Filed in: Postproduction, Visual FX

Sleight of Hand: Richard Hoover on Supervising FX in Valkyrie

December 8, 2008 08:57 | By

“It’s not the kind of film you want the audience to be aware of the effects at all,” says visual FX supervisor Richard Hoover of the Bryan Singer-directed Tom Cruise-starring Valkyrie. “It really is historically based.”

Which might be an understatement, since the film tells the story of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, whose life was ended prematurely by being on the right side of history: which is to say, he was the main German officer who spearheaded the 1944 assassination attempt against Hitler, which went tragically awry when a suitcase holding a bomb wound up on the “wrong” side of a heavy oak conference table, which had the unfortunate effect of shielding Hitler from most of the blast.

Knowing the premise then, one might assume that the bulk of Hoover’s work is not only different than his previous team-up with Singer—the superhero tale Superman Returns—but that he was working in the vein of films like Gladiator, or more recently, Changeling, which is to say, using FX-as-production design, recreating architecture and cityscapes from a bygone era.

And that assumption would be right, though it doesn’t tell the whole story. Hoover does mention a “huge historical research department” to make sure that Berlin resembled its “Mordor”-like 1943 self, and that Hitler’s mountainside retreat could be recreated in a “ski area in the Alps,” the original having been “heavily bombed by the Allies.”

So working out of—and additionally, as the supervisor for—Sony Imageworks, Hoover oversaw the elimination of modern skylines and signage from the Berlin shots, and the rebuilding of Brechtesgaden (Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest”) on the screen.

But an even more critical aspect of the FX work makes the film more akin to this season’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—digital FX as utterly convincing makeup work.

Stauffenberg was from an aristocratic family, and while he believed in Germany (and its various attendant Teutonic myths), he came to believe that Hitler’s behavior was not only immoral, but it would cause Germany to lose, as it were, its soul.

Bold thoughts for a Wermacht officer in the 1940s, but there were others of like mind, and Stauffenberg was chosen to spearhead a “successful” assassination plot in the wake of various failed predecessors. The plot was set in motion after Stauffenberg convalesced from duty in Africa, where he lost an eye, a right hand, and two fingers on the left. Hoover notes that people who lost hands, limbs and parts during the war—especially among German officers—tended to wear gloves, and other covering garments.

Not so, Stauffenberg. He was “very open about his injuries,” refusing to cover them up, and that openness would inform Cruise’s performance.

Originally, Hoover notes, “we tried prosthetic finger stubs” (as well as applications for the missing eye), but none of them were convincing. The solution, then was to use a constant “makeup line on the finger” to show where the missing digits would later be removed. As for the other arm, with its vanished hand, “we went after it with taste.”

The point, in other words, was not to get the limb looking like something out of one of the Saw installments.

Being free of latex, though, allowed Cruise to gesture and “hand act” in as natural a manner as possible—approximating Stauffenberg’s own comfort with his wartime maiming. Of course, Cruise couldn’t dress himself, or button anything with the “missing” hand, but he was able to be free with arm gestures, throughout. “He had a sense of what his character was like,” Hoover recalls, but had to account for the lost limb when doing “things with the briefcase.”

And this would indeed be “the” briefcase, where Stauffenberg’s injuries finally exacted a high historical toll, as his injuries prevented him from arming a second bomb, in time for his meeting with Hitler.

While watching Cruise’s performance, Hoover would often be on set “sketching” on a laptop, with Photoshop, his ideas for where digits would augment, enhance, and replace elements in the scene being filmed.

He mentions that “the film had a lot of real vintage things: Mercedes, Messerschmitts” and more, all providing texture and foreground for the added cars, virtual German soldiers, and the like.

As for Cruise’s particular German soldier, Hoover recounts that he used a “simpler approach” to rendering skin—blending fictive scar tissue with Cruise’s real epidermis—than he did in Superman (where, of course, entire flying beings would have to be recreated), using a familiar toolbox containing both Maya, Renderman, and “the usual suspects,” to harken back to the first collaboration with director Singer, and his Valkyrie writer Christopher McQuarrie.

“One of the most fascinating parts of doing this film is that it was true,” he underscores, and of course, like much of history, based on events turning out, well, “wrongly.”

He’s once again free of the burden of history in his latest outing, the still-in-process Cats and Dogs United, where it will be pretty clear to audiences they’re watching an effects film.

But as Hoover and his colleagues are proving more and more, in this year of increasingly subtle visual effects, you’re not always reminded of it. You can still get lost in the story, even with all the ones and zeroes sharing the screen with the rest of the cast.