About Joe Fordham

I've been writing full-time for Cinefex since 2001 (the year, not the movie). Before Cinefex, I worked in visual effects, special effects, makeup effects, miniature effects, animation and editing in LA and in London. The silhouette in my avatar is my logo for Flashfilms, a website where you'll find links to my filmmaking and creative writing. Flash was my dog.

“Wendy” – Q&A with Benh Zeitlin & Jason Hamer

Searchlight Pictures’ Wendy was one of the last films to open in North America before the coronavirus pandemic darkened cinemas worldwide. The film opened, in limited release, after its Sundance Film Festival premiere where critics heralded Wendy as filmmaker Benh Zeitlin’s second feature – following his Oscar-nominated postdiluvian fantasy Beasts of the Southern Wild – which they described as a loose retelling of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. For general audiences, the production seemed far removed from previous Pans by Walt Disney or Steven Spielberg, recent remakes by P.J. Logan or Joe Wright, or even revisionist takes, such as Marc Forster’s Barrie biopic, Finding Neverland

For Zeitlin – and his sister and co-writer, Eliza – the project was a labor of love eight years in the making. The production was another genre-bending tale, featuring non-professional child performers in contemporary settings with only a semblance of J.M. Barrie trappings. Gone was the flying boy, and his wandering shadow, who transports Wendy Darling and her brothers from Victorian London to a Neverland populated by mermaids, fairies, pirates, Lost Boys and the fearsome Captain Hook. 

Instead, the film depicted Wendy (Devin France) as the youngest of four ragamuffin children, living with their single-parent mother (Shay Walker) above a trackside Louisiana burger joint. One night, a strangely elfin boy lures Wendy’s eldest brother Thomas (Krzysztof Meyn) onto a passing train. After a dreamlike pursuit by rail and sea, the children confront Thomas’ kidnapper, Peter (Yashua Mack), on a primordial island. There, other vagabond children look to Wendy as their savior from a tribe of decrepit elders. Wendy’s brother James (Gavin Naquin) rapidly transforms into middle age (Kevin Pugh) and a mysterious sea monster – the Mother spirit – lurks in the island’s volcanic innards.

Cinefex caught up with Benh Zeitlin and creature effects supervisor Jason Hamer to discuss the origins of the project, and their experience – working with Eliza Zeitlin as production designer, and visual effects supervisor Jasper Kidd – turning Peter Pan mythology on its head in the bold and imaginative fantasy film.

CINEFEX: Where did Wendy spring from?

ZEITLIN: My sister Eliza and I grew up in a house of folklorists. Our parents implanted the idea that myths are an important aspect of how we understand the world; how myths are passed down, retold and reinterpreted as time goes on. Those ideas have always been very close to me. And more than any specific version of Peter Pan, we were influenced by the character and the myth of Peter. The bones of this story are so timeless they continue to exist in people’s imaginations. All our lives, my sister and I dreamed of having a chance to reinterpret this story. For us, this story was not about escapism, which is often interpreted as the central idea of Peter Pan. We wanted to tell a story about growing up, and how complicated that is. We were 30 and 28 years old, and there were many themes that were cresting for us that felt universal – about how to grow up and not grow old.

CINEFEX: Is there a real ‘Darling Diner’ that inspired your story’s opening?

ZEITLIN: The original vision of the Darling’s Diner was based on a hamburger restaurant called Bud’s Broiler, in New Orleans. That was formerly a railroad station master’s house, with a track that ran alongside. Our idea was to film in that diner and to control the trains outside. We quickly learned that it was impossible for us to control the traffic on that track because it was a national rail system. Instead, we found a non-profit group, the Louisiana Steam Train Association, which has its own stretch of track and several antique train cars. We used those in the film, and they were operated them for us. We then designed a building, with architecture and a structure very similar to Bud’s Broiler, and built that from scratch on an empty plot adjacent to their train track.

CINEFEX: How did you get the children jumping from the Darling Diner roof onto the passing train? They very convincingly leap back and forth.

ZEITLIN: Our mandate was to shoot things for real. When we were talking about how to replace the concept of Peter and the children flying, we discussed what could we do that would be as thrilling, dangerous and spectacular for a kid as flying? That’s how we came up with the idea of the characters jumping onto a moving train. The only visual effects we did in those shots were to digitally remove the wires supporting the children. The kids were on harnesses with wires attached to a line above the train, and then another safety line guided them from a crane. If they missed the jump, they wouldn’t have gotten hurt. But they had the courage and they ran and jumped. We filmed it just as you see it.

CINEFEX: What led you to shoot on 16mm? The film had a very visceral, handheld photographic style, but looked as gorgeous as 35mm.

ZEITLIN: That’s all credit to our cinematographer, Sturla Grøvlen. He used several different film stocks. Much of the film was set in Neverland, filmed in blazing sunlight. A lot of that we shot on 50D Kodak VISION3 50D color negative film, 7203. That is very clean grain, and almost indiscernible from 35mm. We wanted the film to feel handmade and a little rough around the edges. Sturla managed to find a balance between that aesthetic, capturing our incredible landscapes with real majesty on the film stock.

Filming “Wendy” on location. Director of Photography Sturlen Brandth Grovlen, writer/director Benh Zeitlin, performers Devin France, Krzysztof Meyn, Gage Naquin and Ahmad Cage. Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

CINEFEX: The credits indicate you filmed in Monserrat and islands in that area. How did you select those areas for Neverland?

ZEITLIN: The three areas we shot on were Montserrat, Antigua and Barbuda, which are neighboring islands. Neverland has historically been played as a riff on the colonial British imagination of the Caribbean. One of the things that we wanted to revise and dismantle was exactly that. We wanted to shoot in this region; but to portray it in a way unlike how it appears in postcards and cruise ship commercials. We wanted to find wild and natural locations that hadn’t been disrupted by any human hand. To accomplish that, bringing our film production out to those places for every day of the shoot, was like planning an invasion. It was incredibly complicated to reach our locations and then to set up filming with children and old people. The degree of difficulty for our production team, figuring out how to do these things safely on a daily basis, was as high as it could possibly be.

CINEFEX: Working in such a wild environment, with children climbing volcanoes and sword fighting, how did you plan your shoot?

ZEITLIN: It was like the Mike Tyson quote, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the face.’ That was our daily experience. I meticulously storyboarded every shot. I had those boards on separate cards, and I made notes on the back of each one, summarizing what I needed for each shot. When we got to set, half the time the cove where were supposed to shoot had turned into a whirlpool of whitewater; or a beach had been washed away. Our plans were constantly dismantled, and we had to figure out how to adjust on the fly. That same principle applied to how we worked with our child actors. If one of them became tired, or got in a bad mood, I’d maybe give their lines to another character. Every day of shooting, we had to be very agile to get what was essential for our scenes while facing a great number of unpredictable elements that you would normally never design into a filming process.

CINEFEX: One of the most unique parts of the film is the Mother spirit. What was the concept for that enormous glowing sea creature?

ZEITLIN: Our idea was that nature has a joy to it. The spirit that we attribute to humans as joy, ecstasy and euphoria, you can sense that in nature. We wanted the Mother to be born of that joy and the protector of that spirit. In the mythology of the film, a volcanic eruption spits this creature up to the surface of the water, and there she meets Peter and becomes his protector. Our personal mythology around the creature was that she had been living down at the center of the Earth. We took inspiration from microorganisms that breathe from hydrothermal vents in the deepest chasms of the oceans, from cephalopods and bioluminescent creatures that live down there. And then, we blew her up to enormous proportions. Design-wise, Eliza was the mother of the Mother.

The Mother spirit of Neverland, a giant sea creature, as realized by production designer Eliza Zeitlin and her team.

CINEFEX: Eliza had a team building the Mother for almost a year before you started photography; and then plans changed. How did Eliza and Jason Hamer collaborate to create the creature?

ZEITLIN: The idea was to shoot the Mother puppet in live water, on location in Antigua during principal photography. That plan went a little sideways. We brought out to the Caribbean the puppet that Eliza and her team designed and made. But the forces of the ocean can never be properly estimated. We very much knew what Mother was and what she was supposed to look like the whole time, based on the design that my sister and her team created. Eliza designs and fabricates as one process, so the creature took shape as she fabricated it. When Jason entered the process, we moved to a more locked-in design, and continued to work on the puppet that they constructed for principal photography. We later had a miniature shoot, and the final result is a blend of those two creations, as well as several full-scale elements.

CINEFEX: Jason, you were initially handling prosthetics for the film?

When Wendy’s brother James begins to age rapidly, Peter urges him to halt the process by severing his age-infected hand. Hamer FX supplied makeup effects to simulate the onset of aging, and created prosthetics for the severing.

HAMER: Yes, in the story, when the children stop ‘believing,’ they start aging rapidly. Wendy’s brother James tries to halt the aging process in his hand by cutting off his arm. We aged his hand. He then begs Peter to chop that off, in an attempt stop his aging process. For that, we made a stump that he wore after. We also created some subtle silicone prosthetics, which we used to age the young actor. We enlarged his nose a little, and we gave him a lip appliance with a little bit of hair punched into it.

CINEFEX: When you expanded your role to help out on the Mother puppet, what areas did you focus on?

HAMER: Benh’s sister, Eliza, had done some beautiful work and created a stunning model of the Mother. We ended up coming back to that. Carlos Juante did some conceptual art for us to figure out how we could incorporate the design motifs that Eliza had established. Mother had a cuttlefish look, but she illuminated from within. And she’s very mysterious, so you’re not supposed to see that much of her. One of our nature references was the blanket octopus, which is an absolutely gorgeous creature with huge 18-foot sails of what look like a chiffon. 

Mother spirit concepts created by Carlos Juante at Hamer FX.

CINEFEX: To make something that floats in water, that you can puppeteer and that glows is a tall order. How did you bring those criteria together?

ZEITLIN: It was funny, because in the early stages of conceiving how we would create the Mother, we were watching videos of a visual effects artist we admired who’d worked on just about every single one of our favorite effects films. Two years later, Jason mentioned, ‘I know this guy who might be able to help us.’ And that was the same guy, Bill Bryan, who helped to inspire a lot of the techniques we used.

HAMER: Bill is the master of ‘plastic bag effects’ underwater work that he developed with Steve Johnson on films like Species and Phantoms. We used a lot of the technology that Bill used to make the jellyfish on Barry Levinson’s sci-fi film, Sphere. That kind of tentacle technology was key, using different fabrics to see what performed in water, and then incorporating those with heat-treated plastics to give certain qualities. Some of the tests that Eliza had done were amazing, shooting lights through plastic, which they had seen in one of Bill’s videos. We incorporated a lot of those early tests.

CINEFEX: How big was the Mother creature?

HAMER: Eliza and Benh established the size in their puppet as a 40-foot sea creature. It was a massive beast. They had a 55-gallon ballast, using big barrels that they filled with air to keep it above the surface, and then they planned to flood those to take it below the surface. They also had a huge grid of LED lights to create internal bioluminescence, with a diver inside. But that ended up being uncontrollable in the ocean, and the creature’s rigid foam carapace kept it afloat. But we used that as our scale, and then worked with the design to create something that we could build and puppeteer. We figured we could get a projector inside a four foot creature, and that was ultimately where we landed, with a four foot miniature.

For Mother spirit performer interactions, Hamer FX employed a wide range of fabrication techniques to create creature parts, including tentacle technology that creature effects artist Bill Bryan used to build a full-scale Mother gullet. Creature artist Alex Waldron paints Mother tentacles. Bill Bryan attends a gullet test in Jason Hamer’s swimming pool.

CINEFEX: What did Bill build for you?

HAMER: The biggest contribution that Bill made was the Mother gullet. That was massive, like soccer-goal-sized rig that we immersed in water and illuminated through the side of a glass water tank. It had a series of layers of plastics, including a dark layer of deep tissue, and different grades of plastic sheeting that Bill stretched and dressed over that. The plastic is like a painter’s drop cloth, and Bill used different thicknesses to create various textures.

CINEFEX: How do you apply paints that stood up to underwater filming?

HAMER: We used Copic markers diluted with alcohol. The chlorine in the pool tends to strip that out. Unfortunately, you can’t touch that up, so by the end of the shoot, everything was pretty clear. The lighting did a lot of the work for us, and having the dark layers behind the lighter layers gave that something to dance on. Tom Killeen painted the puppets, and then we dressed Mother’s skin with lots of tiny details of colorful sea sponge pieces, like Eliza’s puppet.

CINEFEX: What was her mechanical structure?

HAMER: It was a Speedrail frame. Bill patterned that to blend it with the gullet. The center of the gullet was a stiff fabric that he manipulated to make it feel bulbous. We used Sea-Doo scooters, the kind that SCUBA divers use to propel themselves underwater, and we inverted those to create movement in the water. Our puppeteers took position behind the gullet and used the Sea-Doos to blow it out. Meanwhile, puppeteers above the pool pulled rods and strings. We tested that at home in my pool, and then shipped it to Louisiana and filmed at the University of New Orleans nautical engineering tank. 

For full-body shots of the Mother spirit, Hamer FX built a four-foot puppet. Effects artist Ernesto Cornejo sculpts the Mother miniature as a clay maquette.

CINEFEX: How did you build the four-foot puppet?

HAMER: The silicone skin sat loosely on a core of fiberglass and vacuform shells. We made it that way so that we could keep it in motion with the Sea-Doos. We attached two rods to the puppet’s core. When we dipped the puppet in the pool, water filled the puppet with a natural buoyancy, and the fabrics and the plastics did what they wanted. The main puppeteer up top kept her alive, moving back and forth, and then the propelled water animated the rest.

CINEFEX: How did you shoot scenes with the children underwater interacting up close with the creature?

ZEITLIN: All shots of the children directly interacting with the Mother’s face we did with Eliza’s full-scale puppet. Jason’s team also built a large section of Mother’s face and eye, but we ended up using Eliza’s creation there.

HAMER: And we made full-scale elements of Mother’s 12-foot sails that the kids could swim with in the cenote, where we filmed in Mexico. We made those out of chiffon that we dye-sublimated using a print that creature designer Neville Paige made for us. 

In addition to the miniature Mother puppet, and full-scale interactive pieces, Hamer FX created a 9×9-foot closeup creature section, with a mechanical eye for underwater filming. Ernesto Cornejo, Brian Van Dorn and Pepe Mora detail the 9-foot sculpt.

CINEFEX: Benh, how did you direct scenes of the children communicating underwater with the Mother?

ZEITLIN: How the Mother was going to express her feelings, and how we were going to emotionally connect to her, was a huge question for us. We felt that movie audiences at this point are so accustomed to watching computer-created creatures, we didn’t want to fall back on the tropes of digitally animating facial expressions, or having her speak in a humanoid way. We wanted audiences to feel connected to something they could feel in their bones was real and not synthesized with a computer. We came to the idea of her internal light as her emotional communication device. 

