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Framestore Brings Home a Great VFX Report Card on ‘The School for Good and Evil’

The leading visual effects company delivers 328 shots from its Montreal facility, with another 233 from its London facility, including heavy magical element simulations, a swarm of bees transforming into a human, and the wish fish girl, on the Paul Feig fantasy adventure now streaming on Netflix.

When you think of it, heroes and villains must learn their professions somehow. And somewhere. So why not learn such lessons at The School for Good and Evil, under the direction of Paul Feig and tutelage of the nefarious Lady Lesso (Charlize Theron), peaceful Professor Dovey (Kerry Washington), and judicious School Master (Laurence Fishburne)?

Based on the book by Soman Chainani, the film also stars Sophia Anne Caruso, Sofia Wylie, recent Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Flatters, Kit Young, Peter Serafinowicz, Rob Delaney, Mark Heap, Patti LuPone, and Rachel Bloom. It hit theaters last November and is now streaming on Netflix.

After performing a role call for visual effects vendors, Production VFX Supervisors Anelia Asparuhova and Erik Nordby assigned Framestore the heavy effects simulations, magical elements, swarming bees that transform into a human being, and the wish fish girl who emerges from the lake.  The leading visual effects company’s Montreal facility, led by VFX Supervisor Ben Magana, took on 328 shots while colleagues in London produced 233 under the guidance of VFX Supervisor Jonathan Fawkner.

Magical effects made up the bulk of Framestore’s contributions. “Most of our work was to get as nimble as we could and show ideas to the director and visual effects supervisor to make sure we were thinking the same things,” states Magana. “The key was selecting different moments in the edit and saying, ‘This shot is the apex of that situation and that shot is showing what we want do with this magical element.’  Then trying to recreate it without going too far.  We had to make sure that we didn’t assume too much because magic is so subjective.  We had to go step by step showing things and figuring it out with the director and visual effects supervisor.” 

To assist the process, Framestore produced an extensive amount of previs. “We knew what was going on before they were shooting a lot of these elements,” Magana explains. “But in the end, most of the things came out afterwards so there wasn’t much they could account for while shooting other than character placement.” Magical effects had to be created even for the grading system known as “pass and fail.”  “When you do something good at the school little gold flakes form a star and if you fail a huge cloud of smoke forms on top and has a ‘f’ letter in there,” he adds. 

Effects were simulated in Houdini and rendered by proprietary tools.  “The effects artists and TDs had to work closely together to get the right caches and looks because of the number of effects elements that had to be developed,” remarks Magana.  “There was a lot of development time.  The two main things that we had in effects were that they were creatively challenging and used throughout a huge number of shots and sequences.  We had to do the wish fish girl. The characters will interact with the lake, and a school of fish form an image that will be about their wishes or memories.”

Murkiness was required for a believable lake environment. “We did wedges in terms of subsurface scattering to get the right level of murkiness in that water,” notes Magana.  “But also, for the overall look of the fish and how they move, because if you make them too much like a fish, they will never form an image. We wanted to have something that felt realistic and less descriptive.  We described it as if there was a projector on top of the lake and you can see the images in the water.”

In the film, Agatha, who wants to free the wish fish girl trapped in the lake, pulls her out; she transforms from being made of fish into flesh and bone. “In the beginning we had loose concept art,” states Magana.  “We didn’t want to go to a place where the fish were forming the girl.  The fish are on top of the girl, thin out and then reveal the girl. We had the plates but in the end the fish had to become the girl and we had to figure out how scaly fish become a girl in pajamas.”  In creating a 3D arm for the emerging girl, the VFX supervisor shares, “We had a plate of two girls grasping hands in a pool. The hands had to be tracked, and the bottom hand had to be replaced with fish.  On set, they had different spheres for various types of materials.” Anchovies were used as reference. “The fish would bunch up and form the arm and eventually you see the full head and torso, which magically turn into the girl in the plate.” 

In another VFX-filled sequence, a swarm of bees battles a fire demon that resembles a dragon. According to Magana, “The bees push the fire demon onto the ceiling and form a huge mass to trap it in the classroom. Afterwards, the swarm descends to form into Rafal Mistral [the founder of the School for Evil]. The main challenge of the demon was its fire nature.  At first the demon is a fireball flying around the room, which made it tricky to understand the character in the normal process of showing render tables without looking at the fire.  When the bees got involved, the fire had to be toned down; the shape was less important and it was more about the pace, animation, effects simulations, and the balance between them.” 

Determining the bee’s behavior was also a challenge. “They bunched up in a way that is not normal for bees but still had to look like them,” states Magana.  “At the beginning the decision was made to not give away the actor, so we were relying on a human form bee structure.  We had to change in the middle of our planning because at the beginning we were not going to mix between renders and plates for any of those actors and then suddenly we had to.  Because of that, we had to introduce elements that weren’t there before.  For the bees, we wanted to get a silhouette that was loosely a human shape but then they wanted to see the actor beneath those bees, so we had to open places and reveal parts of the plate.  We had to get the tracking of the actor to establish the simulation and started to modify the skin.  We can see bees crawling all over the place pushing the skin out.  We used it as a transitional element between the rendered bees and the plate; that was rolled back where we only had a couple of bees on the edge walking beneath the skin.” 

Rafal Mistral can conjure different forms, such as appearing in front of Agatha as a column of blood.  “We had concept art, but how to get that to perform in multiple shots was a challenge,” remarks Magana. “It required us to go back and forth blocking out different simulations. When we got the additional shots [for the sequence] during the last stage of the show, we had to create this eerie, creepy column without going too far.  A reference was Carrie when she is covered with blood, but that was too gory.  Everything in that sequence is red; the column of blood with a red character and red lighting made it difficult to define the silhouette of what was flesh, blood, the column, and Rafal.  At the beginning we would see the column of blood form the face and [the actor] performing a line.  They did shoot the actor standing on a table in the library with dramatic lighting while saying the line. We were using that as a tracking reference, but the director decided he wanted to see the actor there. We had all the blood dripping around his face and going upwards.  That meant we had to replace a lot of the face with our renders because of the shadow integrations and simulations going around it. The plate is there but it’s also heavily manipulated by us to make sure it was playing along with the simulation.”        

The film’s grand finale features the destruction of the school and its surrounding environment. “The school is crumbling apart, and you see huge chunks of the castle falling into the lake,” remarks Magana.  “There is lots of blood pouring out of the building like in The Shining and black decay going up the walls.  We had huge simulations on top of an enormous environment asset.  Getting a pass of that for setting up the camera to see what we are looking at, and having that in front of the director, was a challenge, as it couldn’t be as quick as we wanted.” 

Overall, the scope of subjective visual effects work that had to be figured out was significant. “Between the bees, anchovies, chocolate desk, and a demon that has to come out of the skin of a character, there were a lot of shots that needed a lot of work, requiring a lot of development with the client,” Magana concludes. “There was also a shortage of visual effects talent, which was a huge thing for us. We tried to put our efforts where it counted so that we progressed without wasting too much time.  Project planning played a huge part on this film.”

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.