Spring 2019

A Bigger Bang

Directors Patty Jenkins, Colin Trevorrow and Rupert Wyatt each navigated the leap from intimate to VFX-heavy productions in their own way

By Hugh Hart

Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins. (Photo: Photofest)

When it comes to box office dominance, nothing succeeds like shrewdly deployed visual effects. Nine of 2018's 10 top-grossing blockbusters relied on digital sleight of hand to conjure out-of-this-world excitement for audiences. Measured by sheer scale, big VFX productions can be daunting, requiring up to three years to prep, shoot and edit. But while CGI-driven epics may be more complicated to execute than kitchen-sink dramas, some directors have managed the transition from low-budget drama to nine-figure spectacle with aplomb.

Ramping up the scope of her work incrementally from short films to breakthrough indie hit Monster to the acclaimed AMC series The Killing, Patty Jenkins took the reins of 2017's Wonder Woman determined to articulate a singular vision for all of her collaborators—no matter how long it took. "The only thing that's really different about doing a visual effects movie, compared to a regular movie, is the amount of multitasking you have to do," says Jenkins, speaking from London midway through postproduction on Wonder Woman 1984.

"Before I start directing actors in the morning, I'm on set looking at my computer drive and making notes about VFX shots," she adds. "I'll direct a scene, and while they're lighting the next shot, I'm giving notes on previs for another scene that we'll be shooting four months later. During lunch I'm reviewing more shots and making more notes. On my way home, I'm reviewing and making more notes. It just goes on and on and on and on. You have to direct multiple things at all times in order to keep the whole thing chugging forward in small steps."

Wonder Woman, which grossed nearly $822 million worldwide, employed six different VFX shops to create more than 1,800 digital effects. Jenkins relied on visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer to help wrangle talent and manage the production pipeline. "The big learning curve has to do with logistics," says Jenkins. "I had to be totally clear about how to execute all these shots by the end of the film. In what order do we need to turn them over and at what step do final decisions have to be made? Bill helped structure all of that for me."

In giving direction to several hundred far-flung artists, Jenkins succeeded in establishing real-world foundations for imaginary locations, including Wonder Woman's mythic island home Themyscira. "Having never done visual effects before on this scale," Jenkins says, "I went out and shot elements on the Amalfi coast of Italy, on film, exactly how I wanted it to look. The visual effects then had to match everything I'd filmed. Instead of it being a 'make up whatever island you want' free-for-all, where people could bend the rules about what a plant should look like, or how those cracks in the stone should be, we planted a flag. That helped every artist down the line see what they had to achieve in order to make the scene look real."

Patty Jenkins, on location for Wonder Woman with actress Gal Gadot, says she shot elements on the Amalfi coast of Italy that her VFX team matched. (Photos: Clay Enos/Warner Bros.)

For Wonder Woman's tumultuous action sequences, Jenkins utilized digital face-replacement on stunt doubles so they resembled title-role player Gal Gadot when glimpsed briefly from a distance. "Wonder Woman was the first time I'd worked with digi-doubles, and I quickly learned what they can and cannot do," Jenkins says. "For example, you can't do a close-up performance. Wonder Woman was such a photo-real show, we didn't try to push that technology to become something it couldn't be."

While prepping the film, Jenkins studied other VFX-intensive movies to see how some of her peers handled big action. "I know a lot of superhero movies do digi takeover for all kinds of jumps and heroics," she says, "but I didn't like the way it looked for our film. So on Wonder Woman 1984, we used wire contraptions for people taking off and doing stunts. Given the amount of time and effort it takes to get [action] shots to the point where they look right with digi-doubles, I find it's [costing] less to just shoot the action scenes [practically] in the first place."

Like Jenkins, Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt successfully navigated an abrupt transition from small-scale live action to VFX-driven spectacle. Hired by 20th Century Fox to reboot the iconic primate franchise on the strength of his Brian Cox action drama The Escapist, Wyatt suddenly found himself teamed with WETA Digital and its ground-breaking motion-capture technology. "I had virtually zero visual effects experience when I came onto Rise," Wyatt recalls. "I approached it as if the studio said, 'Here's a Ferrari—drive it.' I figured out how to drive the Ferrari but to this day, I still don't know how the engine works. For me, it just came down to using the technology so I could tell this story."

Distinguished by some 380 motion capture shots and $481 million in global box office receipts, Rise of the Planet of the Apes remains a case study in how an astute director can harness computer-generated effects without losing sight of characters' emotional arcs—even when those characters are covered in fur and communicate with grunts.

