to do with. More recently, Moon pitted Sam Rockwell against, er, Sam Rockwell, in a stunning variety of clone scenes that showcased not only Rockwell’s acting chops, but Cinesite’s invisible digital effects.

In planning Moon’s judiciously-used clone shots, director Duncan Jones studied both Dead Ringers and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation.  “[Spike] told me that when you’re working through scenes, you need to choose which character really leads the scene, and shoot that one first,” Jones remarked in Estelle Shay’s article Moon Madness (Cinefex #118).

Sam Rockwell checks his counterpart's temperature in "Moon"

The same article has the following to say about the above Cinesite split-screen shot in which “Sam1” feels the forehead of “Sam 2”:

In the hero pass, Rockwell as the ill Sam1 performed to a stand-in serving as Sam 2, with a C-stand used to record the position of the double’s left shoulder. In the second pass, Rockwell performed as Sam 2, aligning his shoulder with the marker and using his body to occlude that of the double. A third pass allowed for the removal of extra lighting, cameras and floor markers, and the shadow cast by the C-stand and opposing action. In post, Cinesite attached the double’s arm to Rockwell’s Sam 2 through careful rotoscoping and warping of clothing.

Orphan Black

All this talk of clones brings us neatly back to Orphan Black and Intelligent Creatures. Early on, the show’s producers told visual effects supervisor Geoff Scott that the budget wouldn’t allow for motion controlled camera moves, prompting Scott to explore other ways of taking away the curse of the locked-off twinning shot. In the end, however, motion control won the day, as described here by the Intelligent Creatures team:

Before production began we considered many different techniques from simple handheld camera moves to repeatable slider rigs, but ultimately it came down to a full motion control system.  In fact, we shot the scene from the pilot where Sarah meets Katja on two different motion control rigs before settling on what became the go to rig for the series – the Super TechnoDolly. The first of its generation, the TechnoDolly is a robotic camera system, essentially a smart Technocrane. It allowed us to create movements of unlimited length and complexity, and more importantly, repeat those moves with incredible precision. We shot the entire scene with Tatiana playing Sarah alongside a stand in actor to work out blocking and eyelines. Then we repeated the scene with Tatiana alone following carefully placed eyeline markers. Finally, Tatiana changed over to Katja and we did the whole thing over again. The passes were later combined in compositing using Digital Fusion to create the seamless effect.

The TechnoDolly proved adaptable enough in operation to give the director flexibility on set, and – crucially in a show where ADR needed to be kept to an absolute minimum – it was near-silent in operation.

Orphan Black uses every trick in the twinning book to help create Maslany’s various clone characters, from old-school over-the-shoulder shots to complex composites involving moving cameras and selected body parts from one actor stitched on to those of another.

With each episode the challenges grew. The one main request was that once an episode the clones would touch. Sometimes we had as many as three clones in the room all interacting with each other, delivering dialogue and making eye contact. We used the Super TechnoDolly for these really complex movements in order to maintain image integrity and repeatability. In the penultimate episode, we had one clone pour wine for two others, and another hug one in a deep embrace. As the episode continued we saw clones strangling each other, head butting, and eventually shoot the other. In a single episode we had a season’s worth of visual effects.

The Intelligent Creatures team is adamant that the general lack of attention drawn to their work on Orphan Black is in fact a great compliment:

The truest testament to our skill is how little the audience notices it. If people can immerse themselves within the plot enough to forget that this shot was done with VFX, then our jobs are done. We used visual effects to help do what the show’s creators intended to do: tell a story. The rest might as well be magic.

Watch the Intelligent Creatures sizzle reel for their work on Orphan Black:

Two Are One

There’s one twinning technique I haven’t discussed here. That’s because it puts visual effects artists out of work. I’m talking about those rare occasions when the director needs to double up the lead actor … and that actor just happens to have a real twin.

The example that springs into my mind (and probably into the minds of most regular Cinefex readers) is Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in which the shape-shifting T-1000 makes a last-ditch attempt to fool John Connor by mimicking his mother’s physical form. Director James Cameron placed the two Sarah Connors on screen simultaneously not with visual effects, but by drafting in actress Linda Hamilton’s twin sister Leslie. (Cameron used the same trick with twins Don and Dan Stanton, who played Lewis the Guard and his deadly doppelganger respectively.)

Audiences who don’t realise that Hamilton and Stanton are twins undoubtedly assume they’re seeing a camera trick, which only underlines just how tough it is for any visual effects artist to take on the twinning challenge. Why is it so hard? Because the audience knows.

They know the famous actor they’re seeing doesn’t have a twin. They know it’s a trick. When presented with a twinning effect, the average Joe Schmoe in the second row will put down his popcorn, sit forward in his seat and try his damndest to spot the join, even if ordinarily he has no interest in VFX whatsoever. Nowhere are the creators of visual effects placed under greater scrutiny than when they’re giving birth to twins.

And that’s why, of all the illusions a filmmaker might choose to put on screen, the twinning effect is undoubtedly in the running for my all-time number one.

Season 3 of Orphan Black is currently airing on BBC America:

*Published by Bonanza Books, 1987, quote sourced via The Ronald Colman Appreciation SocietyMoon image copyright © 2009 Lunar Industries/Sony Pictures. Orphan Black images copyright © 2014 Intelligent Creatures/Temple Street Productions.

Ex Machina – VFX Q&A

"Ex Machina" - Cinefex VFX Q&A with Double Negative

Ever since Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, the concept of a robot with artificial intelligence has held movie audiences in thrall. Now, as the science fiction dream of AI becomes ever-more plausible in the real world, so a new generation of filmmakers has begun to explore its tantalising possibilities.

The latest addition to this recent crop of AI movies – which includes Caradog James’s The Machine and Spike Jonze’s Her – is Ex Machina. Written and directed by Alex Garland, the film introduces young computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) into an experiment designed to establish whether sexy and cerebral android Ava (Alicia Vikander) is truly self-aware.

Vikander’s on-set performance as Ava was meticulously preserved during the post-production process. While much of her body was replaced by a digital counterpart, Vikander’s face and hands were retained throughout. The result is a seamless blend of live-action and CG animation that remains convincing in a film characterised by long takes and intricate dialogue.

The production visual effects supervisor for Ex Machina was Double Negative’s Andrew Whitehurst, who was assigned to the project for around 16 months. Under Whitehurst’s supervision, Double Negative delivered over 300 robot shots, with an additional 250 VFX shots being provided by Milk VFX, Utopia and Web FX.

Watch the trailer for Ex Machina:

How did you get involved with Ex Machina?

Double Negative were approached by DNA films and the writer/director, Alex Garland. We quickly worked out that we saw things very similarly, and that we would be able to work together.

How did you divide up the visual effects work among the various vendors?

The work on Ex Machina was divided amongst four facilities. Double Negative created the android, Ava. Milk VFX created Ava’s brain, “Ava vision” and did a number of monitor inserts and clean-up effects. Utopia created a CG mobile phone for Caleb and added extra CG buildings to the Norwegian location plates. Web FX provided a number of clean-up and monitor composites.

This is Alex Garland’s feature debut as director. How was he to work with?

An absolute pleasure. Alex is visually very driven, and has a great appreciation of art, comics, film, and games – all of which he brings to bear on his work. He’s a very collaborative director, and we had a great many design meetings in which the two of us did quick sketches with a pad of copier paper and a fistful of Sharpies, to work out design issues. It’s a very fast way of working; it also allowed us make better decisions, because we could rule many things out before working up more finished designs.

