REBECCA: Murray Barber – VFX Supervisor & Co-founder – Milk Visual Effects

In 2013, Murray Barber told us about the work of Milk Visual Effects on DOCTOR WHO. He then worked on many shows such as EVEREST, HIGH RISE, FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD and ORIGIN.

How was this new collaboration with Director Ben Wheatley?
We have a long-established relationship with Ben and in fact REBECCA is our fourth collaboration with him: our previous projects include the dystopian thriller HIGH RISE, action comedy FREE FIRE and the BBC’s DOCTOR WHO – for which our work was recognised with a BAFTA TV craft award.

What were his expectations and approach about the visual effects?
Part of our brief from Ben was to support the oppressive atmosphere of the Manderley environment and dial up the undercurrent of fear and mystery surrounding Rebecca, so artfully cultivated by Mrs Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas), the sinister housekeeper.

What was your approach for the environments creation?
Our main focus was invisible environment work for Manderley – the imposing De Winter house and estate in Cornwall where the majority of the action takes place. We also undertook extensive supporting work to create the period look of the film – at Manderley; Rebecca’s boat house location; and Monaco where Armie Hammer’s Maxim De Winter and Lily James’ second Mrs De Winter meet and fall in love. We also created CG ivy for her terrifying dream sequence.

I was supported by 2D Supervisor Jorge Oliva, our head of 3D Neil Roche and VFX Producer Jenna Powell.

The movie then moves to the beautiful estate of Manderley. How did you enhance the mansion?
A major part of our environment work focused both in and around Manderley – with matte painting work and extensions to the house, both in its original finery but also as it burns in the dramatic fire at the climax of the film.

Ben and the production had come up with a full design and layout for Manderley after extensive recces. This was based upon a combination of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire and Cranborne Manor in Dorset, with the gardens of Mapperton House (also in Dorset). We worked closely with them to build the Manderley environment by extending and enhancing the locations with VFX.

REBECCA was then shot at a variety of locations for different aspects of the house (both interiors and exteriors) including Hatfield House, Cranborne Manor and Mapperton House and various studio interior sets.

All the sequences where we see the front of Manderley feature Cranborne Manor and for those where we see the back of the house, the location was Hatfield House with two wings visible – for the east and west wings of Manderley – which are so key to the plot. Lily James’ Mrs De Winter can see Rebecca’s room in the West wing from her own room overlooking the garden and we only see the sea from Rebecca’s room – a beautiful, sumptuous room as opposed to her simple, pared back room with its ivy motif – all stage-managed by Mrs Danvers. Most of the interiors were shot at the key locations, but newlywed Mrs De Winter’s and Rebecca’s bedrooms were sets.

Our work included an aerial view of the full CG house to establish the geography of the Manderley estate – including the gardens, stable blocks and out-houses – and its proximity to the cliff edge, helping to set the scene and show its isolated location.

The very first shot of Manderley shows Rebecca walking towards the derelict house; as we see it slowly returning to its former glory. Similarly, we see the second Mrs De Winter’s dramatic first impression of Manderley as she is driven up the long driveway to the house for the very first time feeling overwhelmed by its size and grandeur. To enhance these two key scenes, we needed to make it appear bigger and imposing; while ensuring the proportions were just right so as to make sure its scale was believable and congruent with the surrounding landscape and gatehouse.

Our environment team lead by Simon Wicker and supported by Irena Smitakova created the basic hybrid of Hatfield House and Cranborne Manor and extended it. Our challenge was to strike a balance between supporting the period look of Daphne Du Maurier’s Manderley but remaining sensitive and faithful to the architectural styles of each building – with a focus on ensuring all the proportions were correct.

We added towers to the side of Cranborne Manor, one of which is castellated to create an asymmetrical look which represents the fictitious evolution of the house over hundreds of years as it incorporated various period styles.

For all the shots featuring the approach to the house we needed to rotoscope out and also add extra CG trees over existing trees, as we were extending the house behind them.

In addition, our matte painting team added in views of the bottom of the gardens and the coastline to establish Manderley’s proximity to the sea and establish the context of the location for the audience.

Manderley’s gardens were all shot at Mapperton House. We extended the garden and added the cliff top and the sea at the bottom for the sequence in which Maxim and the second Mrs De Winter walk through the gardens for the first time and she discovers the boathouse. In addition, we added sky replacement and mist shots of her walking on the cliff edge at Manderley, to enhance and evoke the eerie and remote yet beautiful environment she finds herself in.

