By Mark London Williams
When one talks about levels of complexity as applied to a Stephen Sondheim musical, usually it refers to the songs – the sometimes obtuse rhymes or the use of minor keys and chords in the music.
When Gary Brozenich, the visual-effects supervisor for London-based post house Moving Picture Co., talks of complexity, he means the 19th-century environments – also London-based, if all virtual – he was called on to recreate in director Tim Burton’s Golden Globe-nominated adaptation of Sweeney Todd.
“As far as the environments are concerned, we created anything larger than a stage set, as the whole film was shot on stages,” Brozenich says. “There were many extensions to the built sets at Pinewood. … At one point, (actors) Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall walk out of a building and down some stairs, across a street, around a corner and stop in front of a pub for a conversation, and their entire surroundings are generated all the way along their trip. Rickman even brushes up against the CG pub as he walks by. So it was a variety of levels of complexity.”
Brozenich is no stranger to historical recreations, having worked on films like The Da Vinci Code, Kingdom of Heaven and Troy. But, one wonders, in a story wherein Johnny Depp as the mad barber, Todd, and Helena Bonham Carter as his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, spend a lot of time slitting people’s throats and later baking them into pie, whether the digits were more routinely deployed to create that sea of blood, and its attendant viscera.
“We didn’t do any CG blood during action shots,” he says, “but there was some enhancement of ‘real’ blood … the prosthetic throat slits and special effects were very well done and stood up on their own. There was one moment that required specific direction on the blood’s ‘performance’ as it pooled. It’s a critical moment in the film and Tim had a very clear designed idea of what he wanted. That was CG.”
Other clear ideas on the overall look of the film came from production designer Dante Ferretti. “The sets Dante designed were our clearest guides,” Brozenich says, to establishing the film’s look and “feel.”
“We (also) had a photographer named James Kelly who worked with us for six months documenting the buildings in a specific manner to work with in house developments to aid in recreating a place. He took hundreds of thousands of photos through rain and shine, got chased and threatened several times by landlords, etc. … These photos were then processed internally and calibrated to each other, allowing us to then meticulously remodel each building from many angles. This made the city inherently more real, as it was made from real places.
“We (also) found a lot of inspiration in an artist named Atkinson Grimshaw who painted 19th century London very much how we saw it and how Tim and Chas were guiding it.”
“Chas” would be Chas Jarrett, the overall FX supervisor, who, Brozenich says, was “our client on Todd but also was one of us as well (i.e., a former MPCer). I’ve had a working history with him for many years now so the show relationship and our understanding of how we’d work best together was pretty clear from the outset. MPC was also the sole vendor, so it allowed us to work a lot more tightly with the production as a whole. It meant the link to the other production departments was one step closer. It was a good way of working and the faster more readily available flow of input and information let us, in my opinion, give more to the show.”
He also tweaked some of MPC’s usual software to be more giving, as well. “Tools-wise, we did write some specific software to help create the buildings that make up the sets.” Comparing the post work on this film to previous efforts, Brozenich adds that “ideally we are always working towards having more time to embed quality into a shot, and less time technically fiddling, but the bar gets raised every year.”
Though some of that lifting came long before post, on the previsualization.
“On certain shots [previs] was really instrumental and drove a lot of what was filmed,” he says. “There was one shot in particular where we fly through the city at a real pace, which is essentially a full CG shot. The previs drove this from the start. On others, it may have just allowed Tim to explore some ideas before rocking up on the day. It was rare that the previs was literally shot, but its a very effective preproduction tool as it can help raise issues that may have only come up too late when the cameras are about to roll. I also think that the presence they had on set to show actors, directors and the DP [Dariusz Wolski] what the huge green screen behind them could look like, helped clarify things for them on set – and for us on post.”
And clarification – in the midst of blood, mayhem, and Sondheim/Burton-derived “complexity” – is always a good thing.
Written by Mark London Williams