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Tinkering with a Spy Classic

Framestore's Christian Kaestner debriefs us about the reworking of John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with director Tomas Alfredson.

Director Tomas Alfredson wanted to maintain the filmic look for his period spy film, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. All images courtesy of Framestore.

For his first English-language film, director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) opted for a gritty, rain-sodden, strip-lighted London for his reworking of John Le Carre's acclaimed '70s Cold War mystery, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In keeping with a claustrophobic aesthetic, Alfredson recruited Framestore (under the onset supervision of Christian Kaestner) to augment the atmosphere with period detail and subtle enhancement. That is, apart from a flaming owl. I spoke with Kaestner about this wonderful creative opportunity.

Bill Desowitz: What was it like working with director Tomas Alfredson on his first English-language film?

Christian Kaestner: Despite Tinker being Tomas' first English-language film, I found him very pleasant to work with as well as very precise in putting his vision into words. He was very clear in describing the shots and scenes that needed visual effects work. Tomas was always very open to discussing different options of execution for a certain shot, which allowed us to ensure we would be able to put his vision into pictures, whilst making the most out of the visual effects budget.

BD: How did you approach his gritty vision of a London that no longer exists?

CK: Firstly, I would like to give credit to not only Tomas Alfredson and Hoyte Van Hoytema (DoP), but also the entire art department and production design team for the extra ordinary achievement and attention to detail. In very early production meetings we learnt that Tomas and Hoyte had decided to scan the entire movie at 4K resolution in order to maintain every bit of grain detail and avoid pixilation of the grain. So we knew from the beginning that we had to pay extra attention to deliver believable and invisible visual effects.

Luckily, we were able to spend quite some time here at the London set, where we could take plenty of reference images from the outstanding production design, as well as shoot grain samples for the various different grains used for filming. Additionally, being involved so early on in the process, allowed us to plan and account for any additional plates that we needed to shoot. We tried to shoot as many visual effects plates as possible on the same stock as the movie was shot on, which allowed us seem-less integration. And as I said earlier, working directly with Tomas, gave us the opportunity to make the most out of each shot.

Car shots posed one of the biggest challenges for the production.

BD: Talk about enhancement of the MI6 headquarters and HQ.

CK: London, by its nature has quite a few places which are period and in well maintained. Tomas chose a building in Kensington, the Blythe house, which provided some of the interior as well as exterior locations for the MI6 headquarters. Our main task here was to extend the existing courtyard, so that the MI6 building could be fitted into it by our artists. Again here, architectural period details and grittiness were key to establishing the look of these shots. During the tech recess, we were able to work out camera moves and angles, so that paint work for eliminating modern day features could be kept to a minimum and we could spend our time and efforts into making a believable MI6 headquarters exteriors.

Most of the MI6 interior scenes, however, were filmed on a single floor studio space here in London, which gave Tomas and the production designers full control over the set. The space was dressed to be the 5th floor for several weeks and then altered to be dressed as the fourth or third floor. One shot in particular was tricky as we were on one floor, looking down into the next, which meant we had to shoot the B plate (one floor down) several weeks later than we shot the A plate (on the floor). We decided to go for a non-motion control shoot, as we felt confident that if we shot if right that we could achieve merging the two plates together by regular tracking and projection set-ups.

BD: How did you handle the car shots in London and the English countryside?

CK: I believe the car shots were definitely amongst the hardest tasks we had to tackle. The plates with the actors were shot against greenscreen and stationary cars and then the beginning of this year we ventured out to shoot the background plates. One of the crucial elements to this was to shoot the background plates with several cameras at the same time. Firstly, we had to make sure we had enough coverage so we set up two cameras with overlapping field of view in the reverse direction of the plate and one wide angle lens facing the opposite direction for reflection mapping. In post, we had to get good tracks for each of the plates; the reflection plate wasn't actually that crucial, but the tracks on the A plate and the two overlapping cameras had to be fairly good to be able to merge all the plates together. In the end it was a big compositing task to combine all the elements and make the shots believable.

Alfredson and DoP Hoyte Van Hoytema uses of 4K plates made Framestore's job easier.

BD: Talk about the flaming owl and how that effect was done.

CK:

For the flaming owl shot, again we decided to not over complicate matters and stayed away from digital creature animation and digital effects as much as we could. By having direct influence on how we wanted to approach this shot, we were able to plan this shot into the detail. In the end, we went for shooting every element as a separate element. Filming children or animals is hard enough to begin with, so planning a shot that children and animals was quite some challenge. We decided that the owl, which actually was one of the owls from the Harry Potter movies, was the most unpredictable and we shot the owl pass first, which established timing for the rest of the plate, at least for the time when the owl is on screen. Even this was split up into two passes: one towards camera and one pass away from camera. We then shot plates for smoke elements, the children and Jim Prideaux's plate. And it was an amazing team effort from animal trainer to children and Mark Strong as Prideaux to get the timings right and make this shot to appear as one.

BD: Overall, what tools did you use on this one and what made the experience satisfying and distinctive?

CK: We used our standard tools such as Nuke, Maya and various tracking software in order to complete these shots and probably the largest technical challenge was the fact it was a 4K resolution show, which meant we had to deal with four times the data compared to a regular show, but these days the tools are getting better at handling large amounts of data, so work speed was still bearable.

What made this project particularly satisfying and distinctive? Well, I personally really enjoyed the direct involvement and the on-set experience. Having such short ways of communication to the director and the DoP certainly made it easier for us to get the most out of the shots, references and various plate elements. I personally feel we were able to optimize our work and get the most out of the visual effects budget.

Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication next year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.