How did you get involved in this movie?
I joined the film very early, in late 2018 – it’s hard to believe it was so long ago now! Edgar’s worked with DNEG on all of his films and came to us again for this one. My interest in horror films made it a good fit for me.
How was the collaboration with Director Edgar Wright?
It was brilliant. Edgar is a rapacious cinephile and our first discussions were purely about the story and about the films he wanted us to refer to as guideposts for the look and feel. I kept a list of all the films he mentioned and I did my best to watch them all but each time we met my list seemed to grow – it was difficult to keep up! Of particular note were the psychological thrillers Don’t Look Now, Repulsion, Peeping Tom, and Frenzy. Also the work of Mario Bava in films like Blood and Black Lace and Black Sabbath. And some slices of London life in the 60s: Darling and Poor Cow.
What was his approach and expectations about the visual effects?
Of principal importance to Edgar was that the film be grounded in the practical. Of course, there is a lot of VFX in the film but wherever possible we tried to employ a hybrid of practical and digital techniques rather than going fully CG.
How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer and amongst the DNEG offices?
Our production side VFX Producer was Gavin Gregory, who looked after the overall budget and schedule. Danny Huerta was our DNEG Producer. The DNEG post work was split between our Montreal and Mumbai offices. I’m based in London with Danny and we had a great on-set team led by our amazing lead data wrangler Ben Brown.
How did you choose the other vendors?
Gavin rightly nominated quite a lot of work to be done by an in-house team, which was made up of Cheap Shot, House of Good Vibes, and a few independent folks. They were all superb! Technicolor’s VFX team led by Gary Brown helped us out with a fair number of shots, too.
Basically, if it involved any CG we kept it with DNEG, and the rest of the work was split up by sequence amongst the in-house team.
What kind of references did you use for London in the 60s?
As I mentioned, we watched a fair number of films from the period. We also referred to some pseudo-documentaries from the 60s, films like Swinging London. Basically, they’re slightly risque movies which are using their format as an excuse to show off scantily clad dancers! We also got a lot of reference footage from British Pathe and I spent innumerable hours online searching for images of particular streets and street corners at particular dates to find the exact right shop fronts and signs for specific locations. I was very very keen to have it as authentic and correct as possible.
Can you tell us more about the challenges of shooting in one of the busiest places in London?
Haha! The stories we could tell! Seriously, though – shooting in Soho is not for the faint of heart. Those were some very challenging locations. Firstly, it was summer so there was a limited number of hours of darkness. Secondly, because many of the sequences depict Ellie and Sandie traveling, we were constantly on the move. The whole unit had to move in convoy and pushing those magliners over the cobblestone streets was quite a workout. But the biggest challenge was the public – our day usually began at 6 pm just as everyone is leaving work when the sidewalks were rammed with people. Then people are spilling out of pubs. Then at 3 am there are teeming hordes of mad drunken revelers. We had to paint so many drunk people out of shots in post. It was also sobering to see the sordid side of Soho after everyone else has gone home for the night – especially given the journey our characters take in the film. Soho has been cleaned up a lot since the 60s but there are still many streetwalkers and “Models” shops in the area.
How did you create the setting of London in the 60s?
The production art department, led by Edgar’s longtime Production Designer Marcus Rowland, did a fantastic job dressing as much of the immediate vicinity with authentic set dressing, shop fronts, and signage. Again, the goal was to ground the film in the practical where possible. VFX extended the dressing into the deeper background and above the ground floor. Our extensive research came into play giving DNEG teams in Montreal and Mumbai plenty of authentic detail to build and paint. We also added a lot of digital traffic with period-correct cars. And we shot greenscreen sprites of our extras in period costumes which we used to populate the scenes.
The shot when Eloise walks out of the dark passage into her first dream of 1960s Soho is a great example. That was a monstrously challenging shoot to choreograph with a very limited amount of time for street closures. We rehearsed with Thomassin and the double-decker bus all the action vehicles and our Steadicam operator out at Bovingdon airfield until we had the timings perfect. We later added loads more traffic to the shot digitally. One funny thing about that shot was that we had a big practical poster of Thunderball on the cinema marquee on the day – but not the one in the finished film! Edgar was torn and asked us to replace it with Fantastic Voyage, which we did. But then he showed an early cut to some of the rest of the team and they missed Thunderball, but we found a different version of the poster that was laid out with a more sympathetic composition. So that’s what’s in the film.
After Sandie and Jack leave Cafe de Paris, they drive around Piccadilly Circus in all its 1965 neon-lit glory. James Lewis at DNEG previs’ed this shot and we filmed Jack’s Triumph Spitfire practically at Bovingdon, with the car’s path plotted out on the tarmac, and a cherry picker standing in for the fountain. Then we replaced the background with an entirely CG environment. The DNEG environment and motion graphics teams, led by DFX supe Fabricio Baessa, did an amazing job. The attention to detail is stunning. The car interior shots were all done on a green screen using a poor mans’ approach. My other DNEG DFX supe, my good friend and longtime collaborator, Julian Gnass, made sure these turned out great.
I also love the big wide shot over Frith Street as Jack and Sandie drive to the Rialto. The work is so detailed.
What was your approach to handling all the reflections with Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy?
Mirrors, mirrors, mirrors! The mirror gags were another topic that we started discussing early on in the project. Edgar wanted to keep people guessing about how we had achieved them and we all wanted to create our own novel tricks. We watched a lot of films with classic mirror shots for inspiration – Contact, The Terminator, Enter the Dragon, Poltergeist III, and Sucker Punch. Again, hybrid approaches were the key. Variously employed are motion control, doubled sets, sliding mirrors, and synchronized performances.
Fun fact! There were something like 178 mirrors on the set for the Cafe de Paris. If you rewatch that scene, we put in Ellie’s reflection wherever Sandie’s appeared. They’re everywhere.
