Dementia 13: Helping enhance the horror with VFX

By Randi Altman

As scary movies are making a comeback and putting butts in seats, as they say, the timing couldn’t be better for NBC Universal’s remake of Dementia 13, a 1963 horror film directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The 2017 version, directed by Richard LeMay, can be streamed on all major VOD platforms. It focuses on a vengeful ghost, a mysterious murderer and a family with a secret. Jeremy Wanek was the lead VFX artist on Dementia 13, and Wayne Harry Johnson Jr. was the VFX producer. They are from Black Space VFX. We reached out to them with some questions.

Jeremy Wanek

How early did you get involved in Dementia 13?
Johnson: We were involved from the second or third draft of the script. Dan De Filippo, who wrote and produced the film, wanted our feedback immediately in terms of what was possible for VFX in the film. We worked with them through pre-production and even fielded a few questions during production. It is extremely important to start thinking about VFX immediately in any production. That way you can write for it and plan your shoot for it. There is nothing worse than a production hoping it can be fixed by VFX work. So getting us involved right away saves everyone a lot of time and money.

Wanek: During preproduction it seems incredibly common for filmmakers to underestimate how many effect shots there will be on their films. They forget about the simple/invisible effects, while concentrating on the bigger and flashier stuff. I don’t blame them; it’s nearly impossible to figure everything out ahead of time. There are always unexpected things that come up during production as well. Always.

For example, on Dementia 13 they shot in this really cool castle location, but they found out while on production that they couldn’t use as many of the practical blood effects as they intended. They didn’t want a bloody mess! So, we were asked to do more digital blood effects and enhancements.

Wayne Harry Johnson, Jr.

Were they open to suggestions from you or did they have a very specific idea of what they wanted?
Johnson: As in every production, there are always elements that are very specifically asked for, but director Richard LeMay is very collaborative. We discussed in great detail the look of all the important effects. And he was very open to suggestions and ideas. This was our second film with Rich. We also did the VFX work on his new film Blood Bound, and it has been a great creative relationship. We can’t wait to work with him again.

Wanek: Yeah, Rich has a vision for sure, but he always gives us creative freedom to explore options and see what we can come up with. I think that’s the best of both worlds.

How many shots did you provide?
Johnson: We did roughly 60 VFX shots for the film, and hopefully the audience won’t notice all of them. If we do our jobs correctly, most VFX work is invisible. As in all films there are little things that get cleaned up or straightened out. VFX isn’t just about robots and explosions. It has a lot to do with keeping the film looking the best it can be by hiding the blemishes that could not be avoided during production.

So again it is important for the filmmakers to consult on their film as they go and ask questions as they go. We all want the same thing for the film, and that is to make it the best it can be and sometimes that means painting out a light switch or removing a sign on that beautiful shot of a road.

Wanek: It’s interesting to note how many shots were intended during preproduction and how many we ended up doing in post. I’d say we ended up doing at least twice as many shots, which is not uncommon. There are elements like the smoke on Kathleen, the ghost girl, when it’s hard to know exactly how many times you’re going to cut to a shot of her. Half of the effect shots for the movie involved creating her ghostly appearance.

Ghost girl Kathleen.

Can you describe the type of effects you provided on the show?
Wanek: We did muzzle flashes, wire removal, visible breath from characters in a cold environment, frost that encapsulates windows, digital hands that pull a character off a dock and into water (that included a digital water splash), the Kathleen ghost effect and an assortment of blood effects.

You created a lot of element effects, such as smoke, water, blood, etc. What was the hardest one to create and why?
Wanek: Creating the smoke that blankets Kathleen was the most challenging and time consuming effect. There were about 30 shots of her in total, and I tackled them myself. With the quick turnaround on the film, it made for some long nights. Every action she performed, and each new camera angle, presented unique challenges. Thankfully, she doesn’t move much in most of the shots. But for shots where she picks a gun up from the ground, or walks across the room, I had to play around with the physics to make it play more realistically, which takes time.

What tools did you use on this project?
Wanek: We composited in Adobe After Effects, tracked in Mocha AE, used Photoshop to assist in painting out objects/wire removal, and I relied heavily on Red Giant’s Trapcode Particular to create the particle effects — ghostly smoke, some of the blood effects and a digital water splash.

Our artists work remotely, so we stored the shots on Dropbox to easily send them out to other artists on the team, who would then download them to their own hard drives. To review shots it was a similar process, using Dropbox and emailing the director a link to stream/download. We kept shot names and the progress info on all shots organized using a Google spreadsheet. This was great because we could update it live, and everyone was on the same page at all times.

CG hands.

Turnarounds are typically tight? Was that the case with Dementia 13? If so, how did you make it work?
Johnson: Yes, we had roughly 30 days to complete the VFX work on the film. Tight deadlines can be hard but we were aware of that when we went into it. What really helps with managing tight deadlines is all the upfront communication between us and the director. By the time we started we knew exactly what Rich was looking for so dialing it in was a much easier and faster process. We also previewed early cuts of the film so we could see and anticipate any potential problems ahead of time. Planning and preparing solves most problems even when time is tight.

So as I said, having VFX involved from the very beginning is essential. Bring us in early, even when it’s just a treatment. We can get a sense of what needs to be done, how long it will take and start estimating budgets. The thing that makes tight deadlines hard is that lots of filmmakers think about VFX last, or very late in the process. Then when they want it done fast they have to compromise because the effect may not have been planned right. So as you can see we have a theme, call us early on.

Wanek: And as I mentioned earlier, unexpected things happen. The dreaded, “we’ll fix it in post,” is a real thing, unfortunately. Filmmakers need to make sure they have additional VFX budget for those surprises.

What was the most challenging part of the process?
Johnson: Each area can have its own challenges. But making anything move like liquid and look convincing is hard. We worked on some ghostly blood effects in the title sequence of the film that were difficult, but in the end we think it looks great. It is a subtle plant for the audience to know there is a bit of supernatural action in this film. Our company is also a virtual company, meaning all of us work remotely. So sometimes communication internally and with clients can be a challenge, but in the end a quick phone call usually solves most problems. Again, more communication and earlier involvement helps alleviate a lot of issues.

CG blood spurts.

What’s next for you and your studio, and where are you based?
Wanek: We are based in Minneapolis, and just opened a second office in New York City. Wayne, myself and Adam Natrop are partners in the company. We’re currently in post production on a horror comedy zombie/hockey movie, Ahockalypse. It’s wackier than it sounds. It’s a lot of fun and pretty bold!

Wayne wrote and directed the film, and I edited it. We just handed it off to our sound designer, to our composer, and are starting work on the VFX. We’re hoping to finish before the year is up. We have several projects on the horizon that we can’t say anything about yet, but we’re excited!


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