Now Showing – Cinefex 171

Cinefex 171

We on the Cinefex editorial staff were about a month into our two-month research and writing period for issue 171 when, in a single day in mid-March, four of the five films we were covering had their release dates pulled due to pandemic-related movie theater closures. We dubbed it the ‘Saint Patrick’s Day Massacre,’ and it left us shell-shocked. Worse, it left us with no new movies to cover, and precious little time to come up with new content.

Our dilemma paled in comparison to those who had fallen ill with the virus, or those who were losing loved ones. To paraphrase a great silver-screen philosopher, the problems of a few visual effects journalists amounted to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But we had to come up with something for our next issue, and we had to do it fast.

What was most important, we grasped immediately, was to get ourselves back on solid ground, and off the quicksand of constantly shifting film release dates. What could we count on? What entertainment content was going to be there, no matter how bad the pandemic got, or how long the shelter-in-place orders remained in effect?

The answer was obvious: content from streaming channels would still air as planned, no matter what, and likely to an even larger audience. We had briefly talked about doing an all-streaming issue in the past. If ever there was a time to do it, it was now.

So, here is our all-streaming issue, with coverage of six of the most compelling and popular shows airing during the Great Stay at Home of spring 2020: Westworld (HBO), Devs (Hulu), Star Trek: Picard (CBS All Access), Tales from the Loop and The Boys (Amazon Prime), and Altered Carbon (Netflix).

Sit back, relax, and read the pages of Cinefex 171 to learn about these fascinating productions. What else do you have to do? Wishing you all good health!

The print edition of Cinefex 171 is available to order from our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy will soon arrive in your mailbox. You can also download our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs and exclusive video content.

Spotlight – Michael Illingworth

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Michael Illingworth is a visual effects supervisor and owner of Vine FX. His feature career highlights include all the Harry Potter films, Black Hawk Down and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, while on television he’s a veteran of the Canal+/Fox adaptation of War of the Worlds, Merlin, Atlantis, Black Mirror and Patrick Melrose.

Michael Illingworth

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Michael?

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: As a kid I saw a promo by MPC called Monkey Business which featured a Quantel Paintbox. I thought it was really cool that they could paint on to a monitor, and this led to me study Moving Image Design at Ravensbourne College, which was one of the few places in the UK that had Quantel equipment. My first big break was at The Mill. After a long day running I offered to de-spot a Reebok commercial, digitally removing the film dirt, which I did through the night. Thankfully my efforts were rewarded and I was offered a position as a junior artist using Quantel Harriet.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: Seeing seamless visual effects. There’s a moment in shot or asset evolution where it sings.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: Nothing much really. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for,

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: I comped what I believe was the most expensive shot that Mill Film had worked on at the time. In A Knight’s Tale there’s a fly by over an arena that combines motion control, modelmaking, digital matte painting and lots of other stuff. The story goes that all the various elements were so expensive to produce that they were hoping it would be too costly to consider. The day after the bid was submitted they received a purchase order. I think I spent over a month simply trying to lock all the various plates together.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: Removing the testicles from a bulldog for a UK Labour Party political broadcast. The story even featured on the television show Have I Got News for You, much to everyone’s amusement.

Watch a breakdown video showcasing Vine FX’s work on the Canal+/Fox adaptation of War of the Worlds:

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: We still use the same techniques we used back in the ‘90s. It’s all about having an eye for detail, but the computers get quicker each year and I’m continuously amazed by what is achievable.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?


CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: If you love creating films or effects and playing with computers then you’ll love working in visual effects. It’s a cliché, but if you do a job you love you never have to work a day in your life. Just don’t let anyone take advantage!

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of big visual effects movies. If I had to choose, I’d pick films I have worked on and then bore everyone about which shots I did!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?


CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Michael!

Snowpiercer – VFX Q&A

Snowpiercer - Cinefex VFX Q&A

When climate change and global war caused the Earth to overheat, scientists used technology to cool the planet. But they went too far. Temperatures plummeted to minus 184 degrees Fahrenheit, the world’s entire ecosystem crashed, and the few surviving humans took refuge in a giant train built by mega-rich inventor Mr. Wilford. Known as Snowpiercer, the train was designed as a haven for billionaires. But as the train left the station to begin its endless circuits around the frozen Earth, its tail section was invaded by a horde of ordinary citizens. A highly stratified society has since evolved inside the train’s 1,001 cars, in which the impoverished ‘tailies’ are an underclass ruled by the wealthy elite who ride in pampered style in Snowpiercer’s luxurious forward compartments.

The ten-part series Snowpiercer premiered on TNT on May 17, 2020, starring Daveed Diggs as tailie detective Andre Layton and Jennifer Connelly as Melanie Cavill, the train’s ice-cool Head of Hospitality. Showrunner Graeme Manson worked with a creative team at Tomorrow Studios to adapt the show from the 2013 film of the same name, directed by Bong Joon-ho, and from that film’s original source material, the 1982 graphic novel Le Transperceneige, created by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette.

Cinefex spoke with Geoff Scott — visual effects supervisor on season one of Snowpiercer and currently working on season two — about the challenges of driving a 1,001-car train through an hostile ice-locked world.

CINEFEX: How did you get involved with Snowpiercer?

SCOTT: I’d worked with Graeme Manson for five seasons on Orphan Black, where I was visual effects supervisor for the show, so I was known to him and also to Mackenzie Donaldson, our producer. Initially there was another supervisor involved, then after a few weeks they asked me if I would consider coming on board. I was a huge fan of the earlier film, and I had the original graphic novels that I bought when I was younger, traveling in Paris. So I said, “Absolutely!”

CINEFEX: Who else did you have on the visual effects team?

SCOTT: Our visual effects producer was Darren Bell — who I’m working with again on season two — and I had another on-set supervisor to help me out. We had a team of five or six internal compositors, and we used Method Studios and Encore VFX as our main vendor; the supervisor there was Eric Gambini and their CG supervisor was Christopher Ryan, who was responsible for building the train. FuseFX was our secondary vendor; their supervisor was Jon Cowley. For smaller incidental things we used a small shop out of Toronto called Torpedo Pictures.

CINEFEX: Tell us about the creative development of the Snowpiercer train. In many ways she’s the star of the show.

SCOTT: I started out discussing creative ideas with James Hawes, who was our directing producer. Then I hired a team of concept artists to start the ball rolling — this was before I even had the job. We threw around some steampunk ideas but I’m actually a huge fan of the dieselpunk look, pulling in more of the heavy machinery from the ‘30s and ‘40s. And I love the Art Deco style of the ‘20s. There are some amazing-looking trains from that period when train design was almost an art form. I really liked a train called the Mercury, and that was our starting point for the aesthetic of our Snowpiercer. It closely matched the train from the graphic novel, with that giant bullnose and those two little slit windows, so it felt cohesive and respectful to both the film and the graphic novel, while still having our own unique look. We even went so far as to design how the train actually works. It’s not just a single engine pulling all those cars. It’s a heuristic system where all the wheels along the whole train are attached to bogie motors that recycle energy.

Snowpiercer pulls out of a frozen Vancouver. The train design was inspired by the streamlined locomotives of the early 20th century including the Mercury, operated by the New York Central Railroad during the 1930s.
Snowpiercer pulls out of a frozen Vancouver. The train design was inspired by the streamlined locomotives of the early 20th century including the Mercury, operated by the New York Central Railroad during the 1930s.

CINEFEX: Did you develop the concept into a single master digital train, or did you have different Snowpiercer assets to perform different functions?

SCOTT: There was a primary train asset that did everything. As scripts developed, it did need to evolve, and we would upgrade it as per the requirements of the shot. We had 15 variations of cars, like the agriculture car, the cattle car, the container car. Ultimately there are a lot more variants and we’ll be building those in future seasons.

