TRUE GRIT: Vincent Cirelli – VFX Supervisor – Luma Pictures

After talking about THE GREEN HORNET, Vincent Cirelli and his team are back. This time, they talk about their invisible work on the western TRUE GRIT.

How was your collaboration with directors Ethan and Joel Coen?
Payam Shohadai (Executive Visual Effect Supervisor) // True Grit marked our fourth collaboration with the Coen Brothers and our largest shot count- so in that sense our largest collaboration with probably the shortest schedule to boot. We completed the work in about four months. As far as working with them, it’s a pleasure. They bring us on board as early as script/storyboard phase to discuss the most cost effective approach e.g. “should we build a set or can we create a matte painting instead.” It’s really refreshing to be so welcomed and engaged in the filmmaking process, and see the bigger context in which our efforts will work with the narrative.

What is their approach to visual effects?
Steven Swanson (Senior Visual Effects Producer) // Joel and Ethan are eager to learn. They want to understand how things work, how they can make our lives easier and vice versa, what’s possible, and whether in camera or in post will yield the better quality result. They’re gracious and conscious of our time, giving us their thoughts and asking for ours. That collaborative spirit with all departments gives everyone a vested interest in the film’s success and makes the process truly a pleasure.

What have you done on this film?
Vincent Cirelli (Visual Effects Supervisor) // The bulk of the work in this film was “invisible”, meaning if the audience was surprised to learn there were any visual effects in the film, then we’ve done our job well. There was a wide range of different effects including adding snow, enhancing a prosthetic horse in a river to give it life, animating believable rattlesnakes, creating severed fingers and wounds.

How did you recreate the city?
Richard Sutherland (CG Supervisor) // We researched photographs of desert towns from the old West circa late 1800’s to give us an idea of what the Coen brothers were looking for in the town. We created a ‘toolkit’ of buildings from the period to replace modern structures and extend city streets. We developed a hero and modeling asset system that works within Maya and fine tuned models and textures for authenticity to make the actual location of Granger, Texas look and feel like turn-of-the-century Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Were there many bluescreens or did you have to make extensive use of rotoscoping?
Justin Johnson (Digital FX Supervisor) // We relied heavily on rotoscoping as blue/green screens would had to have been enormous to canvas wide streets.

What references have you received from the Coen brothers for the city?
Vincent Cirelli (Visual Effects Supervisor) // Production designer Jess Gonchor provided concept art of what the town should look like extended which we coupled with our own research. Buildings close to camera were dressed for the era but several had 20th century architecture and which were replaced in 2D or sometimes 3D.

What was involved in the river sequence?
Richard Sutherland (CG Supervisor) // The Coens felt the river was not enough of a threat when Maddie crossed on the horse. We made the calm current subtlety more menacing by blending CG fluid and particle sims with re-timed water elements. We even created special interactive sims to integrate the water with Maddie and her horse, Blackie. In this sequence and others we enhanced or replaced elements of the horse head for dramatic effect: twitching ears, breath, sweat and saliva.

The movie is quite violent. Tell us about the scene where a character is cut off fingers and his assailant took a bullet in the head. How did you make these shots?
Vincent Cirelli (Visual Effects Supervisor) // There was a good amount of effort put into making the severed fingers look totally photo-real. Realistic skin needs details like subsurface scattering or the light that enters into the depths of the flesh, dirt under the fingernails to go with the era, and a wet/bloody texture to sell the violence of it. The fingers were individually modeled and textured went into the comp at an early stage so we could find how to progress their sense of reality. The lighting was based on the image used for the plate and then embellished.

For the gun shot, we used a practical element of blood hitting a wall behind the victim. We did a roto of him so we could place it behind. Then we painted frames of a gory gun blast onto his face and body as the violence happens.

Have you created matte paintings for the sequences outside the cities or is it all natural landscapes?
Vincent Cirelli (Visual Effects Supervisor) // The Coens’ choice of location was brilliantly done. They were all a beautiful addition to the film. Other than the shots in the town, a handful of matte paintings for the looking-glass shots and painting out a few roads that have been formed since the period in which the film was set, the landscapes were totally untouched and natural.

What is the invisible effect that you’re most proud of?
Steve Griffith (Visual Effects Producer) // One of the most challenging effects was the cluster of snakes. The digital animals needed to blend perfectly into the 4K plates, hold up close to camera, and integrate into a wide variety of environments. It was a very big challenge and one that I feel our artists executed with great expertise. As part of our research, we brought in a snake handler and real snakes so that the animators could observe how they move and strike—from a safe distance, of course. And that was a lot of fun.

How did you create the snow?
Richard Sutherland (CG Supervisor) // Some of the snow was practically shot and applied to 3D planes within Nuke. That way it could be composited and tweaked right in the comp while still having the 3D tracked camera move through it in 3D space. For other shots an in-house developed snow setup was used to create falling snow that not only fell and moved at a rate our mind is used to seeing, but also moved realistically with gusts of wind and even landed on the actors hair and coats.

How long have you worked on this film?
Steven Swanson (Senior Visual Effects Producer) // Four months for shot execution. It actually started in the spring of 2010 when they brought us in to consult with us on the number of shots they were going to have, what would be possible through CG, etc. There were snakes that they wanted to try practically at first, but they knew inevitably that they would have to have CG snakes for performance and safety reasons. It ended up being around 9 months total.

How many shots have you made and what was the size of your team?
Vincent Cirelli (Visual Effects Supervisor) // 350+ shots, 45-50 team members including 35 artists, coordinators, and supervisors. The shot count started at an assumed 80, but when they started handing over shots, they had 120 or so to start us with and as the editing process started moving further along, more and more shots emerged that needed work. They were creating the film as we were creating the CG elements.

What did you keep from this experience?
Payam Shohadai (Executive Visual Effect Supervisor) // That for a team like the Coen’s, who are more often thought to be “traditional film makers”, to need so much collaboration from us to bring their film together is a testament to how integral (invisible) VFX have become. All the work we completed did service to the narrative story, which is a great satisfaction to us.”

A big thanks for your time.

// WANT TO KNOW MORE ?

Luma Pictures: Official website of Luma Pictures.
fxguide: TRUE GRIT article on fxguide.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2011

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Vincent Frei

Founder & Editor-in-Chief // VES Member // Former comp artist

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