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Union VFX’s Simon Hughes talks Suffragette’s seamless VFX

London-based Union VFX provided a number of visual effects shots for the film Suffragette, Sarah Gavron’s drama about the early feminist movement and the fight for equality and the right to vote.

As you can imagine, this type of film doesn’t scream VFX, so Union’s work on Suffragette was in the “blending-in” category, such as building extensions, CG crowd multiplication and the addition of vehicles and props — all of which needed to behave seamlessly with the real environments and set dressings.

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One of the bigger sequences that Union provided shots for was the climactic scene at Epsom race course, which sees suffragette Emily Davison step out in front of King George V’s horse — you can imagine how that turned out. Union’s creatives were called on to help swell the huge crowd who witnessed the tragedy, and to help paint an historically accurate picture of an Edwardian sporting event. This required complex VFX work, involving a compositing plate and tiled elements, and the creation of CG characters, buildings, vehicles and contemporary props, such as betting signs, and even a circus.

“Epsom was easily the largest sequence in the film for us,” reports Simon Hughes, Union’s VFX supervisor on Suffragette, who said this included a series of significant crowd extensions and architectural augmentations.

Simon Hughes

Simon Hughes

“The crowd was built using a combination of Golaem crowd simulations and characters built in Maya from “t-poses” of large groups of extras photographed on set during the shoot. “They are called t-poses because the arms and legs aren’t connected to the sides of the body,” he explains. “These are shot 360 degrees around the body and then used as texture and anatomy for the character builds in Maya. Once built, the characters were rigged with a skeleton to enable animation, using a combination of walk cycle animations and custom animations, such as waving and gesturing. These animations were then imported into Golaem along with the characters and multiplied and randomized to build an enormous crowd.”

All shots were composited in Foundry Nuke. CG was rendered in Arnold, and props, buildings and vehicles were built in Maya. They called on PFTrack and Nuke for tracking.

In addition to Epsom, there was a riot sequence on London’s Oxford Street, a series of explosions, the re-building of Holloway prison and an expanded crowd of MPs and protestors at the Houses of Parliament (which was used as a set for a commercial film for the first time in its history).

“For all of these there was a special effects explosion that visual effects expanded on using effects simulations in Side Effects Houdini. These included rebuilding the post boxes so we could blow the lid and doors off, and expanding the explosion with additional rubble and debris and dust along with the obvious fire and smoke elements that were required,” concludes Hughes.