CINEFEX: According to the story, Snowpiercer is 1,001 cars long. Surely you didn’t actually build the whole train?

SCOTT: Well, the thing is the train is over ten miles long. You’d have to be hundreds of feet in the air to be able to see it from tip to tail — I calculated that when we first started. It literally drops beyond the horizon. Writers would describe shots going from the engine all the way to the tail and I’d be like, “You cannot travel ten miles in a five-second shot. It’ll look ridiculous.”

CINEFEX: Was it hard designing shots to communicate that scale?

SCOTT: The biggest struggle was trying to find shots that put you in this impressive frozen world, but didn’t detract from the train itself, because it’s the titular character. The wider you go to try and showcase more of an environment, the more you make the train look small. It looks like a model. You take its power away.

CINEFEX: You do have wide shots, but there are also several close-up shots down at track level showing the train thundering along, where you get a good look at the wheels spinning and the coupling rods rattling back and forth.

SCOTT: We deliberately gave the engine wheels that traditional arm coupling mechanism, which adds a level of dynamism to those shots. It’s actually something you’d associate more with steam engines and early diesel engines, but there is one electric train that has a similar thing. So it is real. Graeme was very particular about that kind of thing. I said to him, “We’re safe. If anyone mentions it at Comic Con, you can point this engine out to them!”

CINEFEX: Do the animators get hands-on with all those moving parts, or are they controlled by the rig?

SCOTT: It’s a physics-based rig. The animators move the train along and everything else is propagated back up the chain, and all the various settings can be dialed up or down.

CINEFEX: How fast is Snowpiercer traveling, on average?

SCOTT: We set our speed at around 65 miles per hour. It was all about finding the right proportionate scale: we wanted it to feel powerful but not too fast. I drove around at various speeds shooting reference on GoPro at different frame rates. There are a few places — particularly in episode ten — where we cheated the speed because it looked cool, but mostly we kept it real.

Visual effects created frozen environments procedurally using Side Effects Houdini. Most of the landscapes were based on real locations.
Visual effects created frozen environments procedurally using Side Effects Houdini. Most of the landscapes were based on real locations.

CINEFEX: Tell us more about this frozen environment. The characters mention specific places at times, like Yukon territory or the Sierra Madre. Did you try to replicate actual locations from the real world?

SCOTT: Absolutely. Graeme wanted places to be real. We would decide exactly where our train was at any moment in terms of longitude and latitude, and then use all the facilities we could — satellite data, lidar, Google Earth — to work out what we needed to see. We generated most of the environments procedurally in Houdini, either extracting geometry from the reference or building it to eye. Then we destroyed it and covered it in snow. It was all real — oh, except for one canyon in episode six. We cheated that. Don’t tell anyone!

CINEFEX: The landscape is littered with towns and ruins of various kinds.

SCOTT: Yes, one of our big things was that we wanted to show evidence of humanity. We were always looking for way to have small towns or cities along the line, or anything recognizable. We even have an opening shot going through a dead Vancouver. The one problem is at minus 184 degrees everything would be insanely brittle. Trees would shatter; bricks would crumble, timber-framed houses would not exist. But that’s not interesting to look at.

CINEFEX: What are the challenges of lighting shots in a world that’s essentially in perpetual white-out?

SCOTT: Obviously we followed the lighting direction inside the train, which was determined by our two cinematographers, John Grillo and Thomas Burstyn. We realized that if it’s minus 184 degrees there’s not going to be a cloud in a sky, and if there’s no clouds, there’s no drama. So we decided there would be clouds in our world. We had to have something in the air to help us create dramatic skies — whether that’s moisture or carbon nanoparticles from whatever it was they used to freeze the world. I went down the rabbit hole of figuring all this out; at one point I realized the sky could have looked very red because of the theoretical particles they used to pollute it. But we didn’t want it to look like Mars.

A Class 4 avalanche hits Snowpiercer as the train speeds along perilous mountain slopes.
A Class 4 avalanche hits Snowpiercer as the train speeds along perilous mountain slopes.

CINEFEX: In episode two, the train gets hit by an avalanche.

SCOTT: That was entirely handled at Method and Encore. In the script it’s a class four avalanche, so we researched how much mass would be coming down. Technically, that class of avalanche could possibly derail a train, so we went with a powder snow type of avalanche rather than a slab type. If you look at the last shot in episode one, where they’re going into bad weather and they talk about how they hate this stretch of track, there’s actually a tiny avalanche on the mountain in the distance. Just a little piece of foreshadowing.

The visual effects team at Method Studios and Encore VFX simulated the catastrophic event based on the physics of real-world powder snow avalanches.
The visual effects team at Method Studios and Encore VFX simulated the catastrophic event based on the physics of real-world powder snow avalanches.

CINEFEX: The avalanche smashes open the cattle car. How much work was involved with the interior shots for that sequence?

SCOTT: Before I came on board, they shot scenes with real cows in the cattle car. That set was taken down and the cows were sent back to their fields, but then they changed the narrative a bit and we needed a whole bunch more work done. We reshot some scenes entirely on bluescreen, and we rebuilt the set in visual effects as a patchwork of existing footage and stills. The scale of the original set was enormous — something like 30-40 feet wide — so we brought the width down to a more realistic level of 12 feet. We also extended it to suggest the cattle car is two stories tall and several chambers long. We extracted the actors off the background and put them into these digitally altered sets; for some shots we created digital actors. The cows are fully CG. We had eight variants, all based on photographs of real cows.

The avalanche smashes open the cattle car. Visual effects rebuilt live-action plates, altering the size and shape of the cattle car interior and introducing digital cows and human characters.
The avalanche smashes open the cattle car. Visual effects rebuilt live-action plates, altering the size and shape of the cattle car interior and introducing digital cows and human characters.

CINEFEX: Some of the cars have windows through which we see the landscape flashing past — notably the engine room at the front of the train, which has a wraparound windshield giving a panoramic view of the track ahead. What methodology did you use for those shots?

SCOTT: We shot the engine room with bluescreen at the front. I prefer to use bluescreen over greenscreen. It doesn’t cast as far, so we were dealing with fewer spill issues. We had chase lights down the side window to give the impression of objects passing by outside.

CINEFEX: Did you have physical movement with the cars on the set — jostling and rocking and so on?

SCOTT: We did. Our special effects coordinator Gary Minielly and his co-supervisor Charles Desrosiers suspended some of the cars on airbags — that included the engine room, the tail cars, the third class corridor, and the classroom which doubled as the third class lunch room. They had these eight-foot-long poles on either side — they were almost like giant hockey sticks — and they would just pump them back and forth.

Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) and Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) meet in the glass tunnel of Snowpiercer's aquarium car. The actors performed in a bluescreen set. Method Studios and Encore VFX created the aquarium and its aquatic inhabitants.
Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) and Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) meet in the glass tunnel of Snowpiercer’s aquarium car. The actors performed in a bluescreen set. Method Studios and Encore VFX created the aquarium and its aquatic inhabitants.

CINEFEX: There’s a scene in episode one where Melanie meets Jinju at a bar in the aquarium car, where there’s a glass tunnel entirely surrounded by water. How much of that is real?

SCOTT: Everything at the bar is real and everything else is all digital — the glass corridor, the water, all the fish and plant life. The actress playing Jinju, Susan Park, swam with safety divers in a tank with bluescreen behind. There was a tiny piece of rock wall for the shots where she’s picking up a sea urchin, but that was super-small. Even those tight shots of her hands working we still had to extend out the sides and top. As the season goes on, we kept adding a few more bits of life into the tank, so every time you see it there are one or two more creatures. That was all done by Method and Encore; they had done the aquarium in the original film, although that was coincidence more than anything.