Did you previs the film?

No, we didn’t do any previs. It was always very character-led, which meant that the blocking was something that only the actors – working with Alex and the director of photography, Rob Hardy – could do. We had to make sure we could work with anything they decided to shoot.

Alicia Vikander stars as Ava in Alex Garland's "Ex Machina", with visual effects by Double Negative, Milk VFX, Utopia and Web FX.

Alicia Vikander stars as Ava in Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina”, with visual effects by Double Negative, Milk VFX, Utopia and Web FX.

How did you go about designing and developing the character of Ava?

When Alex came to Double Negative, he’d already had some concept paintings done by Jock, who’s an amazing artist. As the film had to come in at a certain budget, we needed to design a character that could be realised for that amount of money.

Once we knew our practical constraints we began to work up painted concepts. We included O-rings and connection studs in the design. They gave us something to track and provided clean edges to roto around, so we could layer in CG behind the in-camera costume. We worked very hard to give Ava a plausible mechanical quality that also had a lot of feminine beauty: the audience had to believe that a human could fall in love with her.

What other sources did you draw visual inspiration from?

The only rule I set for anyone who was working on Ava’s design – including myself – was that we weren’t allowed to look at other robots, especially androids. Instead, I put together a collection of images of Formula One car suspensions, high-end road bicycles, lightweight aircraft airframes, human anatomy and procedural sculpture. These gave us inspiration for both form and materials.

I think that – possibly subconsciously – the design of Ava owes a lot to the French comic artist, Moebius. Both Alex and I are big fans of his work, and even though we didn’t explicitly refer to his images during production, when I look at Ava now I see a lot of Moebius’s influence there.

How did you translate the concept art into three dimensions?

We soon reached a point where it was clear that we’d pushed painted concepts as far as they could go, and that we had to start modelling in 3D. We began by building an arm, starting with simplifying human bone shapes and changing pivot points to more mechanical forms. Then we started adding musculature and cabling. Richard Durant and Alexis Lemonis did the majority of the modelling of Ava.

We worked hard to make sure that we designed something which could work practically, which looked like it had the right weight distribution, and which still had “form follows function” beauty. We continually removed pieces that seemed superfluous. The great industrial designer, Dieter Rams, has a motto: “Less, but better.” We constantly kept that in mind. In fact, when the design was 3D-printed for the laboratory set, it did all fit together beautifully. That was a proud moment!

Was it a complex model to rig for animation?

We started rigging Ava as soon as we began modelling, and the rig developed throughout the show – it was still being tweaked right up to the end. Mark Ardington and Fernanda Moreno rigged Ava, with Mark carefully building versions of the rig that could be used by the body track artists to duplicate Alicia’s movement. We also had a higher res version of the rig that could be swapped out at render time; that one had cables, muscles bulging, and all the secondary animation that gives Ava weight.

How did you capture Alicia Vikander’s on-set performance as Ava?

Almost every scene involving Ava features lengthy dialogue shots. So, from the beginning, it was clear that Alicia would need to be on set, and that her physicality would have to drive the performance and give the other actors something to respond to. That immediately ruled out performance capture in post as an approach, so we opted for body tracking.

The majority of the shots in the film are around 200 frames long, with one clocking in at 1600 frames. It was a huge challenge to track them as the precision needed to be maintained throughout. It really was a herculean effort by all involved.

Additionally, the film was shot using Xtal Express anamorphic lenses which, whilst beautiful, provided a number of challenges to the tracking artists. The lens distortion was often not even, and changes in focus could radically change the lens geometry. Alex Maciera led the tracking team and I think it’s no exaggeration to say that body tracking Ava was the hardest task on the show.

Describe the workflow for a typical shot in which Ava appears.

Our approach to most Ava shots was to allow Alex, Rob and the actors to shoot what they wanted on set. When a set-up was completed, we would step in and shoot HDR lighting reference with bracketed stills, and shoot clean plates for the shot with the main unit camera.

In post, this allowed us to rotoscope the parts of Alicia we wanted to keep: always the face and hands, often the shoulders and feet too, and sometimes the shorts. Then we used the clean plates to prep out the rest of Ava, giving us a plate to composite with.

Meanwhile, camera- and body-tracking gave us a mesh that could be rendered with the HDR lighting captured on set. We used PRMan for rendering.

Finally the CG, the roto, and the clean plate were handed over to the compositing artists to final the shots. The 2D team – under the supervision of Paul Norris – not only graded the CG to perfectly match the plate, but often also did tracking tweaks and stabilisations. They also added the incredibly complex lens distortions, flares, and other optical effects.

It sounds like a lot of work for the roto department. Did you use greenscreens to help with the keying?

Well, the shoot was scheduled to last eight weeks, and we knew that we would be shooting between 15 and 25 set-ups every day. This pushed us to design a character that wouldn’t require heavy amounts of bluescreen or greenscreen on set; at the pace we were shooting at, there just would never have been time to light them properly. In fact, Ex Machina is the first show I’ve done where we didn’t use a single greenscreen.

It’s also worth pointing out that, because the sets had a lot of glass in them, we would often be tracking, prepping, rendering, and compositing several Avas at once. Some shots included as many as three reflections of Ava, in addition to the Ava in front of the camera.

Alicia Vikander as Ava in "Ex Machina"

What’s your favourite Ava shot?

I’m especially proud of the work that was done on the scene where Ava puts on clothes. On set, Alicia dressed herself over the top of the Ava costume. We not only had to prep in the background where Ava’s arms, legs and torso were, but we also had to paint in other details – the back side of the stockings, for example. Greg Shimp did great paint work on those shots.

The lighting in the scene was very subtle, and we ended up adding a lot of additional CG lights to give the look we wanted. Michael Ranaletta composited the shots, dealing with the shifting, shallow focus, and subtle edge treatments around the garments to get everything to sit together perfectly. It’s a such an intimate, delicate scene. It’s a treat when VFX is allowed to make something beautiful.

How do you feel about the film, now that the work is done?

Ex Machina is a really beautiful film. The imagery is – and I realise I’m biased – fantastic. I really believe that this is the result of every department working closely together, helping each other out, and making good practical decisions every step of the way. The collaboration with Alex, the art department, camera, make-up, costume and editorial was exceptionally deep on this show, and I think it shows in the finished result.

If you’re lucky enough to have great crews – as I did at Dneg, Milk, Utopia and Web – then you can make some very beautiful pictures. I’m very proud of all of them.

Special thanks to Sarah Harries and Karl Simon Gustafsson. “Ex Machina” photographs copyright © 2015 by Universal Pictures.

Vertical Cinema

Vertical Cinema, photograph by Sascha Osaka

Photograph by Sascha Osaka and courtesy of Sonic Arts.

Widescreen! Cinemascope! Panavision!

Since the early days of cinema, movie screens have been getting steadily wider. From the squat 4:3 aspect ratio of early 20th century silent movies, through the explosion of sprawling widescreen film formats that began in the 1950s, to today’s ever-expanding domestic TV screens, the trend is clear: bigger is better … but only if you stretch things in the horizontal dimension.

But what happens if you turn this thinking on its head?

Or rather, on its side?

That’s the question posed by Vertical Cinema, a Sonic Acts art project comprising ten specially commissioned films made by experimental filmmakers and audiovisual artists. Vertical Cinema presentations have been held since 2013 at locations across Europe and in the USA, with the films frequently being projected in churches. The movies are projected using a custom-built 35mm film projector in vertical Cinemascope. No landscape images here. In Vertical Cinema, everything is portrait.

