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Updating 'The Wicker Man' with Blazing CG

Ellen Wolff ventures out to speak with the trio of vfx houses that helped build The Wicker Man.

The Wicker Man burns again in a new feature. All images © Warner Bros. Pictures.

Visual effects shots probably arent the first images that come to mind when you recall the career of writer/director Neil LaBute (The Shape of Things, In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, Nurse Betty). But when LaBute decided to tackle an update of the 1973 Christopher Lee cult movie The Wicker Man, some essential visual effects were required. While creating this new version for Millennium Pictures (released in the U.S. by Warner Bros. on Sept. 1) LaBute did make some crucial changes to the macabre story about an island community practicing pagan rituals. But the iconic image of a giant, blazing, wicker-wood man remained part of the tale.

So viewing the original film was what vfx producer Scott Coulter calls Research 101. When Coulters Sofia, Bulgaria-based Worldwide FX got the call from parent company NuImage/Millennium to be the lead house on The Wicker Man, Coulter bought a DVD of the 1973 version right away. He actually picked it up on his way to the airport for a flight to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he met with LaBute on location. Coulter admits, I hadnt seen the original film in 20 years, but I remembered what a great movie it was and still is.

Back in Bulgaria, where Coulter founded Worldwide FX six years ago, the team created a majority of the 150 visual effects shots in The Wicker Man. We did about three-quarters of the shots in the film, recalls vfx supervisor Danny Markov. For certain scenes in the films finale, LaBute wanted the effects to be done in Los Angeles, so they could be readily tweaked as needed. Those shots went to Pacific Title in Hollywood, where the Digital Intermediate was also done. In addition, a call for CG-animated bees went out during the tight post-production schedule, and Lava Studio in Miami, Florida, stepped up to create those shots.

A Worldwide FX Task

The first-priority assignment for Worldwide FX was the car crash sequence near the films beginning. A police officer played by Nicolas Cage witnesses a fiery accident that foreshadows eerie events to come. Several shots also required Worldwide to create close-ups of Cages face surrounded by flames. Markov notes, Digital fire has always been one of the biggest challenges for any studio, but we have huge experience working with that. The key to doing fire and smoke is randomness. Usually we use Maya for those kinds of simulations, although our LightWave artists also get good results.

Coulter adds that the fiery car crash was a straight Maya render that was heavily enhanced in 2D with Digital Fusion, and combined with footage of actual flames. Its always better to comp and enhance real fire, he says. Markov separated his crew into two teams to handle The Wicker Man. Basically, the 2D team was five to seven people and the 3D was done by four people. We finished our first delivery in two months.

Given this projects tight time frame, Worldwide FX relied on proprietary visual effects management software called FX Track. Coulter explains, We handle anywhere from 16 to 18 projects at a time so it takes a great deal of tracking to manage these projects properly and communicate with clients all over the world.

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Lava Builds Bees

A key element in The Wicker Man involves swarming bees, which was handled by Lava. Visual effects director Robert Kirkpatrick explains that the job came to them because Millenium Films had employed Lava successfully on the Morgan Freeman/Kevin Spacey vehicle Edison Force. For The Wicker Man, Lava worked directly for the films post-production supervisor Jordan Kessler and visual effects editor Ryan Dorney. We had about six weeks to complete 42 shots, notes Kirkpatrick. Fortunately for Lavas 3D-CG animation team, only 30 of those shots involved animating photorealistic bees.

Lead CGI animator Esteban Mora explains, All of that animation was done in 3ds Max. We also used Combustion and Flame as well as a compositing tool called Cyborg. While Cyborg, a product of former software company 5D is no longer available, its still in use at Lava. Another key tool the studio used on The Wicker Man was the V-Ray renderer from the Chaos Group.

Lava was also asked to create some virtual real estate for this film. The production wanted them to create establishing shots of the island where Cages character goes in search of a missing person. Views of this CG landscape at different times of day served a transitional purpose in the film, explains Kirkpatrick. We had to show the island at sunrise, which was much more upbeat than it appears in a later, more ominous shot. Lava used Terragen software to generate believable scenery for these island shots. Creating this range of photoreal shots required a team of eight people, four of whom worked on the assignment from beginning to end.

Pac Titles Fiery Finale

Without giving away the films ending, its fair to say theres a fiery finale featuring the towering wooden structure that gives the movie its name. While the structure was built physically, it was photographed clean without smoke or fire. The actors and animals that appear in this sequence also were photographed separately, since they couldnt be filmed in close proximity to the practical fire used on set. So creating the CG fire effects was the work of Hollywood-based Pacific Title. As Pac Title visual effects supervisor Mark Freund explains, We did lots of flaming torch additions. We enjoy working with fire!

Pac Title handled a number of shots in the finale from different angles, inserting elements into the wicker man and then enhancing the flames that surround them. Freund observes, This sequence was designed before it came to us. But the challenge was to get believable action, so there was a lot of rock and rolling to create performances through editorial manipulation. We used some photographed elements and stock footage, and that meant lots of tracking and warping and elbow grease. We used Inferno for all the 2D flame work. The people who tend to be our good flame guys work on those boxes. It always comes down to the talent, not the equipment.

Freund and vfx producer Rodney Montague (who oversaw the DI) handled about 33 effects shots for The Wicker Man. In addition to the fire, those shots included crowd enhancements, a head replacement and a sky replacement to alter the background behind the burning wicker mans pillars of smoke. Shake was used for compositing, and Maya was used for the studios sole 3D-animated shot of a seaplane.

While most of Pac Titles assignment involved photoreal images, there were three highly stylized montages that functioned somewhat like flashbacks or dream sequences. Rodney Montague explains, We manipulated and stretched some of those images in 3D space. Wed put the 2D image on a plane and then stretch it and warp it in z-space so that it took on a different look. That look was set before we took it to the DI. There were a couple of nudges of color correction in the DI, but the serious manipulations in those flashbacks were done in Inferno.

Freund adds, There was lots of color work and stuttered time-phasing going on. These shots tended to have multiple layers, and anything that gets into serious multi-layers we do outside of the DI. But because both the effects and the DI were done in-house, we had a lot of flexibility to take it in, review it, and see what we could address in DI. In this case, we didnt stretch the DI that much.

While Neil LaBute previously had done some montage work with Pac Title on Nurse Betty, Montague says, As far as I know, this was Neils largest foray into visual effects. But he is a very decisive man and he knew what he wanted. The look or the technique of an individual effect was not so important. What mattered to him was how it served the story.

Ellen Wolff is a southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the website Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.