Jinju Seong (Susan Park) dives to retrieve an urchin from the aquarium floor. Visual effects artists extracted the actress from the plate and composited her into a digital aquarium filled with schools of fish and other creatures.
Jinju Seong (Susan Park) dives to retrieve an urchin from the aquarium floor. Visual effects artists extracted the actress from the plate and composited her into a digital aquarium filled with schools of fish and other creatures.

CINEFEX: Also in episode one, we get a glimpse of a hidden transit system that conveniently speeds characters along the length of the train. It looks a little bit like a suspended mine cart.

SCOTT: That’s the sub-train. It’s our deus ex machina to get people ten miles up and down the train between scenes. We had one car length and a single cart that went painfully slowly, for the safety of the actors. We sped that up and extended it. FuseFX did all the work on that.

CINEFEX: Was there a lot of set extension work, in addition to the sub-train?

SCOTT: Oh, we did a ton of internal set extensions. A lot of times we were shooting with one car, or maybe two cars attached to each other. In the tail section we had four cars attached, and then a fifth and sixth one in addition. Just after the battle when Layton and Melanie are talking in the utility car, either side of that are set extensions done by our internal team.

CINEFEX: What about action enhancement in the various fight scenes. There’s plenty of blood flying.

SCOTT: The action enhancement throughout the season was handled by several vendors, and it gets bigger as the season goes on. The tailie attack in the opening episode was handled entirely by one of our internal compositors, Jason Snea. He’s my blood guy; whenever I need realistic looking blood, I go to Jason.

Snowpiercer - Cinefex VFX Q&A

Snowpiercer airs weekly through May-July 2020 on TNT in the United States, and on Netflix across the rest of the world.

Special thanks to Jordan Acomba.

Spotlight – Dan Bethell

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Dan Bethell works as a visual effects supervisor at Rising Sun Pictures. His personal filmography highlights include Batman Begins, Mad Max: Fury Road, Thor: Ragnarok and Outlaw King.

Dan Bethell

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Dan?

DAN BETHELL: I was lucky enough to find a University course for Computer Animation and Visualisation when I left secondary school. As a student I really wanted to be a graphic designer, but I’d spent (nearly) my whole life programming computers, so this seemed like a perfect way to combine what I loved with a craft I understood.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

DAN BETHELL: Happy accidents! Having spent a few years doing effects simulations, I love nothing more than opening up a render to something unexpected and random but beautiful. If the client likes it too, then that’s even better!

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

DAN BETHELL: I rarely sob any more but when I have in the past it’s been over having to let a shot go. It happens all the time; sometimes for editorial reasons and sometimes for aesthetic reasons. Regardless, seeing a shot that you’ve become attached to cut from a project is hard. But you get used to it over time and it’s a good reminder that we’re part of something much larger than visual effects; we’re a small, but significant, part in the story-telling process.

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

DAN BETHELL: Fury Road was the most challenging but also most rewarding project of my career. I ended up spending eight months in the Namibian desert supervising the visual effects for the ‘Action Unit’ – which is like a normal second unit but on steroids. Every day saw multiple stunts, bigger than anything I’d seen before, captured with upwards of six cameras. It was logistically challenging to say the least! It was a great lesson in how important visual effects can be as a supporting craft. Some of the visual effects work was done so that stunts could be performed safely; some was to enhance special effects; and some was simply to make the environments look more awesome than they already did. The whole project was really something special, and an opportunity I’ll always be grateful for.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

DAN BETHELL: There are plenty, but shooting elements is always fun and often an “am-I-really-doing-this?” moment! I have witnessed a lot of crazy – from crew sat on stepladders shooting flamethrowers into the African sky, to poking tin cans with small blue hands attached to long blue sticks, all in the name of visual effects.

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

DAN BETHELL: The convergence of rendering towards raytracing and physically based approaches has been a game changer for me, especially in a supervision role. Whereas we used to rely on cheats and hacks, we can now spend our time moving and shaping lights in a way that is intuitive to us as humans. It’s moved the whole aspect of lighting a scene away from a laborious technical exercise to a more interactive, creative process. As a supervisor, it means lighting a scene has finally become cinematic. I can ask an artist to increase exposure or flag a light, and everyone understands what to do. Hopefully we never have to use shadow maps again!

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

DAN BETHELL: Not so much a change as a continuation – I’d love to see visual effects continue to collaborate with other film departments early in the process. When visual effects is considered a last resort, or simply a post-process, then the whole project suffers. Often if we’re involved in a project earlier, not only can we bring the visual effects shot-count down, but the shots that do have to be visual effects can be planned and executed more efficiently, which means better results in a more cost-effective manner. Everyone appreciates that.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

DAN BETHELL: Focus on some things that might not be immediately related to the day-to-day work we do. Mental and physical well-being is so important, especially when working long hours in a stressful environment. Also, I find a good work ethic, a disciplined approach to your day, and a pragmatic, stoic attitude to what we do is really valuable. There will always be problems to solve and hard challenges that come up; rather than worrying about them, or trying to avoid them, your time will be much better spent preparing for them.

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

DAN BETHELL: It’d be a 80’s family affair featuring Labyrinth, Ghostbusters and The Goonies. These are three great movies that show that visual effects can be a spectacle whilst still serving a story. All the visual effects work here is well-considered and beautifully executed. On a personal level, these are movies that inspired so much awe and imagination in me as a child, and I love to see that same emotion evoked in other young people. I’ve no doubt that it’s that magic and inspiration that got me where I am today!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

DAN BETHELL: Popcorn of course. No butter though – that’s weird.

CINEFEX: Dan, thanks for your time!

“Wendy” – Q&A with Benh Zeitlin & Jason Hamer

Searchlight Pictures’ Wendy was one of the last films to open in North America before the coronavirus pandemic darkened cinemas worldwide. The film opened, in limited release, after its Sundance Film Festival premiere where critics heralded Wendy as filmmaker Benh Zeitlin’s second feature – following his Oscar-nominated postdiluvian fantasy Beasts of the Southern Wild – which they described as a loose retelling of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. For general audiences, the production seemed far removed from previous Pans by Walt Disney or Steven Spielberg, recent remakes by P.J. Logan or Joe Wright, or even revisionist takes, such as Marc Forster’s Barrie biopic, Finding Neverland

For Zeitlin – and his sister and co-writer, Eliza – the project was a labor of love eight years in the making. The production was another genre-bending tale, featuring non-professional child performers in contemporary settings with only a semblance of J.M. Barrie trappings. Gone was the flying boy, and his wandering shadow, who transports Wendy Darling and her brothers from Victorian London to a Neverland populated by mermaids, fairies, pirates, Lost Boys and the fearsome Captain Hook. 

Instead, the film depicted Wendy (Devin France) as the youngest of four ragamuffin children, living with their single-parent mother (Shay Walker) above a trackside Louisiana burger joint. One night, a strangely elfin boy lures Wendy’s eldest brother Thomas (Krzysztof Meyn) onto a passing train. After a dreamlike pursuit by rail and sea, the children confront Thomas’ kidnapper, Peter (Yashua Mack), on a primordial island. There, other vagabond children look to Wendy as their savior from a tribe of decrepit elders. Wendy’s brother James (Gavin Naquin) rapidly transforms into middle age (Kevin Pugh) and a mysterious sea monster – the Mother spirit – lurks in the island’s volcanic innards.

Cinefex caught up with Benh Zeitlin and creature effects supervisor Jason Hamer to discuss the origins of the project, and their experience – working with Eliza Zeitlin as production designer, and visual effects supervisor Jasper Kidd – turning Peter Pan mythology on its head in the bold and imaginative fantasy film.

