Beautiful Creatures is like a thinking person's Twilight with an over abundance of literary references and an over ripe gothic milieu in South Carolina. But the supernatural fantasy also evokes Bewitched with its forbidden love story between a witch (Caster) named Lena (Alice Englert) and a restless mortal named Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich).
In collaborating with production VFX supervisor Joe Harkins, director Richard LaGravenese requested as much in camera work as possible (meaning minimal use of green screen and lots of digital VFX in post) and asked that the look be organically tied to nature. Harkins turned to Method LA for the nearly 200 environment shots, which were turned around in only three months. Method used Maya, Houdini, Nuke, Syntheyes and Photoshop on the project.
The first sequence Method tackled was a recurring dream in which Ethan finds himself hurled back in time to the Civil War with a mysterious woman, who winds up being Lena. "In this sequence, we had to do mainly sky replacement and treating the plates for day for night coloration," suggests Method VFX supervisor Olivier Dumont. "We also did a CG replacement for Lena's dress."
The next sequence was more involved: making the main entrance room of Lena's stately home look like it is part of an endless forest. The main entrance was white in the plate and Dumont wanted something a little different to show the magic in the movie. Each time Ethan looks at the room, it's totally different. So they changed the color of the walls. "To open the back wall and put a big forest behind with some fog, we did a big matte painting," he adds. "And for the medium and foreground perspectives, we added CG trees. We wanted to have the feel of the forest coming into the room with leaves falling on the ground."
One of the most difficult parts of blending the CG and matte paintings together was extracting the people, because they were shot in a white room. Therefore, because the light on them was quite strong, they had to do a first pass of color correction before going to DI to control it better. The trees extend 10 meters outside of the room in CG to get proper parallax.
In Beautiful Creatures, Lena must undergo a rite of passage on her 16th birthday that will equip her with full power and determine whether she's a Light or Dark Caster. But first she's provoked by her cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum), a Dark Caster.
The most complex and creatively ambitious CG sequence for Method involved a spinning room during a family dinner in which Lena and Ridley face off with their magic powers. Again, because LaGravenese wanted as much in-camera as possible, they built a set on a hydraulic platform that could tilt three feet in all directions.
The effect is of a swirling vortex with dinnerware debris orbiting around the table with the girls. "But they wanted to have the girls spinning in the opposite way as the table, so we recreated the floor spinning because there was only a part of it spinning," Dumont continues. "We also had mist coming out of it, which was created in Houdini. The color of the mist looked like it was coming from the pattern on the floor, which is why you get a mixture of green, brown and yellow. Other atmospherics were added to blend in with the smoke at the bottom.”
"In this sequence we also had the effect when Lena grabs Ridley by the chin. So for this we had a model of her face and applied some displacements to the FX animation and everything that was rendered was used in the comp to make this little weakling suddenly take over."
In addition, there's a fire eyes effect when Ridley takes off her sunglasses. Dumont originally wanted to make it look more painful and came up with concept work around the eyes, but it was too late to implement. "For the moment when the cousin is being sucked out, we added CG trees to the room and a digi-double for the cousin. We also changed reflections in windows and added a post camera shake as the sequence gets more violent."
It turns out that Lena's diabolical mother, Sarafine (Emma Thompson), has possessed the town's Bible-thumping Mrs. Lincoln as cover for luring her to the dark side. For the initial reveal, Method roto-animated a CG double of Mrs. Lincoln. The glimpse of Sarafine was done part CG and part comp with black tendrils.
However, for the climactic battle resulting in Sarafine losing her power and turning into vines, Method did it in two stages. First, the vines appearing on her body were roto'd and projected. Then the second stage consisted of Sarafine's extraction from Mrs. Lincoln's body, "so we had to deal with the black tendrils again and her ghostly appearance. But the director didn't want Sarafine to be recognizable. The shots were totally CG based on pictures of the set and we added a trailing particle effect in comp. The vines are already there, which she grabs, while also turning into them herself. We had so many vines that we went procedural with it, but I really wanted to art direct the animation so we made sure we had all the necessary controls for that."
Finally, during an annual Civil War recreation, Method created a bravura tornado/storm sequence. This was tricky, according to Dumont. "It came to us with five week left and I had a separate team," he explained. "Based on production concepts, we created a progression for the storm cloud sequence involving a supercell, tornadoes and CG debris. We had to replace most of the trees for the right movement because the plates didn't have any wind. We had to replace very quickly all of the tops to get the wind blowing in there. We also created objects being sucked into the tornado, including monuments and fences, and at the end we created a change of color correction as it gets darker and darker."
But wouldn't you know it: in actuality, the tornados they researched were too smooth and elegant in real life. So like everything else, Method embellished with details as long as they used nature as the basic element.
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld, the owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), a columnist for Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen, featuring interviews with all six actors.