For psychological thriller The Uninvited, a director and vfx supervisor team who cut their teeth on commercials make contortionist corpses and milk-turned-blood realistic.
On the line between a psychological thriller and a horror film is where you'll find The Uninvited (opening today from DreamWorks/Paramount), which marks the feature directorial debut of The Guard Brothers. The duo of Tom and Charlie Guard is well known as a commercial directing team, but The Uninvited shows off their storytelling skills, and it introduced them to the visual effects artists at CIS Vancouver.
"Like most commercial directors they have a real sense of framing and art direction," observes CIS Vancouver Visual Effects Supervisor Bruce Woloshyn. "And that, coupled with their ability to tell a story, made it fun. There's some gore in this movie, but the movie's not scary because of the gore. The movie is scary because you're unsure about what's really happening."
In the tradition of The Sixth Sense and A Beautiful Mind, The Uninvited manipulates point-of-view and plays with the audience's perceptions of what's real and what's imagined. Based on a 2003 South Korean horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters, the film largely unfolds at an island waterfront estate. It follows the return home of Anna (Emily Browning) after her release from a psychiatric hospital. She's intent on learning about the circumstances of her mother's death and a troublesome new romance of her father (David Straithern).
"VFX-wise, it's a relatively small picture," admits Woloshyn, a veteran supervisor whose credits include Night at the Museum, Stargate: Atlantis and Smallville. "Visual effects were there to help drive home story points and heighten things a bit."
Woloshyn first met the Guard brothers during principal photography on Bowen Island, British Columbia, and was impressed. "They think aloud in a sense, because they're talking to one another. I had an understanding of the way they saw things because my background includes editing commercials." At the time of shooting, Woloshyn was committed to finishing a television series, so most of the film's on-set supervision was handled by Woloshyn's longtime colleague Steve Hodgson (Vantage Point, The L Word).
"The Uninvited is what I would call a complete compositing movie," Woloshyn observes. "Having been a compositor for a very long time, I felt we could shoot all the parts and do it all in comp. I was more comfortable taking that approach in order to turn things around quickly. Even when you're doing CGI, I'm a huge believer in starting with live action photography. Shoot as much as you can, because it makes the CG that much better."
Woloshyn and his nine-person crew at CIS Vancouver knew from the start that they would be shooting a greenscreen scene showing an actress climbing out onto a rooftop. "It was too dangerous to put the actress on top of the roof of a house that sits on a cliff," he remarks. "So a little section of the roof was rebuilt on a stage. There was a lighting consideration too, because it was a night shot and we wanted to cheat the depth of field so that she stood out a little bit better. Greenscreen was the economical way to do it."
It's also a dramatic moment when she leaves the room and goes out on the roof, so we wanted to use the real actress," Woloshyn adds. "You don't want to do that with a stunt performer or you'd have to shoot it wider."
CIS Vancouver was additionally tasked with putting a helicopter into a POV that they didn't have, and doing sky replacements as well. The latter, says Woloshyn, "Is where the Guard brothers' commercial background comes in. There was one shot where they waited for the light to get better. Then they shot the scene and let the actors go and the light turned even better. So they rolled some more and we combined the multiple takes. That kind of work is not confined to Mr. Lucas!"
A key moment in the film arrives when Anna is sitting in a restaurant, observing a girl seated at the bar holding a glass of milk. The girl turns around and drops the glass, and as it hits the floor the milk turns to blood. Woloshyn explains, "This was a really simple trick because we shot multiple takes at a high frame rate and cleaned the floor a lot. Then we did a fancy articulated split between different plates. We did quite a bit of rotoscoping [using Digital Fusion] because we needed to hold pieces of the shattering glass from the milk pass."
CIS Vancouver's Lead Digital Compositing Artist, Brian Fisher (Changeling, Sin City, The Aviator), cut parts out so that the glass looks like it's the same glass throughout the entire shot. Woloshyn notes, "Then to give us better interaction, we've got some particle enhancement that was built in Digital Fusion. It was a particle system that we could put inside the blood so that the blood splattered properly."
After the directors returned to Los Angeles for editorial, CIS Vancouver did an additional week of visual effects photography on stage, and for this Woloshyn was able to supervise the on-set work. Among the most difficult of the stage work was what he calls "the articulated head turn."
"This was supposed to be in a forest in spring -- but of course it snowed in Vancouver," says Woloshyn. "So in three days they built us a forest on a soundstage. The character Anna is walking though the forest and she comes across these garbage bags. She walks up to have a look, and one garbage bag falls over and the limbs and the head of woman fall out of the bag -- with the head facing straight down. We see this from Anna's POV as she creeps up to have a look. Just then the head spins right around and speaks. It scares the crap out of everybody!" (Think Linda Blair in The Exorcist.)
