Filed in: Featured, Film, Interviews, Visual FX

Reminiscence: Adam Balentine of Scanline VFX on the Hugh Jackman Sci-Fi Noir

September 22, 2021 09:10 | By
Reminiscence

Final comped scene from Reminiscence

Reminiscence is a science-fiction noir film from the mind of Lisa Joyco-creator of HBO’s Westworld. Joy wrote the original script and made it her feature directorial debut, which was released by Warner Bros. Pictures (and streamed on HBO Max).

It stars Hugh Jackman as Nick Bannister, a private detective of a different kind. Nick uses technology to help people preserve their memories, but it’s also something that can be used to find out what a crime suspect or witness might have seen or done.  One evening, he meets a stunning singer named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) who needs help finding her keys, but that simple task turns into something much greater when Mae goes missing, and Nick and his assistant Watts (Thandiwe Newton) must use all the means at their disposal to learn the truth about Mae.

Like any big science fiction film, there’s a lot of visual effects involved with Reminiscence, but Scanline VFX was assigned one important task, and that was to create the holographic memories for Nick’s memory machine that he uses to extract memories from people’s brains to be viewed later. 

Scanline’s VFX Supervisor for the film, Adam Balentine, normally works out of the company’s Vancouver studio, but like many, he was still working from home when Below the Line caught up with him to talk about Scanline’s role in the VFX for Reminiscence

Adam Balentine

Adam Balentine (Scanline)

Below the Line: Before we get into Reminiscence, I’m curious about your own background that got you into visual effects.

Adam Balentine: I went to school at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, and they had a program there that they called Kinetic Imaging. So we did a lot of stuff in Softimize, we did a lot of hand drawing, and things like that, so that was kind of the closest that I could find to a real kind of visual effects degree at the time I was in school. So I graduated there in 2004.

BTL: How long have you been at Scanline?

Balentine:  Let’s see. I think I started at Scanline in 2014.

BTL: You were the main VFX Supe for Reminiscence at Scanline?

Balentine: Nick Crew was my co-supe on the show. Nick started things off, so he was doing some dev work with Bruce [Jones, the main VFX Supervisor] kind of early on, and then, from there, I was brought on a little bit later, once we started really getting into the shot work.

BTL: Were you involved with putting together the team for the show or was that ball already rolling when you came on board?

Balentine: We collaborated on that. As I came on, it was when everybody else was joining the team as well. It was a collaboration. That and Robert Schajer who is the [VFX] Producer on the show — we kind of all worked together to build the team.

Plate with Rebecca Ferguson

Plate with Rebecca Ferguson

BTL: Was it always the plan for Scanline to do the memory hologram machine?

Balentine:  We called it the Rem-Machine, but that was the main thing we were hired for. A lot of our early dev work was done on visualizing how the machine would look once it’s turned on and running. A lot of it was what we call the “painting on effect,” so that’s when any of the memories are first booting up how that would be visualized in the film. We went through a bunch of different iterations on that, but I think we settled on something that worked pretty well.

Reminiscence

Hugh Jackman with CG Background Environment

BTL: Was there a physical machine or something physical on set as well?

Balentine: The whole base of the machine was built on set, and it was very nice, very detailed, so we did end up keeping that in a lot of shots. There was also the “Hologauze,” which was sort of a screen that was stretched around the base of the set and kind of mounted from above. They used that to do some projecting of some of the holograms onto. It was a really cool and a really innovative setup that they used on set. A lot of our work was actually enhancing that and up-resing things and making things feel a little bit more dimensional.

Hugh Jackman with CG Background Environment

Hugh Jackman Precomp pre-addition of Mae

BTL: A lot of the stuff we see on the Rem-Machine was from sets that we would see throughout the film, but there were also a lot of one-offs like the guy with his dog, so what were you working with from production?

Balentine: The whole interior of the bank environment was built as a full set. We had to do a few extensions here and there, and we actually built our own digital set so that we could patch out some things that we needed to remove as we’re going through the shot work. I think the base was there, the sensory deprivation tank that was attached to that was all part of the set as well. 

BTL: For the memories, do they just shoot the actors on a stage and you add in the backgrounds? Some of them take place in the bar we see later, but some memories are just one-off things. 

