PET SEMATARY: Damien Hurgon – VFX Supervisor – Mr. X

Damien Hurgon began his career in visual effects in 2008 at Mikros Image. He works on many projects like GAINSBOURG, RUST AND BONE, 9-MONTH STRETCH and STRONGER. In 2017, he joined the teams of Mr. X.

What is your background?
I started my career in visual effects as a compositing artist for Mikros image in Paris. I gradually evolved from compositing to lead compositing and then VFX supervisor. After 8 years at Mikros (Paris) and then one year at Mikros (Montreal), I was hired at M.. X where I have been for 2 years now.

How did you and Mr. X get involved on this show?
We were contacted during the prep of the project in April 2018 when production was moving to Montreal and looking for a local company to supervise both filming and manufacturing. We met with directors Kevin & Dennis and executive producer Mark Moran to discuss their creative vision and propose an approach. They confirmed the following week that we would work together.

How was the collaboration with directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer?
We got along very well from our first meeting. We remained in constant contact from pre-production to the delivery of the last shot. We were lucky to be involved early enough in pre-production and then subsequently throughout the shoot allowing us to establish a solid trusting relationship. After the shoot, we discussed and presented our shots through cineSync sessions every week.

What was their expectations and approach about the visual effects?
The visual effects had to be as discreet as possible. The goal for the directors and for production was to use practical effects as much as possible. During the discussions and technical scouting, we offered VFX support for each obstacle encountered by the various departments.

How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
We work closely together with Mike DiCarlo, the Pet Sematary VFX Producer at Mr. X. We work and collaborate very well together. Mike takes care of all the budget and planning while I take care of all the creative and technical aspects. He is the one who organizes the project with the team and makes sure that I only focus on the images.

How did you split the work amongst the Mr. X offices?
We managed the entire project from our Montreal office and had the valuable assistance of our Bangalore team. Toronto also helped us a little bit with the end of the project.

Can you elaborate about your work on the long opening shot?
The purpose of this opening shot was to establish in one shot the geographical position of each locations important for the narrative and to show their proximity (Cemetery, House of Jud and House of the Creeds). It is composed of 5 takes, all shot in different locations. The cemetery is a matte painting reconstruction and the fire is 3D. It took several scouting and rehearsals with the drone team to be able to maintain a constant trajectory and speed as much as possible. Each shot was tracked in 3D to extract a virtual camera. We then mixed each camera together to make one. Many environmental manipulations and a lot of patience allowed us to connect all these different locations.

How did you work with the SFX and stunt teams?
For SFX, we mainly intervened in cases where certain handling accessories were visible, by deleting them. Other elements were specifically manufactured to be shot separately, to then be reintegrated in compositing later. For example, the shot of Jud’s heel is composed of 4 different takes. We also increased some gore effects by adding a few blood drops or splatters. For the stunts, we reconstructed the knife blade, which for obvious safety reasons had been shortened on the shoot.

Can you explain in detail about your work on the car crash?
Everything you see on screen is real. It is a multi-pass assembly. All backgrounds, foregrounds, but also the truck without its trailer are shot on real locations. As the stunt required more space than we had on the real road, the flipping of the tank was shot separately on a desert car park a few days later. Respecting the same axes and camera positions. The main part of our work was therefore the assembly of each element. Sometimes by reworking the light so that the cistern was more integrated into its final environment.

How did you approach the various environments and especially the Indian location?
We had to create the environment for everything beyond the animal cemetery, after the deadfall (the big deadwood fence). The challenge was to find the right balance between realism and fantasy, while remaining as faithful as possible to Stephen King’s description.

Can you explain in detail about the creation of the Indian environment?
It is Jud’s shot looking towards the horizon that served as a benchmark for the rest of the sequence. The isolation and difficulty of access to the site had to be highlighted. The Indian cemetery is located on a rocky hill and rises in the middle of a vast and dark forest. The swamp that Louis and Jud have just crossed is below and we can see in the background, a more familiar landscape, more like the forests of the Main. Once we agreed with Kevin and Dennis on a concept, we just had to adapt it to the other axes. 5 different mattes paintings were necessary to cover all the axes. We also worked on the atmosphere and the fog that was not there on set.

Which reference and indications did you receive for this environment?
Todd Cherniawsky (Production Designer) and his team had already done a lot of research and concept work that we used as the basis for inspiration. Todd’s designs and Laurie Rose’s light (DOP) made it much easier for us.

What was the main challenge with the environments?
The main challenge was to maintain a graphic coherence between the different sets while maintaining a slow progression towards an almost fantastic world.

When Ellie is back from the deads, she has a terrifying look. How did you enhance her makeup and especially her eye?
The SFX make-up team (led by Adrien Morot) had done the essentials by placing a prosthesis that pulled his right eye down. We then increased or reduced this effect in some shots for continuity reasons. Some prosthesis fittings were retouched in some close-ups and we also froze the movement of her eyelids in the bath sequence. A natural reflex that is impossible to control when water flows over it.

Did you create a CG version for Church for specific shots or he is a real cat all the time?
Church is a real cat on all shots. 4 different cats play Church and were all trained to tolerate edible makeup in their fur. We only changed his eyes for a few shots. The synchronization of the actors with an animal is always very difficult, we sometimes shot separate elements to reintegrate them later into their main take.

Is there any other invisible effects you want to reveal to us?
The connection between the Creed and Jud’s houses does not exist in reality. The two sets were 500 meters apart. The final scene in the cemetery is shot entirely in a studio on a blue screen.

Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
Everything that happens beyond the animal cemetery was probably our biggest challenge.

Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
The opening shot was technically the most complex and required weeks of work on its own.

What is your favorite shot or sequence?
I think Louis’ sequence crossing the swamp with Ellie in his arms is my favorite.

What is your best memory on this show?
Watching the film on the day of its release with part of the Mr.X. PET SEMATARY team.

How long have you worked on this show?
From May 2018 to mid-March 2019 including preparation, shooting and manufacturing.

What’s the VFX shots count?
About 400 shots.

What was the size of your team?
Probably around 40 people in total.

What is your next project?
Unfortunately, I can’t talk about it.

What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
It’s difficult to make a selection but my top 4 would be among Steven Spielberg’s films and those of Robert Zemeckis (JURASSIC PARK in the lead).

A big thanks for your time.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Mr. X: Dedicated page about PET SEMATARY on Mr. X website.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2019

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Vincent Frei

Founder & Editor-in-Chief // VES Member // Former comp artist

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