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Framestore VFX Takes Flight on ‘Rebel Moon: Part One – A Child of Fire’

VFX supervisor Bob Winter and his teams created the Bennu, a mythical winged, griffin-like creature based on animals including an eagle and lion, the Harmada/Nemesis fight, and the epic 20-minute third act Gondival battle, delivering 580 shots on the first installment of Zack Snyder’s two-part science-fantasy, now streaming on Netflix. 

For Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, Framestore VFX Supervisor Bob Winter and his team created a rather nasty looking zombie tiger. For Snyder’s latest action adventure, the first of his two-part sci-fi thriller, Rebel Moon: Part One – A Child of Fire, Winter had his work cut out for him even more. As the lead visual effects vendor on the film, Framestore delivered 580 shots spread across facilities in Montreal, Vancouver, and Mumbai. In addition to handing the third act’s epic 20-minute battle in Gondival, Framestore collaborated with Production VFX Supervisor Marcus Taormina on creatures featured in the mythical griffin-like Bennu flight and Harmada/Nemesis fight. 

“Marcus Taormina and Zack Snyder wanted to work with us again after Army of the Dead,” states Winter.  “You start to get an idea of what the director and visual effects supervisor are looking for and that makes your decision-making easier when you collaborate again on another project.  The other important aspect is we knew from Army of the Dead that Zack had some specific old lenses [rehoused Cineovision] that he used that had a shallow depth of field and a lot of lens characteristics [large aperture, gets soft toward the edges and the bokeh changes across the image]. We struggled through it on Army of the Dead to find something that would work in terms of matching the look of those lenses.  We wanted to do a lot more profiling of the lenses on this and treat them more like an asset, where we do development before actually doing shot work so that we can be ready.”       

In addition to the lens work, Framestore focused on developing the feather system for the Bennu character affectionately called Beatrice, as well as the vast Gondival depot environment where the rebels engage in a gunfight with the Imperium.  According to Winter, “Feathers are even harder than fur because there is so much you have to worry about in terms of maintaining the structure. Fur is much more forgiving. Feathers can intersect with each other, and your eye can’t distinguish that. We had black feathers with this iridescent pattern, like on crows, while the wings and head were influenced by ravens. All those bird characteristics were integrated into the body of a tiger or lion.”

Establishing the Bennu’s size was the first thing to address. “That drove any kind of rigging that they had onset, and it started to give us an idea of proportions with the wingspan as well as the physical nature and requirements of the creature as we built the rigs and did animation testing,” Winter shared. Another issue was determining how best to integrate the attribute of strength in the legs and wings from the underlying animals the creature was based on. “Where can we try to maximize or at least make it look aggressive and strong by always using the characteristics from each creature that would best suit the action?” Winter asks rhetorically. “We knew that this thing was going to be strong whether it was on the ground or in the air.”    

To create a real sense of resistance, a parallelogram was constructed with a stuntman with backpack standing in for the Bennu and other stunt performers taking on the role of ranch hands holding onto ropes that were in reality attached to the backpack. “That went a long way of giving us a template to put the creature in there and have the reaction from the actors onset with the ropes to sell that weight and strength,” explains Winter.  “Then for the flying sequence, the important part in preparing was understanding what is most essential to get when we’re shooting because Zack did not previs the scene; he storyboarded the entire scene.  Marcus worked with the stunt team and special effects to get a setup where they could get pitch and roll from the stunt rig because those were the two things that we thought would be the most difficult to change in post.  When the creature banked you would see the appropriate effect on the character.”

Confidence in being able to digitally recreate the lens aberrations and flaring meant that clean passes were captured with spherical lenses on three cameras while a single camera was paired with an anamorphic lens. “Zack shot Tarak (Staz Nair) leaping from the cliff in slow motion with a Phantom camera at 1000 frames per second,” Winter shares. “We worked on the retimed frames ahead of time so to get approval and work with the editor to make sure that everyone is happy with the timing so we can commit to that and work to the final speed.” 

