Issue: Volume 36 Issue 7: (Nov/Dec 2013)

Moving On Up

By: Barbara Robertson

The visual effects studio Digital Domain was a co-producer of the film Ender’s Game. We asked Writer/Director Gavin Hood about the impact of having a VFX studio involved in the production from the beginning. Prior to Ender’s Game, Hood most recently directed the films X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Rendition, and Tsotsi, for which he received a BAFTA nomination.

Visual effects play an important role in Ender’s Game, as they have for some of your previous films. Did having Digital Domain onboard as a co-producer make a difference?

It made a huge difference. I know that without them in the early phases, this film would not have been made.

How did having Digital Domain involved in the early phases help?

This wasn’t a film everyone wanted to make; it would always be what it became – an independent movie. So, we needed to convince investors. For the battle room sequences, the only thing we built was the gate. When the kids jump out, they’re on wires on greenscreen, and there was a lot of concern about these sequences with four kids flying around in zero gravity. So, early on, I wrote a 45-second teaser and then designed a full version in the computer in 3D with Ben Proctor [production designer along with Sean Haworth]. And, of course, we brought in [Visual Effects Supervisor] Matthew Butler, who really understood zero gravity from an engineering and physics point of view. Then, a team of six or eight artists, including Previs Artist Scott Meadows, worked together at Digital Domain to previsualize every battle sequence. We put it together using animated characters in the proper space, and this is what I took to investors; we showed it to 250 buyers at Cannes.

Did you previs the entire film?

We fully previs’d every scene in the battle school, every shot. On set we could show it to our stunt coordinator so he could rehearse. The previs was about blocking and camera angles, and about saying to the stunt department, ‘This is where I see actors’ faces.’ The stunt department had amazing rigs, but at some point, we had to let the CG guys replace the bodies to have real movement in zero gravity. The key was having previs done well. With the previs, I was able to more accurately show what I wanted to achieve and could divide the work between the departments.

Did you have lighting in previs?

No. But, we had the visual effects department involved on set. The battle room has a glass dome with reflections, and we wanted each of the four scenes to be lit differently,appropriate to the mood. We had a morning scene with the blue Earth below. Next, a romantic scene with the sun eclipsed by the Earth. Next, we see shafts of warm amber sunlight. And next, a film noir look. We couldn’t ask the visual effects department to just copy and paste the lighting. The more complicated your work is, the earlier you want them involved.

For the battle room, we built the gate and some silver diamond-shaped things the kids hold onto. The lighting had to be carefully worked out. We had an amazing collaboration between the physical lighting team and the visual effects lighting team. They were in sync, so the final design would include all the lights and reflections.

Would you want the visual effects team involved early, even if the VFX studio weren’t a co-producer?

Many studios think you should shoot a movie and then do the visual effects. I think that’s crazy. You only have greenscreen. You still have 50 percent of the movie to shoot. You can’t edit the movie without seriously done visual effects. So, instead of shooting actors first and then visual effects, how about doing the visual effects first?

Get the action first and then shoot the actors, and we worked substantially that way. The battle room went like a knife through butter because of how well we prepared. The only mistake we made, and I’ve definitely learned, is that the start date was shifted forward and we didn’t properly finish the previs of the final act. It meant the stress was greater in shooting and we had to shoot a lot more coverage. Of course, you don’t need to do research for a film with only enhancement work. But, for a film like this with more than half the shots involving considerable visual effects, it’s critical and wonderful.

How early should the studio bring in a visual effects team?

This is an era in which 50 percent or more of some films are VFX-based. What I will take with me going forward from this film is that it’s really important to work with your VFX team in pre-pre-production. That’s what I was able to do because one of the producers was a VFX company, and that’s what I really enjoyed about working on this show.

In a perfect world, just as you bring a cinematographer on in pre-production, I think the visual effects supervisor, who is the head of a department, is as important to bring on early – and, in some cases, more important. You can do that whether you have a freelance supervisor and multiple houses, or one studio. I liked the fact that we had a powerful one-stop shop, and I had the benefit of Matthew [Butler] knowing the artists really well. Half the problem in making films is relationship-building. I hooked up with Matthew, he hooked up with the people on his team, and by the time we got to the set, we knew each other’s quirks. I made changes to the script based on thoughts Matthew had about the way ships move in space.

For me, visual effects is no longer something that you tack onto the end of the film. Filmmaking is a massively collaborative experience. We should build visual effects in at the beginning. It’s critical for them to be with the cinematographer, the set designers, the costume designers, so we can all understand the various problems. Build them in, not bolt them on. – Barbara Robertson

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