There is an impressive long shot with a various mix of Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy. How was filmed this shot?
This is one of my favorite shots ever – it’s just so magical! It was fully storyboarded and then James Lewis at DNEG previs’ed it, which helped enormously. We broke it down into segments. When Eloise enters the Cafe de Paris Foyer she stops by a large mirror where we see her reflection, then as the cloakroom attendant crosses the mirror, we slide the mirror back, its edge hidden by the attendant, revealing a doubled set where we see Sandie. The cloakroom attendant is actually played by twins Oliver and James Phelps so we have them and Anya and Thomassin acting in sync. Our amazing choreographer Jen White helped them get their performances perfectly timed out. The camera pushes into Anya in the mirror and then when we pull back again, she’s on our side of the mirror and Thomassin is on the other side – this was done by digitally stitching in a second take. Our Steadicam operator Chris Bain was amazing at repeating his moves flawlessly. This shot was such a great collaboration between all the departments. The DNEG team did some amazing comp work putting it all together including adding the sense of a mirror surface and a fingerprint when she taps it, and a bevel around the edge. There were also a few little digital tweaks to the actors’ timings here and there.
Another great collaborative shot like this was the dance with Jack where Sandie and Eloise magically switch places with one another. We rehearsed this over and over again to get the timings perfect and relied on a mix of in-camera and digital swaps. Again huge props to Jen and Chris and our amazing actors and dancers.
Another big challenge are the ghosts. Can you elaborate on their design?
The Shadow Men were actually the very first topic of discussion when Edgar and I met. They are phantoms of the punters who have visited Sandie and she’s repressed their features. Oscar Wright, concept artist (and Edgar’s brother), had created several pieces of art exploring different ideas. They’re semi-transparent and shadowy and their features are obscured and they blend with one another, blotting out any distinction.
Did you receive specific indications and influences from Director Edgar Wright?
Yes. We looked at various masked figures in films as discussion points. One, in particular, was the masked murderer in Blood And Black Lace. But it was important that it not look like a mask. It shouldn’t look like a stocking pulled over the face. We wanted it to be conceptually grounded in the way people with PTSD repress their trauma. We also researched the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. Edgar also asked us to evoke the tortured paintings of Soho’s own Francis Bacon.
Can you explain in detail about their creation?
Very early in the development, I did some photographic tests at DNEG in one of our studios using some volunteers from the crew. We had decided we wanted the skin to be a shadowy charcoal grey so we applied makeup to the actors, and then in post, I experimented with blotting out the features digitally. These were promising and we shot further tests at Ealing Studios with some actors.
As with all the other effects on the film, Edgar wanted to be sure it was grounded in the practical. It was important to him that he have something on set, in person, and in-camera. We engaged the help of makeup designer Barrie Gower, who created prosthetic appliances for the actors which would cover their eyes and mouths. Later, digitally, we would enhance the makeup by making the sunken eyes and further distorting the facial features.
We used a multipass photographic technique to give ourselves several different takes of different performers doing the same action and then selectively mixed them together in comp. Much credit again goes to Jen White for coaching the movement and Chris Bain for repeating the camera moves so accurately. For the scenes in the bedroom, where the flashing neon lights needed to be synced between takes and synced to a soundtrack, we used a motion control system (the Modula and the TechnoDolly) with the camera move and the light sequence synced to time code.
As the shoot progressed we actually moved away from using the prostheses because they impeded the actors’ vision (and breathing!) so later in the film, they were dulled down with the charcoal makeup but we replaced their features wholesale with digital versions. This also allowed us to exaggerate the expressions they made.
Can you elaborate on the final sequence that is almost a living nightmare?
The Shadow Men burst through the walls and floor of Ellie’s bedroom, which shatter like glass. This was another scene for which Oscar had created some wonderful concepts. The set was built on a platform and we cut holes in the walls and floor and we had a team of contortionists who plunged their limbs through. DNEG replaced the walls and floors digitally in post and added all the shattering glass FX.
How did you create the impressive fire in the house?
There was a fair amount of fire on set, brought by our SFX Supervisor Steve Hutchinson, which created a lot of very convincing interactive light and smoke. This was bolstered by additional elements which we shot at Ealing and on a backlot. For the exteriors on location, we could not do any practical burn on the building so we created a full-size buck of the building face on the backlot and did a massive burn, and used these elements in comp. That was our very last day of shooting and it made a fitting finale. The burning room which engulfs Sandie was shot there on the backlot and she was added in post.
Did you want to reveal to us any other invisible effects?
It would be remiss not to mention all the invisible blends and stitches and retimes which Edgar and his editor Paul use to propel the audience through the film. It is a lot of work but it really makes the film a journey for the viewer.
Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
Shooting nights on location in Soho, at the height of summer, before lockdown, with hordes of drunken members of the public running through shot – without question.
Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
Just that! Literally, shooting in London’s busiest nightlife district in the middle of summer with only a scant few hours of darkness!
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
It’s a tie between the foyer of the Cafe de Paris, the dance, and the drive around Piccadilly Circus.
What is your best memory on this show?
One thing that was really special, which we haven’t touched on, is the fact that our post period was disrupted by Covid. When the whole world went into lockdown, and when so many people were isolated and kept out of touch, I felt so lucky to be working on this movie every day over Zoom with this wonderful group of people.
How long have you worked on this show?
It was just over 2 years from start to finish.
What’s the VFX shots count?
700 shots in total, split evenly between DNEG and our in-house team.
What is your next project?
Top secret! Can’t say!
A big thanks for your time.
// Last Night in Soho – VFX Breakdown – DNEG
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
DNEG: Dedicated page about Last Night in Soho on DNEG website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2021