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Rodeo FX Enhances Villeneuve’s ‘Enemy’

Digital compositing supervisor Patrick David talks spiders and multiple Gyllenhaals.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Enemy’s Adam and Anthony. All images courtesy of Rodeo FX.

Give people a movie that features Jake Gyllenhaal touching himself and you’re basically guaranteed a turnout.  Thankfully, Enemy has a lot more going for it visually than just a double-dose of one of Hollywood’s most popular leading men.

Denis Villeneuve’s latest oeuvre is an anxious, enigmatic puzzle about a despondent history teacher who discovers his doppelganger is living a completely different lifestyle in the exact same city.  As Adam (Gyllenhaal) tries to locate and confront Anthony (also Gyllenhaal) to make sense of their connection, several surreal, spider-filled sequences play out, amplifying the film’s tense and foreboding atmosphere.  All of these startling images come courtesy of Montreal-based Rodeo FX, which previously collaborated with the director on his 2010 Oscar-nominated film Incendies.  As Digital Compositing Supervisor Patrick David explains, executing the sixty visual effects shots required some creative thinking and led to some surprising discoveries.

Case in point: did you know that given the choice, Jake Gyllenhaal would rather perform opposite a tennis ball than a stand-in?

Gyllenhaal and his scene partner.

“The dreaded tennis balls,” as David calls them, are often a source of frustration for actors performing in VFX scenes.  They are a godsend, however, to VFX artists who are spared having to digitally erase a stand-in in every shot.  “We had the balls on set to represent the other character’s eyeline and just moved them around,” David recalls of the sequence where Adam and Anthony finally meet.  “The thing with double shots is that if the shot isn’t planned carefully it will look fake, you know?  If you can tell that it’s just a simple split screen or the camera’s locked-off and not moving at all, it just won’t look real.  How the cinematography is done really helps sell those shots in the context of the film.”  To make the moment feel organic, motion control cameras were put to use in filming both sides of the sequence.  “All of the audio was also recorded for the retake and would be played back in Jake’s earpiece when he was shooting the B-side, so that he could react properly.”

Things became a bit trickier when time came for Anthony to make physical contact with Adam.  “There’s only one shot where Jake actually touches himself,” he notes, “so that was the only shot that required a double.  His arm dips out of frame and then comes back in, so it’s the trick of using the stand-in’s arm and blending it with Jake’s arm from the right side plate and the left side plate.  I think it was well-planned,” he concludes.  “We don’t have to see them [together] in every shot; we just need to have a few shots to remind audiences that a double is there and after that you don’t really have to bring it up every single time.”

A spider strolling in Toronto.

The arachnid motif, meanwhile, is ever-present throughout the entire picture, requiring a variety of approaches to suit the specific needs of each sequence.  For the aerial views of a spider slowly marching through Toronto, David and his team eschewed the full CGI treatment in favor of using footage of a real spider and extending its legs digitally.  To get it moving slowly, they turned to a technique known as spline warp, “which is a node in Nuke, our compositing package.  It’s a very old-school 2D way of animating by drawing source and destination curves and animating the morph between them.”

The original plate, pre-spider, pre-matte painting.

Rodeo also did extensive matte painting in Photoshop to alter the appearance of Toronto to suit Villeneuve’s vision.  “What Denis wanted to do was skew Toronto slightly into a Metropolis, so they shot these amazing aerial plate of the city on a day with a lot of smog.”  The unplanned weather proved inspiring to the creative team, who used it as a template for the yellowish overcast look of the world in the movie.  “We added some high-rises and buildings as well as construction cranes and made Toronto into a city so big that it might be impossible to find your double there.  The final result kind of reminds me of Beijing,” David notes.

One of the more CGI-intensive portions of the film is the so-called “Spider Lady” shot, which originally featured a nude female model simply walking down a shadowy corridor.  Post-production saw the woman’s face entirely redone to resemble that of a spider.  “It was a full CG model that was modeled and textured and lit here at Rodeo,” David recalls.  “The interesting thing about making that head was that when you think of a spider you don’t really think of the head as much as the eight legs, so it was a bit of a challenge.  Our concept artist Olivier Martin did a lot of work nailing down what that would look like by exaggerating certain features to get the face reading correctly on the screen.  One of our modelers actually had a body of a deceased spider that he would pull out of his desk and look at and pull things apart to see how they fit together as they were making it.  We tried to be really close to reality for that shot.”

The director then came up with a simple idea to help further distort the sense of reality in the scene.  “We worked on the shot for a couple of months until it was almost done, and one day Denis just said, ‘Hey, why don’t we put her upside down?’”  Rodeo rotoscoped Gyllenhaal’s character out of the shot, flipped it and then reinserted him.  “I think it was a really cool decision because you’re not quite sure what you’re seeing.  It’s sort of out-of-focus and it really confuses you even more and makes the reveal that much more surprising.”

The Spider Lady saunters by.

What has already become the film’s most discussed spider sequence required the use of a real live specimen performing in a miniaturized set.  “We had a tarantula wrangler come in and we did a little spider casting session for Denis,” David says with a laugh.  “We sent him a bunch of pictures and his decision was made more on looks than acting ability.  He selected a spider and we used the measurements of the room that they had shot the live action plate in to build a miniature version in our studio.  We had to have the walls the right distance from the ceiling and the windows so we could actually put the spider in there and get interactive lighting.  It was important to Denis that the spider was kind of claustrophobic and too big for the room.”  The sequence was shot in HD at a frame rate of 120 fps to help bring enough detail to light.  “The best way to get a reaction out of him was for the wrangler to blow on the spider.  That would make him move.  We were really picky about choosing the right take, but we also added in some layers of extra movement on top to give more life to the spider.”  David is especially pleased with the way the critter interacts with his environment in the brief shot.  “There’s a lamp on the ceiling which he actually hits.  No one will notice it but I really love that and I was really glad to add that to the shot.”

The most labor-intensive VFX sequence is one David is reluctant to discuss in too much detail, lest he spoil the plot of the film.  We’ll just say it involves a vehicular accident and that Rodeo found some inspiration online.  “We looked at a lot of reference of car crashes, especially these crazy Russian crashes on YouTube.  Apparently Russians like putting cameras on their cars, and we actually found some footage that was quite close to what we wanted from our shot.”  Villeneuve filmed the entirety of the sequence on-location using two cars – one pristine, the other destroyed – and left a gap in the footage for Rodeo to fill.  “On bigger-budget shows they can do what’s called a LiDAR scan, which creates a point cloud of the physical car,” David shares, ”but for this project it was just as simple as having really good onset reference photography from several different angles which allowed our team to create a point cloud.”  They proceeded to make a couple of CG cars in various states of damage and morph between them.  “Our approach was to make it as photo-real as possible…but what really helped us was that Denis was going for a very smoky look with a lot of debris.  Everyone did a great job of combining CG with some live action smoke elements that we shot in our studio.  It’s really a perfect marriage of all these different techniques and good onset photography.”

Pleased as David is with the finished product, he’s quick to bring the focus back to Gyllenhaal’s ability to overcome the technical requirements of the shoot while creating two compelling characters that tie the surreal narrative elements together as a whole.  “What really makes it all work is that Jake’s performance is excellent.  He really makes you believe in it.”

As for understanding the meaning behind all of it…well, that’s something audiences will have to work out for themselves.

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James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.

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