The Mother spirit miniature contained a fiberglass core that Hamer FX mechanical designer Terry Sandin articulated with a four-paddle lip mechanism.

CINEFEX: Mother appears enormous in scale with the children. How did visual effects supervisor Jasper Kidd pull those scenes together for you?

ZEITLIN: Jasper was a real wizard in terms of figuring out tiny elements that could be combined with the puppet, such as adding particulates so fine that they almost didn’t read on-screen. Those details gave her the scale necessary to sell the illusion. Jasper comes from a painting background, and that sense of artistry, and that sense of approaching effects not just as a technician, but as a painter and as an artist, really helped us make her something emotional.

CINEFEX: How much did you shoot on location in Mother’s underwater cave?

ZEITLIN: The caves were in the Yucatan, outside of Tulum. The main one was called Sac Actun. Jasper made an incredible find – a diver who shoots 360-degree photographs of real internal caves for an online project, essentially to be able to explore these places from afar. We were able to license a complete 360 cave, which wasn’t the same caves that we shot in. We blended our caves that were shot live, with another cave that Jasper created.

CINEFEX: Let’s delve a little more into those visual effects. Tell us, Jasper, how did you make the Mother cave extensions?

JASPER KIDD: For all of the wide shots of the cave we commissioned a cave diver to Lidar scan a huge cave in Slovenia. We ended up with a beautiful color scan that had over 80 scan locations in a half mile of cave and 400 million points of data. This gave us the foundation for all the natural beauty and organic complexity of a real location. I re-projected those textures into about 20 pieces and hand-sculpted in all the high-resolution detail in Pixologic ZBrush, retaining the cave’s original shapes and color. We then translated all of the lensing from our previs to the cave, and enlarged the miniature puppet to 10:1 scale. We rendered that in Maya and Arnold with layers of VDB dust clouds and particles that we simulated in Houdini. And we blended the final CG cave environments with plate elements Benh had shot on location.

Hamer FX artist Tom Killeen paints the Mother miniature.

CINEFEX:The film took shape over two years in editing, and there are several visual effects companies listed in the credit roll, including Phosphene and Break/Enter. Did you pull from all quarters in postproduction?

ZEITLIN: Phosphene supervised the shoot. Jasper’s company, Brake/Enter, took over in post and did 100-percent of our visual effects. I met Jasper through his partner, Ilia Mokhtareizadeh, who was working on the visual effects for Maniac along with my co-composer Dan Romer. He’d been working in commercials and pulled together an all-star team of visual effects artists as a home-made operation, and they took on challenges that probably would have intimidated a larger visual effects house. 

JASPER: I had been working at The Mill when I met Benh on Wendy. I was really excited about the project and we built out a company from the ground up to take on the entire films VFX. We handled over 300 shots with a small crew of eight people that were fully dedicated to bringing Mother and the film to life. To be part of such a small team and to be so close to the process was a once in a lifetime experience.

CINEFEX: There’s tremendous atmosphere to the scenes when the Mother rescues Wendy in its glowing gullet. What did you shoot for those interactions?

HAMER: Our mechanical designer, Tim Ralston, built a sled, like a little boat, and fitted that inside the gullet. That was filled with LED panels. He built that on a fiberglass shell, coated it with silicone, with wiring sealed in a silicone tube, and waterproofed it with layers of caulking. We controlled the Mother’s lighting from the surface via a computer that ran different programs to create lighting effects. 

To create the Mother spirit’s internal lighting, Hamer FX used a pico projector, and an internal structure of LED lights. Hamer FX electronic designer Tim Ralston equipped electronics with water-tight casings for underwater filming.

What really helped tie those scenes together was when Jasper projected caustic lighting effects on the creature. That really helped convey the scale on the miniature. Jasper planned the shoot with previs, showing how in this environment the kids needed to be a certain distance from the creature, using a certain lens. Jasper brought a lot of his knowledge of shooting with miniatures to make that work.

CINEFEX: At the end of the film, when Mother appears to die, she emits streams of little fiery elements bleeding off into the ocean. What was the brief for that scene?

ZEITLIN: It goes back to an idea that we articulated in Wendy’s voiceover about ‘the first laugh of the first child breaking into a million glowing pieces.’ The Mother’s glow is her lifeforce. We imagined her joy as a burning bright light, like lava, tied in to the Neverland volcano. When she gets punctured, her joy, or her lifeforce, bleeds out of her to the bottom of the ocean and then reanimates, when her spirit returns.

CINEFEX: What did you shoot for that?

Wendy confronts the Mother spirit. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

HAMER: About two years after the shoot, we shot some visual effects elements for Jasper. We made little hollow rock shapes out of clear urethane and injected those with Cyalume liquid, like the military use in glowsticks. We then set up a shoot in my pool, where we blacked out the sides and added a small piece of ocean floor, with tiny rocks to scale. We strung the lava blobs on monofilament and ran them past the camera. Jasper grabbed those elements and accentuate them into his effects.

ZEITLIN: We used those elements a little bit. But the primary elements on screen in that scene were live burning underwater thermite reactions, which we shot in a custom tank in Ventura California with Coatwolf Productions supervised by Evan Glodell.

CINEFEX: The Mother spirit was a lovely visual metaphor. It goes beyond any notion of Peter Pan being a pejorative or infantilizing force. It comes across as something very vital and powerful in your film.

ZEITLIN: Thank you. We wanted to capture the movement of a live puppet underwater, and the whole reason for doing that was that there were certain unpredictable ways the water reacted with the puppet that could not be predicted or synthesized. We shot take after take and looked for moments where this inanimate object appeared to come to life. This film invited chaos at every turn and we searched for miracles, rather than staying within the limits of what could be imagined.

Wendy is now playing on home video at 4K UHD/HD/SD. Soundtrack by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin is available on streaming platforms, and Milan Records compact disc.

Addendum: This story has been edited to include special guest star speaker Jasper Kidd. Thanks to Josh Penn, Hamer FX, Shelby Kimlick, Chris Bess, Searchlight Films.

“Undone” – Q&A with Hisko Hulsing

Anyone who tuned into Amazon Studios’ eight-episode, three-hour animated drama, Undone, last Fall knew they were in for a strange ride.

From its first episode, the series depicted its heroine, Alma Winograd-Diaz (Rosa Salazar), as a feisty young kindergarten teacher, in painterly rotoscoped animation, with limpid eyes and a feisty temper. As Alma argues with her nuptial-obsessed elder sister (Angelique Cabral) and spars with her constantly-critical mother (Constance Marie), she communes with visions of her long-deceased father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), a former physicist, who flits in and out of existence, product of a mental breakdown possibly triggered when a car crash knocks Alma’s reality askew. 

While the screenplay – by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy, veterans of BoJack Horseman – was set in the here-and-now of Alma’s family life in San Antonio, Texas, the naturalistic performances and contemporary settings played in counterpoint to the animation style. Alma’s world melts and dissolves, transporting her back and forth through time, while Jacob guides his daughter through space and time, unraveling a mystery that, he suspects, led to his premature death. 

To bring Alma’s world to life, Michael Eisner’s Tornante Company sought out Hisko Hulsing, a Dutch animation director whose work had appeared in HBO’s Emmy-nominated documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, dramatizing episodes of rock star Kurt Cobain’s life with expressionistic rotoscope-based animation. The technique was an outgrowth of Hulsing’s award-winning short, Junkyard, which blended rotoscoped performance with expressive facial animation. “I think my ability to touch people with visual storytelling was what attracted the producers of Undone,” Hulsing recalled. “When they sent me the script, I loved the material. I met with screenwriters Kate and Raphael and we clicked right away. We very much understood each other, and what we wanted to do with Undone.”

Speaking from his studio in Amsterdam, Hulsing shared with Cinefex his process as production designer and director of the hybrid animated series, which sprang to life from a studio shoot in California and collaborations with Austin, Texas, animation studio Minnow Mountain and with the Amsterdam-based Submarine, who generated more than 800 oil-paintings and digital renderings of Alma’s world.

Hisko Hulsing, director and designer of Amazon Prime’s animated series “Undone.”

CINEFEX: How specific were the Undone screenplays in describing the fracturing nature of Alma’s world?

HULSING: The scripts were all very dialog-based. They had brief descriptions of transitions from one place to another, from one time to another. But some were more precise than others. We developed those ideas during storyboarding, visual effects meetings and designs.

CINEFEX: Back in 2006, Cinefex covered Richard Linklater’s animated adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, which used rotoscope animation to depict characters slipping through altered states of reality. What is it about that medium that fascinates you?

HULSING: Well, I started using rotoscoping in Junkyard, but I didn’t use it for character’s faces and heads. The same with Montage of Heck. I filmed actors, because my style of storytelling was so realistic, it didn’t feel right to animate them completely by hand. In Undone, it was different. I read the script and I figured the dialog was very sophisticated, very realistic, very subtle, and I felt we needed real actors. That way we could extract all the micro-expressions from their acting. 

Early on, we discussed if we should treat all of Alma’s realistic scenes differently from her hallucinations, her psychosis, or dreams, whatever they were. I thought that it would be much better to treat them all the same, with rotoscoping in combination with all the backgrounds painted as oil paintings. That gave us a very dreamy, almost-real atmosphere, which made Alma’s reality almost as suspect as the other scenes. At all times, I wanted to viewers to wonder, ‘What is actually reality?’

Hulsing oversaw the creation of more than 800 oil paintings that formed the basis for all of the backgrounds in the animated world, based on photographic reference of San Antonio, Texas.

CINEFEX: For your oil painting backgrounds, how did you decide what you would paint, how much you’d paint, and how that worked with the real world? For instance, did you have a location shoot?

HULSING: No, none at all. We filmed everything on a greenscreen stage, without sets. Did you see Lars von Trier’s film Dogville? What we did was very comparable. We started with a set plan on a stage. My assistant, Nora Höppener, and I taped floor plans on the ground. Wherever we needed props, we set out tables or chairs, but we had no scenery. We had to completely make up the whole world. The story was set in San Antonio, where Kate comes from. She gave us reference photos of certain churches or houses. Our designers used those as base for their designs. And then also, based on the script, we broke down the scenes and then decided what to paint. We used computer models as basis for drawings, and for layouts. And we used those layouts for all our oil paintings, which we created completely by hand.

CINEFEX: How big was each painting?

HULSING: The paintings were pretty big, about 120-centimeters horizontal, and they were conceived together with our rotoscope designs. We set up reference grids on the set to help determine background perspectives. I trained as an artist, so I am very aware of perspective, and I always kept that in mind during the storyboard process. And then, on set, I determined if we’d use very wide lenses or long lenses, and those determined painting perspectives. Those techniques were not that different from live-action filmmaking. But because everything was painted, that enabled us to put more emphasis on light and shadow, depth and drama.

Submarine generated 3D models of all environments, which allowed Hulsing and his animation team to make dramatic use of photographic perspectives in camera layouts. By projecting oil painting textures onto 3D surfaces, artists imbued painterly environments with a dimensional living presence.

CINEFEX: How long was your shoot?

HULSING: The shoot took about a week per episode. We shot everything on a greenscreen soundstage in West Hollywood. I was new in Hollywood, and so I was a little bit surprised when Rosa Salazar and Bob Odenkirk told me that they thought I was a good director. I think the reason for that was because I was extremely well prepared. We storyboarded 3,000 shots, we had all the floor plans, we knew exactly where the cameras would be. And, although there were no sets, just tape on the ground to guide where the walls were supposed to be, I was impressed how the actors used their imaginations to follow my imagination and perform in that environment. 

What I understood was that on most movie sets performers have to wait around between setups, sometimes spending hours in their trailer. This was like doing a play for 12 hours! So, it was hard on them, but it was also rewarding because they could act all day long. We were very quick. We did two takes, maximum, per shot.

CINEFEX: What was your camera, or capture setup?

HULSING: Our budget was not big enough to afford a lot of moving cameras, so most of our shots were static, on sticks. We shot every take with two cameras. On our busiest day, we did 77 camera setups, which amounted to 144 camera angles in one single day. Our director of photography Nick Ferreiro and I worked very closely to change the camera positions on every take. And we also moved the lights around. We had a crew of about 20 people to accomplish that on set, moving very fast. 

When we did have tracking shots, where we followed actors with a camera, and we completely rebuilt the environments in 3D. For the backgrounds in those shots, we projection-mapped our oil paintings onto a 3D model of the environment. Once we built that model, we did motion tracking, and then onto that we projection mapped our oil paintings in 3D so it felt like we were moving through an oil painting.

CINEFEX: There is impressive dimensionality when Alma is in hospital and she runs through a long corridor. How did you shoot that scene?

HULSING: We laid out the floor plan first in our design. There is a difference between designs and layout – layout is a very specific rendering, made from a basis of what has been shot. The correct order was: storyboards and designs, and then the shoot, and then the layouts. So, when we came to shoot that scene, we didn’t have the layout yet, but we had a very clear floor plan, which allowed us to go into production.

CINEFEX: Who built that 3D geometry?

HULSING: That was all done in Amsterdam at Submarine. We had about a hundred people working at Submarine and at Minnow Mountain, in Texas. At Submarine, we did all the storyboards, layouts, designs, 2D animation, 3D animation, paintings and compositing. Minnow Mountain did the rotoscoping, and what they call performance capture – they traced the actors in lines, which they did very beautifully. 

Earlier, you referenced A Scanner Darkly. I did ask Tommy Pallotta, who was a producer on A Scanner Darkly, to help with our rotoscoping – he approached Minnow Mountain because some of the artists there had worked on that film, so there was a connection. But, truthfully, I was not influenced by that film, although is mentioned in almost every article I’ve seen about Undone! I understand why; but for me it was not a reference. Rotoscoping goes back to the Fleischer brothers.

CINEFEX: Yes, and what the Fleischer brothers did so well, more than a hundred years ago, is they understood an economy of line. What were the key ingredients for you to translate Rosa’s acting through renderings of Alma?

HULSING: One of my biggest fears was that the actors’ performances wouldn’t come through. I have to give credit to Minnow Mountain for that, and Craig Staggs who is co-founder and producer over there. It took us a while to get there. We created Alma as a simplified version of Rosa – ‘simplified’ because you have to know which lines to animate. Minnow then used a pencil my partner developed at my own small studio in Amsterdam developed in TVPaint, which gave the lines a soft feel. 

Working from Minnow Mountain’s sensitive rotoscoped line drawings, Submarine developed highlights and shadows that helped capture Rosa Salazar’s highly emotive performance.

One aspect that often disturbs me in rotoscoping is when it makes a performance feel shallow, and it feels flat, or like a filter. At Submarine, we animated shadows to make characters feel more three-dimensional. We used production footage as basis for those shadows, which gave us a lot of micro-expressions. That involved many layers of filtering, and many animators worked to stylize the shadows and give the characters more depth.

CINEFEX: How did you put that glint of life into Alma’s eye?

