Back in 2018, Christian Manz explained the visual effects work on Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. He’s back today to tell us in detail about his work on the new Fantastic Beasts movie!
How was this new collaboration with Director David Yates?
Being my third film with David, we have built a great working relationship. He is very good at letting all of the Heads of Department collaborate and conceive ideas, whilst guiding us toward his final vision for the film. As Overall Visual Effects Supervisor, this means I’m lucky to get a lot of creative input into creature design, as well as being part of conceiving the key set pieces.
What are the main changes that the director wanted to do after the second movie?
David wanted us to approach the action sequences in a slightly different way – I worked with him and storyboard artist Giles Asbury from the get-go, putting each sequence through multiple drafts of beat sheets and boards so that we had a solid story and clear direction before engaging in a frame of previs. I really enjoyed those sessions, and it’s great to see that so many ideas born from them made the final cut.
Another aesthetic that David wanted me to push in the VFX was to make everything look more practical and tangible. For example, no magic sparkles could be used to cover up a costume transition – he wanted it to look as if we had captured it in-camera.
How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
I’d worked with my producer, Olly Young, and Line Producer, Nicky Coats, on the last two films so our working relationship was already well established. Being the sole Supervisor this time meant it was much easier for Olly to come on location scouts with me, of which there were many, as well as attending all of the many meetings with the Art Department and Production. This meant that nothing slipped through the gaps in terms of briefing our teams, as well as making the budgeting process more easy.
The best Supervisor/Producer relationships are born out of trust and respect – which from my point of view means I get the breathing space to be a ‘creative’ whilst at the same time making sure everyone is in the loop, so that Olly and Nicky can keep the budget and schedule on track. We had an amazing team – which was even more important this time around, because we made a lot of the film through the worst of the COVID pandemic in the UK.
How did you choose the various vendors?
We had established some great relationships on the first two films, which we wanted to continue, but at the same time, we wanted to bring some new blood into the VFX of the Wizarding World. Once we had a more clear idea of the scope of work we set about meeting with teams from lots of facilities in London, Berlin, Montreal and Vancouver – doing this in 2019 meant that we were able to meet everyone in person, which I think is still the best approach if possible. We had a rough split of the work in our heads before our trip but this evolved as we met everyone and got a better understanding of what sequences would play to each team’s strengths.
Can you tell us how you split the work amongst the vendors?
We had some challenging Fantastic Beasts to design and realise, so we knew that Framestore would be a big part of the team from the start. As established on the first two films we had an animation team, led by Nathan McConnel, working with us at the studio in pre-production breathing life into our creatures, which had started out as a multitude of concept art produced by the Framestore Art Department and some freelance artists such as Paul Catling and Jack Dudman. As well as work on creatures like the Manticores, Qilin, Wyvern, Phoenix, Pickett and Teddy the Niffler, they also had some challenging environments to create in China – the Erkstag Prison and Bhutanese Village.
Alongside Framestore we needed another studio who could deliver large scale environments, crowds and FX and we were delighted to bring Digital Domain on board – I had really enjoyed my time working with them on 47 Ronin a few years previously. When we met them in Vancouver, they were the obvious choice to create the technically and creative difficult work in realising the crowded exterior of the Berlin Ministry of Magic, the Bhutan Eyrie temple environment and the climactic duel between Dumbledore and Grindelwald.
Image Engine had done an amazing job on the carriage chase that opened ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’, so we wanted to give them something even more challenging this time around – the epic fight between Dumbledore and Credence on the streets of Berlin was a perfect fit, alongside the creation of the Blood Troth, its attack on Dumbledore and making Ezra Miller look more sickly and gaunt as the film progressed and Credence gets closer to death.
Rodeo have always excelled in bringing a high level of detail to their work so the magical storm that Jacob gets caught up in at the German Ministry dinner played to their strengths, as well as creating Grindelwald’s base, Nurmengard Castle and its surrounding Alpine environment. They also got to bring the Diricawls that they realised for Newt’s Case in the first film back for a cameo appearance.
I had been keen to work with RISE for a long while, and their environment work in Shazam had really impressed me – both in the quality of the final shots and the schedule it had been achieved in. In a bit of type casting, we had them working on the Berlin street and station extensions, as well as those for our return to New York. This was alongside a plethora of other bespoke shots – including magical costume transformations and building the British, American, Chinese and French Ministries, to name a few…
One of Us had helped out with Vis Dev of the Obscurus on the first film, so we were really keen to give them some shot work this time around. They completed the vast amount of digital extension needed to bring The Great Hall and Room of Requirements at Hogwarts back to the screen, as well as the London Tea Room where Dumbledore and Grindelwald meet at the start of the film. They also created Dumbledore’s atmospheric vision of Bhutan in the Great Hall.
