Leading visual effects studio delivers 420 shots, including a massive, sinister 3D snake, on Florian Sigl’s feature film adaptation of Wolfgang Mozart’s 232-year-old opera, which hits U.S. theaters today, March 10, courtesy of Shout! Factory.
Translating a world-famous composer’s 232-year-old opera into an entertaining film for the modern age, on a limited budget, would be an intimidating challenge for most filmmakers. But when Florian Sigl recalls Christopher Zwickler approaching him four years ago with the pitch for a film adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Sigl remembers feeling nothing but excitement.
“Chris didn't know at that time, but before I started making films, I studied classical music, so I was totally on board,” remembers Sigl. “I’m always looking for ways to spread classical culture to a broader audience. And opera is especially hard for non-musicians and non-classical musicians to get into as an audience. So, I came up with a frame story that takes the audience and leads them into that world of the opera.”
The film, sporting the same title as the original German work from 1791, begins with 17-year-old Tim Walker (Jack Wolfe) as he travels from London to the Austrian Alps to attend the legendary Mozart boarding school. There, he discovers a centuries-old forgotten passageway into the fantastic world of Mozart's The Magic Flute.
Sigl makes his directorial debut with this musical feature, distributed by Shout! Factory for its U.S. theatrical release, which kicks off today, March 10. And though the German filmmaker stands by the fact that opera isn’t the most accessible genre, he believes previously well-known works have paved the way for The Magic Flute’s box office success.
“All the original themes of the opera are quite fantasy related,” he says. “And it's the best time to do something like this now, because even my parents know what Game of Thrones is.”
For those unfamiliar with the opera’s original plot, a handsome Prince Tamino finds himself lost in a strange land. Pursued by a giant serpent, the prince faints and is rescued by attendants of the Queen of the Night. After awaking, the Prince is asked by the Queen to rescue her daughter Pamina from the high priest Sarastro. However, as Tamino faces a series of trials – passing through chambers of fire and water – Tamino comes to admire Sarastro and he and Pamina both join Sarastro's community, while the Queen and her allies are vanquished.
Though Sigl’s 2022 adaptation is anchored in the all-too-real struggle of a teenage boy navigating life at a new school, his ambitions as a singer, and first love, The Magic Flute’s hero also finds himself launched into the role of Prince Tamino each night, facing life-threatening elemental trails and massive snakes. And that meant lots and lots of visual effects.
“It was quite expensive,” notes Sigl of the film’s VFX. “What’s more, Germans usually don’t do movies with so many visual effects, especially visible visual effects, so we started talking to the different departments trying to come up with clever solutions. One of our producers, Roland Emmerich, came in saying, ‘You guys have to talk to Pixomondo.’”
A leading, multi-award-winning VFX and virtual production studio, Pixomondo has teams across North America and Europe (including Germany) and is known for its work on Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award-winning Hugo, HBO’s Emmy-winning Game of Thrones, and Prime Video’s The Boys, as well as Netflix’s The Pale Blue Eye.
“It was the material itself and its legacy that attracted us to the project,” explains Pixomondo’s Max Riess, VFX supervisor on The Magic Flute. “It's a bit of a dream come true because it's true fantasy, but then it also has these theater roots and us trying to translate that to the big screen was a really interesting challenge. We were sort of marrying two worlds.”
He adds, “There is a lot that can be done with bigger budgets, but this movie shows that if you have the right creative people, you can do just as much.”
Take a moment to check out this VFX breakdown reel of the company’s work on The Magic Flute:
The Magic Flute’s budget was, in Sigl’s words, “seriously small” compared to projects Pixomondo has worked on in the past. The challenge of trying to find practical solutions to creating impressive and inexpensive visual effects was made greater by the fact this was Riess’ first time working on a film so rooted in art direction and music.
And those challenges reared their head immediately in the film’s very first scene featuring the Queen of the Night, where a woman shrouded in elegant black robes performs a bone-chilling opera number atop a stone pillar. As she sings, her robes launch out in all directions from behind her like long wings and begin moving with the music.
“When it came to the clothing of the Queen of the Night, it still needed to behave like cloth, but we were also always trying to see how far we could push it beyond reality,” notes Riess. “It was our goal for the audience to question, ‘Did they somehow actually make these things, or is it just an effect?’ We wanted it to be over the top, but also inspiring in regard to what you could really pull off on a theater stage. It needs to leave you breathless and create this sort of wonder.”
The first solution the team came up with was to actually puppeteer the extended cloth on set, but that meant movement would be limited, which didn’t fit this seemingly limitless Queen.
“So, everything on set was filmed in a way that allowed for flexibility with what we would later add in through digital and getting the music synched up with the cloth simulation.” says Riess. “It's hard to see, I admit, but the simulation really shines during the song’s high tones. We talked with the costume designer quite often as to how the material should move and how it would behave in the moonlight. And we tried not to take all the spotlight away from the costume itself.”