Here’s what Vertical Cinema has to say about this unusual twist on traditional cinematic conventions:

For the Vertical Cinema project, we “abandoned” traditional cinema formats, opting instead for cinematic experiments that are designed for projection in a tall, narrow space. It is not an invitation to leave cinemas – which have been radically transformed over the past decade according to the diktat of the commercial film market – but a provocation to expand the image onto a new axis. This project re-thinks the actual projection space and returns it to the filmmakers. It proposes a future for filmmaking rather than a pessimistic debate over the alleged death of film.

With its mission to challenge established conventions, Vertical Cinema wears its experimental heart firmly on its sleeve. But what’s to stop someone making a full-blown narrative feature film in this unusual vertical format?

On the face of it, the challenges seem considerable. The entire movie industry is built around the landscape image. Even if you could get such a film made at a technical level, would the vertical format clip your storytelling wings? And would audiences actually want to see it?

To answer these questions and more, Cinefex spoke with six filmmakers and visual effects experts: Douglas Trumbull (filmmaker and VFX innovator), Tim Webber (creative director and VFX supervisor, Framestore), Rajat Roy (global technical supervisor, Prime Focus World), Paul Mowbray (head of NSC Creative), Marc Weigert (president and VFX supervisor, Method Studios) and Charles Rose (CG supervisor, Tippett Studio).

What technical hurdles would you have to jump in order to make a narrative feature film in vertical format?

Tim Webber – “If anything, shooting vertically is more of a practical irritation rather than anything challenging from a technical standpoint – monitors and the user interfaces are designed to be viewed in landscape, for example. The bulk of industry cameras are bottom-heavy, with buttons on their sides, so as soon as you rotate them everything becomes trickier. But there are no truly complex problems to solve.”

Marc Weigert – “It’s not a problem mounting your cameras at a 90° angle on to your camera platform of choice. The main challenge – or limitation – would be lighting and set-building. Where do you hide your lights? Or the opposite: where do you put your netting to diffuse sunlight or bounce light? How tall will you have to build your sets?”

Vertical Cinema at the Kontraste Festival 2013, photograph by Markus Gradwohl

Vertical Cinema at the Kontraste Festival 2013, photograph by Markus Gradwohl

Rajat Roy – “In terms of technical challenges, there really isn’t anything that can’t be done in film. To achieve a vertical effect, you can shoot 6K and mask the image to use only the central portion of the frame, for example. However, there would be considerations if we were presenting stereo imagery in this medium, in that you are really accentuating the left and right borders – something we’re very conscious of when working in stereo. Objects breaking frame in shot can cause issues in stereo, and this would be exacerbated by the vertical aspect ratio. There would also need to be consideration given to the viewing angle, as the fall-off at the top of frame could cause issues, depending on the viewer’s proximity to the screen.”

Marc Weigert – “There would be problems with special effects too. Rain and snow rigs would be tough to hide. Interestingly, some of these problems are also prevalent in the 360° films now starting to appear for VR formats like the Oculus Rift, so we’ll probably have to come up with smart ways to overcome these challenges anyway in the near future.”

Charles Rose – “Technically, the challenges aren’t many, beyond the obvious. I think the biggest challenge will be finding narratives suited to the vertical format. Most of the vertical cinema films I’ve seen are very abstract, non-narrative.”

Tim Webber – “But the challenge doesn’t stop with making the film. Projecting vertically has its own issues, even down to the requirements from the room. That’s why vertical cinema is often shown in churches, where the tall architecture really complements the format.”

Marc Weigert – “Also, human eyes automatically create a horizontally-weighted aspect ratio. A vertical ratio – I would guess – would create an enormous strain on either your eyes or your neck muscles for a two-hour movie.”

Doug Trumbull – “Our company created a special venue attraction for the Luxor Pyramid Hotel, called Secrets of the Luxor Pyramid, directed by myself and Arish Fyzee. The third act was a vertical screen show called the Theater of Time. The movie was very straightforward to design and produce, with everything specifically conceived for the vertical format. There were no significant technical challenges that would not occur with any other format, and the visual opportunities were very exciting. The movie was a combination of live-action, miniatures, and computer graphics, shot in VistaVision at 48fps, digitally composited and rendered out at 6K resolution to film. It was projected on to a deeply curved vertical screen with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 – the original “full frame” VistaVision format.”

Vertical format cinema photograph courtesy of Douglas Trumbull.

Vertical format cinema photograph courtesy of Douglas Trumbull.

What about the artistic challenges?

Rajat Roy – “Vertical cinema is just a device – it’s affecting the visual language of the storytelling, but it’s not creating artistic challenges in itself. It’s not as if the artist is saying, “Oh no, I want to create this piece of art but now I have this vertical constriction!” The format drives the creation.”

Doug Trumbull – “Working with the vertical format, I felt that storytelling was very straightforward, particularly when cutting between actors and away to their POVs. The vertical format encouraged direct cuts between actors, because over-shoulder shots were not necessary.”

Tim Webber – “The artistic and aesthetic differences are really where vertical cinema is interesting. Landscape filmmaking automatically lends itself to having more people in the frame at once. How people interact, and the relationships they have with one another, are a key narrative point to the majority of films we see today. With a portrait frame, however, it’s much more suited to having one person dominate the screen. As a result, the type of film we’d see with this technique would be different to the norm.”

Marc Weigert – “Action in most stories takes place horizontally (and no, I’m not just talking about those kind of movies!). Whether it’s a car chase, a walk-and-talk, a dinner in a restaurant, or a scene in a conference room, as soon as more than one person is present everything is naturally laid out horizontally. So you would actually have to ‘force’ a vertical framing. Even a mountain rarely lends itself to portrait framing – just leaf though any Ansel Adams book.”

Paul Mowbray – “The vertical cinema movement highlights the frame much more acutely than regular cinema. As soon as you move away from the widescreen format we’re so familiar with, many of the rules and conventions that cinema has evolved over the years need to be reinvented.”

What sort of things might we see emerging with this new, vertical visual language?

Tim Webber – “The filmmaking rules and tropes we use today were developed with a landscape frame, so how we understand composition and narrative would have to be adapted. The basic principles are the same, but the instincts trained into camera operators would have to be re-learned. For example, in vertical cinema the environment tends to have a far greater effect on the character. So, if the sky plays a big role in your film thematically or through the narrative, a vertical frame would be the perfect fit.”

Rajat Roy – “There’s obviously an emphasis of vertical scale. In the same way that you can present a huge panoramic vista in Cinemascope, a vertical image of a landscape with lots of sky can also be very dramatic, giving a sense of human scale to the view. Alternatively, the vertical frame could be used to build suspense: ‘What’s happening just out of frame?’ The constricted window denies the viewer seeing everything they may want to see.”

Marc Weigert – “I would say that vertical cinema is not suited very well for narrative cinema. On the flip-side, just as the portrait format has advantages in certain areas of still photography (think high rises and stairwells), there are some benefits to vertical cinema. But my feeling is that some vertical tilting – as seen in films currently – would be replaced with lots of horizontal panning!”

Tim Webber – “A good pointer would be the Oscar-winning film, Ida. It isn’t a vertical film, but it was shot 4:3, with the characters frequently framed right at the bottom of the frame. The beautiful and original cinematography affected how the audience felt about the emotional and psychological state of the characters.

