Ben White began his VFX career at Mill Film in 1998. He then worked at Framestore and MPC before joining Nvizible. He has worked on many films such as GLADIATOR, THE DARK KNIGHT, AVATAR, MAN OF STEEL and FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM.
What is your background?
As a kid I had a love of visual illusions and a fascination with nature and physical phenomena – « why is the Sky blue? » kind of questions. I got hold of a secondhand Praktica camera at a junk fair when I was about 10 and I would spend my pocket money on cheap pre-paid film for it. I remember seeing a « making of » showing how the landspeeder flying shots were created in the original STAR WARS – it really set the spark off which would eventually result in me getting into VFX. I fell in love with stop-motion animation but it was Luxo Junior (an early Pixar breakthrough CG short in 1986) which got me exited about computer graphics and its potential.
How did you and Nvizible get involved on this show?
David Bruckner and his producer came in to meet with us and we were instantly exited by the idea of the work. He showed us the concept art for the Jötunn which we were blown away by. On reading the script I was refreshed to see the way they withheld the reveal of the creature right until the end of the third act. Richard Clarke (head of CG) and I gathered a lot of reference to help us understand better the various aspects of the creatures texture, motion and (most importantly) attitude which we then pitched back to David.
How was your collaboration with director David Bruckner?
David is a great communicator and knows what he wants – this made it a real pleasure to work with him, even at a rainy 5am in a forest in Transylvania! He’s an incredibly bright guy and his filmmaking instincts were always spot on. I had hopes that the film would bring him a wider audience and a bigger canvas to work with so I’m delighted to see how well its been received.
What was his approach and expectations about the visual effects?
Nvizible were bought on board relatively late in the day. Industry veteran VFX producer Ron Ames was associate producer for The Imaginaruim on the movie – he and David had planned out a methodology using a combination of a full size practical creature head and digital work. As an independent film there was not a vast VFX budget but we were all agreed that fewer shots of a higher quality was the way to go.
Can you tell us more about the previz and postviz work?
One of the great things about the Imaginarium being the production company was that we had access to their mocap facilities. I got the news that Nvizible were going to be doing the creature work and the very next morning I was on the stage with Ron Ames and the mocap team (David was away shooting at this point). They already had a rough model and rig so we tried a variety of motion studies and ideas to see what might work for the creature. Slightly later in production we got David in and used the stage and same performers to create what was essentially realtime previz, working from the storyboards and marking out the set on the floor. This was a real luxury to have such a resource and a great experience for David who got to direct his previz in real time.
Let’s talk about the monster, the Jötunn. Can you explain in detail about his design and creation?
David worked with the concept artist Keith Thompson, who has a very special talent for creatures with unexpected and thoughtful body features. They talked about the idea of a Norse animal god and how to give it human qualities. Their idea of making the creatures head from a human torso and yet still resembling a giant stag or moose was inspired. One detail of the creatures face that had an interesting evolution is the cavity at the bottom where the eyes are. David said he wanted it to look like the male genitals had been ripped out, leaving the flaps of skin which also are a reference to stag antler moulting.
How was simulated his presence on-set and for the interactions?
As usual – a combination of methods is the best approach. We had wire harnesses for lifting Luke up in the air and a wire pull for the shelving unit in the forest which gets knocked down. There was a full size practical head for 2 shots where closeup interaction was needed with the creatures « head hands ». The head was mounted on a metal boom rig which held a stunt performer wearing prosthetic arm and hand pieces to interact with Sam and Luke. It was pretty uncomfortable in there but she was a trooper.
What kind of references and indications did you received for his animation?
This was an important detail to get right since it not just about the morphology of a creature but finding its character. David described the Jötunn as representing Luke’s sense of guilt, his pride, his vanity. I thought of a Stag strutting around his harem. For the chase scene, I found a clip of a moose charging though snow that had a great sense of scale and power which matched the oversized creature we were creating. For the « head hands » we would generally act it out ourselves which was pretty effective and we tended towards very slow and deliberate motions.
How his special morphology affects your rigging and animation work?
This weird and wonderful creature posed some interesting challenges. Richard Clarke and I have done creature shows before so we knew that although the concept art was wonderful we would need to consider the effect of unusual leg shapes and extra joints on how it would move. Having discussed with David that the creatures behaviour be based on conveying a controlled authority, we knew that the legs would need some design changes so it could perform in this way. I needed to keep it away from looking too crab like or crippled in its motion which the original leg shapes would have imposed on the performance. Although it resembles a giant stag, a Giraffe skeleton was closer then you might think to how the legs were configured. Even with some tweaks the back legs were somewhat awkward at full run so we were careful to frame the shots so you cant see that in the film. Andy Fraser (lead animator) also did a wonderful job of dealing with the challenges of such a weird creature.
The Jötunn is seen mainly be night. How did you handle the lighting challenge?
For each setup we shot lots of reference images and always at least one HDRI. For some of the more complex lighting in the forest, for example in the shop interior that appears in the woods, we shot HDRIs at several locations along the creatures path. For several shots, in addition to a lighting ball pass we would also walk the full size practical head though the shot. I would say we got very comprehensive lighting data with the exception of the burning hut scene – we were not allowed anywhere near the fire for safety, it was truly ferocious! For that scene we made area light and environment maps by processing the various plates into exr sequences, plus the good old method of a separate pass per light and animation of brightness in comp.
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
It’s the reveal shot where the creature peers through the doorway at Luke. Its genuinely disturbing and I’ve not seen anything quite like it before. I’m so pleased with the performance, the hands moving slowly and very creepily and the head slowly turning sideways and leering at Luke (Rafe Spall). I also like the scene in front of the burning hut. The Jötunn is mostly in silhouette and you’re still trying to figure what on Earth you’re looking at. It’s pretty twisted if you consider what’s happening, the Jötunn is actually carrying the dead body of Sara to taunt Luke some more with it.
What is your best memory on this show?
I was in Romania where we were shooting the village scenes halfway up a forest covered mountain. The set was genuinely creepy and had full size huts plus these huge animal skull totem poles. It was a night shoot – about 4am, I was walking off to get a coffee and I saw the moon had come out. I looked up and behind this enormous hellish totem was the most classic « horror movie » moon you could imagine… and I was in Transylvania!
That and the burning of the hut – that was all done for real by SFX supervisor Nick Allder and his team. Once they lit it up there was no stopping it. We had 4 cameras filming different scenes at the same time as we knew we only had one go at it. Ive never felt heat like it !
A big thanks for your time.
THE RITUAL – CREATURE REEL – NVIZIBLE
THE RITUAL – TRAILER
THE RITUAL is streaming now on Netflix.
// WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Nvizible: Dedicated page about THE RITUAL on Nvizible website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2018