VFX supervisor Jessica Norman’s London, Montreal and Bangalore teams handle nearly 500 shots on Warner Bros. DC Comics-inspired hit superhero film.
Warner Bros. Pictures’ recent blockbuster, Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, tells the story of Amazonian princess Diana (Gal Gadot), who grew up on the island of Themyscira. When she rescues an American WWI fighter pilot (Chris Pine) who crashes offshore, she learns of the ongoing World War and decides to leave her utopian home in order to end the conflict.
The film has met with acclaim for its direction, performances and the thrilling visual spectacle it delivers. Visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer tapped London-based VFX house MPC early on for some of the film’s key sequences and effects.
MPC VFX supervisor Jessica Norman was responsible for nearly 500 shots in the film. In particular, her team was called on to create a wide variety of digital doubles and choreograph their movements, including CG takeovers and face replacements of Wonder Woman herself. “There were also a lot of other hero characters, horses and various environments,” Norman adds.
She explained that the asset work was supervised from the company’s London studio, with a lot of the asset building done in Bangalore, but the majority of the visual effects work was done at the company’s Montreal facility.
MPC handled the big battle sequence early in the movie, which pitted German soldiers against Amazonian warriors. She notes that MPC’s work started with the scene where Pine’s character (Steve Trevor) crashes into the sea to be rescued by Diana, which called for underwater shots that were done in a tank at Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden. “And then, they get onto the beach and he's followed by Germans, and all the Amazons jump down off of a cliff, and start a big battle on the beach.”
Norman continues that the beach in the film is actually an amalgam of two different Italian shorelines. “They found this cliff on the east coast of Italy that they really liked the look of, but it barely had a beach and it was really tidal and hard to get to. You couldn't shoot there, so we got a lot of references of that cliff, created that in CG and put the two beaches together.”
Meanwhile the sandy beach where most of the action takes place was shot on the west coast of Italy. “So, from there, we kind of kept the action in the sand and the water, but then we sort of added the big cliff backdrop to make the two beaches look like one. That, obviously, was one of our big tasks,” says Norman.
“Then, typical for those kind of sequences, we added a lot of extra characters,” she adds. “There was a lot of stunt work in there, so there were some face replacements. But also, some of the characters ended up being CG characters or expansions of the crowd of Amazonians, Germans and horses.”
Norman explained that some of the hero horseback sequences were shot on a greenscreen stage back in London, with a robotic motion-control rig shaped like a horse. “We did hero horses to replace the rig, most of them with full CG extensions with the environment and the crowd.”
In addition to horseback shots, the company’s London mocap studio also focused on a lot of the fighting between Amazonians and Germans.
“Obviously these were Amazon ladies fighting Germans and the Amazons only have bows and swords and shields, while the Germans have guns. So, it's a different kind of fighting action,” notes Norman. “We did shoot some mocap back here in London, which was very valuable, both to be able to get the right kind of actions you need between different kinds of weapons, but also to get some female/male fighting against each other because you have slightly different movements. It was really valuable.”
Norman really enjoyed working with the stunt team. “I like where you mix media, when you cut in between live action and into CG. It's something I enjoy rather than solely relying on CG,” she says.
“There were also two big sequences that were shot in London. One sequence in particular involved a town square, and there's a mix of different aspects to that shot,” Norman remarks. “They had some brilliant stunt actresses and we sort of intercut between shots when we would see the stunt actress doing something with her face replacement. On some shots, we even needed to cut a CG shot with a stunt actress, half CG and the actress in the second half. Some shots obviously ended up being full CG. So, we sort of tried to get the best of both worlds. We tried to get as much real where we could, but then when we wanted to get that little bit of extra, we made sure to find and blend the right solution for every situation.”
At the same time, the company’s Montreal motion capture studio focused on Wonder Woman’s actions, including a lot of running sequences that were shot on a treadmill. “We wanted a really powerful run,” she says. “[The motion capture stage] is really useful. When you’re working on a particular animation and you want some additional studies, you can just go down there and capture extra stuff.”
Norman explained that overall, creating Wonder Woman herself was probably the biggest challenge. “First, there is the build -- you try to get as clear a build as possible,” she says. “She was used for both face replacements and various actions, so I spent a lot of time on the build. Then, she needed a very particular hair design. We developed some new controls for our hair sim. Obviously, you want to have as natural a simulation as possible -- you want her hair to move as it would, but then control it a little bit so you still have that kind of ‘super’ character design that she has in many of the shots. So, we kind of did a little bit of choreography with the hair.”
The studio engaged several female athletes/performers in Montreal for the Wonder Woman motion capture sessions. According to Norman, “It was key that we had some tall girls with really long legs so we didn’t have to change the performance so much. It’s useful I think, particularly in human animation like that, to try and get as much reference and then as much real material as you can.”
“I had a really good team out in Montreal, and I worked very closely with my CG supervisor James Rustad,” Norman concludes. “We spent a lot of time in animation, and did a lot of mocap sessions in Montreal. In many ways, Wonder Woman was our biggest challenge, but also the most rewarding.”
Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched VRNation.tv -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.