CINEFEX: Where did Wendy spring from?

ZEITLIN: My sister Eliza and I grew up in a house of folklorists. Our parents implanted the idea that myths are an important aspect of how we understand the world; how myths are passed down, retold and reinterpreted as time goes on. Those ideas have always been very close to me. And more than any specific version of Peter Pan, we were influenced by the character and the myth of Peter. The bones of this story are so timeless they continue to exist in people’s imaginations. All our lives, my sister and I dreamed of having a chance to reinterpret this story. For us, this story was not about escapism, which is often interpreted as the central idea of Peter Pan. We wanted to tell a story about growing up, and how complicated that is. We were 30 and 28 years old, and there were many themes that were cresting for us that felt universal – about how to grow up and not grow old.

CINEFEX: Is there a real ‘Darling Diner’ that inspired your story’s opening?

ZEITLIN: The original vision of the Darling’s Diner was based on a hamburger restaurant called Bud’s Broiler, in New Orleans. That was formerly a railroad station master’s house, with a track that ran alongside. Our idea was to film in that diner and to control the trains outside. We quickly learned that it was impossible for us to control the traffic on that track because it was a national rail system. Instead, we found a non-profit group, the Louisiana Steam Train Association, which has its own stretch of track and several antique train cars. We used those in the film, and they were operated them for us. We then designed a building, with architecture and a structure very similar to Bud’s Broiler, and built that from scratch on an empty plot adjacent to their train track.

CINEFEX: How did you get the children jumping from the Darling Diner roof onto the passing train? They very convincingly leap back and forth.

ZEITLIN: Our mandate was to shoot things for real. When we were talking about how to replace the concept of Peter and the children flying, we discussed what could we do that would be as thrilling, dangerous and spectacular for a kid as flying? That’s how we came up with the idea of the characters jumping onto a moving train. The only visual effects we did in those shots were to digitally remove the wires supporting the children. The kids were on harnesses with wires attached to a line above the train, and then another safety line guided them from a crane. If they missed the jump, they wouldn’t have gotten hurt. But they had the courage and they ran and jumped. We filmed it just as you see it.

CINEFEX: What led you to shoot on 16mm? The film had a very visceral, handheld photographic style, but looked as gorgeous as 35mm.

ZEITLIN: That’s all credit to our cinematographer, Sturla Grøvlen. He used several different film stocks. Much of the film was set in Neverland, filmed in blazing sunlight. A lot of that we shot on 50D Kodak VISION3 50D color negative film, 7203. That is very clean grain, and almost indiscernible from 35mm. We wanted the film to feel handmade and a little rough around the edges. Sturla managed to find a balance between that aesthetic, capturing our incredible landscapes with real majesty on the film stock.

Filming “Wendy” on location. Director of Photography Sturlen Brandth Grovlen, writer/director Benh Zeitlin, performers Devin France, Krzysztof Meyn, Gage Naquin and Ahmad Cage. Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

CINEFEX: The credits indicate you filmed in Monserrat and islands in that area. How did you select those areas for Neverland?

ZEITLIN: The three areas we shot on were Montserrat, Antigua and Barbuda, which are neighboring islands. Neverland has historically been played as a riff on the colonial British imagination of the Caribbean. One of the things that we wanted to revise and dismantle was exactly that. We wanted to shoot in this region; but to portray it in a way unlike how it appears in postcards and cruise ship commercials. We wanted to find wild and natural locations that hadn’t been disrupted by any human hand. To accomplish that, bringing our film production out to those places for every day of the shoot, was like planning an invasion. It was incredibly complicated to reach our locations and then to set up filming with children and old people. The degree of difficulty for our production team, figuring out how to do these things safely on a daily basis, was as high as it could possibly be.

CINEFEX: Working in such a wild environment, with children climbing volcanoes and sword fighting, how did you plan your shoot?

ZEITLIN: It was like the Mike Tyson quote, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the face.’ That was our daily experience. I meticulously storyboarded every shot. I had those boards on separate cards, and I made notes on the back of each one, summarizing what I needed for each shot. When we got to set, half the time the cove where were supposed to shoot had turned into a whirlpool of whitewater; or a beach had been washed away. Our plans were constantly dismantled, and we had to figure out how to adjust on the fly. That same principle applied to how we worked with our child actors. If one of them became tired, or got in a bad mood, I’d maybe give their lines to another character. Every day of shooting, we had to be very agile to get what was essential for our scenes while facing a great number of unpredictable elements that you would normally never design into a filming process.

CINEFEX: One of the most unique parts of the film is the Mother spirit. What was the concept for that enormous glowing sea creature?

ZEITLIN: Our idea was that nature has a joy to it. The spirit that we attribute to humans as joy, ecstasy and euphoria, you can sense that in nature. We wanted the Mother to be born of that joy and the protector of that spirit. In the mythology of the film, a volcanic eruption spits this creature up to the surface of the water, and there she meets Peter and becomes his protector. Our personal mythology around the creature was that she had been living down at the center of the Earth. We took inspiration from microorganisms that breathe from hydrothermal vents in the deepest chasms of the oceans, from cephalopods and bioluminescent creatures that live down there. And then, we blew her up to enormous proportions. Design-wise, Eliza was the mother of the Mother.

The Mother spirit of Neverland, a giant sea creature, as realized by production designer Eliza Zeitlin and her team.

CINEFEX: Eliza had a team building the Mother for almost a year before you started photography; and then plans changed. How did Eliza and Jason Hamer collaborate to create the creature?

ZEITLIN: The idea was to shoot the Mother puppet in live water, on location in Antigua during principal photography. That plan went a little sideways. We brought out to the Caribbean the puppet that Eliza and her team designed and made. But the forces of the ocean can never be properly estimated. We very much knew what Mother was and what she was supposed to look like the whole time, based on the design that my sister and her team created. Eliza designs and fabricates as one process, so the creature took shape as she fabricated it. When Jason entered the process, we moved to a more locked-in design, and continued to work on the puppet that they constructed for principal photography. We later had a miniature shoot, and the final result is a blend of those two creations, as well as several full-scale elements.

CINEFEX: Jason, you were initially handling prosthetics for the film?

When Wendy’s brother James begins to age rapidly, Peter urges him to halt the process by severing his age-infected hand. Hamer FX supplied makeup effects to simulate the onset of aging, and created prosthetics for the severing.

HAMER: Yes, in the story, when the children stop ‘believing,’ they start aging rapidly. Wendy’s brother James tries to halt the aging process in his hand by cutting off his arm. We aged his hand. He then begs Peter to chop that off, in an attempt stop his aging process. For that, we made a stump that he wore after. We also created some subtle silicone prosthetics, which we used to age the young actor. We enlarged his nose a little, and we gave him a lip appliance with a little bit of hair punched into it.

CINEFEX: When you expanded your role to help out on the Mother puppet, what areas did you focus on?

HAMER: Benh’s sister, Eliza, had done some beautiful work and created a stunning model of the Mother. We ended up coming back to that. Carlos Juante did some conceptual art for us to figure out how we could incorporate the design motifs that Eliza had established. Mother had a cuttlefish look, but she illuminated from within. And she’s very mysterious, so you’re not supposed to see that much of her. One of our nature references was the blanket octopus, which is an absolutely gorgeous creature with huge 18-foot sails of what look like a chiffon. 

Mother spirit concepts created by Carlos Juante at Hamer FX.

CINEFEX: To make something that floats in water, that you can puppeteer and that glows is a tall order. How did you bring those criteria together?

ZEITLIN: It was funny, because in the early stages of conceiving how we would create the Mother, we were watching videos of a visual effects artist we admired who’d worked on just about every single one of our favorite effects films. Two years later, Jason mentioned, ‘I know this guy who might be able to help us.’ And that was the same guy, Bill Bryan, who helped to inspire a lot of the techniques we used.