Doug Trumbull – “With Theater of Time, we did everything possible to give the audience a feeling of flying and vertigo, using wide angle lenses, so that looking down at the ground was rich in detail, and looking up at the sky was very beautiful – all in one shot.”

Visual effects shots for the vertical format film “Theater of Time”, directed by Doug Trumbull and Arish Fyzee, were accomplished using a gantry crane system designed and built by Sorensen Design of Medford, Oregon, and miniature VistaVision cameras and heads, created in collaboration with Donald E. Trumbull. The miniature photography was under Kuper Motion Control, using Nikon 20mm lenses stopped down to f22, with several seconds exposure per frame.

Visual effects shots for the vertical format film “Theater of Time”, directed by Doug Trumbull and Arish Fyzee, were accomplished using a gantry crane system designed and built by Sorensen Design of Medford, Oregon, and miniature VistaVision cameras and heads, created in collaboration with Donald E. Trumbull. The miniature photography was under Kuper Motion Control, using Nikon 20mm lenses stopped down to f22, with several seconds exposure per frame.

So, what’s the future for vertical cinema?

Tim Webber – “Ultimately, it will always be a niche area of filmmaking. There are many good reasons why films have developed with wide screens. Not least that, because of the horizontal setting of our two eyes: we see a widescreen view of the world in our everyday lives.”

Rajat Roy – “There’s a place for vertical cinema as an interesting alternative to conventional cinematic presentation, if it’s used positively. If you tried to create a narrative film that doesn’t use the device effectively, then it would be annoying – just like any poorly used device. But, in the right hands, I could see it being very effective. It delivers the same kind of effect as a tall, thin window in architecture – it’s a pleasing aesthetic. ”

Paul Mowbray – “As the VR movement is about to explode, it seems quite bizarre to think that a movement with such a restrictive field of view would be able to gain popularity. A filmmaker’s goal is usually to immerse their audience in a story, so I believe an all-encompassing, 360° canvas is the logical evolution of cinema. Vertical cinema introduces a significant restriction to this goal of immersion. However, by doing this, it also introduces some interesting constraints which force the filmmaker to consider things in new ways. I can already think of a few interesting ideas that would lend themselves to this format. But it feels like more of a novelty than the future of cinema.”

Doug Trumbull – “Since much of our world is vertical – consider the printed page, for example – it’s actually very comfortable to frame shots in the vertical format, and very natural to watch. I believe there are still many opportunities to continue to explore the vertical format for special projects, theme parks, rides, and other projects that want to offer a unique movie experience.”

Tim Webber – “Overall, I think it’s an interesting development that opens up the process to an entirely different type of filmmaker. Personally, I’d like to make a film that uses various aspect ratios, and plays around with these conventions from scene to scene as another way to draw the viewer into the characters and story. It’s remarkable how changing aspect ratio doesn’t take you out of the movie, as seen when Christopher Nolan switches from Cinemascope to IMAX in some of his movies.”

Have you seen a Vertical Cinema presentation? What did you think? And do you like the idea of settling down to watch a two-hour feature film presented in this novel way? If so, what kind of movie might it be? Is this a credible art form, or just another tall story?

Special thanks to Annette Wolfsberger, Stephanie Bruning, Liam Thompson, Melissa Knight, Tony Bradley and Mark Stetson.

Kingsman: The Secret Service – VFX Dossier

Cinefex reports on "Kingsman: The Secret Service"

Based on a series of comic books by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, Kingsman: The Secret Service chronicles the recruitment of bad boy Gary “Eggsy” Unwin into a top secret spy organisation.

Recently unclassified files reveal that the action comedy is directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class), with visual effects by a range of vendors delivered under the surveillance of visual effects producer Stephen Elson, and deployed by production visual effects supervisor Steve Begg, and a team of supporting agents. (Begg ultimately handed over to veteran VFX operative John Bruno, in order to undertake another espionage mission, this time on Her Majesty’s secret service.)

Cinefex has obtained additional top secret documents from three of the visual effects vendors assigned to Kingsman: The Secret Service. They are presented here on an “eyes only” understanding. Once read, all trace of their existence must be destroyed.

Top Secret

Dossier 1 – Prime Focus World

Agent Name: Marc Jouveneau | Agent Role: VFX Supervisor

Mission Background

Agent Jouveneau – previous association with Agent Begg, on missions including Casino Royale and Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life.

Prime Focus World – previous association with show VFX producer, Stephen Elson.

Roxy rises into the stratosphere in "Kingsman: The Secret Service" - visual effects by Prime Focus World.

Roxy rises into the stratosphere in “Kingsman: The Secret Service” – visual effects by Prime Focus World.

Mission Scope

Prime Focus World was operational on several key sequences and one-off shots. Agent Jouveneau supervised from shoot to final delivery:

  • Fight in church
  • Individual shots in tunnel sequence
  • White House shot
  • Worldwide fights finale sequence, including shooting aerial plates and motion capture
  • Roxy (Sophie Cookson) in near-space

Additional resources deployed for:

  • Designing and building house belonging to Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) for aerial establishing shots
  • Comped graphics/footage inserts into monitors, HUD, phones, etc.
  • Various additional enhancements

Shot Count

410 shots delivered by a team of approximately 160 Prime Focus World agents, in all departments.

Agent Jouveneau involved on shoot Oct 2013–Feb 2014. Post-production commenced Mar 2014. Most shots delivered Jun–Aug 2014. Retakes and graphic inserts addressed Sep–Oct 2014. Final shot delivered 10 Oct 2014.

For the near-space sequence, VFX supervisor Marc Jouveneau's team studied weather balloons, skydiving, footage of Felix Baumgartner’s high-altitude jump and various NASA image sources.

For the near-space sequence, VFX supervisor Marc Jouveneau’s team studied weather balloons, footage of Felix Baumgartner’s high-altitude jump and various NASA image sources.

Research & Development

Key reference sources:

  • Original Kingsman graphic novel
  • Previous films of director Matthew Vaughn – notably Kick-Ass, emblematic for editing style i.e. quick cuts and fast moves during action sequences
  • Style guidelines provided by Steve Begg, drawn from action/spy films including Casino Royale and Skyfall
  • Previs used on most sequences – either CG or stunt choreographies
  • Brad Allan, second unit director and stunt coordinator, planned all fights with his team
  • Near-space sequence: weather balloons – including explosion of same; skydiving through clouds; Felix Baumgartner’s jump from near-space; various NASA pictures

Interrogation Extracts – Marc Jouveneau

“The fight in the church was originally designed to be one long continuous shot lasting over six minutes. It was edited and cut in the end, but there are still three long chunks – each one over 1,000 frames. I supervised it on-set with the second unit, working with director of photography, Fraser Taggart, and assistant director, Joe Geary.”

“We took a lot of measurements, scans and reference pictures of actors, stunts, special actors and extras, as well as texture references and a laser scan of the church. During the shoot, we focused on continuity and the rhythm of the action, and, the sequence was edited by Eddie Hamilton as we went along.”

“Much of the hard work in post came from match-moving the camera, which was mainly handheld, sometimes with zoom. The cameras were ARRI Alexas, used with a 45° shutter to enhance the energy of the action, but RED EPIC and Blackmagic cameras were also used for POV shots.”

“We also had to object-track for transitions like the flying gun, or the stick-in-the-throat at the end, and body-track on several shots in order to replace Colin Firth’s face. All the clean-up of tracking markers, wires and props had to be addressed, while at the same time applying re-time and re-frame to the shots.”