Wyatt's tight working relationship with WETA Digital director Joe Letteri and visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon played a critical role in making the performances pop on screen. "For me, the most magical moment of the entire process happened early into postproduction," Wyatt recalls, "when Joe showed up at the Fox lot and said, 'I've got something to show you guys.' They'd been beavering away in New Zealand and prioritized one particular shot of Andy Serkis as Caesar when he's behind bars in the primate facility. In the basement screening room of Building 88, Joe put up a three-second shot on a loop. Everyone just sat there with their mouths on the floor because we saw this ape, 100 percent CG-built, yet it was completely Andy Serkis with this extraordinary emotional sentience. We watched Caesar's eyes sweeping from left to right watching a human character pass by his cage, and at that point, everybody thought, 'Okay, we have a movie.'"

(Top) Andy Serkis plays Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. (Bottom) An actor rehearses a scene from the film with director Rupert Wyatt. (Photos: (Top) Everett; (Bottom) 20th Century Fox)

For Rise, the New Zealand effects house developed technology that enabled Wyatt to direct performers in mo-cap suits on exterior locations with natural lighting. Filming in Vancouver and San Francisco, Wyatt became accustomed to the high-tech accoutrements. "There was this sort of NASA-like preparation every day when the actors put on their mo-cap suits and got synched to the computer programs," he says. "But once they stepped onto the set, I directed them just as I would any other live-action actor."

Wyatt spent about 10 months in postproduction, incorporating WETA's painstakingly rendered composites into the final cut. "I'm a big believer in delegation, provided you have the right team, which WETA certainly was," Wyatt says. "In post, we had to develop shots with WETA that were faithful to the performance yet were also anatomically correct. That's why I left the actual texture of the fur, and the hair, and the anatomical builds very much in their hands. But as the director, I followed the same set of rules on Rise as I would on a live-action show. How do we find the performance? How do we find the narrative within the edit and how do we cut that?"

Colin Trevorrow made the leap from low-budget live-action to tentpole spectacle when he steered Jurassic World to nearly $1.7 billion in worldwide box office. His previous movie, Safety Not Guaranteed, boasted a grand total of four visual effects. Jurassic World featured more than 2,000. But in rebooting the fabled dinosaur franchise for 21st century moviegoers, Trevorrow recognized the balance between spectacle and character was key. "My background as a writer of studio movies prepared me for Jurassic World as much as anything else," Trevorrow recalls, "because I understood how to use visual effects to move the story forward and nothing more."

A propulsive storyline requires relatable characters. In order to populate Jurassic World with sufficiently emotive dinosaurs, Trevorrow engaged intensively with Industrial Light & Magic, which handled all digital work for the film. "Some people think you just shoot a bunch of plates, send them to ILM and they come back with magic on them," Trevorrow says. "But in fact, it's a slow, meticulous process. The communication I had with my visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander was equal to my relationships with a producer or writer or cinematographer. It's important to communicate your intentions very clearly in story terms so the artists can then visualize it for themselves."

Collaborating with ILM reinforced for Trevorrow the importance of making firm choices early on. "If you do only one thing for your supervisor and all the artists, animators and compositors working on your show, it would be that when you make a decision, you stick to that decision. Even when you're really cooking and reviewing 15 different shots every day at a different stage of the workflow process, from initial blocking to animation to skin and textures to lighting—being decisive is key."

Colin Trevorrow, far left, confers with actors Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard on the set of Jurassic World; below, Pratt interacts with the velociraptor "Blue.". (Photos: (Top) Everett; (Bottom) Photofest)

Trevorrow cherry-picked among myriad options from the digital realm to lend heart and soul to his digital creatures. "I consider the dinosaurs to be characters just as much as I do the humans, which is something I've been both accused of, and lauded for, depending on which review you read," Trevorrow notes wryly. "But for me, the process for directing the visual effects is not dissimilar from working with actors. You have to understand the space you're in. Then you talk about how to traverse that space. How should the characters move around? Then we block it out and talk about the feeling of the scene, because in these movies, it's not just about how the human actors feel in relation to the dinosaurs, it's also about how the dinosaurs feel: What kind of emotion this should evoke?"

Trevorrow tasked ILM with drawing on a variety of dinosaur-simulation techniques to suit the needs of the scene. The small but speedy velociraptors came to life through motion capture performances from human actors who were then digitally reshaped and resurfaced to assume reptilian form. For more static shots, Trevorrow favored animatronics. "If the dinosaur's sedated or strapped down and doesn't have to move that much, animatronics enabled us to build something tangible," he says. "An animatronic dinosaur gives the actors something to play against so they're not just looking at a green tennis ball. In Jurassic World, when Chris Pratt's character Owen reaches out and touches the side of (velociraptor) Blue's face, he's making contact with something real and I think subconsciously you can feel that."

