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The Magic Behind 'Ella Enchanted'

Mary Ann Skweres talks to the visual effects wizards who brought the magic to Miramaxs Ella Enchanted.

Double Negative had the task of creating the fairy tale world of Ella Enchanted. Courtesy of Double Negative © Miramax Films.

Vfx help create the magical world and fantasy characters for Miramax Films Ella Enchanted. A twist on the classic Cinderella fairy tale, the film, directed by Tommy OHaver, is based on the best-selling, Newberry Honor-winning novel by Gail Carson Levine and stars Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries).

The single most challenging shot, according to visual effects supervisor Angus Bickerton, was the three-minute-plus opening aerial shot, designed to introduce the audience to the magical style of the film and various locations in the story, including environments that only existed in vfx. Double Negative (Dneg), headed up by Matt Twyford, Jesper Kjolsrud and Hal Couzens, were awarded the sequence.

Based at Ardmore studios in Dublin, the film used locations in the neighboring Wicklow mountains for the landscapes. The vfx team reconned the hills and valleys by helicopter for best features, times of day, etc. Bickerton then selected locations and landscape models were created from ordnance survey maps. Concurrently the vfx art department, led by Dave Allday, drew up miniatures from production designer Norman Garwoods lead. Allday also designed a skyline that matched the Miramax logo so that their graphic could gently segue into the opening shot. Previs artists Pete Bebb and Pieter Warmington incorporated these elements into the 3D landscapes to create previs animation for approval by OHaver. The previs then helped to guide the actual helicopter aerial shoot. Adam Dale operated Wescam, while ground teams raced around the valleys to lay out huge day-glo orange tracking markers in time for the cameras approach. Bickerton and vfx editor Kevin Aherne then selected takes and retimed in the Avid.

Robbie Scott headed up a team of modelmakers at Cutting Edge Effects to build the 15-foot high Lamia skyscrapers and the complex Elf village. Leigh Took and Ben Hall of Mattes and Miniatures handled the construction of the Frell suburb, a smaller Lamia city, the end shot landscape and various vfx elements. Dneg tracked the aerial footage to translate into appropriate Moco moves on miniatures of the Lamia castle skyline, the Elf village and the Frell suburb. Over a period of four weeks, the miniatures were shot using the motion control cameras Wotan extended crane arm operated by Ian Menzies. Because of surrounding trees, the final approach to Ellas house could not be achieved on the real location, so the Dneg crew created a photogrammetry version from the opening frames of the final stage crane shot and tracked that into the landscape. A CG window bridged the crane shot into the studio bedroom set. Dneg spent nearly six months compositing all the elements in Shake. Phew! Without doubt the single most complex shot in the film that we worked on from the earliest days of pre-production to the very last days of post, admits Bickerton.

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Previs and final shots of Double Negatives effects. Courtesy of Double Negative © Miramax Films.

Because production couldnt build a set that big, Elf village miniatures were re-used for the Elf musical number. The village was mapped out digitally. Dneg assisted in pre-vizing the sequence and translating it to Moco rigs for the bluescreen shots of the Elves. Actors performing the musical number were shot on a bluescreen stage in the right angles and positions then composited into the miniature set.

Visual effects supervisor Simon Clutterbuck and visual effects producer Martin Hobbs headed up the team at Moving Picture Co. (MPC) that created the talking snake Heston, wicked sidekick to Ellas villain. OHaver thinks its one of the best digital characters hes ever seen. I love Heston because he harks back to my love of cartoons and he reminds me of all those great evil sidekick snakes, from Sir Hiss in Robin Hood to Kaa in Jungle Book, but he has a personality all his own, he says. Watching him be created was something new for me and a magical experience.

To achieve practical interactions, eye-lines and framing, Heston was originally conceived as an on-set puppeteered snake enhanced by computer animation. Despite a perfect physical design, the animatronic snake had physical limitations. It lacked the facial and skeletal movements necessary to bring the snake to life and had to be supported by a chair, a candlestick or other objects as originally depicted in the storyboards.

The shoot was already underway when MPCs lead animator Tony Thorne and lead rigger Matt Hicks carried out animation tests of an entirely computer generated snake. The results convinced OHaver and Bickerton that a fully digital character would result in a more dynamic performance. With the physical limitations removed Heston could slither around on the floor and react with other in-shot props. The MPC animation team was given the chance to fully develop the character. Bickerton comments, Texturing and boning of Heston was superb and MPC were magnificent in their enthusiasm and speed.