“Another thing we had to do was to add and define the look of the blood and wounds. Matthew Vaughn wanted a misty blood that spread and disappeared fast, in order to reduce the goriness of the sequence. This stylistic approach was used throughout the movie.”

Mission Summary

“When you start a show, there are always a lot of unknowns and surprises. This is part of the process of moviemaking, I guess. On Kingsman, it was good being involved on-set, and to have worked with Steve Begg before – both these things made us more involved in the creative discussions throughout the reviews with Matthew Vaughn, Eddie Hamilton, George Richmond and the producers from MARV. As you do the shots, you learn more and more about the director’s expectations; after a while, you know pretty much what he is after, and it becomes easier.”

“We were working on Kingsman when we heard the Prime Focus World London VFX facility was closing. You can imagine how difficult it is to focus in such a situation. I truly appreciated the team spirit adopted by the artists and production. I think they proved their real quality: creative talents who love making movies! You can’t beat that. I work freelance now, and I’ll miss these guys. But I would like to use this opportunity to thank the entire Prime Focus World crew for their great work, and say, ‘Well done!’”

Top Secret

Dossier 2 – Nvizible

Agent Name: Matt Kasmir | Agent Role: VFX Supervisor

Mission Background

Nvizible – previous association with director, Matthew Vaughn, on Kick Ass 2.

Mission Scope

Nvizible created previs for the mission, under the supervision of Martin Chamney. Primary VFX duties concerned the design, shooting and execution of prosthetic leg blades belonging to the character Gazelle.

Shot Count

210 shots delivered, over a period of 14 months. Half of these involved Gazelle’s blades.

Research & Development

Key reference sources:

  • James Bond films, particularly from the 60s and 70s
  • Paralympics and the prosthetics worn by competing athletes

Additional design considerations:

  • “Feminisation” of prosthetic blades from original graphic novel design, to accommodate character change from male to female
  • Development of “designer” look and feel, reflective of Gazelle’s fashion-conscious character

Interrogation Extracts – Matt Kasmir

“For Gazelle’s death, we created a special stunt previs sequence involving four Gazelle stunt doubles and two Eggsy doubles. On the day, we shot high speed for the majority of shots, and used The VFX Company’s motion control system to create the multiple passes we needed. In all we used four different Moco rigs, the high-speed Bolt, a conventional rig, a 360° rig and a high-speed rail cam. In some shots, up to six individual performers are combined into our two characters. This was done using CG body doubles to blend animation over a few frames, face replacements, and a projected 2½D environment for clean-up. We also inserted screens, legs and CG props.”

“All the shots were variable speed – a Phantom shot running at 600fps could ramp from real-time to 25 times slower. We worked very closely with editorial, as we were potentially working on 25 times the normal number of frames, yet starting from scratch each time a cut changed.”

“Overall, we allowed the performers to drive the animation, and concentrated on the subtleties and giving the blades a sense of intent.”

Top Secret

Dossier 3 – Doc & A Soc

Agent Name: John Paul Docherty | Agent Role: VFX Supervisor

Mission Scope

Docherty worked with digital matte painter Jim Bowers to create 360° environments, including a huge hangar filled with aircraft and secret service staff. Docherty was assigned to the mission, together with John Bruno, when Steve Begg had to move on to another production.

Shot Count

100+ shots delivered.

Interrogation Extracts – John Paul Docherty

The hangar shot was created by Jim; we added in various moving elements, including workmen, a plane being towed and a man arc-welding at the back, which is a little throwback to Lost in Space – there are about ten layers of environment in that shot. Then we ran it through Fusion Studio’s 3D environment, where the shot went through an awful lot of changes, including re-lighting the whole thing.”

“For a major explosion sequence, we had to deal with four shots filmed with high-speed cameras at Leavesden on a cold, rainy day. I rendered these in together with glass shattering effects I’d created. We had to deal with multiple image formats and lots of lens distortion, as well as some pretty dramatic colour space and resolution differences, before we could effectively comp in separate office and taxi elements.”

“In another scene, we move from the aftermath of an action sequence to a moving taxi with the ‘Kingsman’ logo flashing on a monitor. This looks like quite a simple shot, but the speeds on both sides had been adjusted by the editor. It worked really well, however he threw in cut frames that made the re-speeds very complex. Fusion’s Optical Flow did very well handling all of that.”

Top Secret

Special thanks to Steve Begg, Stephen Elson, Tony Bradley, Alex Coxon and Stephanie Hueter. “Kingsman: The Secret Service” photographs copyright © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Unbroken – Cinefex 141 Extract

Cinefex 141 - "Unbroken"

All this week, we’re featuring exclusive extracts from our brand new magazine issue, Cinefex 141, now available in both print and digital editions.

Unbroken tells the remarkable true story of Louis Zamperini, an American long-distance runner and Olympian, who joined the Army Air Forces as a B-24 bombardier during World War II, was shot down over the Pacific, survived on a raft for 47 days, only to be rescued, incarcerated and relentlessly tortured by his Japanese captors. In presenting this tale of boundless courage and survival on screen, director Angelina Jolie engaged effect artists at Industrial Light & Magic, Rodeo FX, Animal Logic, Ghost VFX, Hybride and Lola VFX to replicate the 1936 Berlin Olympic venues and create intense sequences of aerial combat and the sea and land ordeals that followed.

In this excerpt from Jody Duncan’s article, The Long Run, Bill George explains how Lola VFX used digital techniques to simulate the effects of extreme weight loss on actors Jack O’Connell and Domhnall Gleeson,

Though both actors managed to decrease their weight significantly through fasting, the severity of the characters’ emaciation required some digital effects enhancement by Lola VFX. Production visual effects supervisor Bill George shot clean plates, when possible, on the set, recorded camera data, and put tracking markers on the actors’ bodies as aids to visual effects supervisor Edson Williams and his team at Lola VFX.

At Lola, artists created a 2D mesh that was tracked to the actors, enabling them to shrink areas of their bodies to within the confines of the mesh. “It was very effective,” said George. “They also had to do a lot of roto and re-creating backgrounds using the clean plates – if they had them. For many of the emaciation shots, the background was a sea of other soldiers milling about, so no clean plates were possible.” For a closeup on Louie’s face, which Jolie wanted to look more sunken and hollow, the on-set visual effects team sent Lola a scan of Jack O’Connell’s head. Lola then tracked and lit the head scan to create highlights on the brows and shadows in the eye sockets and under the zygomatic arch. “Lola did an amazing job with all of these shots.”

Read the complete article in Cinefex 141, which also features The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Jupiter Ascending and Chappie.

All content copyright © 2015 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

Jupiter Ascending – Cinefex 141 Extract

Cinefex 141 - "Jupiter Ascending"

All this week, we’re featuring exclusive extracts from our brand new magazine issue, Cinefex 141, now available in both print and digital editions.

In the exotic science fiction fantasy Jupiter Ascending, a genetically engineered superman (Channing Tatum) arrives on Earth to help an unsuspecting young cleaning lady (Mila Kunis) realize her destiny as the leader of an intergalactic super race. Visual effects supervisor Dan Glass reunites with The Matrix filmmakers Andy and Lana Wachowski to realize science fiction action and spectacular cosmic realms assisted by visual effects consultant John Gaeta, and artisans at Method Studios, Double Negative, Framestore, One Of Us, BlueBolt, The Aaron Sims Company, Halon Entertainment, Mokko Studio, Rodeo FX, BUF and The Third Floor. Special effects supervisor Trevor Wood, makeup effects supervisor Jeremy Woodhead and Ironhead Studios supplied practical effects.

