With Terry Gilliam, of course, you expect something wildly imaginative, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus doesn't disappoint. You also expect controversy as well, and, with the tragic death of Heath Ledger nearly derailing the movie, it takes on a further level of surreal irony: Gilliam reconfigured his bizarre Faustian story about a traveling theater troupe in modern-day London and its magical portal of twisted imagination by casting Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law to represent different aspects of the character played by Ledger. It was serendipitous, indeed.
Not surprisingly, the elaborate visual effects from Peerless Camera have been drawn from Gilliam's boundless imagination, including inspiration from the likes of American Gothic painter Grant Wood (the dream landscape behind the Law on stilts sequence); Odd Nerdrum (for the cloudscapes); and, more broadly, Shaun Tan, Theodore Geisel and Maxfield Parrish. We go behind-the-scenes with John Paul Docherty  of Peerless Camera and Richard Bain of Bain VFX, who were both visual effects supervisors.
Bill Desowitz: What was Gilliam's plan?
John Paul Docherty: What Terry wanted to do was have an entirely different look for each time anyone went inside the Imaginarium, effectively inside Parnassus' head. But he was very clear: he didn't want it to look photorealistic. It had to look like it could be a product of the imagination but still sufficiently believable that the audience wasn't thrown out of the movie. And in that way, we were more approaching Mary Poppins than anything coming out of Hollywood. And it had more in common with Dick Van Dyke and the dancing penguins than any photorealistic, Michael Bay-type film, which is quite a different thing. People haven't done that for quite a few years. So effectively we had to design like nine different movies and they had to be completely consistent and believable in the sense that people accepted them but was not real in any shape or form. Terry was absolutely adamant; the minute anything started looking real, he was all over us.
BD: What was the impact of Ledger's death?
JPD: That only lengthened the script. There was scene with Jude Law and Andrew Garfield sitting in a sort of bound out landscape, which all the viewers seem to think was real that Richard put together that we shot at about a 10th scale and stuck behind and all the flaming bits behind there were all actually miniatures. That extended to allow for some expositional narrative to fill in what was going on. Aside from that, I think Terry said only three lines were changed in the movie, which is a bit weird. The mask that Johnny Depp wore, for example, was always part of what was going to happen. And that really turned out to be a godsend in terms of helping the transitions when you came out the other side. But it was a bit strange because it didn't change the narrative that much -- he was always going to be a different person when he got to the other side of the mirror, and in a funny way, it was almost like it was planned that way, and that's why it works.
RB: Luckily, we shot some camera tests and costume tests of Heath, who was prancing around in front of bluescreen. And Heath was playing with the mask and we used bits of that for the transition when he's actually inside the wagon. So we used costume test. It was really fortuitous that he was doing exactly what we needed to help that transition.
JPD: We used a lot of miniatures, and it surprised me about all these viewers going on about computer animation and stuff. "Wouldn't it be great if Terry used miniatures like he did in the old days?" They seem to think that the miniatures are CG and they're not. There's a fairly substantial miniature content in there -- and, in fact, there's a huge 80-shot scene that got dropped out of the movie half-way through for editorial and narrative reasons that had some incredible miniature work in it. Miniature, CG, heavy compositing. I think we used every software known to man in the end.
The reality is this was a very low budget movie -- between $20 million and $30 million originally. I can't really go into our bit a bit, but it wasn't much. And the miniature budget for Leigh Took, the supervisor, was even smaller. All the scaffolding around the monastery was actually coffee sticks that we nicked from Costa Coffee because it was cheap. That's how tight the budget was.
But to get the other stuff working we used Maya , we used XSI , we used Houdini, we composited on Shake , we composited on Fusion , we composited on <Inferno>, we road tested the software. Patrick Ledda, our head TD, wrote a bunch of stuff to make the snake, Mr. Nick, work.
JPD: Hey, we could draw.
RB: But it wasn't just a block animation. There would be visuals to give Terry and idea and the DP [Nicola Pecorini] an idea on how to light the thing ultimately.
JPD: There's an interesting point there. Although we did masses of previs with Terry in the year running up to production, we did something really unprecedented -- as far as I know -- for us and for most people. Richard was supervising the bluescreen work in Vancouver and I was handling the miniatures at this end, and it became very apparent, even before we started shooting the bluescreen, that the actors were pretty much standing around in nothing for the effects sequences, so we did a thing we call midvis. Basically, we had to get something that was better than the previs, which is largely a technical exercise in terms of the camera positions, so we used bits of everything: Terry's storyboards, bits of shot performances, CG, composited backgrounds, to roughly get 800 shots up to a level that the actors could have some idea of what they were doing when they were running around and even more importantly, as the shots were finished, our editor, Mick Audsley, of what it is you're cutting. So, in order to get the final efforts, the time that we were going to spend on the real shots, down to the minimum, which we had to do from a budget point of view, we went to this stage where it was sort of a half-way house, which allowed Mick and Terry to fine cut the effects, to the point that we weren't doing hundreds of expensive simulation frames that were going to end up on the cutting room floor. So it was a big effort to do that but it really paid off in the end.
RB: We would build anything where the actor would interact with something: he's walking on sand, such as Parnassus in the desert world; then we'd lay sand down on bluescreen. For the ladder world, we'd actually have Jude on a ladder constructed by Mike Vezina's special effects crowd. We had plenty of freestanding tracking markers on the bluescreen so we could get 3D environments' camera moves sorted out; it was a lot of work to do in a short space of time.
BD: What kind of proprietary CG work did you do?
JPD: There was liquid simulation software that we set up for a lot of the water effects: the Maxfield Parrish world. The sort of bravura painting dreamscape that Parnassus and later on Colin enter into had a lot of river stuff interacting with what was effectively a gondola on dry land. There was gas work put together for smoke and steam effects all the way through it. And some fractal builds that created some of the landscapes around the monastery in and around what we called the blasted landscape…
RB: I think Terry's always maintained that he's been using it for years and I think that's probably true.
JPD: The other thing, of course, is that he's hugely experienced with miniatures from a technical point of view and from a creative point of view. His contribution there is invaluable. He's also very much hands-on. He's known most of the Peerless people for years, and, when we're working, you can't get him out of the building -- he lives here: sitting there drawing on screens and churning out pictures and things. He's probably the most hands-on director in terms of visual effects I've ever seen.
RB: He's also keen on not repeating what other directors have done in CG as well. That's a challenge for us to do something a little different but foreign.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.