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DNEG Revisits Some Old Friends in ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’

Leading VFX studio delivers 430 shots on HBO Max’s long-awaited DC feature redo, picking up where they left off in 2017 on Cyborg, Wonder Woman, and the Flash sequences.

One of the most significant new narratives in HBO Max’s long-awaited Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the origin of Cyborg. And while DNEG handled several key Cyborg scenes, those were just some of the 430 shots and 16 sequences the leading VFX studio created for the film. Led by VFX supervisors Alexander Seaman and Mike Stillwell, and VFX producer Antonella Ferrari, DNEG also worked on the Junction Rescue, where we first meet the Flash’s love interest, Iris West; a fight between Wonder Woman and anarchists reimagined as a frantic and lethal superhero battle; and a full CG build of the Wayne Hanger.

Often referred to as the Snyder Cut, director Zack Snyder’s new version of his infamous DC film project is a 4-hour “redo” of the original 2017 Justice League release that was finished by Joss Whedon, who stepped in after Snyder left the film during editing because of his daughter’s tragic suicide. Under pressure from Warner to lighten the film’s tone and cut down its run-time, Whedon did numerous re-writes and re-shoots. The film was released to disappointing reviews and marginal box office success. Warner and Snyder eventually re-teamed, with a reported $70 million spent on additional re-shooting and visual effects, finally bringing to fans some Earth-saving Justice League action true to the director’s original vision.

Seaman, a CG supervisor on the original 2017 theatrical version, enjoyed the opportunity to revisit and reimagine the project for HBO Max. “It was like an old friend,” he shares. “We tried to get as many of the same artists back as we could. The difference between then and now is that since Justice League, everyone has been promoted to a slightly higher position. The first time around large portions of our work were altered because of a change in direction, so it was nice to pickup literally where we left off.”

With Snyder scrapping everything produced by substitute director Joss Whedon and picking his edit back up from where he left off, old shots and assets had to be researched and de-archived at the various VFX vendors. According to Seaman, “When completing a show, we take a snapshot of everything and where we left it. Retrieving data from tapes in different locations during the pandemic took us a good number of months. The next step was trying to work out what tools have changed since the first production. We’ve changed our rendering approaches and large portions of our pipeline since then, so while the scene files existed, we had to figure out how to make them work for us this time around.  Our goal was to not redo anything that we were halfway through on the original Justice League. We wanted to keep going forward from that.” 

Thankfully, no major modifications were required for Cyborg, as his animation style was already established in the theatrical version, where an onset Ray Fisher was shot in a performance capture suit and subsequently body tracked.  “Because Ray’s proportions weren’t exactly same as Cyborg, we had to go in and manipulate his performance a tiny bit to make it match more closely,” remarks DNEG animation supervisor Ben Anderson.  “We didn’t want to redo anything that we had done before because it was already looking good.”  Damage continuity was not an issue, as DNEG’s focus was on character moments rather than combat. “We modelled and textured Ray in his grey performance capture suit and rendered him as a first pass to make sure that all of our lighting matched,” states Seaman. “Once that rendered body was swapped out for a metal suit, we went to town and started adding contributing lights to make him sparkle… but not like a glitterball.  For all the sets featuring Cyborg, we would build a version in CG and use that to reflect back on him. Or we would do a tight track of Wonder Woman in her costume standing next to him and then use that digital character to reflect in the metal panels.”

Cyborg required an extremely complex character rig. “You can see little bits and pieces moving and a lot of that was in the rig,” notes Anderson. “The thrusters were built into the rig.  You could change how powerful the thrusters were and adjust the length of the flames coming out of them.”  The body could also be transformed to created weaponry.  “Every nut and bolt and panel that made up the weapon needed to be modelled in a way that it slotted back into his body,” Seaman remarks. “As for the [cyber] network that Cyborg is projecting in front of him, we were given a brief of types of things he could control, like missiles, government networks, bank networks, and satellites; we looked for iconography which represented that kind of thing. There is a shot where we tunnel through the eye and go into his own reality. That was handled primarily by our motion graphics team at DNEG.” 

The Junction Rescue features the Flash intervening in a car crash and saving the life of his love interest, Iris West.  “For me, it’s the most fun sequence as there is action, comedy, and visually nice things to work on,” notes Seaman.  “The difficult parts were definitely the retimes. They shot the Flash and Iris West in real-time and everything around him is in slow motion. Iris is performing in slow motion, but none of her clothes or hair were acting the same way; that was 90 percent a digital replacement to give the appearance of a surreal underwater effect. All the while we’ve got the car destruction, lightning bolts, smoke, and debris flying everywhere in slow motion as well.” Iris required some additional subtle animation. “Sometimes we needed to adjust her arms and hand poses from shot to shot,” Anderson says. “When things are floating you don’t want them to look like they have no mass.” Iris’ hair was particularly difficult. “You have to remove her hair from the shot,” Seaman reveals. “It was done up and that did help us out.  It’s one thing to get the groom looking the same as the actress’ but then you have to get the movement right to making it look believable.”