In this extract from Joe Fordham’s article, Imperial Earth, Jeremy Woodhead describes the practical techniques used to create a range of characters who have been genetically modified, or “spliced”.

Makeup effects and hair designer Jeremy Woodhead and prosthetic effects supervisor Nik Williams’ Animated Extras translated concepts into makeups, including those for Channing Tatum’s ex-military human/wolf hybrid. “I did 20 or 30 drawings of Channing in various guises as Caine,” recalled Jeremy Woodhead. “We went from quite extreme canine, to barely there, and ended up somewhere in the middle. I did quite a few makeup tests on him, with different wigs and ear placements.” Caine’s final makeup featured Polytek PlatSil silicone prosthetics of swept-back pointed ear tips, and Pro-bondo applications of bar code brands on the warrior’s skin.

“Lana and Andy Wachowski came up with the idea that splices went through factories, where they were fitted with bands on the backs of their necks. For Caine’s hair, we used Channing’s real beard and hair, and added color and paint to give it more of a fur quality. At one point during the film, Caine takes off his shirt to reveal that, as a legionnaire, he once had metallic wings that had been chopped off, leaving nubs on his back. We made organic/mechanical prosthetics for each stump.”

Read the complete article in Cinefex 141, which also features The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Chappie and Unbroken.

All content copyright © 2015 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

Hobbit 3 – Cinefex 141 Extract

Cinefex 141 - "The Battle of the Five Armies"

All this week, we’re featuring exclusive extracts from our brand new magazine issue, Cinefex 141, now available in both print and digital editions.

In The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) arrives at the climax of his adventure, leading a company of dwarves to the Lonely Mountain, where the dragon Smaug unleashes his wrath on the citizens of Lake-town, the dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) seeks the precious ancestral Arkenstone, and dark forces gather for an epic battle that threatens the future of Middle-earth. Director Peter Jackson concludes his 20-year filmmaking journey through J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy landscape, along with visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, special makeup and creature designer Richard Taylor, armies of artists at Weta Digital and Weta Workshop, and NZFX special effects supervisor Steve Ingram.

In this excerpt from Joe Fordham’s article, King Under the Mountain, Christopher White describes how Weta Digital’s new renderer, Manuka, helped create the epic scenes in which the fire-breathing dragon Smaug destroys Laketown.

Fire spraying from the dragon’s gullet required special attention to work with the creature’s aerial trajectory. “Smaug was racing over the city at around 400 kilometers an hour,” said White, “and he had to hit very specific buildings, so we engineered sims to control fire ejected at high speeds. Peter referred us to flame-throwers for how fuel was emitted and stuck to timbers. Those simulations caused other timbers to catch fire, and we ran destruction simulations on top, causing burning pieces to fall into the water, generating splashes and steam.”

Weta Digital used Pixar’s RenderMan to render fire and smoke elements, but relied on its new in-house physics-based renderer, Manuka, to streamline lighting and art direction for all other elements in these scenes. “Manuka helped minimize the amount of lights we had to set in pre-passes and caches,” said Christopher White. “That simplified the lighting process and made it easier for technical directors to work with lighting rigs. Once we set our fires, we got all the natural reflections in the water, smoke in the sky and indirect lighting effects on the geometry of the buildings in a very naturalistic response.”

Read the complete article in Cinefex 141, which also features Chappie, Jupiter Ascending and Unbroken.

All content copyright © 2015 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

Chappie – Cinefex 141 Extract

Cinefex 141 - "Chappie"

All this week, we’re featuring exclusive extracts from our brand new magazine issue, Cinefex 141, now available in both print and digital editions.

First up is Chappie. Starring Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver and Sharlto Copley, District 9 director Neill Blomkamp offers this action/thriller story about a robot child prodigy kidnapped by criminals and raised within their dysfunctional family. Weta Workshop provided practical props and effects, along with special effects supervisor Max Poolman. Visual effects were created by Image Engine, Ollin VFX Studio and The Embassy VFX.

In this extract from Jody Duncan’s article, Rules of Robotics, Chris Harvey of Image Engine discusses the creation of the film’s robot characters.

Final robot designs went to visual effects supervisor Chris Harvey and the crew at Image Engine, the show’s primary visual effects provider, which would deliver close to 1,000 shots, including all of those involving digital robot characters. “We brought Weta Workshop’s two-dimensional designs into Image Engine,” recalled Harvey, “and began to flesh them out in three dimensions. That was a very long, detailed process – and it was quite different from what usually happens. Typically on a film, someone does concept design, and then that is built physically, and then the visual effects team has to replicate what was built. What we did was the opposite of that. The concepts came to us first, and then we developed those. We worked out how the robot would function, physically – how all the gears and mechanisms, joints and limbs would function in the real world. So it was a very physically-based design, which was important to Neill. He wanted it to look like something that could be conceivably built, even today.”

Ultimately, Image Engine modeled 16 different versions of Chappie to accommodate his evolution through the film, as well as 12 generic Scouts. “We had to create a whole police force of these guys,” explained Chris Harvey. “There was the prototype droid, called Robot Deon, and then droids for the end of the film when they go offline and they are vandalized – spray-painted, burned and beat up. Counting all the different versions of Chappie and the Scouts, we created 28 unique robots for the film.”

Read the complete article in Cinefex 141, which also features The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Jupiter Ascending and Unbroken.

All content copyright © 2015 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

“Cinderella” – VFX Q&A

"Cinderella" - a Cinefex VFX Q&A with MPC

Like most fairy tales, the tale of Cinderella is part of an oral storytelling tradition stretching back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Many versions exist of this classic story of the persecuted heroine, but the one most familiar to modern Western audiences is a French variant, Cendrillon, written in 1697 by Charles Perrault.

Perrault’s story – which introduced the now-familiar devices of the fairy godmother, the pumpkin turning into a carriage, and the glass slipper – was first adapted for the screen as Cendrillon by George Méliès in 1897. However, the movie remembered by most people is the 1950 Disney animated feature Cinderella.

Now, Disney have released a new version of the rags-to-riches tale: a live-action feature starring Lily James as Cinderella, Cate Blanchett as the Stepmother, Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother and Richard Madden as the Prince.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh, the film eschews the recent trend for reimagined, edgy fairy tales. Instead, it tells the traditional story straight, and is unafraid to draw on the heritage of its animated predecessor.

The majority of the visual effects work for Cinderella – approximately 500 shots – was delivered by MPC, with Charley Henley in the role of production VFX supervisor, and Patrick Ledda supervising for MPC.

In this Q&A for Cinefex, Ledda discusses magic and mice, palaces and pumpkins, and that all-important glass slipper.

"Cinderella" - palace exterior shot by MPC

How did you first get involved with Cinderella?

I joined the show in Summer 2013, a couple of months before the start of the shoot, and was on the show for 15 months or so. I knew the production VFX supervisor, Charley Henley, so it was easy to get started. We had several meetings about the style of the movie, previs, sets, locations, and so on. A few weeks later, we commenced principal photography at Pinewood. I attended the shoot, and subsequently went on to supervise MPC’s work.

What was the scope of MPC’s work on the film?

It was varied. We did creature work, including the mice, lizards, goose, transformations, digi-doubles and stag. Also magical transformations: the carriage, the shoe, the dress. There was a considerable amount of environment work, including fully-CG wide establishers, the palace, the town and various set extensions. Our CG supervisor, Richard Clegg, did a tremendous job of managing such a variety of assets and shots, ensuring a consistent style and quality throughout. Supervisors Richard Little and Reuben Barkataki led the comp team.

