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'Pan's Labyrinth': Partnering to Make Fantasy VFX a Reality

Tara DiLullo chats with Everett Burrell about CafeFX's truly collaborative work making the fantasy world of Pan's Labyrinth a reality.

Everett Burrell represented CafeFX not only as a visual effects supervisor on Pan's Labyrinth, but also as a production partner. All images © Warner Bros. Pictures. Courtesy of CafeFX. 

Everett Burrell represented CafeFX not only as a visual effects supervisor on Pan's Labyrinth, but also as a production partner. All images © Warner Bros. Pictures. Courtesy of CafeFX. 

If there's one definitive thing you can say about director Guillermo del Toro, it's that this guy sure knows how to turn very dark things into something special. Since his early days as a filmmaker in Mexico, del Toro has made it his celluloid signature to explore the creepy, murky stories that live in the shadows of reality. In 1992, his film Chronos wowed international audiences with its breathtaking storytelling and imaginative vision. Since then with films like Mimic, Hellboy and The Devil's Backbone, critics, audiences and industry professionals alike have become aflutter at the word of a new del Toro vision marked for the screen. Pan's Labyrinth is the director's latest, a period piece set in Fascist 1944 post war Spain that weaves together the sumptuous dream world of a little girl whose only escape from her dark reality is this fairytale existence. Already a Best Foreign Language Film nominee for the Golden Globes and an Independent Spirit Award nominee for Best Picture, Pan's Labyrinth is getting accolades for its incredible production design, cinematography and visual effects. For Everett Burrell, visual effects supervisor for CafeFX of Santa Maria, California, that did the vfx work on the film, it's a much appreciated response to a project that was a long time in the pipeline.

Burrell explains that the project came to their shop through a fellow friend and colleague, Ed Irastorza. "He is my co-sup and my vfx producer on Pan's Labyrinth. Ed was also the vfx sup/producer on Hellboy. He met Guillermo on Blade 2. Ed was working at Tippett Studio at the time and Guillermo really liked Ed and they got along really well, so Guillermo offered Ed Hellboy. So Ed left Tippett and went to spend a year in Prague. They got into a little bit of trouble at the end of post with Hellboy and Ed called me up to ask me to help out. I went and did some CG fire stuff and we all got along really well because we are all ex makeup effects guys. We did a lot of creature stuff over the years and Guillermo knew my work and I was a big fan, so we hit it off. Then the film ended and I didn't think anything of it and then Ed came to CafeFX to help me out with Sin City and he was my vfx sup on that."

"At the beginning of Sin City, Guillermo called us to come meet him in L.A. to discuss this film he wanted to do, sort of a sequel to Devil's Backbone called Pan's Labyrinth," Burrell continues. "So we went to La Brea Tar Pits to shoot reference for Sin City and then after that we went to Chateau Marmont and met Guillermo and he laid out the story right there at the bar. It was really relaxed and we kicked back and he said, 'What do you think? There's not a lot of money, but is it something we can do?' I told him we'd have to partner up with an effects facility that can basically co-produce it with him because they will have to invest money into the project. I was with Cafe at the time and we told Jeff Barnes [CafeFX ceo] about it and he was very intrigued at the idea because there was a lot of character animation they wanted to get involved with. We brokered the deal and did a handshake and then Guillermo disappeared for a year," he chuckles.

"Really, it was a year. He was just gone. Basically, he moved to Madrid and was writing and researching the film. He was doing storyboards and getting into the whole mood of the thing. Then we got a call from him saying, 'Ok, let's go!' I'm like, 'Huh? Go where?' He said, 'Fly to Madrid! Buy a ticket and let's go!' It was really that quick.'

The intricate design of the creatures and fantasy world presented a daunting task for the visual effects team.

The intricate design of the creatures and fantasy world presented a daunting task for the visual effects team.

With such an ambitious design for the film and a low scale budget, the team to do the vfx really fell to Burrell's partnership pitch with CafeFX. "I know he was thinking about maybe trying to take this show to Tippett, but financially the only way to make to it work was to partner with a vfx facility and that's happening a lot nowadays. Not to toot our own horn, but vfx are becoming stars of the movie. Like a movie actor makes certain deals to work it out if [producers] can't afford them, so there are deals and backend participation and that's what happened with Cafe and their whole production division they started up called Sententia. So with the co-operation of Jeff Barnes, and David Ebner [CafeFX cco] and Guillermo's blessings, Ed and I set out to Madrid for five months."

Not only a vfx supervisor but also a representative for the CafeFX investors, Burrells says it was an interesting experiment for him balancing both commerce and art. "A bunch of stuff got on our plate that we didn't anticipate, like when a shot didn't work for whatever reason, like a puppet didn't work or we couldn't shoot guns off in the forest in Spain because it was a fire hazard and they wouldn't let us shoot any blanks, which really happened. So I had to go to Jeff and say it was going to cost money we didn't have. Because they were producing partners, it was a lot easier to get that stuff to fly. If we are investing in this creatively, we want it to look good. So it makes sense to invest some money, because ultimately we are going to benefit from it down the road if things all look great and it all works out."

