Chris Downs has been working in visual effects for over 17 years. He has worked at many studios such as Rising Sun Pictures, Image Engine, MPC and joined DNEG in 2018. He has worked on many films such as Maleficent, The Dark Tower, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw and Ad Astra.
What is your background?
Initially I started in Computer Science and after taking a couple of painting courses as part of that degree I discovered a love for Fine Arts and followed a degree in both, eventually leading me to VFS to merge my two passions. After a number of years moving between various departments in the VFX pipeline I found lighting as a calling and from there moved into a number of supervisory roles leading to my time as the VFX Supervisor on Jungle Cruise.
How was this new collaboration Overall VFX Supervisors Jake Morrison and Jim Berney?
We worked with Jim, and he was an absolute pleasure to work with! A great eye for details and he was always helpful and collaborative with an accessible ear when needed to discuss any issues or challenges on the show.
What were their expectations and approach about the visual effects?
Jim Berney’s expectations were exceptionally high on the quality of the work and rightfully so given the challenge of bringing the Tree of Life to the big screen in a realistic way. He was extremely collaborative and open to any and all ideas we brought to the table. We found a shorthand in breaking shots out into ‘same-as’ groupings in order to keep our briefs concise and yet full of appropriate details for our portion of the work.
How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
Early on, as we began the project, we had several meetings where we broke out all of the required shot work and then worked back into the assets and days that would be required.
What are the sequences made by DNEG?
DNEG worked on large parts of the third act, from entering the cavern for the Tree of Life through the Tree chase and Boat Fight, with the final part of the battle with the Conquistadors being shared with ILM.
Can you elaborate about the design and the creation of the Tree of Life?
As we joined the show the Tree of Life was still being explored as a design. We found some great references for the Tree in some ancient Banyan and Baobab trees and in the style and form of the trees around places like Angkar Wat.
What kind of references and indications did you received for this massive environment?
We referred back to Banyan and Baobab trees for the most part for the size and scale and bark textures of the tree itself. For the cavern we examined what type of stone would be able to form and withstand the pressures that come from a cavern that large. From that point we began exploring how we could, through texture and lookdev, ensure that it would be visible in the darkest shots of the sequence.
Can you explain in detail about the lighting work?
The lighting was one of the most fun and challenging processes on the show. We had the early sequence challenges of maintaining mystery and simultaneously revealing just enough to give an idea of the scale and scope of the cavern and the Tree of Life. As the Tree came back to fruition it significantly changed the lighting scenario and we needed to ensure that we saw the power of the tree whilst still maintaining the scale of the cavern. And then back again as the Tree moves back to its slumber.
How did you handle the challenges of the size and the scale with such a huge environment?
This was a challenge that I’d fortunately worked on in previous shows with DNEG CG Supervisor Ummi Gudjonsson. We identified up front that the scale of the cavern and tree meant that in certain circumstances, particularly during the tree chase sequence, we needed to relocate the action towards the origin. For textures and lookdev on the tree we ensured that we had both good coverage in our hero areas and hero branches that we could use with discretion to augment where needed.
How did you manage the water simulations?
After locking in our cameras and determining where we’d be interacting between the water and the Tree/Cavern and boat, we did a thorough set of simulations between each. As we found the correct scale and size for each, we then augmented with bubbles and foam. To keep our pipeline streamlined and efficient we decided to use Mantra renders so as not to have to redevelop the water in a separate software package.
Which shot or sequence was the most challenging?
Ironically, one that I hope the audience doesn’t even notice! The branch chase sequence was shot over the course of several shoots and so the plate lighting was tough to balance in addition to the transition from fully bloomed to fully slumbered tree. The constant shift in lighting scenarios between plates and Tree life cycle were a tricky balance, and one I hope we pulled off!
Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
Early on in the process we recognized that the petals and their illumination would be a tricky proposition for rendering and for a few of our internal milestones we had to press hard to ensure we met those deadlines.
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
I absolutely adore the boat petal chase whilst the branch chase is happening above! It marries the action in the tree top with the excitement and drama of the large water impacts and sims we developed.
How long have you worked on this show?
Our team was on the show for 8 months!
What’s the VFX shots count?
We delivered 385 shots in the third act.
What was the size of your team?
We scaled up from our starting crew of approximately 10 to a full-on crew in the hundreds as we came to deliver for final.
What is your next project?
I’ve taken on the challenge of Head of Lighting for our Vancouver studio and am also currently Supervising a short film for DNEG that will be released in late fall.
What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
// Jungle Cruise – VFX Breakdown – DNEG
A big thanks for your time.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2021