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Casting a Visual Spell
The new adaptation of young adult best-seller Beautiful Creatures aims for magical effects that don’t remind viewers of other movies about teens with special powers.
If you’re plugged into the booming interest in young adult books, you’ve surely got Feb. 14 marked on your calendar as the day to show your love for Beautiful Creatures.
Based on the novel—the first in a series of four books—by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, Beautiful Creatures stars newcomer Alice Englert as Lena Duchannes, a teenage girl from a family of witches, known as Casters. On her 16th birthday, Lena has to go through a ritual called the Claiming, during which she will be chosen by either the forces of light or dark. Complicating this is her relationship with Ethan Wate, played by Alden Ehrenreich, who offers her hope that she can control her own fate.
Bringing the best-selling book to the screen is Richard LaGravenese, whose previous credits as writer-director include Freedom Writers and P.S. I Love You. (You may also remember him as the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of director Terry Gilliam’s 1991 classic The Fisher King). Having little experience with the type and number of visual effects the story requires, he turned to Joe Harkins, an experienced character animator whose credits include Hellboy, 300, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Avatar and Hugo, to be the visual effects supervisor on the movie.
“The whole idea was to come up with organic, kind of subtle, more natural type of effects and figure out ways to work that into the story based on his script,” Harkins says. “It’s a story about witches, supernatural events, so it’s a challenge trying to work that stuff out, figuring ways to do that that you haven’t seen before, that’s not going to be like Harry Potter or some kind of other effect that you’ve seen.”
Harkins says he started with a previz team and hired concept artist Marco Iozzi to do some paintings that would show LaGravenese what the movie could look like.
“He finally got to see how the animation process works, because we were doing everything in gray shade with 3D models and building the environments,” Harkins says.
The schedule, as is increasingly common, was very tight, with Harkins saying he had about a month for previz, two months to prep and 23 weeks of post-production.
Shot mostly in Louisiana in and around New Orleans, Harkins was on set daily with LaGravenese, who wanted to do as much work as possible in camera. Still, the production ended up with 520 visual effects shots, ranging from environment extensions to a full CG character.
Integrating on-set photography with visual effects was key for one major sequence in which an argument breaks out at dinner among the Duchannes clan. Being Casters, the argument goes to a new level.
The script calls for everything in the room to spin—the tables, the chairs, the dishes. Harkins says LaGravenese wanted to shoot as much as possible in camera, leading to the construction of an intricate set that was fully mechanical on a hydraulic platform that could tilt three feet in any direction.
“Adding stuff in post was really challenging because Richard really wanted to get as much as he could in camera,” says Harkins. Green-screen use was minimized, which also increased the challenge of adding digital effects in post. “Once we had shot it, we went back and edited the sequence and came up with ideas for how to get things moving—get the table moving, get the girls spinning around, get the room spinning, the tornado going and all the glasses flying around.”
Most of the work on the lengthy sequence, which ran about 70 shots, was done by Method Studios. Harkins says Method was a key collaborator, constantly bringing and refining ideas to LaGravenese until he was happy with the look of the scene.
Recreating the Wrath of Lena
The second major effects sequence occurs near the end of the movie, as Lena unleashes her powers over nature and creates a tornado that wreaks havoc on the tiny town of Gatlin, S.C., amid a Civil War re-enactment.
“We had a lot of extras, Civil War re-enactors, running around acting like they’re getting sucked away, falling down, and then they disintegrated,” Harkins says. In addition, there were digital doubles that needed to be animated, lightning strikes and a CG extension of the environment as well as CG tornado effects.
“Method did those shots—those are really good shots, I think,” says Harkins.
The major animation challenge was creating Sarafine, an all-digital character. Sarafine is Lena’s mother, a dark Caster who appears only in shadow and is barely glimpsed outside of possessing Mrs. Lincoln, played by Emma Thompson.
“Richard didn’t want to have a person play this character, because he wanted to leave it open for the future and also he didn’t want it to look like a particular person,” says Harkins. “My thought was, why don’t we have Alice, the girl who played Lena, play her own mother? Just put her in a different costume and we’ll film her on green-screen as a reference that we’ll then give to the animators.”
The character pops out every once in a while, transforming at the end into vines in one of the most complicated animation sequences in the movie.
“The animation team [at Method] did a really great job,” says Harkins. “We came up with a look for her so she doesn’t look anything like Lena; she doesn’t look like anybody in particular. You never really see her enough to be really able to recognize her. You see flashes of her and you’d have to pause the film to see a person there.”
Additional work was done by Pixomondo, Scanline and Pixel Magic.
The final look of the film matches the aesthetic Harkins says they staked out at the start of the process.
“Everything is very nature-based and organic,” he says, adding he watched videos of ink and water, high-res renderings of volcanic eruptions on Krakatoa and fluid simulations. “I wanted a look that was something you could look at and feel like you could feel it.”
Harkins says all the hard work was worth it when he saw the completed tornado sequence.
“To finally see that when it was done, in December, that was great.”
Warner Bros. opens Beautiful Creatures in theaters nationwide on February 14.