Raynault’s environment and extension work in a multitude of productions gave us the confidence to award them two key Wizarding World environments to work on – the snowy village of Hogsmeade as well as the establishing shots of Hogwarts itself.
It’s always a difficult job dividing up the work and I’m pleased to say when we finally delivered the film in February this year, we felt we’d definitely made the right decisions – everyone did a fantastic job!
How was the collaboration with their VFX Supervisors?
I had a great time working with all of them (I hope they thought the same…).
The big change this time around was not being able to spend any time with them in person, which I really missed. We all soon got used to our Evercast reviews though, and it still blows me away that most if not all of the work they delivered was done from home. It can’t be underestimated how much work it must have been for them to manage their team and shots remotely, and we really have to thank the amazing Supervision and Production teams managing a huge amount of talented artists for getting it done – say nothing for the technical and systems support teams.
Obviously I’ve known Ben Loch and Stephane Nazé at Framestore for a long while and had worked with both of them on previous Beasts films – amongst other shows – over the years. Both have a great eye for detail and have a calm and collaborative approach as well as really caring about the work – something that can be said of all of the Supervisors I was working with. I also enjoyed working with Jon Allen again, who Supervised the Postvis portion of the Framestore work FPS (Framestore Preproduction Services) – Jon had been a key part of the postvis teams on the last two films and that experience paid dividends this time around.
It was great to get to work with Jay Barton again at Digital Domain, a few years after our first collaboration on 47 Ronin. Luckily we share the same sense of humour, which certainly helped us get through several creative changes to their sequences!
Martyn Culpitt and the Image Engine team are always a joy to work with – he has a great way of presenting the work at every stage which makes it very easy to make sure we’re hitting what the director is after. This was key with the Credence Dumbledore sequence as there were so many layers and moving parts that needed to work together.
It’s also been great to work with Arnaud Brisebois and his team again, where they got to produce some very different work than our previous collaborations. Like Martyn, Arnaud is meticulous in the level of detail he puts into the assets which came to the fore in creating the vortex of cutlery, plates and food spinning around Jacob in their key sequence.
It was my first time working with Oliver Schulz at RISE, and it was a real pleasure! He always had a smile on his face and made our reviews really fun, whilst at the same time juggling some incredibly complex work that I know kept him up at night!
Louis Laflamme-Fillion at One of Us also had a very calm, methodical approach, as well as a keen eye which was important as we recreated Stuart Craig’s famous Hogwarts sets – he and his team had one of the biggest challenges in the film in making their set extensions invisible, from a VFX perspective. They certainly managed to pull that off! He also won the competition for best Supervisor name…
Another person with great patience was Vincent Poitras at Raynault – the mirror writing between Credence and Aberforth went through many rounds of tweaks before we hit the character in the text that David was after…. His years of experience working on environments meant that he was also fantastic to work with on the Hogwarts and Hogsmeade exterior shots – it was great to be able to discuss the shots with someone who understands all of the visual cues required to make these sorts of shots as photographic as possible.
Can you elaborate about the design and creation of the new creatures?
We approached the design of the Beasts much as we have done for the first two films. We started with concept work for each creature and very quickly moved some into digital sculpt and animation. It is really important that the design is informed by character and performance as well as aesthetic, so this nonlinear process enables us to make sure that by the time we get to principal photography, we know that not only do we have a design that the film-makers are happy with, but also have character animation studies that can help inform the actors’ in some of their decision-making when it comes to their performance.
What was the main challenges with the new creatures?
The biggest challenge is always to come up with something original and that the audience will latch onto in some way.
Our two key Beasts this time round had their roots in Chinese and Greek Mythology as well as in J.K. Rowling’s world – the Qilin and Manticore. These are often traditionally amalgams of multiple animals, which can be hard to make work – especially as our brief is to make our creatures feel part of the natural as well as the magical world.
As well as going from the descriptions in the script, we also start by looking at traditional artwork and sculpture from both cultures as a leaping-off point.
The Qilin is often described as dragon like, scaled, with a mane, cloven hooves and the body of a deer or elk and the tail of an Ox. A lot of reference we found felt too close to the Zouwu, another Chinese beast we had brought to life for the second film. Therefore we leaned more toward the deer-like depictions, and after a vast amount of concepts, builds and animations, we ended up with the reptilian deer-like animal you see in the finished film. Nathan showed David some videos of a baby Dik Dik – a small antelope-like animal with an amazingly articulate snout – which he loved, and became a key piece of performance reference.
