Oscar-nominated VFX supervisor takes audiences on a quest through the universe for director Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of the sci-fi classic written by Madeleine L’Engle.
Director Ava DuVernay’s new fantasy adventure film, A Wrinkle in Time, takes audiences on a quest through the universe as Meg (played by Storm Reid) searches for her father (Chris Pine), who went missing after discovering a new planet and using a scientific concept known as a tesseract to travel there. Based on the popular 1962 novel of the same name by Madeleine L’Engle, the film also stars Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling as three astral travelers who help Meg on her quest.
DuVernay enlisted the aid of Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisor Richard McBride early in pre-production to help develop the look of all of the fantastic worlds Meg would visit.
McBride was nominated for an Oscar for best visual effects for his work on The Revenant (2015), along with Matt Shumway, Jason Smith and Cameron Waldbauer. He also won VES Awards for his work on The Revenant and Gravity (2013).
AWN recently spoke with McBride about the project and how he was able to help DuVernay realize her vision for the classic sci-fi story.
AWN: How did you get involved with this project?
Richard McBride: I met with Jim Whitaker, a producer, and Ava [DuVernay] pretty early on. What was great about this project for me was getting brought into the creative process at a very early stage. As visual effects supervisors, you often get in early to help determine methodologies, and approaches and problem solving, but this felt even earlier than that. Ava collected a small brain trust of a creative team that included Naomi Shohan, the production designer, and an art department, and a concept artist, and we brought in storyboard artists, and very early a small previs team to start fleshing out ideas of how we would translate the book itself, in conjunction with Lee’s initial script. Ava really wanted to look at every aspect, every world, every creature, every moment, and rethink and reimagine different ways of modernizing what was in the book but keeping the essence of what the book was.
There were a lot of early brainstorming sessions where we were just throwing out ideas. Ava was great because she’s very open to hearing all things and made it very comfortable for all of us who might not have been used to being involved early on in the process like that, but really to pull out as many things as we could. We were collecting a lot of imagery. We were looking at other references from other movies, and other visual things from nature, and scientific things. It just ran the full gamut of looking for reference and inspiration wherever we could and rethinking ideas that were from the book. It was a real treat to be in early on that process.
It sparked a lot of great conversations even away from the main table, just sitting with [previs supervisor] Chris Batty and thinking of ways to take a sea eel and a cuttlefish, and how do we make this into our flying creature, and bouncing ideas off one another. Ava just loved being part of all of that. She was always very encouraging.
AWN: Were you able to help guide Ava DuVernay?
RM: It was definitely a learning curve for Ava, but she fully embraced it, wanting to understand all the steps involved, and how it was going to fit into the way she was thinking she wanted to shoot, and how she imagined the movie itself.
AWN: How do you balance the costs vs. benefits? How do you determine what will give the most bang for your buck, so to speak, when it goes on the screen?
RM: As you start to work with your director, you start to learn what is in their mind, what is important to them, what are the key moments for them. It’s always a learning curve for me as well to say, “What is it my director is going to be focusing on? What is important to him or her for the narrative? What are going to be the strong moments?” Because in visual effects, we can often say, “Well, these are going to be the really difficult things. These are going to be the technically challenging things,” but they’re not always going to be in line with what the director is thinking of as the most important types of things.
And vice-versa, as a director learning what are the difficult things and giving them an understanding of why they’re difficult, or expensive, or tricky, or time-consuming, and giving options for alternative ways to approach it. Again, Ava was always very open to that, at least to hear what those options were, so it was great.
AWN: Tell us how you created the planet Uriel.
RM: Uriel, which was the first planet they land on, was Earth-like. It was meant to be very lush and beautiful. That’s why we chose New Zealand as our backdrop. Initially, I think for visual effects, we didn’t intend to alter the environment as much as we ended up doing in the end. I think it became a creative aesthetic choice to really push the contrast between them being in the backyard at the house on Earth and then arriving on this new planet. We really pushed the color, the saturation, the skies, and all of the landscape a bit further.
I think obviously the biggest challenge for Uriel was what Mrs. Whatsit was going to transform into. Of course, this was one of the first conversations I had with Ava. I said, “So, the flying creature, you know, this half-man, half-horse with wings, marble white,” and she’s like, “No, we’re going to completely rethink what that’s going to be.” When we first started talking, I thought that was a great introduction to understanding Ava’s approach to everything in the movie. That was a big one for me. The challenge in that one was Ava was pushing for something that was different than just the kids sitting on top of something and flying on top of a creature. It had a lot of challenges in its design, and concept, and the narrative as well. Where we ended up was her creature Whatsit being of the lush environment. That’s why we made her plant-like in construction.
