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MPC Flies High with the VFX of ‘Maleficent: Mistress of Evil’

Leading visual effects studio completes 2,168 shots for Disney and Angelina Jolie’s fantasy adventure follow-up to their 2013 hit, ‘Maleficent.’

In Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Angelina Jolie teams with Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) on the sequel to Disney’s 2013 hit fantasy adventure, Maleficent. In Jolie’s new outing, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) attempts to break the peace pact between humans and faeries established by Aurora (Elle Fanning) and Maleficent (Jolie) by waging a war to eliminate the magical creatures.  Under the VFX supervision of Gary Brozenich (The Lone Ranger), MPC facilities in Montreal, Vancouver, London and Bangalore created 2,168 shots with additional help provided by Mill Film in Montreal.

“The cool thing about MPC is that things are interchangeable,” states MPC VFX supervisor Bryan Litson. “We have a standard pipeline that runs through all of the facilities. Mill Film has a slightly different pipeline.  The more you can take ownership from start to finish of the shot, the easier it is, plus the thinking is more cohesive going throughout the sequence.”

A considerable number of storyboards and large volume of concept art were produced for the home of the fey known as “The Nest.” “For our work, [MPC Vancouver] the most difficult thing was the interior of the Nest, which is where all of the fey creatures live,” Litson explains. “That’s now their home because humans haven’t allowed them to live in their world. The Nest has four biomes, each with its own challenges. We have this massive flying sequence going through tundra, forest, jungle and desert. If you look from the outside, the Nest was a volcanic explosion where the lava froze. It creates an incredibly interesting shape. Volcanic rock is porous, so we ended up with holes. You would have light flittering through into the Nest based on the time of day. We used that for our lighting design in order to have light beams filter through the rock and light up the open spaces.  We created a lot of atmospherics to convey distance and scale.  You can also convey size and scale by specular hits on rocks as well as with the families of nests.”      

A number of partial sets were constructed for the Nest sequences. “We had a look book given to us by Angelina of the world she wanted to create,” Litson shares. “A singular world was created that we could fly through and separate each stage going from forest to tundra to jungle to desert.  Each one had its own color scheme and foliage.  It was about seeing how every single character was different but how they were the same.  Angelina wanted to portray the fey as being slightly trapped; this is all they have. The jungle fey were colorful, like bright jungle birds; the tundra fey have blonde hair and white wings; forest fey have earthy tones like browns and dark greens; and the desert fey had white and black skin tones as part of their costumes.”

Each biome was procedurally modelled and textured. According to Litson, the desert itself was modelled based after Bryce Canyon and several other references. The forest was in a small number of shots, but, he says, “Joachim wanted something quite graphic with a lot of roots that had to be supersized.”  The Nest is not overly populated, with the VFX supervisor stating that “the crowd simulations were not unusually heavy.  We put enough fey in there to make it feel like this was somebody’s home.  About 50 to 60 characters were created per shot, which is not many when it comes to crowds.” 

The aerial perspective takes the audience from being high above to being at the very bottom. “We had clear previs, done beforehand by Gary, so we knew the specifics of what was needed within each shot,” Litson remarks. “We didn’t have to build every nook and cranny of the entire world. The habitats reflected the resources within the biome.   When we flew through the jungle, each one of the families had their own nest made out of branches and twigs.  The forest was similar but more to do with large barky housing.  In the tundra they also had something similar made out of white twigs and branches.  We built holes into the walls of the desert so fey could live in there.” 

It was crucial that Maleficent’s aerial perspective was believable as she flew about, observing the diversity of the Nest and her surroundings. “One of things that we went back and forth on was making sure that the movement of the cameras and characters worked to make it feel like she was going down into the depths of the Nest,” Litson describes.

The amount of biome detail varied depending upon the camera movements and positioning. “Sometimes you can get away with a DMP [digital matte painting] for something that is faraway, but if you need to have movement, then it’s going to require CG, which is shot dependent,” Litson notes. “A lot of effort went into producing vegetation. We had thousands of plants and narrowed down the dynamic zones in which you need things to move to make things easier.  You can replay clips for pieces that are faraway to get that general movement and those do not need to be simulated.” 

For the film’s large number of sequences filled with flying human-based characters, each of the actors had a blue connection placed on their back to give approximation of where the wings should be digitally added. “It’s a lot of pushing plates around and making it feel like the wings are pushing momentum through the characters,” Litson describes. “The amount of roto animation on the show was massive because it’s not only just tracking certain characters but also doing some facial augmentation work.  Everything has wings in this film!  Some onset shots just worked while others required a lot of plate manipulation to change the position within the frame in order to make it feel like they were flying.”  There were also a small amount of limb replacements and digital doubles.  “Joachim was particularly partial to keeping plates,” Litson adds. “We tried to do that as much as possible.” 

Cast members were strapped into flying rigs with a lever that enabled them to be puppeteered. “It’s really about selling the motion of the wings trying to lift the characters and seem feasible because they have to be very large,” Litson states. “Our technical animation team had to go through passes of intersections and smoothing out of particular feathers.  They had to be incredibly high-quality close-up.  One of the things that we ended up getting into was the connection of feathers to Maleficent’s back; how do you make those look like feathers?  In order to make the connection you have to have muscles within the back, a supporting bone structure, tendons and ligaments. We put a lot of effort into trying to figure out what that structure would be in order to connect real wings to a human character.”      

“The Nest flying sequence has a screen time of around 10 minutes and consists of 200 shots,” Litson concludes. “Because it was so aerial and expansive, we had a lot freedom to create whatever we wanted within those biomes. Getting the right camera speed was important. If you have the camera moving too fast, everything starts to feel small. So, the pacing of the whole sequence was dictated by the previs that we got from Gary.” 

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.