The Manticore conventionally has the body of a lion, the tail of a scorpion and human face. David really wanted a big and scary creature that even Newt has to run from. Part of our logic design-wise is that most mythological creatures are born from stories that have been told over the ages – often this might have been based on somebody glimpsing an amazing animal that they hadn’t seen before and interpreting its anatomy in a slightly more fantastic, outlandish way. Therefore the Manticore we conceived of, when dormant, has the silhouette of a lion, but then when it moves you realise the mane is made of sharp quills, and, as it unfurls to attack, is revealed to be a multiple-tailed, scorpion-like creature. For the face we looked at tribal masks and the like, but ultimately we realised that beetles have interesting faces that looked very similar and sat better with our invertebrate Beast.
In the final film we don’t see the full shape of the mother Manticore, but a lot of these characteristics are seen in the babies – when Newt first chances upon them, they study him in inert, almost cute, cat-like poses, before unfurling and revealing their true nature. The single one toying with Theseus when we first meet him is also prodding him like a kitten might do a ball. These contrasts of behaviour versus form are what makes the creatures Fantastic, rather than necessarily simply what they look like.
How did you handle the creature interactions on set?
We had innovated by utilising puppetry on the first two films – we continued and furthered this time round working again with Tom Wilton and his PerformanceFX team. It’s really important for us to provide a creature performance on set that the actors can respond to and play against. We employed Stitches and Glue to fabricate the puppets based upon our character designs and a brief from Tom. For the Qilin, we also worked with George Richmond, the lighting and SFX teams to build in some LEDs which could be controlled from the lighting desk and deliver an interactive glow on cue – particularly important for the night scenes where Newt would be close to the mother Qilin as she gives birth. I’m always astonished by the character and life that Tom and the team could give our relatively simple puppets, and those happy accidents where they might knock the camera off an actor lent the final shots more realism – giving the Beasts a physical presence that you can’t create just with CGI – even amazing CGI.
How did you go about bringing Teddy and Pickett back to life?
Teddy the Niffler and Pickett the Bowtruckle are real fan favourites and it is a joy to have to think of new stuff for them to do. We worked up lots of ideas via boards and animation in pre-production before we landed on the moments that David really embraced. He really wanted to weave them into the story as if they were other cast members. Working with George Richmond we decided to shoot some of their shots, particularly for the prison escape sequence, on a different format from the rest of the scene. We predominantly shot 1.65 anamorphic on the Alexa LF, but for these bespoke moments we shot on the same camera but with spherical lenses and a smaller extraction – this enabled a greater depth of field and gave the two creatures more scale, so that they had more screen presence.
Tricky question, which one is your favourite?
That is a hard one, but I will always probably say the Niffler. It has been amazing to be part of his journey from the first concept image back in 2015 through to his overwhelming popularity today. I always think it’s amazing that people often think of him as real – a great testament to the artists at Framestore that have brought him to life in all three films.
As the previous movies, this new one is taking us to various places. Can you elaborate about them?
We have travelled the world on screen with these movies, though in actuality predominantly filmed at Warner Bros Studios Leavesden in the UK. This one was no different and was even more of a challenge, even before the pandemic hit. In story order the script took us to London, the limestone Karst landscape of China, Nurmengard Castle in Austria, Hogsmeade Village in Scotland, New York’s Lower East Side, a train travelling through the German countryside, Berlin, The German Ministry of Magic, Erkstag Prison, Hogwarts Castle back in Scotland and finally a Village and Magical Temple in Bhutan.
Obviously bringing all of this to the screen involved a lot of work and collaboration, chiefly with Production Designers Stuart Craig and Neil Lamont, and Director of Photography George Richmond.
Neil visited a lot of locations around the with our Supervising Location Manager Sue Quinn, which inspired concepts and proposed set designs which they could review with David and share with us as we worked up the creatures and key set pieces – nothing was done in isolation. As locations began to bed in, we were lucky enough to visit all of them with David and the rest of the team in pre-production – very lucky indeed as very soon the world was going to shut down to any travel at all. I think it is really important to visit the real place, even though you may be recreating it as a set piece and digital extension. The aim is to make the finished sets and environments as authentic as possible and you can only begin that journey by pounding the streets or standing on the side of a mountain for real. It can also inspire new ideas that wed the location to the story even further.
The next step is to work out what should be physically built and how to photograph the sets so that the blend into the digital world is as seamless as possible. As the script, storyboards and previs progress, the answers to these questions become more clear – there is constant discussion right up to the day of filming to make sure we are all able to deliver what David is after. It’s challenging, but great fun and rewarding – it’s what filmmaking is all about!
What was the real size of the sets?
Immense! Stuart has never built small, and he and Neil delivered some amazing sets once again.
The Grand Hall of the German Ministry of Magic filled a sound stage to the grid with extensions only needed from us out some door openings, windows and the ceiling. Once we were in full swing with tables full of supporting artists in Colleen Atwood’s beautiful costumes you really felt physically transported to a magical 1930s.
