Handmade VFX warms Boyle's sci-fi 'Sunshine'


Smack in the middle of the summer's CG-heavy, massively budgeted tentpole blockbusters, Fox Searchlight is boldly going where few have gone before. On Friday, the specialty films distributor will launch the sci-fi thriller "Sunshine." Produced at a cost of $40 million, the space film looks like it could have cost more than twice that, but it didn't because the filmmakers constructed most of their special effects by hand.

"The industry has made sci-fi this Holy Grail of VFX, that you have to spend money to get anything good," says Tom Wood, "Sunshine's" VFX supervisor. "I don't agree with that. I feel filmmakers are put off doing sci-fi because of that idea."

Sci-fi is hardly alien territory to director Danny Boyle, who notes that "Sunshine" took some budgetary cues from his 2002 hit, "28 Days Later." The two shows even filmed in the same small London facility, 3 Mills Studio.

"Working with a slightly crippling budget … would make other people despair; I know what I'm best at," says Boyle, who felt strongly that he could make a visually exciting sci-fi film — about a crew flying to the sun to save it from dying — without major use of CG.

In one sequence, a character is shown tumbling into the sun. To achieve the effect, Boyle says that they put the actor on a large gantry, then had 20 men wheel around a vast sliding rig of lights during filming. Later, another character turns into dust, which was whirled around the actor to achieve the effect.

Such methods save on costs and come with hidden benefits, Boyle says. "When we blasted (the actor) with the dust, it didn't cost much — just a couple of air blasters and a lot of edible dust and lighting. But you could feel it when it happened. Now, if I can feel it, you're not telling me that doesn't affect the spirit in the actor. Whereas if you say to him, 'We're going to blow your hair and put the dust in later,' he's going to fake it. That's the thing with actors."

CG's lifelike mimicking is meant to save problems on the back end, Boyle says, but ultimately the human brain knows better. "There is part of our brain where we admire the effect, but we put it in a side compartment of our experience because you know there's no way an actor can live through that or be there in that moment," he says.

Boyle adds that he's no Luddite and notes that there is room for CG in places — the film's spaceship, for example, was computer-generated. But he's not entirely alone in trying to dial back the overwhelming use of CG to tell a story this summer: 20th Century Fox's "Live Free or Die Hard" has been praised for the verisimilitude in its stunts because they were done by stuntmen and only rarely were computer-assisted.

"I think there's a staleness to films that rely too heavily on CG — shows can be killed by previz," says Wood, now working on Buena Vista's CG-fest "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian." "I felt like on 'Sunshine' that I was making shots for Danny Boyle's film in a way that Danny Boyle would have made himself."

As for Boyle, this was his final frontier. "I will never go back into space again," he laughs. "You can feel when you're making the film that the audience expects, and you have to reach that standard or forget it. It's very much a premiership league."