Harry Potter and Fantastic Publishing Rights © J.K.R. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them © 2016 WBEI. Publishing Rights © J.K.R. Image courtesy of Cinesite

Cinesite on "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them"

VFX Supe, Andy Morley dishes on that magical dinner sequence

"I enjoy doing fantasy films like this one.
Creating apparently impossible things is great."


Andy Morley, Cinesite


From enchanted clothes horses and blue dresses to magical tables and flying strudel, Cinesite VFX Supervisor, Andy Morley dishes on how his small but experienced team served up that delicious eyeful of a dinner party in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.


 

Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts Publishing Rights © J.K.R. © Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them © 2016 WBEI. Publishing Rights © J.K.R. Image courtesy of Cinesite.


THE TEAM, OUR PIPELINE

We weren’t a huge team on this sequence but we were very experienced. Our visual effects pipeline had a Maya backbone, with Nuke, for compositing and Arnold for rendering. Maya is the standard language that’s integrated into everything we do. It supports the whole visual effects process, and that alone is magnificent, but the fact that we can export to Houdini when we need to and then get everything back into Maya easily is a huge bonus for us. It embraces all sorts of third party software and we appreciate that immensely, too. Because of the relatively small number of shots we had, we didn't need any specific tools outside of some specific shaders. For this project, it was more about quality and refinement than pushing the technical envelope; this was a much more refined narrative piece that we were working on. 


Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts Publishing Rights © J.K.R. © Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them © 2016 WBEI. Publishing Rights © J.K.R. Image courtesy of Cinesite.


SERVING THE STORY

Before anything else, we took a look at the individual shots and asked ourselves, 'What's the director (David Yates) trying to get across here as a sequence? What's the narrative? What are we trying to achieve? 'You have to keep in mind that when making a film, you’re telling a story, with the ultimate aim of entertaining the audience. If you keep that at the front of your mind it helps the artist to work out what is important and what isn't. Creatively, our relationship with Christian Manz, one of the two the Visual Effects Supervisors, was very important, too. As soon as you start understanding what he's been tasked with by the director, you are able to make creative choices, to offer suggestions and say, ‘What about this?”

When the editorial sequence came in – a QuickTime, probably about 60-70 shots – it was long. We were told that we were going to have shots removed, that the edit, in general, would be tightened up. When the back plates came in, we camera tracked everything with various tracking software, so we had all the shots ready and a 3D 'world' which represented the room. Even though the shots were changing after the camera tracking, we were animating within the scene as a whole.


THE CLOTHES HORSE, THE ANIMATED DRESS, THE DINNER

At the start of the dinner sequence, Jacob, and Newt come into the room, and Jacob is amazed by the magical activity around him. There's a clothes horse animating in front of the fire, covered with gently floating drying garments. The original plan was to film the clothes horse on wires, but that felt a little too puppeteered. In the end, we completely replaced what had been shot digitally, using Maya.

There’s also a shot where Queenie uses magic to enrobe herself in a dress. At the start of the sequence, she's wearing a slip; pointing her wand she manipulates a blue dress that's sitting on a mannequin, which floats up to her it and lowers itself gently over her body. That was a tricky scene because the software was trying to do what it's supposed to do, create realism, but we were having to animate backwards and use it to create a pretty unreal, but seamless effect. It took some effort but we got there in the end.


"The original plan was to film the clothes horse on wires, but that felt a little too puppeteered. In the end, we completely replaced what had been shot digitally, using Maya."



As the action moves towards the kitchen, we see that there's a dinner being prepared or rather, preparing itself. There's food coming out of the cupboards and plates, glasses and cutlery are flying through the air. That was all relatively straightforward animation, getting everything into the correct place at the correct time, working with editorial when the shots changed. The finale of the sequence is the strudel, which assembles magically over the table, baking in the air as the guests take their seats.


Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts Publishing Rights © J.K.R. © Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them © 2016 WBEI. Publishing Rights © J.K.R. Image courtesy of Cinesite.


THE STRUDEL

For reference, production gave us tons of photos of real strudel. We joked all the way through the project that we'd have to eat a strudel every week – you know, for reference purposes. How the final strudel actually ends up making itself across the shot is a little bit of a cheat, though, because we studied footage of a real strudel being made and decided very quickly that doing it realistically wouldn’t work – the digital pastry is huge, so we had it fold differently than it would be folded in real life. Right from the start, we came at it from the angle of making it look good, not correct.

The first shot is of the strudel filling; sugar, pieces of apple and raisins all joining – in particles – flying through the air. Next, the three layers of pastry wrap themselves around the filling, with fluttering apple slices and almonds decorating the surface, before the final shot where the raw strudel cooks as it descends towards the table. We were doing a lot of animated displacement, a lot of lighting effects and blending in 3D, with less compositing blending used. It was about making the strudel work in 3D space first, then the usual related fixing where you've got several layers of geometry, and a lot of shot sculpting as well to keep the strudel looking convincing.


"Good VFX work is a tricky balancing act – you want things to look interesting, but you don’t want to them to distract and steal the show."


MAKING THE UNREAL LOOK REALISTIC

Good VFX work is a tricky balancing act – you want things to look interesting, but you don’t want to them to distract and steal the show. For example, there’s a CG iron on an ironing board, moving backwards and forwards, lifting up and setting itself down. You really only see it in the background, but in our first attempt, it was very obvious and became the focal point. We toned down the animation and tuned it to be less attention-grabbing. Whenever we output a new animation we’d show it to the client fully lit and composited, because seeing anything as either a grayscale or simply textured animated object always sticks out and feels wrong. That was an important part of how we delivered the shots; it's more about subtlety than delivering realism. It's often about actually toning things down. 


 "That was an important part of how we delivered the shots; it's more about subtlety than delivering realism. It's often about actually toning things down."



Throughout the sequence, there's an autonomous rolling pin next to the sink, rolling pastry. Originally, we had all this deforming, crazy pastry going on – it was really cool – but when we put it in the shot, it became a little over the top. In the final film, when you look at it, you think, ‘How cool! It's a rolling pin just rolling on its own.’ Nothing more.


Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts Publishing Rights © J.K.R. © Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them © 2016 WBEI. Publishing Rights © J.K.R. Images courtesy of Cinesite.


OUR BIGGEST CHALLENGES, RANKED

On Fantastic Beasts, we knew we had about 7-8 really, really hard strudel shots but we had time to prepare. Originally, the little butterflies that come down on top of it were meant to be the apple peel but the apple peel instead ended up spiraling to form decorative circular flowers, and the almond slices became the butterflies. It’s a minor detail but was a good chunk of work. The rigging and texturing needed to be different; the shot required a very heavy render, and a high degree of translucency as the strudel floats across the table. Everything Arnold had that we could turn on, we turned on, and it pulled off pretty much everything that we needed it to. 



Cinesite serves up delicious VFX work with the help of Maya and Arnold. Our hearty thanks to Andy Morley and Cinesite for sharing some of their secret sauce with us!

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  • Maya
  • Arnold
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