The waterfall Newt lands in whilst trying to rescue the baby Qilin in the opening sequence was again mainly in camera – it was surreal to stand there watching the water cascading over the rocks, kicking up spray, only to turn around and see a load of camera crew and realise you were on the backlot on a cold November night.
The Berlin streets and Ministry exterior were huge but required a lot more digital extension in terms of architecture, people and vehicles – but without the detail and scale of the foreground set, our job in VFX would be much harder.
Can you explain in detail about the creation of these environments?
The key thing for me, in the creation of these sorts of extensions and environments is capturing as much data and reference as possible. This time around we also wanted to do a lot of that in pre-production rather than waiting until filming, as we wanted to carry as much work as possible through from concept and previs though to final pixel.
To this end, once we had scouted a location and had a clear idea of the scope of the work we sent teams back to capture LIDAR scans, texture photography, drone and helicopter photogrammetry and reference film plates.
In Berlin for example, Clear Angle Studios captured around 100 period buildings. Once processed, we were able to give these to Mark O’Kane, our in-house modelling artist, who cleaned up the geometry and combined them with a model of the proposed set he had built from Art Department plans and elevations. He worked closely with Art Director Alex Baily to create layouts for each of the street extensions for the multiple sequences. These were fed to previs, for the Credence Dumbledore duel for instance, making sure what we were showing to David was as close as possible to what he would see eventually.
We also utilised Virtual Production to aid us in pre-production and on-set. FPS’s fARsight suite of tools is a powerful and flexible way to Virtually Scout sets via VR or on an iPad – powered by Epic’s Unreal. In the office we are able to drop ourselves into each of the key sets and environments and view them with the Director, Production Designer and DoP and this aided the composition of our digital extensions in terms of architecture and camera framing. Multiple users can be in a session together – and even in separate locations. Once the Pandemic hit, I found myself in my bedroom at home in a VR headset, whilst Richard Graham, who was running the session, was hundreds of miles away in his. It was brilliant to be able to see the full environments from any angle which would drive production decisions – the use of a drone to capture some establishing shots of the German Ministry of Magic for example. We could quickly render out moving cameras to share with George, and then David as proof of concepts which became great reference on the shoot itself.
For the same set we also had a crowd of 4,000 that we needed to create from the 80 that we were allowed physically on set everyday. fARsight was invaluable in being able to stand within the full crowd numbers and work out where we could best place the camera to make the most of our physical assets.
Mark O’Kane worked away in pre-preproduction and during filming to supply full representations of all of our key sets. This enabled us to us fARsight GO, a mobile iPad application, to visualise the digital environments live on set. After a quick visual calibration, you were able to walk freely around with the iPad and see the extensions in tandem with the physical set – usefully its in-built AI tool set automatically cuts out any people and places the set behind them. It became standard, whenever moving to a new set, to bring out the iPad and let David – and indeed the actors – have a look around. You were also able to flick through the lens pack we had on the Alexa LF, so George Richmond was able to use it like a virtual viewfinder in order to make framing decisions whilst seeing everything that would be in the final picture. All of this work and collaboration meant that there was no need from reframing in post, as I’ve experienced many times before, because George was confident enough to shoot the side of a sound stage knowing that he was, for example, in fact looking down a New York street at the Manhattan Bridge… or at least would be in the final grade. Once we had filmed the scenes, we were able to hand all of this data over to the various studios to begin work on the final builds and lookdev. On the previous films we had the aim of showing a first look of a final rendered creature by the Director’s Cut – about 10 weeks after wrap. This time we wanted to do the same with all of our key environments, as we wanted to be able to show the film-makers the full scope of these shots as soon as possible, because the success of so many scenes depended on them. This move really paid off – I think the extension and environment work everyone created is some of the best in the franchise.
Can you tell us more about the iconic Hogwarts creation?
When returning to Hogwarts you really feel the weight of responsibility and expectation, because you’re recreating one of the most beloved locations in cinema.
For the exterior we of course had Stuart Craig’s iconic design to fall back on – actually the castle as seen in the last of the Harry Potter movies, though this film is set some 60 years earlier. The architectural layout was always evolving during the making of the original series of films so there is some creative leeway I think!
We gave Raynault the digital asset that had been used in the last movie, as well as a previs one and the original Potter one. Though the geometry formed a good basis for their build, they reworked all of the textures as well as seating it into an environment based upon a helicopter shoot and digital capture carried out in Scotland in Autumn 2019. They did an amazing job – it is so difficult to find a new angle and perspective that you haven’t seen before and we were able to show David lots of different options before settling on the establishers seen in the film.
The interiors were another challenge altogether. For the Great Hall and the Room of Requirement we worked very closely with the Art Department and DoP to decide the scope of the physical sets to shoot the scenes, with extensive set extension being completed by One of Us.
The Great Hall set from the Potter series stands at the Warner Bros Tour London, but for various reasons it was not suitable to shoot on. We had already digitally captured the set for a single shot in the last film so that was our starting point – Mark O’Kane again created geometry which we could import into fARsight Go for use on shoot days. The physical set consisted of the central strip of the floor and most importantly, most of the tables plus the post-breakfast dressing. Simple window apertures ran down one side of the hall, plus one for the main window at the end. This was all surrounded by a blue screen. Once the stage was filled with SFX atmosphere, George was able to light through the apertures knowing that he could shape the lighting in a way that we could match in post. fARsight was used again to confirm the composition of the shots, and really helped the young extras feel like they were actually in Hogwarts.
The Room of Requirements was approached in a similar way with the art department providing a proxy set which George could atmospherically light, while the final finish was completed as a digital set, again by One of Us. Due to the low, vaulted ceiling and the concept of the room falling off to black we had the set painted a sympathetic colour to the final finishing and surrounded by back drapes – this created the correct occlusion and bounce on the actors making the digital set easier to bed in – though without blue screen of course, the extraction relied on a lot of roto.
One of Us did an amazing job of these two sets and the London Tearoom that opens the movie – a lot of people have said that they didn’t realise the sets involved a lot of digital build, and that’s a testament to their work.
One shot flying from the exterior to where we meet our gang walking down the corridor towards the Room of Requirement took some figuring out – on set the Stedicam operator walked down a ramp through the space where the wall and window would be. The proxy corridor set had some sections worked up to a final finish for us to use as texture and lookdev reference for the rest of the set. I spent some time looking at a physical model of Hogwarts with Neil Lamont so that he could select a window for us to fly into – Vincent and the Raynault team then came up with multiple options of approach which we showed to David so he could pick his favourite. They then hooked this virtual camera move onto the physical steadicam, one which formed the One Of Us half of the shot.
Which location was the most complicated to create and why?
There were two really – the China environment that opens the film and the Bhutan one seen in the third act.
We visited China on a location scout in 2019 – I was blown away by the amazing landscapes and knew that we would need to capture as much data and reference as possible to recreate them as digital environments surrounding multiple backlot set pieces.
The pandemic put our planned return to China permanently on hold. John Dietz at Bang Bang films in Beijing came to the rescue though, and worked with us to put together a shoot in three locations to capture what we needed for Framestore to build this complex environment. Dominic Ridley at Clear Angle Studios briefed John on the paths that he would need to fly a drone around the landscape to capture enough photographs, with consistent reference points to enable a photogrammetry reconstruction. On completion of the shoot the material was sent to Clear Angle back in the UK to process before delivering to Framestore. John also shot plates at different times of day on an Alexa LF mounted on a drone, which gave us an absolute reference point in creating the final shot work. Framestore used all of this data and reference to build the extensive environment surrounding the Qilin nesting spot – itself a fairly large backlot set.
One of the most challenging sections though was creating the bamboo forest which Newt runs though whilst having deadly spells fired at him by Grindelwald’s acolytes. The Art Department constructed a huge ramp on a berm at the studio which was covered in tonnes of soil and dressed at the edges with bamboo plants set in pots from the base to the top. This gave us a dense backing into the Hertfordshire night sky, meaning there was no need for elevated blue screens. The central channel of the ramp was left clear, save for smaller greens planted into the ground. This enabled both Eddie Redmayne and the camera to have freedom of movement as he ran down the slope – Framestore then added CG bamboo and other foliage around him in post, which added to the jeopardy as we were able to create near misses by actor and camera by careful placement of plants to camera in each shot.
Alistair Williams and his SFX team came up with an ingenious rig which involved shooting LEDs housed in shuttles down wires though the centre of the set – this gave us some fantastic spell light interaction as well as giving Eddie something to react to as they whizzed past him. Framestore matched these lighting cues with their CG FX spell blasts, splintering the digital bamboo. This is another great example of departments working together to great effect.
The Bhutan Eyrie, the location for the election that closes the film, was also a big challenge but for a different reason.
Stuart Craig had devised an imposing piece of architecture that would be seen atop a Bhutanese mountain – which we would be shooting on a combination of soundstage and backlot sets at Leavesden. We’ve always had the rule of shooting day exterior scenes outside, so the idea of filming a large chunk of the scenes on a stage-bound set concerned David, but again, working with Neil Lamont and George Richmond we came up with a solution that put his mind at rest.
Instead of wrapping the stage in blue screen, we instead had a painted backing surrounding the set which was painted in a gradient from top to bottom – darker at the base – as well as gradually going from a cooler sky blue to a warmer colour left to right to represent the late afternoon sky Digital Domain would be adding to the final shots. A huge silk hung below about 300 sky panels which bathed the set in a lot of light and bounce that did a great job of emulating a day exterior feel – especially once SFX had wet the entire set down and used their ‘silent wind’ system to constantly move the actor’s hair and costumes.