HAMER: Bill is the master of ‘plastic bag effects’ underwater work that he developed with Steve Johnson on films like Species and Phantoms. We used a lot of the technology that Bill used to make the jellyfish on Barry Levinson’s sci-fi film, Sphere. That kind of tentacle technology was key, using different fabrics to see what performed in water, and then incorporating those with heat-treated plastics to give certain qualities. Some of the tests that Eliza had done were amazing, shooting lights through plastic, which they had seen in one of Bill’s videos. We incorporated a lot of those early tests.

CINEFEX: How big was the Mother creature?

HAMER: Eliza and Benh established the size in their puppet as a 40-foot sea creature. It was a massive beast. They had a 55-gallon ballast, using big barrels that they filled with air to keep it above the surface, and then they planned to flood those to take it below the surface. They also had a huge grid of LED lights to create internal bioluminescence, with a diver inside. But that ended up being uncontrollable in the ocean, and the creature’s rigid foam carapace kept it afloat. But we used that as our scale, and then worked with the design to create something that we could build and puppeteer. We figured we could get a projector inside a four foot creature, and that was ultimately where we landed, with a four foot miniature.

For Mother spirit performer interactions, Hamer FX employed a wide range of fabrication techniques to create creature parts, including tentacle technology that creature effects artist Bill Bryan used to build a full-scale Mother gullet. Creature artist Alex Waldron paints Mother tentacles. Bill Bryan attends a gullet test in Jason Hamer’s swimming pool.

CINEFEX: What did Bill build for you?

HAMER: The biggest contribution that Bill made was the Mother gullet. That was massive, like soccer-goal-sized rig that we immersed in water and illuminated through the side of a glass water tank. It had a series of layers of plastics, including a dark layer of deep tissue, and different grades of plastic sheeting that Bill stretched and dressed over that. The plastic is like a painter’s drop cloth, and Bill used different thicknesses to create various textures.

CINEFEX: How do you apply paints that stood up to underwater filming?

HAMER: We used Copic markers diluted with alcohol. The chlorine in the pool tends to strip that out. Unfortunately, you can’t touch that up, so by the end of the shoot, everything was pretty clear. The lighting did a lot of the work for us, and having the dark layers behind the lighter layers gave that something to dance on. Tom Killeen painted the puppets, and then we dressed Mother’s skin with lots of tiny details of colorful sea sponge pieces, like Eliza’s puppet.

CINEFEX: What was her mechanical structure?

HAMER: It was a Speedrail frame. Bill patterned that to blend it with the gullet. The center of the gullet was a stiff fabric that he manipulated to make it feel bulbous. We used Sea-Doo scooters, the kind that SCUBA divers use to propel themselves underwater, and we inverted those to create movement in the water. Our puppeteers took position behind the gullet and used the Sea-Doos to blow it out. Meanwhile, puppeteers above the pool pulled rods and strings. We tested that at home in my pool, and then shipped it to Louisiana and filmed at the University of New Orleans nautical engineering tank. 

For full-body shots of the Mother spirit, Hamer FX built a four-foot puppet. Effects artist Ernesto Cornejo sculpts the Mother miniature as a clay maquette.

CINEFEX: How did you build the four-foot puppet?

HAMER: The silicone skin sat loosely on a core of fiberglass and vacuform shells. We made it that way so that we could keep it in motion with the Sea-Doos. We attached two rods to the puppet’s core. When we dipped the puppet in the pool, water filled the puppet with a natural buoyancy, and the fabrics and the plastics did what they wanted. The main puppeteer up top kept her alive, moving back and forth, and then the propelled water animated the rest.

CINEFEX: How did you shoot scenes with the children underwater interacting up close with the creature?

ZEITLIN: All shots of the children directly interacting with the Mother’s face we did with Eliza’s full-scale puppet. Jason’s team also built a large section of Mother’s face and eye, but we ended up using Eliza’s creation there.

HAMER: And we made full-scale elements of Mother’s 12-foot sails that the kids could swim with in the cenote, where we filmed in Mexico. We made those out of chiffon that we dye-sublimated using a print that creature designer Neville Paige made for us. 

In addition to the miniature Mother puppet, and full-scale interactive pieces, Hamer FX created a 9×9-foot closeup creature section, with a mechanical eye for underwater filming. Ernesto Cornejo, Brian Van Dorn and Pepe Mora detail the 9-foot sculpt.

CINEFEX: Benh, how did you direct scenes of the children communicating underwater with the Mother?

ZEITLIN: How the Mother was going to express her feelings, and how we were going to emotionally connect to her, was a huge question for us. We felt that movie audiences at this point are so accustomed to watching computer-created creatures, we didn’t want to fall back on the tropes of digitally animating facial expressions, or having her speak in a humanoid way. We wanted audiences to feel connected to something they could feel in their bones was real and not synthesized with a computer. We came to the idea of her internal light as her emotional communication device. 

The Mother spirit miniature contained a fiberglass core that Hamer FX mechanical designer Terry Sandin articulated with a four-paddle lip mechanism.

CINEFEX: Mother appears enormous in scale with the children. How did visual effects supervisor Jasper Kidd pull those scenes together for you?

ZEITLIN: Jasper was a real wizard in terms of figuring out tiny elements that could be combined with the puppet, such as adding particulates so fine that they almost didn’t read on-screen. Those details gave her the scale necessary to sell the illusion. Jasper comes from a painting background, and that sense of artistry, and that sense of approaching effects not just as a technician, but as a painter and as an artist, really helped us make her something emotional.

CINEFEX: How much did you shoot on location in Mother’s underwater cave?

ZEITLIN: The caves were in the Yucatan, outside of Tulum. The main one was called Sac Actun. Jasper made an incredible find – a diver who shoots 360-degree photographs of real internal caves for an online project, essentially to be able to explore these places from afar. We were able to license a complete 360 cave, which wasn’t the same caves that we shot in. We blended our caves that were shot live, with another cave that Jasper created.

CINEFEX: Let’s delve a little more into those visual effects. Tell us, Jasper, how did you make the Mother cave extensions?

JASPER KIDD: For all of the wide shots of the cave we commissioned a cave diver to Lidar scan a huge cave in Slovenia. We ended up with a beautiful color scan that had over 80 scan locations in a half mile of cave and 400 million points of data. This gave us the foundation for all the natural beauty and organic complexity of a real location. I re-projected those textures into about 20 pieces and hand-sculpted in all the high-resolution detail in Pixologic ZBrush, retaining the cave’s original shapes and color. We then translated all of the lensing from our previs to the cave, and enlarged the miniature puppet to 10:1 scale. We rendered that in Maya and Arnold with layers of VDB dust clouds and particles that we simulated in Houdini. And we blended the final CG cave environments with plate elements Benh had shot on location.

Hamer FX artist Tom Killeen paints the Mother miniature.

CINEFEX:The film took shape over two years in editing, and there are several visual effects companies listed in the credit roll, including Phosphene and Break/Enter. Did you pull from all quarters in postproduction?

ZEITLIN: Phosphene supervised the shoot. Jasper’s company, Brake/Enter, took over in post and did 100-percent of our visual effects. I met Jasper through his partner, Ilia Mokhtareizadeh, who was working on the visual effects for Maniac along with my co-composer Dan Romer. He’d been working in commercials and pulled together an all-star team of visual effects artists as a home-made operation, and they took on challenges that probably would have intimidated a larger visual effects house. 

JASPER: I had been working at The Mill when I met Benh on Wendy. I was really excited about the project and we built out a company from the ground up to take on the entire films VFX. We handled over 300 shots with a small crew of eight people that were fully dedicated to bringing Mother and the film to life. To be part of such a small team and to be so close to the process was a once in a lifetime experience.