MPCs rigging and shading toolsets were expanded to meet the challenges presented by the snake. John Haddon developed Hestons skin shader. Emulating the properties of real snakeskin, it permitted secondary wrinkling and buckling in the body, mirroring the behavior of real large snakes like boas. Composite supervisor Angela Barson developed a method to allow the compositors full control when matching Heston with the background plates, many complicated by flickering flames. For each shot of Heston, nineteen separate passes were rendered and subsequently combined in Shake. Interactive lighting was applied to each composite by manipulating separate layers such as the specular, sheen, occlusion and directional lighting passes. The 2D look was kept flexible to allow adjustments in 2D, removing the need to revert back to 3D for re-lighting. To allude to the light scattering around the thinner parts of the snakes skin, MPC developed a rough pass based on skin thickness that subtly enhanced brighter regions of the background plate in the areas around the nostrils and open mouth.

Cinesite (Europe) Ltd., headed by visual effects producer Ken Dailey and visual effects supervisor Sue Rowe created Benny the Book, the holographic person trapped inside a book. About 60% of the work (roughly 50 shots) was about the 3D Benny, the rest was compositing. On a bluescreen day, the team covered a lot about a 120 shots. They were very disciplined and got every bit of dialog that the character might say. Every eventuality was planned for so when the editing occurred, Cinesite had all the footage necessary to create every Benny shot.

The biggest challenge for the Cinesite team was getting the effect of photo-realism. For Benny to look like a hologram meant that he would need to be seen in three dimensions. The character needed to become a virtual actor. That necessitated being tracked into each shot and creating a 3D build. The impressive results achieved by the team belie the fact that photo-realism and human characteristics in 3D are notoriously hard to do.

The team had one day of shooting on a bluescreen stage with actor Jimi Mistri. A locked-off camera with a long lens shot Jimi straight on. No perspective changes were captured, but facial expressions were captured. The facial expressions in that footage were used as a texture map projected onto a 3D scan of the actors head. The second camera on a Milo rig shot from a best guess matching angle to background plates. When possible the team tracked this 2D angled footage to the cover of the book. If the book angle changed a lot, the 3D head was used.

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Visual effects producer Ken Dailey and visual effects supervisor Sue Rowe needed to bring Benny the Book to life in more than 50 shots. Courtesy of Cinesite Europe. © Miramax Films.

3D artist/supervisor Jon Neill developed the technique for Benny. The facial scanning technology was from London-based Soho-cyberscan. Twelve different cyberscans in a range of phoneme positions and key face shapes captured Mistris facial poses. That 3D scan went into the live action background plates. Using key shapes, the artists then match distorted Mistris 3D head to his performance. The performances shot on the bluescreen day could then be seen from a 360-degree perspective that wasnt actually captured on the day. The final result on film was a talking, perspective changing, tracked into book, 360-degree move around the actors head. Rowe explains, It was a clever way of taking the live-action footage a real performance and mapping it onto the 3D geometry. In some cases we needed some extra animation, adding eyebrow and facial expressions, but the majority was captured in camera.

The 30 strong in-house team set up for the film (now NexusVisualEffects) was responsible for a number of composites, digital landscapes and the blue skies digitally added to replace the filmed gray Irish skies. To enlarge practical sets such as the Hall of Records and the 4 Seasons Hotel, 3D set extensions were created in Maya. These were comped in Shake and After Effects. Digital matte paintings by in-house artist by Dave Gibbons were used for the Giants bean field and the field of yellow flowers a sequence that was a particular favorite of OHavers. Andrew Garnet-Lawson provided matte elements for Lamia street top-ups. Traditionally painted mattes were created for the Galleria and the Giants Barn exterior by Steve Mitchell and Lucy Richardson respectively. The paintings, on hardboard, were photographed onto film, scanned in and digitally comped with additional elements. Bickerton feels, Digital matte paintings can suffer from a sense of cut and paste unless CG elements are created. With this approach, an artist truly blends and composes a shot without limitation. I also like the way a painting photographs, the emulsion and grain structure responding naturally to the image.

Problems of scale occurred in scenes mixing giants, humans and elves. Giants were envisaged as being approximately 15 feet high about 2.6 times larger than a human. Oversize set pieces were considered but ultimately deemed too expensive. Instead the Giants were shot within a set interacting with 1 foot 5 inch high dolls. Consequently every shot in the Giants Barn involving Ella and her group was a bluescreen composited in-house in Shake. Plates were shot as lock-offs, tiled plates, simple pan and tilts or all-singing and dancing excuse the pun crane/dolly shots that were to be tracked. Shots were tracked in 3D Equaliser and Boujou, then converted to scaled up moves for the Wotan Moco rig via Iktrix software. Bickerton adds, Two exciting days were then spent shooting Ellas dance number on a cove bluescreen stage, mixing and overlaying over the background plates to music playback. I constantly considered how fast background plate shots would be when they were scaled up 2.6 times in order that we could achieve the Moco on the bluescreen stage in realtime.

Mary Ann Skweres is a filmmaker and freelance writer. She has worked extensively in feature film and documentary post-production with credits as a picture editor and visual effects assistant. She is a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.

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