All simulated parts of the dress were done in Houdini and, as much as Riess and his team tried to stay true to the costume’s actual material, some cheating was in order.
“At one point, we did have to make a departure from the real material, making the cloth a bit thinner to get more folds and almost look a bit liquid,” he says.
Sigl adds, “But there's a certain beauty in watching something you know is not possible. And we were always trying to find the balance between that in the fantasy genre and always acknowledging that this used to be a stage play. So, there are times where the performance does look like it’s on a stage.”
This was especially true when it came to the underwater scene at the end of Tamino’s trials, where Tim and the Princess Pamina (Asha Banks) fall through a ring of fire into a body of water, where they are suspended in time as Pamina questions Tim – through mental conversation – about the love he has in his heart for his classmate Sophie (Niamh McCormack).
It’s one of Sigl’s favorite scenes.
“I was surprised how clever that solution turned out,” Sigl recalls. “We wanted the scene to be impressive because it’s at the end of the trials. So, we started talking. ‘Do we actually shoot it for real underwater? How much would that cost? How many costumes do we have to spare?’ And then Max suggested we shoot it in front of a blue screen with the actors in harnesses. From there, we just had to figure out the frame rate and how we add depth to the scene, so it doesn’t just look like we filmed with a filter.”
Unlike the Queen of the Night scene, where the team would get the scene pulled together but then have to start over from scratch when things didn’t look spot-on, the underwater trial sequence came together on the first try.
“I don’t know if you’d say it’s believable that they are actually underwater, but the scene is beautiful and effective,” notes Riess. “We also added little things like tiny bubbles coming out of their mouths once or twice. The only thing we couldn't manipulate too much was their hair, but I think the slow-motion effect worked really well.”
Another scene Sigl and Riess are most proud of is the chase sequence between Tim and the giant serpent. It’s the first scene of Tim in the world of Mozart’s opera, but it was the final scene the crew shot, as it was one of the few scenes not filmed on a built set.
“We shot that on the Canary Islands, and we had to wait for the right weather,” explains Sigl. “We were also two and a half thousand meters up with very thin air and it was really hard for the actors.”
Riess was actually in charge of scouting the location – with the second DOP and production designer – as Sigl was shooting in Munich. After finding the right location, Riess began piecing together a map of the volcanic area where Tim would be running for his life from a massive snake he couldn’t see.
“We took thousands of photographs of the location ourselves, scanned the images, and put together some early photogrammetry,” says Riess. “We already had a 3D snake and figured out from the images how big it would need to be.”
All modeling, shading, rigging, and animation for the characters and creatures were done in Maya, while Mari was used for asset texturing, such as when the crew had to digitally build the cave Tim takes refuge in from the snake. Sand and environmental destruction during the chase scene was handled in Houdini.
“We did show Jack the storyboards, so he knew what we’d be adding in as he’s running through the terrain,” says Sigl. “We tried the tennis ball thing with a fake snake head, but we realized it would have to be incredibly high up and moving so fast that it would look better in the end if it was just all 3D.”
He continues, “The benefit to shooting this scene at the end of production was that Jack, by that point, was so comfortable with the visual effects – light bulbs being used for the little spirits and things like that – that it wasn’t too daunting. He’s also very talented, so we could just tell him, ‘Okay, the snake is this size, the head is up there, then the head moves down roughly that speed, and you run in that direction,’ and he could work with that. It saved us a lot of time.”
In total, The Magic Flute contains roughly 420 visual effects shots, but only about 60 shots are noticeable.
“There are a lot of visual effects that you don't see in the movie,” says Riess. “The city has a lot of greenscreen - created extensions that no one realizes. When Tim and Pamina fall through the fire circle, the environment that they fall into, for a brief second, is actually the same set from our marketplace, but it's destroyed. And it's very dark so you don't see it. But if someone would crank it up in exposure, you would see that it's exactly the same buildings we see all the time in the marketplace. It’s like a nightmare version of other cities you’ve seen.”
So, whether it’s creating a larger-than-life monster, magically menacing cloth wings for a moon-lit queen, or simply extending city environs, Riess says the most rewarding part of visual effects work is pulling together a scene that draws viewers into the world whether they notice the visual manipulation or not.
“I don’t care much about the technology behind it,” he shares. “In many ways, because this was a German movie, we took a more practical approach to the effects, and I think old-school methods can actually make a movie better. Having the actors on real sets, it adds something to their performance. That location for the snake had its own magic before we did anything to it, and you can feel it in the movie.”
Sigl adds, “Personally, I don’t think the movie would have been any better on an LED Volume stage. We didn’t want our set dimensions to be limited by the dimensions of the Volume. The way we did it gave us more freedom to experiment.