CINEFEX: There’s tremendous atmosphere to the scenes when the Mother rescues Wendy in its glowing gullet. What did you shoot for those interactions?

HAMER: Our mechanical designer, Tim Ralston, built a sled, like a little boat, and fitted that inside the gullet. That was filled with LED panels. He built that on a fiberglass shell, coated it with silicone, with wiring sealed in a silicone tube, and waterproofed it with layers of caulking. We controlled the Mother’s lighting from the surface via a computer that ran different programs to create lighting effects. 

To create the Mother spirit’s internal lighting, Hamer FX used a pico projector, and an internal structure of LED lights. Hamer FX electronic designer Tim Ralston equipped electronics with water-tight casings for underwater filming.

What really helped tie those scenes together was when Jasper projected caustic lighting effects on the creature. That really helped convey the scale on the miniature. Jasper planned the shoot with previs, showing how in this environment the kids needed to be a certain distance from the creature, using a certain lens. Jasper brought a lot of his knowledge of shooting with miniatures to make that work.

CINEFEX: At the end of the film, when Mother appears to die, she emits streams of little fiery elements bleeding off into the ocean. What was the brief for that scene?

ZEITLIN: It goes back to an idea that we articulated in Wendy’s voiceover about ‘the first laugh of the first child breaking into a million glowing pieces.’ The Mother’s glow is her lifeforce. We imagined her joy as a burning bright light, like lava, tied in to the Neverland volcano. When she gets punctured, her joy, or her lifeforce, bleeds out of her to the bottom of the ocean and then reanimates, when her spirit returns.

CINEFEX: What did you shoot for that?

Wendy confronts the Mother spirit. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

HAMER: About two years after the shoot, we shot some visual effects elements for Jasper. We made little hollow rock shapes out of clear urethane and injected those with Cyalume liquid, like the military use in glowsticks. We then set up a shoot in my pool, where we blacked out the sides and added a small piece of ocean floor, with tiny rocks to scale. We strung the lava blobs on monofilament and ran them past the camera. Jasper grabbed those elements and accentuate them into his effects.

ZEITLIN: We used those elements a little bit. But the primary elements on screen in that scene were live burning underwater thermite reactions, which we shot in a custom tank in Ventura California with Coatwolf Productions supervised by Evan Glodell.

CINEFEX: The Mother spirit was a lovely visual metaphor. It goes beyond any notion of Peter Pan being a pejorative or infantilizing force. It comes across as something very vital and powerful in your film.

ZEITLIN: Thank you. We wanted to capture the movement of a live puppet underwater, and the whole reason for doing that was that there were certain unpredictable ways the water reacted with the puppet that could not be predicted or synthesized. We shot take after take and looked for moments where this inanimate object appeared to come to life. This film invited chaos at every turn and we searched for miracles, rather than staying within the limits of what could be imagined.

Wendy is now playing on home video at 4K UHD/HD/SD. Soundtrack by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin is available on streaming platforms, and Milan Records compact disc.

Addendum: This story has been edited to include special guest star speaker Jasper Kidd. Thanks to Josh Penn, Hamer FX, Shelby Kimlick, Chris Bess, Searchlight Films.

Now Showing – Cinefex 170

Cinefex 170 covers Mulan, The New Mutants, 1917, Watchmen and Underwater.

Of all the different types of films we cover in Cinefex, my personal favorites are those that are not visual effects films – no monsters or creatures, no spaceships, no alien landscapes or Death Star explosions. I most enjoy covering reality-based movies in which visual effects play a pivotal but nearly invisible role.

Sam Mendes’ 1917 is one of those, and Joe Fordham covers it beautifully in Cinefex 170. Reality doesn’t get grittier than a story set in the trenches of World War I, but visual effects were essential to the film’s conceit of one very long, uninterrupted shot as the action plays out in real time. It’s a fascinating read about a fascinating film.

Director Niki Caro’s Mulan – a live-action retelling of the 1998 Disney animated classic – is similarly grounded. No wise-cracking dragons or ghostly ancestors in this remake – just utterly realistic 7th-century China environments, and an impressively dynamic avalanche sequence. Graham Edwards brings us exhaustive coverage of The New Mutants, as well, and we round out the issue with HBO’s Watchmen and Underwater.

Cinefex was well into production on this issue, the four-color presses already humming, when the world went into quarantine to stop the spread of Covid-19. It was a pandemic of a scale not seen since – well, since 1917, oddly enough. At its onset, I joined many others in wondering if this bug was going to prove to be the society-destroying ‘Captain Trips’ virus of Stephen King’s novel The Stand.

Fortunately, as I write this, we seem to be beating Covid-19 into at least partial submission, and there is the promise of better days as this strangest of all springs turns to summer.

We wish you all good health and a swift return to normalcy. Who knew the idea of ‘normal’ could sound so good?

The print edition of Cinefex 170 is available to order from our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy will soon arrive in your mailbox. Our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs and exclusive video content, will be out soon.

Cinefex – Adapting to the New Normal


A message to our readers from Cinefex publisher Gregg Shay

In ways large and small, barely a soul on the planet has been left unaffected by the coronavirus crisis, and the uncertainty of future developments amidst the accelerating speed of the virus’ worldwide spread, is worrisome to all, to say the least.

Almost every company I do business with has reached out in the last two weeks, offering words of support and sympathy to their customers and clients, and advising them of what’s going on in their corner of the business world.  A growing number of states in the U.S. — including ours — are in lockdown, with countless businesses, large and small, shuttered for the duration, and the populace advised or directed to stay at home.

I am happy to report to you that Cinefex has adapted to this new — and hopefully temporary — normal.  All of our team members are working at home and, subject to unforeseen events, we expect to continue publishing on our regular schedule.  Our April issue is on the presses now, and our writers are already deep into their coverage for the following issue.

For our many subscribers who receive their issues at work and, like us, are now laboring from home for an indefinite period of time, may we suggest that you consider changing your Cinefex delivery to your home address?  We’d like to think our magazine will give you an enjoyable respite from the ceaseless bad news of the day.

And for those of you who typically purchase Cinefex from bookstores and other retail outlets, may we further suggest that this would be a good time to preorder the coming issue or, better yet, subscribe to the magazine.  With people confined at home and many of our retail outlets now closed for who knows how long, arranging for receipt of your issues by mail will insure that they reliably find a way into your hands.  We’d hate for you to miss an issue. In closing, I wish you and yours the very best.  Be attentive, be cautious, and stay well.  All this shall pass.

“Undone” – Q&A with Hisko Hulsing

Anyone who tuned into Amazon Studios’ eight-episode, three-hour animated drama, Undone, last Fall knew they were in for a strange ride.

From its first episode, the series depicted its heroine, Alma Winograd-Diaz (Rosa Salazar), as a feisty young kindergarten teacher, in painterly rotoscoped animation, with limpid eyes and a feisty temper. As Alma argues with her nuptial-obsessed elder sister (Angelique Cabral) and spars with her constantly-critical mother (Constance Marie), she communes with visions of her long-deceased father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), a former physicist, who flits in and out of existence, product of a mental breakdown possibly triggered when a car crash knocks Alma’s reality askew. 

While the screenplay – by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy, veterans of BoJack Horseman – was set in the here-and-now of Alma’s family life in San Antonio, Texas, the naturalistic performances and contemporary settings played in counterpoint to the animation style. Alma’s world melts and dissolves, transporting her back and forth through time, while Jacob guides his daughter through space and time, unraveling a mystery that, he suspects, led to his premature death. 