HULSING: That was very interesting, because when we were doing the first two episodes, I got very worried because that characters were going into an Uncanny Valley look. I got very scared by that, because it would have been horrible if the animation appeared scary and not at all doing service to the great acting. So, we did have to tweak our methods a little, and the highlights in the characters’ eyes was a very important part of that. 

It turned out we had to be very faithful to the lighting in the live-action, and when our 2D department drew those details they had to obey the exact position of those lights. Because if we were not accurate, or if we make it up, it became very creepy. Those highlights in the eyes were instrumental in communicating emotions; and we could never draw them where they were not present in the live-action frames.

CINEFEX: Did that involve any procedural processes, or machine learning?

HULSING: Oh, no! 2D team at Submarine hand drew all lights in the characters’ eyes; there was no machine learning there. For the shading of the characters, we used a filtering of the live-action. And then, our 2D animators worked on top of that.

CINEFEX: It was impressive how much the performers came through that medium.

HULSING: Yes, especially Rosa. All of our actors were successful, but Rosa was excellent, very precise, and expressive. I’m hoping she will break through into more live-action roles, because she is so good. But somehow, she lends herself very well for animation. She is so expressive.

CINEFEX: Tell us how you expressed Alma’s breakdown in your scene transitions – sometimes Alma appears to lose gravity, sometimes her world appears to flip like a camera lens turret rotation. How did you design those moments?

HULSING: Those techniques started back on Junkyard – back then, I never had any budget for the live-action, so I did everything very simply – and we used similar tricks on Undone. For example, when Alma is floating in space, she was half-laying on a barstool and we twisted her around. When she was in a canteen and suddenly the whole canteen broke apart, that was a stunt girl on a trampoline. She wore Alma’s wardrobe, and our animators changed the face. We did discuss hanging actors on wires, but there was no budget for that. So, we chose the simple way and, when we worked that into the animation, we got away with it.

CINEFEX: Alma’s hallucinations, or her moments of psychosis, feel very authentic. What was your inspiration for visualizing those scenes?

HULSING: Well, I’m from Amsterdam. I started smoking marijuana when I was 12, like a lot of kids, unfortunately. When I was about 17, I dropped out of school. I wasn’t diagnosed psychotic, but I think I was. That became a source for a lot of my own films, and I used those moments. It’s scary when you cannot trust your senses, and you lose ground in reality. My memory of those experiences helped my imagination. And that was also part of what led me to Undone. I actually was planning to stop doing animation because I had been feeling that the process was too complicated. And then, at that moment, they offered me Undone. I was like, wow, this is a dream project. It’s like everything I ever wanted to do, you know?

I also took inspiration from the films of Roman Polanski, especially The Tenant. That’s my favorite film, I have seen it 25 times, and I can sing along to the music. When I talked to Kate and Raphael, I showed them a clip from Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, the dream sequence where Rosemary floats on her bed. That was so beautiful to me. I used that as an example of how I wanted the story to be with Alma all the time, not literally seeing everything from her point of view, but I wanted to be completely in her reality, and so the audience lost track about what is real and what is not real.

CINEFEX: It felt like you were tapping into something very interesting and heartfelt with Undone; and I wanted to see more.

HULSING: Well, we are now in preproduction for a second season. And it is laborious – today, I made thumbnails for around 110 shots, and I filled seven pages in one day! It is insane, the amount of work. But when I hear that people connected to the story psychologically, then I know we did a good job. That mostly comes from Kate and Raphael. I helped; but it’s their brainchild.

Images courtesy Prime Video. Thanks to Rachel Aberly, Joe Incollingo, Shealyn Smales.

“2001: An Epilogue” – Q&A with Steve Begg

In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is the beginning of the end for astronauts on the spaceship Discovery when co-pilot Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) ventures out into space on a maintenance mission and he is suddenly cast adrift, his oxygen line severed. Discovery commander Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) mounts a frantic rescue attempt, using an EVA pod to retrieve Poole, until Bowman is forced to abandon his crew-mate, releasing the lifeless body in its bright yellow spacesuit into the vastness of space.

Visual effects supervisor Steve Begg sets up a homemade living room bluescreen shoot, inspired by a visual effects test, using a prosumer DSLR camera and a small model spaceman.

For visual effects supervisor Steve Begg, and many of his generation weaned on Kubrick’s classic, the images still resonated more than 50 years after 2001 appeared, and the ripple effects unexpectedly resurfaced during a visual effects test. “I was shooting a test with a model spaceman for a potential job that I had coming up. I hung a little figure on a green thread against a greenscreen, and gently rotated him in front of my Canon 5D. Then, in After Effects, I composited that over a star field with a drift. I animated a 3D camera move on that image, so I could scale up and past the camera. I was so taken by it, I thought I could do something more elaborate.”

Begg applied the techniques to a short film, revisiting the fate of astronaut Frank Poole. The resulting 3:30 Vimeo upload went viral, clocking up more than 24,000 views in its first week. Cinefex caught up with its creator – three-times Bond alumnus, veteran of Aliens and Derek Meddings productions – to probe the mysteries of his enigmatic short.

CINEFEX: What inspired you to turn your experiment into a short film?

STEVE BEGG: While I was shooting my test, I spotted a little model of Frank Poole, from 2001, made by a Japanese toy company, Mafex, and I started to wonder if I got my hands on one of those, and repeated the trick, how would that look? In many ways, my test had digitally replicated the original technique that they had used in 2001. In Kubrick’s film, whenever you see astronauts moving in z-depth, they are actually projections where a 65mm animation camera is moving towards a projected image, and because it’s scaling up in three dimensions, it has a real feeling of depth. I was mirroring that technique in digital form. And I was stunned by how close I got to the look of the original movie.

CINEFEX: What you are describing sounds similar in theory to how visual effects supervisor Wally Veevers created composite shots for 2001 using what he called the Sausage Machine. 

STEVE BEGG: Correct.

CINEFEX: How did you detail your astronaut?

STEVE BEGG: It was a small, jointed model, about six and a half inches tall. There is another that is 1/6-scale, which has a fabric costume. This one was solid plastic. I took that and filled in the joints as much as I could and bashed him up a little bit. I was very careful to match continuity with the movie and I disconnected his oxygen supply tube from the backpack. I’ve tried to make it as authentic-feeling as possible.

CINEFEX: Did you build miniatures for the EVA pod and Discovery?

STEVE BEGG: No, they are retouched stills from 2001, flopped. In the movie, the Discovery is always traveling left to right. I flopped that because my camera was on the port side of the Discovery when Frank Poole is released, and so I made sure that his position was correct for continuity. I animated stills, again, very similar to the original film’s technique.

A new perspective of the ‘Discovery’ spacecraft and Dave Bowman’s EVA pod, seen from the ship’s port side as Poole spins away from the ship, derived from “2001: A Space Odyssey” imagery.

CINEFEX: How did you replicate the feel of the 2001 star fields?

STEVE BEGG: Well, what’s interesting about the stars in 2001 is, although there are plenty of them, they’re very low key. There’s no color whatsoever in the stars. So, I made sure there was no blues or other colors in my star field and, on a shot-by-shot basis, I varied their look slightly. They are not completely accurate. I started with an original star field and I Photoshopped a big HD master so I could pan across it. I also consciously avoided having Poole pass in front of, or behind large objects during his space journey, mimicking Kubrick’s concerns about the limits of the hand rotoscoping and matting techniques on the original film’s space shots.

CINEFEX: What went into that stark feeling of lighting on the astronaut?

STEVE BEGG: I lit that with three LED light packs, including one for the bluescreen that I had behind the yellow Frank Poole. I found that I got a better key by using a blue. There’s more separation between that and the yellow. It was all done in my living room and the ‘screen’ behind him was an A3-size piece of blue art card. I hung him on a blue thread, in front of that, slowly rotating. I used my Canon 5D Mark 2 and I shot him at 24 frames a second. I finished the whole thing at 1920×1080 resolution. Much to my surprise, when I’ve seen it on a big screen, I’m stunned how well it holds up.

Canon 5D lighting set-up on a customized Mafex action figure, suspended against A3-size blue card.

CINEFEX: The micro-meteor impacts on the astronaut are a nice touch – what was your reference for that, or were you just making it look cool?

STEVE BEGG: It was a little bit both. I felt that he’d been drifting in space for a couple of centuries in my story, and I felt that he’d encounter some sort of wear and tear on his long voyage to Jupiter’s moon. At one point, I tried dusting him up as if he was covered by some space dust, but all that did was to flatten his detail. So, I went for the micro-meteorite damage, including one almost head-on on his visor to make sure everyone knew he was dead.

CINEFEX: Frank’s face is eerily visible in the space helmet. Is that a young Gary Lockwood in there?

STEVE BEGG: It is indeed Gary Lockwood. I trawled the Internet looking for a still of Gary with the appropriate angle and weirdness that would fit in the helmet. I was lucky to find a still from Where No Man Has Gone Before, the 1966 Star Trek episode where Gary played a Starfleet officer who is given super powers. I found a still of his face with the correct posture and expression, and after bit of Photoshop I percentaged that into the helmet. You only see it briefly, but it’s just enough to give you the creeps.

CINEFEX: On which of Jupiter’s moons does he land?

STEVE BEGG: I left that open. A lot of that came down to the material and textures that I had lying around. I tried to imply that it had a very thin atmosphere and low gravity. The biggest of Jupiter’s moons has 1/6 the gravity of Earth, which is the same as our Moon. I had a few comments online that his impact would create a massive crater and flatten him, but I’m not sure about that if he landed on a massive mound of dust.

Poole’s lifeless body makes planetfall on the surface of one of the gas giant Jupiter’s 79 known satellites. Miniature and photographic elements composited in After Effects.

CINEFEX: How did you create the dust explosion?

STEVE BEGG: I got a mound of Fuller’s Earth, and had a friend of mine whack it with a stick. I shot it at 240 frames a second on an iPhone 6, which gave me a lovely little slow-motion element that I scaled-down and I put it in the distance in one shot. I’ve done quite a bit of high-speed experimenting with the iPhone 6. If the elements aren’t massive, it does the job.

CINEFEX: Your moon dust had a very convincing texture. How did you create that?

STEVE BEGG: I did a basic sculpt of the landscape, again in Fuller’s Earth, about four feet square. I then dropped some additional Fuller’s Earth from three or four feet above the little set piece, and that created this super textured, almost micro-cratered landscape. I came across that technique by accident and I was stunned at the feel that we managed to get.

The impact site was a tabletop miniature created using Fuller’s Earth modeled into contours and then sprinkled to create cratering effects. Begg layered miniature elements with photographic textures to create a deep focus look, with a subtle glimpse of the astronaut’s face.

CINEFEX: Where on Earth did you find an authentic Harry Lange 2001 spacesuit for your resurrection scene?

STEVE BEGG: A friend of mine, Chrissie Overs, is an extremely knowledgeable and experienced prop and costume maker. We first met on Aliens creating a foreground miniature at Acton Power Station for the Skotak brothers. I asked Chrissie if she would fabricate an arm and part of the side of the space suit, the chest to waist area. She found some yellow ski gloves and then added a black patch to mimic the look of the 2001 gloves. I think if you scrutinize the glove, it’s not that accurate, but it certainly had the feel.

Poole’s fingers twitch, signaling the astronaut’s revival. Prop and costume maker Chrissie Overs built full-scale portions of the astronaut’s suit, emulating costume designer Harry Lange’s distinctive streamlined “2001” space suit.

CINEFEX: How did you create the helmet?

STEVE BEGG: The helmet was all miniature from that tiny little, six and a half inch man. I photographed that as stills with him with on the terrain with fairly long exposures and a good f-stop. I cut that up and put it onto 3D planes to give it a bit of a dimensional move, when the camera is drifting over it. The great thing about that approach is this infinite depth of field. I even had to blur the depth in some shots because it looked too sharp.

CINEFEX: When you mentioned that you shot that end scene in your home, I imagined you had a full-scale astronaut in a huge pile of dust your living room! 

STEVE BEGG: No, I was lucky that another friend of mine, Andy Rolfe, has a little workshop in an old paint store not far from where I live. He set up an 8×4-foot workbench. Chrissie laid on top of the little set piece and she was the actor for the hand within the glove.

Wide shots of Poole’s resurrection were achieved using the Mafex figure in the tabletop miniature terrain, filmed against a black card backing, staged in a former paint store in south London.

CINEFEX: Kubrick famously went to extraordinary lengths to build a full-scale, pristine solid monolith to represent the alien presence in his film – did you?

STEVE BEGG: No! It’s basically a matte painting with a little bit of camera shift to imply that it’s three dimensional. I think, courtesy of the fact we have tools like Photoshop and what have you, it’s possible to mimic that look easily. I did consider building a prop for that, but if you study the Kubrick monolith, even that has textures and a little bit of a profile, which I’m sure Stanley didn’t really want. I wanted to stay as close to that pristine look as possible.

CINEFEX: On the original film, was it Stanley’s lighting cameraman Geoffrey Unsworth who photographed the astronaut-in-space scenes?

STEVE BEGG: I got this from Brian Johnson, who worked on the film. He said that, certainly with the miniatures, it was Stanley Kubrick really lighting everything, working with Wally Veevers and Brian. Brian was taking stills and Wally did the 65mm motion picture footage. On the main production set, it was Geoffrey Unsworth – and for a few sequences John Alcott – but very heavily under the control of Stanley Kubrick because Stanley was an accomplished photographer.

A shadow-casting black card mask, positioned above the tabletop terrain, simulates the effect of the rising sun casting an oblong shadow over Poole.

CINEFEX: Based on your experience of having stepped into that world, what is it that makes the 2001 space scenes so eerie and elegant, and still so evocative today?

STEVE BEGG: I think what gives all the 2001 space shots immense scale and scope and majesty, is that all the moves are linear. There are very few shots where objects change trajectory or speed. To me, that creates the feeling of a massive object moving in space. It is also quite often people’s memory that the photography of the 2001 space scenes is very high contrast, with no fill light at all. However, if you really study the shots, the space scenes always have a minimum of two light sources: a key light, and usually a blue fill. Otherwise, the spacecraft would be jet black on their shadow sides – that’s how they looked in the sequel 2010, which I thought had an interesting look, but for me, it wasn’t 2001.

Poole views an occultation of the sun behind a towering black monolith, recalling similar encounters with the enigmatic object, and symmetrical image compositions, in Kubrick’s 1968 film.

CINEFEX: Your short takes a deliberate departure from Arthur Clarke’s vision of Frank Poole, because, in his book 3001: The Final Odyssey, Frank came back from the dead, didn’t he?

STEVE BEGG: Yes, in Arthur Clarke’s sequel, Poole was discovered floating in the asteroid belt. To be absolutely honest, I remembered that when I was halfway through my short. A lightbulb went off in my head – wait a minute, doesn’t he come back? I Googled it and, sure enough, in 3001 Frank is discovered floating, frozen in Kuiper Belt. I decided to ignore that. I have been very pleasantly surprised by the number of people who prefer my ending!

For more reading:

Images courtesy Steve Begg.

“The Dead Don’t Die” – Q&A with Alex Hansson

Zombies come in many flavors. For many horror devotees, George A. Romero defined the genre with his Pittsburgh-made 1968 Night of the Living Dead. The black and white, 16mm shocker depicted shuffling corpses with a hunger for flesh ostensibly triggered, per a half-glimpsed TV news report, by a crashed Venusian probe. Romero’s own sequels DawnDay and Land of the Dead hinted at deeper themes of social unrest as cause of the undead pandemic. The Bela Lugosi 1932 feature White Zombie offered Haiti voodoo as trigger for reanimating the dead, as did Wes Craven’s gripping 1988 thriller The Serpent and the Rainbow. Lucio Fulci and other European imitators piled on zombie gore with tropical zeal through the 1980s. More recent filmmakers goosed the undead into jittery hyena-like packs in 28 Days Later and Train to Busan. Zombies were played for laughs in Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. They went primetime in AMC’s The Walking Dead. And World War Z presented the Z-word as Hollywood extravaganza.

Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch was aware of the cinematic legacy piled behind him when he offered his own take on the zombie phenomenon in Focus Features’ The Dead Don’t Die. The indie cinema mogul had a rich history of playing with Hollywood stereotypes in his slow-burning, deadpan style in Down by LawNight on Earth, Dead Man and his 2013 postmodern vampire fable Only Lovers Left Alive. When news of Jarmusch’s foray into the zombie genre was announced at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, an all-star cast of Jarmusch collaborators signed on – including Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop and Tilda Swinton.

New to the team was visual effects supervisor Alex Hansson, founder of Haymaker in Gothenburg, Sweden. After a landing the assignment, Hansson joined Jarmusch and cinematographer Frederick Elmes to scout locations for their small-town zombie apocalypse in upper New York state, offering digital solutions to augment in-camera zombie makeup effects created at Mike Marino’s Prosthetic Renaissance. After ten months of intense postproduction, followed by a premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Hansson joined Cinefex to recall his zombie experience with Jarmusch.

CINEFEX: The concept of Jim Jarmusch doing a zombie movie is quite mind-boggling. How did this come about, and how did Jim explain his intentions to you?

HANSSON: Well, preproduction had been going for about a year when I received the script. About a week later, I had a Skype call with Jim. The producer decided, ‘Well, you’ll have to be here next week to have a briefing with Jim and you guys are going to go location scouting.’ That was it. It was very fast-paced. When I was in New York on the briefing I asked him, ‘How do you visualize the zombies?’ He said, ‘Well, I want them to be filled with dust.’ I thought, okay, that sounds cool. I had references from Bladegoing through my head. 

When we went location scouting, I got to know him more, because that’s far less stress than shooting. I hung out with Jim and Fred Elmes for a day or two. We were viewing a graveyard location and we discussed one of Tilda Swinton’s big scenes. 

CINEFEX: Tilda plays the town mortician, who is very skilled with a samurai sword.

HANSSON: Yes, I told Jim, from the script, it read like a great scene for her character, and I suggested we could shoot her attacking all these zombies as a one-take action moment. One zombie coming up behind her, she turns around and she does a vertical slice right through him, and then she turns again. I suggested we could stay in frame, not cut away, all in one hero shot. And for the vertical split, I asked could we make that guy be bald, to make our visual effects work a little easier without the hair. Jim said, yeah, we can do that. And by the way, that happened – when we returned to shoot that scene, the guy was bald.

CINEFEX: It’s good to hear that he was so receptive. Did Jim like to use storyboards?

HANSSON: Yes, and that turned out to be good reference. He didn’t always shoot storyboards exactly, but it was a very useful for visual effects.

CINEFEX: Jim’s films are so much about character and mood, it’s hard to imagine him doing a lot of previs and technical preparation.

HANSSON: That’s right. To wind back a little bit, when we were in the briefing room before we went out location scouting, one of Jim’s first comments was, ‘I’m used to doing movies with people talking, so you have to tell me what to do here.’ He was very open-minded about visual effects from the first minute I met him, which is extremely rare. When people have asked me about how it was working with Jim, I’ve often told them it was my best experience ever working with a director. And this was working with a director who confessed he didn’t know visual effects. He might not have understood the process, but he had so much respect for it. 

CINEFEX: Did you discuss previous zombie films?

HANSSON: Yes, Jim loved the old-school zombie films. That was the direction he wanted to go. He was not a fan of fast-paced zombies. He made that clear from the beginning. One of the notes he gave me was we wanted to see ‘dust’ when zombies were killed. 

CINEFEX: So, the undead were not wet inside?

HANSSON: Exactly – just ‘dust.’ I was trying to get into his head, so I asked him, did he imagine this dust might be like when you go out in the woods, you find a piece of a log that has gone rotten and, when you touch it, it just goes pfft. I asked him, ‘Is that it?’ As if, the bones inside the body might still be solid, but everything else is like more of the log. He said, ‘Yes, you nailed it.’ That was my brief.

CINEFEX: How did you develop zombie dust effects?

HANSSON: After I flew back home to Sweden, right away I brought my camera to my parking garage and I started shooting plates with myself acting as a zombie. I gave that footage to my artists, and we started working on the zombie dust effect. The shoot was coming up fast, and so, within about a week we did some tests, and I sent a couple of different proposals over to Jim. He said, ‘This is exactly what I want!’ We weren’t sure what he was looking for, but that was encouraging, and my team kept refining that effect all the way to shot production.

CINEFEX: Did you try physically throwing dust on people on set?

HANSSON: There were a few zombie deaths-by-gunshot where the special effects team tried to spray a dust effect. There was supposed to be more of that. I wanted dust to end up on the clothes of the zombies getting hurt and, initially, I had asked to have practical dust on-set, as a secondary effect. For instance, when Bill Murray’s character was shooting off zombie heads, I wanted dust to land on the actors’ clothes. They couldn’t make that happen. So, we did that 100-percent digitally. I kept working with my artists. We tried Vector Paint in Nuke, and when we ended up adding that to shot, that was a big surprise to Jim because we had not been able to achieve that during production. It was something that I wanted to add to make the visual effects work better, and it ended up working great.

CINEFEX: How did you work with makeup effects? We know Mike Marino’s work from Black Swan, and more recently True Detective, and he is a very talented artist.

HANSSON: Yes, Prosthetic Renaissance designed all the zombie makeups. They had different levels of detail – hero makeups, makeups where zombies were within a 10-meter distance, and then the extras who wore custom masks. There were a couple of scenes where the script indicated heads falling off. My first criteria for those was to make sure they were not featured in close-up, with heads spinning and rolling on the floor right next to the camera, which could have involved visual effects. Mike’s team built those heads practically. In two shots, they ended up quite close to camera, but thanks to the great work they did, those shots did not need visual effects. My other request was that when we were going to chop off a head, I asked for a sharp and detailed cut point. Mike’s team made the makeup to work with that.

CINEFEX: What were your criteria for decapitation scenes? 

HANSSON: For all decapitations, I asked Fred Elmes to shoot using a large frame area. He was open to that and we ended up shooting 4K, using the new Arri Alexa LF. I also asked if we could use master prime lenses, to make use of Arriflex’s Lens Data System. For some reason that didn’t work out, so I had no metadata. On difficult shots, where it was obvious that we would have tracking problems, we added tracking markers to the zombie actors, and then we lidar scanned every scene. After Jim was happy with a take, I’d immediately run in with my own custom rig – which captures high dynamic range images and lidar. That was part of the deal that I made with the producers and the film crew, and it was a very efficient way to light CG elements that we were adding to the scenes. That helped us track the environment, and gave us data so we could mesh the lighting and the environment. We then used HDRI textures to map lighting back onto the mesh. After that, we did a lot of roto animation to add digital effects to zombie deaths.

CINEFEX: You had a lot of those – there’s Bill Murray with his shotgun, Adam Driver beheads Carol Kane and many others with a machete, Danny Glover uses gardening shears – was each zombie death a custom build?

HANSSON: This was a low-budget production, so sometimes we would finish shooting, redress the same stunt person, Mike Marino’s team would redo the makeup, and suddenly we had another zombie. In each instance, when we knew we were going to be doing a zombie death, I’d ship them off to be scanned. Travis Reinke, founder of SCANable, scanned all the actors for us on set. They gave us raw scans back, and then we went to work. 

One of our toughest challenges was we had so many zombie deaths, I wanted to avoid them feeling repetitive. I asked my artists come up with different techniques. For Steve Buscemi, we blew off half of his head. For another zombie in the graveyard, we blew off his head but decided to keep his jaw going as he fell. The deaths were part of the humor of the film, so we tried to make them feel comedic, in terms of how they came apart in different places every time.

CINEFEX: Did you build a kit of body parts?

HANSSON: We built custom parts. We did a quick rig for each head that was blown off. If we wanted the neck to flap in the air, we did a quick and dirty rig, and then we figured out what worked for that specific shot. It had to be time-efficient.

CINEFEX: How did you animate the innards?

HANSSON: Going back to the R&D, where I used myself as a zombie, I had my Houdini artist to work on an effects setup that he refined so we could customize the rig to each shot. That’s how we did every shot. We rendered Side Effects Deep Camera maps, which allowed us to work with skin shaders in Autodesk Maya and 3D rendering in Chaos Group V-Ray. We took Mantra renders from Houdini and V-Ray renders from Maya, combined them in the composite and rotoscoped the actors from the plate. That gave us control of depth for our dust effects.

CINEFEX: Where did you make the blends to the actors?

HANSSON: We scanned most of stunt guys from the sternum up. Once we had an edit of a scene, we studied each specific shot to decide how far up we needed to roto-animate, and then it was up to comp to find the magic point for each transition. I tried to limit custom shaders and textures, and instead used camera mapping from the plate and re-mapped onto the 3D model using manual roto animation. In a few places, we had to use cloth simulations for flesh effects, depending what happened after the head was chopped, or the angle of the character in the plate.

CINEFEX: When Tilda is using her katana, and she gives the bald guy a vertical slice, how did you create his internal anatomy?

HANSSON: We had the neck bone together with the skull. And we found some textures to map his insides and inside his head. It is interesting what you can find online.

CINEFEX: What was your brief for the science fiction finale?

HANSSON: Jim and his production designer, Alex DiGerlando, wanted to see a 1950s-style flying saucer. At first, they were talking about shooting that as a model, because they wanted it to feel old-school. I wasn’t sure about that, because I knew there would be a lot more work if they went that way. Pretty soon, I heard they moved away from that, which gave us much more control, but they wanted to keep that retro feeling. They gave me a reference picture from a black and white UFO sci-fi movie. I suggested to my team that we could give that a modern touch, using volumetric lighting and textures that could make it feel more interesting than the typical aluminum finish they used back then. We rendered a still frame for Jim and he loved it right away. 

CINEFEX: How did you integrate Tilda and all the zombies?

HANSSON: When we did the location scout, Jim told me he wanted somewhere in between 150 to 200 zombies. We animated those digitally using Houdini’s new crowd simulation tool, which was very effective. We modeled 25 to 30 individual zombies and then made small adjustments so each one looked unique. Like most of the film, we shot day for night, and that made this scene so difficult, as the saucer was coming down with its light beam reaching out to Tilda. They wanted her to disappear into the light, but I knew when we were shooting in full sunshine there was no way we’d be able to create that interaction, with a very strong light coming down on her from above. To accomplish that, we did a full body scan of Tilda, and that enabled us to light her correctly when we added the effects.

CINEFEX: It is a strange ending to an amusing film. You must have asked Jim Jarmusch ‘what did the zombie represent for you?’

HANSSON: Well, I think it’s obvious when you see the film. They represent us. That was Jim’s take on the world, where it’s at now. It was funny, my wife was with me in Cannes, and we talked to Jim at the after-party and she asked him, ‘So, do you like zombies as much as my husband?’ Because I’d been in this for 10 months straight, 7 days a week and it had become a part of my life. Jim answered to my wife, ‘I hate zombies! I hate everything about them. I have always done. They’re stupid, they’re slow, they’re not sexy, like vampires. They’re dumb.’ That was such a funny answer. You’ll have to see for yourself. There are a lot of political statements.

‘The Dead Don’t Die’ imagery © 2019 Focus Features, Animal Kingdom and Kill the Head. Thanks to Jim Jarmusch, Arielle de Saint Phalle, Carter Logan, Joshua Astachan and Alex Hansson.

VFX Q&A – Van Ling on ‘Cliffs of Freedom’

During the television broadcast of the 91st Academy Awards, viewers may have glimpsed a trailer for a sweeping historical epic, Cliffs of Freedom. The independent feature, released by Round Hill Media, boasted an impressive cast – Billy Zane, Christopher Plummer, Patti LuPone and Lance Henriksen – and glamorous co-stars, Jan Uddin as a Turkish colonel and Tania Raymonde as a feisty Greek woman, in a Zhivago-esque romance of star-crossed lovers set against a backdrop of Ottoman oppression. Equally notable – to anyone conversant with the visual effects community – was the name Van Ling, a long-time collaborator of James Cameron’s, making his theatrical feature directorial debut.

A Boy and his Power Loader. Image © Thom Carroll, Twentieth Century Fox, 1986.

A hidden ‘Easter Egg’ on the Aliens Blu-ray immortalized Van Ling’s introduction to Cameron’s world, revealing how the youthful University of Southern California film school graduate applied his fledgling filmmaker moxie to gain an impromptu audience with the Aliens filmmakers by recreating one of their sci-fi epic’s robotic props. Ling later served as Cameron’s right-hand man on projects from 1986 through 1994, before carving out his own niche with producing partner Casey Cannon at Banned From the Ranch, and then Van Ling Productions. It was Cannon who introduced Ling to Cliffs of Freedom producer Marianne Metropoulos, who was seeking assistance on her project, which required a giant leap into new filmmaking territory. “I became fascinated by this period of world history,” commented Van Ling. “In school, I learned Western European history, but it was all Victorian and Tudor periods, which took students from where they began to where we are in America today – they didn’t spend too much time teaching us about the Ottoman Empire and events in Eastern Europe. That fascinated me, and one of the things we wanted was to find themes that resonated with people today. We wanted this to be a human story, with themes that were relatable to our world today. Revolutions, hope and resilience never seem to go out of style.”

To trace Van Ling’s adventure – from USC to his directorial debut, recreating 19th century Greece, using vast reserves of moviemaking ingenuity and nearly 1,000 visual effects shots – Cinefex caught up with the filmmaker during the Cliffs of Freedom opening weekend.

CINEFEX: Was it always your ambition to become a filmmaker?

VAN LING: Going to USC Cinema School in the mid-1980s certainly encouraged my desire to make movies. That was an exciting time for visual effects films. ILM was king of the jungle, and the maturation of motion control work that was pioneered by ILM, Doug Trumbull and others was reaching its pinnacle. Around the time that I graduated, we were on the cusp of starting to use digital tools to raise the stakes in creating visual effects, and all of those influences inspired me to want to tell stories and work on amazing films.