"We used two actresses," Woloshyn explains. "There is the actual head that does the speaking, which is the actress who plays a recurring character that we see many times. The other actress was a contortionist who could flex her body in ways you just shouldn't! She provided the head and the body, and we basically replaced her head. I shot a series of locked-off plates with the body falling out of the bag. We also shot the head turn so we could get the creases for the neck. Then we removed her face and had the actress turn her head and we did a fast morph. It's really effective."
While most of film was handled in Digital Fusion, this shot utilized Flame, along with the talents of Digital Compositor Simon Ager (Changeling, Tropic Thunder, I, Robot). Woloshyn notes, "When you're working at a proxy res, Flame gives you interactive feedback really quickly. It also has 3D capabilities. You can bring in a model and a mesh and light it. For what we needed, we got it really quickly. I think we got it the first day and a half that we were mucking with it." Noting that the twisted neck in Death Becomes Her helped win ILM a Visual Effects Academy Award in 1993, Woloshyn admits, "I did go back and look at that!"
"We have a pretty big screen, and at 40 feet across minimum, we saw that this shot had the right subtleties and nuances. But it had more to do with Simon's artistry than the software," Woloshyn believes. "I'm lucky to be based at a facility where we're all intertwined in a pipeline that we've developed over the years for a variety of things. And I know the guys who can get me what I need."
There's also a camera move on this shot, which Woloshyn added digitally. "Because the camera creeps up on her, her head is moving downward from the top of the frame before it turns. We had discussions about how we'd put these plates together if we shot every plate with a moving camera. The word motion control scares everyone because of the amount of time it takes. And we only had five days for this photography. So we just framed it and shot a big enough plate. We were shooting with full aperture so we had lots of room at the top and bottom. Then we built displacements in the bag that her body is coming out of so that there's parallax as we move. I've done 2D moves with enough parallax on different objects that you can't tell. On short shots, you can get away with quite a bit and it brings the price of the shot way down."
"One of reasons that we did that was because I wanted to be able to play with the timing and speed at which the camera crept up," Woloshyn continues. This approach would enable the editor to play with the different speeds of the camera move and make sure it would cut with other shots in the sequence.
Woloshyn notes, "One of things that we did for the directors quite a bit was a lot of iterations. Because we used Cinesync and ftp transfers we could send four or five versions with a different size twist of the neck. These guys come from commercial directing, and they're used to seeing umpteen versions and then picking one. So we'd give them a range to work within. By the time we'd sit down for a Cinesync session they usually had already decided on one. This was a typical 21st century production -- we never ever sent anything physical to anybody. We did everything with Cinesync sessions. I never ever had to get on a plane."
Woloshyn adds, "We have a way of sending stuff over an encrypted line that is basically like sending email -- with the picture hiding in it if you know where to click. It's very secure. They could look at things on their laptops. Directors are getting more and more tech savvy, and if you make it easy, they all want to use it."
The film's finale doesn't have anything as obvious as contortionist corpses, but it has a tricky blend of POVs that makes you wonder who is seeing what. Woloshyn's team had to remove stray bits of footage that would undercut the twist ending. "If you watch the movie a second time it's been crafted so that there aren't continuity slips. As with A Beautiful Mind, it's a different movie when you watch it a second time."
Woloshyn's crew even blocked out the finale in a Maya previs so that the Guard brothers would have a blueprint when they filmed it. "We prevised that scene with multiple cameras so Tom and Charlie could shoot their stuff and be sure. When you have an idea that you think is going to work, it's nice if somebody can show you that it WILL work!"
Woloshyn was careful to preserve maximum flexibility for the digital intermediate, which was handled by Nick Monton at Company 3 in Santa Monica. "On most shows," explains Woloshyn, "We'll take the raw scans and make look-up tables so that I can see it with what's basically a neutral color grade. Then when we're done, we'll mathematically invert that back to the raw scan, so that when you provide it for the DI, it looks the same as the rest of the raw scans that the colorist is going to use. We didn't do that on this show because a lot of this work is very dark. I had to make really subtle changes in our theater. We'd send tests to DreamWorks and they'd give me notes. We made sure we didn't lose any data. I didn't want to revert to a raw scan because I needed to make a lot of color correction adjustments in the composites, so it needed to be in some kind of neutral color space that I could see. Then Nick would do a test while they were getting the DI assembled to make sure that it would cut with the rest of the non treated footage, and it worked pretty good."
Woloshyn believes that The Uninvited is another example of how visual effects can be used to tell some very intricate stories. "In the last couple of years I've noticed that vfx are getting so accessible that now we're giving directors every crayon in the box!"
Ellen Wolff is a southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in other publications, including Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the website CreativePlanet.com. Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.