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ILM Delivers Hellfire and Damnation for Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’

Industrial Light & Magic VFX supervisor Ben Snow details the range of destruction and fiery visual effects created for the Paramount feature starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem.

Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence in 'mother!' from Paramount Pictures and Protozoa Pictures. All images courtesy of Paramount Pictures © 2017 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

Is Darren Aronofsky’s mother! “one of the most audacious and flat-out bizarre movies a major studio has released in years,” (Brian Tallerico, “The worst movie of the century,” (Rex Reed, New York Observer)? Or, as the New York Times’ A. O. Scott puts it, “A divine comedy dressed as a psychological thriller?”

According to the director, mother! is an allegory about mother nature and our place and connection to our home using stories from the Bible. Jennifer Lawrence plays the character called mother and Javier Bardem is her poet husband Him.

Early in the film, mother says to Him (the creator), “We spend all our time here. I want to make it paradise,” and opens curtains covering the front door. Soon, man (Ed Harris) and woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) walk through the front door into paradise, and henceforth, with an assist from make-up, practical, and visual effects artists, all hell breaks loose. Mother (nature) takes the brunt of the assault on paradise.

Two supervisors who had worked with Aronofsky on Noah led the visual effects effort: Dan Schrecker was overall visual effects supervisor, and Ben Snow supervised teams at Industrial Light & Magic’s Singapore studio, which created the fire and brimstone effects, as well as teams at Hybride and Whiskeytree.

“In the film itself there were several hundred shots, most of them the supporting, invisible type, and we had less than 100, also supporting but challenging and flashier,” Snow says.

“It was slow burn type of production,” he adds without irony. “About 30 people at ILM and 30 or so at Hybride worked on our shots.” Snow joined the production in Montreal during the last week of filming.

“At ILM, I’d been finishing post-production on Great Wall in Singapore, so I came in hot, all full of vigor and happy to be back on set,” Snow says. “They were shooting mother! in sequential order, and just finishing shooting the scenes where the house is being over-run. They had to wrap on time and had still had a ton of work, so it was an intense week. They were running three units. While they shot Jennifer [Lawrence] and Javier [Bardem], I was off working on fireball shots and Dan [Schrecker] was shooting burning beds. It was a crazy time. Long days. I don’t think I slept that week.”

Which shots in the film did ILM work on?

We had the shots throughout, but mainly at the beginning and end. Karim Sahai, our associate VFX supervisor, led the team in our Singapore studio that worked on the “Burning foremother and mother” shots, the un-burning house, the bed shots, and the fireball in the interior. We also supervised the shots that Hybride executed with Philippe Theroux and Francois Lambert supervising, and at Whiskytree with Brian Meanley and Joe Ceballos.

Burning foremother and mother shots?

The film opens on a disturbing shot of a woman standing amongst flames. We see her face start to blister and burn and her hair on fire. It was twinned to a shot later in the movie where Jennifer [Lawrence] goes through the same thing, so we shot the footage of Jennifer going through this effect first.

By this time, Jennifer’s character had been through a helluva lot so she wore makeup with lesions and bruising on her face. Adrien Morot [Makeup Effects Department Head] had also done interesting burn makeups that you see Jennifer wearing in other sequences, but we didn’t have time to shoot her in both the bruised and burned makeup. But, I was comfortable taking Jennifer from bruise to burn because it’s additive. So, we decided to shoot her bruised, and shoot the stand-in with burn makeup and mix the two later. Then we realized the “stand-in” was going to be the foremother character in the first shot, so we rushed her back to makeup and shot her bruised as a greenscreen element later that night.

How did you create the final burned effects on their faces?

In Singapore, FX simulation lead Goncalo Cabaca and CG supervisor Dominic Drane led teams that handled all the burning and fire shots. They matched the burned face in CG, animated the wounds closing, and reversed that using motion vectors to drive a simulation that opened the wounds. Then they match-moved the character in the footage and warped the CG simulations onto the face. Additional particle effects created the bubbling effect of her sweat boiling off before it dried. It was gruesome, no getting away from that.

Creating the burning hair was even more challenging. And, we got to do it twice. Plus, the character at the beginning of the film was not supposed to be Jennifer Lawrence, but the actress looked too much like her. So, we had to go back and change her look. For example, we gave her thicker eyebrows and as she burned, we singed them.

Why was the burning hair particularly challenging?

Jennifer preferred that we not blow her hair with fans. Considering everything else she put up with on the film, we were fine with that; we shot her with her hair tied back. Then, we shot wind tests on a stand-in. But, Darren [Aronofsky] was very exact about how the hair should blow. So, we decided it would be better to create it in 3D to choreograph and iterate to get what Darren wanted. Dan [Schrecker] shot some burning wigs that we used as reference for the CG hair.

We had three levels of simulation all interacting with one another: The fire around her, the flames on her hair, and the hair simulation affected by heat and blowing. A fluid simulation moved the hair simulation to lift it correctly according to the temperature. That all meant we needed a complex CG wig. Usually, we have guide hairs and instance the in-betweens. That didn’t work. Instead, we had nearly 100,000 hair curves, which is close to the actual number of hairs on a human head.

To create the look, we had fire particle VDBs [volume data] tell the hair groom when it should become crinkly, charred, shriveled, or curled as it burned. We also created a shading model that allowed transparency, so you could see flames through the hair. It was like running a glass BRDF [that defines how light is reflected].

How did you un-burn the house?

Dan [Schrecker] decided to actually burn the house. He and Mario Dumont’s practical effects team took a flame thrower to bits of set they had recreated. They’d burn the set, put it out, and roll some footage with a motion control camera. So, it became a compositing challenge for us, to make organic transitions between these different layers of burning as the house un-burns. The thing that was problematic was the plaster. It becomes brittle, cracks, and falls off as it burns, so we had to grapple with what to do about the piles of debris.

