With the long-awaited release of Paul Schraders Exorcist prequel, Alain Bielik unearths the secrets of Proximas digital success.
Updated June 1, 2005
Italian cinema has built its reputation on dramas and comedies. Everybody knows the name of Fellini, Visconti, Leone or Scola, but when it comes to special effects, only one name comes to mind for most of the people: Academy Award winner Carlo Rambaldi (Alien, E.T.). Indeed, special effects movies have never been a tradition there. And sure enough, none of the American productions that were shot at Romes famed studios Cinecitta including recently The Passion of the Christ and Gangs of New York did their post-production in the country. Producers travel to Italy to take advantage of low labor costs, highly qualified technicians and Romes dolce vita! However, when it comes to creating visual effects, they always turn to American or British companies. At least thats how it worked until Paul Schrader went to Cinecitta to shoot the interior scenes of Warner Brothers Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist two years ago, which is finally getting a limited theatrical release in the U.S. on May 20.
Set in 1947 in East Africa, the movie relates the first encounter of Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) with evil. Having abandoned the priesthood, Merrin works as an archeologist and unearths a startling discovery: an ancient Byzantine church, preserved in pristine condition, as if it had been buried on the day it was completed. Buried beneath its walls, an ancient crypt contains the remnants of Satanic rituals. Merrin discovers that the church was never meant to be used for worship it was built atop the crypt only to contain the evil within it. With the demon now set free, the whole region falls into chaos A chaos that the production also experienced.
Aiming For Quality
It all started under the worst omen possible: director John Frankenheimer passed away a few weeks before shooting was about to begin. When Schrader took over, he implemented the original plan of shooting exteriors in Morocco and interiors on stage at Cinecitta. Academy Award winner Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) remained as the movies cinematographer. Visual effects duties were first awarded to Proxima, a leading Italian digital effects facility founded in 1991 by Storaros son Fabrizio. The company had established an international reputation with the Emmy Award-winning effects of the Dune mini-series (also photographed by Storaro). For the first time, a major American production was going to be post-produced in Italy.
We very seldom work on this kind of projects in Italy, admits Fabrizio Storaro, who shared visual effects supervision duties with partner Paolo Zeccara. We are usually called for historical pieces or author films, which means the bulk of our work is invisible effects. Most often, we have to create, rebuild or expand historical buildings or cities to blend them in the period of the movie. It is not as spectacular as the kind of shots that American companies do, but it still is difficult work. Also, we use far less artists on any typical project than our American counterparts. In the United States, there is one artist for the finger, one for the hand, one for the arm, and so on. In Italy, we have a creative and artistic approach in which one single artist can be responsible for a whole shot. In America, the methodology is more industrial.
Proxima produced 120 effects shots, of which about 70% benefited from a unique treatment: they were realized at 4K resolution instead of the standard 2K. Vittorio was very adamant about quality, recalls Storaro. He had developed a color journey that reflected the characters evolution during the course of the movie. Each scene had a specific color palette that had to be respected. After performing some tests, we decided to produce the effects at 4K resolution, from scanning to rendering to recording. It was the only way that Vittorio could have the resolution and the color depth that he was after. Obviously, the studios never want to invest into 4K, as they believe that the audience wont see the difference anyway. So, why bother? It is true that, if you project a movie a 2K resolution, your mind gets used to it and you accept it. But if you see 4K shots intercut with 2K shots, the difference in quality is obvious. So, the only way to convince the studio to invest into 4K resolution was to do it at 2K price Which we did. The other advantage of working at 4K was that our matte-paintings were much larger than usual. It allowed Schrader to freely add digital pans and zooms that were not part of the original footage. Because of time constraints, Proxima eventually produced its last batch of effects shots at 2K resolution.
Burying a Church
A major aspect of the visual effects was the creation of the reveal of the church. At the beginning of the story, the building is almost completely buried under a large hill at the side of a mountain. As the digging process goes on, the church is progressively revealed. Proxima used an interesting approach to the problem. The building was erected as a full-size set in Morocco, except for the large dome that covers it. Effects artists added the hill digitally, using still photographs taken on location to cover the church with rocks and sand. Several versions of the hill were created in Photoshop to represent different stages of the process. Whenever a character had to pass in front of the covered church, the actor was shot bluescreen and composited in Flame, Inferno or Combustion. Too large and costly to build on location, the dome was added in CG. At Proxima, we use a variety of packages for CG animation and 3D objects, remarks Storaro. Depending on the shot and on the artist, we either use 3ds Max or SOFTIMAGE|XSI, with specific elements created in Maya. Some artists prefer to work in one package or the other, which explains the variety. The rendering is carried out in Studio Max or SOFTIMAGE.
