By Mark London Williams
When visual effects legend Dennis Murenaccepted his VES award, he talked about watching rangers mimic fallingstars when he was young. They’d drop lit spindles from rocks into thecampfires below, and Muren was so enchanted by the scene that it helpedinspire his career in visual effects.
Similarly, writer Neil Gaimanwatched a real falling star in the Tucson desert in 1991, and got towork with longtime collaborator, artist Charles Vess, on theillustrated story Stardust – a tale of true love, starry realms,pirates, witches and more — now in release as a late-summer Paramountoffering.
The task then fell to London-based special FX house DoubleNegative, and special effects supervisor Peter Chiang, to likewisemimic not only the magic of falling stars, but the entire fantasy-scapeoverseen by Gaiman – who co-produced – and brought to the screen bydirector Matthew Vaughn.
Chiang says he started talking to Vaughnabout the FX from day one. “Concept artwork, previs and models helpedus realize his ideas,” he says. “It was a great blend between hissimplistic approach and the digital technology available to createthose ideas.”
Among the “simplistic approaches,” the director “madeus build a 15-foot square foam core model of (an) inn, and burn it toashes. We then reversed the film and that served as the guide for howhe saw the formation.”
There was also, Chiang says, a hands-onapproach to water-based sequences as well, describing a key “skyvessel” landing sequence, involving the piratical Captain Shakespeare,played by Robert DeNiro.
“For the water elements, we found asingle-engine power boat that was driven by a champion racer. He wouldtilt the boat slightly back so that the propeller would dig deeper intothe water and produce a ‘rooster tail.’ Various passes were shot in aone-day shoot on a reservoir around London. For the final large wave ofwater, we made a donation to the Tenby Lifeboat Association and filmedthem crashing into the water.”
Luckily though, not every effectinvolved cajoling good Samaritans into staging crashes. There the newold fashioned comforts of digits – plenty of them – involved as well,part of a lively mix of techniques:
“Sometimes the shots requiredmotion control,” Chiang says. “Some shots were completely 3-D andothers a combination of 2-D elements and 3-D. We used miniatures forone shot and SFX elements for others. A real mixture.”
He gotstarted stirring the pot early on: “I attended all the location scoutsand shot a lot of high-res Canon digital stills for reference. TheCanon format has been calibrated for the digital pipeline.”
And manydepartment heads had a stake in that same pipeline, as well. “Keypeople were (production designer) Gavin Bocquet, Nick Williams (makeupFX) and (DP) Ben Davis. Ben and Gavin were fantastic with helping usget all the relevant plates. Everyone realized the show had a large VFXcontent and accommodated as best they could.”
Also accommodating wascamera operator Peter Wignall, who “did all the storyboards for thefilm — which was great because he would be the person on set to set upthe shots.”
Of course, not every shot was set up in the traditionalsense, and many had to be rendered, including landscapes – andcloudscapes – themselves. Chiang worked with a survey company calledBlue Sky, which captured digital terrain maps that were then ” fed intoTecto, Double Negative’s proprietary software, to generate newer vistasand allowed us to create new camera moves over even bigger areas of thechosen terrain. DNB, another piece of proprietary software, providedall the Voxel-rendered clouds for the sky vessel sequences.”
Some ofthis terrain was captured at the appropriately-named Isle of Skye,where the Voxel Rendering System referred to by Chiang helped modifyprevious cloud work that the digital house had done for last year’sFlyboys.
DeNiro had been shot at Pinewood with a 360-degree greenscreen behind him, and the software needed to be pushed for even wider,more free-roaming shots to do justice to the Sky Vessel.
Digitalsupervisor Mattias Lindahl, in public statements, noted that”previously the clouds were ‘out of a box’ and couldn’t do much. Themodifications made for Stardust meant that the clouds could be renderedout on different channels, (which) allowed the compositor to grade themaccording to the requirements of the shot. Daytime to nighttime,overcast or bright sunshine, all the tools were there so that theartist could do what they needed.”
All told, Chiang said, “therewere 820 visual-effects shots that ended up in the film. Once we werein postproduction, it was mainly Matthew and (editor) John Harris thatI spoke with.”
That said, having publicly described work on the filmas “an amazing, magical, fantastical film,” was Chiang ready for theintense work to be over? After all, it’s not every film where a startransforms itself into Claire Danes.
“I never get to finish a show,”he answers. “It always gets taken away from me. There are always shotsI could keep working on. It’s never finished.”
Sort of like trying to chart the final resting place of a falling star.
Written by Mark London Williams