Back in 2018, Max Wood explained in detail the visual effects work on The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Today he returns to tell us about the origins of Disney’s most famous villain, Cruella!

How did you get involved on this show? 

I had previously supervised the VFX on The Nutcracker and the Four Realms for Disney. Dave Taritero, Senior Vice President of Visual Effects for Disney, suggested that I meet with Craig Gillespie, the Cruella Director, to see if we would be a good fit. We discussed the movie, including his style and how he envisaged the VFX working in the movie. We also discussed what Craig had liked, and a lot of what he had not liked about VFX in his previous movies. It gave me a great insight into working with Craig and what to expect. I then met Sarah Tulloch, the VFX producer, and we got on really well and made a for a great team throughout the show.

How was the collaboration with Director Craig Gillespie? 

Craig knows what he wants, which is great. He also shoots at a colossal speed and does not like to wait around. There were times where I definitely frustrated him whilst shooting by getting reference but it really paid off in post and he appreciated that in post… I think. In Post Craig was great, he has worked with the same editor, Tanya Riegel, on many movies and they were both great for VFX in terms of rarely changing a take once we were working on a shot. Although, on Christmas Eve Craig told me that he was adding an aerial plate of 1960s London to the movie. We had to add a CG Truck, replace all of the modern-day buildings and boats, change from day to night and replace the sky… with only three weeks of post left to go… Happy Christmas! 

How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer? 

We knew MPC were the main VFX vendor taking care of the Dogs and the environment work, but we also knew that we had a lot of beauty work (wig line fixes, eye colour correction for young Estella, blemish removal etc) and some de-aging to do. Several vendors who specialise in this type of work did some tests for us on de-aging of the Baroness for the flashback scenes where she appears 25 years younger. After receiving the tests and talking with Ed Bruce from SSVFX we decided they were the team to work on this. They were great! 

Can you explain in detail about the dogs creation and animations? 

We did photogrammetry of all 8 CG dogs in the movie. We scanned them and took photos in different poses, stood, sat, mouth open (that was a tricky one!), etc… From here we built the dogs, to be as accurate as possible to their live counterparts. MPC used a lot of what they had learnt on both The Lion King and The One and Only Ivan for rigging, muscles, eyes etc. One thing that we did change was the fur shader, from previous shows it was something that we hadn’t been entirely happy with, especially the light scatter through the fur and so we made it a more physically based shader. 

Did you receive specific indications and references for their animations? 

During the shoot Tom Reagan, our VFX editor, collated all of the shots where we needed to add digital dogs. We then had two days at the end of the shoot with the hero dogs and their trainers where we filmed the dogs doing all of the required actions. As well as having multiple witness cameras we had the MPC asset supervisor, rigging lead and animation supervisor there to watch and learn from the dogs. In post there were several shots where we didn’t have reference for some unplanned Buddy shots, in this instance I spoke to Julie Tottman, Buddy’s trainer and owner, and she kindly filmed some reference for me. In other instances, we would use the internet to source extra reference. 

How did you handle the super slow-motion shots? 

MPC have a great retime pipeline where you can switch between real time and slow-mo. We did find that we wouldn’t just work at regular speed and retime using the curve that the plate was retimed with, as it needed to be more stylised and more detailed. We found that the shots are so slow that they were very forgiving as to not exactly matching the speed of the plate. The slow-mo shots of the dalmatians jumping and biting at Young Estella’s feet are my favourite shots of the movie, once we added the slow-mo drool coming from the dog’s mouths it really made that short sequence perfect for me.  

Can you elaborate about the beautiful dress in fire transition? 

We filmed Emma Stone in the red dress performing the each of the shots. We also filmed her performing the same shots with the white cape over the red dress. We knew that the plates would not line up well enough to use the cape as an element but it gave the perfect reference for lighting the cape and also how it moved. We roto-animated Cruella in the red dress and added the CG white cape on top. We did several passes of crude fire FX in comp to get the timing of the fire travelling up the cape across the cut. Once Craig signed off on the timing, we simulated the cloth to feel like burning flash paper (you may have spotted Horace burning flash paper earlier in the movie). We then simulated the fire and added burnt edge to the paper. The final touches were adding smoke, embers and interactive lighting to the plate. 

The movie has many impossible camera movements and long continuous shots. How did you prepare shots like these? 

