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'Sweeney Todd': There Will Be VFX

Tara DiLullo Bennett goes behind the vfx scenes of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to catch the Tim Burton vibe.

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If ever there were a musical tailor-made for the twisted, Goth-inclined tastes of director Tim Burton, then surely it would be Stephen Sondheim's equally dark and twisted musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. While it's certainly a departure for Burton to adapt a stage-originated musical for the big screen, Sweeney Todd does manage to incorporate some of the director's signature themes such as death, lost love, the exploration of social status, absent parents and the hero as outsider. Plus, Sweeney Todd also happens to have Burton's penchant for horror and the macabre conveniently sewn into its DNA as the story revolves around a 19th century barber (Johnny Depp) so bent on revenge for the grievous travesties in his life that he murders people in his chair and gives the flesh to his landlady (Helena Bonham Carter) to bake into meat pies. Ah, yes, it's quite the perfect Burton playground.

Luckily for The Moving Picture Co. (MPC) of London, where Burton now resides, he hired the hot visual effects studio to help transform the stages of Pinewood Studios into the inky, craggy streets of a much-darker London of the past. Digital Effects Supervisor Gary Brozenich talks to VFXWorld about the challenges of making the director's vision come to life so that the virtual environments and nastier vfx shots in Sweeney Todd look entirely seamless.

Tara DiLullo Bennett: MPC has long worked with Tim Burton on previous projects, so was it just a given that your team came to work on Sweeney Todd?

Gary Brozenich: MPC has a long working relationship with Tim, including Big Fish, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and his Killers video. Chas Jarrett was the production vfx supervisor (on Todd) and he and I had a long working relationship at MPC, where he was a sup for many years. I think it was the combination of those relationships that made Tim comfortable that we could deliver what he needed for Todd.

TDB: How was it working with Tim on this project?

GB: As we are image-makers by trade, it is always great to work with a strong visual director. Tim is also very familiar with the medium and us as a company, which always helps. Also, the whole team was very excited about the project. We all saw it as a great chance to work with him on this outrageously black story, which posed such a great creative fit to his visual style. Tim also gave us a lot of room to participate in the visual development of the environments we created, but his "big picture" view of the film, how it all cut, its overall look and mood was very strongly guided by him.

TDB: What does he ask of a vfx house and, in return, how involved is he in your process since he's all about the visuals?

GB: There was some working and reworking of shot layouts and some concepts at various stages, but the visual feel of the film was clear from the start. As we were never intending to do very obvious FX work, we needed to fit in with the tone and beat of it all, no matter how comprehensive our content in the shot. In that way, [Production Designer] Dante Ferretti's subtly stylized set designs were the obvious present and clear guide [for us].

TDB: Most people will just focus on the practical effects in Sweeney because of the gore and blood, but Burton always adds a digital level to all his films. So what was his plan in merging the two for this adaptation?

GB: We did augment some of the blood work in the film and cleaned up a few bits of rigging, but the vast majority of it was in camera. It looks great! The special effects team did a great job and spent a long time prepping, and it really paid off. There were a few shots where Tim wanted more ability to add grace and control to the forms made by spilled blood and we were able to help there.

TDB: Was Tim's goal to only have seamless, invisible vfx? If not, what were the key elements and sequences you had to plan and create?

GB: There are always moments, particularly in period films, where you know that a scene would not be possible without vfx content. But there are a lot of moments in Sweeney Todd that I hope the audience has no idea they are looking at a CG environment. In that sense, we were aiming for seamless work. The imagery is also very much about Tim's visual style, which can push some boundaries of reality, so seamless, also, meant not jarring with the visual style of the whole of the film. Our primarily concern was the creation of digital sets and environments. The whole production was shot on stages, which ranged from full on builds that only required a top up where the build hit the lights, to a set extension where the street required views beyond the limits of the stage. In some cases, the actors were shot on entirely green stages and we created the entirety of their surroundings. In one case, two of the principles walk down some stairs, through a gate, across a street and stop for a chat in front of a pub. The only practical element is the dressed floor that they're walking on, and the other performers on stage. They even brush up against the CG pub as they walk by.

TDB: Did you have to previs a lot of your settings?

GB: Yes, there was a small previs team in place from Nvizage throughout pre-production and on into the shoot. On certain shots, it was really instrumental and drove a lot of what was filmed. There was one shot, in particular, where we fly through the city at a real pace, which is essentially a full CG shot, with moco elements for the people. The previs drove this from the start. On others, it may have just allowed Tim to explore some ideas before rocking up on the day. It was rare that the previs was literally shot, as is the norm, but it's a very effective pre-production tool, as it can help raise issues creatively and technically that may have only come up too late when the cameras are about to roll. In that sense, a lot of the work was technical previs to inform the builds of the greenscreen stages.

TDB: What kind of vfx did you create for the film and what was the total shot count?

GB: We did a variety of work from some blood work as mentioned, a large number of digital sets and environments, some very small, but very funny CG creatures: roaches, rats, etc. We also did a few splendidly horrific human burning shots near the end. In total, we did over 300 shots of varying complexity for the film.

TDB: What was asked of MPC to grow or morph as production continued?

GB: As in any production, things will crop up as the shoot progresses. The main changes really occurred in terms of shot count in certain areas that shrank, but were usually very swiftly filled with requirements from other arenas that we didn't see coming. No great shocks, though.

TDB: Did the break in production [due to the illness of Johnny Depp's daughter] affect your team's work at all? Did you get breathing room or were you just asked to do more to fill the gap with productive time?

GB: The break was positive for us in the creative sense that it gave us more time to prep work for Tim. The shoot schedule was very full on and the original post period was very tight. This made access to TB's time hard to achieve. So, in a way, it did both things. It gave us some creative breathing room and made for very productive time as we headed into post as a result.

Because Sweeney Todd was filmed on a soundstage, all the London backdrops needed to be created in the computer. 

TDB: How much time from bid to picture lock did you have to create your pieces?

GB: The whole show lasted about 10 months internally, 11 if you count a few test shots. Post was about four to five months. Some shots/environments required up to six months of work, others were done in weeks.

TDB: What systems and software did you use?

GB: Maya, PRMan, Shake, Photoshop and a host of in-house developments: most specifically, software and plug-ins written for the purpose of space and object recreation based on photography.

TDB: How many artists were on the project?

GB: The team was between 50 to 70 artists throughout the shoot and post period.

TDB: When all is said and done, what sequence or element is your favorite in the film?

GB: Eek, my favorite? It's the truly invisible effects shots and sequences that I like best. They are also usually the hardest. There's a few shots mixed into sequences we did that I know no one will question their realistic integrity. They're my personal favorites.

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 1-6.

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