To bring Alma’s world to life, Michael Eisner’s Tornante Company sought out Hisko Hulsing, a Dutch animation director whose work had appeared in HBO’s Emmy-nominated documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, dramatizing episodes of rock star Kurt Cobain’s life with expressionistic rotoscope-based animation. The technique was an outgrowth of Hulsing’s award-winning short, Junkyard, which blended rotoscoped performance with expressive facial animation. “I think my ability to touch people with visual storytelling was what attracted the producers of Undone,” Hulsing recalled. “When they sent me the script, I loved the material. I met with screenwriters Kate and Raphael and we clicked right away. We very much understood each other, and what we wanted to do with Undone.”

Speaking from his studio in Amsterdam, Hulsing shared with Cinefex his process as production designer and director of the hybrid animated series, which sprang to life from a studio shoot in California and collaborations with Austin, Texas, animation studio Minnow Mountain and with the Amsterdam-based Submarine, who generated more than 800 oil-paintings and digital renderings of Alma’s world.

Hisko Hulsing, director and designer of Amazon Prime’s animated series “Undone.”

CINEFEX: How specific were the Undone screenplays in describing the fracturing nature of Alma’s world?

HULSING: The scripts were all very dialog-based. They had brief descriptions of transitions from one place to another, from one time to another. But some were more precise than others. We developed those ideas during storyboarding, visual effects meetings and designs.

CINEFEX: Back in 2006, Cinefex covered Richard Linklater’s animated adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, which used rotoscope animation to depict characters slipping through altered states of reality. What is it about that medium that fascinates you?

HULSING: Well, I started using rotoscoping in Junkyard, but I didn’t use it for character’s faces and heads. The same with Montage of Heck. I filmed actors, because my style of storytelling was so realistic, it didn’t feel right to animate them completely by hand. In Undone, it was different. I read the script and I figured the dialog was very sophisticated, very realistic, very subtle, and I felt we needed real actors. That way we could extract all the micro-expressions from their acting. 

Early on, we discussed if we should treat all of Alma’s realistic scenes differently from her hallucinations, her psychosis, or dreams, whatever they were. I thought that it would be much better to treat them all the same, with rotoscoping in combination with all the backgrounds painted as oil paintings. That gave us a very dreamy, almost-real atmosphere, which made Alma’s reality almost as suspect as the other scenes. At all times, I wanted to viewers to wonder, ‘What is actually reality?’

Hulsing oversaw the creation of more than 800 oil paintings that formed the basis for all of the backgrounds in the animated world, based on photographic reference of San Antonio, Texas.

CINEFEX: For your oil painting backgrounds, how did you decide what you would paint, how much you’d paint, and how that worked with the real world? For instance, did you have a location shoot?

HULSING: No, none at all. We filmed everything on a greenscreen stage, without sets. Did you see Lars von Trier’s film Dogville? What we did was very comparable. We started with a set plan on a stage. My assistant, Nora Höppener, and I taped floor plans on the ground. Wherever we needed props, we set out tables or chairs, but we had no scenery. We had to completely make up the whole world. The story was set in San Antonio, where Kate comes from. She gave us reference photos of certain churches or houses. Our designers used those as base for their designs. And then also, based on the script, we broke down the scenes and then decided what to paint. We used computer models as basis for drawings, and for layouts. And we used those layouts for all our oil paintings, which we created completely by hand.

CINEFEX: How big was each painting?

HULSING: The paintings were pretty big, about 120-centimeters horizontal, and they were conceived together with our rotoscope designs. We set up reference grids on the set to help determine background perspectives. I trained as an artist, so I am very aware of perspective, and I always kept that in mind during the storyboard process. And then, on set, I determined if we’d use very wide lenses or long lenses, and those determined painting perspectives. Those techniques were not that different from live-action filmmaking. But because everything was painted, that enabled us to put more emphasis on light and shadow, depth and drama.

Submarine generated 3D models of all environments, which allowed Hulsing and his animation team to make dramatic use of photographic perspectives in camera layouts. By projecting oil painting textures onto 3D surfaces, artists imbued painterly environments with a dimensional living presence.

CINEFEX: How long was your shoot?

HULSING: The shoot took about a week per episode. We shot everything on a greenscreen soundstage in West Hollywood. I was new in Hollywood, and so I was a little bit surprised when Rosa Salazar and Bob Odenkirk told me that they thought I was a good director. I think the reason for that was because I was extremely well prepared. We storyboarded 3,000 shots, we had all the floor plans, we knew exactly where the cameras would be. And, although there were no sets, just tape on the ground to guide where the walls were supposed to be, I was impressed how the actors used their imaginations to follow my imagination and perform in that environment. 

What I understood was that on most movie sets performers have to wait around between setups, sometimes spending hours in their trailer. This was like doing a play for 12 hours! So, it was hard on them, but it was also rewarding because they could act all day long. We were very quick. We did two takes, maximum, per shot.

CINEFEX: What was your camera, or capture setup?

HULSING: Our budget was not big enough to afford a lot of moving cameras, so most of our shots were static, on sticks. We shot every take with two cameras. On our busiest day, we did 77 camera setups, which amounted to 144 camera angles in one single day. Our director of photography Nick Ferreiro and I worked very closely to change the camera positions on every take. And we also moved the lights around. We had a crew of about 20 people to accomplish that on set, moving very fast. 

When we did have tracking shots, where we followed actors with a camera, and we completely rebuilt the environments in 3D. For the backgrounds in those shots, we projection-mapped our oil paintings onto a 3D model of the environment. Once we built that model, we did motion tracking, and then onto that we projection mapped our oil paintings in 3D so it felt like we were moving through an oil painting.

CINEFEX: There is impressive dimensionality when Alma is in hospital and she runs through a long corridor. How did you shoot that scene?

HULSING: We laid out the floor plan first in our design. There is a difference between designs and layout – layout is a very specific rendering, made from a basis of what has been shot. The correct order was: storyboards and designs, and then the shoot, and then the layouts. So, when we came to shoot that scene, we didn’t have the layout yet, but we had a very clear floor plan, which allowed us to go into production.

CINEFEX: Who built that 3D geometry?

HULSING: That was all done in Amsterdam at Submarine. We had about a hundred people working at Submarine and at Minnow Mountain, in Texas. At Submarine, we did all the storyboards, layouts, designs, 2D animation, 3D animation, paintings and compositing. Minnow Mountain did the rotoscoping, and what they call performance capture – they traced the actors in lines, which they did very beautifully. 

Earlier, you referenced A Scanner Darkly. I did ask Tommy Pallotta, who was a producer on A Scanner Darkly, to help with our rotoscoping – he approached Minnow Mountain because some of the artists there had worked on that film, so there was a connection. But, truthfully, I was not influenced by that film, although is mentioned in almost every article I’ve seen about Undone! I understand why; but for me it was not a reference. Rotoscoping goes back to the Fleischer brothers.

CINEFEX: Yes, and what the Fleischer brothers did so well, more than a hundred years ago, is they understood an economy of line. What were the key ingredients for you to translate Rosa’s acting through renderings of Alma?

HULSING: One of my biggest fears was that the actors’ performances wouldn’t come through. I have to give credit to Minnow Mountain for that, and Craig Staggs who is co-founder and producer over there. It took us a while to get there. We created Alma as a simplified version of Rosa – ‘simplified’ because you have to know which lines to animate. Minnow then used a pencil my partner developed at my own small studio in Amsterdam developed in TVPaint, which gave the lines a soft feel. 

Working from Minnow Mountain’s sensitive rotoscoped line drawings, Submarine developed highlights and shadows that helped capture Rosa Salazar’s highly emotive performance.