How involved was the director, Kenneth Branagh, with the visual effects?

We were very fortunate to work closely with Kenneth. We had some conversations on set about certain VFX shots and how to shoot them, but his real involvement with us started at the end of principal photography. We met him several times to discuss big-picture things – such as what the mice would look like – to more in-depth conversations going through the entire movie shot by shot.

Can you give us some examples?

We discussed questions concerning the personality of the mice, or ways in which we could transform the lizard into the coachman. It was clear that Ken understood the VFX process well, having worked on movies such as Thor in the past. That helped us tremendously. But what I found most useful was his amazing ability to act scenes and characters. That gave us the clearest briefs of all. Just from his expressions, we could understand what he was after.

It sounds as if the process was quite collaborative.

He was interested in our ideas, so our sessions weren’t just briefs but more like creative conversations. He also came to visit the team in the Montreal office, which was great for everyone. Going through the film with him and listening to his ideas was inspiring for the entire team.

How closely did you study the original Disney animated film?

By the end of the movie, the entire crew was very intimate with the 1950 animated feature! We used it as reference and inspiration, however we were also keen to put our own stamp on the movie. We also worked with the production art department to ensure that our CG work would be in line with practical sets.

What other visual cues did you use?

As usual, for human characters, we did photoshoots, photogrammetry and scans. For the animals, we used a ton of reference photography and videos. Additionally, we had our in-house real mice, which our animators looked after and used as reference on a daily basis. We also looked at many landscape paintings to get a mood and palette for Cinderella’s world.

The film has quite a saturated colour palette. Did that affect your approach to the visual effects?

That’s a good question. Firstly I should mention that Charley Henley and director of photography Haris Zambarloukos had several conversations about the look of the film as a whole. It was shot on Kodak film stock, as both Ken and Haris wanted a classic look, and then went to digital intermediate, which can make quite a dramatic visual change to a shot.

In order to deal with this, we obtained grade references early on, so we would know where the grading process would take our shots. For fully CG sequences, we delivered shots “neutral” or with a simple representative grade, which was used as a guide for the digital intermediate.

How much creative control were you able to use during the previs stage?

We did a considerable amount of previs early on, and continued to produce previs way after the shoot; some scenes are fully CG and were completely designed in post. We were given quite a lot of creative freedom – Ken was always interested to see our ideas and was happy to see rough work and proof of concepts instead of waiting for something more polished. Most of the big CG sequences had been prevised and/or postvised, and for the most part were used as references during the shoot. I should mention that a lot of the previs/postvis work was done by the production VFX team.

"Cinderella" - bluescreen shoot for later digital enhancement by MPC

How much of the palace was built practically, and how much did MPC create?

The exterior of the palace was fully CG, apart from the door and balcony which are visible in some shots. A section of the stairs and gate was also practical. Together with the production art department, MPC designed and created the entire model.

The interior was mainly built practically. We did set extensions, CG chandeliers, digi-doubles and so on, but I won’t take any more credit than we deserve. The set was outstanding – beautifully designed and created – so it was really great to complement it with our work.

Building the digital palace sounds like a big task. How did you go about it?

We drew inspiration from a number of European palaces, as well as palaces from other Disney films. From there, under the supervision of our asset lead, Jung Yoon Choi, we created the design that we wanted. The whole process was fairly elaborate, mainly due to the sheer size of the palace, and not knowing to what extent we would have to build it, and to what level of detail.

What was the biggest challenge with the palace?

Finding a way to marry the palace and the landscape. Ken wanted it to feel grand, but at the same time immersed in the landscape. A lot of work went into the design and creation of the palace gardens, led by environment lead, Hubert Zapalowicz. Size-wise, the model of the palace was fairly big, but still manageable in our pipeline. What was more complex were the trees and vegetation surrounding the palace. For a large part they are fully 3D.

How many elements does a typical shot of the palace contain?

To pick one shot is difficult, but I can briefly describe the shots where Cinderella is running away from the Prince down the stairs of the palace. In this scene, apart from the actors and a section of the stairs, the majority was CG; even the plate containing actors got re-projected to allow for a nicer camera move. We extended the stairs, created vegetation to the sides, added digi-double guards, the palace and sky. The carriage was practical in this sequence, although we applied a 2D treatment to make it look more magical.

Do you have a favourite shot of the palace?

The opening shot of the ball, where we fly through fireworks and have a first establisher of the palace at night.

"Cinderella" - CG mice by MPC

Let’s talk about the digital characters. How many did you create in total?

The main characters were four mice, lizards, the two coachmen, a goose, the footman, stag, bluebirds, and white horses. There are also many other lesser creatures, such as butterflies, birds and so on. I believe the total number of assets was in the region of 80.

Which were the most challenging?

The mice! The brief was to go for a photorealistic look, because they interacted with Cinderella quite often. But they needed enough character and personality to engage with Cinderella and the audience. It was a fine line, and our animation supervisor, Warren Leathem, and lookdev head, Thomas Stoelzle, did a great job in finding that balance.

We gave the mice a slight anthropomorphised feel in order to differentiate them slightly and give them personality, but all in all we were going for photoreal shading. Although we used a lot of reference material, the mice are not the digital reproduction of any real mice. We created our own version.

How were the creatures animated?

For the vast majority we used keyframe animation. The animals other than the mice – particularly the transforming characters – had a much broader animated style to help the comedy and fairy tale aspect of certain scenes. We created our own concepts of the various transformation stages from fully animal to fully human.

MPC's digital mice interact with Cinderella's dress - original plate

MPC’s digital mice interact with Cinderella’s dress – original plate

MPC's digital mice interact with Cinderella's dress - final composite

MPC’s digital mice interact with Cinderella’s dress – final composite

How did you rig the models for the transformations – the mice changing into horses, for example?

Building a system with enough flexibility was the biggest challenge that our rigging lead, Davide La Sala, faced on this project. We needed a system that would allow lots of creative freedom when animating the transformation shots.

Each character had three rigs: a horse rig, a mouse rig and a transformation rig. The animators could choose to animate the different parts of the character with either the horse or the mouse rig, depending on what suited. The horse and mouse rigs were constrained and linked to the third transformation rig, which was used to blend between horse and mouse shapes.

Tell us more about the blending process.

The transformation rig calculated both scale changes and how “transformed” various parts of the body were. This information was baked into the geometry cache. MPC’s software team added features to our proprietary hair system, Furtility, to be able to read this data back in from the geometry cache and use it to drive changes in the hair.

For example, as the head grew massively in size from mouse to horse, so the mane would grow and the fluffy mouse hair would transition to short horse fur. This data was also used by the shaders to modulate between textures and different shading setups for the different modes of animal.

Stylistically, how did you manage the animation during the transformations?

This was probably an even bigger challenge. The director was adamant that the transformation had to look enjoyable; he wanted to convey excitement as the mice become beautiful and powerful horses. We went through many iterations, experimenting with several ideas and edits. Interestingly, the transformation back from horse to mouse, although more challenging and of a higher shot count, was in a way easier as we had a clearer idea of how the scene was going to develop.

How did you approach the transformation of a humble pumpkin into a shining golden carriage?

This particular transformation sequence went through quite a few conceptual changes. In the end, the story that we wanted to tell was the greenhouse exploding into particles of dust, which would then collect to forge the carriage.

