Jelmer Boskma worked in many studios such as Frantic Films, Image Engine or MPC before joining Scanline VFX in 2015. His filmography includes films like WATCHMEN, DISTRICT 9, SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR or BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE.
What is your background?
I have been fortunate enough to be working in the industry for about ten years now, on both film and television projects at a handful of visual effects houses. Having started out my career as a sculptor and painter, I moved on to doing primarily design work. Over the last couple of years I have been art directing a variety of film projects, providing designs and leading teams of artists. MISS PEREGRINE was my first time stepping into the role of visual effects supervisor, after having started on the show as art director.
How did you and Scanline VFX got involved on this show?
I believe that Scanline has built a reputation for producing world class visual effects and in particular crafting state of the art water simulations of any sort. I wasn’t surprised that, when Tim Burton envisioned some rather complex underwater scenes for the movie, his VFX production team reached out to Scanline to help create some of the effects. My involvement on the show started with receiving the previs on my desk and the request to start thinking about the design of some of the CG sets and depict a possible look for the underwater sequences. Going through the design phase pretty smoothly and having a good click with both the project as well as the production side supervisor Frazer Churchill, gave me a good start on the project in my new role.
How was your collaboration with director Tim Burton?
Working with Tim was great. He’s a director with a clear vision for just about everything in his movie. For us it was just a matter of getting on the same wavelength and utilizing the previs, on which he had signed off, as a starting point for our work. The most enjoyable part of the process was that Tim would still be very open to new ideas, if they fit the mood. It made for a very enjoyable, creative work environment, utilizing the freedom and confidence we had been given.
What was your feeling to work with such an iconic director?
Thrilled mainly. I have been a fan of Tim’s work for a long time and have always felt a strong connection to his films. One never really knows what to expect when it comes to working with a director like like Burton, and as it turns out, Tim is one of the most energetic, down to earth and friendly directors I have worked with. Cherry on the creative cake for me was finding out that the movie was being shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, (AMELIE, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE). He worked with Tim on both DARK SHADOWS as well as BIG EYES and that only fueled my excitement to be involved with the project.
How was your collaboration with VFX Supervisor Frazer Churchill and VFX Producer Hal Couzens?
I should mention that our producer on this project, Marcus Goodwin, was equally involved in this collaboration and absolutely essential in keeping us on schedule and on top of any particularly hot items. I had not worked with either Frazer or Hal prior to this project. I went in with very little expectations, but left with the greatest respect for both of them. The planning and problem solving required by Frazer to allow shooting some of these scenes is no mean feat and for Hal and him to include us in the process so early to help flesh out the look and prep the shoot, was incredibly beneficial to everyone involved.
What were their approaches and expectations about the visual effects?
This being a Tim Burton film, they knew we’d always be walking a fine line between photo-realism and stylized imagery. As a starting point we would base all our initial designs and ideas on a realistic foundation, backed up by real world reference. Based on Frazer’s feedback we would then take the artistic license needed to give Tim what he wanted to see. Slightly more magical lighting falling through the windows, a bit more visibility underwater than naturally plausible. Slightly less barnacle growth and decay to reveal just a bit more of the former splendor of the ship. Those kind of things. Frazer planned for as much material as possible to be captured in camera, which besides shooting the scenes wet for wet, included the design and construction of a giant underwater gimbal rig to execute some of the most challenging shots.
What are the sequences made by Scanline VFX?
The main body of work we were responsible for was all shots featuring the shipwreck of the RMS Augusta both underwater and on the surface. This includes the shots of the ship rising out of the water and it being docked at the Blackpool pier. In addition we delivered effects for ‘the carrot sequence’. A scene featuring two of the peculiar children, Fiona and Bronwynn, ‘growing’ an enormous carrot and pulling it out of the ground.
Can you describe one of your typical day during the pre-prod, on-set and then during the post?
Preparing for the shoot was done mainly by designing the environment and lighting. I did a few paintings trying to depict the mood and color of a handful of shots, while our modeling team translated those ideas into rough three-dimensional form. Having figured out the environment and its dimensions prior to the shoot, plus having generated tech viz for all these shots helped us greatly to get all the action in camera correctly. One simply really can’t plan enough for these types of underwater shoots. As you can imagine that communication is pretty rough once your camera-crew and actors are submerged. But by having a good idea of how big the virtual rooms would be, where the light was coming from, and what the general composition of each shot looked like, we came pretty well prepared.
We shot for a full week on the underwater stage at Pinewood studios in London, UK. Back at our studio in Vancouver it was a matter of getting our hands dirty and shaping the sequence. Even though we had the main proportions of the ship blocked in, a lot had to be done to make the cg environments look believable. Besides the task of building the CG sets of both the exterior and interior of the Augusta, RnD for the major bubble effects was getting started. Leading that effort were senior Flowline artists Lukas Lepicovsky and Say Rintharamy, who were given the task of figuring out the tech behind the effects for both Emma’s bubble stream as well as the giant air-bubble formed by her inside the cocktail lounge.
How did you approach your underwater shots?
