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Framestore Delivers Dazzling VFX in Robert Zemeckis’ ‘Welcome to Marwen’

Creative studio’s advanced motion-capture technology and new pipeline for integrating live-action with CG dolls help director visualize true story of photographer Mark Hogancamp’s recovery from a vicious hate crime. 

In the latest feature from Academy Award-winning director Robert Zemeckis, Welcome to Marwen, Framestore delivered one of the film’s key early sequences, with VFX supervisor Romain Arnoux overseeing close to 100 shots. The film is shortlisted for this year’s Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and has also garnered three VES Award nominations, including Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature.

Welcome to Marwen tells the true story of photographer Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), who loses his memory in a vicious attack. In an attempt to heal himself and reclaim his life, Hogancamp creates a meticulously-crafted fictional town called Marwen inhabited by a cast of dolls that include heroic alter-ego ‘Hogie’ and representations of the women in his life.

The distinctive story required a thoroughly unique approach, and the film delivers a feast of cinematic visuals unlike anything seen before as the action switches between Hogancamp’s day-to-day life and the dazzling world of Marwen.

Kevin Baillie, the film’s overall VFX supervisor, engaged Framestore to achieve technical specificities of the film’s first scene, from recreating a dramatic plane crash to bringing Marwen’s inhabitants to life. “Baillie explained the process - that we had to use the production camera to project faces onto CG dolls - and I was seduced, because I knew there was no pipeline that would do this,” says VFX supervisor Romain Arnoux. “I had never seen a project like this before.”

Framestore’s pipeline consisted of animation files going straight to lighting, where artists extrapolated from the setups used on the motion-capture stage to create credible exterior lighting that matched the live-action. Shots then went to compositing, where the team performed de-aging and completed the integration of the live-action and CG components. Framestore’s pipeline was tweaked in that it allowed for back and forths between tracking and compositing departments to ensure high-quality tracking.

Using advanced motion-capture technology, Framestore turned the film’s stars into realistic-looking dolls. At the beginning of the film, Zemeckis wants the audience to be tricked - he doesn’t want them to think the dolls are actually being filmed, or that the story is taking place in a doll-like world. To create the perfect hybrid, Framestore’s artists projected 75% of the actors’ faces onto their respective dolls. As soon as the plane crashes, the audience is introduced to a fully doll-like world, where only Steve Carell's mouth, eyes and part of the chin is preserved to achieve the desired plasticized look.

“Because we only had a texture from one camera point-of-view to project on the doll, we had to be perfectly aligned,” Arnoux noted. “However, there was always some slight topology variation between the doll’s face and the actor’s face. We used custom tools to calculate the disparities and realign the face, but it wasn’t easy -- most of the time, the tracking team had to do it by eye.”

A key moment was Hogie’s dramatic plane crash, which saw Framestore develop a digital P-40 Warplane (based on photos of Creation Consultants’ miniature) and building the plane’s cockpit from scratch. “We created a hybrid asset,” says Arnoux. “The geometry is based on the one-sixth-scale plane, but we used a lot of full-scale textures. The animators recreated the plane as if it were a full-size aircraft.”

Flying at 250 mph, the plane covered a lot of ground during the film’s aerial opening sequence, where roughly 20 miles of northern European landscape was laid out in full CG. The effects team filled the sky with scattered debris emanating from the plane, which was also simulated at full-scale. When the aircraft crashes into the ground, the crumpling foliage, churned-up mud and flames were all brought to life in what was an almost entirely digital shot.

According to Arnoux, “Our goal was for the audience to immerse themselves in a world that’s imaginary but rooted in reality. Being able to bring these two sides of Hogancamp’s life together in such a unique way was absolutely amazing.’’

Source: Framestore