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Supervisor Series-Sean Mathiesen-28 Weeks Later-small sidebar

December 7, 2007 | By

By Mark London Williams
Visual-effects supervisor Sean Mathiesen speaks of creating visceral moments in the none-dare-call-them-zombies thriller 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to Danny Boyle’s riveting, guerrilla-shot original, 28 Days Later.
In spite of the films’ medical allusion of calling zombies “the infected,” Mathiesen says he does not mean visceral in the sense of spilled guts or extruding body parts – both of which Weeks has in abundance, particularly in a helicopter-blade-meets-infected sequence he helped devise. Nor does he mean it in reference to playing “catch with heads and legs and body parts in front of a blue screen,” a technique used to amplify the rapid coming-apart of infected bodies against the aforementioned chopper.
No, instead Mathiesen means visceral in the sense that horror filmmakers love best: gut clenching, edge-of-your-seat suspense.
Mathiesen first came to Boyle’s attention through previz work on the director’s upcoming science fiction thriller Sunshine. Mathiesen graduataed to previz on The Corpse Bride and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy after a five-year stint at Weta in in New Zealand as a technical camera director on The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Boyle, who was producing the zombie sequel with co-writer Juan Carlos Fresnadillo directing, saw in Mathiesen an ability to construct suspenseful sequences and establish mood.
With only one previous VFX supervisor credit under his belt — the yet-to-be-released childhood meditation, Son of Rambow — Mathiesen took on the task of topping the original film’s sense of desolation in an abandoned London. Those scenes were done in a series of well-placed shots – often done on Sunday morning – that showed roadways and public squares devoid of foot traffic and cars, with the few remaining signs of life digitally removed later. This time, a more ambitious way of establishing mood was followed.
“The recipe for deserted London – the backbone – is aerial shots. Big heroic establishing shots of London,” he says.
That required a lot more digital post-work to keep the harrowing sense of a derelict city intact.
And while Mathiesen says there were 404 shots for the film overall, the work had to be farmed out to 11 different companies, including the likes of UK-based Rainmaker and The Senate, and Australia’s Animal Logic and Rising Sun Pictures.
That many houses required “a lot of FTP work” to shuttle shots back and forth, with software packages from Shake, Lightwave, RenderMan and others being used. For previz, Mathiesen admits a fondness for Cinema 4D, which does some “pretty slick renders” upfront, but isn’t necessarily great for finished product, even though he’s pressed it into service in that category.
One similar to doing previz was that even as an FX supe, Mathiesen found himself “on the film from the get-go,” consulting, conversing and collaborating with key heads, including production designer Mark Tildesley, special effects supervisor Richard Conway and DP Enrique Chediak.
“In visual effects, it’s vital to figure out the DP’s visual style,” Mathiesen says, as well as “how to tell your story incorporating what (other departments) do.”
Visual effects are “a real nexus through which most of the departments have some bit of contact,” he said, recounting how his crew helped with things like cleaning up scratches on the negative or fixing continuity, such as one shot in which an “infected” extra forgot their red contact lenses.
After the shoot, there was work with editor Chris Gill and other storytelling decisions that required him to sculpt the FX to fit the movie.
Sometimes, the work comes down to money. Much of the film was shot in the Isle of Dogs area of London – a peninsula jutting out around the Docklands-Canary Wharf area, surrounded on three sides by the Thames.
The crew was there one Sunday morning and saw in the background a row of fisherman on the other side of the isle, each with a line in the river. They were asked if they could please move or leave, since the crew would only be able to shoot the sequence in question that morning. The wily fisherman agreed to move move – for a hundred pounds each. They were engaged in a fishing contest, the winner of which was to get a hundred-pound prize and, they argued, that since they’d all be deprived of a shot at the prize money, they all deserved to be paid.
Mathiesen quickly realized that “for less than the 2,000 pounds (they were asking for), I could erase them later on.” So the fisherman stayed, and Mathiesen got a touch busier in post-production.
But he became a lot busier when it came for the helicopter-versus-infected sequence, which was a late addition to the story hatched by the director. “In one night,” he says, “I came up with a 20-shot sequence” that, in spite of the exigencies of on-set changes, wound up almost identical to the one-night previz he dreamed up.
All of which may have been more cerebral than visceral, initially, though in the end, the gut-wrenching – and gut-displaying – results are the same.

Written by Mark London Williams

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