The approach we took was fairly straight forward. After seeing the previs and seeing a rough design of the exterior of the Augusta by the art department, we started to design the interior of the ship. Combining the beats we needed to hit based on the previs with the proportions of the exterior ship design Tim had shown a liking to. Based on those early explorations we built a rough model of the ship to make sure that our new environment would allow featuring all the action of the previs. After we locked down the dimensions of the new ship we delivered tech viz for a majority of the shots to help shooting the sequence. The tech viz was based on realistic human swimming speed and held into account the size of the water tank in which we were going to shoot. It also included key lighting directions for all shots to help keep continuity on a 360 degree green screen underwater set. Having built the environment and locking down the lighting direction prior to the shoot helped enormously! We were able to turn around rough versions of all shots very quickly, as the photographed plates would more or less just drop into place.
Can you explain in details about the massive ship creation?
The build of the Augusta asset was a major undertaking for us and encompassed many months of modeling, sculpting and texturing work. The key to getting the right look of an underwater shipwreck is to break up pretty much every single straight edge. By nature CG models tend to have a perfect mathematical quality to them. Our job was to counter this as much as we could. Our CG lead Tong Zhou spearheaded this process and came up with a great technique of procedurally scattering polygonal meshes all over the surface of the ship. We built a library of barnacles, coral growths, seashells, rusticles and seaweed which we populated all over the ship in areas where it would make most sense. This technique combined with many hours of manually sculpting in details ended up giving us the right look. All rope and seaweed were rigged and set up for dynamics simulation, allowing us to introduce some subtle underwater motion running through them or have them flutter in the wind later on.
Did you received specific indications and references for the ship?
The most enjoyable part of the project for me was that we didn’t really, as it allowed me to study all these old beautiful transatlantic White Star Line steamships. We knew from the previs we were going to need sets for an atrium, a dining hall and a cocktail lounge (or smoking room). The latter of which was built as a practical stage set in London and inspired us mostly as to what the architectural style and the amount of decay might end up looking like in the two other full CG environments. Real ships such as the Lusitania and Aquitania ended up serving us as our main sources of reference for the design and build of the Augusta’s interior. It was a lot of fun getting to design and build these sets in the grandiose style of sea-travel of a time long since past.
What was the lighting challenge with these underwater shots?
The biggest challenge with any type of underwater lighting is that every single light source can be traced back to its source as it’s a visible volumetric ray underwater. On any dry set a DOP can get away with introducing additional (rim) lights to enhance the look of a shot. Underwater this is a lot harder, as we are trying to maintain the illusion that the only source of light within the shipwreck is the sun entering through the broken windows and bouncing around inside the rooms. Our CG lead Tong Zhou managed to come up with a great system utilizing bounce light in a very controlled manner, allowing us to light out any areas we liked without breaking the illusion of having a single light source outside the shipwreck. Another issue is dealing with the visibility underwater and the foggy nature of your far backgrounds. Every shot proved to bring its own set of challenges regarding the balance of murk, light and color. In truth each shot has taken some degree of artistic license to help tell the story and create the most appealing looking image. I do believe that when watching the sequence as a whole, things work well though.
How did you created the air bubble that protect Jake?
The air bubble or bubble-helmet as we liked to call it, is a fairly simple setup of an animated spherical mesh tracked to the neck movements of the actor (Asa Butterfield). We gave the animators a variety of controls to animate the amount of squash and stretch, rippling and altering the general form of the bubble. Re-projecting the plate onto the matchmoved model allowed us to render Asa’s head literally inside the CG bubble, giving us back a correct refracted render. On the outside the bubble would reflect our 360 CG environments. To prevent the illusion from breaking by having Asa’s hair wave around underwater, it was decided for him to wear a glued down wig for all bubble shots. This wig made it look as if Asa’s hair wasn’t underwater at all, but inside the dry bubble helmet instead.
Once on board, Emma use her peculiarity to bring the air on the ship. How did you created this nice effects?
The lion’s share of the development on this effect was a collaboration between Lukas Lepicovsky, who developed the Flowline bubble methodology, and Claas Henke, who further developed the look in Nuke. All simulations of Emma’s bubble-stream and subsequent giant air bubbles were simulated using our proprietary Flowline software. Every single bubble is a true refractive meta object, and is able to merge and collide with all other bubbles around it. This technique allowed us to have bubbles merge and grow to form large dry air pockets as the shot progresses. Our compositing team, lead by Michael Porterfield, aided in the turbulent nature of this effect by dynamically animating 2D ‘murky particles’ inside Nuke.
Can you tell us about the shooting part of this effects?
All the action underwater was shot wet for wet on the underwater stage at Pinewood. Besides the giant gimbal rig used for a shot in which we literally see Emma and Jake transition from being underwater to standing in a completely dry room, most of the photographed plates were of Asa and Ella simply pretending to be affected by, or creating the giant bubble streams. The rig was one of Frazer’s ideas and featured two cameras mounted on a giant gimbal that would allow having the actors transition from laying on their backs, on our fake wall set piece, to rising out of the water while being rotated 90 degrees and thus ending up standing up straight at the end of the shot. In post we extended the set and introduced the bubble and additional water effects. Our compositing team, led by Michael Porterfield, aided in the turbulent nature of this effect by dynamically animating 2D ‘murky particles’ inside Nuke. The end result is quite magical as we start the shot with clearly seeing Emma and Jake underwater, flowing hair and billowing clothes and all. As we play the shot through we see all the water rushing by camera past them and leave them standing in a fully dry room. Their hair still wet and hanging down from the water that only just cleared the room. The details we put in and the idea behind this shot makes it without a doubt one of my favorite moments in the film.