Visual cues became extremely important in conveying that the Flash was moving fast.  “In the scene, the truck hits a hot dog stand, and all the hot dogs, water, and condiments go flying,” says Seaman.  “The mustard and ketchup bottles leave trails.  These are fun gags that tell the audience the Flash is not slow; everything else is slow.”  A real hot dog cart was recreated in CG. “That hot dog cart went through quite a few iterations,” Anderson laughs. “The two of us went back and forth on how it should spin, how far it should spin, and what’s the angle going to be.  We’ve got the excitement of the vehicles crashing and slowing down quite quickly at Flash speed, which is always fun. The challenge comes in trying to find those hero pieces of debris that you can move around, and in showing the arcs of where they come from, feel where the impact originates.  You have to work on it all together because it all flows from one shot to the next.”  Seaman goes on to share that a key Flash visual element helped everything in the scene feel like a cohesive whole. “There’s an aesthetic that happens when the Flash’s lightning is around us and binds everything together,” he says. “Having that blue bright electric tone reflect off objects, buildings, and floors really helped.”

One of Anderson’s personal favorites is the Bailey Brawl, which takes place in a bank and has Wonder Woman fighting a group of heavily armed gunmen. “When you get to do fun action and people fighting, it’s always exciting because you can feel the energy in the shots,” he says. “We were redoing most of that sequence from the original.  We did get a chance to previs it quite early to lockdown the edit a bit more, which helped us to solidify the cuts. We got some live-action shots of the stuntwoman doing as many moves as she could.  We got that body tracked and leaped from there because when you watch Wonder Woman moving fast from bad guy to bad guy, obviously human beings can’t do that; that’s when we took over there.  Also, grabbing the bad guys and throwing them around is something we don’t get to do very often. There were a lot of head hits.  We gathered a lot of reference of people falling off things.  From a technical standpoint, anytime you transition from body track into animation can be tricky. You don’t want to lose too much of the performance; you try to make sure it blends well.  There is a lot of contact.  It becomes quite complex.”

In the sequence, three shots became one. “We didn’t do ourselves any favors doing the previs on the Bailey Brawl because there were three separate shots of Wonder Woman throwing someone, then turning from one spot to another, then throwing a gun, kicking, and on,” Seaman chuckles. “Someone down the line suggested, ‘Why don’t we stitch two of those shots together to make one motion? Then someone even smarter down the line said, ‘Why don’t we stitch all three together?’”

“The first step was to figure out how to get a camera move working between the three,” Anderson explains. “Continuity needed to be maintained. We had to choreograph where everyone was going to be. You don’t want to see a bad guy on his back and the next shot he’s on his face.”  Seaman reveals that digital doubles were not used, noting “it was a lot of arm or head or body replacements rather than a whole digital double throughout, which in some instances would have been easier but not as convincing.”

The Wayne Hanger was overhauled to match Snyder’s new vision. “The actors primarily shot on greenscreen with a few props around them,” remarks Seaman. “Then we had to build this huge aircraft hanger which contained all his fun toys like the Flying Fox, Batmobile, missiles, weapons, and spare tires.  There is a scene where Alfred Pennyworth uses it as his lab when he is building some of the Bat suit weapons. It’s an extremely complicated, huge environment which probably goes unnoticed because you’re looking at the actors. There are a few stunning establishers where we see Cyborg coming into it for the first time. There is also a big reveal of the Flying Fox which looks good.”

Much of the sequence focuses on the Justice League discussing their plan to attack Steppenwolf and prevent the synchronization of the Mother Boxes. According to Seaman, “The way it was filmed was using two continuous cameras going around them.  You would get these plates of cameras moving and a grip holding a greenscreen behind the character that moves with them. We had to replace the travelling greenscreens.”

“The hardest challenge at a technical level was getting everything back to where we were from an archive project four or five years ago, which was incredible,” Seaman says. “Cyborg looked great the first time, so we only made a few minor improvements.”  Creating Cyborg’s digital mindscape was a difficult animation task. “It was only three shots, but we had a bull and bear attack each other; they’re both standing up,” states Anderson. “To sell the weight and the ferocity of the whole thing that was quite challenging. You can find a surprising number of bulls trying to lift things with their heads and attacking cars on the Internet. Trying to smash two bits of reference together that you wouldn’t normally see together required talented animators. They were bronzed statues and when the bear smashes the bull, the bull’s face pixelates, disintegrates, and comes back together.  Effects did a great job.”  

“I saw a few trailers recently showing the Bailey Brawl, and given it’s been a couple months since I’ve seen it, it does look impressive,” Seaman says. “And it’s a little bit darker than people are expecting. I’m quite excited for people to see Wonder Woman having a bit of a mean streak, which they are not too familiar with.”  Anderson agrees with his colleague, concluding, “I would say the Bailey Brawl as well.  It’s a fun sequence. Lots of high energy. Lots of action.  Lots of challenges. And it’s a bit darker.  It’s not often that you get to do stuff that kind of crazy!”      

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is directed by Snyder, with a screenplay by Chris Terrio, story by Terrio & Snyder and Will Beall, based on characters from DC and Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The film’s producers are Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, with executive producers Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Wesley Coller, Jim Rowe, Curtis Kanemoto, Terrio and Ben Affleck. The film stars Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Willem Dafoe, Jesse Eisenberg, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, and J.K. Simmons.

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.