Prior to joining Brainstorm Digital in 2010. Eran Dinur worked at Framestore and Industrial Light & Magic. At Brainstorm Digital, he took care of the effects of BOARDWALK EMPIRE, THE IMMIGRANT, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, CAFE SOCIETY and NERVE. He has just released his book The Filmmaker’s Guide to Visual Effects.
How was this new collaboration with director James Gray?
This is our second film with James Gray (the first was THE IMMIGRANT). It was great to collaborate with him again, and with many of the key crew members who also worked on THE IMMIGRANT (like cinematographer Darius Khondji, producer Anthony Katagas, editor John Axelrad and first AD Doug Torres). Brainstorm did all the visual effects on this film, which made things simpler in terms of organization and communication. We are a NYC company, and the editing was done in the city, so it was easy for me to hop over to editorial whenever James and John wanted to discuss some shots.
James is very thoughtful and meticulous as a director. He is quite demanding and very particular about small detail – but always in a way that respects and understands the obstacles or difficulties along the way. He is a passionate filmmaker, and when you work with him it is hard not to be influenced by this passion. Personally, I felt more involved in this production than in any other I worked on.
What was his approach and expectations about the visual effects?
It was clear from the initial stages that the VFX in the movie should be of the “invisible” sort. That our work should not be used to grab attention, but to support the story and the visuals. It was important for James that VFX elements like the RGS building or the ocean liner will be historically accurate. Since we already worked with him and Darius on THE IMMIGRANT, we were familiar with their visual taste and style – though of course we knew that this film will have a much broader palette as it shifts between the Amazon jungle and England. We also realized that this production will require a lot more CG and animation than THE IMMIGRANT (which was mostly matte painting and comp).
How did you organize the work at Brainstorm Digital?
I first travelled to Colombia and spent a week with the core crew scouting locations in the (stunning) Santa Marta area. Because all the principal shooting happened abroad (Northern Ireland and Colombia), we had to split the on-set supervision – I covered the preproduction and most of the shooting in Northern Ireland, and Richard Friedlander and Glenn Allen (VFX producers/on-set supervisors) covered the jungle parts in Colombia. The VFX work was handled by our in-house comp and matte painting crew, and a small CG team (2 animators, 2 lighters/generalists, a modeler and a rigger).
Can you tell us more about the Old London creation?
The London parts were shot in Belfast. Our work was mainly on the port sequence and the RGS building. In that shot, Percy walks toward the old Royal Geographic Society building on Savile row. That building still exists in London – though many details have changed since the early 1900’s. James wanted us to recreate the look of the place from old photographs. The initial plan was for us to matte-paint just the RGS house and maybe the adjacent buildings, but we ended up adding more buildings on both sides of the frame because James felt the location did not feel enough like London.
Can you explain in detail about the creation of the beautiful shot of the boat in the ocean?
We wanted to avoid CG water, so the plan was to get a helicopter shot of a modern ferry off the shore of Belfast. We would then replace the original ship with a CG period ocean liner, and “steal” the wakes and splashes. The helicopter shoot never happened, so during post, production searched through stock footage and eventually found a suitable plate.
We modeled the ship based on the SS Panama (later called SS Aleutian), which was built in 1899. It was a relatively small ship compared to some of the large ocean liners of that period, but it was still more than twice as large as the ship in the stock footage, so we had to extend the wakes and water interaction in comp to fit its size.
Our heroes are attacked by natives with arrows. How did you created these weapons?
There were three big sequences of attacks by natives (the third also had CG spears and clubs in addition to arrows). In some shots, we had to add more arrows to existing ones, in others all the arrows were CG.
The main challenge was animating the motion and interaction of the arrows in a believable way – how they pierce the hull of the boat, or tumble and flip when they hit the ground, or float away with the stream (we built the arrows with a little rig that enabled them to bend during flight and wobble on impact).
When arrows hit the water, we used Maya Bifrost for the splashes. We combined the mattes from the CG sim with foamy water that we grabbed from the actual plates. It gave us better results in terms of integration.
Can you explain in detail the underwater shots with the piranhas?
This sequence was our biggest challenge on this film. Brainstorm’s main body of work is in environments and compositing, and we haven’t done a lot of CG animals, so it was a bit of a new territory for us. Everyone agreed that we should keep it as close to reality as possible and not get tempted to cross into the horror-movie genre. This meant that we really had to study Piranhas up close.
Our CG lead spent hours in the NY aquarium taking videos and hi-res stills of Red-Bellied Piranhas, and we also analyzed different clips of feeding-frenzies. Piranhas are actually very cautious fish – they turn around the prey, slowly getting closer and closer, and when they finally go for a bite it’s a lightning-fast hit and run move. You almost never see their teeth, only at the split-second moment before the bite. Our lead animator Sean Curran spent some RND time testing the rig before getting on with animating the fish. I think that he really managed to capture that constant hectic movement of the Piranhas, and their quick changes of direction and speed.
We shot the sequence in an old diving pool in Belfast with an underwater camera team. The walls of the pools were painted black, and the way Darius Khondji set up the lighting, it really felt like you were in the middle of a murky river – you couldn’t see the walls at all. In addition to the two actors in the shot, there was also a heavy fishing net. It was quite tricky to roto both the people and the net so that we could have fish behind the actors, and between the actors and the net. The main lighting and comp challenge was getting the Piranhas to sit right there in that backlit murky water, and creating the right sense of depth and distance in such low visibility.
Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
In the week prior to the shooting of the Piranha sequence, I couldn’t come up with an effective solution for putting tracking markers in the pool. Because of the dim lighting and the murkiness of the water, the markers had to be very bright, or better yet, self-illuminating. But that would mean a very tricky paint out work (with all the stuff floating in the water). I was concerned that this will substantially raise the costs of the sequence, but on the other hand worried that without proper markers, tracking the shots will be very difficult. In the end, I am glad I decided to shoot without any tracking markers. We managed to track the camera by match-moving the actors, and we saved production tons of cleanup work.
What is your best memory on this show?
I really enjoyed the scouting trip in Colombia. The area of Santa Marta is incredibly beautiful, I don’t know if there is any other place in the world where you stand on a tropical beach and look straight toward snow-capped mountains above the jungle. Admittedly, this trip had none of the stress and hardships that everyone encountered during the actual shooting period in the jungle (which was, by all accounts, an arduous experience).
I also enjoyed watching James direct some of the quieter interior scenes in Belfast. There was this intense silence around, a sort of reverence of the moment, which felt more like being in a theater than on a set.
How long have you worked on this show?
About 8 months.
What is your next project?
We are currently working on WONDER WHEEL (Woody Allen’s new film) and PAPILLON, a remake of the famous 70’s film (which, by the way, also stars Charlie Hunnam).
A big thanks for your time.
// THE LOST CITY OF Z – VFX Breakdown – Brainstorm Digital
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2017