Erik Nordby of MPC Vancouver tells how they transformed Megan Fox into a demon.
Megan Fox as a boy eating demon in Jennifer's Body, scripted by Diablo Cody (Juno) and directed by Karyn Kusama (Aeon Flux). Talk about transformers. Not surprisingly, the "amazing subtext in this world of upside morality of a high school" offered quite an opportunity to Erik Nordby (The Haunting in Connecticut) and the team at MPC Vancouver.
"We immediately went into pitch mode in January and spent a solid two weeks trying to not only bid the script but also collect as much reference material and stuff for the first client get together," Nordby recalls. "It became clear that the director and producers were looking for an old-school, hands-off, lo-fi approach to the visual effects. They wanted the horror elements to read naturalistically and not overpower the storyline."
That fell right in line with how MPC read the film and provided a clear direction for Nordby and his team. "At that point when we met with them, they had already met with KNB, who had already done up a stylized still of what, at the time, they were calling 'Evil Jennifer.' There was a lot of info yet to come, but based on the script, Jennifer goes from very beautiful Megan Fox to a very ghoulish, succubus creature whose jaw distends half-way down her face. They had a version of that, which they prefaced by saying it was probably a little too far. They felt confident with [KNB's] work: they just wanted to tone it down a bit.
"So from there, we produced some tests, grabbing a bunch of stills from Megan and doing our own work to indicate how that balance could exist between special effects and visual effects and still maintain a level of subtlety. They responded really well."
Most of the prep was devoted to the face. Very quickly in combination with special effects and makeup, MPC came up with a five-station system for what Jennifer goes through:
"Stage one is beautiful Jennifer and then two and three were strictly makeup where her eyes become more recessed and she would start to look plain like the rest of us. And stage four was some custom dentures that KNB made for her, and then visual effects in stage four was mainly facial warping and recessing her eyes some more and having a pinning effect to her irises and a variety of other musculature deforms, just bringing her cheek bones down more.
"And stage five was the full on, as crazy as it gets, which you don't really see until near the end. Before we started shooting, it involved the full appliance attached to Megan's face and then her real jaw would be greened essentially inside of her mouth and then the appliance would drop below her real jaw and then visual effects essentially owned everything in her mouth and everything outside would've been a special effects appliance. And then there would've been a lot of clean up as well because of the way it attached to her face."
But as they started testing, it became clear that it would take too long for Megan to get in and out of the appliance, so they had to come up with an alternate plan. "We hired a photo double and every day (for about 10 days) she would sit in a chair with this full appliance on her and we would shoot this jaw, and then all Megan would have to do is the dentures. So when it came time to shoot any of these jaw moments, Megan would act out in rehearsal how she was going to attack her victim and we'd fine tune that blocking so it was relatively locked. And the camera would be rehearsing through that as well. And it would roll and she would put her dentures in, and they would really distort her face, which was a nice side effect. And we'd put some contacts in as well. And then she would go through the exact same motions as normal Jennifer. But then I would shoot all the key poses that existed in whatever moves the digital double was doing, so that we had as much of that appliance in that lighting condition that we could get. KNB also created a hairless but high detailed head of the stage five Jennifer that had an articulating jaw.
"I spent a lot of my time shooting that because we had ultimate control over how the light was hitting the head and we'd rotate its reach. And then I would step in and shoot HDRI and clean plates, so at the end of the day, we had all these passes and depending on the shot and moment, we would use some, perhaps all, of the passes that worked. This really helped in post because the tone of this film really became the main focus. From a marketing point of view, from all the test screenings they did, there was a lot of work figuring out how to make this a scary film as well as a funny film."
This so-called jaw shot became a pivotal point, because for four months of the post, the filmmakers thought the film was getting too scary so MPC pulled back on the jaw and then they thought it wasn't scary enough, so they pushed back and this jaw went back and forth quite a bit to help navigate where they wanted the tone on any given day. And so having all those different poses helped MPC in fine tuning and controlling that transition, which Nordby says was a blessing because that changed dramatically throughout post.
"She then goes through these jaw shots and at the end of the day the majority of the work would be in grabbing all these elements, pasting them back onto her face, projecting and doing some roto anim to grab her face at whatever moment we had to do the transformation and we wanted the eyes to maintain some sort of the Megan Fox allure, which was incredibly difficult because as soon as you warped her face in any direction, the shine kind of came off it. So what we ended up doing was that anything below her nose, we were allowed to have full reign to make as horrific as we needed to, and then we above her nose, we could manipulate it somewhat with warps and color correction in her eye sockets. So even at her worst, she had some of that sexiness throughout."
MPC uses a basic version of Maya with its own add-ons. For compositing, they were a Shake house at the time but are moving toward Nuke. Considering the small budget and vfx demands, they relied more on skilled artists to think through shots rather than a brute force approach. The amount of R&D that went into the jaw shot, according to Nordby, was confined to basic projection and lot of 2D trickery on top to blend in with her actual face.
Meanwhile, MPC worked on another effect: the mysterious waterfall that disappears after becoming a whirlpool. "We came up with an approach that we thought would work because we had a lot of confidence in our water sims," Nordby continues. "The waterfall appears both as a day and night shot, so we had to integrate with the water. And the night shots play a pivotal role in the film, and we do a huge crane over. But we couldn't lock it to a pan or to a tilt, but we did have movement in all three axes, so we knew we'd have to be projecting. I shot as much HDRI as I could, which was difficult to get to the actual base of the waterfall, but I eventually lowered down a shot -- a ton of reference of the area because I knew we'd have to do some digi-matte work to recreate the basin that the whirlpool ends up in. And then when it came time to work on the shot with the water sim, what we ended up finding is that we couldn't get that massive amount of churning and foam to read as real as the location. Even when we cranked up all of those parameters, it ended up looking a little too placid, so we took a step back to readdress it.
"The CG Supervisor, Pete Dionne, came at from a different point of view. He grabbed chunks of that river and tialing it so that it had a nice stretch of birds' eye point of view of the water that existed on the location in the lighting situation we were trying to match. And then he projected that onto a whirlpool of animated sprites and had similar enough texture to the actual water that existed there, but pulled control into lighting it and could add depth mainly to the center of it. The thing that really stuck out in the end was that you really need to pay respect to the land that exists right below your water. We were dealing with very shallow water, so that was the biggest learning experience on that shot."
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.