He continues, "For example, when I got there I had no idea we couldn't shoot blanks off in Spain because of the fire hazard, so 60 shots turned up because it was a political issue. There is a big battle scene and we had to enhance it. It was a lot of things that were out of my control. Like Guillermo loves physical effects with puppets and a lot of times they don't work. We got on set and had to say, 'This isn't working, Guillermo. Let's pull the puppet out and shoot a clean plate and hopefully, we can find some money somewhere to make it all better.' It's really what happened. And because Cafe was invested in this, I would give them options and say, 'We can use the puppet, but it sucks. Or we can replace it with a CG thing. This is your movie too now. It's not just Guillermo's. It's part Cafe's movie.' So it made the damage a lot easier to swallow," he chuckles.

Actually the elaborate landscapes were not the biggest challenge on the project.

Actually the elaborate landscapes were not the biggest challenge on the project.

Once in Madrid, Burrell says they worked out a fairly effective system from the get go to establish limits and a true appraisal of what their artists would need to create. "We worked out all the shots. We were on set almost every day, six days a week. Actually, seven days a week because on Sundays we'd spend with Guillermo in the editing room. So it was a labor and I mean labor of love," he laughs. "We'd all seen the script and he had very elaborate storyboards. We did some previs for a couple key transition scenes where there are multiple shots rolled into one. But most of it was so well storyboarded we didn't need a lot of previs, but we did a lot of animation casts in terms of the style of the creatures like the stick bug and the fairies. We went through all the dynamics of getting that look nailed down while we were shooting. The cool thing about Guillermo is that we agreed on our shot list and it was about 200 that we were budgeted at. Then we started shooting and he was editing at the same time, which is really cool, so in our first turnover session we immediately saw that we were over-budget. If you shoot a plate of an actor talking and that runs a minute long and it cuts back to it five times -- the rule of thumb in Hollywood usually is if its more than two feet of film between cuts, it becomes a separate shot. We held to that rule and so did Guillermo but the problem became that one plate now turned out to be six shots because of the cutting. We all said, 'Oh shit!' But we worked it out and he worked with us on that. He wasn't happy but he understood we couldn't balloon to over 400 shots. We're not there to stamp on his creativity, but we were there to warn him."

While the intricate landscapes of the labyrinth world would seem the most daunting aspect of the project, Burrell says the real challenges actually came more from del Toro's shooting style than achieving his artistic vision. "Every shot that involved any kind of 3D asset had to be camera tracked," Burrell sighs. "We had an enormous amount of camera tracking. Without a good foundation of a good camera track, your timing is screwed and that wasn't foreseen. I kind of had an idea that he wanted to move the camera but he moved it all the time with Steadicam or Technocrane. And then we were blocking out all the character animation and that was a whole performance thing and Guillermo was very involved in that. We had a stick bug, three fairies and a mandrake root. We also had a CG toad. The fairies were pretty complicated with what they had to do, so we did a lot of research. We met an entomologist here in Arroyo Grande who had a huge collection of real bugs and he had a bunch of stick bugs and he gave us two that we named Cheech and Chong. They were great reference. They were incredibly gentle creatures and it was really neat to have that to motivate the artists. But we showed [the bugs] to Guillermo and he was like. 'No, no! They need to fly and jump around!'" Burrell laughs. "We then had a dancer come in for some fairy reference and that really, really helped for all the mannerisms of a human being. We didn't do any motion capture but we shot a lot of reference for the stick bug and the fairies."

Burrell singles out the appearance of the stick bug as one of the many vfx highlights of the film.

Burrell singles out the appearance of the stick bug as one of the many vfx highlights of the film.

While the filmmakers labored in Spain, they developed a system to get the Cafe team up and running to make the post-production timeline. "Thank god for the Internet!" Burrell enthuses. "Every day we would get dailies uploaded to the FTP site [for the artists] to look at. Also every week, I would also burn a DVD of all the reference I took on set and then we would videotape the turnover with Guillermo every Sunday. I would videotape him watching the Avid and describing what he wanted in a shot. I would burn a DVD of that and a QuickTime of exactly what we were watching on the Avid, so they got all this reference, all this great HDRI stuff and this great stuff from Guillermo saying exactly what he wanted, so there was no misunderstanding. We called the sessions 'GDT Speaks' and put them on the artists' desktop and I said, 'If there is any doubt in your mind of what to do, watch the QuickTime.' It was like having the director over your shoulder."

Pan's ended up recruiting a lot of the top talent at Cafe to collaborate on the shot creation, Burrell admits. "We had between five and ten artists in the early stages and then it got to about 20 right when we got back from Spain and then it ballooned to about 40 at the end. The bulk of the artists were compositors but it was also a heavy CG team with lighting and tding. We mostly used Maya and mental ray. We used XSI for modeling and then some little specific things to help create a certain morphing technique called Shrink Wrap, to make the stick bug change into the fairy. It was pretty elaborate. We used Digital Fusion for compositing and LightWave for the end throne room scene because it was all hard surface stuff and LightWave is great at that."

With the visual wonders abound in the film, Burrell says it's hard picking one favorite sequence they created, but he offers, "There are a couple shots with the stick bug that I am really proud of -- one in the beginning where it crawls around a tree that is phenomenal. It really integrated well and I was really happy with that. Some of the throne room stuff at the end is nice. I am pretty happy with all of it. If I could single one thing out, it would probably be where Ophelia is running into the labyrinth and the walls magically open up for her. She runs to safety into the middle of the labyrinth and they close back up again and that shot was just brilliant and it was done by one of our CG sups here, Akira Orikasa. He just did a great job. It was really magical and had the quality that Guillermo wanted. He nailed it. I was very lucky... And Guillermo is a great motivator and a great communicator. People love doing good for him because he is so proud and makes you proud of the work."

Tara DiLullo 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.

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