Balentine: Those were shot as individual plates on set, so the bar scene, that bar was physically there with people. They would shoot that with one camera, and then we would sort of mimic that camera in 3D to be able to do our extensions as we needed to. But those were photographed in-camera.

BTL: I assume you worked with the main VFX supe, and they worked with the director and production designer, but was there any one challenge that you thought might be tougher than anything else?

Balentine:  No, I mean, it was a pretty comfortable collaboration with Bruce. Bruce had a great relationship with Lisa, and they were able to bounce ideas off each other quite easily. We had a great time talking to Bruce and kind of collaborating with him. 

BTL: Were you able to be on set while they were shooting anything?

Balentine: Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go on set. I came onto the show a little bit later, and with all the drama on COVID that was happening at the time. It wasn’t something I’d be able to do.

CG background environment

CG background environment

BTL: I wasn’t even sure if they were still filming during COVID. I assumed it was already in post, but I wasn’t aware of the film’s timeline. But you were still working on it through COVID, I guess. 

Balentine: So this was the show that I started, right as COVID was starting or amping up, so we started in the office. And then, one day, Scanline, as a company said, “Okay, we’re going to pack everybody up and send you home. We’ve got everything all set up. We left on a Friday, got things set up over the weekend, and we’re back rolling at home on a Monday, so it was pretty seamless.

BTL: I spoke to Micah from Scanline, and he mentioned some kind of dedicated software called Eyeline that was created specifically for communications between Scanline employees.

Balentine: So the Eyeline software, that was something that was kind of already in development before COVID, and then since that was basically already set up and ready to go, it was kind of a no-brainer to send everybody home just keep everybody safe. So it worked out really, really well.

Monofilament fibers added to hologram machine

Monofilament fibers added to hologram machine

BTL: I want to get back into some details about the holograms because I was reading something about strings and fibers, and I wasn’t really sure what those were things that were already in what they shot on set or something added with VFX. 

Balentine: Anytime we saw the strings, that was actually a digital asset that we built. So we modeled the strings and then we use those to do some sort of refraction effects. For the most part, the strings were very subtle, and then when we got into Hugh actually walking into the machine and breaking strings, that was a different setup altogether. So that was Houdini Sims for string breaking.

Final comp

Final comp

BTL: Was there a digital version of Hugh used for that as well or was that always him on set and then altering it using VFX? 

Balentine: We roto-animated Hugh, so we got all of his motion and all the folds in his clothing and all that stuff, so that we could have these strings interact with him in a realistic way. But we didn’t build a fully digital Hugh, so everything that you see in the movie is actually him.

CG Hologram Machine with Monofilament Fibers

CG Hologram Machine with Monofilament Fibers

BTL: Is there anything else you want people to look for when they watch Reminiscence in terms of your work?

Balentine:  I have a couple of favorite shots. I think when Hugh first meets May, who’s the female character in the movie, there’s a couple of shots of them when they first meet in the machine — her in the dream world and him in reality — that I think are particularly nice. So, those are a couple of my favorite shots, but it was a fun movie to work on. I just wanted to make sure I called out a couple of people, so Randy UI was the CG Supe, and then Nick Crew was co-supeing, and then Cameron Thomas did a lot of the look-dev for us. 

Final comp

Final comp

BTL: Great. Have you been doing anything in the virtual production world yet? 

Balentine: Yeah, we have, actually. Scanline has a studio. We’ve got our own digital stage setup with LED screens. We’re working on some new technologies, actually, which will probably be discussed in future projects. We’re definitely getting into the virtual production world.

BTL: Are you actually back at Scanline now, or still working from home?

Balentine:  Still working from home — I’m very much enjoying that. It’s great.

BTL: To me, it’s just amazing, because I feel like everyone who’s been working from home has been able to get everything done that they were able to do at the office or studio. Although I say that as someone who has been working from home for 20 years.

Balentine: There are certain things you miss out on, things like meeting around the water cooler, as they say, or running into people in the hallways is something I miss, but in general, with the technology that we have, it’s almost the same, so it’s great to be home.

Reminiscence is now playing in theaters as well as on HBO Max.

All photos courtesy Scanline VFX and Warner Bros. Pictures. Click on images for larger versions.