The base courtyard and steps were a large backlot set which became a useful reference in post at making sure the top courtyard had the same feel. George shot at the same stop and only in cloud cover when we were outside. Even as the dailies began to hit editorial you could see that we had a good match.
The Bhutanese landscape was based upon a shoot and capture we commissioned in Slovenia – Bhutan itself being closed due to the pandemic. The Locations team looked at a variety of options and the Triglav National Park looked like a good match for the Himalayan foothills we were attempting to recreate.
Jay and the Digital Domain team used this data to help build their environment which had to be painstakingly composited into hundreds of shots – our painted backing was fantastic in terms of making the lighting more authentic, but obviously added a lot of complexity for matte extraction. I think it was worth it though as the finished sequence looks so consistent and by being bold with how bright we made our skies versus the foreground, successfully emulated the exposure you would get if you were outside for real. Also the multiple layers of moving cloud and foreground atmosphere sweetened the shots further. David was very happy with the final result – our gamble and everyone’s hard work had paid off.
What was your approach for the final fight between Dumbledore and Grindelwald?
Though the script featured a climactic duel between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, it had to look like a dream, as in J.K. Rowling’s world they do not meet and fight until 1945, which was quite a way in the future of the two characters at this point.
After presenting David with several options of how we could present the duel, via previs and concept art, he felt we should lean more towards the feeling of the limbo Kings Cross world that Framestore had delivered for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two back in 2011. It felt like a language that the audience would understand and would also give more visual pizazz to this climactic scene.
We worked up a previs to work out the more conceptual parts of the action – the central conceit being that the duel takes place in the time that the breaking Blood Troth pendant falls from Dumbledore’s arm to the floor… in a blink of the eye for the rest of the characters. We shared the previs with Rowley Irlam, the Supervising Stunt Coordinator, and his team and we were able to present David a hybrid edit of previs and stunt vis.
We shot the main action on the Eyrie set – the set up in place there enabled George Richmond to change the lighting on cue to something much brighter and more ambient to reflect the more ethereal digital set that Digital Domain would be creating. All of the action on the Eyrie was also shot from a four point wire cam which enabled us to repeat moves where we needed to shoot multiple passes of Mads and Jude for the moments where their characters apparate to avoid a deadly spell to two.
Jay Barton and Digital Domain soon got into the postvis for the sequence – with Image Engine looking after the Blood Troth work. Getting the shots into the cut early helped to drive the edit and understand what David wanted to see from the spells – the main brief being that they should look as deadly and kinetic as possible. To this end, once the postvis was delivered we experimented with making the environment much darker, to echo the Dark Mirror World environment seen during the Credence Dumbledore duel on the Berlin streets – the thought being that this would make the spells contrast and punch out more. However, once seen as a whole David felt that the FX overwhelmed the emotion of this important moment between the two Wizarding heavyweights so we reverted to the White World look – we also added glimpse of this white limbo look in the dream tea room scene that opens the film to foreshadow the duel.
Jay had his team come up with multiple options of how to light and shade the set – we didn’t just want it to look like a grey shaded version of the hero environment. We settled on an almost crystalline look with lighting inside some parts of the set, that once combined some FX atmosphere as well as comp diffusion and lens aberration, gave us the dream-like feel that David was after. As spells are loosed, the architecture smashes like glass rather than becoming rubble – this was to add to the surreal dream-like feel and to echo the destruction of the blood troth.
For the spells themselves we were referencing physical things like angle grinder sparks as the spells clash, and of course we looked at the duels from the Harry Potter films so that what we were doing fit into the established universe. The molten spell that Grindelwald and Dumbledore conjure and push toward each other was an example of this – whilst feeling lethal and as physical as possible, which was really important to David. The finishing touch was to add the Blood Troth falling in extreme slow motion as it cracks and is eventually destroyed. Jeremy Mesana at Image Engine helped finesse this moment as David and Editor Mark Day were very specific about how fast it fell and spun in each shot we saw it in across the sequence. When it finally hits the floor we wanted it to have a sense of scale much bigger than you would expect from a small pendant to really amplify what a big moment this is for the relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. There’s some really lovely work in this duel and I think the final result really paid off the work that everyone put into it and the film as a whole.
Did you want to reveal to us any other invisible effects?
There were plenty of shots in the film that exhibited hopefully ‘invisible’ work VFX-wise, or at least surprised people to find out were so VFX driven such as the One Of Us set extensions in the Tea Room and Hogwarts or the CG arm that Image Engine gave Dumbledore so that a chain could more authentically constrict him as he is tortured by the Blood Troth in one scene in Hogsmeade.