One aspect that often disturbs me in rotoscoping is when it makes a performance feel shallow, and it feels flat, or like a filter. At Submarine, we animated shadows to make characters feel more three-dimensional. We used production footage as basis for those shadows, which gave us a lot of micro-expressions. That involved many layers of filtering, and many animators worked to stylize the shadows and give the characters more depth.

CINEFEX: How did you put that glint of life into Alma’s eye?

HULSING: That was very interesting, because when we were doing the first two episodes, I got very worried because that characters were going into an Uncanny Valley look. I got very scared by that, because it would have been horrible if the animation appeared scary and not at all doing service to the great acting. So, we did have to tweak our methods a little, and the highlights in the characters’ eyes was a very important part of that. 

It turned out we had to be very faithful to the lighting in the live-action, and when our 2D department drew those details they had to obey the exact position of those lights. Because if we were not accurate, or if we make it up, it became very creepy. Those highlights in the eyes were instrumental in communicating emotions; and we could never draw them where they were not present in the live-action frames.

CINEFEX: Did that involve any procedural processes, or machine learning?

HULSING: Oh, no! 2D team at Submarine hand drew all lights in the characters’ eyes; there was no machine learning there. For the shading of the characters, we used a filtering of the live-action. And then, our 2D animators worked on top of that.

CINEFEX: It was impressive how much the performers came through that medium.

HULSING: Yes, especially Rosa. All of our actors were successful, but Rosa was excellent, very precise, and expressive. I’m hoping she will break through into more live-action roles, because she is so good. But somehow, she lends herself very well for animation. She is so expressive.

CINEFEX: Tell us how you expressed Alma’s breakdown in your scene transitions – sometimes Alma appears to lose gravity, sometimes her world appears to flip like a camera lens turret rotation. How did you design those moments?

HULSING: Those techniques started back on Junkyard – back then, I never had any budget for the live-action, so I did everything very simply – and we used similar tricks on Undone. For example, when Alma is floating in space, she was half-laying on a barstool and we twisted her around. When she was in a canteen and suddenly the whole canteen broke apart, that was a stunt girl on a trampoline. She wore Alma’s wardrobe, and our animators changed the face. We did discuss hanging actors on wires, but there was no budget for that. So, we chose the simple way and, when we worked that into the animation, we got away with it.

CINEFEX: Alma’s hallucinations, or her moments of psychosis, feel very authentic. What was your inspiration for visualizing those scenes?

HULSING: Well, I’m from Amsterdam. I started smoking marijuana when I was 12, like a lot of kids, unfortunately. When I was about 17, I dropped out of school. I wasn’t diagnosed psychotic, but I think I was. That became a source for a lot of my own films, and I used those moments. It’s scary when you cannot trust your senses, and you lose ground in reality. My memory of those experiences helped my imagination. And that was also part of what led me to Undone. I actually was planning to stop doing animation because I had been feeling that the process was too complicated. And then, at that moment, they offered me Undone. I was like, wow, this is a dream project. It’s like everything I ever wanted to do, you know?

I also took inspiration from the films of Roman Polanski, especially The Tenant. That’s my favorite film, I have seen it 25 times, and I can sing along to the music. When I talked to Kate and Raphael, I showed them a clip from Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, the dream sequence where Rosemary floats on her bed. That was so beautiful to me. I used that as an example of how I wanted the story to be with Alma all the time, not literally seeing everything from her point of view, but I wanted to be completely in her reality, and so the audience lost track about what is real and what is not real.

CINEFEX: It felt like you were tapping into something very interesting and heartfelt with Undone; and I wanted to see more.

HULSING: Well, we are now in preproduction for a second season. And it is laborious – today, I made thumbnails for around 110 shots, and I filled seven pages in one day! It is insane, the amount of work. But when I hear that people connected to the story psychologically, then I know we did a good job. That mostly comes from Kate and Raphael. I helped; but it’s their brainchild.

Images courtesy Prime Video. Thanks to Rachel Aberly, Joe Incollingo, Shealyn Smales.

The Illusionists — Eric Brevig

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Eric Brevig

CINEFEX — You were visual effects supervisor on the original Total Recall back in 1990. Would it be easier to make that film today?

ERIC BREVIG — Yes, because now we have far more control, especially with all those things we had to create with physical effects, like the volcano explosion. In the old barnstorming days of pyrotechnics, you were at the mercy of physics and luck. Now, using dynamic simulations and so forth, you have precise control. It’s not easy, but it’s completely achievable.

CINEFEX — The effects in Total Recall were mostly traditional, but a little bit of digital work did creep in — like those animated skeletons on the X-ray scanner.

ERIC BREVIG — Exactly. They were digitally created but photochemically composited. I do remember the first time we used a computer to composite an image, on The Abyss. Prior to that it was brute force with photochemical processes and optically copied images, working blind until you saw the processed film. It was revolutionary, the ability to watch in real time when you were assembling images. That was the first milestone, and the second was creating images without having to use a camera. The two of those together is what revolutionized visual effects.

CINEFEX — Since then, we’ve progressed from animated skeletons to complete animated humans that are practically indistinguishable from the real thing.

ERIC BREVIG — Well, the digital human has been the Holy Grail for a long time. There’s an almost infinite number of subtleties in a human face. I think we’re right at the cusp of being able to do that. The Irishman is probably the best recent example of taking digital doubles of actors and putting them on camera without making any effort to hide the trickery. Some shots are better than others but, given enough time and money, we can now make something that’s indistinguishable from the real thing.

CINEFEX — And if you don’t have time and money?

ERIC BREVIG — Use trickery. Don’t let the audience get a good look at something that you can’t do perfectly. That’s what filmmaking has always been about, anyway — selectively showing the audience pieces of something that’s not really complete, but convincing them it is.

CINEFEX — And telling a great story.

ERIC BREVIG — Of course. Think about E.T., which only moved people to tears because of what the filmmakers and actors were doing around the effects. I think that still holds. No matter how we get the fantastic images on the screen, we feel the power from the story that’s being told. When the two are working hand in hand, it’s amazing. It’s why I got into the industry.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Stephen Rosenbaum

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Stephen Rosenbaum

CINEFEX — What inspired you to get into the visual effects business?

STEPHEN ROSENBAUM — For me, it all started with Star Wars. I was teenager in Los Angeles and I waited in line probably a dozen times to see that movie — I just couldn’t get enough of it. By the time I was going into university, I knew I wanted to get into that field. I was really into computers, but in that era there were no universities doing visual effects with computers. I found a small school in Berkeley that offered some computer graphics, and somehow ended up developing my own curriculum combining computer science, design and film to create a degree.

CINEFEX — You reached Industrial Light & Magic just in time to start working on The Abyss. How did that come about?

STEPHEN ROSENBAUM — It was really just timing. As I came out of university, George Lucas had just sold off the original ILM computer graphics department. They moved to the next building and formed Pixar, and a new computer department was formed at ILM. I was one of the early members there, a technical assistant. I was very much that geek-artist combo, hooked on the idea of making imagery using computers. It was like a drug to me.

CINEFEX — Back then the buzzword was ‘digital.’ Now, there’s a lot of people throwing around the term ‘virtual production.’ Do you see visual effects and virtual production working hand in hand?

STEPHEN ROSENBAUM — I do. In fact, my role on Avatar was to straddle that fence. Up to that point, the director was always directing animated performances in postproduction, often with great frustration. You typically had characters being animated by an army of maybe 50 animators, which meant you often ended up with inconsistent or diluted performances. Here, we suddenly had a chance to flip it on its head and let the director direct the performances in camera. I spent two years on a mocap stage with Jim Cameron doing just that and it was huge, not only for Jim but for us, because we didn’t have to second-guess on what performances he wanted in postproduction, and we didn’t have the inefficiencies of the back-and-forth exchange during reviews. Avatar was the first time we’d been able to do that.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists