VFX Designer Kevin Tod Haug chats with Tara DiLullo Bennett about the escalating challenges of creating imaginative effects on Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium while juggling the work of 10 vendors.
What child hasn't dreamed of living in a toy store, where they can have unlimited access to play with every toy available under the sun? Well, what if the store was also part of the fun, itself a magical haven providing special surprises and fun for the young (and young at heart) inside its four walls? That's exactly the premise of the new family film Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (opening Nov. 16 from Fox/Walden Media) starring Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman and Justin Bateman. The magically infused Emporium run by the eccentric Magorium (Hoffman) is left to the unsure manager, Molly Mahoney, after his death. With the store expressing and manifesting its own sorrow and very short temper on the customers, it's up to Molly and her young friend Eric (Zach Mills), to restore the magical boutique to its happy self.
First time director Zach Helm (who scripted Stranger Than Fiction) creates a bright world showcasing the fantastic and silly in every frame of Magorium, with toys, books and even shelves coming to life in both practical and magical ways. Kevin Tod Haug served as the visual effects designer for the film and helped translate Helms' vision to the screen. "It's a little movie so it was never meant to be Narnia," Haug admits. "We had to set our sights on something that was more practical -- more magic tricks than magic. The watchword from Zach Helm all the way along was to try to make it like you are watching a magic trick. It will surprise you but it won't necessarily hit you between the eyes as being obviously magic. The basic brief for the show was to find a subtler way to do a lot."
As the film's vfx designer and owner of FX Cartel (who coordinated and bid out the vfx vendors), Haug says that he worked closely with Helm to interpret his ideas into reality for the various houses working on the film. "The hardest part of working with a writer/director like Zach is that he often thinks in ideas rather than images, which is a beautiful challenge. He wants [an effect] to do something but he doesn't know what it looks like, so trying to find what that looks like is the most fun and challenging aspect. It was Zach's first time as a director so there was a lot of discovering. The hardest part of that, from a designer's point of view, is that you have to help him find where he wants to go and how best to make it work. From now on, he'll have a better idea of what parts he hates and what parts he likes, what to storyboard and what to previs, which is satisfying in its own way."
As for FX Cartel's contribution, they were able to create the vfx consortium that grew to fit the demands of the film. "Actually it's funny, because in the beginning, there was a solid 110 to 120 shots ordered, but by the time we were done there was close to 400 shots!" Haug adds. "When we went into it, Magorium was a very little film and the Cartel could get in there and help with the Canadian tax codes and put together the crew to do the job. This was Raymond Gieringer's first time as a freelance visual effects supervisor, but he was one of the principles at Intelligent Creatures for years, so Cartel was able to hire people that were totally capable of doing the job but who might not have gotten the opportunity otherwise. We got the price right and everybody got something out of it. I feel like we did OK putting this tricky show together."
In the early stages of development, Haug says they utilized previs to help shape the look and mixture of practical effects vs. CG. "Zach did some storyboarding but [the film] didn't really lend itself to that. Extreme one-offs, like the book with the fire engine in it or the book with the lemur in it, didn't really need to be boarded to understand them. There was enough prep on this so the special effects guys and the visual effects guys could talk it all out and decide how to go about doing everything. There are an awful lot of physical effects, and a lot of them were done completely practically with no help from us. In the beginning, it was meant to be 50/50 and in the end the practical shots were at about 150 shots and we ended up doing 400 vfx shots. It was all designed to be a simpler thing originally but it was clear by the end of the movie visual effects kind of took over.
"For example, there was a lot of stuff where we had to remove rigs in order to make the practical happen. For something as simple as a lemur jumping out of a book, he actually jumps out of a hole in the counter but the poof of smoke around him would be illegal to do with a real lemur, so we didn't even try. We put it in with CG later. The fire engine that pops up out from the book was done with the prop guys sticking it up from underneath Natalie's nose as the book opens. Ultimately, that looked a little bit too easy so we gave it a little help. Now it looks like it is unfolding from something that was inside and there's a puff of smoke that surrounds it in keeping with the magic trick idea.
"There were even some attempts early on to use puppetry where you would take out the puppeteers like they do with The Muppets," Haug continues. "The problem with that in the toy store is that it ends up looking like what it is, like some Ukrainian guy in a suit. There is, in fact, a scene where some talented puppet people did a number of scenes: one that ultimately became the 'dinosaur shot.' If you look in the back of that scene, you'll see a dancing kangaroo, which is a puppet. It looks exactly like what it is, some guy in a suit dancing a little girl around," he laughs. "It needed a bit more so we ended up making a dinosaur that was closer to the window and could interact with Jason (Bateman)."