For the view out of the gardens outside Mrs De Winter’s window – the production shot the Rose Garden at Hatfield House and we composited them into the blue screen windows shot on the set of her room.

How did you create the simulations for Manderley on fire?
We created a number of effects for the dramatic scenes at the climax of the story when Manderley is on fire.

Maxim and Mrs De Winter approach Manderley and initially think the fire is the sunrise, then realise it is burning. We created the sunrise effect in the sky.

For the exterior shots in which the fire is taking hold of the house, the production built a facade on location at Cranborne Manor and the SFX team created a controlled fire with lots of smoke which we digitally extended and augmented by adding more smoke and flames for dramatic, realistic effect.

For the establishing wide shot of Manderley on fire our effects team added fire and smoke, using reference from Notre Dame in Paris to model how the smoke moved.

For shots from the driveway moving right up close to Manderley when they are trying to put out the fire, we added extensions of the house along with smoke and flames coming from the windows, we even created the interiors of the burning rooms then added fire and smoke elements and for the exterior views you can see the ceilings collapsing inside the rooms.

We created the reflection of the house on fire, in the pond, when Mrs De Winter is in the garden. The camera then tilts up and we see the house on fire from the gardens – to achieve this shot we added the burning house into the plates already shot of Manderley’s gardens at Mapperton House.

For the aerial views of Manderley burning, we did a practical drone shot – over a cliff at Hartland Quay in Cornwall. We added in a full CG version of the house burning – including stable blocks and out-houses to the plate to establish both the grandeur of the estate as well as its isolated location by the sea.

Did you want to reveal any other invisible effects?
We created invisible environment and sea set extension work to help create the stunning 1930’s Monaco backdrop for the sequences in which Maxim and the second Mrs De Winter meet and fall in love.

When Maxim first arrives at the hotel, we added the Cote d’Azur in the background including the sea to make it feel like you’re at the coast. In addition, for the driving shots out to Monaco we created an environment extension adding Monaco into the background both by day and night. We also added Monaco and a beach into the background for a crane shot and did modernity clean-up work when the couple visit the gardens.

The interior of Waddesdon Manor, (in Buckinghamshire) doubled for Mrs Van Hopper’s suite in Monaco. Our matte painting team added the horizon views from the windows of the suite, in order to establish the environment.

Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
We were briefed by Ben to bring to life Mrs De Winter’s (Lily James) terrifying dream-sequence, in which she sleepwalks down one of the grand hallways (filmed at Hatfield house in the Gold corridor). The ivy on its ivy-patterned carpet slowly comes to life in the moonlight, creeping up her feet and pulling her screaming into the carpet and eventually ‘drowning’ her.

Ben’s brief was for the ivy to represent the frightening oppressiveness of the Manderley environment, stage-managed by housekeeper Mrs Danvers and to demonstrate how unsettled this makes the young newlywed feel. The recurring ivy motif on the carpet also appears on her bed covering, carpet and walls and is the antithesis of Rebecca’s vibrant, sumptuous bedroom. The production sent us reference material including a section of the carpet! We also used real ivy cuttings for reference. The ivy effects were all created by our effects team lead by Dimitris Lekanis.

What is your favourite shot or sequence?
The sequence where Manderley is on fire – we see Mrs De Winter running down the garden, and the reflection of the burning house in the pond. It was a great collaboration between the SFX and VFX departments.

What is your best memory on this show?
Filming the ‘Monaco’ sequences in the South of France was brilliant! The locations were stunning. On the UK shoots we joked about it being like Antiques Roadshow as we spent a lot of time filming at so many stately homes and garden locations in the south west of England!

How long have you worked on this show?
We worked on REBECCA from Summer 2019 when the shoot took place through to June 2020 when we delivered our VFX.

What’s the VFX shots count?
Milk made 162 shots.

What was the size of your team?
30.

What is your next project?
My next project is THE LAST LETTER FROM YOUR LOVER, a new StudioCanal/Netflix project adapted from Jojo Moyes’ novel. I’m also working on a new project called IN THE EARTH with Ben and his production company Rook Films.

A big thanks for your time.

REBECCA – VFX BREAKDOWN – MILK VISUAL EFFECTS

WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Milk Visual Effects: Dedicated page about REBECCA on Milk Visual Effects website.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2020

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Vincent Frei

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

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