We planned each shot in Pre-vis and then tech-vis. The long shot flying over Liberty department store, in through the roof, down to the ground floor and then down into the basement required a lot of planning. Especially as we transitioned through three different cameras, and therefore film back sizes. We start outdoors on the Alexa LF on a drone, the interior decent into Liberty is on the Alexa 65 on a cable rig and then we go to the Alexa Mini on a steady Cam. In total the shot required us to stitch seven plates together. We used the LF and 65 for the extra resolution for re-framing and re-projecting the plate. On set we had a framing grid that we could overlay during shooting and playback on the monitors to see that once cropped to the same resolution the different plates would align. 

Can you explain in detail about your work on the factory on fire? 

There were two different components to consider with the lair on fire, the interior and the exterior. When shooting the interior SFX did a fantastic job of having real fire surrounding Cruella. Obviously for safety reasons it could only be a fraction of what we needed but it gave us great interactive lighting and also values to aim for in terms of the brightness of real fire. It is very easy in VFX to retain too much of the detail of fire and therefore make it look incorrectly exposed. By having the real fire we had a great target. I then worked with SFX and shot a bunch of elements of fire… fire on the floor, fire up the walls, props on fire etc we then layered them into the comps. The only time the interior shots required CG fire was for when it was hitting the ceiling. We also shot and used a lot of elements of embers. 

Stylistically, Craig decided that we wouldn’t add smoke to the scene as he wanted to give it a more graphic feeling. Then… after we had finaled the scene we were asked to add smoke! It was at this moment that I thought Damien Stumpf, MPC’s internal VFX supervisor, might actually kill me, but instead he calmly went away with his team added CG smoke and the scene did indeed look a lot better, it was a good call!  

The exterior Shots of the fire were, in a way, much easier as they were fully CG. The base of the building is practical and the upper floor and roof are CG. We used internet-based reference of buildings on fire at night for scale, embers and smoke levels. 

Can you explain in detail about the rejuvenation work? 

We had to de-age both the Baroness and her Valet, John, for the flashback scenes where we see them both 12 year and 25 years younger. The de-aging work was entirely a 2d process. We scanned each actors face and took reference photography. We also had a stand in actor of the appropriate age so that we could use that as reference of how the skin would look in each specific lighting scenario. Once Craig was happy with our hero shots, we applied the same 2d techniques to the other shots. One of the interesting aspects of de-aging john to 25 years younger was that the wig he was shot in did not suit his younger face. Ed Bruce, SSVFX’s VFX supervisor, gathered ref images of guys at the right age in the right time period and I presented them to Craig. He picked a style and we then gave him CG hair for those flashback scenes. 

Which sequence or shot was the most challenging? 

The parachute falling scene was the most challenging, it went through several iterations of parachute design and previs until we got something that could be considered close to physically plausible. In this scene we used some elements of Emma Stone’s face but her body, costume and hair are CG throughout. 

Did you want to reveal any other invisible effects? 

It is not so much an invisible effect, or maybe it is. I love the shot where we are looking at the back of Young Estella brushing her teeth and we can see her reflection in the mirror. As the camera moves closer she ducks out of frame to spit her toothpaste into the sink and adult Estella pops back up, still brushing her teeth. As she walks away, the camera passes through the mirror and we follow her through their lair. It’s not the type of shot where the audience will notice something odd has happened but if you go back and look at it it’s pretty cool. It was probably the shot that gave us the biggest head scratching moment on set, but once we realised how to shoot it, it was actually relatively simple. 

Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights? 

It was probably during the shoot, it’s the feeling of did we get what we need in camera in order to make this work? Especially for the complex scenes with multiple plates being stitched together, our stitches generally were not the type where we could just line them up easily on the day. As much as I was pretty confident that we got everything, it is always a relief to see it comped and working! 

What is your best memory on this show? 

Our first review in postproduction where we showed Craig some of our CG dogs already in shots and he was blown away. Getting his faith in the quality of our work early on really lead to a smooth postproduction. I really have to thanks Damien Stumpf, MPC’s VFX supervisor, for putting that together so quickly as it made my job a lot easier! 

How long have you worked on this show? 

Too long! Due to Covid post extended by 6 months and so I was on the show for a total of two and a half years. 

What’s the VFX shots count? 

The show was a total of 1828 shots, 1151 by MPC, 512 by SSVFX and 165 by our great in-house team (Matt Mullarky and Suzette Barnett). 

What is your next project? 

I’m currently getting ready for prep on another Disney show. It’s a big one that I’m very excited about. 

A big thanks for your time.

MPC: Dedicated page about Cruella on MPC website.
Cruella: You can now watch Cruella on Disney+.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2021


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