Then there was the movement. We wanted to find something that the kids wouldn’t just be sitting on but something that was almost more interactive. Ultimately, Ava loved this idea of the kids being able to fly with her rather than just on her, so we had this motion that we pulled reference from a sea eel and the fins of cuttlefish to have this wave-live motion. We had this idea that she was creating these pockets of air that the kids could float within. It was a lot of fun pushing these ideas around and worked with a lot of different concept artists. Ultimately, the creative team and I, took all of those ideas and fleshed them out, with help from the previs team as well where we took some of the early concepts. They played around with this wave-like motion for the flight.
Then the build of Uriel itself, we loved this idea that they land somewhere that seems like a vast and massive world, and then you realize once they take off and start flying that they’re actually only on a small ecosystem of one of these floating poppies off of the surface, and the world itself is even much bigger. I did some aerial photography, and we did a lot of concept art for that. The flight world was all built out by the ILM team, fully CG, but we took a lot of inspiration from some of that aerial photography and the landscape of New Zealand for that.
AWN: Tell me about the crazy forest attack scene?
RM: We call that “the land is monster.” I think early on, what was written in the script was actually this idea that there was an actual monster, some sort of creature of some kind. I think, again, Ava wanted to rethink that. We loved this idea that they’re in the forest, and the Misses have set up the world of Camazotz as a place not to be trusted. They’ve already seen it transform right around them, of course, so they know they can’t always believe what’s right in front of them and it’s always going to be changing. The idea once they’re in the forest is that it looks like there’s something coming at them from the forest itself and ultimately ends up just being the environment as collecting itself to drive the kids forward and push them where it wants them to go. That was, again, a lot of initial concept work to figure out what the form of the monster would eventually be.
It starts out very amorphous inside the forest itself with the dust cloud that’s coming after them, but once they break out into the open you see it collecting everything, the earth, the trees, and even the sky is pulling down. Ava wanted to just throw everything into it at that point. That was really complex work done by the MPC team, a lot of heavy simulation, a lot of effects, and a lot of layers, and a lot of different elements, and trying to keep it somewhat believable in the world of how massive it was and the kind of detail, and the structure of it.
We took a lot of reference from storm tornadoes, and then we combined it with the idea of a tidal wave. The front end of it is pulling the land mass in as it’s breaking apart, then it’s drawing everything in towards it as well as flinging elements out at the same time.
AWN: What were the biggest, most challenging sequences?
RM: I think the tesseract itself was a big challenge, which involved the idea of how we were going to wrinkle and fold space and time. It was something that we jumped into. I wanted to jump into it right away. We had various creative teams and concept artists working on figuring out different ways to think about it. We pulled reference from a lot of movies that had time travel of some kind or other, and everybody had some kind of portal or a space tube, as we called it.
Again, Ava was always trying to think of different ways of approaching this. We also had a chance to talk with Stephon Alexander who is a theoretical physicist, because the book itself has a lot of good science in it. We referenced ideas from him and ideas of what kind of energy would need to be created in order to manipulate or distort time and space. We had a lot of very heady conversations with him where a lot of us looked at each other going, “What is he talking about?”
Ultimately, he really helped inspire some good ideas, and we ended up on these ideas of different frequencies and waves. We took that idea, and to visualize it we manipulated and distorted the physical world with these waveforms, almost like fluid water, changing physical matter into a fluid water. Then on top of that, Ava had this idea of curtains or something that was billowing fabric -- this idea that there are folds in the fabric of time, and that’s what the characters are engulfed by. It was a great combination of these ideas that tied into the narrative itself with the kind of science that Dr. Murry was testing in his lab with the effects of sound waves on physical matter.
AWN: Was there anything that took you by surprise?
RM: Ava wanted to work with this idea of flexibility within the realm of visual effects, but often, these two things don’t really go together so well. It was really challenging to figure out how we could remain flexible for the director without it blowing up as far as the amount of work that we had to do. Really for the production itself, they were very supportive of Ava, they were supportive of visual effects, but ultimately you always have a schedule you have to keep, and you have a release date you have to hit. The flexibility, even from shooting, into going into post, to director’s cuts, to audience screening, to all of that that goes on, I think what really became the biggest challenge was that flexibility for visual effects to keep up with the changes that were happening.
I like to feel like we were partnered with them to solve a lot of narrative problems. It was at once challenging and also rewarding because I think there’s a lot of things you come up with new ideas on the fly, even within the post process where things change and ideas change. In order to get the pacing right through the film, a lot of things that we didn’t initially plan for came up at the end of the film. But I think ultimately Ava was happy, the studio was happy with all of the support they got with visual effects working to try and hit the targets to get everything done in time.
That was something I hadn’t really expected or planned for because initially it felt like it was a good, long post-production schedule on it. But with a lot of changes happening, that flexibility really pushed visual effects quite a bit to finish things in the end.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.