'Fault in Our Stars' Visual Effects: Tumblr-esque Texts, Prosthetic Legs and Cannulas in Bed (Q&A)

Courtesy of Fox 2000/Jake Braver
"The Fault in Our Stars"

Director Josh Boone and VFX supervisor Jake Braver outline the extensive effects that make Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort's cancer symptoms and onscreen love realistic.

[WARNING: Spoilers ahead for the film The Fault in Our Stars.]

The Fault in Our Stars is a film that pops -- literally.

Throughout the film adaptation of John Green's best-selling novel, white boxes with rounded corners and contrasting fonts appear onscreen whenever Shailene Woodley's Hazel Grace Lancaster and Ansel Elgort's Augustus Waters are flirtatiously texting about the books they've recommended to each other. The scene seems familiar not only because of the "young love" feelings that fly between them with every scribbled word, but also because of the visual design to bring their texts to the big screen in a way that's a cross between House of Cards, the Fault fandom and social media platforms.

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"We can't have them staring at phones the entire movie," director Josh Boone tells The Hollywood Reporter of his discussion with cinematographer Ben Richardson. "So we looked at House of Cards and Sherlock, and said, 'We should do something like this, but make it more like a Twitter-Tumblr aesthetic. That was the idea – to make it look like the fan art people had made for the movie, and feel like Tumblr."

"The toughest part of those shots was making sure they communicated what they needed to for the story without being distracting to the scene," says visual effects supervisor Jake Braver, who also worked on Blue Jasmine and the Cannes favorite Foxcatcher. After selecting pieces as inspiration for mockups alongside production designer Molly Hughes and meeting with Boone and producers Wyck Godfrey and Isaac Klausner, the final shots were executed by a company called Spontaneous. "We needed to find a way to see what Hazel and Gus were feeling as they read and typed the messages … I couldn’t imagine having handled the emails and texts in any other way."

Boone jokes that "there's more effect shots in this movie than the original Star Wars … getting rid of wires, mic pops, stabilizing camera," and more. But a major scene required that a cannula be added in postproduction: "The very first shot of the love scene -- it's a close-up of Shai, and she didn't have a cannula on because it was later in the scene, but we really wanted that look in her eyes, so Jake put a cannula on her. We didn't think it would work, and he did and it was beautiful."

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Braver tells THR more about the visual effects of the film, which includes flying out of Indianapolis, making the stars shine and adding an authenticity to Elgort's prosthetic leg that lived up to Woodley's strategic (lack of) breathing and Nat Wolff's blackout contacts:

When did you know Fault would feature Hazel and Gus' texts and emails onscreen directly?

Until about halfway through prep, Josh and I had planned on the computer screens and text messages being shot pretty conventionally, by cutting to a phone screen or computer. But the more we thought about it, we got to talking about how the focus is Hazel and Gus, and we needed to find a way to see what Hazel and Gus were feeling as they read and typed the messages. This scene was a lot of fun, because it's a whole conversation between Hazel and Gus where there is no dialogue, aside from the messages that are displayed onscreen.

How were the shots of the texts produced?

We went kind of old-school, actually -- each frame of each text message was hand-drawn and written on vellum, scanned, then animated and tracked, and digitally composited onto the footage. I felt like it was really important to ground those shots by making them feel handmade. I couldn’t imagine having handled the emails and texts in any other way.

[Regarding the hardware's screens], a lot of movies fake the way phones and emails look, and it was very important to us to be 100 percent authentic about that. Hazel and Gus have iPhones and they actually look and act like iPhones.

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Boone noted that Hazel's cannula in some shots of her love scene is composed from visual effects.

While editing, Josh and his editor Robb Sullivan found this amazing close-up of Shailene from later in the scene when she had taken off her cannula, and she is looking at Gus, but they wanted to use it right at the beginning of the scene. So we added a computer-generated cannula -- it was a bit tricky to add, only because it was a close-up of Shai's face, and the cuts right before it and after it were of her with the real cannula, so it had match perfectly. Hopefully, it's seamless. 

What are some other VFX adds that fans can spot?

There are almost 350 VFX shots in the movie, and on a movie like this, it's my job to make sure they are invisible. Hopefully, those moments feel organic enough that no one is thinking "How did they do that?"

The scene when Hazel and Gus are on the plane departing for Amsterdam -- it's nearly impossible to shoot on a real airplane, so we added the background outside the windows, and for the exterior of the takeoff, we added the actual Indianapolis Airport terminal in the background of the shot. That's not something anyone would notice on a first viewing, but we tried to add little things like that for the fans where we could.

It was also important to Josh that, when Hazel looked up at the stars, they had a little extra sparkle, so we helped a bit there. And we also had the chance to do a version of the Fox logo at the beginning of the movie that was a little bit special.

Which scene or effect was the most demanding?

The trickiest VFX shots were Gus' leg, which were all handed by Phosphene FX. We see Gus’s leg in three scenes -- once in support group, once when he is in his bed on the phone with Hazel, [and in Amsterdam]. For those first two shots, we used Ansel's performance on set as the basis for how his prosthetic leg should be moving, and we used a young man who actually lost his leg as a double and for lighting reference. Ansel really sold those shots with his performance.

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After the love scene, we see Gus' stump. Again, Josh and I went for what was completely real and authentic. I spoke to two doctors who were very helpful in providing information that informed what Gus' stump should look like, explaining the type of amputation Gus had and how it would have healed.

The most demanding part was also the most fun part. So many people have so much love and care so deeply about this story and these characters, you want to get it right.

The Fault in Our Stars hits theaters June 6.

Email: Ashley.Lee@THR.com
Twitter: @cashleelee