In 2017, Tom Proctor explained the work of DNEG on A CURE FOR WELLNESS. He then worked on JUSTICE LEAGUE. He talks to us today about his work on FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD, his first participation on a film from the Harry Potter universe.

What was your feeling to enter into the Harry Potter world?
I had never worked on a POTTER film and I was not involved in the first FANTASTIC BEASTS so it was very exciting to get a chance to work on this institution of British VFX.

How was the collaboration with director David Yates and with VFX Supervisors Christian Manz and Tim Burke?
This time around Christian and Tim had decided to split their workload in such that DNEG was working exclusively with Tim. From the outset, Tim empowered the DNEG team with a lot of creative freedom which was something I was very happy about. We got to contribute a lot of ideas – some of which made the cut and some which didn’t! It was a very fun collaboration and I’m personally grateful for the opportunity.

What was the sequences made by DNEG?
DNEG worked on all the establishing exteriors of Hogwarts, the shots of the Boggart in the Defense Against The Dark Arts classroom, the shots of Grindelwald’s vision of the Obscurus and Credence in his hideout, and the entire 3rd act from when we enter the Underground Amphitheatre, through Grindelwald’s speech, the big battle inside and outside, and the aftermath, and the final scene on the viaduct at Hogwarts.

How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer and how was split the work amongst the DNEG offices?
Charlotte Loughnane was our producer. Along with our DFX Supervisor Laurence Priest, we decided to split the work according to our teams’ abilities and capacity. Since I would be based in the London office along with our concept art team, we focused the creative development in London. Our big creature work – the Boggart and the Black Fire creatures – would involve a lot of creature development and technical FX so we based this in London where our senior talents on the show were located. Originally there was meant to be a component of work done in Vancouver but as the cut of the film changed, the scope of this work shrank and it made sense for us to relocate the work to London. We settled on having a Unit 1 in London, a Unit 2 in Mumbai, and a Unit 2A which was a team of leads based in London who did hero shots and passed on setups to our Mumbai team. Our Mumbai office tackled a great deal of the set extensions, crowd replication, and all the FX shots inside the Underground Amphitheatre and in the cemetery which didn’t include the creatures.

Can you explain in detail about the design and the creation of Grindelwald’s visions?
Grindelwald’s immersive vision of the horrors of WWII was one of the areas where we were given a lot of creative leeway and one of the areas which excited me the most when we first started the project. We got a cut of previs anim and the Peter Paul Reubens painting ‘The Fall of The Damned’. We initially explored the idea of the smoke that Grindelwald exhales congeals into tumbling bodies, like in Reubens’ painting, but then the tumbling bodies go on to form images of WWII – a really horrifying depiction of the civilian cost of war. But ultimately the shots play out quickly in the cut and it was decided that we should go for something simpler. So we worked on having the soldiers and tank form quite rapidly from the wisps of smoke, and then kept a smoky hazy look to the world. The FX reveal was done by Jolan Auzeby and the ruined city environment was an effort by Juan Manuel Ortiz and Steve Adams, led by our environment supe Nacho Thomas. This was also a heavy comp sequence, which Marco Parenzi led.

Can you tell us more about the Nuclear explosion creation?
This was the handiwork of one of our senior FX crew, Viktor Rietveld, whose personal obsession is with the dynamics of nuclear explosions. We went through a great deal of reference to find all the aspects we liked and which would convey appropriate scale and Viktor was able to integrate all of them. He has an impressive depth of knowledge about mushroom clouds and all the secondary effects and forces which really lent the shot realism!

How did you create the Lestrange Ampitheatre?
There was a very large partial set built which included the entire dais and floor, and a couple tiers of the seating, and perhaps a 1/5th wedge of seating up to the top level. We replicated this wedge digitally to create the 360 and created the ceiling entirely in CG. We took extensive Lidar and photographic texture ref of the set so we could faithfully capture Production Designer Stuart Craig’s look.

What was the real size of this set?
It was enormous – several stories high, filling one of the large stages at Leavesden Studios!

How did you create and animate the crowd?
We had 500 extras which had to be replicated out to 2000-3000. We used a combination of multi pass photography, getting the extras to fill the 1/3 « pizza slice » of the amphitheatre set and shooting them from various angles, and sprites. DNEG’s 2D Supervisor, Martin Riedel, and I spent several days out at Leavesden getting the sprites to act out the various actions and reactions we could use to match the hero action. We also shot several shots multipass with a mocon rig for the shots with the crowd disapparating.

Grindelwald is using a ring of blue fire. Can you explain in detail about its creation and animation?
The blue fire was initially called « black fire » in the script and it was another area where we explored a lot of different looks, some of which were quite out there. Eventually it was decided that it would be best to go for something more familiar – the behavior is really like traditional fire but it has a whitish-blue color. We wanted to avoid having to sim and render a lot of smoke, and didn’t want smoke to obscure our views too much, but we found we needed to use a short-lived sooty smoke close to the surface of the flame to define the form of the flame. Otherwise in shots where you’re looking across the circle of flame you just get a flat overexposed area of the frame.

