L.A.-based visualization studio handles previs and postvis on Ava DuVernay and Disney’s new fantasy-adventure film.
Ava DuVernay’s new fantasy-adventure film, A Wrinkle in Time, follows a young girl (Storm Reid) who, with the help of three astral travelers (Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling), sets off on a quest to find her father (Chris Pine), who went missing after discovering a new planet.
The film was released by Disney earlier this month to mixed reviews. Based on the popular 1962 novel of the same name by Madeleine L'Engle, the film has a unique aesthetic, featuring some stunning visuals. To help bring the VFX-heavy film to life, DuVernay and Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor Rich McBride turned to L.A.-based visualization company Proof Inc.
Previs supervisor Chris Batty explained that Proof was brought on early in the development phase. “We sort of served two different purposes,” he explains. “I think mainly for Ava, it was helping her envision and communicate her creative visual ideas, and then for Rich McBride, it was to be able to break these things down and technically plan for the shoot. First, we would approach it as a creative exploration, and then once we got to a certain point, we would start breaking it down technically for Rich.”
Proof also handled a large portion of the postvis, so the whole process was about 20 months of work for the company – a long time in the world of previs/postvis production.
“It was a great experience to see something almost all the way through from early days until they're basically were just finishing the effects at the end,” says Batty.
“In the beginning, it was like a little family, because we were sitting right next to the art department, and Naomi Shohan, the production designer would come over and we'd have these discussions -- whether it was illustrations or models from the art department, we had full access,” he continues. “Sometimes we would even start models ourselves and Naomi and Ava would come over and start art directing to make sure that we're all on the same page. It was very collaborative in that respect, and we had full access to whatever the art department was developing and vice versa.”
Batty explained that one of the key challenges for previs artists is balancing speed vs. fidelity, which is a perennial compromise, depending on who you’re showing it to, and for what purpose. Studio executives don’t always understand the role of a rough placeholder shot, where the VFX team totally gets it.
“I think in the early days of development, when you're trying to show stuff to the studio, you kind of pull out the stops in the look department and try to push it as far as you can to portray any of the illustrations or art department designs as best you can,” he describes. “But once real production starts, and the shoot starts getting closer, you definitely do have to make compromises and get to the essentials.”
Batty added that sometimes, the look of things just has to be good enough to communicate the idea. He noted that in the beginning, DuVernay studied Proof’s reel and zeroed in on a “toon shader” look that the company had developed that gives the previsualizations a bit of cartoon/comic book feel. “She really wanted us to focus on that so the characters and everything had this toon shader look. As she presented stuff to the studio, even though it looked pretty nice, it still always had this air of a work in progress…‘This is just a sketch. This is what we're working on. Here are our ideas at the moment,’ so that she never really had to take on those questions, like, ‘Oh, is it really going to look like this?’”
Batty explained that DuVernay was pretty savvy and when it came to managing people and navigating those sorts of channels. “As long as we rendered it in more of a toon shader aspect, it still felt like a work in progress, so the studio understood that, ‘Oh, things are still developing. This isn't the final look of anything.’”
He said that working with DuVernay was a wonderful, collaborative experience. “Again, especially when we were starting out, we were just this little creative family, and everybody was open with ideas.”
“She was always very open and honest,” Batty notes. “If we started to talk about something that she was unfamiliar with, she would just say, ‘Hey, wait, stop. Explain that to me. What is that?’"
He added that McBride was always available to explain the visual effects in greater depth when needed. “We would have these round-table brainstorm meetings, and all the department heads would come and she always invited me to attend,” says Batty. “In the beginning, we'd kind of go through the script beat-by-beat and world-by-world and discuss all the different issues.”
“Usually, she would have the basic kernel of the idea, and it was just a question of how it would be visually represented, [for example] Camazotz, where the land is a monster,” Batty continues. “She definitely did not want the traditional monster chasing them. She wanted something a little bit more abstract and scary. It was just a question of, ‘What does that look like? How big is it?’”
“We just would kind of go off from there. I know Rich worked heavily at first with a number of illustrators but would dial-in and develop the full dynamics, and then we were there as well just helping convey the speed, scale and epicness of that land-is-a-monster thing we did,” he adds.
He explained that one particular challenge was the Mrs. Whatsit flight sequence. “We worked with this company, Robomoco out of London, and they have these robotic arms. You're able to put the actor inside, attached to the arm. We worked pretty closely with those guys in developing the moves and getting that whole flight sequence to work,” Batty explains. “That's kind of a creative technical challenge. First, it's creative -- ‘What does that flying look like and how does it work?’ The second part would be how to actually shoot this thing and how to get those arms to work. There were two arms and a person on wires. How do those all interact and keep everybody safe, but yet still provide dynamic shots?”
Another technical challenge was the scale of Mrs. Which. According to Batty, “Basically, they would shoot the ensemble somewhere, let's say in New Zealand. We would take those plates that needed Mrs. Which - she wasn't there, because obviously, she's a giant lady - and have to track those and then do a post-move. In other words, feed a camera to motion control so that we could go back and shoot Oprah separately on bluescreen and miniaturize the camera move so it looks like she's a 35-foot tall lady.”
“We had to do that in quick succession, because they came back from New Zealand, and just a few days later, needed to start shooting the Oprah element for that,” he adds. “We had a lot of quick turnarounds on breaking down those cameras and spinning out motion control moves. That was kind of a fun challenge.”
In post, Proof’s role changed to focus on helping DuVernay put together the edit. “Since there were a lot of visual effects-heavy sequences, we put in all our previs assets as temp effects to help her cut the film. Because there was a good chunk shot on bluescreen, we had to help her put that edit together as quickly as possible, giving her enough options so that she could put the edit together with Spencer Averick, her editor.”
Overall, Batty stressed that it was a fun project to work on. “Even though sometimes the schedule was a bit tough, Ava really knew how to motivate people in a very positive light and we all felt a part of something special,” he says. “That would be one overall thing that could be said about making this film.”
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.