Visual effects firm Vine FX is pure magic
How DO they do that? From Patrick Melrose to Atlantis and Troy, the Cambridge studio has the answers?
Remember Gladiator? If not, check it out. How about Harry Potter?
The visual effects on these films were part of its success: in Gladiator, creating a Roman amphitheatre and filling it with people was largely done by computer, and it was one of the first times in cinematic history the result looked authentic – you couldn’t tell where reality ended and digitisation began. Which is probably why it won an Oscar for visual effects. And in the Harry Potter series there was all sorts of CGI (computer-generated imagery) magic going on. But the thing about these amazing cinematic illusions is you rarely get to know how it’s done or who’s behind it.
“If we did our job well, no one knows anything about us,” explains Vine FX’s founder and visual effects supervisor Michael Illingworth, who’s offering a peek behind the veil, not just to the work he’s done on films but also on TV adaptations including Atlantis, Troy and – starting on May 12 – the Sky Atlantic mini-series Patrick Melrose, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
Two times BAFTA nominated (for Atlantis and Crazyhead), Vine FX’s studio is at the CB1 Business Centre on Station Road. Laura Usaite is production manager, Paul Phippen is digital matte painter and Adrian Banton is the compositor. CGI artist Matt McKinney, who’s also part of the team, isn’t in the studio when we visit.
The techniques they use start with the matte painter. The creation of photo-realistic backdrop paintings has been going on since 1907, and were more significantly deployed in classics including Gone With the Wind and right up to the early Star Wars films. So Paul creates the painting on a screen, and then hands it over to Adrian who animates the image into a credible moving sequence. Paul shows a shot from the upcoming Patrick Melrose and explains how he altered a photo of Cumberbatch standing behind a window in a house to make it look like he was on the 20th floor of an office block.
“You can go on forever if you want, refining the image,” says Paul of the process. “It gets to the point where I can’t see where the joins are even though I painted it!”
There’s another shot from Patrick Melrose set in 1980s New York, except it’s actually Glasgow last year (see images). The cars, people and other artefacts are real, but the buildings and skyline have been changed.
The finished matte painting is handed over to Adrian who builds the moving shot up.
“Adrian also defocuses,” adds Paul. “I deliver a totally sharp image and he decides how to defocus for best effect.”
“It took a week to build a one or two-second shot,” says Paul of the finished clip, which is just an establishing shot.
“That’s simply because the perspective has to match,” says Michael. “The architecture, the lighting, the tone... The eye is very good at calling it out if it’s not correct. We went through maybe 100 versions: if something like the sunlight isn’t correct we have to not use it.”
Michael brings up some images from Troy, which has just finished its run on the BBC. There’s a scene set in Ithaca: the foreground is where the action takes place, and the background has to be slightly blurry to be realistic. Details such as reflections of sunlight on the water suggest this is a complex process.
“It was filmed in South Africa,” says Paul. “We added boats, jetties, even the smoke...”
Adrian shows how he painted out a lighting rig in a shot for Patrick Melrose. The rig appears in front of a painting.
“My task is to remove the rig, which has to be there for the right lighting.” says Adrian. “I’ve used software to camera-track the painting, and the software replicates what the camera was doing on-set. I’m projecting the repaired image back on.”
By taking four or five single frames with the rig obscuring different parts of the artwork, Adrian builds up an image of the whole painting using software called Nuke, as developed by The Foundry. Nuke costs £5,000 and another £1,000 a year to maintain with patches/updates. Then he uses the Wacom, a sort of interactive light pen “with loads of effects and different brushes, plus it has an editing tool”.
Vine FX was based in Soho, but Michael decided to move from London in 2016. He’d worked on commercial and pop videos until his first film opportunity with Gladiator in 1999. “The company – MillFilm – was set up by Ridley and Tony Scott, and we won as Oscar for the visual effects.”
He left MillFilm in 2003, joining CineSite, where he worked on four of the Harry Potter films.
“In 2007 I thought I wanted more control so I started Vine FX, it was mainly TV documentaries at the start, then I got together with Tim Burke, who ran the Gladiator team. From there I spent two years working on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. After that I was asked to form a small team to work on Merlin.”
Merlin was a production for the BBC which was broadcast from 2008 to 2012. That led to a stint on Atlantis. Things were getting busy.
“By Merlin we had 15 artists. In Berners Street (Soho) we had 40 staff. But the business side was occupying my time, I wasn’t being so creative and artistic, so I scaled right back.”
The way the industry was developing was changing too. Individual projects would have a start and finish date. There were gaps, which meant little point paying a huge team to hang around all year round. The result is today’s model.
“I get commissions and build a team around the projects, and we work out of serviced offices.”
But last year’s move to Cambridge isn’t just about being close to London without having to pay London rates.
“There’s some great games companies in Cambridge and that side of the industry is becoming far more sophisticated… so I’m hoping we can recruit people from the games industry here.
“Games technology is overlapping with visual effects technology, so for instance on Atlantis all of our facial capture techniques were carried out using an Xbox sensor.”
Interesting. Sitting on the interface between games and film is a hugely exciting place to be. And you know, bringing a touch of Hollywood to Cambridge could be no bad thing. We could certainly do with some more Californian sunshine!