We tried simulating the plaster flying off the floor onto the wall, which was interesting but felt too magical. We got rid of all the debris in the shots, replaced it with CG debris, and shrank it during the transitions. That looked too much like soap melting. Then, we tried a combination of shrinking and stop-motion animation and that went well.

Stop-motion animation?

It was more of an aesthetic idea that we used to make the debris lift up. We made a CG version of the debris in the plates. Then we used maps to drive a procedural animation that shrank the size of the CG bits of broken plaster down and randomly popped them off until we got a clean floor and mantelpiece. Compositors created layers of wipes for the walls, but it didn’t feel like wipes or dissolves. Imagine waves of heat causing the effect. The result almost mirrored the direction of the fireball shots later. Having the real burned material to work with made a big difference.

So, let’s talk about the fireball shots.

They happen toward the end of the film. After Jennifer Lawrence’s character has been through a horrific experience, she takes her revenge by igniting an explosion. A fireball erupts around her and travels through the house, which is filled with people who have come to worship Javier Bardem’s character. To shoot it, we departed from Darren Aronofsky’s formal rulebook. He shot most of the film using three angles, a close-up of Jennifer, Jennifer’s point of view, or over her shoulder. We had a crane rig going up the staircase, a cable rig across the roof, and a descender rig that drops down. We shot it on the last two nights of production with interactive lighting effects and extras going crazy.

Also, most of the film was shot on super 16mm, but for this we decided to shoot digital for the higher frame rate and resolution. The filmmakers had a very defined sense of rhythm shot to shot -- the speed of the camera and the framing at the start and end all had to tie closely together. Matching that wasn’t trivial. Before we could add layers of flame and fireballs erupting through the house, we had to alter the digital plates by re-speeding, pushing in, and sometimes even doing set extensions so they flowed the way Darren wanted. Then we had to match the look of the 16mm filmed plates with grain, softness, and lens effects.

For the flames wrapping around the actors, rather than match animate 50 people in 3D, we rotoscoped those characters and created rough geometry to wrap the fire around them. To direct the fire, we used collision geometry matched to the set and injected velocity fields into the simulation to cause the fire to, say, hit the wall here, ride up the wall, and around a corner. The compositors combined layers and layers of flames, and postcards with images of Javier Bardem’s character that we simulated flying around.

After the fireball sequence, we see Javier carrying the burned Jennifer Lawrence. By this point in the production, everyone was exhausted and Jennifer wasn’t too keen about getting into that burn makeup again. It was a multi-hour process. So, Darren [Aronofsky] turned to me and asked how much it would cost if ILM added the burn makeup to Jennifer. I checked with ILM’s executive producer and we came up with a number. It wasn’t cheap, and this was a moderate-budget film. I tell Darren the number, and while I’m standing there, Darren tells Jennifer what it will cost. She said, “You know what, maybe I’ll pay for it.” But, she’s a trooper. She sat for the makeup, and it was amazing. We did a little digital intermediate work on top and did the transition from the burned makeup into an ashen husk at the end but it’s all Adrien Morot’s astonishing makeup.

What tools did the Singapore team use for the burning effects?

The fire was simulated and rendered in ILM’s Plume software. Effects such as the debris were simulated and rendered in Houdini. For the hair, we used ILM’s proprietary Haircraft software. The burning hair simulation pipeline was complex, using both Houdini and ILM’s Zeno software, and rendered in RenderMan 21.

Did you supervise other interesting shots?

We had the bedroom, where as a camera pushes in, a mattress un-burns. When the woman in bed takes the covers off, we see it’s Jennifer Lawrence. They had a rig to lift her out of a mattress. We didn’t have a burned bedroom to start with, but we did have stills of burned bed clothes. We created layers of the burn with digital environment work.

Hybride worked from ILM art director Chris Voy’s concept art and with compositors at ILM to create the “Darkness of Her Imagination” shots where Jennifer Lawrence pushes into a wall and finds a heart inside. Darren wanted an amorphous, soft, organic form so we wouldn’t know where the organ ended and the environment began, and a feeling that as the film progresses, the organ twists and tightens and gets more constricted. As we explored through concept art, Hybride started working on a CG heart. In the end, the Hybride team created a heart shape in Softimage and Zbrush that they textured in Mari using Arnold for subsurface scattering. They had a base keyframe animation of the heart and the organic matter, and then ran a simulation in Houdini of the constriction, with fine particles coming out and sinking back in as it pulsed.

Whiskeytree collaborated on a couple shots where Javier Bardem’s character looks at burned wreckage of the house and it restores itself. They created matte paintings for each stage of the unburning.

And, Hybride created some weird effects like a wound in the floor of the house, charring on the floor, and the “toilet chicken.”

The toilet chicken?

The blocked toilet was originally a practical effect, but Darren wanted something with more bone, that moved more, and was more disturbing. So, Hybride did a CG replacement that we call the toilet chicken. Because they had to replace the practical element, they also had to create a water effect on top. We’re in dailies and get a note that we need the thing to spurt stuff out its orifice. Yeah, it’s gross.

Did you take your family to see this film?

I took my daughter, but my wife thought it would be too scary. My daughter is 19, and she liked it. She related to Jennifer Lawrence’s character. I always felt that even though there are moments of visceral horror in this film, the net effect is something that outweighs all that. It isn’t a splatter film. And, it isn’t like sitting through a war. It’s fantastical enough you can distance yourself. It’s a complex, interesting allegory that I think is well worth the net effect. I can’t guarantee you will love it, but I really recommend that you see it.