London-based VFX house Framestore recently handled visual effects for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which opens in the U.S. Dec. 9. Based on John le Carré’s eponymous 1974 novel, the dark, Cold War thriller is directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In), from a screenplay by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan. The film stars Gary Oldman as George Smiley, and co-stars Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ciarán Hinds.
It’s 1973, and a Circus (MI6) mission to Budapest ends badly in bloodshed. Following this fiasco, the head of the Circus (John Hurt), known as Control, is forced to retire, as is his right-hand man, the mild-mannered but razor-sharp George Smiley. But Smiley returns to work secretly at the government’s behest when it becomes clear there is a mole, or double agent, working for the Soviets from a senior position at the Circus.
For his first English language film, Alfredson and his cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, opted for a gritty, rain-sodden, strip-lighted London, a million miles away from the world of Bond and Bourne. In keeping with this, the film, while authentically tense, violent and bloody, is not concerned with elaborate, effects-driven action sequences. Framestore’s contribution was to be largely one of atmosphere, period detail and subtle enhancement, apart, perhaps, from the flaming owl.
Shooting took place between September and December 2010. Following a hiatus for crucial editorial work, postproduction was completed by Framestore between June and July 2011, with work taking place at both its London and Reykjavik offices. Visual effects supervision was undertaken on set by Christian Kaestner – working in London and Istanbul – and during the subsequent postproduction period by Sirio Quintavalle.
“We have developed an excellent relationship with Working Title Films,” says Kaestner, “Which made it natural for them to come to us for the 30 or so shots that required a digital component. Tomas (Alfredson) was aiming for an authentic period feel, shooting in 35mm and scanning at 4K to maintain the grain and mood he wanted, so our work needed to be both invisible and of the highest quality.”
The film’s MI6 headquarters is a modern building hidden within the courtyard of a larger, older Victorian structure. Seen only briefly, just enough to establish it as the locus of Circus operations, but needing to be authentic, the modern component was created in CG by the Framestore team and inserted into a real, if slightly manipulated building shot in Kensington.
Similarly briefly glimpsed is a shot within the HQ, as the camera peeps down from a large gallery-like vantage point onto the hive of activity in the floor below. Impossible to do on the shoot’s single-floor set, this was effected with a greenscreen mask and a re-dressed set, conveying a vibrant, spacious workplace.
Location material gathered by Kaestner was used to turn a hotel in London’s Aldwych into one in Istanbul. Another scene takes place in a Wimpy Bar in Piccadilly Circus. Wimpy Bars were the English fast-food joints of the period, before McDonalds had leapt across the Atlantic. The scene is shot through the glass, as if from just outside the café, and the period is established almost subliminally with the addition of reflected cars and period neon signs for Skol Lager and Cinzano. Such light touches transport audiences back to the precise time and place. Reflections also help convince the eye that three car shots, in London and the English countryside were actually occurring, and other digital touch ups help place viewers firmly in ’70s locations around London and Istanbul.
The flaming owl is the centerpiece of a short scene in which ex-Circus operative Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is teaching a French class at a private school for boys. Suddenly, an owl flies down the chimney, through the fire and – in flames – into the classroom. As it circles the room Prideaux seizes a ruler and, with a single well-aimed slash, brings the hapless bird down and out. The scene economically lets the audience know that Strong’s deadly spy training is still very much available to him if he needs it. “We shot it in separate layers,” explained Quintavalle, “The owl (incidentally an old friend from Harry Potter shoots), the children and Strong. Smoke, fire, embers and feather elements were tracked on to the owl, with Strong striking a dummy at the appropriate moment. Strong was a delight for us to work with in that his timing was remarkable. We had to do a number of takes, tweaking the timing as we went, and Strong’s ability to add or subtract a beat or a second to his movements, whilst staying true to his character’s actions was astonishing.”
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opened in the U.K. Sept. 16, and is already being hailed as an awards season contender. The film was produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Robyn Slovo for Working Title Films.