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EXCLUSIVE: Building a better VFX Pipeline for The Spirit

Visual FX and Tech

EXCLUSIVE: Building a better VFX Pipeline for The Spirit

Editor’s Note: In honor of the home video release of The Spirit ‘ Frank Miller’s bigscreen adaptation of the classic comic book by Will Eisner ‘ we present an exclusive look behind the scenes at the visual effects of the film.

Will Eisner’s noir hero The Spirit is the ultimate 1940s comic book crime fighter ‘ a softhearted, hard-fisted ex-cop who rights wrongs and breaks hearts in the big city.

But bringing the simple charms of The Spirit to life as a movie for the 21st century was a challenge that posed significant aesthetic and technical challenges for director Frank Miller and visual effects supervisor Stu Maschwitz of The Orphanage.

Like Sin City, which Miller co-directed with indie icon Robert Rodriguez, The Spirit ‘ released at Christmas to disappointing box office and debuting this week on DVD and Blu-ray ‘ was shot almost entirely against greenscreen, with visual effects filling in the gaps in every shot. Unlike it, though, The Spirit is not aiming to adapt the comic book page to the screen, which freed the film to find its own look, says Maschwitz.

‘My focus was to try to keep thing as photographic as possible,’ says Maschwitz, who suspended the Orphanage’s VFX operation earlier this year. ‘We’re making a movie, we’re not making a comic book.’

Following the style of Miller’s comic book artwork, the movie went for a heavily stylized but minimalist look that Maschwitz and director of photography Bill Pope were charged with translating to film. ‘[Miller] tells these huge, heaping gobs of story with a modicum of imagery and, in fact, very little detail ‘ but just the right detail,’ he says. ‘And luckily for us, that’s Bill’s area of expertise. Bill Pope understands that from a photographic standpoint, how sometimes only lighting half of an actor’s face can enable more of their performance to shine through.’

Pulling off the visual effects side of this equation required the film to be shot almost entirely against greenscreen because of the control that allows over every element of a shot. ‘We could make a conscious decision about whether something wound up in the movie or not at every level,’ Maschwitz says. ‘If it didn’t help tell the story then we just got rid of it.’

The Spirit also gave Maschwitz a chance to revamp the production pipeline for the 1,900 visual effects shots in the film and combine the digital intermediate work of color correction with the production of visual effects.

‘In commercials, we’re onlining the project as we go. As the new versions of visual effects come in we’re dropping them into a cut and we’re doing color correction,’ he says. ‘I’ve long wanted to do the same thing in feature filmmaking, and so this was an opportunity for us.’

With about 1,900 visual effects shots needed for the film, Maschwitz tapped 10 visual effects facilities from around the world to work on the film. To maximize efficiency and maintain consistency, each vendor was supplied with a color pipeline packet that included anticipated color correction baked into the look up tables, sample scripts for all the most common software packages, and sample images that could be checked to ensure consistency.

‘All the guesswork and mistakes and weird head scratching that happens early on in a production was eliminated,’ Maschwitz says. ‘Everyone was able to get to work right off the bat because they were speaking the same language as the production.’

While the post-production schedule was relatively long, completing the large number shots was still a lot of work and required its fair share of innovation.

For example, Entity FX worked on the climactic showdown between The Spirit and The Octopus, a battle that included tons of charging police, cop cars, helicopter gunships over the city, exploding body parts and tons of spent ammunition cartridges ‘ all taking place in a snow storm.

Mat Beck, who supervised Entity’s 170 shots, along with Brian Ali Harding, says they used a program called Frosty, written by David Alexander, to create the snow. The program controls all aspects, from flake size, speed, turbulence, and the atmospheric, defocus and motion blurs that make snow look right on film. ‘And all three of those were computed correctly, so that it really did look right,’ he says.

Another Entity challenge was creating a believable city environment. They built the neighborhood in 3D, then positioned the camera and digital stand-ins for accurate but rough framing of each shot. They then rendered the sequence in 2D tone paintings, to get approved textures and details which were then applied back onto the 3D environment. Those details were sometimes obscured by smoke and snowfall, but Beck says they are important for conveying a sense of space.

Beck has nothing but compliments for Maschwitz’s pipeline. ‘Everything we got from them was organized, technically on point and visually inspired,’ he says.

While there are no animated characters or stunt doubles in the film, animators brought to life Central City, itself an important character in the film. Maschwitz cites one city scene created by Look FX as a prime example. ‘Just the way that a delivery truck bounces as it rounds the corner in the background of a shot in that sequence tells you a million things about the pothole in the street and the cobblestone street and that kind of quirky, barely held together nature of Central City,’ he says.

Another innovative sequence was a scene set underwater but shot on a dry soundstage with actress Eva Mendes using a Phantom HD camera shooting between 300 and 500 frames per second.

One thing that readers of the comic will not see translated to film is the way Eisner worked the titles of his stories into the architecture and environment of the city. ‘Frank made a conscious decision not to do because he felt like that was something that was specifically in the purview of the comic book,’ Maschwitz says, adding that a small tribute to Eisner’s technique appears in the titles.

The real benefit of having worked out the pipeline in advance was that Maschwitz, Miller and the other filmmakers spent more time making creative decisions ‘ such as doing a final editorial pass on the film with all the finished effects shots in place and the ability to adjust color correction at any phases of production ‘ than going back and forth on technical issues or looking at unfinished images.

‘Everything that we did to try to streamline the process increased efficiency, which meant that we were able to do the work on time and on budget,’ he says. ‘But it also increased our opportunities, it allowed us to spin all of our brain cycles on creative decisions instead of technical ones.’

The Spirit debuts on DVD ($29.95), special edition two-disc DVD ($34.98) and two-disc Blu-ray ($39.99) on April 14 from Lionsgate.

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