Read how Priest plays in the best possible digital sandbox.
By all accounts, Priest, the new vampire/western from director Scott Stewart, proved to be a great test case for handling the under $100 million vfx-intensive film. With the help of Jenny Fulle's new Creative Cartel serving as the vfx hub, they were able to effectively manage 750 shots, split between a dozen facilities, including Tippett, Svengali, The Senate, Spin, Zoic, Spy Post, Gradient and Iloura.
In subcontracting a visual effects department, Fulle says it made her role as vfx producer a lot more efficient. "What we're doing now is keeping an infrastructure in place and bringing it within reach of the smaller budgeted shows," she explains. "It's a powerful and smart way of spending your money, and you can get a lot more value.
"Logistically it was a challenge to manage, but at the end of the day, it worked out really well. For me as a producer, I was able to create as big of a sandbox for Jonathan [Rothbart, the overall visual effects supervisor] as I could and he was able to get the most out of what was in that sandbox for him. And Scott knew what he wanted and that's always a help. We were able to push people in different areas. We split the work into digital environments and hard surface models and characters and even primary characters vs. tertiary characters. And we went to the houses and worked with them."
"Our biggest challenge overall was that we were on a micro budget for visual effects compared to the amount of work we were putting out," Rothbart suggests. "That was a big part of what Jenny was doing. Scott and I talked about grounding it in reality and not appearing too fantastical, everything from the design of the vampires to the concepts behind the vehicles and in the way that we had the creatures and the people interact in the world. We wanted to make sure they all had a level of familiarity so that we stayed grounded in that real state. Scott and I always talk about the fact that visual effects should never be at the forefront of a movie; it should be in support of the action.
"We hired Tippett [under the supervision of Blair Clark] to do the creature work. We wanted to make sure they had a unique motion. I'm a reference hound (YouTube's my friend), so I went back and looked at monkeys and gorillas, which was great for the grabbing and pouncing. But, really, what I fell in love with were big game cats: tigers and lions and leopards. There's such elegance in the way they move and they have so much speed and weight."
One of the most difficult characters was the hive guardian, the bruiser of the vampire world. The original design had him thinner and longer, but Tippett convinced them to give them a chance to design a more powerful creature."The way we thought of it was a rhino or bear with a hard skull structure to be used as a battering ram," Rothbart continues. "For vulnerability, we gave him a soft underbelly as well. We started with some motion tests and it didn't take long for them to get a great sense of what the drone and hive guardian motion should be. Animation supervisor Jim Brown gave him a snarl."
For the main city, Svengali (under the supervision of Robert Nederhorst) helped create a combination of Blade Runner and Orwell. "We came to the conclusion that they needed to build a city kit," Rothbart adds. "So we worked on a building level first and then expanded that out to the whole city. It's walled and confined, so there's always an upward expansion. We had newer buildings on top of older ones and it went up and up and up. And intertwined with that were these smoke stacks. At the center is the cathedral, which is the hub of the city and the shining light above everything. It was a really good process and solved a lot of the scope problems for us on a micro level."
By contrast, the wasteland by The Senate (under the supervision of Richard Higham) is an infinite horizon of ground and sky. "We did a lot of horizon replacements," Rothbart suggests. "We shot at the salt flats in the Mohave Desert but even that wasn't barren enough. In the DI, they just blasted it to create a great contrast to the city."
Plus there was a thrilling train sequence that was a combination of live action and CG split up between Gradient, Iloura and Spy Post with a 12-scale miniature by Kerner Optical. They built exterior facades of two trains that were pulled by trucks in the desert and then extended out. Then the fight on top of the train was filmed outdoors in front of a bluescreen.
A virtual production flow was created with Rothbart in San Francisco and Fulle and her group in LA. They also sent out a color pipeline package to every vendor with LUTs, which took a lot of the guess work out in viewing the movie and mixing live action with digital sequences.
As for the stereo conversion, both Rothbart and Fulle were impressed with the results. "We shot the movie Scope and there's not a straight line with those [rare C-series] lenses, so we wanted to take advantage of that," Rothbart says. "Conversion enhances the experience of looking deep into the channels of the city or into the vastness of the desert."
"When the release date was pushed back several months, we were able to finish the shots, which was a luxury in looking back at it," Fulle adds. "Then we re-engaged some of our vendors where we wanted to re-render in stereo. It was kind of like doing two projects, one after the other. We did the visual effects, we regrouped and then we came back to do the conversion."
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.