In addition to Parker, the film also stars Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Boone Jr., Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith and Gabrielle Union. It takes place in the South during the 1830s and follows Nat Turner, a literate slave and preacher, whose owner, Samuel Turner, accepts an offer to use Nat’s preaching skills to subdue unruly slaves. After witnessing countless atrocities, Nat orchestrates an uprising.
Baked FX in Culver City, CA, handled approximately 100 visual effects shots for the film, many of which will go unnoticed by audiences. According to Baked executive creative director/founder George A. Loucas, who supervised visual effects for the film, the feature is supposed to take place in Virginia, but was actually shot in Savannah, GA. And while production took place in actual cotton fields, none of the crops had been planted yet, leaving Baked FX with the task of creative visual effects that suggested a massive plantation that was blooming with cotton.
“I was the supervisor for the film so I was engaged during the pre-pro and saw it all the way through production, post and completion,” says Loucas. “We had to shoot this film in the spring, and there are a handful of fairly-important scenes that take place out in the cotton fields. In the spring time, they had not even been planted yet. So all of our locations were farming locations, but were just baron, dirt fields.”
Loucas says a small patch of the field — a 20-foot-by-20-foot area — was populated with cotton and set up in front of a bluescreen for the actors to interact with. The rest of the fields were added via set extensions.
“Everything from there on out was completely synthetic,” he says of the fields. Baked used Xgen within Autodesk Maya to randomly distribute the cotton-plant models. “It was a full 3D environment because the film, for the most part, was shot very hand-held. There was a tremendous amount of parallax we were all feeling. When you think about locking off plants in the distance as the camera moves left and right, those were all going to kind of parallax, so for most of the shots, a 2D solution wouldn’t work. It had to be 3D.”
Tracking, he adds, was a challenge because of how few static points of reference were available. “You have cotton that is ever swaying and moving, and a bluescreen that you couldn’t have tracking markers on because you have cotton plants and actors moving right and left,” Loucas explains. Baked FX used Synth Eyes to handle tracking and called on V-Ray for rendering, making use of its physical camera features. The Foundry’s Nuke was used for compositing, and the studio employed some its own proprietary tools in Nuke to achieve photographic and optical effects.
The film does have a more obvious visual effect that is used late in the story. In it, a young boy witnesses a hanging, an event that inspires him to take up arms and fight in the Civil War many years later.
“It’s the last shot. It’s a poignant moment,” Loucas explains. “What he was witnessing affected him. [The shot] starts with a close up of his face and morphs into an older man in Civil War uniform, running toward camera. The same boy is now a man. It’s slow and the changes are gradual. There was no way it could have been real, but it’s pretty seamless.”
The feature was shot primarily using two Arri Alexa XT cameras, capturing raw files at 3.2K and at 24fps. Baked FX, too, worked at that resolution, ultimately passing VFX shots off to the film’s DI facility, Headquarters, where they were inserted into the online.