CINEFEX: USC has a great mentor program. Who were your influences there?

VAN LING: Thomas Stanford, the film editor on West Side Story, taught an editing class and I learned a lot from him. Producer Leon Roth taught ‘The Art and Industry of the Film,’ where different filmmakers would come in every week of the ten-week semester – the first week you would see a current film, and then every subsequent week they’d bring in a department head from that film, one week the director, the next week the cinematographer, and then production designer and the composer would come in. In my semester, we had Back to the Future, which was fantastic. And along those lines, after I graduated, we made Terminator 2 and I came back and coordinated getting a lot of the people from T2 to come in and do that same class. I got to pay it forward.

CINEFEX: Was that how you met James Cameron?

Van Ling directs Christopher Plummer as Thanasi, advisor to a Turkish colonel caught between the whims of a capricious Sultan and an enigmatic rebel leader in “Cliffs of Freedom”.

VAN LING: Well, I first learned about James Cameron when he came to USC in 1984 to screen The Terminator for us in a class where upcoming films were screened for students and the filmmakers come to do a Q&A – this wasn’t the same as the full semester program, but every week they’d screen an upcoming film, and they usually had a producer or an actor or director come in for a Q&A in the big Norris Theater. I loved The Terminator, and I became fascinated by Jim’s stories about guerrilla filmmaking, and working for Roger Corman. I thought to myself, wow, this is an ingenious filmmaker, who’s doing dynamic filmmaking and great storytelling, but he’s doing it as a science fiction genre geek. I would love to work for this guy. Jim and Terry Gilliam and some other folks like that were the ones I was really looking at. But that was a pipe dream at that time, way out of my league, so I focused on my studies and looked forward to Jim’s next film, which of course was Aliens, which came out the year I graduated.

CINEFEX: Cinefex readers may be familiar with your recreation of the P-5000 Power Loader from Aliens, but give us the short version.

VAN LING: The summer I graduated from USC, I did two weeks as a set P.A. on reshoots for Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, and I worked as a lowly summer intern in the marketing department at Showscan. While I was doing all those things, I would call the Fox production offices of James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd, his producer, asking about internships every week. They’d always reply, ‘Nothing this week, but call back next week’ – that was already a step above what anybody else would say. And then Aliens opened, I went to see it twice on opening day, and one of my roommates from college, Ed Marsh, made a gentlemen’s bet with me regarding my fascination with the Power Loader from the film, the big yellow walking forklift. He dared me to build a model of it in time for his dorm’s upcoming Halloween party.

I showed up at the party with a seven-foot-tall mobile costume, with lights, motorized claws and stilts that I cobbled together in my parents’ garage. And I won that bet. More importantly, earlier in the day, I had called Jim and Gale’s office on the Fox lot one more time, and told them, ‘Hey, I made a Power Loader.’ To my surprise, they said, ‘Bring it on down, we’ll leave you a studio gate pass, we gotta see this.’ I was floored. I rented a pick-up truck, and got down there late in the afternoon. I missed seeing Jim, but Gale came out and said, ‘This is the best walking resume I’ve ever seen.’ And then, she loaned me Sigourney Weaver’s costume and Reeboks for the night to make my costume complete. It’s the kind of story that sounds made up, but it’s completely true, and I don’t think it’ll ever happen again.

CINEFEX: So, is it true – that landed you a job with Jim?

VAN LING: Well, I didn’t build that project with the intent of trying to get a job. I did it because just out of the love of it, and just because I’m a geek. I think it was that sincerity and the love that went into it that showed. My friends who helped me on the project kept telling me, ‘Hey, you should show this to James Cameron!’ But after that experience, meeting Gale, Jim ended up coming down to my parents’ house to meet me. He arrived while I was working on a friend’s student film, building a set out of foam core. And he asked me, ‘Hey, do you know how to do this kind of cut?’ He got down on the floor and started showing me how to cut foam core in a way that you can create rounded edges. And, coincidentally, I’d just gotten my first Macintosh that day, Jim saw that and said, ‘What kind of computer do you think I should get?’ We really hit it off, and that’s when he hired me to be his researcher and technical assistant on The Abyss. I became his computer consultant, his technical assistant and his researcher, and because he knew I was interested in visual effects, I ended up working for Jim for the next eight years.

CINEFEX: What did you learn at Lightstorm that led you to become a filmmaker?

Anna Christina (Tania Raymonde), a young Greek woman, witnesses events that inspire her to become a freedom fighter against Ottoman invaders. Production plate.

Entity FX tracked the Steadicam plate, tracking backward with Raymonde, rotoscoped the performer and composited layers of fog passes, augmenting in-camera fog effects.

VAN LING: I learned so much about every aspect of filmmaking because I was there on almost every meeting on every project. Jim used to call me his ‘extra RAM,’ his random access memory. It was a great opportunity and responsibility. At one point, as digital technology was ramping up, Jim gave me some advice. He said, ‘You have to decide where you want to be. If you want to be a filmmaker, you need to spend more time on sets, learning the rhythms and how all that process works. But if you want to focus on visual effects, you need to spend more time working directly on a computer.’ It was a really tough decision and I thought, ‘What would he do with this opportunity?’

CINEFEX: Is that how you branched out in work with Casey Cannon?

VAN LING: Well, I had met and started working with Casey on T2. She was a friend of Mark Dippé at ILM, he introduced us, and she brought me in to work on some concert videos she was working on. I then brought her in to work with me on some of my Lightstorm projects, like the laserdisc special editions of The Abyss and T2. When Casey started her own computer graphics boutique, Banned From The Ranch Entertainment, I joined as creative director. We were designing and running interactive screen graphics on set for movies like CongoTwister, The Relic, Dante’s Peak, Starship Troopers. This was before the days when most computer screen graphics in movies were comped in after the fact. Prior to that, all the computer screens you saw in movies were video resolution, they weren’t real computers, they all looked like video graphics on standard definition 640×400 TV monitors. We started using real computers, creating computer graphics and animating. We then added visual effects work to our plate, and moved toward more creative story work. For Deep Rising, I designed a graphic sequence to sell the idea that a character comes in and hacks this cruise ship – I storyboarded it all out, we shot the insert shoot, and that solidified my interest in becoming a director.

CINEFEX: How did Casey come to present Cliffs of Freedom to you?

Sultan Mahmud II hosts an audience in the gardens of Hagia Sophia, overlooking the Imperial Mosque, 1808. Agrapha Productions created the palace park environment with background mosque, ornate tent exterior and bluescreen crowd elements.

New Mexico production plate, jib down to reveal tent, exposed for tent interior.

VAN LING: Casey was helping the financier, Marianne Metropoulos, put together her passion project story about her Greek heritage – this fictional story that takes place during Greek history. Casey thought it would be beneficial for me, although I wasn’t thinking about directing. She brought it to me to help figure out some story and script issues, back in 2011. They had a decent script, it wasn’t quite where they wanted it, Marianne wanted it to be more of a love story that happened to be set in this historical context. I brainstormed how to get from point A to point B in her story, and Casey suggested, ‘Why don’t you write that up?’ So, what started as story notes became beat-sheets, which became scene descriptions and dialogue suggestions and, by 2014, I had done a complete page-one rewrite and I started to get invested in the storytelling aspects.

CINEFEX: What threw the switch that turned this into your feature film directorial debut?

VAN LING: I backed into it. We went through a couple of director candidates, while I was just a writer. In fact, as I was writing a script, I was still working on designing Blu-ray menus for all the Hunger Games films and working on Disney Imagineering projects for EPCOT and Disney cruise ships. I was a support player. In 2014, I went with them to Morocco on a two-week scout as a writer, supporting one of their director candidates. But it was really hard to get anyone – studios or cast – interested in a movie that took place in this period. Marianne shelved the project for a year or two and, in the end, I ended up being the last man standing because I knew the script better than anyone.

Janissary Lieutenant Nemid (Morse Bicknell) consults with Captain Sunal (Raza Jeffrey) on the ramparts of the Sultan’s palace. Otto Studios added 3D palace, digimatte buildings, with weathering and blood stains, and birds.

Production plate, crane move up to actors on palace wall. New Mexico sky provides natural bluescreen.

While the film was shelved, Marianne commissioned me to write a TV series proposal about this same historical period. I amortized all my research into a completely new story, The Hellenes. To sell a TV series, you not only have to have a proposal with episode synopses, character details, and a look-book of research, we thought why not make a ‘sizzle reel’? That’s what people do these days for these presentations. So, I scripted 26 pages of shots and dialogue scenes, and directed them while Casey produced this teaser trailer. We brought over some actors from London, a few of whom overlapped into the film – Jan Uddin, who plays our male lead, Tariq, played our Sultan in the sizzle reel. We spent two days in the suburbs of Pasadena at a house that had an amazing Turkish room, and two more days at a cemetery in Compton, which happened to have this Middle Eastern architecture. We used that to double for Istanbul.

As I was editing that footage into a montage, Marianne and her husband Dean saw what I was putting together and they got super excited. They decided to do the feature, and Casey let me know they wanted me to direct. I was surprised because it never occurred to me to put myself in the running. The sizzle reel became the proof of concept, as well as my audition.

CINEFEX: Did you feel up to it?

VAN LING: I felt up to it. Any trepidation that I felt was due to the schedule that they proposed. They knew they didn’t want to shoot in Europe – this was not too long after a bunch of tourists in Tunisia were killed by extremists, and so any thought of going to Morocco, or similar, was unattractive. But this was August 2016, and they wanted to have principal photography done by the end of the year.

CINEFEX: Where did you find your locations?

A Turkish patrol approaches the gates of the walled city of Tripolitsa, a center of Ottoman occupation on the Greek Peloponnese Peninsula. Alchemy 24 tracked and created city wall extensions, and added wagons, tents, and structures within wall.

Partial set piece, shot from an aerial drone camera descending over the New Mexico location.

VAN LING: We looked at Connecticut and Colorado, but we knew by the year’s end it was going to get really cold there, so we looked at Texas, we scouted the Southwest and we found that New Mexico had the best financial incentives. We chose Santa Fe and, to shoot principal within a short period of time, we ended up with only six weeks of prep. To prepare for nine weeks of principal photography in the last quarter of the year, from Fall into Winter, for a story that took place mostly in Autumn and Spring, we had to hit the ground running. So, we did have some trepidation, but with all of our visual effects background, we knew it was possible.

CINEFEX: How did you use your visual effects knowledge to plan the shoot?

VAN LING: We storyboarded a number of action sequences and key moments. But, even as a visual effects person, my main instinct was to try to do this all live, if possible, without relying on visual effects. For our opening scene, I envisioned a flashback and I wanted to play the whole sequence as if it had been shot in a dust storm, because I wanted it to have a foggy, hazy feeling. I had that very specific idea, and the first thing I learned was we had zero control over weather. When we tried to shoot fog effects in-camera, the wind would blow the fog away, and if we re-set and moved our fog effects upwind, the wind changed direction. Those are the kind of things you run into and those are the kind of times that we always knew we had visual effects in our hip pocket.

CINEFEX: The opening sequence is impressive, with fighting played in slow motion silhouette against the haze – how did you pull that off?

A Greek villager, Christina Kanelos (Raquel Cassidy), cradles her child amid the chaos of a Turkish attack. Entity FX layered characters into layers of mist for the stylized opening sequence.

Production plate bluescreen element of Raquel Cassidy, shot at 48 frames per second.

VAN LING: Once we realized there was no way we were going to be able to actually shoot it in smoke, I designed the whole sequence as something that we shoot on greenscreen. We shot all the different elements, separated them and then multi-planed them together into a cohesive scene. Mat Beck and his team at EntityFX did that opening sequence in the fog. They helped us put all that together and then they also came in to do a bunch of fight shots and battle sequences.

CINEFEX: Tell us how you shot your clifftop scenes.

Additional greenscreen elements of Greek villagers, shot as locked-off elements for the opening scene.

VAN LING: We found some real cliffs where we shot in New Mexico. Nothing substitutes being able to shift the camera on a slight dolly with a character standing on the edge of the cliff and seeing the parallax shift that tells you, wow, you are on a cliff. That meant we had to do some cable removals, for safety, so we storyboarded all of those scenes to figure out the logistics and camera angles and again, minimizing the amount of visual effects that we needed to do.

CINEFEX: How did you drop the Ottoman Empire behind your action?

VAN LING: We knew we would need visual effects for a couple of establishing shots, but we built sets for most everything else. Our production designer Charlie Campbell built an Ottoman Palace, a hallway and a courtyard that she could swapped out and redress as different parts of the palace. Apart from our location scenes, up in the hills and the rocks representing the Greek countryside, for our main Greek village, Charlie and her team redressed an abandoned high school in the middle of downtown Santa Fe. That’s something you don’t see every day! We had our Ottoman courtyard set, four walls, little hallways and arches and doors and a little market area outside of it, and we built all of that on a baseball field in this high school. We built the village square for the Greek village on the basketball court and we dressed the building façades as if they were stone Greek buildings, rather than modern school buildings. Charlie was amazing. She came on board for our sizzle reel, and she was ingenious in finding ways to make things work. We worked really well together, knowing what she could accomplish in practical builds and what visual effects could add to that.

Turkish Colonel Tariq (Jan Uddin) and his Greek tutor Thanasi view Ottoman Empire troops on the eve of an attack on the rebel hordes. Agrapha Productions added Turkish troops, wagons, horses and dust effects.

Production plate, craning above performers atop 30-foot-tall set-piece of the Ottoman city gate, shot on location in New Mexico. Troop extras, with terrain tracking markers, in background.

CINEFEX: Did you do any soundstage work?

VAN LING: If you consider the high school gym, where we erected some greenscreen as a soundstage, yeah, we did some stage work. It was really interesting guerrilla filmmaking, yet bigger than it probably should have been.

CINEFEX: What stylistic approach did you use to convey the scale of your battle scenes – the Ottoman army rallying against the rebels – on a budget?

VAN LING: We studied battle scenes from all sorts of previous movies, including a number of Greek films about some of these historical incidents, and we cherry-picked what felt best for our particular story. The goal was to shoot action with long lenses and keep the battle going with a lot of motion in the background, but always focusing on our characters. Cory Geryak, our director of photography, had other ideas. I storyboarded everything out but Cory had this theory, which I know a couple of DPs ascribe to, which is to backlight every shot. When I questioned lighting continuity, Cory explained the continuity was that everything looked great – which was a very interesting way to approach it! He had previously been gaffer for cinematographers Phedon Papamichael and Wally Pfister, so he was experienced in that regard, but it was his first time as a DP, just as it was my first time as a director. He learned from what he learned and I brought what I learned, and so it was an interesting back-and-forth.

CINEFEX: Did Jim Cameron offer any advice on methods for dealing with this style of guerrilla filmmaking?

Christina and her rebels observe the Ottoman encampment. Otto Studios added 3D digimatte Turkish camp and valley, with atmospheric haze.

