Horror aficionados often roll their eyes at the mention of a new zombie movie, knowing that, for every "Dawn of the Dead" or "28 Days Later," there are ten clunky, derivative films more dead on arrival than their zombie characters. But when a movie comes along that manages to bring something fresh to the genre, audiences respond, and "The Girl With All the Gifts," the sleeper zombie hit of 2016, proves that.
Here, Sebastian Barker, one of the founders of boutique visual effects studio Automatik, shares his account of their work on the film, and the challenges of creating a credible zombie movie on a budget.
Over to you, Sebastian.
Automatik was established by Michael Reuter – who is also the Managing Director of Post Republic in Germany – Jean Michelle Buble, and myself. Our first project of note was a Vertigo film called, "Monsters: Dark Continent," which was like a crash course in making monster movies, since we had to stretch a very limited budget to create an entire world of creatures, some of which were no bigger than your average dog, and some of which were 600- or 700-feet tall.
We were working out of our Berlin office at the time, but our success enabled us to open London offices as well, and that, together with our reputation for being able to deliver on a small budget, led to our work on "The Girl With All the Gifts."
"The Girl With All the Gifts" is based on a science fiction novel of the same name, and the premise for the zombie apocalypse is the same in both: a fungal infection attacks humanity, using us as hosts to spread itself. There’s a real-world basis for this: in some rainforests, there’s a fungus known as "cordyceps." This fungus can infect an ant and take over its body, forcing it to walk to the highest point it can find, at which point the fungus kills its host and grows a small tree out of its body. The tree then releases spores into the air, which fly off to infect more ants. Nature is scary enough on its own, but in our movie, a variant of this fungus starts to infect humans, so our work revolved around creating a dystopian version of London that had been overtaken by a fungus.
The challenge was to accomplish this with what was essentially the budget of a small television show.
"The challenge was to accomplish [a dystopian version of London] with what was essentially the budget of a small television show."
The big trick to pulling off a movie like this on a budget is to limit your use of CG, and for us, that meant incorporating as many practical effects as possible. Take our location, for example. The film is supposed to be set in London, but we did most of the shooting in Birmingham, so already that’s a big drop in cost. But the VFX crew had to make Birmingham look like a post-apocalyptic London, and for that, we found a workaround I’m very proud of: we did a whole other shoot in Pripyat, in Ukraine, which was the site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986, that is now essentially a ghost town. I mean, we’re talking a city with hundreds of 20-story tower blocks that have all been abandoned, and that has been slowly reclaimed by nature – by grass and plants and trees – for the last 30 years. It was the perfect visual reference for our film.
"We were a lean group working on this – maybe 10 or 13 compositors, two full-time 3D guys, an effects guy, and a small team of juniors."
So I went out there and directed a second unit to shoot the city and gather visual material; we even flew a drone around the city, collecting footage of run-down apartment blocks and dilapidated neighborhoods, knowing we could add iconic London landmarks or monuments in post-production.
The other area where the budget has a significant impact is the size of our team. We were a lean group working on this – maybe 10 or 13 compositors, two full-time 3D guys, an effects guy, and a small team of juniors. That means that everyone gets a lot of experience and spends a lot of time on the project. I was personally involved with this production for two years, from the very beginning, helping the production team understand what was possible given their budget constraints.
"We used Houdini to grow out the cordyceps, exported that into Maya and rendered it all within Arnold."
MAYA AND ARNOLD, FUNGUS AND DESTRUCTION
We used Maya on an almost daily basis, for little things like adding extra steps to a set of stairs within a building or making a given location look dirtier, or even using photogrammetry to add a building we had shot into a given scene. We would have a fully lit photographic model of a building in Maya, and then export that as SBXs or OBJs into Nuke so that the compositors could then, in 3D space, populate their worlds with whatever it was they wanted to put in there without us having to go through the lengthy process of building a lot of 3D objects and shading, lighting and outputting them.
But because, for the most part, we were very sparing in our use of CG, we were able to focus on those key scenes that needed special treatment, and there’s one, in particular, towards the end of the film that took up most of our time and energy. In the film, the BT Tower in London has become the main hub of this fungal infestation. There are spores floating all around (generated through particle simulations in Maya) and there is webbing all over the tower, so designing that, making that look credible, was a huge part of our work. Due to the extremely high poly count from the Houdini-generated Cordyceps models, the only feasible way of handling the data within our compressed schedule (and budget) was using Arnold Stand-ins. Using stand-ins, we were able to quickly assemble huge amounts of data without splitting the scene or slowing Maya. In turn, this enabled us to setup up and render additional passes ad-hock as Comp requested them - and any supervisor knows that being able to address notes in Comp quickly is the only way to finish on positive terms with the production. Arnold stand-ins gave us the speed and flexibility to do this.
Finally, in the plot of the film, fireworks to destroy the fungus, so we had to simulate fire to "destroy" everything we had built. We used Houdini to simulate the fire, then exported meshes into Maya and projected renders of the fire onto those meshes, and then we used Arnold to emit light to illuminate the whole tree, and then kind of composite our fire on top of it to make it look credible.
And as a small production company, with a lot of variance in the 2D/3D work we do from show to show, the Maya subscription service is a lifesaver for us; it allows us to ramp up or down our production and keep costs low when necessary.
"…having a small budget doesn’t always make for a worse film…if you give a director an unlimited VFX budget, they’re more likely to make bad choices."
WHEN LESS IS MORE
When it comes to VFX, budget is always the limiting factor, but I think, when it comes to the actual quality of the film, having a small budget doesn’t always make for a worse film. In fact, if you give a director an unlimited VFX budget, they’re more likely to make bad choices. The classic example is Ridley Scott, with his original "Alien" movie: the budget was meager – even the alien costume was very poorly done – but that only forced him to come up with more creative ways to make his film work – the music, the atmosphere, the low angles and dark sets. Then, fast forward in time to a move like Prometheus: same director, with a much higher budget, but the result isn’t nearly as effective.
Producers view VFX as this very impressive thing, something to wow audiences with, and so they focus in on giant set pieces and spectacular moments, but none of that matters if they neglect the more human aspects of the story – dialogue and plot and character development. That’s something I think this movie, "The Girl With All the Gifts," did very well; it found the right balance.
"That’s something great about being a VFX supervisor: you’re involved at every level of the process."
A FINAL NOTE
Hands down the most exciting experience, for me, was leading a shoot in Pripyat. It’s just a fantastic place to visit. And on a personal level, I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker, so to have the opportunity to lead that shoot, and to have the level of creative control I had in this project, was very rewarding. That’s something great about being a VFX supervisor: you’re involved at every level of the process. The actors and camera operators are only there during the shooting; the editors and sound designers come in afterwards, during post-production. But the VFX supervisor is a key creative person and gets to be involved in every major decision within the production. I mean, I directed a second unit shoot with Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton, and Paddy Considine, and got to hear their anecdotes and Hollywood stories! That was pretty cool.