We destroyed the greenhouse and the pumpkin procedurally with our proprietary FEA (Finite Element Analysis) destruction tool, Kali. We then ran many particle simulations on top of the broken pieces to give the effect that the solid chunks were vaporised into magical golden dust before materialising to form the frame and shell of the carriage.

Was it hard to match to the practical carriage?

The practical golden carriage on set had a very ornate and complex design. We built an exact digital replica which our technical animation team stripped apart, allowing us to hand-animate the various parts so that it felt like the carriage was self-assembling in an organic and elegant way.

How much of what we see in the dress transformation is practical wardrobe, and how much digital effects?

We ran motion control shoots of Lily James spinning in the different pink and blue dresses. The dress transformation then involved stitching two different performances together. It was tricky to find a moment in both performances that blended perfectly and at the right time. We helped the 2D blend with a digital Cinderella for a few frames in the middle.

For the dress transformation, we ran lots of cloth simulations on our CG version. The dress needed to float up and feel light as it grew in size to fill the volume of the blue ballroom gown. The trick was to make the dress expand and move as if it was underwater, but at the same time stay coherent and feel part of Lily’s performance.

How did you integrate all those magical sparkles?

Once we had our cloth animation just right, we ran multiple layers of particle simulations on top of it. Butterflies fly into camera, then land on and form part of the dress. We emitted magic dust from the ground, air and butterflies as they flew in. It was important for all the dust to interact and feel like it was being influenced by the swooshing of the dress.

Digital set extension by MPC for "Cinderella" - original plate

Digital set extension by MPC for “Cinderella” – original plate

Digital set extension by MPC for "Cinderella" - final composite

Digital set extension by MPC for “Cinderella” – final composite

Finally, let’s talk about the story’s most memorable icon: the glass slipper. What did you do to enhance the practical shoe used on-set?

We had the challenge of matching the practical shoe, which was covered with a special coating to give it an iridescent effect. Our lookdev team did a fantastic job, firstly by developing a custom shader, and secondly by making sure that shader would give us enough artistic control when needed.

What was the most difficult slipper shot?

The moment when the Prince first puts the shoe on Cinderella at the ball. In this shot, we had to replace the practical shoe (which was a plastic prop) with our CG version, and re-create the prince’s arm so that it had a more coherent movement with the shoe.

On a side note, the practical shoe was so small that it wouldn’t fit even Cinderella! Therefore, for several shots, we had to find ways to alter the shape of the shoe and foot in an “invisible” way.

What are your feelings looking back on the show?

It was a great pleasure to work on such an iconic film. Kenneth Branagh and Charley Henley both gave us creative freedom, but at the same time challenged us with their ideas. Although the vast majority of the work was done by MPC Montreal, all our other facilities helped in different capacities. It was a great effort by everyone.

Special thanks to Darrell Borquez, Marshall Weinbaum, Riki Arnold and Jonny Vale. “Cinderella” photographs copyright © 2015 The Walt Disney Company.

Now Showing – Cinefex 141

Cinefex 141 - From the Editor's Desk

Meet Chappie, the robotic star not only of Neill Blomkamp’s new futuristic action/thriller, but also of the cover star of Cinefex issue 141. Available now, this new edition of the premier magazine for visual effects professionals and enthusiasts features behind-the-scenes analysis of the latest films by leading moviemakers.

As its cover promises, our latest edition investigates the making of Chappie, in which a robot child prodigy is kidnapped by criminals and raised within their dysfunctional family. Weta Workshop provided practical props and effects, along with special effects supervisor Max Poolman. Visual effects were created by Image Engine, Ollin VFX Studio and The Embassy VFX.

Also featured in Cinefex 141 is The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the epic conclusion to Peter Jackson’s 20-year filmmaking odyssey through J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy landscape. Assisting him on this final leg of the journey were visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, special makeup and creature designer Richard Taylor, armies of artists at Weta Digital and Weta Workshop, and NZFX special effects supervisor Steve Ingram.

Next we have the exotic science fiction fantasy Jupiter Ascending, for which visual effects supervisor Dan Glass reunited with The Matrix filmmakers Andy and Lana Wachowski to realize science fiction action and spectacular cosmic realms assisted by visual effects consultant John Gaeta, and artisans at Method Studios, Double Negative, Framestore, One Of Us, BlueBolt, The Aaron Sims Company, Halon Entertainment, Mokko Studio, Rodeo FX, BUF and The Third Floor. Special effects supervisor Trevor Wood, makeup effects supervisor Jeremy Woodhead and Ironhead Studios supplied practical effects.

Wrapping up this issue of Cinefex is Unbroken, a true tale of boundless courage and survival, for which director Angelina Jolie engaged effect artists at Industrial Light & Magic, Rodeo FX, Animal Logic, Ghost VFX, Hybride and Lola VFX to replicate the 1936 Berlin Olympic venues and create intense sequences of aerial combat and sea and land ordeals.

We think it’s an amazing line-up. All the same, the list of contents isn’t quite what was originally planned for issue 141. How so? I’ll let Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan tell you more …

Jody Duncan – From The Editor’s Desk

After 36 years in business, Cinefex normally runs like a well-tuned Lamborghini. The writing team writes and the production team produces — usually — without a hitch. But, every once in a while, a wrench is thrown in, grinding the gears of our Lamborghini’s engine. Issue 141 was just such an issue.

Our plan was to do a big story on Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, which was scheduled to be released in early March — perfect timing for our mid-March issue. I saw a very early screening of the film, and I came out of it charged up and ready to go. The film was stunning, and it offered me a chance to write about something outside our typical sci-fi subject matter. Whales instead of aliens. 19th century whaling ships instead of spacecraft. I was exhilarated!

I interviewed all of the visual effects principals, as well as Ron Howard — the first time we’d managed to snag an interview with the director, despite our having covered eight of his previous films. (Cocoon was, in fact, my first writing assignment for Cinefex.) I then spent several weeks writing the article, and was within a day of sending it off to typesetting … when I got a call from Warner Bros. The studio had made a last-minute decision to change the film’s release date from March 2015 to December 2015. In the Heart of the Sea could not be featured in our March issue.

We were now looking at the prospect of about 30 empty pages in the magazine, which would only be filled if I could write a substitute article in record time. Fortunately, the loss of In the Heart of the Sea (which will be featured in our December issue) meant the gain of a story on Unbroken — a movie I had greatly admired, based on a book I had read and loved. Unbroken turned out to be a terrific story from a visual effects standpoint!

Cinefex 141 also contains coverage of the third Hobbit movie — Joe Fordham’s final foray into Middle-Earth with Peter Jackson and Weta — as well as his story on the Wachowski siblings’ latest extravaganza, Jupiter Ascending. Our cover boy is Chappie, a charming fellow I came to know through interviews with director Neill Blomkamp, visual effects supervisor Chris Harvey and a host of other visual effects artisans. Fortunately, our engines were purring throughout the writing and production of all three articles. As for the fourth — Unbroken was worth losing a few hours’ sleep, and I can look forward to a light workload come the 2015 Christmas season, because one of my articles for our final issue of the year is in the bag. I think I’ll go shopping.

Thanks, Jody – enjoy that shopping spree when it comes!

As for issue 141, the time has come to stop talking and start reading. Use the links below to access the latest Cinefex in your favourite format.

Oh, and if you’re a robot, please note that Cinefex is optimised for human eyesight, so please make the appropriate adjustments to your optical sensors.