'Aquaman' to 'Black Panther': VFX Artists Reveal Secrets Behind Their Films' Special Effects

10:30 AM 12/12/2018

by Carolyn Giardina

Experts behind 10 of the 20 films shortlisted for the Oscar explain how they invented ancient creatures ('Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom') and brought to life terrifying new monsters ('A Quiet Place') with the help of some creative thinking and a mix of traditional and new tools.

'Black Panther', 'Aquaman'
'Black Panther', 'Aquaman'
Courtesy of Marvel; Jasin Boland/Warner Bros.

Twenty films are vying for the 10 slots on the visual effects shortlist (to be revealed Dec. 17).

Among them are 10 films that required VFX pros to create terrifying dinosaurs, put a man on the moon and help Aquaman swim through Atlantis, as those master craftsmen detailed for THR.

(The list is rounded out by Ant-Man and the WaspBumblebee, Christopher Robin, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Incredibles 2, Isle of Dogs, Mission: Impossible — Fallout, Paddington 2, Welcome to Marwen and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.)

  • 'Aquaman'

    Warner Bros.

    Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ DC Comics

    The Jason Momoa starrer needed its leads to swim underwater in FX scenes. "Actors were 'puppeteered' in stunt harnesses utilizing a myriad of specialized rigs to swim them around proxy bluescreen sets and partial set builds," says VFX supervisor Kelvin McIlwain. "Replacing the bulky puppeteer rigs was a significant challenge. Often it was necessary to replace much of the body of the actors. This meant the creation of digital doubles." The biggest challenge? "Creating the underwater hair for all of the characters," he says.

  • 'Avengers: Infinity War'


    Film Frame/Marvel Studios

    The superhero sequel, which used a whopping 2,623 VFX shots, had to get its CG antagonist just right. "Thanos [Josh Brolin] has the most screen time of any character, and if he didn't work, the movie wouldn't work," says VFX supervisor Dan DeLeeuw. "We had to push the envelope with new tools to capture his performance." He says this included using machine learning software to recognize Brolin's expressions and then apply the performance to the digital Thanos. "The key part of the process is that we could 'teach' the software to recognize the correct expressions. Thanos was able to convey rage as well as subtle moments of sadness while crying for his daughter."

  • 'Black Panther'


    Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

    The Marvel superhero story involved more than 2,000 VFX shots. The Warrior Falls sequences were shot on a stage with a 60-foot pool. The environment was then extended with CG. "We also replaced the surface of the water because it didn't give us enough flow and danger," explains VFX supervisor Geoffrey Baumann. And the chase through Korea's streets was a carefully choreographed combination of stunts, special effects and VFX, as was the fight in the casino — designed to look as it if were one continuous shot. The VFX team effectively stitched together individual shots to create the illusion; the shot itself involved going from various camera rigs to Steadicam and handheld work.

  • 'First Man'


    Courtesy of Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

    The Neil Armstrong biopic puts astronauts in space and on the moon through techniques involving models, miniatures, CG and even an LED video wall. Director Damien Chazelle "wanted to do as much in camera as possible," says VFX supervisor Paul Lambert of lead VFX house DNEG. "If a shot was going to have part of something which we build, close up, we wanted to use the practical; if it was a mid-shot, we'd use a miniature. If it was a wide shot, it was OK to go all CG."

  • 'Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom'


    Universal Pictures/Photofest

    The dino sequel featured 21 species, including seven new ones. "It was really important to me that we build them in a scientific way," says VFX supervisor David Vickery. The work began with studying dinosaur fossils, and the team took cues from living animals. For instance, the Baryonyx's skin was inspired by crocodiles and alligators, while its feet mimic those of ostriches and emus. "That reality is a visual anchor for the audience, and your brain accepts them because you're seeing details with which you are familiar." Other shots involved animatronics. "We made a T. rex that was 3D-printed from ILM's digital files. It was like a huge dinosaur jigsaw puzzle."

  • 'Mary Poppins Returns'


    Courtesy of Disney

    This film's biggest challenge was living up to the expectations of the fans who grew up with the 1964 Julie Andrews classic, explains VFX supervisor Matt Johnson. In one scene, the actors slip into a bath that sends them into a CG underwater world containing digital bubbles, fish, plant life, pirate ships and a giant rubber duck. Following in the tradition of the original, there's an animated sequence that combines hand-drawn 2D characters with live-action actors. The VFX team also had to create digital Houses of Parliament and Big Ben for the London-based story.

  • 'Mortal Engines'


    Courtesy of Universal Pictures

    The production involved world building with extensive visual effects — 1,682 VFX shots, of which 378 were fully CG. VFX supervisor Ken McGaugh of Weta Digital says the goal was to get as much in camera as possible. But there were still huge environment challenges, including creating London as a city on wheels, which had to travel at 300 kilometers per hour. This combined many elements of England's capital city, highlighted by St. Paul's dome.

  • 'A Quiet Place'


    Jonny Cournoyer/Paramount Pictures

    Director John Krasinski wanted his CG predators to look "ancient, as if they had evolved over time," says ILM VFX supervisor Scott Farrar. "He actually donned a motion-capture suit and performed the creature's movements." When it became clear that the original creature design wasn't scary enough, there was a complete redesign. "The team completely remodeled, rerigged and repainted, retextured, reanimated, relit and re-simed in just eight weeks," Farrar says. "Normally, that work would take at least twice that time."

  • 'Ready Player One'

    Warner Bros.

    Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.

    Roughly 90 minutes of the film is set in the Oasis — a multiplayer virtual reality world, which meant creating an elaborate nightclub, New York racetrack and the re-creation of a scene from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. "You also had to design an incredible range of characters," explains VFX supervisor Roger Guyett of ILM. "Every human being is going to choose something different as their avatar, and we wanted to represent that in the movie."

  • 'Solo: A Star Wars Story'


    The latest film in the Star Wars franchise features a combination of VFX techniques. Most of the train heist sequence, for instance, combines practical effects and CG with the goal of making it look as real as possible, explains VFX supervisor Rob Bredow. The actors were shot on a 50-foot train car on a rig. In another scene, performance capture (with a twist) was used to create the droid L3-37. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who played the role, did performance capture but also wore a practical suit. The final result is a combination of the live-action elements of the suit combined with CG based on the performance capture.

    This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.