Previsualizing 'Dark Phoenix'
Richard Enriquez, Halon
July 15, 2019

Previsualizing 'Dark Phoenix'

When it comes to visualization, it’s common to join a project, execute our charge, disband, only to eventually return during a later stage of production. The journey from page to screen can be an arduous one, fraught with change, so it was fitting that Simon Kinberg’s  Dark Phoenix  would be just that sort of project.

Coming off our collaboration on Logan, VFX producer Kurt Williams initially brought us on during the spring of 2017 while production was based in Montreal. We would return to the project later that summer to previs their third act, yet after our deliveries, the release date of the picture would be repeatedly stepped back, allowing us multiple opportunities to revisit the project as the story continued to develop. Once the third act was finally fleshed out on the page, we rejoined the team in force to take on the previs they were planning to reshoot later that fall.

Utilizing our Unreal Engine pipeline, our team, led by senior supervisor Ryan McCoy, began working alongside VFX supervisor Phil Brennan in conceptualizing and executing the ‘Train Attack’ sequence postvis as well as look development previs and eventually postvis of the ‘Bedroom Vision’ sequence.

Once we received the plates for the Train Attack sequence, postvis supervisor Zachary Wong led the charge, developing the look of Jean’s Phoenix-like hair FX as well as executing full-body replacements, energy FX, and set extensions, meeting an aggressive editorial calendar to coincide with audience screenings, and ultimately to give the VFX vendors a roadmap to final. 

The Bedroom Vision sequence on the other hand allowed us quite a bit more explorative freedom, far beyond the storyboards we kicked off with. They had wanted the sequence to be much more of a striking visual trip and they entrusted us with the freedom to design and explore what could be done for this pivotal third act sequence. 

It was during this final stage that we had the privilege to work alongside VFX pioneer John Dykstra, just as we had done with him on Ghost in the Shell. 

John came by our Santa Monica studio and showed us some really cool experimental stuff he had shot (a few frames of slate revealed that the tests were for the film Lifeforce) of a laser shooting through a foil-lined paper towel tube, creating these magnificent caustic patterns. It would be these tests from the 1970s (shot on film before a majority of our artists were even born) that would form the basis of the aesthetic for the psychedelic scene. 

John wanted the sequence to be really trippy, with hyper-dynamic transitions that spanned a number of different celestial bodies. We experimented with a bunch of different concepts, including a timelapse birth of the universe; a black hole that swallows up the viewer and spits them out on a multiverse planet; zooming through reflections, silhouettes - all the while designing camera moves that made Jean and The Stranger (Jessica Chastain) seemingly transport to different galaxies through a Web of unorthodox camera moves and orientations. It was a wide-open sandbox and we were encouraged to take it as far as we could until John and Phil felt they needed to reign us back.

Though his involvement was brief, it was inspiring to work with John so closely as he imagined the sequence. Though visually complex, the approach was a much simpler, yet more effective take on how The Stranger would try to entice Jean on transcending into a higher being than she seemingly already was, and ended up being a more effective springboard to set-up the audience for the end battle. 

Once we completed the previs, we then did a host of 360 video renderings of our celestial elements to be projected on the stage via big LED light panels so the actors would be bathed in practical lighting. The plates came back just as we prevised and we comped our Unreal renders into the backgrounds, providing them with a full working edit of the scene.

The journey from script to screen is an arduous one, fraught with peril. Despite this, it never ceases to amaze me what a small group of ridiculously-talented filmmakers can come up with when there is a culture of collaboration and freedom to explore and push against the constraints of the conventional. Congratulations to the entire Dark Phoenix VFX family. We’d hope that we would have the opportunity to eventually come back to further push the story of Jean Grey, but if history serves, we’re confident that opportunity will rise, yet again.

Richard Enriquez is a producer at Halon Entertainment in Santa Monica, CA (