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No Exit from This 'Box'

Thomas Tannenberger reveals the vfx tricks inside Richard Kelly's The Box.

Check out The Box trailer at AWNtv!

The greatest challenge for Gradient Effects was digitally enhancing Frank Langella's face in 144 shots, which involved MoCap, witness cameras and a toolset comprised of Moviemento and proprietary software. All images © Warner Bros.

The Box, of course, is Richard Kelly's take on Richard Matheson's classic short story, Button, Button. What if you could get your hands on $1 million by pressing a button in a box in exchange for the murder of a complete stranger? Only with Kelly, the premise and moral dilemma have been Donnie Darko'd with more sci-fi and trippy existentialism (Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, anyone?): meaning there's a lot more at stake for this desperate 1976 couple played by Cameron Diaz and James Marsden than meets the eye, and a lot more cosmic chills behind Frank Langella's charming, disfigured messenger.

Thomas Tannenberger, overall visual effects supervisor, and co-founder of Gradient Effects with Olcun Tan, says the greatest challenge was digitally reconstructing the half of Langella's face.

"We used an on-set motion capture process based on witness cameras," Tannenberger explains about the work done two years ago. "We had at the very least four cameras trained on him that were set up in a semi-circle or, depending on his movements, to any given thing. And essentially what this does -- and we used available software [Moviemento] as well as our own in-house software [at Gradient Effects with Tan serving as digital supervisor] -- is triangulating his position in the space in front of camera. From this, we subtracted his head movements and from that, in turn, we subtracted his facial movements, which would give us the camera position, his head position in space and drive the rig that we built for his face and the missing parts. And for the more subtle movements, we built our own tools to give us more detail and extract more animation out of the face."

So Langella's face alone involved 144 out of a total of 450 vfx shots. "I would say this was very unusual for a $30 million film," Tannenberger adds. In addition to marker removal and adding skin texture, they also worked on background recreation. "We shot a lot of clean plates on set for that purpose and also used our LIDAR pipeline to scan each and every set so that we could rebuild it because we didn't have time to use motion control or anything during production. From time to time we used a repeatable hit to just get a clean plate pass so we had something to restore to see the background through. They obviously used HDRI lighting for each and every set and basically took lighting probes to help with the lighting and integration."

The otherworldly "water coffins" were made with a combination of RealFlow, Maya and liquid textures and shaders written by Gradient Effects.

In addition, there were also teleportation or dimensional travel devices, which were known as "water coffins." The brief for that, according to Tannenberger, was to "create a liquid that could be construed as water but go a little further and be something [otherworldly]."

They used a combination of Next Limit's RealFlow and Maya along with liquid textures and shaders written by Gradient Effects. "We shot a lot of reflection passes in the library scene but ended up not using all of them because we wanted to create something more oily and sinister -- it's relatively dark at the core and you don't know what's inside. When these things come into view, you're not supposed to know what they are right away, so, of course, there was a design process involved with that."

And there were a lot of invisible vfx as well, many of which had to do with weather. The Box was shot in Boston and after two weeks, they found themselves knee deep in snow. "Right there and then we basically decided to add in snow afterwards, so what you see in the film is that a lot of exteriors have been changed to look like we've been snowed in for a while: there's snow in the air, there's snow on the ground. We did that so it would match the exterior shots later on. So I would say we have around 110 shots with weather augmentation."

For that, they used their own snow effects script that was run in Maya and then followed by a lot of matte painting work. "And there are a lot of exterior shots of Richmond, Virginia, which is Richard's hometown, and had to be taken back into the year 1976. So these shots were done by Pixel Liberation Front because we were so mired in our face and liquid effects. They did matte painting work, removing and recreating buildings as they were in 1976 and used a lot of reference materials and worked with a local architect in Richmond. You can imagine that since this was his hometown, this was very near and dear to Richard. I remember recreating a department store that has since been torn down; the freeway you see in the movie does not exist anymore; and these shots were then outfitted with CG cars and a few people on the street.

"I tried to cover as much as possible with moving images even though they were lock off shots: get leaves on trees and get the feeling of air breathing and things like that. That was the last major part, I would say."

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.