Haug says the most interesting aspect of the vfx for Magorium is that the film actually expanded into essentially two shows in one. "What happened is that at one point pretty much everyone had finished what they intended to do and got paid up for that, but then most of the same vendors were brought back to do more. It's kind of like doing two shows from the vendor's point of view. There needed to be something done in the finale," he details. "The original idea was very simple but it required a massive hook up so it could follow Natalie (Portman) through the store without any cuts. None of that survived. Now the finale has a number of pieces that were shot to be in the hook up, but not the hook up. We actually went back for re-shoots and picked up the close-ups of Natalie that you see, so it changed the pacing and allowed us to do a few more things. Like in the script, it says, "the store becomes gray," and there was a time it became monochromatic. In the discussions that followed, there was a moment that it became clear that gray was more of a metaphor. At the time in the finale, all [the Emporium] really did was come back from being gray and it mostly did that as a color correction. Everybody agreed that wasn't the punch that was needed at the end, so more got added and thought about and eventually paid for in the last six months of the show. It had a very long post of almost a year because of so many permutations, not all of them because of visual effects but quite a few of them," he chuckles brightly.
"For me, I was always involved but I was never intended to be there all the time," Haug suggests. "There was another crew that did the smaller movie that was originally there and then I got sucked in as it got bigger to play more of a part. It was the later stuff that I got involved with."
FX Cartel also had the challenge of piecing together the tapestry of vfx houses to get the ever-increasing job done. "FX Cartel is a company that I started, which allows us to hire very small vendors." Magorium had 10 houses involved, including Intelligent Creatures, MOKKO, Hatch and Image Engine. "In Montreal, we had three or four vendors but the main one was BarXseven. They did an awful lot of character animation like the room of balls. BUF (LA & France) was there from the beginning and went through a number of paradigm shifts in terms of what we like to call the store's character. When the store gets upset it goes gray, so they were involved in a lot of the different changes of ideas and concepts for how it eventually worked. They did probably the most shots in the movie because there is the whole graying motif. I guess you could have done that practically but we didn't know that at the time. There were some things that were grayed by the art department, but, mostly, this was done by very complicated rendering and color correction. From the time Magorium dies to the time it's brought back in the finale, every time you go in the store BUF had something to do with what it looks like.
"It was a complicated handoff to [Supervising Digital Colorist] Steven Scott at EFilm because we were unclear on how far we wanted it to go [with the graying]. It was also such a huge deal that we organized it in such a way that BUF could do their part to the background when we were secure about it and then they would provide mattes for the talent in the foreground and mattes for the background and a couple of other different levels of mattes to play with. We actually did a solarization for the background in certain areas so we added that in as we went so it was all a part of the color correction. It was a smart way of doing it in the long run even if it was a bit complicated. It was such a long sequence and we were moving pretty fast at the end, so we had the studio and the director and everyone sit down and look at it on the screen to make final adjustments frame-by-frame in realtime, so it helped us get a lot done.
"There was one big vendor added at the end, Frantic Films, in order to do the particle systems stuff. And there was a company in Moscow, Dr. Picture [Night Watch and Day Watch], and they were an incredibly great value. They are awesome animators and since they haven't really been discovered yet, they hadn't hit Western European prices yet so we were able to get 12 times the animation out of them than we could afford if we had gone a more normal route. I'm sure now that they are discovered, they won't be quite so cheap anymore," he laughs. "They are so awesome and did the Slinky and all the animation at the end in the big finale. I think there are 2,000 discrete character animations in the finale alone. Good character animators are actors and can make interactions between the characters and the rest of the people in the scene. Without them, this movie could not have finished on time. That said, there was an awful lot of drives flying from Moscow at the very last minute because it was faster to ship it then send over the internet!"
Asked about his favorite effects in the film, Haug says, "It was actually funny as a designer that we managed to get inanimate objects to emote to some extent. It was a huge deal and I felt good about it. The thing that gives me the biggest laugh and that I enjoy the most is the Slinky. I wasn't there for the Slinky. Raymond Gieringer was the supervisor on the show up to that point, but we talked about it. I love that little shot because it's so simple and yet so perfectly executed. Frankly from a CG point of view, it was incredibly difficult. Also the room of balls happened at the very end and it really takes your breath away when you realize how much is going on that wasn't really there. You know, the sheer amount of what we were doing at the end got overwhelming for everybody so there was a lot of midnight oil burnt on getting it done. I think everybody worked together rather well. I think that in the long run most of what we got was very close to what Zach wanted. That we managed to find what he needed was the most satisfying to me."
Tara DiLullo Bennett is an East coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, SFX and Lost Magazine. She is the author of the books, 300: The Art of the Film and 24: The Official Companion Guide: Seasons 1 & 2.