After the church is opened and the crypt unveiled, the action focuses on the nearby village of Derati where evil manifests itself. The film crew first tried to find a suitable location, but decided eventually to build Deratis main street as a full-size set. Tight shots on the actors were captured later on stage at Cinecitta. For an extensive crane shot revealing the whole village, Proxima extended the set by adding CG buildings and vehicles. Since the budget didnt allow for motion control, the camera move was tracked in Boujou, matchmoved in Matchmover Realviz, and the CG elements were composited using Inferno.
The village is also the setting of a strange event: the magical appearance of gorgeous Northern lights in the sky. The Northern lights are completely related to Vittorios cinematography, explains Fabrizio Storaro. They had to match the color palette of the foreground elements that had been shot in Morocco or in Italy. We studied photographs of the real event and selected the appropriate color hues. Paul Schrader had given us complete freedom in designing and executing them. We created thousands of single lines in CG, as if it were a rain of long lines. We then applied the appropriate colors to this animation and tracked it into the plate with Inferno. Using motion blur, morphing, and color, we were able to diffuse the animation up to the point where it really looked like Northern lights.
For the Cineccita shoot, the production elected to bring Michael Most in as on set visual effects supervisor. Most coordinated the work done at Proxima and commissioned Pixel Magic, Encore Visual Effects and Eden FX to produce half of the shots (only Proxima and Eden FX are credited). Another visual effects supervisor, Tom Mahoney, took over the final stages of the post-production.
As evil grows stronger, its power affects living creatures too, starting with a young boy named Cheche. Impaired with disabled arm and leg, the boy soon falls prey to evil, but the possession has a positive effect on him as he progressively turns into a healthy person. Actor Billy Crawford was shot holding his real arm hidden under his costume and wearing a prosthetic limb. He also wore a prosthetic leg attached to his green-covered leg. Proxima painted out the green limb by sampling background elements from a clean plate, creating the unsettling illusion of a character walking on a disabled leg. A more complex approach was required for a scene in which the shrunken arm undergoes a transformation and becomes healthy. They tried to get the shot with an animatronic arm, but the result was not satisfactory, recalls Storaro. So, we ended up creating the effect in CG. We modeled the arm with individual muscles that were animated to expand, stretch and bulge. We then tracked this animation to the real arm and did a morph in Inferno to create a transition between the two elements.
Evil is not so kind to animals as it turns hyenas into man-eating predators and cows into flesh-eaters. We were very excited by the opportunity of creating CG animals for a major movie, comments Storaro. We started by studying a lot of footage of real hyenas. We also gathered reference photographs and even shot one animal on bluescreen. Built in Studio Max, the body was adapted from a CG wolf that we had created for an Italian TV movie called Dracula. The head was modeled from scratch. The textures were photographic elements that we used either as a reference or as maps, while the fur was created directly with Studio Maxs plug-in. Since we had four months to create the shots, it gave us the chance to really fine-tune the animation, incorporating devilish behavior into the animals natural body language.
In a disturbing scene, a cow is affected by evil and starts feeding onto the corpse of a dead hyena. The effect was a combination of several elements. First, a live hyena was photographed laying in front of a bluescreen, as if it were dead. Proxima then modeled a CG wound and tracked it onto the animal skin. Artists created a CG cow in XSI, using a clean plate of a real cow as a reference for lighting and animation. The different elements were then combined in a background plate.
Its Over. Well Not Quite!
After Proxima had delivered its final shots, Storaro and Zeccara thought that the movie was completed and moved on to new projects. A few weeks later, though, they learned that, first, Schrader was no longer the director; second, the movie they had just worked on for almost two years will not be released at all; and third, the film was going to be entirely reshot in Rome by Renny Harlin from a new script and a mostly new cast! Storaro and Zeccara had just experienced a true Hollywood horror story
Proxima was called again to work with visual effects supervisor Ariel Velasco-Shaw, but as soon as principal photography wrapped, the post-production was transferred to the U.S. and visual effects taken over by Harlins long time associate Brian Jennings. When a href="http://vfxworld.com/?atype=articles&id=2201">Exorcist: The Beginning was released on Aug. 18, 2004, Proxima wasnt even credited. For everybody here who worked so hard on this project, including 2D supervisors Corrado Rizzo and Gianluca Risita and 3D supervisors Massimo Cipollina and Salvo Severino, it was a very sad ending. It was also especially frustrating as, for once that we had managed to convince an American studio to do visual effects in Italy, the movie didnt even come out! Fortunately, the producers are now giving Pauls version a second chance. Itll also be a second chance for us to showcase our work.
Alain Bielik is the founder and special effects editor of renowned effects magazine SFX, published in France since 1991. He also contributes to various French publications and occasionally to Cinéfex. He recently organized a major special effects exhibition that opened Feb. 20 at the in Lyon, France. Displays include original models and creatures from 2010 Odyssey Two, Independence Day, Ghostbusters, Cliffhanger, Alien Vs. Predator, Alien 3, Pitch Black and many more. The exhibition will run through Aug. 31.