'House of Wax': A Real Scream for Photon VFX

Tara DiLullo explores the challenges of mixing practical and visual effects for Photon VFX in updating House of Wax for the Paris Hilton crowd.

Huge miniatures were used to create the climactic fire at the end of the film. © 2005 Warner Bros. Ent. Inc.  U.S., Canada, Bahamas and Bermuda; © 2005 Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Ltd.  All other territories. Photo credit: Clau

For most cinephiles, the title House of Wax (opening May 6) immediately conjures up images of the 1953 film starring Vincent Price as the murderous curator of a wax museum, where the figure bases were actually made out of the bodies of his victims. Not many are aware that the cheesy, creepy classic was itself a remake of the 1933 film, Mystery of the Wax Museum. While it may have taken more than 50 years, House of Wax is again getting remodeled for a new generation, with a new youth skewing story, a hot cast (including Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray and Paris Hilton), and more splatter and gore than either original film ever deigned to consider back in the day. Matter of fact, the only elements linking all three films is the killer making wax figures from corpses and, of course, the wax. Produced by Joel Silver under his Dark Castle Ent. banner and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, an acclaimed commercial director helming his first Hollywood film, the pair is hoping that their version of House of Wax will become a new classic that future generations remember like its predecessors.

Bringing House of Wax in the new millennium also meant raising the visual stakes. Silver knew the quaint looking wax-covered bodies of yesteryear were definitely not going to cut it with todays moviegoers. With that in mind, he went to the independent Australia-based vfx company, Photon VFX. Together Photons John Breslin, the visual effects supervisor on Wax, and Dale Duguid, the creative director, worked to coordinate their variety of departments together to create the intricate visual effects needed in the film. We had done a number of projects with producer Joel Silver previously and of most relevance to the Dark Castle horror genre productions, we had done Ghost Ship, Duguid explains about how they were hired for Wax. That was the basis for the introduction to the producer and director of the project.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra had faith that all the department heads would deliver results. His focus was to give the film an original, stunning look. Photo credit: Vince Valitutti.

With the largely tactile use of wax in the film, many would assume that the dominate effects utilized would be more vfx oriented, but Duguid explains the film is actually more of a balance. I guess, if it had been a faithful reproduction of the original film, then it would have been much more special effects centric, but because of the storyline and requirements of story, both in terms of the horror elements and the ultimate demise of the house of wax, there was certainly going to be a visual effects solution heavily involved in that. As always, its a balance between practical special effects and post-production visual effects. The challenge was not deciding which one, it was pretty evident from the outset it would require both, but how to interface the two.

With that in mind, Breslin and Photon worked closely with special effects coordinator, Bruce Bright (Peter Pan) to hammer out the logistical demands of what director Collet-Serra wanted. There is always a collaborative approach, however in this instance it was clear that the onset demands of what appeared to be melting wax and fire and things like that, were going to be extremely demanding, Duguid details. In that instance, the visual effects took a pause and let special effects set the visual precedent for what melting wax should look like and it was a lot of chemical experimentation by that department to try and find a look. Once that was implemented, that set the visual precedent and the role of visual effects then became one of taking that look and simply adding volume, and jeopardy and proximity to actors, which would be in some cases impossible to do with special effects. Duguid adds that Collet-Serra was very helpful in letting their departments do what they needed to find that right mix. My impression was that the director had faith. He believed that the specialists around him would deliver the results. His focus was aesthetic. He just wanted to give the film his original stunning look, which I think he was very successful in doing. I guess a lot of his monitoring of the process was about reinforcing his requirements that the look be special.

As to the variety of visual effects Photon had to create for the film, Duguid says they ran the gamut. It was a fairly even mix of anything from the simplest rig-removals, right through the very sophisticated and complex composites involving miniatures, 3D particle elements, 3D elements and 2D elements. It was the full spectrum and its the kind of work Photon is noticed for in its niche because its a holistic vfx company that does all the bids and unifies them in the post-production process.

For Dale Duguid of Photon VFX, the goal was to find a balance between practical special effects and post-production visual effects and to interface the two. Photo courtesy of Photon VFX.

Our first commandment in visual effects is to not notice the effect in this kind of genre, he continues. The film has a contemporary setting and you want everything to be believable, real, so transparency is the core of everything. We had to go in and do lots of things to make it feel natural. John was joined at the hip with visual effects producer, Elizabeth Synes. They were a very capable dynamic duo. Under them, there was an army of model makers and miniature- builders. There was a motion-control department, who filmed both the miniatures and operated the motion-control marionettes of the miniatures. There was a full digital and editorial team. It was pretty much a Maya and RenderMan world in 3D for us, but there were spots in the 2D world that did some nice things too. I guess there were about 100 people working on the film, creating approximately between 200 and 300 shots.

