An Appetite for Effects
It has been just over a month since a zombie named R staggered into movie theatres and scared up a sizable take of box office receipts. Anyone who thought Warm Bodies – the rom-com with the brain-munching leading man – would die a quick death was definitely proven wrong. For director Jonathan Levine, however, the success of the project was anything but a certainty. Better known for dramatic fare like 2008’s The Wackness and 2011’s 50/50, the thirty-six-year-old is the first to admit he took a bit of a leap when deciding to helm a feature requiring serious special effects, but it was a leap that definitely paid off.
“One of the reasons I did this movie was to be able to work on a slightly bigger palette and be able to learn,” he shares. “I really think it’s important to grow as a filmmaker and for me, understanding visual effects is part of that. The movies I grew up loving – Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Goonies and Back to the Future – all had tons of visual effects. That being said, I also loved the idea of using effects in a context that wasn’t a big noisy summer movie, but actually a heartfelt story and a character-driven story.”
To stack the deck in his favor, he turned to Dan Schrecker of LOOK Effects, whose work on 2010’s Black Swan earned him a BAFTA nomination for Best Visual Effects. “I wanted to bring someone on as early as possible, just because I felt like I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” Levine remembers with a laugh. “I had been a fan of Dan’s and I really loved what those guys had done with Darren Aronofsky, especially on The Fountain. I find that very often when I watch one of these completely immersive CG movies I just tune out because I don’t believe it. It feels very flat and very fake to me, so I didn’t want that and I thought that Dan did a really nice job of integrating visual effects into an organic execution.” As luck would have it, the duo also had a lot in common. “We’re both Knicks fans and we’re both from New York, so we really got along well and he came on as not only the supervisor but also someone who was very much helping guide me through the learning curve.”
From March 2011 through till September 2012, the collaborators manoeuvred their way through the project, which was filmed in Montreal, Quebec. “It really came down to Pittsburg versus Montreal,” Levine explains, “and I had spent a lot of time in Montreal when I was younger and really fallen in love with the city, so maybe it was just my selfish desire to have better meals.” Transforming the metropolis into “Any City, North America”, however, required digitally uprooting its famed Olympic Stadium and shuffling it closer to the skyscrapers of centre-ville. As Schrecker explains, “it was important that the establishing shots of the wall and the city were downtown, and it was important to sell the geography of this world, so we moved the stadium.” Not that it was a simple matter of cut-and-paste, of course. “Instead of building an entirely digital world, you’re painting out what’s really there and creating digital buildings. You take out this building and replacing it with that one.”
“I’m not sure if we went far enough there, because it’s very clearly Montreal,” he concedes. “I’ve shot in Montreal before, and we’ve made it look a little bit more like Philadelphia, which is one of the model ‘generic’ cities, no offense to Philly.” Levine agrees, “People from Montreal will definitely not be fooled,” but adds “the movie has a kind of tension between a grounded reality and a fairy tale, so we wanted to err on the side of ‘this is something that could happen anywhere.’”
To realize that concept and immerse the viewer in a world shaped by the human/zombie conflict, a helicopter shot was created by joining two live action plates with roughly fifteen blocks of computer-generated buildings between them. “It’s probably the most expensive shot in the film,” Levine states. Given the work Schrecker’s team put into it, it’s easy to see why. “There were three parts to it. There were both transitions for getting in and out of each of the live action plates, and then the main work is building that city. There was a massive team of artists modeling, and texturing and lighting and going through and building all that stuff. It definitely takes a lot of people and a lot of time.” Levine sees it as money well spent. “It’s always nice I think when you can do something like that so that the audience can see they’re in good hands, and that the movie has scope.”
On-set, one particular idea regarding a shift in time created a bit of a challenge from a technical side. “We have this shot at the beginning of the movie where R is walking through an airport, and we spin around him and go into the airport in the past and it’s filled with people. I had that idea pretty late,” Levine admits, “but to Dan’s credit, he figured out a quick and easy way for us to do it.”