Heavy VFX for a light-hearted, and light-headed, comedy
Your Highness, which opened April 8 in the US, marks the debut of a new cinematic sub-genre: the medieval stoner comedy. Directed by David Gordon Green and written by and starring Danny McBride (who previously had worked with Green on Pineapple Express), the film is a tribute to the fantasy films its creators grew up on: Beastmaster, Willow, Krull, and so forth. Starring McBride, James Franco, and Natalie Portman, Your Highness was produced by Scott Stuber for Stuber Productions.
Despite the comedic focus of the film, digital effects were required for the movie’s story and created entirely by Framestore.
Thadeous (McBride) has spent his life watching his perfect older brother Fabious (Franco) embark upon valiant journeys and win the hearts of his people. Tired of being passed over for adventure, adoration, and the throne, he has settled for a life of wizard’s weed, hard booze, and easy maidens. But when Fabious’ bride-to-be, Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), gets kidnapped by the evil wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux), the king gives his deadbeat son an ultimatum: man up and help rescue her or get cut off.
With his heart and head not particularly focused on the mission, Thadeous proceeds to embark upon his first quest, joining Fabious to trek across the perilous outlands and free the princess. Joined by Isabel (Natalie Portman)—an elusive warrior with a dangerous agenda of her own—the brothers must vanquish horrific creatures and traitorous knights before they can reach Belladonna.
Heading the project for Framestore was veteran visual effects supervisor Mike McGee. Following a successful pitch to the creative team, McGee was invited to Northern Ireland for a six-week pre-production planning and development period during which, in addition to preparing Framestore’s game plan for the project, McGee was invited to contribute ideas as the script continued to evolve.
Framestore created some 570 shots for Your Highness, including a gigantic five-headed reptilian monster, a flying mechanical bird, numerous matte paintings and set extensions, blood and guts galore, an enormous arsenal of magical combat weaponry and more. “It was the most fun I’ve had on a shoot—ever,” McGee states unequivocally. “There was laughter in every setup and an exhilarating sense of anticipation because of the unexpected things the director and cast would come up with.” The shooting script of Your Highness was used only as a rough guideline, certainly as far as the dialog was concerned, and the comedic cast members were encouraged to come up with new material whenever possible.
“My job was to be able to respond to this looseness with VFX that would support the ideas whenever needed,” continues McGee, “For example, in one sequence we created some CG fairies for a scene at a pond that fluttering round like moths or fireflies. The director and actors came up with a bit that involved the villainous Leezar getting one of the fairies to settle on his finger, grab it, pull its wings and head off, crush the torso in his hand and then snort the remains. So I just made sure we got the shots necessary to make this sort of mad, brilliant improv work.”
McGee was joined on the shoot by fellow visual effects supervisor Rob Duncan, who had sole responsibility for several sequences, CG supervisor Ben White, senior VFX producer Charles Howell, and other members of the Framestore team.
Five-Fingered Widow Maker
The so-called hand-serpent sequence was another example of McGee’s creative input. “There needed to be a big fight scene,” he recalls, “But the scripted monster just wasn’t working for the team. I suggested this five-headed, hand-like creature that comes out of the ground, partly on the basis that five heads could be replicated easily within a limited budget, offering more fang for your buck. It was Danny (McBride) who took it to a whole new level when he came up with the idea that the creature is controlled by the evil Marteetee via a pot of goop that acts as a control interface. Marteetee plunges his hand into the goop and the creature bursts forth, giving our heroes a taste of the world’s first ever virtual-reality fight.”
McGee’s team created the concept art for the creature. “It’s a 35-foot-high hand covered in lizard heads—basically a hydra,” says White. “Framestore concept artists designed the creature in 2D, and the modeling team worked well to interpret that into a three-dimensional form and figure out the final design.” Once it was approved, the director asked Mike McGee to design the fight itself. Working with the storyboard artist, McGee blocked it out, and it was tweaked and approved by Green.
