Image Engine discusses creating digidoubles, magical creatures and 1927 New York for the electrifying opening of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald
Image Engine on the incredible effects in the newest Wizarding World film Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald
Even for a VFX studio that’s worked on the likes of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Thor: Ragnarok and Logan, owning the first seven minutes of a highly anticipated sequel like Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald is no mean feat. vancouver-based studio image engine created no less than 147 shots for the latest instalment in the Wizarding World franchise. A crew of 130 spent 12 months working on the epic opening sequence that sees the evil wizard Grindelwald escaping from prison in a suitably mind-bending fashion.
“We built a relationship working on Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them and David Yates really wanted us to work on the second film,” says VFX supervisor Martyn Culpitt, discussing how the project came about. “initially we bid for creature work but he turned around and said ‘We want you to do this sequence’.” The sequence in question required the studio to re-create 1927 New York City as well as work on a host of FX elements, creatures and characters.
The film opens inside the cells of the MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) building, where Grindelwald is being held. “We had to extend and create all of the cells,” Culpitt explains. “When i was on set they showed me what they were building and it was just one or two floors. We made it look as though there’s hundreds of cells.”
Grindelwald’s escape takes place during his extradition from the MACUSA to europe and sees him hijack a prison carriage as it flies over New York. Culpitt adds, “Before the filmmakers went into production they did a whole bunch of previs. it’s vital to get that sense of what you want to create or else you can go blindly into filming. They built part of the carriage on set that would move around and emulate some of the camera moves that we wanted to do.”
When the live-action plates were handed over to image engine the team would set about tracking them and the individual performances within. “i think we only used partial plates for the carriage,” admits Culpitt. “i think it’s almost 100 per cent replaced, because of everything that we wanted to do with it.”
As the escape unfolds, the carriage flies across a large portion of Manhattan requiring the studio to do a colossal amount of environment work. “We’ve done some great environments in the past, but nothing to this level,” says Culpitt. image engine received a small selection of New York’s environmental assets from the first film, which they used as a jumping off point. “Most of the stuff in New York
it’s almost 100 per cent replaced, because of everything that we wanted to do with it
we ended up rebuilding to be efficient in our pipeline,” Culpitt explains. “We were sent some hero buildings like the MACUSA, but even that we rebuilt, just to make sure we had all the detail we needed.”
He continues, “The biggest thing when building a city is knowing how you’re going to see it in the finished film. You could build the whole thing and not really need it.” Culpitt and his team took steps to ensure they didn’t waste any time on unnecessary details, “We took the previs cameras that were used on set and imported every single one of them. Then we ran a scripted link so that we could see exactly which bits of New York we were flying through.”
Next the team started to figure out, through archival photography, what each of those areas looked like in 1927. “open street maps are really good for placement of buildings,” states Culpitt. “So we could at least see where some of that stuff would have been. We built all of the main Broadway street that we fly down, out towards the Statue of Liberty. Then out past the Singer Building and left towards the Brooklyn Bridge. it’s quite a lot of Manhattan that we see.”
each of the main areas in the sequence were laid out manually by Culpitt and his team to ensure complete accuracy. in total they hand-placed over a thousand objects, including buildings, cars, boats and trees. The outskirts of the city were then created with image engine’s own procedural layout system, which placed 75,000 buildings, giving the team more time to create detail where it was needed. “We had 90 hero buildings. There’s some shots where we fly right past them and the detail needs to hold up for that, so we did a lot of asset work.”
As if creating this sprawling environment wasn’t enough of a challenge for image engine, the sequence also takes place during a storm, complete with rain, high-speed wind and lightning. “All these elements presented a big challenge. it was something we needed to figure out right from the beginning,” admits Culpitt. “once we knew the camera path we ran some effects simulations using the tracked plates of the characters and carriage. even though we ended up replacing the carriage digitally, it was a good starting point and gave us a lot to play with when we got into animation.”
in one elaborate moment, Grindelwald conjures a spell that floods the inside of the carriage, calling for some complex water simulation. “Several characters are floating in the carriage,” Culpitt adds. “We had to create an
We built the main Broadway street that we fly down, out towards the Statue of Liberty
underwater world, which meant simulating and tracking all the characters. They’re creating bubbles as they move, there’s a real depth to it.”
