VISUAL EFFECTS ARTISTS BECOME AN INTEGRAL PART OF PREPRODUCTION AND PRODUCTION ON FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM
It has been five years since the final Harry Potter feature film, The Deathly Hallows Part 2, stormed into theaters. Based on the last book in the wildly popular series, the film earned $1.3 billion at the box office and received three Oscar nominations, including one for best visual effects.
But, author JK Rowling had published another book about magical worlds, one that takes place 70 years before Harry Potter learned he was a wizard. Supposedly compiled by Magizoologist Newt Scamander, the compendium of information about magical characters published in 2001 was, Rowling led us to believe, Harry Potter’s textbook.
That book had no story. For the current Warner Bros. release, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rowling provided a screenplay inspired by the textbook, her first screenplay. David Yates, who had directed four Harry Potter films, took on this year’s Fantastic Beasts. Stuart Craig, who was production designer on all eight Harry Potter films, also joined the Fantastic Beasts team, as did Tim Burke, overall visual effects super-visor for six of the eight Potter films and VFX supervisor at Mill Film for a seventh.
For Fantastic Beasts, Burke shared the overall supervisory role with Christian Manz, also a Harry Potter alum, having led Frame-store’s work on three films in the series.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the eight Harry Potter films helped build the visual effects industry in London, and that you can trace the evolution of visual effects in the decade from 2001 to 2011 through the series. That evolution has taken a giant leap since, as work on this film shows. With a story centered on magical creatures, it’s no surprise that the film has more creature work than the Potter films.
“The Harry Potter films were driven by the school,” Burke says. “This story is driven by Newt and his fantastic beasts. So, we have a lot more creature animation.”
There are also more digital sets.
“And, while Harry Potter was generally based at Hogwarts,” Burke continues, “we are in New York in 1926, with half the film set outside.”
But the changes in the production pro-cess are most dramatic.
“Visual effects is seen more as an intrinsic part of the storytelling process than it was five years ago,” Manz says. “We were collaborating from the beginning on this film, all the way through. It’s a more efficient way to work and much more creative for the visual effects artists, as well. Everyone looks to us now more for answers than for fixing something later.”
ORGANIZING THE WORK
THE GOBLIN GNARLACK IS A DIGITAL CHARACTER, PERFORMED BY RON PERLMAN.
Preproduction, which included previs, extended for approximately eight months, followed by five months of production and eight months of postproduction. Eleven stu-dios contributed visual effects to the show.
The main vendors were Double Negative and Framestore,” Burke says. “Framestore was involved early on with character development. Senior Animation Supervisor Pablo Grillo came on during preproduction to do creature animation development, previs, and, later, some postvis, with a view of his taking on some hero creatures. We used Double Negative for environment work, for the major city builds and construction; also some creature work that was set-driven, and effects type of work.”
Beyond that, the work was split primarily by sequence.
“Generally, the creatures and environments didn’t cross-sequence very much,” Manz says. “We tended to have one action sequence with one creature in a particular location in New York. But, even though a lot of locations, creatures, and effects might appear in only one or two shots, they had to look as good as everything else. The breadth was stunning.”
Along with Framestore and DNeg, Rodeo in Montreal did a sizable chunk of environment work and a large number of creatures. MPC created the hero creatures Occamy and Demiguise, and handled the environments for an arrival in New York sequence. Image Engine in Vancouver created additional creatures as well as effects. Milk in the UK added background magic, such as moving statues and origami, to scenes set in the Ministry of Magic. Cinesite in the UK sent silverware, napkins, and dinnerware flying for a magical scene and extended sets digitally. Passion Pictures created 2D animation for a book. The Secret Labs also contributed to the film, as did Lola.
In addition, an in-house facility with 50 artists, some from The Third Floor, Proof, DNeg, and Framestore, and some freelance did previs, character design, postvis, com-positing, and more.
“That’s the main difference between the Potter films and this film,” Burke says. “On the Potter films, there would be previs, the editor would cut, the director would turn over shots to the visual effects facility, they would block out animation and give it back to us, and so forth. We were always involved, but it was a very linear process. On this film, we started early in preproduction. We hired a premises in Soho [London], brought in crews with their own kits, put in hardware and servers, and we basically built a facility in a week. We could generate shots with fast turnaround. It shows what can happen in five years.”
With a brief from Director Yates, the concept artists from Framestore and freelance artists on the Soho-based team began designing magical creatures based on descriptions in the book, and invented other background characters.
EDDIE REDMAYNE AS NEWT SCAMANDER ENCOUNTERS A FANTASTIC BEAST, THIS ONE BEING A THUNDERBIRD.
