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VFX Legion Brings on the Nightmares in Amazon Prime’s ‘Black Box’

Studio delivers over 200 shots on the latest entry in the ‘Welcome to the Blumhouse’ psychological thriller film anthology; dark story centers on an amnesiac desperate to regain his memory.

VFX Legion recently created over 200 visual effects shots for Black Box, the latest entry in the Welcome to the Blumhouse film anthology that tapped the LA/B.C.-based company’s end-to-end services. The thematically connected series of dark genre movies marks Amazon's first-ever global direct to services deal.

Director/Writer Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.’s psychological thriller tells the story of Nolan (Mamoudou Athie), an amnesiac desperate to return to his former self. Dr. Brooks (Phylicia Rashad) offers to help the main character regain his memory with the Black Box, an experimental device that immerses him in virtual memories of pivotal life events.

Take a look a Legion VFX’s visual effects breakdown reel from the film:

Dylan Yastremski, Head of Production at VFX Legion's British Columbia studio, managed all the film’s effects. VFX Supervisor James David Hattin and Head of Production Nate Smalley oversaw the B.C. studio from Los Angeles, seamlessly interfacing with the director, on-set supervisor, and the company’s team of work-from-home artists based throughout B.C. and the world.

“Close creative collaboration with Emmanuel was critical to bringing his very specific vision to life,” says Hattin. “Working from the director’s original concepts, we delivered a large volume of effects - including some very complicated sequences - in less than four weeks.”

Black Box called for both photorealistic VFX grounded in real world physics, as well as abstract effects that created and heightened nightmarish sequences. The range of digital images includes computer-generated environments, intricate transitions, set extensions, composites, digital removals, and shots requiring rotoscoping, morphing, and matte painting. Foundry’s Nuke and SynthEyes were among the tools used by Legion’s team.

In the film, throughout the procedure involving the Black Box, Dr. Brooks tracks data on medical monitors as electrodes transmit fluxes in her patient’s brain activity.  Guided by the detailed readouts, she controls the Black Box, immersing him deeper into virtual memories and extracting him when vital signs reach dangerous levels. VFX Legion created animated story-driven screen replacements mirroring the look of state-of-the-art medical monitors.

The treatment begins with a computer-generated environment that takes shape as Nolan looks into the Black Box. Artists defined the digital space with CG grid patterns positioned to create the illusion of a three-dimensional space.  A plus sign appears at its center, moving back and forth with increasing speed as it deconstructs into lines that emanate light and exit the environment.

The illuminated bars change shape, outlining faintly visible objects as practical footage reveals the new surroundings with photorealistic clarity. This “safe room” materializes throughout the film, interfacing with environments where events manifested by the Black Box play out. Legion's team animated these cyberspaces into existence using elements created for the “staging area” with 3D tools in After Effects.

The film called for transitional effects with distinct looks that snap Nolan into a series of memories.  For one of the passages, artists merged elements from two greenscreen shots, distorting the images to create a tunnel-like portal that transports the main character to a virtual wedding ceremony.

"While all of the memories have familiar elements, Nolan can't quite make out the faces of people,” says Hattin. “We worked with Emmanuel to come up with this murky, ill-defined look, which we achieved by rotoscoping the faces and replacing them with distorted versions. As the storyline moves forward, a morphing technique was used to gradually restore the faces and reveal the story's chilling twist.”

Legion’s On-Set VFX Supervisor Matthew Lynn worked closely with the director, and Cinematographer, Hilda Mercado, ensuring that the footage captured for the VFX-driven sequences blended flawlessly with the visual effects.

"With the help of previs and mockups, we ironed out concepts and timings for the heavier visual effect sequences,” says Lynn. “The collaboration enabled us to address unanticipated issues during the shoot with creative and technically innovative solutions."

“I couldn't be more impressed with Legion's skills and its team's enthusiasm and commitment to the film,” says Osei-Kuffour Jr. “They went above and beyond, creating visual effects that exceeded my highest expectations. Working with James was an extraordinary experience. He was always accessible, working with me on weekends and late into the night, ensuring tight deadlines were met while never settling - he delivered fresh, captivating visual effects that enhance the film's visual story."

“Legion has created visual effects for several Blumhouse films and television series over the years, and it’s always a great experience,” says Hattin. “Our team enjoyed collaborating with Emmanuel and appreciated how open he was to our ideas.  The director/co-writer brings a fresh perspective to the thriller/sci-fi film genre - and we’re delighted that we had the opportunity to help bring his vision to life.”

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.