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Of Tubes and Pipelines: Overseeing FX work in "Prince Caspian"


As we head to summer tentpole season — a.k.a. “VFX season” — we expand our online repertoire beyond the dwindling economy, latest strike threats/negotiation moves, etc, in order to bring you some “lighter” reading…

Of Tubes and Pipelines: Overseeing FX work in “Prince Caspian”
Mark London Williams

For a visual effects supervisor, Dean Wright his post production pipeline begins in a tube. Or rather, London’s Tube, and the very subway station in the Pevensie children use to once again access the world of “Narnia,” in CS Lewis book “chronicles” of the same enchanted, metaphor-strewn land.

“I never actually left Narnia,” Wright laughs over the phone from New Zealand, where he’s been overseeing the frantic home stretch of digital FX production leading up to the film’s May release. Indeed, he’s rarely left New Zealand itself, since he was also a visual effects producer on the last two “Lord of the Rings” installments, before signing on to oversee “The Lion, the Witch ,and the Wardrobe’s” visual digits. And after that, there was work on “Lion’s” DVD release, and by then, a treatment for “Caspian,” which he immediately “started to break down.”

But he’s not complaining: “It’s been the most spectacular spring and summer I’ve had in the six years I’ve lived here.”

No wonder then, the avuncular, cheerful Wright has managed to avoid a “break down” himself while overseeing work that unfolds on several continents. While much of the original film was divvied up between American post houses of some repute, like Imageworks, Rhythm & Hues, and ILM, the work on the second part occurred mostly on England’s scepter’d isle — which, of course, lately offers not only scepters, but convincing post-production tax breaks — primarily split between up and coming (if not fully arrived) shops Framestore and MPC.

Ensconced in “Mother London” — to borrow writer Michael Moorcock’s phrase — was Wright’s “co-supe,” Wendy Rogers, who oversaw, as Wright notes, most of the “water” work, along with other FX, all part of what he describes as “splitting the movie in half,” with Rogers. The live action was shot in and around Prague, water was being wrangled in Britain, and Wright repaired to the other hemisphere to oversee the miniature work — copious miniature work — at Weta Workshop; 300 shots work, by Wright’s reckoning.

To do it all, they had the aforementioned pipeline “figured out,” he says. Both he and Weta “got used to that process on ‘Lord of the Rings'” which is good, because they’re deploying it for about 1500 total FX shots this time ’round. The breakdown generally had Framestore working on the shots with Aslan, a badger named Trufflehunter, and a slew of Dryads.

MPC, meanwhile, oversaw Reepicheep (voiced by Eddie Izzard) and numerous other creatures, as well as doing “battle work,” primarily because they’d done such a good creating virtual warfare — for armies with similar technology, even if they weren’t as furry – for “Kingdom of Heaven.”

There were also 250 shots of “castle work” to be shared with MPC, which truly puts the FX pipeline to the test: an enormous castle set –particularly a vast courtyard — , as conceived by production designer Roger Ford, was constructed on soundstages in Prague. Miniatures at Weta expand that environment: “It’s a huge set,” Wright avers. “Every time you look up, you have to extend it.”

And so sight lines, rocks, pinnacles, et al were constructed on a schedule simultaneously small yet vast — smaller in scope than the original sets, yet large in undertaking: “Our shooting schedule on miniatures exceeded the live action shoot, ” Wright says. Miniatures dp Alex Funke “and his gang light it” and shoot it, and MPC takes what has essentially become a “plate” of the castle — built through a combo of sets, mattes, and miniatures — and finishes the shots via keyboard.

“The castle was a co-production, I’d say,” Wright muses, “between the art department and visual effects.” He cites Christian Huband, art director for the film’s miniatures, as an example. “Huband took some initial thoughts,” borne out of conversations with director Andrew Adamson, and designed the castle,” or rather, Weta’s extensions of Ford’s work.

“Christian was our link as the the set was being built in Prague,” Wright says. But he doesn’t find such departmental overlap unusual: VFX, he maintains, has “now infiltrated — in a friendly way — into all departments. Camera departments,” he says by way of example, “have to know more about visual effects than in the past.”

A robust pipeline, and a willingness to let the old production and post-production boundaries be as malleable as timetables and technology dictates.

As for Wright, the particular timetable for “Caspian” has dictated he won’t be back for a third go-round: The next installment, “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” began prepping while Wright & co. were two months into principle photography on “Caspian,” so Wright suggested Jim Rygiel, the supe on “Rings,” for whom Wright produced all those effects.

“Jim’s got more Oscars than I do,” Wright laughs.

Right now, though, Wright has his hands full with castles, and numerous shots to be finished by summer. And then a farewell to New Zealand.

Though one suspects catching up in the “Oscar” category may not be out of the question.

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