By Daniel Restuccio
Warner Bros’ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is considered by some a Harry Potter prequel and by others an entirely new J.K. Rowling franchise. Filled with nearly 1,500 VFX shots, this live-action, CG and character-driven movie put a huge emphasis on pre-pro and established the increased role of postvis in the film’s visual effects post pipeline.
For the film’s overall visual effects supervisors, Tim Burke and Christian Manz, it was a family reunion of sorts, reteaming with many of the companies and individuals that worked on the Harry Potter movies, including director David Yates and producers David Heyman, Steve Kloves, J.K. Rowling and Lionel Wigram.
According to Manz, one of the most significant aspects of this film was how visual effects were integrated into the story from the very beginning. The direction from Yates was very clear: “Make things fantastic, but not fantasy.” For every creature design presented, Yates would ask, “What would be the story behind that creature? What would that character do if the audience saw it from one moment to the next?” Says Manz, “It all had to work to support the story, but not be the story.”
Manz feels that this movie speaks to a new way of storytelling with VFX. “Visual effects is now a part of that filmmaking and storytelling team rather than being the guys who stick in everything afterwards.”
Starting in January 2015, while Burke was busy as VFX supervisor on The Legend of Tarzan, Manz worked with Framestore animation director Pablo Grillo, a Framestore art and animation team and a group of freelance concept and previs artists doing creature development and scene design. Over eight months of design sessions they created 18 main animal types based on hundreds of variations, and worked with the Framestore art department to conceive the turn-of-the-century New York City sets and set extensions.
“Of course, there were creatures we tested that didn’t make the film,” says Framestore animator Andras Ormos, “but it was about the process of whittling it down, and that was the real joy of working on this project. The creative input stretched beyond the post production stage, deciding what worked and what wouldn’t in the overall film.”
“J.K. Rowling’s wonderful script was filled with characters and creatures,” explains Grillo. “Having seen how animation is such a big part of the process in a film like this, we decided that it was important to be involved from the concept stage onwards.” The character development and scene work sessions were so impressive they actually influenced subsequent drafts of the script.
Burke came on full-time in June 2015, and they split the movie in half. Manz took the lead developing the world inside Newt’s magical case, and Burke did the “Obscurus” and the third act. Principal photography took place from August 2015 to January 2016, and they took turns on set supervising their own and each other’s VFX sequences.
With Framestore and Double Negative taking the lead, the shots were spread out among nine main VFX and three previs/postvis companies including: Cinesite, Image Engine, Method Studios, Milk Visual Effects, Moving Picture Company, Nvizible, Proof, Rodeo FX, Secret Lab, The Third Floor and others. Burke says they divided the work by “the strengths of the companies and without overlapping them too much.”
Framestore took on the majority of the complex character animation: the Niffler, Gnarlack, the Erumpent and Picket Bowtruckle, as well as many goblins and elves. Grillo first tackled Niffler, described by Rowling as “a long-snouted, burrowing creature native to Britain with a penchant for anything shiny.” The creature design was a mash-up of a spiny anteater, platypus and mole and went through hundreds of iterations and many animated prototypes. Framestore used the skin and muscle rigging toolkit Flesh and Flex developed for Tarzan on Niffler’s magic “loot stuffing” pouch.
The reason the audience is so delighted when this character first appears, explains Ormos, is that “this scene is driven by the relationship between Newt and the Niffler. There was a history we had to get across — the fact that the Niffler was notorious for escaping and pick-pocketing, and that Newt was going through the motions in trying to catch him. They understood each other and there were little looks, a language in their movement.”
Gnarlack, an American, cigar-chewing, snarky goblin, voiced and facial mocaped by actor Ron Perlman, “is one of the best digital humanoids yet,” reports Grillo. Perlman donned a Vicon Cara 3D facial motion capture headset, surrounded by four high-resolution, high-speed witness cameras. According to Framestore VFX supervisor Andy Kind, Perlman also sat in front of 98 cameras for a facial action coding shape (FACS) session so the team could sculpt the face directly in 3D.
