Ellen Wolff looks into Sundance opener, Friends With Money, which highlights the growth of invisible effects.
By any vfx-film measure, Sony Pictures Classics Friends With Money is not an effects film. But it exemplifies how a judicious use of visual effects can illustrate key plot points, even in a film where the focus is on the actors performances. Were always hearing about how effects should not be gratuitous, but used instead to serve the story. When a modestly budgeted film ($6 million) can effectively employ a select group of effects, it reminds us that sophisticated techniques are not just for big action pix anymore.
Friends With Money is writer/director Nicole Holofceners comedy of modern manners, which explores the lives of four longtime female friends. (The women are played by Jennifer Anniston, Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener and Frances McDormand the latter three being the friends with money.)
The film is set amidst the upscale environs of L.A.s west side, where McMansions sprout like mushrooms to proclaim the wealth of their owners. The urge to expand ones home is a key thread within this tale, since Catherine Keeners character is building a home addition that will afford her an ocean view. And thats where visual effects enter the picture.
The challenge for vfx artists Deak Ferrand (of Santa Monica-based Hatch) and Robin Tremblay (of Montreals Buzz Image) was to create the pivotal set piece of this building-in-progress. Ferrand notes, The filmmakers thought that because they were shooting in a real house on location, it would be impossible for them to build a real home extension. We also needed to see about two to three steps in the construction of this building, from its bare bones beginning until it becomes enclosed with plywood and a roof. Given these parameters, Ferrand and Tremblay decided that the best and most cost-effective approach would be to use a combination of 3D-CG and a miniature, along with matte-painted effects.
Ferrand, being based in L.A., was the man on the ground during shooting, and he also supervised building the miniature. (The shots would later come together digitally at Tremblays shop in Montreal.) Ferrand brought significant expertise to project, having previously contributed matte paintings to The Chronicles of Narnia and The Matrix Revolutions. Ive been dealing a lot with putting miniatures inside matte paintings, and that was a technique that the production liked. They thought that by having a miniature extension photographed from an angle that matched the photography of the actual house, it would look more believable. Its always the worry of a production like this that the effects wont look real.
It was Ferrands first time working with d.p. Terry Stacy, who had previously shot In Her Shoes and American Splendor. Im always careful in dealing with d.p.s because they want to just shoot their movie. They dont want to be stopped by visual effects people.
While the director did want a large crane move for two of the effects shots, Stacy shot a lot of it with a hand held camera. Fortunately for the effects team, Ferrand notes, It had a hand held feel but it wasnt moving, so the perspective didnt change. We explained that within the budget it would possible to easily add the building extension whenever they didnt move the camera. At the same time, you want to find something that allows the director her style but doesnt cost a lot.
Ferrand did shoot some greenscreen, including a giant greenscreen shot on location at night, which he recalls, was quite complicated. But the shot, a POV from over the shoulder of a neighbor as she looks out her window, was essential to the storyline. It established that the building extension would block this neighbors ocean view. Despite Ferrands greenscreen outside the window, Buzzs Tremblay would have some significant post work to do. It wasnt possible for production to remove that homes windowpanes, so they would have to be rotoscoped out. In addition, there was no ocean view from this location, so Tremblay would have to add that too.
Throughout the shoot, Ferrand was able to acquire all the camera information from the d.p. that he needed. Sometimes Ive had difficulty getting camera information on huge productions, but these people were really nice.
Back at Hatch, Ferrand began pulling frames from an Avid cut, Just to make sure that we had at the right angle with the right lighting and camera apertures. He then used that information to photograph the rather large miniature (4' x 3') built by Jim Towler (The Manchurian Candidate, Batman Returns). Jim built a miniature of the house extension based on blueprints he got from the production.
It was hard to find the right sized wood, recalls Ferrand, but the miniature was perfect, complete with scaffolding and ladders. I think miniatures are almost a lost art. Today, some people build models in 3D and try to use them as references for their matte paintings. But everybody can do crude miniatures, if only to get references about how the light will bounce.
Once the miniature photography was complete, Ferrand sent it to Tremblay at Buzz, along with all the location material and a previz. The films production company, This Is That Prods., had a solid relationship with Tremblay and Buzz, since the company had worked with the Montreal shop on Brokeback Mountain and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
In Tremblays hands, the digital work began. Deak shot the miniature with the approximate right camera angle and lighting, recalls Tremblay. He also photographed it from different angles, so I was able to reconstruct it in 3D-CG (using Softimage XSI.) Then I projected the models picture onto the 3D geometry, so I could move the (virtual) camera. There were no computer scans for anything, notes Tremblay, because scanning is too expensive. When you dont have money you have to work more swiftly.
The ability to move the camera on the virtual model was crucial for the major crane shots in Friends With Money, where the camera rose 30 feet into the air. Tremblay used Science-D-Visions 3D-equalizer software to track the camera movement. I had to move my (virtual) camera in 3D to fit the model perfectly into perspective. Its a really interesting technique to modify the perspective of a real image. You see the house extension moving along with the camera in proper perspective.
That was the hardest shot to do, adds Tremblay, because when you project a texture onto a model in 3D, some softening of the texture happens because of anti-aliasing. So when the model/projection appeared a bit soft, I had to repaint the picture to get better focus. Depending upon how much the camera moves, you have much more work to repaint!
Tremblay added some paint touches to the virtual home extension itself like knots in the wood using Adobe Photoshop. I had to add a few details to make the scale believable. When a later version of the home extension had to be draped with plastic, Tremblay again applied a 2D touch. I took pictures of the plastic and then painted in the wrinkles in Photoshop to make it look like the real thing.
The crane photography was no picnic for Tremblays rotoscoper either. There was a roof in the foreground with lots of pipes on it and there was no greenscreen behind it. It was a killer rotoscope. At the beginning of the shot we re-created part of the roof from scratch to help our rotoscoper avoid having a nervous breakdown.
For the greenscreen shot taken from the POV of the neighbors window, Tremblay again had to add several details, including a roof with tools on it. That was done in 2D and 3D because 3D made it easier to keep the light in perspective.
We also added animated palm trees in 3D, which were done with Vue Infinite software. Its from a French company called e-on and it can be used to create amazing environments. In Vue you can put in wind and all the leaves react to it. The palm trees look really amazing. To remove the windowpanes from the location shot in the neighbors house, Tremblay used Discreet Inferno. We fixed that problem in compositing.
While both Tremblay and Ferrand are known as matte painters, their work on Friends With Money demonstrates just how much that job description now encompasses. It often requires knowing how to combine 2D and 3D elements in believable ways. The conventional notion of matte painting doesnt sum up what was done on this small, non-effects movie, observes Ferrand. The title of matte painter has stayed, but the technique has changed. I have a lot of respect for the old school matte painters. Were not as good as they were, but we know other tricks. And audiences dont really care how you did it. It just matters how good it looks in the end.
Ellen Wolff is a southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the website CreativePlanet.com. Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.