Some good old-fashioned filmmaking techniques were employed to make sure this spell looked convincing. Culpitt was given early test footage that had been shot underwater at 48 frames per second and had any reflections or glare removed. The performers also had a fan on them to replicate the effect of air moving underwater. “it was old school but it works,” says Culpitt. “They also had a big lamp with a perspex tank full of water underneath it, they shone the light through that to get the look just right, so the light plays around the characters.”
As the escape draws to a close Grindelwald throws Spielman, the wizard in charge of his extradition, from the carriage and into the ocean. For this scene practical methods just couldn’t cut it, as Culpitt explains, “The filmmakers shot the actor in a water tank and it gave you the rough idea, but it really felt as though he was in a tank. it didn’t feel like he was in any peril.
“So we tracked him to get all his splashing around, created a digital double then added big waves. We created a whole new set of water surfaces for that.”
This was far from the only time digital doubles were created for the sequence, in fact image engine dedicated a lot of time to building on its experience in the field. “We’ve done digital doubles on pretty much every project. There’s always a digital double,” laughs Culpitt. “The level of detail and how close the camera’s going to get to them is always the question.”
This time the studio turned to Marvelous Designer, a clothing simulator used in the
fashion industry, to help them achieve an extra level of detail. “it enables you to take patterns from clothing and create a digital version. i asked if we could grab all the patterns for the clothes. once they’d sent them we took photos and recreated their outfits in Marvelous Designer. it allows you to get all the wrinkles and draping, making it easier to match the digi-doubles to the original plates,” says Culpitt.
The next step for image engine was creating full digital versions of Grindelwald and his newest follower, Abernathy. These doubles would need to be seen up close at a pivotal point in the sequence. “The real challenge on this one was the fact that they wanted to blend between two characters,” reveals Culpitt. The moment he refers to comes when it is revealed that the Grindelwald and Abernathy are in fact disguised as each other, in order to pull off the escape. “When i first read that i thought ‘how the hell are we going to do that?’. What i love most about my job is having challenges like that and then figuring it out a solution with the team.”
even after Culpitt and his team had achieved a morphing effect between the two characters, they still faced the challenge of blending two grooms. Abernathy is clean shaven with combed hair, whilst Grindelwald’s time in prison has left him shaggy and bearded. “The team figured out some really cool ways to blend between the hair follicles and make it warp different areas of the hair at different times,” says Culpitt. “That alone would have been hard but it also had to be simulated because the carriage is moving and the wind is blowing their hair.”
Not only did image engine achieve the desired effect, it was even believable enough to fool the film’s director David Yates. “David saw it and said ‘i wish we could do this in CG’,” Culpitt recalls. “What David was actually looking at was our digital double, which he thought was plate. it was awesome. David’s great, he’s understands the visual effects side of things and puts a lot of trust in us. He personally thanked me and the crew; it was really cool to get that recognition.”
Their relationship with the filmmakers was such that they were chosen to work on some last-minute establishing shots of Paris. “They really wanted us to do them because of the work they’d seen us do on New York,” says Culpitt.
“We had to create a shot floating down the River Seine and looking up at the Notre Dame, then another one that cranes up to see the whole of Paris with the eiffel Tower in the background: two very complex shots.” The end results were among the filmmaker’s favourite shots in the film.
As with every new project image engine has pushed the limits of their pipeline and emerged more capable than ever, as Culpitt concludes, “We’ve started to play with Marvelous Designer and it’s definitely implemented into our pipeline now. All the ways we can simulate different creatures, muscles and skin is something we’re going to keep growing. All the crew here have an ability to work together and to build something outstanding. That’s what i try to do each day.”
The real challenge was the fact that they wanted to blend between two characters
Image Engine’s digital double of the titular dark wizard Grindelwald, played by Johnny Depp
Kevin Guthrie’s digital double as abernathy who helps Grindelwald escape
Culpitt says that Image Engine’s work on The Crimes Of Grindelwald has definitely benefited from just about every project they’ve done previously
Image Engine created full ocean water surface simulations for Spielman’s fall from the carriage
Hanging on from underneath the carriage and how it looks in the film, below
Green screen shot and, above, the finished look
Culpitt and the team also had to figure out how the Thestrals would be reigned by the carriage driver
Grindelwald’s pet Chupacabra proved particularly popular with Warner Bros and the film’s director David Yates