Production plate, camera craning above performers, shot on hilltop overlook with bluescreen backdrop.

VAN LING: When I started getting ready to go into production, I did write to Jim, because he was one of my sponsors to get into the DGA for this film. I told him about my trepidations, and he told me how he got into fistfights with his first producer, he got fired off Piranha 2, and they locked him out of the editing room. His advice was roll with it. That was probably one of the strongest encouragements I had.

CINEFEX: Did the Van Ling directing style become pugilistic?

The Ottoman camp. Otto Studios added 3D digimatte Turkish camp extension, mountains, forest, ground dirt, haze, smoke and bluescreen troop elements.

New Mexico production plate, craning up above foreground props and performers, with bluescreen backing.

VAN LING: That’s not really my style, but I had to find the strength to just keep going through it. I have to say, in 30 years of being in the business, it was the most difficult shoot I’ve ever been on. Part of that was because, as a beginner, you come into a show and everybody thinks they need to tell you how their department works – or how they want it to work for them! This was another thing I learned from Jim: learn how to do everything, because that knowledge empowers you to call people on their bullshit.

CINEFEX: How did you land in Wellington, New Zealand, for your postproduction?

VAN LING: We chose Wellington not because of any connection with Lightstorm, or Jim. It came from Casey looking around to try and find ways to save money. There was a great tax incentive. The real draw for me was the fact that I really respected what the folks in Peter Jackson’s camp were able to do. They have the equivalent of their own Skywalker Ranch down there, at Park Road Post. It’s a wonderful place, with a nice attitude that reminded me of my days at Skywalker, and I enjoyed working there. Our sound designer was Dave Whitehead, whom I had worked with on a DTS trailer that I had designed ten years earlier, and our sound mixer was Michael Hedges, who had won the Academy Award for some of Jackson’s King Kong and The Return of the King. They’re all really laid back, and super talented.

CINEFEX: From the credits, it looks like you had a large visual effects team. In addition to Park Road Post and Entity FX, there were many other studios – Otto Studios, Umedia VFX, Fin Design & Effects, SlateVFX, BFX ImageWorks, Cause+FX Visual Effects, Barraca Post, Rodeo FX and La Posta – as well as some familiar friends, Agrapha Productions, Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. and Daren Dochterman.

Greek rebels ambush an Ottoman caravan and detonate a wagon full of gunpowder and ammunition. Agrapha Productions and Plural blended on-set pyrotechnic effects and stunt elements with digital dirt and stock fire and smoke elements.

New Mexico production plate with stunt performers portraying cable-pull effect with dust and dirt explosion.

VAN LING: We went in planning 200 to 300 effects shots. That included the big establishing shots of Istanbul and Tripolitsa, matte painting backgrounds, greenscreen work for the actors on the cliffs, as well as some period setting anachronism removals. But we didn’t plan for the fact that we were shooting into winter, so we also had snow removal, rain removal, cold breath removal, adding digital green leaves onto trees because they were all bare. We also had some financier whims, people asking for aesthetic changes to do with costumes – those required a lot of roto, and color changes. There were also wire removals and other clean-up work.

CINEFEX: Who did your matte paintings?

VAN LING: Rodeo FX worked on some of our larger cityscapes, and they came in as an assist to the smaller vendor that they acquired, Alchemy 24 in Montreal, who did some amazing work for us. Daren Dochterman, who is another friend from my days at USC Cinema School, did half a dozen smaller digimatte paintings – the wide village meadow and Greek valley establishing view when Christina leaves to join the rebels – as well as interactive lighting shots during the caravan explosion. We also had some challenging work in our clifftop scenes in the third act that was done at SlateVFX in Australia, augmented by Juan Robertson of Plural in New Zealand, to get the final look I wanted.

CINEFEX: What did ADI do for you? You have some rather tragic deaths among the romance and your battle scenes.

Director Van Ling oversees a vertiginous clifftop scene making use of safety rigging, designed for digital rig removal, to allow precarious placements of performers at the precipice.

In the battle of Valtetsi, Turks aim a cannon at Christina and her cousin Demetri (Jamie Ward) on a nearby cliff. The production shot separate elements of foreground cannon action, against bluescreen, mid-ground battle and a background cliff. Plural composited the three layers, providing geographic relation between the ground level action and clifftop finale.

Turkish cannon fire shatters a cliff, separating Christina from her cousin. SlateVFX augmented an aerial drone shot of natural crevice in a New Mexico cliff location, adding a 3D digimatte cliff, digi-double characters, falling rock and dust elements. Plural added smaller boulders and tumbling rocks.

VAN LING: Tom and Alec at ADI were kind enough to create the prosthetics for our hero gruesome throat-slitting scenes. They are old friends from the Stan Winston days – along with the team at Legacy Effects – who worked on Aliens and T2. I love those guys and I am always trying to advocate for the use of real, on-set, practical prosthetics makeup and animatronics, augmented with digital touchup, for better realism and actor connection.

CINEFEX: How was it acting as your own visual effects supervisor?

VAN LING: That was the biggest thing that was a challenge for me. I went in thinking, yeah, I can do this – but the visual effects became a lot bigger than we expected. It was an eye-opening experience. Being part of a team is nothing compared to having to lead the team. It’s a huge responsibility to have the vision and to get everyone rowing in the same direction. I learned so much, through mistakes, dumb luck, and once in a while being validated in my approach. I have even more respect now for what a director does. It is not for the faint of heart. We went into production so fast, I was still wrapping up some of my Disney work, so there was a period during principal where I would go to set at 6:00 a.m., we’d shoot all day, I’d get to my hotel room at midnight, I would then spend the next two hours doing shot lists for the next day, and then at around 2:00 a.m., I’d work another two or three hours on the Disney projects, and then get a couple hours of sleep and then go back out to set. Being a visual effects supervisor, if you’re doing it right, is a full-time job. And being a director, obviously, is a full-time job. I would not recommend doing both. You’ll notice, on Jim’s films, he still creatively supervises everything, but he is no longer his own visual effects supervisor because the duties that go with that are so great.

CINEFEX: What’s next for you, Van?

VAN LING: Well, I’ve been on this project for nearly three years – more than twice that, if you count our work before production – so, first of all, rest is on the agenda. But, I do have stories of my own that I’ve been developing for a while, and they are more in my genre wheelhouse. I have a lot of writing to do.

‘Cliffs of Freedom’ imagery © Aegean EntertainmentThanks to Van Ling, Casey Cannon, Elizabeth Denekamp, Brenna Nimkoff, Marilyn Lopez, Daniel Chartock, TAG Media Group, Allison Jackson.

The Makeups of ‘First Man’

The Makeups of First Man - Cinefex Q&AThe Cinefex story on First Man – Universal Pictures’ dramatization of the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong – unearthed fascinating details about the production, which resulted in a 9,000-word story featured in our October issue. Director Damien Chazelle’s film told the story of the first man on the moon in a documentary style that required naturalistic approaches to all aspects of production – from production design, to cinematography, costume design, special effects, visual effects and makeup.

The challenge for Ryan Gosling, Chazelle’s leading man from La La Land, was to step into the title role playing Armstrong as a clean-cut aviator and a very private family man who embodied small town Ohio values in a turbulent counterculture era.

Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (L) oversees photography of the opening sequence of Universal Pictures’ “First Man,” where National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics test pilot Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) pilots an X-15 rocket plane to an historic altitude.

Makeup department head Donald Mowat, who previously collaborated with Gosling on Blade Runner 2049, attended Armstrong’s physical appearance with minimal technical artifice. “I’ve found that unless the makeup screams ‘prosthetic,’ no one is that interested,” asserted Mowat. “And yet, this was one of the hardest films I’ve worked on.”

“The challenge was that everyone knew our leading man was Ryan Gosling. There was only so much we could do to make him resemble Neil. However, the difference between how Ryan looks in Blade Runner to First Man was quite huge, even though it was all ‘just makeup.’ Neil was very boyish. That quality was something I stumbled on by accident while watching one of Ken Burns’ documentaries about the 1960s. That was where I did most of my research, especially for the female characters. Damien wanted to represent real-life 1960s, not Austin Powers sixties. Working with Ryan, we wanted to capture Neil Armstrong’s look that was typical of that period – short-sleeved shirts, short hair, very groomed, more ‘50s than ‘60s-looking. In all the reference, Neil had this very tight, short hair-cut and he always seemed clean as a whistle.”

During astronaut training, Armstrong’s piloting skills are put to the test on board a Lunar Landing Training Vehicle at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston.

For space mission scenes, costume designer Mary Zophres obtained period re-creations of NASA flight suits from Chris Gilman’s Global Effects, and production designer Nathan Crowley furnished authentic reproductions of cockpits and space capsules. The claustrophobia of the eight-day Apollo 11 moon mission put demands on cast and crew. “We had to play with levels of stubble and fatigue. That was quite a test, maintaining continuity over weeks of filming, working in very tight quarters, where accessibility into the set was difficult. I was pre-setting, and then I had the actors spray themselves. They worked so hard in that set for five or six hours without a break.”

Armstrong guides NASA’s Gemini VIII space capsule into a docking maneuver with an orbital target vehicle.

Makeups included a moustache application for Apollo 11 command service module pilot Mike Collins (Lukas Haas), and a custom hair pieces for Gosling that wig maker Peter Owen supplied to cater to the eight-year story arc, while Marie Larkin served as hair department lead for broad range of characters. “It did feel like two distinct films, with the NASA missions and the stories of the families, wives and children. For Neil’s wife, Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy), we were very conscious that many of the astronaut’s wives seemed to represent a particular sort of middle class Americana – they all resembled girl’s Phys Ed teachers. The emotional level of the film, together with the period setting and the conservative nature of the characters was quite tricky to get right. The men were all clean-shaven, the occasional older man had a thin David-Niven-style moustache. But the younger men back then were squeaky clean, like choirboys, which was not the easiest thing to recreate as we took the characters into their 30s.”

July 16, 1969, Armstrong joins Command Module Pilot Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin (Corey Stoll) on NASA’s Apollo 11 mission to the moon.

The film spanned three U.S. presidencies, but avoided prosthetic likeness makeups. “I found reference pictures of all the characters represented in the film and Damien went through each one, including extras and day-players. He found look-a-likes for well-known astronauts, such as John Glenn. But we didn’t want to create elaborate makeups, and we accepted the fact that most people would not remember what the astronauts looked like.” A single character received prosthetic assistance, for astronaut Pete Conrad (Ethan Embry). “Conrad had a distinctive look, with a great gap between his front teeth. We did a dental impression for Ethan Embry – we called him, ‘Teethan.’ Other than that, we gave Ryan a little hairpiece to indicate the passage of time, and he captured the essence of Armstrong.”

First Man opened October 12. For the complete story on the production, special effects, miniatures and visual effects of the film, visit Cinefex 161.

Imagery © Universal Pictures. Special thanks to Donald Mowat, Damion Stene and Bette Einbinder.

Cinefex Vault #15 – Harry Potter 3

Cinefex Vault - "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"

Here’s an episode that we could not quite fit into our Cinefex 99 story on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third film in J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard saga, directed with great panache by Alfonso Cuarón. This amusing sequence – where Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisors Roger Guyett and Bill George shared duties with Potter series visual effects supervisor Tim Burke, and Nick Dudman’s creature effects team – deals with a mythological creature that allows students to confront their darkest fears. Now unleashed again, for your online reading pleasure, from the Cinefex Vault.

Building a Better Boggart – article by Joe Fordham

Director Alfonso Cuarón on the set of ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,’ with actors Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe.

Chocolate frogs, flying broomsticks, haunted castles and a bestiary of strange creatures fill the pages of J.K. Rowling’s novels chronicling the education of fledgling wizard Harry Potter. Director Alfonso Cuarón stirred the cauldron of ingredients for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third installment in the movie franchise, bringing new flair to magical goings-on in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, producing a darker tale where teenage Harry Potter meets mysterious characters and spectral apparitions seemingly intent on his demise.

During one such sequence, Hogwarts’ Professor of the Dark Arts Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) invites Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and other students to confront their fears embodied inside an ornate wooden wardrobe containing a ‘Boggart.’ Like many of Rowling’s creations, the Boggart was drawn from mythological reference – in this case, an obscure and mischievous spirit from Northern English folklore – and required thoughtful interpretation to define its appearance on-screen.

ILM visual effects supervisor Bill George, production visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett, and ILM animation supervisor David Andrews.

“The Boggart was a constantly changing chameleon,” commented visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett, who divided duties on the production with visual effects supervisor Tim Burke. “The idea was that it did not exist in any other form other than the creature it turned into, and it took the form of whatever its victim feared most. We decided it should be like scanning channels on a radio. If you scan radio channels in England, between BBC Radio Four and Radio One you might pass through other channels, passing Radio One then coming back and missing it a couple of times. The Boggart was like that – constantly trying to figure out what it was supposed to be.”

In the classroom scene, Lupin encourages pupils to take turns opening the haunted wardrobe, revealing and then suppressing their personal Boggart demons. Industrial Light & Magic – one of five main visual effects vendors on the film — generated the Boggart as a swirling, airborne apparition. “Alfonso didn’t want to simply see one creature morphing into another,” stated ILM supervisor Bill George. “He wanted a shapeless creature, like a vortex. Tim and Roger found reference of a very high-tech CG simulation of a nasty, industrial, geometric shape that was buzzing, vibrating and spinning. They sent that to us and said, ‘It should be something like this, but organic.'”

The Boggart takes the form of a giant serpent.

To create the nexus of the effect, ILM lead CG modeler Michael Koperwas designed a series of glasslike digital shapes – spheres, ovoids, rods and interlocking orange-segments – which lead animator Paul Kavanagh articulated to describe motion like shifting tumblers in a combination lock. “It was an abstract art style of animation,” said ILM animation supervisor David Andrews. “We made the pieces pop and flip and spin, and applied them to this completely bizzare creature. Alfonso wanted it to behave like a visual representation of a radio tuner sound, picking up these different nightmares. We tried to give it a very frenetic quality to match that weird sound, and used the animation principle of a bouncing ball – it anticipated the action by a couple of frames and then popped and changed shape, like a frog squishing down and then hopping.”

The Boggart serpent is transformed into a huge jack-in-the-box.

The giant jack-in-the-box was built as a full-size animatronic by Nick Dudman’s team.

The Boggart shifts from one child’s nightmare to another.

The spinning, shifting pieces drove transformations between Boggart forms, culled from a library of live-action images representing elements on the Boggart nightmare scale. “Alfonso asked us to come up with 100 different scary things that we thought would make interesting images,” related Guyett. “He was very good at tapping into the kinds of things kids are afraid of – things within their own set of experiences, like the classic fear of going to the dentist. But we also tried to put an angle on it because these were Hogwarts kids, not in the normal world.” The production allocated a Boggart shooting unit to film a wild variety of childhood fears – including a dentist, a crocodile, a shark’s mouth, lunging knives and a flamethrower. Censorship concerns of placing children in peril whittled imagery to a handful of horror archetypes – a gecko, raven, witch and snake – which ILM mapped and revealed subliminally in the shifting CG object.