“We created CG characters for the giants, elves and band ensemble,” says Kind. “Then we gave them crazy instruments, including a sousaphone/trumpet concoction.”
A 17-foot carbon fiber puppet, built by Handspring Puppet, substituted for the amorous rhinoceros Erumpent during the Central Park chase scene. It was switched out with the CG version later and dynamic simulations of shattering ice, explosive snow and water effects were added to the concluding shots. There’s this liquid, light-filled sack on the Erumpent’s forehead that Manz says, “made her slightly more unusual than a normal creature.”
“There was an awful lot of digital environment as well as the beast itself,” continues Manz. “David Yates fell in love with the postvis for this scene. It was great to be able to play with shots and offer up suggestions for the edit. It was a very organic way of filmmaking.”
Newt’s pocket-hiding creature sidekick, Picket Bowtruckle, took two months and 200 versions to get right. “We were told that Picket moved too slowly at first and that he appeared too old. We played with the speed but kept his movements graceful,” explains Manz. “He didn’t really have any facial animation, but he does blow a raspberry at one point. In the end, we added more shots to get Pickett’s story to go through, as everyone just loved him.”
The Moving Picture Company (MPC) completed more than 220 shots and created the Demiguise, Occamy and Billiwig, as well as 3D set extensions of period Manhattan.
For Demiguise’s long, flowing hair and invisibility effect, MPC used their Furtility groom technology. According to MPC VFX supervisor Ferran Domenech, using Furtility “allows for the hair to move naturally and interact with the creature’s arms, legs and the environment around it.” Demiguise was animated using enhanced mocap with keyframed facial expressions.
MPC built the large feathered dragon-snake Occamy in sections to fill the real and CG extended attic. They used Furtility once more, this time to add feathers, and they augmented the code so that in the climatic fight scene they could scale the giant version of the creature down to mouse-size. MPC’s effects team then used its in-house Kali destruction technology to wreck the attic.
Finally, MPC worked on the Billiwig, a magical bug that can change its flight mode from dragonfly to propeller plane. “This little creature has lots of character and was great fun to bring to life,” reports Domenech.
Previs and Postvis
A major technical advance for Fantastic Beasts can be found in the workflow. It’s been 15 years since the first Harry Potter movie and five years since Deathly Hallows. Over that time Burke had designed a very efficient, streamlined, mostly film-based VFX workflow.
“In the past, we were always stuck at the point where when we shot the film, it was put into editorial, they cut it and then gave it back to us — quite often with big holes where creatures would exist or environments needed to be placed,” describes Burke. “Then we would have to involve the facilities to use their real power to push things through and start blocking out all of the characters. This took quite a bit of time and would always slow the process down, and time is really the key difference with everything we do these days.”
In the past, says Burke, he might wait two months to see an early block of an animated character, “which always then restricts what you can do at the back end or restricts the director’s ability to make creative changes.”
Thankfully this wasn’t the case with Fantastic Beasts. “In the middle of the shoot, Christian and I started supervising the postvis of the scenes we’d already shot,” he explains. They assembled a 50-artist in-house postvis team comprised of members of The Third Floor, Proof and Framestore. While some of the movie was prevised, all of the movie was postvised.
“The path from previs to postvis varied from sequence to sequence,” explains Peter McDonald, previs/postvis supervisor for The Third Floor, London. “At one end of the scale, we had sequences that never really survived through shooting, while at the other end we had sequences that were followed shot-for-shot during the shoot and subsequent editorial process.”
“As an example,” he continues, “the Demiguise and Occamy scene in the department store attic was heavily prevised. The final previs was a pretty polished and spectacular piece in its own right with some relatively sophisticated animation and a highly refined edit. This previs edit was taken onto the stage, with printouts of the shots being referenced as the shoot day progressed. What later came back our way for postvis was very similar to what had been designed in the previs, which was very satisfying from our point of view. It’s nice to know that previs can help drive a production at this level of fidelity!”
