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Union VFX Shares ‘Poor Things’ VFX Breakdown Reel

Studio creates ‘authentic artificiality’ for Yorgos Lanthimos’ BAFTA winning, Oscar-nominated feature starring Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe and Ramy Youssef.

Union VFX has shared a breakdown real demonstrating the company’s outstanding contributions to Yorgos Lanthimos’ BAFTA winning, Oscar nominated feature, Poor Things. From Element Pictures for Searchlight Pictures, the film stars Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, and Ramy Youssef. It is written by Tony McNamara and based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Alasdair Gray.

The plot focuses on Bella Baxter, a young Victorian woman brought back to life by the unorthodox Dr. Godwin Baxter. Hungry for the world, Bella runs off on cross-continent adventures with debauched lawyer Duncan Wedderburn and, in time, grows steadfast in her stand for equality and liberation.

Described by Union VFX, Poor Things embraces “authentic artificiality like an old Hollywood production, blending this classical sensibility with the film’s more fantastical, science-fiction-driven aesthetic to truly revolutionary results.”

These surreal settings were crafted from Yorgos Lanthimos’ vision in partnership with production designers James Price and Shona Heath, cinematographer Robbie Ryan, and the Union VFX team, led by their creative director, Simon Hughes, and VFX producer Tallulah Baker, who were involved in the film from the earliest stages of pre-production.

Watch Union VFX’s Poor Things breakdown reel:

“VFX are integral to the story throughout and the work and has pushed creativity in filmmaking, raising the bar in every way, particularly in terms of surrealism, beautifully creating the bizarre, eerie, and sometimes ludicrous,” commented Hughes. “This really was an incredible film to be involved in, and we are blown away by the result. It’s a testament to the unrelenting hard work of the whole Union crew and, of course, the genius of Yorgos.”

The studio shared a descriptive breakdown of work and challenges met by its team:

The creation of this fanciful place relied on a wide variety of complex and technical VFX that, whether subtle or obvious, fell seamlessly into the weird and wonderful world. To facilitate the numerous techniques involved, Union VFX designed multiple workflows specifically for the creative and diverse VFX required throughout the feature.

The size, scope, and breadth of the film's production begins in a beautifully crafted but largely self-contained mansion set, which increasingly expands throughout the film as Bella Baxter furthers her journey of discovery. Bella’s journey takes her to London, Paris, Lisbon, and Alexandria.

Adding to the complexity and challenges for the VFX team was the decision to shoot on film in a combination of both color and black and white with periodic use of fisheye lenses, which was especially the case in creating environment extensions.

Also check out this series of video clips and a trailer from the film:

LED Screens

Tim Barter was Union’s on-set VFX supervisor during the shoot in Budapest, where 11 giant (70m x 90m) wrap-around LED screens were employed to project some of the film’s environments virtually during filming.  

The sky and ocean environments used artist Chris Parks’ work as reference. The team created CG ocean simulations and renders designed to work as 50-second clips at 24K, 11 accompanying DMP skies with added cloud movement and additional stylistic moving atmospheric effects.

This use of LED backdrops harks back to the cinematography of the 20s and 30s, giving the actors something to act against that’s not a green screen. This approach also provided beautiful reflections and a more impressive final result.

Miniatures & Environments

The decision to use miniatures was deliberate in terms of the film and the VFX environments’ look. According to the studio, ensuring the scale of CG water in relation to the scale of the miniatures was challenging - especially when combined with live-action shots on set.

The Alexandria environment involved establishing shots that pull out as wide as possible. The Union team used lidar scans of the miniatures as a starting point for this fully CG environment that includes CG water, sky, and palm trees, as well as a fully CG boat, a CG cable car, and a lot of FX simulation to enhance the atmosphere, including dust and chimney smoke.

The London environment was shot with an 8mm lens, so it is particularly stylized. The movement in the sky had to reflect the ocean with water displacement and undulation. Tower Bridge was created as a miniature, as were the London rooftops referenced 1950s filmmaking, with various period signs of life added, including chimney smoke elements and fireworks to match the look of the film. This environment also required the creation of CG Zeppelins.

The Paris environment, shot as part of the studio build in Budapest, was enhanced in VFX with the addition of a more surreal CG sky and associated elements. The Lisbon environment also was shot on an 8mm lens. The set was extended in CG, again with very stylized skies and the film’s signature surreal look.

Alfie’s mansion was also a miniature within a fully CG environment that required a considerable amount of garden detail covering a multitude of shrubs and greenery to create the impressive, gritty outside space.

Hybrid Animals

Another less ordinary element of the Poor Things world is the hybrid animals created by doctors' experimentation. These quirky creatures are present throughout the film, wandering around the grounds like barnyard creatures, reflecting the 1920s look of the film, movement, and cinematography.

There are seven different hybrids in the final film, but the VFX process involved the creation of many more until the final seven were selected.

The director wanted to try to find as much in-camera and 2D solution-based approach as possible to embrace the random physical nuances of the animal movements, which are inherently difficult to capture in CG. Union’s solution was to over shoot, coming back with multiple takes and multiple animals, then testing the different combinations to see which animals and movements worked well when combined.

“It started with a series of test shoots with an animal trainer, which narrowed down the selection prior to the second unit shoot, as some animals just didn’t want to behave at all,” explained Hughes. “When it came to combining them, some proved more difficult than others due to a combination of their independent movements, the camera moves, and distorted lenses.

“There was a significant degree of rebuild and some CG was used to help with the joins,” he continued. “3D scans of the animals were used to help us align the different elements and create the textures and scarring where they join together. The scar designs were based on paint over concepts to preserve the naturalistic movement of the real animals while still creating a more fantastical layer of 'strangeness' in keeping with the film's tone.”

There’s also a Frankenstein moment in the film when Bella Baxter is brought back to life by the doctor. It required a large amount of power, electricity, lightning treatments, and sparks. These were complex and involved a lengthy process to ensure they fit the look of the film.

The film premiered at the 80th Venice International Film Festival in September, winning the acclaimed Golden Lion, and was released in U.S. theatres December 8, 2023, and in the U.K. on January 12, 2024.

Alongside Poor Things nominations and accolades, Union’s VFX work received nominations for Best Visual Effects at the 2024 BAFTAs and Critic's Choice Awards. The team’s work also made the shortlist for Best Visual Effects at the 96th Academy Awards.

Source: Union VFX

Debbie Diamond Sarto's picture

Debbie Diamond Sarto is news editor at Animation World Network.