Yet even with such a complex mixture of technologies, Duguid admits, as is typical in their work, the seemingly easiest effects were really the hardest to create. In this case, the filmmakers needed to melt tons of wax. The singular, most evident challenge was that we all have an abstraction in our mind about what melting wax looks like. When you actually look at it, its pretty boring, he laughs. Its like someone tipping a glass of water down the side of something really, really boring. What the abstraction that we all carry in our minds is born of is seeing those wonderful phallic-types of wax on the sides of candles once they harden. Without thinking about it too much, we all assume melting wax should be interesting and its not! The challenge was from the visualization point of view. We all had to work very closely to try every avenue in order to reinvent what melting wax should look like, so it satisfies the abstraction everybody has in their mind, but also to credibly make it look like it could be melting wax. You appreciate that its a philosophical, as well as, a practical [challenge]. If I told you how the special effects department and the visual effects department made that happen, Id have to kill you, he jokes.

Offering some proprietary tidbits, Duguid adds, The ultimate illusion of melting is a combination of high technology, robotic-controlled houses and digital effects, including particle animation for synthetic wax-melts, composited practical elements, fire and cinder storms that were shot as elements or synthetically generated as particle animations. Those were the more complex shots. As the look evolved and became much stronger, we found ourselves going back and retrofitting conventional shots with additional effects, like fire and melting or jeopardy. What that retrofitting did was give the film an escalation of danger and the proximity of the melting process.

Photon is most proud of the vfx in a scene with an angry heroine, a baseball bat and retribution on a bad guy. Its a very R-rated moment, but possesses a clever piece of seamless visual effects work. Photo credit: Vince Valitutti.

The climactic fire at the end of the film that lights up the entire wax town also provided more challenges. Melting houses is the very difficult because once things melt, the edges go soft and the architectural features loose their crispness, he explains. Traditionally, that makes things feel like miniatures. When you lose that crisp detail, you think you are looking at a miniature. We had to have a miniature house look like a full size melting house, when it had all the features of a miniature, so that was really, really difficult. We had to use lost of devices to reinforce the correct scale. It was quite a conundrum in how to achieve it without the audience howling and saying, Theyve melted the size of a shoe box! In fact, the miniatures were huge, a third full-size, but I think the end result speaks for itself.

Reflecting on the scenes that Photon was most satisfied in creating, Duguid says, I think that whole last reel of the film is a tour de force of melting and horror and we are very, very proud of that. Along the way, there are some very interesting horror moments. There is a particular scene involving an angry heroine and a baseball bat and bit of retribution on a bad guy. Its a clever piece of seamless visual effects work. Its one of those things that you would never really think as an audience, How the hell was that done? You are just carried away with the moment. This was something the director firmly had in his mind that he wanted to achieve and vfx supervisor, John Breslin, listened carefully, looked at the reference the director supplied and then came up with a workable solution that is a very elegant piece of visual effects work. Its a very R-rated moment, but the majority of the violence of it was implied, which is why I think it was so elegant.

Chad Michael Murray faces off against a ghastly creature.

I guess killing Paris [Hilton] (who played teen-in-jeopardy Paige Edwards) had its challenges, Duguid continues. There was an obvious solution to killing her from a technical point of view, but it was very rigorous on the actress. We had to rethink some of the ways we re-approached those shots to accommodate not harming or stressing her during the filming of elements. For example, if a shot conceived is a locked down shot, there is a vfx solution formulated for that. But on the day, the director is on the location and he sees the cinematic advantages of moving the camera, so that required a little bit of flying by the seat of our pants in acquiring the elements and adjusting our thinking on the fly, depending on what the performer was able to safely do on the day. I want to praise John Breslins work because he was able to accommodate those kinds of short notice changes and still ensure a result. There was a cause and effect as each change and adjustment was made, sometimes whole paradigm shifts had to occur in the way those shots were going to be tackled digitally, so that was a reasonably stressful moment, but I think the final moment was worth it.

Pleased with their contributions on House of Wax, Duguid admits that the film has already taken them to new heights, creatively and financially. From a conventional perspective, this film very much solidified our relationship with Warner Bros., which is great and has led on to subsequent projects with them. From a software and hardware point of view, we did some very interesting things combining motion controlling with marionette miniatures with a specialist contractor called, Norm Copeman. Hes a specialist rigger and we brought in his rigging devices with motion control, so that was a really new and interesting experience from a technical perspective. Aesthetically, we learned playing with fire is great fun, but its also very difficult to get it right, he chuckles. We learned a lot about integrating real elements with burning things. But most importantly, Duguid says in particular one lesson above all others will last for him. It certainly has taught me I should never build my own house out of wax and if I do, build one without a fireplace! he laughs.

Tara DiLullo is an East Coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, Dreamwatch and ScreenTalk, as well as the websites atnzone.com and ritzfilmbill.com.

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