David Vana of UPP Prague discusses collaborating with Francis Ford Coppola in this VFXWorld exclusive.
Youth Without Youth (opening Dec. 14 from Sony Classics) not only marks director Francis Ford Coppola's first film in 10 years, but also signals a return to the personal kind of filmmaking that he prefers. Self-financed and shot in Romania, the highly philosophical film is about consciousness and the origin of language. Set primarily in Romania and Switzerland between 1938-1969, the fantasy/ love story concerns a lonely old linguistics professor, Dominic (played by Tim Roth), who is desperate to complete a book that answers the meaning of life. Then, when he's literally struck by lightening and miraculously survives, Dominic is transformed into a younger man with a superhuman brain. With this second chance to complete his study, however, he is immediately hunted by the Nazis and then falls in love with a mysterious woman who holds the key to his past, present and future. For key vfx work, Coppola called upon UPP Prague. VFX Supervisor David Vana spoke to VFXWorld about the technical challenges of Youth Without Youth.
Bill Desowitz: First, tell us a little about UPP Prague.
David Vana: UPP has been one of the early pioneers of vfx in the Czech Republic since 1994 and is now recognized as one of the leading post-production and vfx houses in Central Europe. Today UPP can offer the complete range of post requirements, including complete Digital Intermediate portfolio, 2D composition, matte painting, 3D modeling and animation. Housed in a state-of-the-art studio in beautiful Prague, UPP prides itself on developing a very close working relationship with its clients. The vfx industry has been growing significantly in recent years, attracting more and more international film projects.
BD: How did UPP Prague get the assignment to do Youth Without Youth? And what was it like working with Francis Ford Coppola? He was very complimentary when I asked him about your work. He said: "I can't tell you enough how great they are, what great filmmakers they are and how helpful they were. At first, we didn't plan for much of a visual effects budget because we didn't know we needed it. But, of course, in today's world, there are so many things. And they did such good work, even when we got into trouble and couldn't pay for the last shot. I offered them a lot of wine and they were so understanding. It would be a pleasure to pay them a lot of money some day on another movie. Their work is so subtle: In one sequence we go to India and there's a mosque and there are these colored silks and many Indian people... and I asked them if we could just put a little reflection in the water, and they did it with such skill."
DV: UPP's commitment to good work and happy clients has created good references. When Francis came to visit us, he was struck by a number of things. Our unique atmosphere in our studio and flexibility in meeting clients' needs and perhaps, in particular, he noted the good coffee. When taking the initial tour of the studio, Francis saw our coffee machine. He mentioned it was exactly the same machine he bought when he started his first company [American Zoetrope]. He was also happy to see how flexible UPP was, especially when we took part payment for our work in his wine. UPP has built up a nice wine cellar, so we welcomed the opportunity to have wine from Frances' own vineyard and it is now a star of UPP's wine collection.
In working with Francis, it was nice to see that the biggest stars can also be the nicest people. It was a great pleasure for UPP to work with him and share his wisdom and experience.
BD: Tell us more about the experience of working on Youth Without Youth.
DV: We had roughly three months to deliver all the vfx shots. As we wanted to have at least one month for changes and perfecting the shots, we had only two months for work itself. We put together a team of 15 people, including 2D compositors, 3D artists and a matte painter. We were able to compile this team in-house.
BD: How many shots did you work on? And describe the nature of the work.
DV: We worked on more than 80 shots. The most of these were not too complicated but still had to be artistically and technically correct. We enhanced the sky to look more dramatic and ominous, we also added Himalayan mountains into the background as well as many other shots. A couple of these effects were exceptional. In particular, the lightning bolt shots and electricity. These effects had to be visible enough but not stick out from the movie too much. Another interesting shot was the disintegration of the Sanskrit paper where we used a combination of 3D animation and particles. We also used particles for adding snow. But I felt that a layer of real snow combined with 3D particle snow created a better shot.
BD: What were some of the biggest technical and creative challenges?
DV: There were two scenes that were very complicated. Dominic's wrinkle removal and Hercules above the Himalayan mountains. Our biggest challenge was the scene where Dominic (Tim Roth, 46) should look like he's 24. We researched how a human's face changes over the years. It was not only wrinkles, which had to be removed. We also had to change the shape of his face, ears and nose until we were satisfied. We used only 2D composition for applying these changes to our shots. These were pretty tricky, especially in the shots where Dominic turned his head.
The Hercules shot was also interesting. We selected an appropriate stock image of the mountain for that shot. We projected this image on low polygonal 3D mesh to match the shape of the mountain. This allowed us to create camera movement. We then projected the image of the mountain onto this polygonal mesh. We enhanced the shot by adding very subtle cloud movement.
The airplane itself took a full week to build. The balancing of all the components (materials, textures, dirt layers, colors, etc) took much longer. We had to find many references to determine exactly how light reacts on the plane's surfaces. Duplicating this in 3D was our most difficult challenge. Some of the reflections and glints were real and for us essential to include in the shot. In the end, I believe this helped us reach a feeling of reality.
BD: What tools did you use?
DV: We used our standard in-house hardware and software setup. We used Flame for more complicated shots and Shake for simpler, XSI and Maya for 3D, Photoshop for matte painting.
BD: What has been the impact of working on Youth Without Youth?
DV: Since 2003 we have continually attracted more and more international projects. But Youth Without Youth with Francis marks a pinnacle in working with the top people in the business. A measure of our success is that many of the producers, directors, DOPs who worked with us come back again with their next projects.
Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.