Later in the movie, the children brings the ship back to the surface. Can you tell us more about this sequence?
We essentially got to riff of Emma’s peculiarity we had established earlier in the movie, but now on a much larger scale. Emma isn’t just clearing the water out of the cocktail lounge; she’s filling the entire ship with air, to the point where the Augusta is buoyant enough to rise out of the water. This sequence was the least fleshed out by Tim, so we had quite a bit of room to play. We ended up doing previs for this sequence ourselves in house and had the opportunity to put quite a couple of our own ideas into these shots. The sequence grew substantively actually as Tim started to get a couple new ideas to beef up the action in this scene while we were working away on it. For instance, one of my favorite shots featuring Emma on the landing at the top of the staircase, spinning around, blowing air into all directions, was not part of the sequence originally. There are a lot of fun little moments happening in this sequence, including a little ‘reverse Titanic’ homage we put in, where the lights of the Augusta come back on after power is restored and the ship is racing up to the surface.
There is a beautiful shot of the ship coming out of the water. Can you explain in details about its creation?
That is a fully CG shot. We started by blocking in the animation, trying to get the timing convincing enough to communicate the size and weight of this massive ship. Secondary animation of swinging ropes and lifeboats were included in this pass as well. The backdrop is a matte painting, and all the water you see in that shot, from the main water surface to all the drips and splash effects was simulated in Flowline. Based on the animation we start to running tests to get the correct voxel size, giving us the detail needed for the giant splash. Besides making the giant splash believable, we ended up generating a large amount of smaller secondary elements that were added later, things like spray, drips, flowing mist etc.
How did you manage the water interactions and simulations for this shot?
For a big shot like this, it’s always a bit of trial and error to see what feels right, as there isn’t much reference our there for cruise ships emerging out of the water! Getting the initial simulations running, usually leads to new ideas, and you start building on that. Water residue trickling down the decks, streams coming out of portholes, the amount of white water and foam, the size of the splash, the transition to mist. It’s all a combination of physics and gut level artistry.
What was the main challenge on the show and how did you achieve it?
I think reverse engineering some of our water simulation techniques to create the large air pockets seemed like a complex challenge at first. After all we needed to figure out a way of simulating air inside a large body of water, rather than the other way around. Thankfully I am fortunate enough to work with some really talented and very clever people, who made surmounting this challenge a much easier task than it initially seemed to be.
Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
No sleep was lost on anything in particular, but one of the more difficult shots we had on our plate was this shot in which the bubble helmet is formed for the first time and we see Jake’s head enter it while swimming down to the ship. Within this shot we transition from Jake swimming underwater with wavy flowing hair, to him entering the bubble in which he can breath normally, as on land. As he enters the bubble, the water is being pushed away around his face and his hair falls down into it’s natural shape, be it still wet of course. To achieve this effect we had to reconstruct and re-time Jake’s face out of three differently takes of Asa emerging out of the water while mounted to a camera locked rig. Each frame during the transition was painted, fixed, stitched and timed manually by senior compositor Christine Lo to the animated bubble wrapping around his face. Besides all this comp and paint work we ended up fully replacing his shirt and shorts with CG clothes to cover up the rig in which he was placed. His CG outfit was simulated to mimic the same dynamic behavior of his real clothes moving underwater. I believe this ‘simple’ closeup took us almost 9 months to execute and was without a doubt one of the most challenging shots we had on the show.
What do you keep from this experience?
For me personally Miss P was one of the smoothest, most rewarding projects I have ever been involved with. Besides being thankful for having been given the opportunity by Scanline and 20th century Fox in the first place, it was a thrill to work on a film directed by Tim Burton. Both aesthetically as well as thematically, the material clicked well with me, so working on the project was nothing short of a true pleasure.
How long have you worked on this film?
A little over a year. I started my initial sketches for the project in March 2015, we finished our last shots in July this year.
How many shots have you done?
We delivered 122 shots I believe.
What was the size of your team?
We had a crew of about 60 people involved with the project.
What is your next project?
I am currently working on Scanline’s portion of vfx work for Marvel’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, directed by James Gunn.
What are the four movies that give you the passion for cinema?
This is a constantly revolving list as my passion for cinema comes from a love for the art-form itself. Films which combine a great story with beautiful music and strong performances can inspire me as much as films that feature beauty in their production design, cinematography or visual effects. It’s a tough question as all these elements affect me in different ways, but if I’d have to give you four titles right now I’d say: PAN’S LABYRINTH, SPIRITED AWAY, JURASSIC PARK and ALIEN.
A big thanks for your time.
// WANT TO KNOW MORE?
– Scanline VFX: Official website of Scanline VFX.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2016