“The creature design was within our department, not the art department,” Manz says. “We ended up with a couple hundred creature designs, with many iterations of each. Pickett alone had 200 concepts.”
Pickett is Newt Scamander’s personal Bowtruckle, a magical creature that Manz describes as a little green stickman made of shoots.
“As we were designing Pickett, we had Pablo [Grillo] and his animation team, modelers, riggers, and texture artists build simple versions of this character and others,” Manz says. “We built a menagerie and tested the creatures with animation. The animators would get a creature moving to see whether it would work as a character and to show to David [Yates]. If the design wasn’t right, we’d move it back. Our aim was to hand facilities something that was somewhat worked out already for them to flesh out and bring to life.”
At the same time, artists were working out the action sequences with a similar goal – that their work could move on to postvis and become finished shots.
“Software has gotten more powerful, so artists can work quicker,” Manz says.
“But the key was having a talented group of artists. They were really creative.”
Adds Burke, “Previs has developed so much with companies like The Third Floor and Proof. They have fast techniques for knocking shots out with pretty good animation that tells stories. And, we could put creatures into previs shots.”
Because creature design and animation studies had begun early in preproduction, when it came time for the shoot, people on the crew knew what the creatures looked like and how they moved.
It also meant that actor Eddie Redmayne, who plays Newt, had something more than a ball on a stick to look at when he needed to act with a creature. The crew created maquettes and puppets based on the preproduction designs for each creature that would have significant interaction with the actors.
“We created a series of a half-dozen or so creatures, from small maquettes and pup-pets to one 17-by-20-foot puppet operated by four puppeteers led by Robin [Guiver, supervising creature puppeteer],” Burke explains. “We brought in people who had worked on the ‘War Horse’ stage play. The characters we had already created drove their performances. We gave [the puppeteers] our previs and animation studies, and they learned how the creatures would move. And, we’d all come up with ideas. Robin worked closely with Pablo [Grillo], David [Yates], and Eddie [Redmayne]. Pablo would be on set talking to Eddie. We would do a rehearsal with the puppets and get the eyelines working. Then, we’d shoot, see what worked, choose a take, and then shoot clean plates after. It was quite collaborative.”
That kind of sophisticated interactive work with the actors on set moved into other areas, as well. Rather than working with locked cuts, the visual effects artists took sequences from the editor and blocked out creatures using previs and the performances on set.
“We were almost giving the director dailies,” Burke says. “Because we were involved early in the process, we could have cuts with characters in the plates. It really sped up the process and was something we could not have done five years ago.”
Although the film takes place in various New York City neighborhoods, 99 percent of the filming happened at Warner Bros’ Leavesden Studios on a nine-acre backlot set.
“We had Fifth Avenue type of streets, Tribeca, a brownstone area, a tenement area, and each of those was re-dressed to become different areas of different streets within the film,” Manz says. “We had a map of where each scene would be in the story.”
Visual effects artists topped the on-set buildings, created new buildings, extended the sets, and added traffic, pedestrians, and atmospheric effects. During filming, the production crew would cover some of the buildings on set with greenscreen so they could repeatedly re-use the sets.
“It was a cunning collaboration between the art department and visual effects switching greenscreens up and down the street,” Burke says. “We must have done 20 variations of the streets to give them a wide scope. We re-created Times Square for a third-act sequence, using the buildings covered with greenscreen in one of the existing T-junctions. And, we had dozens of other sets to replace greenscreens outside windows.”
During preproduction, the Soho crew built a digital version of the stage set from the drawings.
“As the set was being built, we could look at the orientation of the sun and the layout of the streets with the director of photography,” Manz says. “We could work out which areas would be shadowed and where we’d need to have a building that wouldn’t be in the set. It was very collaborative. That became the plan we handed to people who created the set extensions.”
To build and texture those set extensions later, a crew spent nearly three months surveying and photographing areas of New York selected by Craig. In addition to the main neighborhoods, visual effects artists in various studios also created Central Park, extended a small Central Park Zoo set, and constructed a Macusa building to house the Magical Congress of the USA.
“There was a massive set on the sound-stage, with two stories of the 54-story building,” Manz says. “Rodeo VFX did the full CG shots, including a transition walk-in from the street outside.”
MPC artists created digital set extensions, water, boats, cars, and pedestrians for an “arrival in New York” sequence, adding blinds to the windows, clothes hanging on the digital rooftops, and plumes of CG smoke from the coal heating everywhere.
