“One of my jobs as the senior VFX supervisor on the film was to come up with the overall plan for the visual effects, in terms of the creative design, shooting approach, and then technical execution,” said Maleficent’s senior VFX supervisor, Carey Villegas. “In doing so, on a film of this size and nature, it’s critical to bring the right teams into place with the right leadership to aid in this effort.”
In Disney’s surprising summer kickoff, Angelina Jolie portrays the iconic villainess from Sleeping Beauty. Her backstory is reworked, a la Wicked, to be become a more sympathetic character, and the result is a surprisingly effective film.
As senior visual effects supervisor, Villegas oversaw a team of supervisors, including Kelly Port, hailing from Digital Domain, Seth Maury from MPC and James Fleming from The Senate.
“As I used to work at Digital Domain, Kelly and I go way back to before the Titanic days,” said Villegas. “We’ve known each other a long time and it was an easy choice to bring him on board the show.”
Port echoed the same thing, citing his long-standing relationship with Villegas and the general complication of this particular production. “I can remember when 200-300 visual effects shots was a big deal,” he said, “and some of the FX (here) were quite complex and involved.”
And not only did Villegas “know the tech we had under the hood,” at DD, said Port, but he had particular experience in one key component of both Maleficent’s character, and the plot, namely, feathers.
Villegas had worked on Paradise Lost – the recent big-budget attempt by director Alex Proyas – where he did a lot of prep on angels, wings and CG humans, all of which were needed as Maleficent flies over battlefields full of digitally rendered combatants.
But another aspect of Digital Domain’s past was specifically suited for this Disney outing as well, namely, their use of facial capture data, used in Academy Award-winning fashion for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, wherein faces of actors were aged up or down, and sometimes placed on the bodies of different actors.
This was used for the three Pixies, played by actors Juno Templeton, Imelda Staunton and Lesley Manville, all of whom required photorealistic rendering when their characters were flying around, generally reduced to the size of Brown Pelicans, although they get to spend some of the movie in full human form.
Not only did the Pixies have to look believable, there was a palpable sense of staying true to Disney’s mid-50’s animated film – even if the story told here is ultimately its own.
“Our production designers Dylan Cole and Gary Freeman were inspired heavily by the work of famed Disney artist Eyvind Earle who was the color stylist and background designer of the original Sleeping Beauty film,” Villegas explained. The original was of course, a classic Disney film. “It is a very fine line to walk for not only the story, but for the visuals themselves, as you don’t want to disappoint those who are just expecting a straight live-action remake of the animated film. But in this case, most importantly, we had to be true to Linda Wolverton‘s script.”
Of course there was additional help in addition to the production designers. The “first-time helmer” in the director’s chair, Robert Stromberg, is a renowned VFX artist in his own right, having worked in various capacities, as concept designer, matte painter, FX designer and supervisor on projects ranging from Life of Pi, Hunger Games and Pan’s Labyrinth to long-form TV like Boardwalk Empire, The Pacific and many others.
How much did it help to have a VFX-reared director on such a CG-heavy production? “It mostly makes things easier,” said Villegas, “a lot easier. Robert and I have worked together on and off for well over 15 years. We’ve probably collaborated on 10 or so projects including Cast Away, Bad Boys II, Alice In Wonderland and plenty of others. In my opinion, he is still one of the best visual effects matte painters working in the industry today. So, as a visual effects supervisor, I always wanted Robert to be a part of my VFX team – and it was a real pleasure this time to be included as part of his.”
Jonathan Litt was Digital Domain’s CG supervisor for the film, and noted that, with Robert, “you definitely get a shorthand. We all speak the same language. Robert didn’t get precious about anything, and not only that, was able to do his own matte paintings, and other renderings, to convey some of the ideas he wanted.”
And to be sure, there were a lot of visual ideas in the film, and vendors to go along with them. “Our main VFX vendor, MPC was led in London by Adam Valdez with support in Vancouver from VFX supervisor Seth Maury – another trusted person who I’ve worked with in the past,” Villegas said.
“Kelly, Adam and Seth were responsible for overseeing their internal teams at their respective companies. They relayed the creative thoughts of both Robert and myself to the many hundreds of artists that it took to complete the visual effects on the film. I also had an internal team here in Los Angeles and we enlisted the help of The Senate and Method at the very end to complete a few shots as well. This was such a collaborative effort on everyone’s part.”
As Port observed about VFX workflows nowadays, “You have to share. It’s becoming rarer and rarer that a studio can take on a whole project.” And that sharing happens not only between post houses, but key crew and department heads as well.
Dean Semler was cinematographer for the film, and Villegas said that working with him “was a great experience. He is such a talented cinematographer and brings a wealth of wisdom and understanding of the filmmaking process to the table. I know he was a great support for me and especially for Robert – being a first-time director. They don’t come much more experienced than Dean.”
“Dean has also worked on some very big visual effects films, so he just naturally understands the process. Many of our pre-production conversations were about digital cinematography. As the first DP to adopt the Panavision Genesis digital camera system on a Hollywood film, Dean is definitely a pioneer. For Maleficent, shooting digital was a given because of the reliance of VFX in the film. In this case, Dean and I opted to use the ARRI Alexa, because we wanted the extended dynamic range, color fidelity and resolution that is achieved with this camera system.
“On the flip side, I know that it had to be difficult for Dean at times, because our intention was always to augment so much of the photography with visual effects – whether that was to be large matte painting extensions or full-blown CG environments with digital characters later on.”
Those extensions included the physical sets, which were generally practical near the actors – meadows, eldritch trees, flowing brooks and all. Port explained that a lot of the beautiful set work gave the actors a literal grounding in the film’s world, though of course anything toward the horizon line was then rendered.
This also mandated the use of image-based lighting, where a high-dynamic range of set lighting is captured, and a photographic record of various intensities is made, for use later.
“To complete the movie, I worked closely with Dean in the digital intermediate process,” said Villegas. “Since every shot was a visual effect in some way, I wanted to ensure that the overall look of the movie that we crafted during postproduction was maintained through to the finished film.”
“This was a good two-year project for us,” said Port, and depending which version of the story you reference, that was either much shorter, or much longer than Sleeping Beauty slept.
Clearly though all the efforts have paid off, since audience response, and box office returns have been anything but slumbering.