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Taking an Old-School VFX Approach in ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’

Production Visual Effects Supervisor Frank Petzold talks about using in-camera effects wherever possible, eschewing loud and flashy CG sequences for more precise, realistic action centered around what’s captured on set, in Edward Berger’s harrowing and haunting Oscar-nominated war saga, now in theaters and streaming on Netflix.

Nominated for nine Academy Awards, the third cinematic rendering of Erich Maria Remarque’s world-renowned 1929 antiwar novel All Quiet on the Western Front could become the first feature-length German production to win an Oscar since 2007. The film, directed by Edward Berger with cinematography by James Friend, tells the gripping story of a young German soldier, Paul Baümer, on the Western Front of WWI, where he and his comrades experience first-hand how the initial euphoria of war turns into desperation and fear as they fight for their lives, and each other, in the trenches.

All Quiet on the Western Front is notable not only for its realism and the visceral impact of its visual effects, but also for the way in which those effects were achieved. Led by Production Visual Effects Supervisor Frank Petzold, the VFX team largely eschewed CG, opting instead to use as many in-camera, photographic effects as possible, and to allow the footage from principal photography to serve as the primary material for compositing. While decidedly more time-consuming, this approach contributed immeasurably to the immediacy and impact of the story.

We spoke with Petzold about his work on the film – which also included such old-school tricks as forced perspective – and what’s sometimes lost in the ubiquitous dependence on CG-mediated VFX.

AWN: How did adapting such a famous book and its controversial anti-war subject matter influence your approach to the film?

Frank Petzold: By nature, VFX artists want to do stuff loud and big and flashy, and find impossible camera angles. But from the very beginning, everybody in every department knew that this had to be told the right way, that there had to be room for the acting and for the story. What's going on in the background in VFX can’t be distracting. So, rather than coming up with big crazy stuff, we put all our efforts into the details and being precise – seeing this as possibly being an historic document for teenagers to watch during the next hundred years.

AWN: You created many of the big sequences using practical elements, with only minimal CG. Can you talk about that process?

FP: We boarded everything, including the battle sequences, in pre-production, and I was able to talk to the DP about camera movement and lenses, and how we were going to do everything. And of course we brought in SFX to see how much they could do on their end. All the VFX at some point had to get run through a computer, but the question was, how much can we do with photographic elements and compositing, and then just add little CG helpers – rather than the other way around, where you use particle simulations for explosions, fire, smoke, and so on, and then you see if you have some photographic elements to sort of blend into stuff.

The tricky part of doing it photographically is that you need more time on set, which is why you see that less and less on big productions – because they just want to get through the day. Since you can do everything in the computer later on, they just do it like that. But because I knew right away how I wanted to shoot it, I started to collect as much as I could. Whenever I had time, I would even drive around the Czech Republic, where we shot, to look for broken buildings and things. We also shot additional stuff, like the guns. It was the first technological war, so there were things like flamethrowers, which nobody had ever seen before.

I channeled a lot of old movies I worked on in the 90s, where computers couldn't do that much stuff and that was the way of working. As an artist, it was very intuitive to come back to the studio and just do it, really just a slap comp and just sort of play around with the elements, rather than waiting for a match move, or for a model to be ready. You have to deconstruct everything and then reconstruct the image when you work in full CG. Of course, a lot of the wafting smoke is particle simulation, because the camera was moving so much, and the perspective changed. But the heroes – the big explosions that you see – are all real elements that we shot over the course of three months.

AWN: There are a number of significant scenes where soldiers are charging across the landscape and there's all sorts of ordinance going off. How much of that was done practically as they were running through a set in and around explosions, and how much did you film separately and then use your magic to comp in?

FP: Of course, for safety, you cannot fire an explosion too close to principal actors, and even the stuntmen have a certain safety region. For the mid-ground, we were able to fudge it by using a forced perspective, where we make the explosion bigger and put it behind the guy. But everything you see in the deep background was inserted later. In the case of the debris, sometimes it was just guys on the side throwing stuff [into the shot]. You sort of come up with things that you can do on the day. Since we were shooting outside at night in the rain, some stuff didn't work as planned. But overall, for me, it was kind of a textbook production; I would say about 95% of the visual effects worked out the way we planned them.