Trevorrow extended his analog-meets-digital aesthetic to Jurassic World's climactic smackdown that pits computer-generated dinosaurs Indominus Rex against T. Rex in a custom-built town that's 100 percent practical. "When you have destruction by digitally-built dinosaurs—and there's a lot of destruction in these movies—you want as much of it as possible to be practical," he advises. "For that minute-long shot with the giant dinosaurs fighting, production design made break-away glass, collapsing columns and walls that fall apart for real when you hit them with a wrecking ball. Every time a dinosaur touches something, the way to make it feel real is for the thing that breaks to be real. For this kind of movie, VFX design and production design are really married to each other."

As Trevorrow preps Jurassic World 3, slated for release in 2021, he stresses the importance of treating digital collaborators with respect. "The brilliant animators and compositors who work at these VFX houses are your allies," he says. "They can elevate your work to astounding levels if you listen to them. As the director, when you acknowledge how much you appreciate what they do and how hard they work, these people will go to the moon and back for you."

Practical Solutions

Chad Stahelski and Karyn Kusama discuss the virtues of an in-camera approach to special effects

By Hugh Hart

Director Chad Stahelski. (Photo: Mark Rodgers)

Chad Stahelski, who launched the John Wick franchise with co-director David Leitch in 2014 before solo directing two Wick sequels, cites old-school action classics The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen and Bullitt as formative influences. "The level of practical effects was mind-boggling because the action felt so organic and raw," he says.

A former stuntman with a background in martial arts, Stahelski believes Wick packs a punch for audiences because the lead actor, Keanu Reeves, is actually jumping the jumps and fighting the fights. "Rather than turning stuntmen into actors," he says, "we turn actors into stuntmen and train them as we would any of our professionals."

Stahelski typically films long takes that sell moviegoers on a "you are here" experience. "I like to start with a wide shot and dolly in for a close because that sells you on the actor, not just the character," he says. "If you believe Keanu Reeves is really doing the fight, then you believe John Wick can do it."

In close collaboration with second unit director Darrin Prescott, Stahelski extends his preparation-is-everything aesthetic to the entire crew by requiring all department heads to attend stunt rehearsals. "I don't want my cinematographer and cameramen coming to the set for a massive five-day action scene when they've never seen the fight before, going 'Well we can't do a wide shot because we can't get the lights in there,'" Stahelski explains.

Stahelski also likes to use CGI as a tool for stretching in-camera action to surreal ex-tremes. "Instead of cutting to a prosthetic of an arm bending backward or a neck turning all the way around," he says, "we sometimes do digital body bending to make the martial arts more intense, wackier, more violent."

He begins with a practical foundation, filming stuntmen performing in front of a green screen. "The VFX people cut and paste them into the digital world and bend their bodies even more," he says. "I like to push the limits of both practical and digital to see where they meet, but for me it always starts with the question: How practical can we make it?"

Director Karyn Kusama. (Photo: Everett)

Karyn Kusama, who launched her career with the 100 percent practical indie film Girl Fight (2000), has leaned into practical effects ever since directing Charlize Theron in the VFX-driven futuristic action film Æon Flux (2005). Looking back on that experience, she says, "You need a lot of patience making a big VFX movie, because it's not always a straight shot to the visual representation of what you intended versus what a concept artist or storyboard suggests. You have to imagine what the image is eventually going to look like. If the first pass or second pass or third pass doesn't work, then you have to not only negotiate with the creative side, you also have to negotiate with the financial side. Visual effects movies require a lot of faith in the process."

For the $62 million, 75-day Æon Flux production, Kusama utilized previs for key sequences. "But for the most part," she recalls, "I didn't want to use previs too much. I think in some films that are heavy with visual effects, there's a sense that they can be sort of air-less because there there's no spontaneity in the filmmaking."

Kusama, continues to prefer in-camera capture as her go-to mode. "I always ask to see the practical options," she says, "because, for me, nothing compares with recording something that's actually physically happening in time and space."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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The latest DGA Quarterly includes an exclusive conversation between James Cameron and Jon Favreau, the DGA Interview featuring Anthony and Joe Russo, directors Patty Jenkins, Colin Trevorrow and Rupert Wyatt discussing VFX in tentpole films, and more!