Last year, James Etherington-Sparks, explained in detail the work of Union VFX on The Gentlemen. He then worked on the Black Narcissus series and now talks about his work on the Netflix film, The Dig, with Zafar Janjua (VFX Producer) and Rob Hopper (Head of 3D).

How was the collaboration with Director Simon Stone?

James Etherington-Sparks (JES): Working with Simon was a great experience. He knew what he liked and what he didn’t, but was also open to ideas and suggestions. He has a real passion and enthusiasm for what he does, which is infectious.

What was his approach and expectations about the visual effects?

JES: Simon was very open to suggestions and respectful of our expertise when judging what would be needed. He had a very clear vision of what he wanted and once we had a concept/look that he liked he didn’t detract from that. That meant our time could be spent making the shots look as good as they could in a linear fashion. The editorial team were very VFX savvy and we’ve worked with them a lot before which made discussions much easier for everyone.

How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?

Zafar Janjua (ZJ): We got a good feel for what to expect breaking out the script, which fed into how we built the team as we moved into post. Knowing that there would be some FX challenges, we spent a good amount of time considering how to find a realistic solution for these in advance. We considered all options with our Head of CG, Rob Hopper, who helped us find the right exactly the right resource for the more involved work.

Director of Photography, Mike Eley, Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown, Director Simon Stone. Cr. Larry Horricks

What kind of references and influences did you receive from the director?

JES: Recces with both the director and production designer allowed us to start getting a feel for the direction the VFX should take. For Simon, it was important not to detract from the central story. We felt from very early on that our work should be as unimposing as possible so as not to distract.

Can you explain in detail about the Royal Air Force planes creation?

We based our spitfire model on the Hawker Hurricane which was active during the late 1930s/early 1940s. It had a distinctive black and white paint job during the period in which the film is set so it was easily identifiable as friendly aircraft from the ground.

Can you elaborate on your work on the plane crash?

JES: They managed to get a real plane to fly low enough to look convincing. We then removed the propellers and added CG ones that were almost static – only moving slowly due to wind. We then extended the tree line slightly higher and added an FX pass of leaves and branches being thrown from the tree as the plane clips it.

How did you create the water simulations and bubbles?

Rob Hopper (RH): The water surface was simulated and rendered in Houdini with turbulent forces to model the escaping air bubbling up to the surface. Lighting was set up to match the background plate and AOVs were added for areas of churn and vorticity to give extra control over the look of the whitewater in the comp.

Below the surface, we had particle systems and more fluid volumes to drive the behaviour of the bubbles as they swirled around the fuselage of the plane. These were meshed together, rendered in Houdini and combined with elements in comp.

The FX were created by Louise Aubertin and Igor Zanic and composited by Tiago Faria, Doru Ondun and Vadim Davidoff.

Can you tell us more about the creation of the various skies?

JES: We didn’t do any sky replacements but we did remove several rolling Surrey hills from the horizon to make the landscape look flat like Suffolk.

Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?

JES: The surface and underwater bubbles post plane crash were by far the hardest VFX component.

Did you want to reveal any other invisible effects?

JES: Initially, we were going to be adding a lot of CG mounds but the in-camera ones looked great and we only needed to add them to a handful of shots. The real mounds were constructed of turf which needed a lot of watering, resulting in a bright saturated green colour that stuck out like a sore thumb against the more muted, almost straw coloured, field. We roto’d and graded nearly every mound in every shot. From a VFX perspective this was very straight forward but it made a large visual impact on the film and was something Simon was very excited about as without it the inconsistent colours were very distracting.

We also used split screens when young Archie Barnes nearly got knocked off his bike by a van.

When we see Edith through the window in the doctor’s office we were unable to gain access to the interior of the location, so that was shot against a blue screen.

Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?

JES: Mike Eley’s photography was so beautiful and natural it made it very daunting to stick CG water inches from the camera, but we began developing and testing solutions quite early on that gave us some very promising results. Ultimately, we were able to deliver photorealistic, dynamic water that fit the tone and style of the film perfectly.

What is your favourite shot or sequence?

JES: Probably when the mound collapses on Basil. The FX are gone in a flash but James Roberts and Maybrit Bulla did a fantastic job resulting in a real heart-stopping moment.

RH: We reconstructed the mounds in 3D, projecting the textures from the footage to capture all the detail. We then fractured the geo into slabs of earth and simulated these as rigid bodies in Houdini. Millions of particles were added for the smaller debris and dirt as the earth crumbles and cascades over Basil. Some smaller grain simulations were also used as the ground collapse settles in the final shot. Everything was lit and rendered in Arnold.

What is your best memory on this show?

JES: Just having worked on it really. I absolutely love the finished film and am really proud to have been a small part of that.

How long have you worked on this show?

JES: I worked on the project for about four months in total.

What’s the VFX shot count?


What was the size of your team?

5 compositors, 1 CG Artist, 2 FX Artists.

What is your next project?

JES: I’m currently on set in and around London on an exciting project that I can’t talk about yet and it’s already looking great!

A big thanks for your time.

// The Dig – VFX Breakdown – Union VFX

Union VFX: Official website of Union VFX.
Netflix: You can watch The Dig on Netflix now.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2021


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