The first Boggart apparition involved the appearance of Hogwarts Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), who terrifies Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) before acquiring women’s apparel. “We used a small motion control rig where we hand-operated and recorded the move,” related Guyett. “We filmed Alan Rickman stepping out of the wardrobe in his professor robes and recorded the move. We then dressed Alan as a woman and played back the selected take. Alan is such an incredibly skilled actor, he matched his movements exactly; then, ILM did a fantastic job of matching Snape in his robes to Snape in the dress, through what looked like a handheld camera move.”

The Boggart as Professor Snape (Alan Rickman).

Snape’s garments undergo a drastic transformation.

ILM next modeled and animated a giant spider, reminiscent of the monstrous Aragog from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, to terrify Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) before the young wizard succeeds in conjuring rollerskates onto the spider’s feet, causing the giant arachnid to skitter and skate. The third candidate (Sitara Shah) transforms a giant lunging snake — another ILM animated character — into a giant jack-in-the-box, constructed as a full-scale animatronic by creature effects designer Nick Dudman.

The sequence then concludes with Harry Potter facing his own demon — a towering spectral form representing one of the robed prison guards from Azkaban wizard prison. One of the most nightmarish creatures in the film, the form was generated digitally by ILM. “The Boggart started out as a longer sequence than it appears in the movie,” stated Guyett. “But it was a cute idea, and short and sharp is probably the way it should be.”

Harry Potter repels a faux dementor.

For more on the effects from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, visit Cinefex 99.

Photos copyright © 2004 Warner Bros.

Cinefex Vault #14 – Troy

Cinefex Vault - "Troy"

This little story, originally published as a Cinefex Weekly Update newsletter feature in May 2004, was one of a few little satellite pieces that came adrift from our larger magazine stories. In this case, our story Bronze Age Ballistics in Cinefex 98 – which covered the making of Wolfgang Petersen’s Hellenic epic Troy – was simply too chockablock with rampaging armies, crashing weaponry and collapsing cities to accommodate a fascinating aspect of the film. While on my interview trail, I had been astonished to hear about the creation of the full-scale Ancient Grecian battleships, built by marine coordinator Mike Turk and his nearly-300-year-old family business in London. So, rather than paraphrase Mike’s remarkable stories into a passing paragraph, I saved his story for this fascinating capsule, which we are pleased to undock here from the Cinefex Vault.

Cruel Sea – article by Joe Fordham

One of two full-scale warships built for Warner Bros. Pictures’ 2004 historical drama, Troy. Shipbuilders R.J. Turk and Sons, led by marine coordinator Mike Turk, built the seaworthy vessels from designs based on historical reference.

3,197 years ago, a beautiful woman absconded with a youthful prince from a neighboring city and inspired her jealous husband to mount a mission to retrieve her, gathering a fleet that – legend has it – numbered 1,000 ships. Now the subject of Warner Bros.’ Troy – adapted from classical texts by screenwriter David Benioff and directed by Wolfgang Petersen – the story exploded onto theater screens with a stellar cast, vast scenes of war and some of the largest sets ever constructed on a feature film location.

Assisted by physical effects, makeup effects and visual effects from four London effects studios, production designer Nigel Phelps resurrected the ancient city of Troy and launched the Greek attack almost entirely on location in Malta and Mexico. “Wolfgang wanted to make the film look as real as possible,” stated visual effects supervisor Nick Davis. “He wanted to show the sheer scale of battles and the massive Greek armada, but he wanted the camera right in there with his stars, really on the ocean.”

Art director Cliff Robertson initiated warship design by drafting conceptual renderings for two full-scale seaworthy vessels, extrapolated from historical reference. “Both ships were ‘monoreme’ designs,” related marine coordinator Mike Turk. “Unlike a bireme or a trireme, which had two and three decks of oars, monoremes had a single bank. It was the oldest and simplest style of vessel, which helped keep labor costs down for rowing; but they had to look enormous, very high-sided and menacing.”

Turk’s family business, R.J. Turk and Sons – based in Kingston upon Thames, near London – has been building ships since 1710, during the reign of Queen Anne, and has supplied boats and ships for film and television dating back to MGM’s A Yank At Oxford in 1938. Turk drew upon his maritime lineage for Troy, referencing the 1987 reconstruction of Olympias – an Athenian Trireme of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. – led by John Morrison, former President of Wolfson College, Cambridge. “I knew Professor Morrison,” said Turk, “but we only used his research on the oars. In fact, because we were working from Cliff’s drawings, we worked backwards, figuring out what lengths our oars needed to be to reach the water – doing everything arse-about-face!”

Turk’s naval architect, John Heath, devised working drawings from the designs. An oar specialist then built 19-foot-long oars out of spruce, and Turk’s team built masts and spars at his boatyard in Kingston. The main structural build took place at Cassar Dockyard, close to the main filming location in Malta, where steel fabricator Norrie Henderson lead construction of the hulls – one measuring 120 feet, the other 140 feet. “We didn’t try to build the hulls traditionally in timber,” Turk said, “because we only had four months to build them.” Steel hulls helped the ships comply with maritime safety standards. “We built them to the same standards as passenger ships that cross the English Channel. They had no cabins or sleeping accommodations and, in fact, no toilets; but otherwise they complied to day-sailing regulations for 100 people.”

The art department devised six liveries for the ships depicting different ornamentations for tribes of the allied Greek forces. Turk’s team created sails using flax, an authentic material to the period, and designed custom rigging. “We had no historical detail whatsoever about rigging,” Turk explained, “so we used our best means of guessing. But they sailed all right, so we guessed correctly!” Sailing was accomplished with combinations of oars and wind power, assisted by a pair of diesel engines mounted aft, beneath the waterline, in line with twin rudders. Helmsmen used engines to position warships in shots and bring the 70-ton vessels up to speed.

Bringing manpower up to speed proved a bigger hurdle. “We only had six days of training,” related Turk. “I brought out six Watermen from England, who were expert rowers – tug skippers and passenger boat masters from the London River, and winners of Doggetts, the oldest rowing race in the world – and they trained our local oarsmen, who were made up of waiters, out-of-work cooks, chefs and other colorful characters.” Despite the ragtag crew, warships performed impressive feats of seamanship. “For one shot, they wanted the camera to hang out over the water, shooting under the bow, then rising up and descending over the stern. We did that on the Mall, outside Valletta harbor, running the ship by the camera within five feet of the sea wall, with ocean liners and ships sailing by as we came out. We got up to about 14 knots – that was bloody fast.”

Warships roamed up and down the Maltese coast, shooting ten days of first unit with principal performers, and three weeks with second unit, accompanied by an armada of 25 ancillary ships coordinated by Turk. Support ships doubled as camera craft, two passenger ferries served as lunch and toilet facilities, while a flotilla of safety boats, police and security trafficked the area. Turk’s team also constructed a half-boat launch to represent Spartan King Agamemnon’s barge and smaller period vessels similar to Arab fishing boats.

At the end of the Malta shoot, warships were dry-docked, then the art department recycled sails, masts and rigging in Mexico, constructing beached versions of the ships using molds taken from the hulls. With digital enhancement by Framestore, and building on years of maritime history, the ships provided dramatic underpinning to an epic adventure. “A Turk built a warship in defense of the realm to the south of the Tower of London in 1295,” Turk remarked, “so we have been building warships for some time! It was quite dramatic stuff. I hope it comes across on film.”

For the complete story on the effects of Troy – featuring interviews with Nick Davis, The MPC, Framestore, physical effects supervisor Joss Williams, makeup effects supervisor Daniel Parker and more – look for Cinefex 98.

Photos copyright © 2004 by Warner Bros., behind the scenes reference shots courtesy Framestore.

Cinefex Vault #13 – 50 First Dates

Cinefex Vault - "50 First Dates"

While it is a popular maxim that ‘Dying is easy; comedy is hard,’ visual effects supervisor Sheena Duggal has had her share of films containing both. Death and destruction have included Marvel’s Agent Carter television series, Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies and The Hunger Games; comedies have included the first Sex and the City feature, Christmas with the Kranks, and the Adam Sandler vehicles Big Daddy and 50 First Dates. Unlocked here from the Cinefex Vault is a story on the latter 2004 Sandler film, with Sheena’s hair-raising tales of Hawaiian icebergs, jiggling pectorals and an amorous walrus.

Invisible Woman – article by Estelle Shay

On location in Hawaii for the Adam Sandler comedy, 50 First Dates, Sony Pictures Imageworks visual effects supervisor Sheena Duggal confers with visual effects director of photography Chris Nibley during setup for a 260-degree panoramic shot captured with four overlapping Vistavision cameras.

Specializing in ‘invisible effects,’ Sheena Duggal relishes creating movie magic that most moviegoers never notice. One of the first four Inferno artists in the world, Duggal was hired by Sony Pictures Imageworks in 1995 to set up and oversee the company’s Inferno department, then later transitioned into visual effects supervision. After working with director Peter Segal on Anger Management, Duggal signed onto Segal’s next film, 50 First Dates, a romantic comedy set in Hawaii about a young couple whose budding romance is put to the test by the woman’s short-term memory loss.

Duggal oversaw some 100 shots on the film, including a number of tricky transitions, with wipes and clever morph-dissolve gags. In an early scene, for example, the camera tracks a dolphin in a marine park tank as it swims past a window adjoining the office of veterinarian Henry Roth (Adam Sandler). “We shot the ‘A’ side of the plate underwater in a tank with a dolphin at Six Flags Marine World in Vallejo, California; and we shot the ‘B’ side on a stage on the Sony lot. Then, using a lot of 2D effects, motion tracking, matte paintings, rebuilding the motions within the shot and adding little nuances of particles floating in the water, we put the whole thing together to create the feeling that you were in the tank with the dolphin, and that you actually pass through the window into the room where Henry is stitching up his injured friend.”

The office of marine veterinarian Henry Roth (Adam Sandler) overlooks a dolphin aquarium. Composite by Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Marine World element, filmed in California. For an unbroken shot in which the camera passes through an aquarium window and into Roth’s office, Duggal and her team used motion tracking, 2D effects and matte paintings to link underwater plate photography of a dolphin shot in a tank with stage photography of actors in the office set.

Some effects were added to sell the humor in shots, in particular those involving characters interacting with the film’s aquatic stars – a penguin and an enormous male walrus. “A full-grown male walrus weighs a couple of tons,” remarked Duggal, “and if he gets spooked, he’s going to make a run for the water. So any time the actors were in proximity to the walrus where they had to be between him and the water, we did it as a visual effect.” A shot of the walrus projectile-vomiting onto Henry’s assistant provided Duggal with one of her more memorable assignments. “In an ideal world, we would have gathered all kinds of reference data on the set. But on the day we were shooting, the walrus was horny; and they wouldn’t let me near him because he was reacting to women. So we just shot a plate of the walrus with his mouth open. Later, we set up a bluescreen shoot with the actress in the scene, and shot this really gross mixture of dog food and water at her so we could get the interaction of the vomit hitting her. Then we composited it all together in 2D – which wasn’t as easy as it appears, because there were logistical issues in lining up the movement of the walrus’ mouth.”

A walrus projectile-vomits onto Roth’s assistant. The trained walrus was photographed alone at a marine park. Then the actress playing the assistant was filmed against bluescreen being blasted with a mixture of dog food and water. Alignment of the vomitous spew with the walrus’ shifting mouth was a challenge for the SPI compositing team.

Effects intervention also provided the humor for a scene in which Lucy’s brother (Sean Astin) performs a ‘pec dance,’ moving his pectoral muscles in sync to music. “When we got on set,” recalled Duggal, “we discovered that Sean couldn’t actually do that. So we found a guy who was able to do this dance, and we filmed him on a bluescreen stage, trying to time it to the music as best we could. We scanned that into the computer, composited it onto Sean, and did a bunch of morphing and warping to make it look realistic.”

At the end of the film, Duggal and her crew had to transform Hawaii into Alaska for a scene in which Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore) gazes out a boat window as the camera pulls back through the glass to reveal the vessel floating in waters surrounded by icebergs and snowcapped mountains. “The production said: ‘We’ll build a dry dock in Hawaii, and we’ll cover it with bluescreen, and we’ll get a boat on this dry dock and shoot it that way. Then you guys can put it in Alaska,'” recalled Duggal. “But in the interest of realism, we decided that was probably not the best approach – especially since it might get us into CG water. Instead, we found a bay in Hawaii, took the actors out there and filmed them in a boat, then added whatever we needed to give it the feeling of being in Alaska.”

The amnesiac Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore) journeys to Alaska. Composite by Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Hawaiian production plate.

Though all the live-action was shot in Hawaii, Duggal and a crew went off to Blackstone Bay in Alaska to capture the mountain vistas needed for two big rotating helicopter shots that reveal the entire landscape. “We took a Vistavision camera with us and shot maybe a 250-degree pan-and-tile of the environment,” said Duggal. “Fortunately, we also chased icebergs around because I was thinking, ‘I’m pretty sure they’re going to ask me to put icebergs into these shots at some point.'” In postproduction, when the director saw how little snow there was, he asked for more production value. “We ended up taking the pan-and-tile, which I was hoping we could just composite in, and turning that into a matte painting so we could add more snow and detail. Surprisingly, I was able to take a lot of the 2D icebergs that we shot, roto them out of the Vistavision footage and track them into the water. We also added CG breath to a number of shots of the actors.” Adding to the seamless effect was careful attention to lighting detail. “We got hold of a copy of a sun chart for Hawaii on the day that we shot the Hawaii plates, and did the same in Alaska. That way, we could look at what time of day it was in Hawaii, and what angle the sun was in the sky, and wait for the same time of day and same lighting conditions when we shot in Alaska.”

“It was all great fun,” Duggal concluded. “I love what I do, and I love doing invisible effects. When I get a show like this, I’m fortunate, because a lot of the types of shots I’m doing can be done in a 2D way. And since I was involved in building this department, I know all the skills of the artists. That’s a great advantage to me as a visual effects supervisor.”

Photos copyright © 2004 by Columbia Pictures Industries. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Imageworks.

“2036 Origin Unknown” – VFX Q&A

Origin Unkown - VFX Q&A

While recent planet-wide dust storms raged on Mars, a small sci-fi movie unspooled 33.9 million miles away, in a handful of theatres across the United States. 2036 Origin Unknown, released by Gravitas Ventures June 6, is an indie sci-fi thriller set mostly in an underground bunker on the Red Planet where a lone U.S. Planetary Corp operative Mackenzie ‘Mack’ Wilson (Katee Sackhoff) and her artificial intelligence system, ARTi (Steven Cree), probe the mysteries of a giant cube unearthed in a Martian dune sea.

Filmmaker Hasraf 'HaZ' Dulull directs Sackhoff in the USPC set.