“We wanted to have unexpected shots, so we used a lot of research,” Manz says. “We found a Harold Lloyd film from 1928 that showed the hustle and bustle at the time. There were a lot of cars but no traffic lights and no rules.”
But, one of the most complicated environments was hidden inside Newt’s magical case. Inside the case, micro- environments contained creatures in their habitats. Work-ing with Craig, Art Director Toby Brittain, and Director Yates, concept artists on the visual effects team helped work out which areas would be practical and which would be CG.
NEWT SCAMANDER (EDDIE REDMAYNE) PLAYS WITH PICKETT, HIS PERSONAL BOWTRUCKLE.
“They designed areas that look like muse-um dioramas, but they are moving paintings like in Harry Potter’s world,” Burke says.
“DNeg, Rodeo, Image Engine, Framestore, and Method each worked on one scene in-side the case. It was a massive undertaking.”
Even though many action sequences in the film took place in a particular location with one creature, as with the shots inside Newt’s case, some were more complicated.
“I had some shots with four or five companies,” Manz says. “In one, for example, a flying creature that MPC created is eaten by a creature Rodeo made, that’s eaten by a creature Image Engine made, in a digital environment from Method. It was one of the last things we shot. There were lots of creatures; we tried out lots of ideas. I stood on set and it was like watching a play come together.”
CREATURES AND GOBLINS
The main creatures in the film are Niffler and Erumpent animated at Framestore, Occamy and Demiguise animated at MPC, and Pick-ett the Bowtruckle.
“All these creatures have different characteristics – hide, fur, hair,” Burke says.
“But, the problems we had weren’t technical,” Manz adds. “We had the right problems, the creative problems. How do the creatures act? How do they behave?”
Manz points to the goblin Gnarlack, the lead gangster goblin performed by Ron Perlman as an example.
“In the Harry Potter films, the goblins were actors wearing makeup,” Manz says. “For this film, they wanted a digital character. So we invested a lot of time in capturing Perlman’s performance. We did a facial-capture session with him and really pushed the boundaries so Framestore could concentrate on making him real, not on making the performance.”
Gnarlack is not the only goblin in the film. Manz, who had supervised the work on Dobby while at Framestore for The Deathly Hallows, Part One, notes that one goblin even appears in only two shots.
“Five years ago, we wouldn’t have invested the time and money into creating a goblin for two shots,” Manz says. “For this film, we wanted to elevate the goblins. The audience is so sophisticated now. They expect to see muscles moving under the skin, all those things we can do well now. We even have a five-minute scene with a CG goblin talking to an actor.”
CONSTRUCT, DECONSTRUCT, CONSTRUCT
As is typical in action/adventure films, visual effects artists build sets and creatures, and then the creatures destroy the sets. One such creature in Fantastic Beasts, the Obscurus – more energy than character – is a good example.
“Double Negative did a lot of work to determine how it looks,” Burke says. “It doesn’t have one form. It takes different forms. It’s an invisible force, so they created a membrane type of thing. It isn’t a creature with a head, but sometimes you see the host within it.”
In the third act, this creature causes destruction throughout New York.
“DNeg London worked above ground, and DNeg Vancouver did subterranean work and destruction,” Burke points out. “We used [Side Effects Software’s] Houdini to animate shapes and drive simulations for all the destruction. We tore up New York.”
“And, we didn’t just destroy it, we fixed it as well,” Manz says. “We have pieces flying back into the right place. That was the sort of stuff for which we shot a lot of elements. But none of it was used. It was more flexible to do it with CG.”
Flexibility to use CG was, in a way, a theme for the making of this film, starting with the beginning. The flexibility to incorporate CG at the start helped the entire process.
“Creature design always serves a purpose,” Burke says. “Before, on Potter, we’d scan a maquette and try to fix the creature in post. But now, because we were creating it and animating it, we knew what it was. All the creatures had character. That helped everyone. It helped Eddie [Redmayne]. It helped the director.”
And as for the environment and sets, on Potter, the actors were originally always in a four-walled set. “But on the fourth, and certainly by the fifth, Stuart [Craig] started opening up the space. Digital set extensions let his imagination run free,” Burke continues. “He knows we can create photographic set extensions. He embraces this process.”
It has been more than 20 years since Jurassic Park’s digital dinosaurs made movie history by convincing filmmakers that CG characters could be real and practical. Now, finally, filmmakers are giving the creature creators an earlier voice in the process.
Director Yates has reportedly signed on for four sequels. It will be fascinating to see how the process evolves as the Fantastic Beasts franchise unfolds. The result can only be fantastic.
Barbara Robertson (BarbaraRR@comcast.net) is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for CGW.