In 2016, Pablo Helman explained to us about the work of ILM on TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS. He returns today for a very different project, the new film of Martin Scorsese, SILENCE.

How did you get involved on this show?
SILENCE came to ILM because director Martin Scorsese wanted a company he knew would take great care for a movie that wasn’t necessarily a visual effects picture but a period film with many invisible effects and environments needed. I was fortunate to meet him in Taiwan for a scout and we hit it off.

How was the collaboration with legendary director Martin Scorsese?
Working with Marty was everything I thought it was going to be and more. He loves film, film history and everything that goes with it. From the anecdotal to the highly technical you learn at every step and decision. Every choice he makes serves the characters and the story. And in the process you start thinking like him and start serving the project.

What was his approach and expectations about the visual effects?
Marty had a very content driven vision. The visual effects work wasn’t about punctuating anything, rather it was about invisibly making a point. There was also the element of history and geography that we had to support. For instance, often the conversations we had with him centered around whether the flora and fauna were appropriate for season given a scene’s particular setting. Also, his vision very much aligned with the way he felt about things when he filmed them. If the feeling he got was gone when he reviewed the effects work, we had to find a way to get it back.

How did you organize the work with VFX Supervisor Jason Snell and between the ILM offices?
Jason and I split the supervision on set. He was instrumental in getting the ILM’s Cineview app up and running on the set so that Marty could see the architecture of St. Paul’s Macau church through a virtual viewfinder. It was also clear that Marty felt really comfortable with Jason and I on the set and saw us as problem solvers. The post work was done out of ILM’s Vancouver office with great flexibility and quick turn around.

What references and indications did you received to created the St Paul’s College?
The digital creation of the college started with working very closely with production designer, Dante Ferretti. When we got to Taiwan we found large rooms full of historical references that we all followed. After having scouted several locations to see if we could salvage some of the landscape, it was decided that the best way to gain control of the history of the place was to build the steps and one door of the church in an exterior back lot surrounded by blue screen. In post we also received guidance from Marianne Bower, Marty’s Archivist and several Japanese historians that kept us true to the period and architecture of the place.

Can you explain in detail about the creation of the St Paul’s College and its huge environment?
Juan Garcia Alvarez from ILM Vancouver took on the build. It started with a large file of references and artwork that we had brought back with us from Taiwan. Both the St. Paul College and Church had gone through a number of looks and renovations over the years but it was important to Marty that we detailed certain sections to make them cinematic, the same way that if we had been there, the production design would have taken the task.

Because the build included 360 views of the harbor, we also did research on the period architecture present in the village surrounding the church.

You can see the shots around 0:37.

What was the real size of this set?
The steps and door of the church were about 200-feet by 100-feet and 50-feet tall. We surrounded it with a massive blue screen.

How did you create and populate with boats the seashore of Macau?
We used the historical and art reference to build an all-digital waterfront that included the junk boats and people on the dock. The compositing was tricky because the methodology for shooting the scene allowed for smoke to be in front of the exterior blue screen. I have always felt that the lack of smoke changes the lighting falling on the actors; the diffusion that the smoke creates is something very difficult to create in CG. This of course made compositing more of a challenge but in the end the shots are better for it.

Can you explain in detail about the shot that started from a boat and ends over the clouds?
The shot started with an idea that Marty had sketched it on a piece of paper. The idea was to create a transition shot that would take the characters from Macau to Japan. In a kind of time lapse, we start very appropriately with a God-like top view of the ocean, and reveal the Chinese junk boat through clouds. Craning up through stormy clouds we reach the sky past the clouds and find the sun in the ocean horizon.

The water plate started from helicopter top view ocean reference we had gathered. But then it was clear that we needed to generate it in CG. The boat was never going to be practical and the clouds were very peculiar so in the end, a small team of ILM Vancouver artists created the complete shot in CG.

You can see the shots around 0:07.

How did you handle the various water simulations?
The water was part of the environment department’s build for the oceans in the background. We also used the ILM fluid simulation engine to generate water which we mixed with elements shot in Taiwan, Vancouver and California.

How did you film the sequence with the three peasants on the crosses emerged in the ocean?
The crosses themselves were present on the rocks in Taiwan, although not in right place and with heavy securing bases that had to be painted out later. There were also three crosses that were positioned to match the practical set on the water tank where the waves could be controlled. Blue screen was extended around the tank and water fluid sims and practical elements together with land elements shot from a boat in Taiwan were composited to accomplish the sequence.

How did you recreate the old Nagasaki?
Dante Ferretti and the art department put together all kinds of amazing historical references to help with the build.

The movie has many environments. Which one was the most complicated to created and why?
By far the St. Paul College was the most complicated, again because it was not just an environment – it needed to tell the story in a historical accurate way.

A peasant is decapitated by a saber. Can you tell us more about the creation of this effect?
The decapitation sequence was depicted in a sequence of three shots. The first one was filmed with the actor performing as if the blade hit him. Then the action was continued digitally. The second shot was a close up of the head rolling towards camera. Several passes with a prosthetic head coming toward camera and blood were filmed but the element would not land in the right place. So digitally the footage was manipulated to land in the right place and a series of projections were needed to achieve the likeness of the actor. Then finally, an actor wearing a green mask was filmed for the body collapsing to the ground.

Can you explain in detail about your work on the beautiful final shot?
The last shot of the film was prevised on location to illustrate the Director’s vision and to figure out how many passes were needed to accomplish entering a barrel in flames, reaching a corpse inside it and macro all way into a cross held in the corpse’s hands. Four passes were filmed without motion control. First one was the barrel in flames approach, then the actor sitting on a half built barrel, third an approach into the hands and fourth a macro shot into the cross held in his hands. All plates were morphed and composited into one long shot.

What do you keep from this experience?
It was an incredible experience working on this show. I felt privileged working with Mr. Scorsese. He’s a walking film encyclopedia and an incredible human being. He once said to me “You know what my problem is? I fall in love with the characters”. Well… I say, nothing wrong with that.

How long have you worked on this show?
Two and a half years.

What’s the VFX shots count?
We did 700 + VFX shots.

What was the size of your team?
There around 50 artists working on the show .

What is your next project?
I hope to be able to announce that soon!

A big thanks for your time.


Industrial Light & Magic: Official ILM website.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2017


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