Framestore flew to action to create invisible VFX, complex environments and the villainess Cheetah for Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984.
The team collaborated closely with Director Patty Jenkins to realize her vision for the eagerly-awaited sequel to the first film, box office big-hitter Wonder Woman.
“We set out to do some extremely difficult and complex work, and Framestore blew me away with the results. They were amazing partners, always delivered, and were tireless in their efforts to reach the best result possible, no matter what," says Jenkins.
Based on the character taken from the DC Comics, Cheetah, a human-cheetah hybrid, possesses superhuman strength and agility. Played by Kristen Wiig, and Gal Gadot’s “favorite villain,” Cheetah is arguably one of the most iconic of Wonder Woman’s foes. “We really wanted to do Cheetah,” admits VFX Supervisor Alexis Wajsbrot. “Even before we knew that the role would be played by Wiig, we started doing our own research and producing concepts so we had something to show the filmmakers.”
Cheetah’s character design required a delicate balance between both human (Wiig’s performance) and animal. The team referenced footage of the real cheetahs and, of course, the character in the original comic books.
“We retained the cheetah’s innate predatorial attitude and trademark laser focus as they lock onto prey,” explains Nathan McConnel, Animation Supervisor. “However, the anatomy choices informed her range of movement – cheetahs have huge flexibility in their scapulas, vertical shoulder blades and small clavicles tethered by ligaments and a flattened rib cage. It's these structural adaptations that create a lengthened stride and provide superior acceleration, which is the feeling we wanted to capture in our animation.”
“Patty loved Kristen’s performance, so we knew we wanted to shoot everything for real,” says Wajsbrot.
The team devised an approach where some shots used a full-CG digi-double asset animated by hand, and others just digital makeup on Wiig’s face. McConnell agrees, “We always tried to retain as much of Wiig's original facial performance as possible, but since the face anatomy was different we ended up with a hybrid mix of animation and plate, blended seamlessly together in compositing.”
Fans got a glimpse of something very exciting in the first trailer – Wonder Woman’s golden armor. “The exciting thing is that the armor had never been seen outside of the comic books,” says Woods. Framestore not only built the wings digitally, but also worked with Jenkins and her team to design the mechanisms and how they would move with the character.
Adds Woods, “we found comic book poses where Cheetah and Wonder Woman have fought before and we recreated them as character studies in CG to help figure out how the armor would articulate and how it would be used, whether as a weapon or more of a defensive thing.”
One of the main challenges was to develop the cloud environment where Wonder Woman learns how to fly. On set, Gadot had been shot in costume, on a large rig and against a bluescreen.
“It was a challenge because Patty wanted to keep as much of the plate as possible,” explains Wajsbrot. “We had to create a massive rig to conform all of the plates to be sure we could animate her within the clouds, using as much as we could of the shoot.”
A huge challenge was figuring out an efficient way to render these gigantic, detailed cloudscapes. Says Woods, “what helped us was a big switch to a new way of storing data for the FX team, which meant that it didn’t take days to render the clouds. The other challenge was creating an illusion of scale, while keeping the clouds looking interesting when she flies through them.”
Jenkins sent the team photos taken from her flights to LA, which helped them to art-direct the sequence. Adds Woods, “We used our favorite images of cloudscapes to pass to the FX teams to recreate the shapes, with the matte painting team fixing the edges and adding more break up and detail to help sell it.
Collaborating so closely Jenkins was an unexpected pleasure for the team. “Patty had a strong vision for what she wanted her film to be,” says Wajsbrot. “It was a brilliant experience. She was open to ideas and really pushed us to achieve the best possible visuals. Her preference for shooting everything for real was great, because even if we ended up replacing some things digitally, we had amazing footage as reference and the camera moves to match. The best VFX is when it becomes invisible.”