Montreal’s Modus FX recently delivered visual effects for Barney’s Version – a film based on the 1997 cult-classic Mordecai Richler novel. Helmed by director Richard J. Lewis, the comedy premiered at the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival in early September. The story recounts the life of a thrice-married Barney Panofsky, a man whose life is overshadowed by a tragic event in his past. Modus FX completed all 67 visual effects shots for the film, including a spectacular landing and takeoff scene with a water bomber aircraft.
“The aircraft scene is a key moment in the whole story,” explained VFX supervisor Louis Morin. “It was critical to get it right, because in this sequence the audience finally learns the truth about Barney’s version of what had taken place long before.”
Director Richard Lewis had originally intended to shoot the sequence as a practical element with a real water bomber, but due to logistical issues, it was eventually decided to create the aircraft entirely in CG.
Once it was clear that a real water bomber would not be available, the team at Modus FX got to work. “To get the background plates, we filmed a Cessna landing and taking off on water,” said Morin. “That gave us the wake and, just as important, it gave us photo-real camera movement. We shot High Dynamic Range Images, which gave us photo-real lighting and reflection references for our CG water bomber.”
“We studied plans and images and built an exact CG replica of a fire-fighting water plane,” said Martin Larrivee, lead compositor, Modus FX. “In the sequence you actually see a close-up of the plane coming down and landing on water in broad daylight from different angles. Planes in flight are not easy to create. We see real planes all the time, but until you try to build one in CG, you don’t realize all the subtleties of light interaction and weight. It’s easy to have it look ‘flat’ or light as a feather. We had to make sure this didn’t happen here.”
Although the CG model was tracked on a real plane shot on location, the animators couldn’t rely on that entirely. “The water bomber is a much bigger aircraft and doesn’t fly the same, so we put a lot of work into the animation to come up with movements that feel right for its size,” explained Morin. The plane’s interaction with water, of course, added another level of complexity to the task.
“Without that shot, we wouldn’t have had a movie,” said Morin, “and Modus really nailed it. Our DI artist had no idea the water bomber that he was colour correcting was a CG plane. So far, no one who has seen the shot realizes the plane is CG.”
The Modus Approach
“The most interesting part of my job is learning to think like the director for each new project that comes in,” said Yanick Wilisky, VP of production and VFX supervisor at Modus. “I need to understand his vision for the film, so that we can make sure our work supports it completely. Richard’s focus is on storytelling, so that had to become our focus too.”
Along with the water-landing scene, other key visual-effects sequences in the film include a graveyard scene, to which the Montreal skyline had to be added. Modus also changed Lafontaine Park in Montreal into New York City’s Central Park. “That was a challenging scene,” said Morin. “The whole right side of the image is a composite using plates I shot in Central Park with the city skyline at the edges of the park.”
Some of the more difficult visual effects shots on Barney’s Version arose from editorial decisions made during postproduction. In one scene, there is a shot of Barney opening a wedding card. Inside the card the audience sees writing in shiny gold lettering. “The problem was, we needed to change what it said in the card!” laughed Wilisky. “When I showed it to the artists, they didn’t think it could be done, but they did it. It would never occur to anyone watching that the shot had been altered.”
In another scene, the team elected to ‘recycle’ a shot from a deleted take in order to create an establishing shot for an entirely different part of the movie. Modus was tasked with transforming Paul Giamatti (Barney) into a rabbi arriving in a taxi. “We had to remove Barney’s girlfriend in that shot and change Barney into the rabbi,” recalled Wilisky. “This is certainly an example of visual effects being used in support of the story!”
Visual Effects in Support of the Story
“As a compositor, films like Barney’s Version are often the most fun and challenging ones. Since the movie is not VFX-driven, like disaster films or sci-fi films, the problems you encounter are not the same,” explained Larrivee. “The most important thing is that our work fits in seamlessly and is perfectly integrated with the action and the look of the film. The audience isn’t expecting to see visual effects. If a trick doesn’t feel real, the eye will easily pick it up and the whole feel of the story is gone.”
“There are a lot of visual effects behind the scenes in this film, but it’s not a VFX movie,” agreed Morin. “This is the kind of film I like.”
Produced by Serendipity Point Films in association with Fandango, Barney’s Version premiered at the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. The film stars Golden Globe Winner and Academy Award Nominee Paul Giamatti as Barney, along with Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike.