Union Helps Jack Pull Crowds in 'Yesterday'
February 11, 2020

Union Helps Jack Pull Crowds in 'Yesterday'

Yesterday, everyone knew The Beatles. Today, only Jack remembers their songs. He’s about to become a very big deal. From Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) and Richard Curtis, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually and Notting Hill, comes a rock-n-roll comedy about music, dreams, friendship, and the long and winding road that leads to the love of your life. 

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, BBC’s Eastenders) is a struggling singer-songwriter in a tiny English seaside town whose dreams of fame are rapidly fading, despite the fierce devotion and support of his childhood best friend, Ellie (Lily James, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again). Then, after a freak bus accident during a mysterious global blackout, Jack wakes up to discover that The Beatles have never existed… and he finds himself with a very complicated problem, indeed.

Union was the sole VFX vendor chosen to help create the mysterious blackout and enable Jack to perform to huge crowds of adoring fans.

Union illustrated the world’s blackout by gradually turning the lights out on across the globe. Additional context was provided by green screen shot sequences in Red Square and at a US baseball game.

From then on, we’re in a world where only Jack remembers the Beatles and decides to start performing their music to the world.

Ed Sheeran plays himself in Yesterday – his first major acting role – and Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis approached him and his management team early on as their support was critical to creating believable crowds and scale for Jack’s performances.

VFX Supervisor Adam Gascoyne attended a number of Ed’s concerts with Danny Boyle, DOP Chris Ross and Production Designer Patrick Rolfe to start hatching a plan as to how to shoot the crowd scenes. After weeks of planning and production meetings the team shot Ed’s crowd during his performances at Wembley and Cardiff over a number of nights with nine cameras at each venue (including a spider cam) giving us a LOT of footage to play with.

After the fans left the venues, it was Himesh’s turn to get on stage and perform with passion to the vast empty stadiums.

There was a lot of pre-planning, working very closely with Ed’s lighting designer, Mark Cunniffe, and his team to select pre-programmed graphic set ups both on the notch playback system and the huge integrated lighting system to match as closely as possible to during Himesh’s performances.  

For added authenticity Union also worked with Ed’s team to create Himesh’s graphics for the notch system so that they shared the same spec and would work in context. They then built a 3D model of the stage in Maya into which they were added.

Back at Union, the team started selecting sections of Ed’s live crowd for reactions and lighting setups to best marry with Himesh's performances. They studied the color palettes used in Ed’s show which bathe the crowd and the stadium in light, then started to pair the songs Himesh would perform to them. For example Ed’s “I See Fire” which uses bright orange hues was a good match for “Here Comes the Sun” and likewise “Bloodstream,” which uses rich, flashing reds perfect for “Back in the USSR.” This all helped seam the plates together really well as the artists were able to repeat the pre-programmed lighting on Himesh during his performance.

Most of this crowd shots were achieved by compositing Ed’s crowd into the plate, but the crew also used Golaem to enhance areas and help mesh different crowd plates together seamlessly.  Some areas of the stadium were empty during Ed’s performances due to their limited view, but were in camera in the film. The artists had to be a bit creative there, but there were a lot of elements to choose from and combined them with CG crowd. Twinkly lights were also added using optical flares and a Nuke particles setup to create a magical effect during certain numbers.

VFX Supervisor Adam Gascoyne commented: “Ed and his team were hugely accommodating letting us join them on the UK leg of his mammoth world tour, which is a very well oiled machine.  Adding the circus of our film production into the mix can’t have been easy but the unprecedented access to Ed’s amazing fans and team allowed us to plan effectively and end up with the best possible outcome for the crowd – a truly believable engagement with Himesh’s performances.” 

Another key scene in the film is Jack’s album launch at Gorleston beach in Norfolk.  This shoot attracted a record extras crowd of 6,428 encouraged by appeals from Danny on local TV and radio – the largest crowd call since Richard Attenboroughs’ 1982 epic Gandhi! 

Union had a beautiful day, but there was still a lot of work for the studio to swell this crowd to around 30,000.

The group shot plates from a helicopter on the day and augmented the real crowd using Golaem and greenscreen sprite elements shot by the Union team at the location. They did several motion capture shoots in-house at Union to create a library of dance moves for the crowd, which we see from various angles in the finished film.

A CG helicopter covering the launch from the sky was added as well.

On top of crowd work, the crew did some work augmenting Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium to look more like Wembley using 2.5D DMP’s and CG crowd elements.

They also built a couple of train platforms at Liverpool Lime Street station as the ones they wanted to use were undergoing construction at the time of shooting. The production managed to gain permission to hang a green screen on the scaffolding allowing Union to rebuild the station environment complete with CG train and crowd elements as a 2.5D matte painting.

Additional VFX work included augmenting the front of a shop in Penny Lane to resemble the barber’s shop described in the famous song. 

Union also visited the original site of Strawberry fields children home, a favorite playing field for John Lennon when he was a kid and, as we were creating a world where the Beatles didn’t exist, we had to digitally remove the 1000’s of tributes left by Beatles fans visiting from all over the world, the studio stated.

Artists also subtly changed the name of John Lennon Airport for our fictional world. 

Additional effects included atmospheric effects (rain, thunder and lightning), CG seagulls (including a 2D animated version in the opening titles), phone screen inserts and graphics, wire removal and driving shots.