Movie Magic

Im­age En­gine dis­cusses cre­at­ing digi­dou­bles, mag­i­cal crea­tures and 1927 New York for the elec­tri­fy­ing open­ing of Fan­tas­tic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindel­wald

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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

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