One of the benefits of this process was having a movie during editorial that had no “holes” where VFX shots were to later appear. The “postvis” was so good that it was used during audience screenings before the VFX shots were actually built and rendered.
“There were a couple of factors that elevated the postvis,” says McDonald. “Probably the primary one was integration between Framestore’s team with our team at The Third Floor London. Having them present and being supervised by Pablo Grillo guaranteed that the work we were putting together was being judged from almost a “finals” point of view, as Pablo and his artists would also be the ones finishing the job in post. It meant that our postvis wasn’t a throw away — it was the first step in the post production pipeline. This philosophy was present beyond the personnel involved. We also had creature rigs that could be translated with their animation down the line.”
One example of a scene that followed through from previs to postvis were parts of the Obscurus rampage in the subway. “Pablo and I worked very closely with artists at both Framestore and The Third Floor on this ‘sequence within a sequence,” says McDonald. “We started with bifrost fluid simulations created in Maya by our own senior asset builder Chris Dawson. We then had our animators distort these simulations into the virtual subway set. Through iteration, we developed the choreography of the piece and further refined the overall rhythm and shape of the piece with our previs editor. This previs then became the template for what was shot on the actual set with Eddie Redmayne and Colin Farrell in the roles of Newt and Graves. When the plate edit returned to us for postvis, we were pretty much able to drop the same distorted simulations onto the plates. The camera angles and cutting pattern in the previs edit had been followed very closely by the live-action unit. We then animated a layer of environment destruction and comped it into the shots to help tie it all together.”
During postvis, says Manz, “A character could go into a shot within a day or two. You would track the shot plate, put the character in, light it and stick it back into editorial. That sort of turn around, that in-house work that we did was the big, big difference with how the film worked. It allowed us to feed all that stuff to David Yates.”
Yates showed his director’s cut to the studio with every single shot of the film blocked out. There were no empty spaces. “We even got the environments in so he had a representation of every street,” says Manz. They completed a three-hour assembly of the film in about five months.
Creatively, it was very liberating, which enabled them to do additional shoots just to enhance the movie. Burke says they were designing and changing shots right up to the end. The final reveal of Jonny Depp as dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald came together all at the last minute.
Fantastic Beasts is like a Harry Potter movie because it exists in the J.K. Rowling story universe and is part of the Harry Potter lore. “Where it’s similar to Potter in terms of the filmmaking,” says Manz, “ is in making it feel very real and not fantasy. What I always enjoyed about the Potter films was they really felt like they were set in a real version of the UK; you could almost believe that magical sort of school existed.”
How Fantastic Beasts is different, says Burke, is that it is set in turn-of-the-century New York City, a real city, and not the magical school environment of Hogwarts. “We were dealing with adults,” continues Burke, “we’re not talking about a child growing and running everything through a child’s life. We’re talking about a series of adults. In that sense, it felt when we were making it like were making a film for adults, which obviously has great appeal to children as well. But I do feel it’s more of a film for grown-ups in terms of its storyline, and the issues it’s challenging and discussing.”
Someone told Manz that somebody “felt like Fantastic Beasts was made for the audience that read the books and watched those films and has now grown up.”
IMDB lists four new Fantastic Beasts movies in development. Burke and Manz are already in pre-production on the second, penciled in for a November 16, 2018 release date. “I think it’s fair to say,” says Burke, “that we’ll obviously be trying to expand on the universe that we’ve started to create. Newt will be there with his animals and various other characters, which are going to bring a lot more interest as the story evolves.”
Manz predicts, “It’s just trying to push the believability of the interactions and that world even further. The first film was all about creating that new world, and now it’s out there. It will be a new city (Paris) so we’ll have that challenge again, but we’ll build on what we’ve learned. You don’t often get an opportunity to work with the same team of people, so that’s going to be the great for the second one.”