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Tired Eyes of the 'Universe'

Bruce Shutan reports on how Beatles musical, Across the Universe, proved a psychedelic challenge for vfx artist Peter Crosman.

Months of discussion were required just to ensure that the right creative decisions would be made on Across the Universe, the unusual feature film musical set to 33 Beatles songs. All images © Revolution Studios.

While illustrating sex, drugs and rock 'n roll might seem like a dream job to the average visual effects artist and welcome break from the increasingly mundane fare of explosions and car crashes, it was no walk in the park for vfx designer Peter Crosman and his crew on Revolution Studios' Across the Universe.

Months of discussion were required just to ensure that the right creative decisions would be made on the unusual feature film musical set to 33 Beatles songs, which opened in limited release on September 14 and wider release nationally on September 21. Faced with a relatively short pre-production period of about seven weeks for what Crosman considered to be a fairly complicated project proved some of the most intense yet satisfying time spent on the picture.

Director Julie Taymor frowned upon the look of previsualization imagery and storyboards, which made it difficult for Crosman to determine the shot content and order. Moreover, it was rather chaotic shooting in more than 50 locations in 60 days, much of it in the hustle and bustle of New York City.

"Coordinating the very concrete physical demands of high-end, choreographed theatrical performance and the more plastic world of visual effects required a degree of patience and flexibility not typically required for more standard visual effects work," Crosman reports from the set of his current film, Bolden!, in Jackson, La., where he finished a few establishing shots after wrapping production in North Carolina.

Vfx designer Peter Crosman was challenged with a short pre-production period and a director who disliked previs, making it difficult to determine the shot content and order. 

Between the release of Across the Universe and 14 months of Cirque du Soleil's Love in Las Vegas, the public is reminded how four lads from Liverpool set a gold standard for pop music that endures nearly half a century after they took the world by storm.

Described in the production notes as "gritty, whimsical and highly theatrical," the film defies most musicals by building a story around songs rather than simply inserting performances into key points along the way.

Combining the film's high-end, choreographed theatrical performance with visual effects required patience and flexibility not typically needed for more standard visual effects work. 

Taymor, whose credits include Frida, Titus and the smash-hit Broadway musical The Lion King, carefully waded through more than 200 Beatles songs to tell a 1960s-style love story against the backdrop of anti-war protests, mind exploration and rock 'n roll that mimed those turbulent times.

Among several key characters whose first names are part of Beatles folklore: a Liverpool dockworker named Jude, played by Jim Sturgess, (Hey Jude), who falls for an American blonde named Lucy, played by Evan Rachel Wood (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds). Others include Lucy's brother, Max (Maxwell's Silver Hammer), their ambiguously lesbian friend, Prudence (Dear Prudence), and the charismatic Dr. Robert (Doctor Robert). Lucy and Max were loosely based on Taymor's older brother and sister.

Crosman's biggest challenge was shooting multiple fantasy sequences to suit Julie Taymor's inclination to push the fantastic as far as possible.

From Fantasy to Flexibility

Taymor and her below-the-line creative team of cinematographer Bruno DelBonnel, choreographer Danny Ezralow and production designer Mark Friedberg, along with producers Rudd Simmons in New York and Charles Newirth at Revolution, recruited Crosman as the principal vfx supervisor.

With 55 people listed on IMDB as having worked visual effects on this film, Crosman says it was much smaller than most vfx-driven projects. "But each of the sequences had very unique artistic and technical demands that required the kind of allocation to many companies that is more typical of a large-scale vfx film," he adds.

A key assist goes to Gunnar Hansen, whose trippy color palette helped power a psychedelic-party sequence featuring U2's Bono as Dr. Robert in a spirited cameo singing I Am the Walrus. Both Crosman and Hansen are affiliated with the Montreal-based FX Cartel. Tony Mabin came on board during post-production to assist Kyle Cooper's Prologue Films in Los Angeles, which had worked closely with Taymor on other projects and figures prominently in some of the film's graphic-animation sequences.

The lengthy circus-like performance of Mr. Kite looks simple in terms of compositing but in reality, it was the most complex piece of film that involved more than 900 layers that blended animation and live action. 

Crosman's biggest challenge was shooting multiple fantasy sequences in a manner that was open-ended enough to satisfy Taymor's "inclination to push the fantastic as far as possible without imposing strict measures that make it possible to finish the work seamlessly and economically." Put another way, he needed to be flexible enough for every department to make its contribution and still deliver the collectively planned vision.

The old axiom about some things not always what they appear to be was borne out during a lengthy circus-like performance of Mr. Kite, which was simple in terms of compositing but far-and-away the most complex piece of film that involved more than 900 layers that blended animation and live action.

Psychedelic Inspiration

Crosman is a huge fan of Beatles music and always loved the imagery that came out of the 1960s -- an inspiration of his youth. As such, he's keenly drawn to realizing the kind of dream imagery on the big screen that blurs the definition of reality.

L.A.-based Eden Films created the breathtaking tableau of a staged ritual in which soldiers in their underwear carry the Statue of Liberty.

One such example unfolded when, upon registering for the U.S. Army draft to fight in Vietnam, Max was spooked by a series of Uncle Sam posters mouthing the words to Want You So Bad. Carls Fine Films, a boutique CGI house in San Francisco, used precise 3D character animation done in XSI to develop a technique of texture mapping overlapped brush strokes onto the distended figure of a CG Uncle Sam.

It was immediately followed by a creepy medical-exam montage with an elaborate choreographed dance number executed by Prologue, which segmented snippets of photography in a 3D matrix of transforming boxes. L.A.-based Eden Films created the breathtaking tableau of a staged ritual carrying of the Statue of Liberty by soldiers in their underwear, thanks to a plate of the soldiers walking on top of a large scale miniature jungle backed by a huge blue screen.

Another dreamy sequence involved what Crosman termed "a flight of fantasy" during the performance of Dear Prudence, with the walls of a Greenwich Village apartment shared by the main characters falling away and the living space rising up over a blue sky as the landlord cajoles a mournful Prudence to leave the bedroom where she had been barricaded over unrequited (and repressed) love and lust.

The dazzling techniques used in renditions of I Am the Walrus and Dear Prudence blended frames by advancing the imagery that occurs at regular five to eight frame intervals with the "present" image. "Roto cleanup and artistic choice of imagery are still important to getting great results," he observes.

With 55 members on the visual effects team, it was much smaller than most vfx-driven projects. Each sequence had very unique artistic and technical demands that are more typical of a large-scale vfx film. 

Cooper developed much of the initial graphic design for compelling bookend sequences involving the use of newspapers: the first occurring early on when headlines were swept into the tide during the playing of Helter Skelter and the second toward the end of the film when a recently deported Jude returned to his job on the docks and read about slain war protestors -- with an image of her blowing apart at the spectacular crescendo of A Day in the Life. Crosman says Prologue executed both sequences "with total compositing force and great labor."

At the end of the day -- and his life on this project -- Crosman says Taymor's inexperience working closely with vfx created challenges of its own. But ultimately, he was pleased by their mutual satisfaction with the project's outcome.

And in an amusing aside, he sheepishly admits that "it didn't hurt having one of the assignments requiring the fivefold replication of Salma Hayek as a mini-skirted nurse seductress for the veteran's hospital fantasy."

Perhaps all you need is love after all.

Bruce Shutan, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, has written for several entertainment publications and websites, including Daily Variety, Weekly Variety, emmy, the 55th Annual Emmy Awards program, Below the Line News and Film Score Monthly.

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