The best example of truly invisible work though is Queenie’s wedding dress in the closing scene of the film. The original concept was for the dress to have butterflies on and around it that would form the veil and train. Costume Designer Colleen Atwood created a wonderful dress and we decided it would be great to have some practical butterflies cut from different types of fabric, sewn into the costume to which we could add CG ones taking off, landing and flying magically around Queenie’s head – again to assist the digital join. Because of the planned CG work we captured every detail of the dress, which in retrospect was good planning. Once David and Mark cut the scene together they felt that the planned VFX insects would rather take away from the subtle emotion of the performance between Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol. The challenge now was to remove the practical butterflies from the dress, as they no longer made sense without their CG compatriots. I spoke to Oliver Schulz and the RISE team and because of the way they were embedded amongst folds within the sheer material of the dress, the best approach was to replace the dress entirely with an identical CG version minus the Butterflies. It was one of those moments you always hope for when I showed David the first work in progress version – nobody in the room could point to what work had been done. Oliver and the team had done a stunning job. Dan Fogler, as Jacob, ruffles his hands though the shoulders of the dress in a shot which lasts for about 40 seconds – there was nowhere to hide but the fidelity and the detail in the cloth simulation let alone the body tracking was amazing. Nobody would ever know – which is the definition of the perfect Visual Effect.
Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
There were two really that we haven’t discussed so far.
First was the Credence Dumbledore duel on the streets of Berlin. This was the first time that we would see Dumbledore in action, in his prime so it needed to be visually spectacular. At the same time we didn’t want to explain why none of the Muggle Berliners could see two Wizards Battling each other, let alone having to clear up the mess afterwards.
Working again with David and Giles Asbury, we threw around a lot of ideas. Through a mixture of reference, from my own Instagram photography of puddle reflections on walks with my dog, to the work of Surrealist artists such as Magritte, we landed on the concept that the whole sequence would take place within a magical illusion of Berlin that Dumbledore creates. At the head of the scene we follow an enchanted water droplet into and through the reflection of a shop window and from that point everything plays flopped, as if reflected. After Credence unleashes his Obscurial magic ripping apart the city, Dumbledore reveals that all might not be as it seems, and with a flick of his deluminator literally melts the surrounding architecture away leaving a black void where the ‘real’ Berlin appears in the reflections of windows and puddles on the floor.
Having worked up several versions of boards we moved into previs with Stewart Ash, James Burr and the Third Floor team where we further developed this concept as well as all of the action. One particularly challenging shot that evolved in previs was at the tail of the scene, where the camera jibs and rolls 180 degrees through a puddle from the dark void world back into bustling Berlin. It looked great but we were unsure how we’d pull off the shot for real – but this is a good example of what I enjoy about VFX and film making – coming up with a cool idea and then working with everyone to realise it.
To visualise the lighting in the dark void work we employed Theo Groeneboom and his team at Rebel Unit. They used shots from our previs to render various real world lighting scenarios with the main brief of lighting the world purely from the daytime reflection of the puddles and windows. I shared these with George Richmond before showing to David who loved the look.
To achieve this practically the Art department worked with George and his team to create a large light box that we could stand the actors on with simple cut out stencils to create puddle shapes. The set was surrounded by black drapes and George used a bank of sky panels to create a subtle key and bounce to give some more shape and fill to the actors’ faces. Martyn Culpitt and his team at Image Engine then began their work – which was considerable. The dark void section of the sequence alone relied on a full CG environment of Berlin including crowd and vehicles, as well as high resolution digidoubles of Credence and Dumbledore to be seen in the reflections of the CG puddles, which of course also required FX situation for the water interaction of the characters plus the vehicles driving through them on the reflection side. That’s before we got into the Obscurus magic FX Credence is unleashing on Dumbledore, layers of atmosphere and a Phoenix, provided by Framestore’s London team. In a couple of shots as Credence is thrown backward by Dumbledore, before being lowered gently to the puddled floor, we needed to replace Ezra Miller’s body with a digital version as on the shoot his coat kept getting tangled in the stunt rig. The only thing real in these shots are Ezra’s face and hands but without the on set lighting, the stunt work and all of the visual development that went on in pre-production, the finished shots wouldn’t look as beautiful as they do. Also, as a VFX Supervisor on set, I now have confidence that we’ll deliver great looking work because of all of that planning, as well as being lucky enough to work with such talented artists as Martyn and his team.
Arnaud Brisebois and Rodeo had a very different challenge in creating a magical storm of cutlery, crockery and lobsters tearing apart the Grand Hall of the German Ministry of Magic around our heroes Lally and Jacob.
This was another sequence that we worked up in previs. David really liked the idea of Lally turning her book into a bridge over which she and Jacob run to safety – proving that reading is good for you!
On set we pulled out some of the tables and chairs and replaced them with a ramp covered in soft mats for the actors to run up – this methodology meant that they did not have to be held by safety wires and the spongy surface underfoot had the same sort of give that our paper bridge would. However, there was a massive amount of clean up to do.