Did you received specific indications and references for this fire?
We looked at a lot of the footage of the terrible wildfires that were at the time ravaging California; these provided a huge amount of instruction.

How did you create the various death cause by the fire?
The disintegration effect was informed by an effect in the final POTTER film but we amped it up to be more violent. We body-tracked the actors on set and did a transition to a digidouble which would get shredded into small fabric sims and particles.

Can you tell us more about the Leta’s death?
We built a very high quality of digidouble of Zoe Kravitz, for which we had a special additional FACS shoot in New York which was attended by our creature supervisor Kyle Wood. The digidouble looks amazing! This was another effect which ended up being quite short in the finished cut of the film. David Yates was very specific about it needing to be similar in nature to the disintegration effects caused by the blue flame, but more elegant as befitting this important character in the film.

The final battle takes place in the cemetery with beautiful and deadly dragons. How did you design and create them?
The cemetery was an important part of the sequence. This was envisioned as a Wizarding World version of Pere Lachaise in Paris but blended with elements of Highgate and Brompton Cemeteries in London. We did extensive capture of Highgate and our build team, supervised by Patrick Harboun, built a library of crumbling gravestones, mausoleums, obelisks, and foliage with which to populate the environment. Our environment supe Nacho Thomas and our lighting supe Roel Coucke were pivotal in creating this immense and atmospheric setting in which the action could play out.

There was a long process of development for the fire dragons. We were given some beautiful but almost impressionistic concept art by the production which depicted the creatures as more abstract and amorphous and less like traditional dragons. We explored a lot of different creature forms with our concept team at DNEG, led by our art director Andrew Williamson and lead artist Dave Freeman. The idea was that we would have these scary mouths, horns, wings and appendages arise or emerge from the fire and smoke in an unpredictable and dynamic way.

Can you tell us more about their rigging and animation?
Tim Burke’s way of working with David Yates was extremely helpful for us; he likes to develop a strong previs and postvis cut with his in-house team which becomes a very solid brief for the VFX facility. In this case, he asked DNEG to provide to his team some modular rigs of the various creature forms which we had developed in our art. So we gave them a package of wings, limbs, heads, and snakelike bodies which could be combined in different ways. In developing the action and pacing of the sequence, Tim’s team moved away from the more abstract and amorphous design towards a more immutable design which is what you see in the finished film. We further refined the look of the creatures in post – a charcoal black skeleton which emits the blue fire. Our animation was supervised by Colin McEvoy.

How did you manage the various FX elements during this sequence?
There were so many FX components! Luckily we had an incredibly strong FX team led by our FX supervisor Tom Bolt. We had very senior artists in charge of each of the big elements – Mike Nixon led the fire creature, along with Ronald Chew who developed the fire on the heads, Tamar Chatterjee looked after the positive flame spell, Nacho Doctor Gonzales worked on the firenado which ensnares the creatures at the end of the battle, and the disintegration FX. Andrew Leeuwenberg and Brendan Carroll worked on the foliage environment and FX. The fire inside the amphitheatre was led by Goolzar Buchla and Brent Droog.

What was the main challenge on the show and how did you achieve it?
The fire creatures, for sure. The big challenge was the fact that no one set of fire simulation settings worked for all situations. Depending on what the creature is doing and how fast it was moving we had to devise new techniques to get the right sense of scale and speed. Different settings were used on different parts of the body but then needed to be integrated together to make it look cohesive. It really was very painstaking grooming the fire to work in each shot. Also because of the scale of the creatures and the distance they travel, there were just some monstrous sim and render times.

Which sequence or shot was the most complicated to create and why?
Probably the wide pull out over the cemetery with all of the creatures flying around. There was a certain amount of iteration between FX and animation – the creatures have to react to a wall of flame which leaps up to block them. This shot also featured a large amount of dynamic burning foliage and very detailed environment work over a large area.

Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
The last few shots we completed with the firenado ensnaring the creatures were very challenging.

Is there any other invisible effects you want to reveal to us?
I am particularly proud of getting to work on the scenic Hogwarts shots. 

What is your favorite shot or sequence?
The shot over the shoulder of Newt and Theseus looking across the cemetery at the dragons is a good one, also the shot where the dragon is escaping the cemetery and the gravestones are collapsing into the ground behind it is pretty epic. But I also like some of the more simple graphic shots of the circle of fire inside the amphitheatre.

What is your best memory on this show?
I will always remember the almost constant laughter in our production office.

How long have you worked on this show?
About 14 months, I think.

What’s the VFX shots count?

What was the size of your team?
I believe we had something like 500 people split between London and India.

What is your next project?
It’s still secret and I can’t say just yet but I’m very excited!

A big thanks for your time.


© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2018


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