Filmmaker Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull directs Katee Sackhoff in the U.S. Planetary Corp set.

The film marked the sophomore feature from young British filmmaker and former visual effects artist, Hasraf Dulull, whose directorial debut The Beyond featured in an earlier Cinefex Blog a scant six months ago. Cinefex caught up with the prolific Dulull, who we learned one addresses as HaZ.

CINEFEX: Good evening, HaZ. We previously spoke with you about your early career in visual effects. We’re curious, where did you come from before that, and what were the influences that led you to become such a prolific filmmaker?

HAZ: I was born and raised, and went to school and university in London. I am the eldest of three boys, raised by my lovely parents who are from Mauritius. My dad loved renting VHS sci-fi and horror films from the library and video store, so he is to blame for all my early age film binges – I remember watching Silent Running, Blade Runner and Alien and being just mesmerized by the world of sci-fi. At the time, I had no idea what my career path would be, I just knew I wanted to do make stuff like that, where I could let my imagination run wild.

I got into visual effects and CGI at an early age, as a teenager, and I was self-trained. Instead of going out to play with my friends, I would hack away on my Atari ST, creating Basic-coded graphics, and then I got enough money to buy a PC and learnt 3D Max R4 and Lightwave. I’ve wanted to make films since the age of 12, but I didn’t go to film school. Instead, around 1998 I started working in video games creating cinematics, or ‘FMV’s, full motion videos, as they used to be called. I then moved into VFX and rode that career for over 10 years, starting as a compositor and then working my way up to becoming VFX supervisor and then VFX producing.

CINEFEX: What gave you the idea for Origin Unknown?

U.S. Planetary Corp operative Mackenzie ‘Mack’ Wilson (Katee Sackhoff) ponders the mysteries of a giant cube discovered on the surface of Mars in the indie science fiction thriller "2036 Origin Unknown."

USPC operative Mackenzie ‘Mack’ Wilson (Katee Sackhoff) ponders the mysteries of a giant cube discovered on the surface of Mars.

HAZ: Around 2014, I was in a supermarket queuing up to pay for my groceries. I remember thinking, where are all the cashiers? I missed having small-talk with the cashiers as I was scanning and packing my groceries – instead, we now have self-service systems, with only one or two staff on stand-by. That’s when I thought, ‘Wow! What if this was the future of space exploration, a way to afford more missions by minimizing cost and human error?

I wrote the idea as a treatment, and a lot of people told me not to set the film on Mars, as many Mars films were flopping at the box office – but I wrote it the way I wanted, just to get it out of my system and shelved it. A year and a bit later, I was working as a VFX producer on various TV shows, a colleague introduced me to Anis Shlewet and James T. Ryan, producers at Parkgate Entertainment, and I was pitching them various projects and then this came up during our ‘what if?’ conversation. They were both heavily into grounded sci-fi, and it was a great meeting outcome, which got the ball rolling. It also helped that Ridley Scott’s film The Martian, had just come out around that time and it was a hit, so Mars was back in!

Anis and James hired a writer Gary Hall to develop the Pathfinder script further. It was great to collaborate with another writer as we are both self-proclaimed nerds who love space exploration while keeping the story grounded.

CINEFEX: How did you manage to create Origin Unknown just six months after the release of The Beyond?

HAZ: Both Origin Unknown and The Beyond happened pretty close to each other, but not simultaneously. For example, we shot tons of second unit for Origin before I started shooting Beyond, and then there was a break on Origin while we went through casting and financing, and in that time, I shot The Beyond. By the time I finished Beyond, we were already moving into prep to shoot Origin. It was interesting, I spent years making short films and trying to get a feature film made, and then the two projects happened back to back. Either I am every lucky, or I am cursed. I prefer to think I was very lucky, and I was also grateful to be doing what I love, even if it meant lots of caffeine and late nights.

CINEFEX: How did your experience with visual effects disciplines influence story development and production plans?

Production design previz.

Production design previz.

HAZ: During script development, I generated tons of previz and visual material to help Gary Hall see what I had in my mind as he was writing. Sometimes, I created visuals to test what we could achieve on our budget. If our ideas were too ambitious, I’d tell Gary to modify scenes to help our approach production-wise. So, it was great to be involved in the script stage to help shape production as opposed to writing a script and then having to make sacrifices later, due to budget and schedule constraints.

While doing previz, I worked closely with production designer Jon Bunker and cinematographer Adam Sculthorp to discuss mood and tone, and types of lens we wanted to capture certain moments. Jon Bunker provided me with FBX – Autodesk Filmbox – files of the set he designed. I moved those around in Maya to figure out my shots. It was a very tight collaboration to ensure we were all on the same page, spending the budget correctly and not building stuff which wouldn’t get seen. Before we cast the film, I used our second unit material of Martian landscapes and space scenes and cut together a sizzle reel which the producers used to raise more financing.

CINEFEX: How did you cast Katee Sackhoff – who, of course, is a sci-fi genre star after playing Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica?

HAZ: From what I know, our producers and sales company sent Katee’s agent the script. She loved the complexity and layering of the story, but she had a million questions. I spent months getting to know her on Skype, discussing plot and character and coming up with more ideas. We ended up reshaping the script in a very collaborative way, and Katee influenced so much about Mack’s character, pushing us to take it further, both during script development and shooting.

Mack spars with ARTi (voiced by Steven Cree) her USPC artificial intelligence computer interface.

Katee shares my love for improv. That was a challenge for my lovely script supervisor, Hannah Kenneally Muir, tracking all the changes on set, but it was important for the shoot that we all worked in synchronicity in a creative fun process, finding special golden moments, which you find in the moment and feel it on the day.

The idea of Mack using a stress ball – shaped like planet Earth – was something Katee came up with during blocking, and if you watch the film closely you will realize the ball actually has a strong metaphor with the main plot of the film.

CINEFEX: Mack spends most of her screen-time in one room, USPC HQ on Mars – how did Jon Bunker design that set?

HAZ: Jon is a very humble and experienced guy, who has been doing this since the 1980s, but also worked as a concept artist on films such as Gravity.

I created a look-book containing lots of images of NASA mission control rooms; Jon contributed ideas on how to take that technology into the future, while keeping it grounded. Jon was very invested in my pitch that the location should feel like a character in the film, and he made the set as spacious as possible, with just the right amount of tech to make it feel functional, while ensuring all the panels lit up as light sources for cinematography.

We had a very tight shooting schedule of 11 days, so that contributed to the idea of building a full 360-degree set, with functional buttons and controllers. It was important for Mack to be able to interact with objects in the room to keep it feeling natural. We also created a lot of screen graphics in preproduction. Jon and his team had those printed onto the screen surfaces, which we animated later animated with blinking lights and graphics, so it all felt authentic to Katee while she was on set, rather than asking her to stare at blank screens.

CINEFEX: Mack’s robotic co-star, ARTi, is an ornery but very non-athropomorphic fellow –a ball on a stick – how did you create his interactions with Katee on set?

ARTi offers counsel via an orb on a mechanical arm suspended from the USPC bunker ceiling. Territory Studio designed and animated the robotic appendage.

HAZ: I wanted ARTi’s design to be simple, with the slickness of Apple products, but I also wanted to him to have enough articulation in his movements to create a character, like the robot Max in Flight of the Navigator.

We had a real-scale ARTi head built for the close-ups where Mack would be interacting with ARTi physically. But for the main bulk of his scenes, ARTi was created digitally by the talented team at Territory Studio. Visual effects supervisor Paddy Eason worked with us on set and at Territory, designing and animating the character. And Territory animator Ashley Pay did an incredible one-man job of blocking, animating, shading, lighting and rendering ARTi shots. Compositing supervisor Caroline Pires then led the Territory team to integrate ARTi into footage in Nuke. Paddy Eason was also very hands-on with shot creation, too. When we needed additional closeups of ARTi, Paddy and his team generated new back-plates by projecting Canon 5D stills of the set onto simple geometry, and then they animated ARTi with little camera moves. All the time we were shooting, Paddy and his on-set VFX assistant Tizzy Gregory were snapping away with the 5D and they placed GoPros in hidden locations to grab witness camera footage to help with animation.

CINEFEX: How did you work with ARTi’s voice artist, Steven Cree, in creating the dynamic between Mack and ARTi?

HAZ: ARTi’s voice was one of hardest things to get right. On set, a stand-in actor, Jud Charlton, provided Katee with voice interactions. Jud’s voice also helped the animators, and I worked with editor Jeremy Gibbs to sometimes come up with more ARTi moments to help make the robot/human relationship feel more intimate.

We cast Steven Cree during postproduction. He never got to work with Katee directly. He worked with the animated shots – often works in progress – and he fell in love with ARTi. Steven approached the character the same as he would approach a human character, and I think that allowed the audience to empathize with ARTi. Like Katee, Steven sometimes came up with additional lines on the spur of the moment, which also helped ARTi feel relatable and real. Our sound designers, Richard Lewis and Steven Parker at Pindrop in London, then added subtle effects to make ARTi’s voice feel a little processed but not computerized. The idea was, when ARTi speaks, the room is speaking. And so, the guys at Pindrop carefully mixed the voice to resonate with the room acoustically.


Mack remotely activates a probe, containing a rover, to launch from an orbiter ship above Mars.

CINEFEX: What went into your spaceship designs, and how did you decide on creating miniature elements?

HAZ: I knew I didn’t want to go the route of building CG spaceships, mainly because I had done that in most of my VFX career. Instead, I wanted to go back to how films like 2001 and Alien were made – using practical models where you can feel the texture as light bounced off the ships.

We brought on the amazing team from The Model Unit at Ealing Studios, in London. Mike Tucker and his team built the orbiter ship, the lander probe, the rover, the cube and the Mars landscapes. I began by creating CG geometry versions of those objects and then sent the Maya files to Mike and his team to work from, both as reference and for 3D printing components. The amount of craftsmanship, attention to detail and passion that went into building those objects was so inspiring and helped the shots look real.

The orbiter ship miniature under construction at The Model Unit, Ealing Studios, in London.

During our second unit shoot, the Model Unit team added more textures to the spacecraft as Adam Sculthorp and his team lit the scenes against a black backdrop. We wanted to emulate the lighting of NASA footage. Adam mounted lights to a motion control arm and moved those to create the sense that the spaceship was moving as shadows slid across the surface. We later added stars to create depth, as well as the planet Mars and effects of rocket boosters igniting.

CINEFEX: How did you create your Martian surface scenes?

HaZ confers with The Model Unit supervisor Mike Tucker on the miniature Martian landscape set.

HaZ confers with The Model Unit supervisor Mike Tucker on the miniature Martian landscape set.


Preparing the miniature set of the lander probe to launch from the orbiter ship.


Lander probe miniature element.


Lander probe composite.

The rover sets out on its mission to investigate the cube.

The rover sets out on its mission to investigate the mysterious giant cube.

HAZ: Mars was a hybrid of landscape model work created by the Model Unit, taken further in VFX using digital set extensions. For most of our rover shots, we used Model Unit’s practical rover, built and operated via remote control, filmed on the real landscape. We extended into the distance stuff. We used a CG rover for the aerial shots and wide vistas of it entering the dust storm. During second unit, we also shot elements of dirt, smoke and atmosphere at various speeds on black for use later in compositing. We used imagery from NASA’s Curiosity rover to help with the digital set extensions.

The Martian storms were mainly digital, rendered out of Houdini by effects artist Aleksandr Uusmees. I then took those into After Effects for compositing and I integrated lighting strikes, stock footage of retimed clouds and additional Houdini simulations along with some keyframe warping effects.

CINEFEX: How did you divide the work among your visual effects team?

HAZ: Territory Studios and Paddy Eason handled all the scenes involving ARTi, our hologram scene and our big end sequence. Andrew Popplestone and his team at Territory also created our opening titles, and visuals for ARTi’s points of view.

Filmmore VFX and visual effects supervisor Hans Van Helden, in Amsterdam, handled wireframe animated renders of the rover in action and a few full CG shots involving the rover and parachute lander.

Squint VFX and visual effects supervisor Jonathan Harris handled a few shots involving the CG cube on a terrestrial ice shelf, as well the Martian One crash footage.

I supervised a small team at my own company, HaZ VFX, handling all the heads-up displays and screen graphics for playback, previs, the launch of the probe, the orbiter space station, all the Mars storm scenes, the Cube scenes and several key sequences. A ton of shots cropped up during editorial that we didn’t have additional budget to award to a facility, so we handled a lot of those shots ourselves.

Cube miniature under construction at The Model Unit.

The cube miniature, under construction at The Model Unit.

Cube miniature on Martian landscape set.

The cube miniature on the Martian landscape set.

CINEFEX: Without giving too much away, your third act gets into some narrative pyrotechnics as Mack confronts the mystery of the cube on Mars – how did you design and execute those sequences? There are some pretty big ideas there, quite ambitious for an indie sci-fi film.

HAZ: We always knew the film needed a big twist, ramping up in scale and cranking up the imaginative sci-fi content toward the end. I was inspired by films like 2001, Jacob’s Ladder and Contact, where the last act blows your mind – we knew that was what was going to make the film more memorable, and this meant that sequence needed to be less exposition-based and more visual-narrative based.

We didn’t have the budget to execute the sequence the typical CG way, so we relied on the amazing compositing team at Territory who had pushed Nuke to its extremes with particle systems and high dynamic range lighting on some epic shots, to make them feel grand in scale and concept. The design of those scenes took shape during postproduction. As we were editing, I was working closely with Andrew Popplestone on our title sequence. Andrew and his team and his team tend to work in a very design + story approach, and they had developed so much high resolution imagery for the titles, we decided to incorporate some of that into our special ending scene. This wasn’t in the script – so, again, this was one of our many ‘think out of the box’ approaches that we used in the making of this film.

The cube responds to Mack's investigations and launches triggers an unexpected cosmic event above the USPC Martian base.

The cube responds to Mack’s investigations and triggers an unexpected cosmic event above the USPC Martian base.

I built a sequence that involved 3D renders of the cube and cosmic imagery, using assets generated from the title sequence. Andrew supplied me with large 6K textures. Visual effects artist Lee Medcalf, a frequent collaborator of mine, then built the cube using planes textured with those renders, and then animated the camera and lit it all in After Effects. He supplied me with the After Effects file and I added additional animation and effects. We used cosmic visual treatments seen in the opening title sequence, so the film opened and ended with this style.

There were really no rules when it came to the last act of the film. I felt the more mind-bending it became visually, and the more depth and layers we had in those shots the better, to make those scenes feel complex and large. This would not have been possible, or affordable, on a typical indie-scale film. And it was all result of the collaboration between myself, Andrew Popplestone, Paddy Eason and their teams.

2036 Origin Unknown is currently on limited theatrical release in the U.S., and is now available on digital streaming platforms. The film will have its U.K. release, on digital, Blu-ray, and DVD formats, August 13.

Images copyright 2018 © by HaZFilm.