On-set previs allowed the actors to see where the creature would be relative to themselves. Eye lines were occasionally tricky for a creature of this height. The Framestore team first had to source a pole—35 feet long— with a ball on the end of it, and then figure out how to operate it.
The postproduction work on the creature was facilitated by the previs work. “We already had the animatic,” explains White, “so when we started working on the tracked material, we were very clear on what was what in terms of blocking. Our Rigging team is amazing and has a pretty evolved set of tools, so building and rigging the creature was relatively straightforward.”
The lighting for the sequence was done in Pixar’s Renderman using fRibGen, Framestore’s lighting and shading tool set. “The lighting in the arena was very soft and diffuse, which can be a challenge,” says White. “To match this feel in CG, Rachel Williams, our lighting lead, used large-area lights and indirect illumination as well as HDRI contribution to get the final look.”
As the battle progresses, the fingers/heads of the creature get cut off one by one, generating gallons of gore. Says White, “That was a combination of digital blood, simulated by the FX team in (Side Effects’) Houdini, and some practical elements. We also did a wet-blood pass on the creature itself so that as each of the heads gets cut off, a comp could reveal the blood over time.”
Once defeated, Marteetee—the creature’s manipulator—falls face first into the goop, and in a final comedic grace-note, his face appears pushing up from the ground, an effect achieved via F-bounce, Framestore’s in-house rigid-body dynamics tool.
Flipping the Bird
Simon, the comedy sidekick mechanical bird, was a reference to Bubo, the mechanical owl who appeared in the original Clash of the Titans. A practical animatronic bird was created for static shots, and the Framestore team was charged with getting it up in the air. “The practical model’s wings did not fully open,” notes White, “so we had to work out the virtual mechanics of getting them open and flapping. Digital modeler Ronan Carr Fanning did a beautiful job of inventing the mechanics of the bird—we looked at old clock parts, for example—making sure that we ended up with something that didn’t look too hi-tech.”
For lighting, the artists used Renderman, with Alan Woods creating the main look-dev. Woods and Paul Bielby did the main work on shader writing, and Bielby adding some energy-conservation properties to the metal shaders that gave them a nice look.
An interesting technical aspect of the development of Simon arose through the initial plan of the creative team to make the bird’s movement look like genuine stop-motion animation: slightly creaky, jerky, and a little unconvincing. The team gradually realized, however, that working with something created in GG—with its attendant level of detail and polish—made it extremely difficult to animate in a way that looked like stop-motion without it simply appearing to be badly animated. To make it look bad was more challenging than making it look good, in other words, and the idea was finally shelved.
Magic, Mattes, and Malevolent Moons
Magic is used by many characters in Your Highness, and the Framestore team worked hard to develop the concept looks for these effects. “It obviously wasn’t going to be the ‘serious’ magic that you see in a Harry Potter film,” says McGee. “And there was also a desire to reflect the sort of effects you’d have seen in the films that inspired the project.”
Working in both Autodesk Maya and Houdini , dozens of manhours of development and tweaking resulted in as splendid an array of glowing plasma balls, smoke clouds coming off hands, lightning bolts, and waves of electricity as you could ask for.
Matte painting was used throughout to add verisimilitude—most notably in a gorgeous pan across a huge medieval mining town, full of grimy life. The film’s climax takes place at Leezar’s castle—a 200-foot-high edifice of evil whose exterior was built in CG. Inside, Leezar’s evil scheme requires a gigantic sliding roof and a channeling of the mystical powers of two moons. The roof, moons, and channeling were all handed over to Rob Duncan and the Framestore team for finish.
With Framestore in place during the developmental stage of the script, the production clearly felt able to trust the company implicitly. “Although editorial was in LA, they didn’t once come across to see the shots,” McGee comments. “Rob Duncan and I went out there twice to editorial screenings, we’d upload the work overnight, and then conference the next day. It made the whole process smooth.”
And while the film as a whole bends toward the absurd with potty comedy, the digital work created by Framestore is far more mature.