We had one working tank that could drive a few yards, but it was so muddy you couldn't really do much with it. So we had scans of the tanks, and the first appearance – as well as the tank fleet breaking through the fog – was handled in CG animation. I usually have a creature or a monster in my films, so the tank became the creature. There's a shape [in the distance]. You don't really know what it is. And then it rears up a little bit. That's all old-school introducing a monster. You do low angles and you have it sort of show its presence. There's a nice little detail when the tank drives over the trenches. We had to shoot it on a special separate trench because the [main set] trenches couldn't withstand the weight. So, when I shot the tank elements, we put logs down so the tank could go up first and then smash down onto the trench, and then go over. And that was a nice thing – you feel the roar of the machine.

AWN: If you had to identify the main places where visual effects were used, what would they be?

FP: Definitely the three distinct battle scenes. There's pretty much everything in them. There are some bird’s-eye views that are full CG matte paintings. Every time that you see fire and burning people and all that, I did that on the greenscreen. And then, for the rest of the film, there's a lot of destruction we had to do to buildings that's sort of invisible, like the old castle where the general is watching the battle going on. That was broken, but it wasn't as pristine as we wanted it to be.

There was also quite a lot of environmental stuff we had to do when Paul and Kat steal the egg from the farmer. We came to set and it wasn't planned. We had this beautiful Christmas snow, big flakes coming down. We started shooting at five in the morning, and we loved it because it provided a little bit of a breather after the battle. It was snowing and it was gorgeous.

But then, at about noon, the sun comes out and it looks like a chocolate commercial. So for the remaining scenes, once they flee and they get caught, all the way up into the forest, we only had snow around their feet. That was quite difficult because these were dolly shots, and Edward liked to do those really long shots – like 30 seconds, 40 seconds. The opening battle is three-and-a-half minutes. It's two shots, which made it a rotoscoping hell.

And there were shots where we had to wait for three months to get the rotoscoping, because all the soldiers were always running, so their motion blurred. And then you have different layers, and you want to be able to service multiple layers in the plate. So it was very labor-intensive. That's the downside of playing with elements a lot – everything has to be done by hand and you can't just go back into your model scene and change stuff and render it again.

AWN: The way that the carnage of war was depicted was very effective. It showed the horror of the conflict, but the details weren’t graphic in a distracting way. Tell me a little bit about how you found that balance.

FP: That was a definite choice we made. We didn't want stuff like that to steal the show. There was one scene that we tested in which we showed a bomb going off and then cut to a general who was hit. And when he’s rolled over, everything is missing. There’s basically a hollow skull. As soon as we saw the test, it was like, we don't want to be that movie. We don't want to be that kind of spectacle. There was one shot where we tilted down to show a wound, and we sped that up, so it's not on screen for long. I think what happens is you quickly go numb to that kind of thing, and then it doesn't really feel important or emotional anymore. And so we ramped up some wounds, but there were also a lot of wounds that we dialed back. It's one of those things where, as a VFX artist, you really have to restrain yourself.

AWN: What were the biggest challenges for you and the filmmakers in creating the visual effects?

FP: The biggest challenge, as I said before, was the material – how tastefully you can do it, while still showing the horrors of war. Apart from that, the budget was very constraining, but, in terms of execution, everything worked out. I was able to work with a great vendor again – UPP in Prague – with whom I worked on the TV series The Terror. [Special effects supervisor] Viktor Muller and I are on the same wavelength. We like to tinker and, rather than sitting down in front of the computer and programming something crazy, we'd rather go into the workshop and see if we can build something.

The shoot itself was brutal. I mean, we had dolly tracks that were halfway in the mud. That affected everybody, since all your tracking went out the window and a lot of stuff was shot handheld, which is always difficult. But James Friend is great. We decided very early on to shoot in scope because you have to. It's almost like the old spaghetti westerns – everything is just a horizon and lots of people. You don't need to see that much sky or anything.

We shot on 65mm and James designed those beautiful wide-angle shots. I would go to him and ask what the camera was going to do. And he would say, "Nothing. It's going to be a lock-off." I haven't heard that in so long, because the rule nowadays is everything has to move, everything has to cut within a second. And it was so refreshing to be able to work on shots where you can actually look at them and pick out details. That was really rewarding.

AWN: You let the image speak for itself. The scene isn’t just a blur of energy. So, in summary, as far as visual effects, what do you hope people – including Academy voters, of course – focus on? What do you want them to come away with?

FP: My mission – and I was so happy to be able to do it again – was to make this not about technology so much. I wanted to dig out my old books and look at how you can create an effect by shooting an element smaller and calculating the angles and selecting the right lenses. And just really trying to be invisible, which to me is the biggest honor. If people say they don't know where the VFX started and where they ended, I couldn't be happier.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.