Rodeo completed a build of the entire room and all of the furniture which enabled the ramp to be seamlessly replaced by digital set extension. Not only that – during production we had prop-scanned everything in the room, every glass and plate down to bread rolls and sticks of asparagus. All of these individual items were then built as digital props enabling us to lift everything off of the tables and into the magical vortex spinning around a befuddled Jacob. During filming we removed the physical props in stages as the scene progressed – by the end slates of the sequence, two thirds of the tables were clean, save for some tape tracking markers, and our ramp in place. There was of course also a huge amount of SFX wind to blow costumes and hair for real.
The really tough thing here was trying to create some sense of story and escalation through the scene with so much flying around. Postvis played an important role in building an overall layout for each shot with lower resolution assets and a more generic FX set up. We had shot the storm shots at 146fps and most shots ran at that native speed, though Mark Day sped some up once our postvis was in to add bursts of dynamism to Jacob’s journey. As well as determining frame rate, the postvis also showed that we needed to add a couple of full CG shots to show the book bridge being formed.
Arnaud and the team came up with a few layouts for the bridge and David loved the first version I showed him – it had some structural sense but had the sense that it could fall apart at any moment which upped the peril.
In building the final shots Rodeo were able to add or remove single items or pieces of paper from the bridge – it was a difficult balance to create mayhem but make sure that we could still focus on the two lead characters.
Combined with an FX cloud with CG rain bouncing off the cast and furniture, massive magical moving paintings which were replaced to allow them to swing in the wind, a falling chandelier disintegrating as it hits the floor, spells wrapping around stunt aurors flying through the air and a pyrotechnic spell setting fire to the book bridge and pages, the final sequence looks spectacular.
Like the Berlin duel it was fantastic to see a plan come together with lots of people working together at the top of their game.
Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
I had literal short nights during the shoot. By the end of filming I was often at my desk at Leavesden at 5.30am reviewing postvis leaving again at about 8pm after a day on set, prepping the days to come and various other meetings. We made the film through some of the worst parts of the pandemic in the UK and I think it’s extraordinary what everybody did working together at a distance. The finished film really doesn’t look like it was made under the strict restrictions we faced when we commenced principal photography in September 2020.
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
That would probably have to be the Erkstag prison scenes, from where Newt meets the prison warder, to his and Theseus’ escape. Very early in pre-production David described what he wanted for these scenes – a mixture of absurd comedy, action and horror. Storyboard artist Giles Asbury and I spent lots of time with David workshopping ideas which Giles drew into multiple boarded sequences. At the same time we were working on concepts for the Manticores with Dan Baker from Framestore’s Art department as well as Nathan McConnel and his team of Framestore animators. This was all rolled into previs by The Third Floor where we developed the more action driven sections of the sequence. In animation, we also worked with Eddie Redmayne and his movement coach Alex Reynolds to develop the Limbic Mimicry walk that Newt would use to tame the vicious baby Manticores alongside having great fun conceiving the Teddy and PIckett escape sequence.
Once filmed the baton was handed on to Stephane Naze and the Framestore team in Montreal. They did an amazing job realising exactly what David had briefed. Aulo Licinio and his team of animators did some incredibly detailed and subtle work which gave the Manticores a lot of character that equaled Eddie and Callum Turner’s fantastic performances. There was also obviously a huge amount of FX and environment work which really ups the jeopardy as well as supplying the gloopy horror David was after. Again the collaboration of a lot of people and departments resulted in a memorable scene and it was great to watch it with an audience in the cinema, hearing reactions that confirmed that all the hard work had paid off.
What is your best memory on this show?
I have quite a few, from some of the amazing locations we were lucky enough to scout in pre-production – the landscape in China was truly breathtaking – to the moment we finally wrapped photography after a challenging but rewarding COVID-restricted shoot. It was also great to be able to have a physical Cast and Crew screening and finally be in a room with and thank in person all the people who had worked so hard for so long.
How long have you worked on this show? What’s the VFX shots count?
Nearly three and a half years – the longest I’ve ever done. There were about 1600 shots in the final film, but including the postvis we worked on about 3000.
What is your next project?
I’m taking a bit of a break and will be looking for new opportunities in the autumn.
A big thanks for your time.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Digital Domain: Dedicated page about Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore on Digital Domain website.
Framestore: Dedicated page about Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore on Framestore website.
Image Engine: Dedicated page about Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore on Image Engine website.
One of Us: Dedicated page about Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore on One of Us website.
Raynault VFX: Dedicated page about Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore on Raynault VFX website.
RISE: Dedicated page about Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore on RISE website.
Rodeo FX: Dedicated page about Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore on Rodeo FX website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2022