Another significant creature is the spider/humanoid hybrid called Harmada (Jena Malone) that lives deep within the cobalt mining planet of Daggus. “The most fundamental thing to get right was the scale of the creature because Jena Malone’s performance would be affected by that,” states Winter. “The trickiest part of getting the human and spider body together was more to do with the hips.  There is nothing like it in nature because it’s not a great design.  Purely out of aesthetics we ended up replacing up to rib cage with CG.”  Seeking to rescue an abducted human child from Harmada is Nemesis (Bae Doona) armed with two swords. “We did a few face replacements for Bae Doona because her stunt double would do some of the scenes as well,” Winter continues. “We were able to use the vast majority of Jena’s performances. There are a few CG shots like the jumping shot that they couldn’t do.  The stunt team had people as the legs so when they were pushing Jena around on the rig, there were another four stunt people in green with sticks who were pretending that they were legs and that gave a complexity to the fight.  It was as if you were fighting a creature that could hit you with multiple things. Sometimes they used noodles when there was any concern about anyone getting hurt.”

“I like the beat where Nemesis starts to chop off Harmada’s legs and how we adjusted our animation for when she loses an appendage,” reveals Winter, who describes the swords of Nemesis as made of a molten metal that emit smoke and sparks.  “A lot of what we referenced were iron/steel forges. There are all sorts of little explosions and releases of high-pressure gasses that cause all these little anomalies that you see in forges we tried to carry that into the swords to make them seem like they were hot.”

Winter goes on to note that he was extremely happy they decided not to give Nemesis a traditional Korean hat to wear in the fight scene with Harmarda, which “would have been a challenge!”  Instead, Winter had to deal with numerous cables. “Daggus is an old planet that has been built up, industrialized, with a crap ton of cables everywhere,” he says. “Every generation there has a new tech that is put in with new cables.  As a bonus, those cables are analogous to a spiderweb; she is the Steampunk spider that uses metal wires instead of organic webs. As for the upper levels of the environment, Blade Runner was a major influence.  So much of that warm orange was driven by the sun lamp that Zack wanted to use because it’s a mining planet that is polluted and he wanted that feeling of pollution in the air.” 

One and half platforms were built for Gondival, a depot situated above a liquid planet where ships unload and load goods.  “There were in total nine separate set pieces that had to work together in terms of how the action flowed down the docks,” remarks Winter. “For something that open and big, building up layers of volumetrics was definitely a challenge. It took a lot of time in understanding the look, how we’re going to make that enhance the lighting, and how it distorts the lights in the distance and try to get realism through that. One trick that helped us was we took any kind of light source that was within the scene, created a dynamic simulation of atmosphere going through the light, and then wherever you moved that light the atmosphere would go with it.” 

“Practical lights were used onset for the muzzle flashes, but all of the energy tracers were added in post,” he adds. “Once we had established the timing in animation of all the energy tracers and where they impacted, the compositors would relight interactive light onto what was in camera.”  Three major explosions punctuate the scene: the insurgent ships getting blown-up in the beginning, Kora [Sofia Boutella] shooting the fuel tank, and the Attack Launch crashing into the docks. “They did do some explosions in earlier scenes that we could reference to see how the explosions looked through the eyes of these lenses,” Winter notes. “So, we had photographic reference. But all of those for Gondival were CG.”  

Executing the Attack Launch crashing was also extremely complex. “There were a lot of pieces because in that scene, not only do you have this big spaceship crashing into a huge environment and the complexity, which comes with that destruction, but you still have all of the soldiers and rebels fighting,” notes Winter.  “You have digital doubles everywhere on the docks.  You have all this dressing, and the docks start to slide, so we had dynamics running just for how dressing falls off the docks. It’s definitely one of those onion shots in terms of complexity. There is layer upon layer that you have to do in the right order to get correct.  With all the work that we did for the energy tracers in the fighting, there was an extreme amount of work that went into integrating those into 300 shots.” 

Another notable challenge was avoiding squashing and stretching the characters that get caught by the ecto-shackles, otherwise known as Beetlejuice Chairs. “That was probably the one part of our work where we figured out the most in post because they weren’t going to do any articulated chairs,” Winter says. “Zack wanted to try to keep it looking like there was a hierarchy of telescopic geometry.  We basically added additional constraints to grab their arms when we needed to build off the original design. The smaller parts, you accept that they can move faster, while some of the larger parts, you have to get it to work with the pacing of the cut.” 

Winter concludes by sharing how the creative freedom afforded by the director was liberating. “It’s something I would say was not necessarily specific to the work we did, but it’s definitely a joy to be able to work with Zack as a director. He’s one of those directors who comes up with unique ways of composing layers of action into a shot. Rarely did we hear that is too much.”  

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.