Trevor Hogg chats with visual effects supervisors John Bruno, Phil Tippett, Edson Williams and Bruce Woloshyn about the making of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1…
“Bill [Condon] told me they were going to break it up in two parts because the book was so large,” recalls American Visual Effects Supervisor John Bruno of his initial meeting with the Oscar-winning writer-director to discuss the cinematic adaptation of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn. Bruno was intrigued by the concept. “Bella [Kristen Stewart] gets married, has vampire sex, becomes pregnant, loses 30 pounds, gets sick, is close to dying, they forcibly get the baby out of her, she dies and comes back as a vampire in Part One; in Part Two, we get to experience everything that happens to her as a vampire. I thought, ‘Well, that’s different. I like this.’” 1275 visual effects shots had to be completed within a schedule of three months. “It was broken down that the wolves would be [the responsibility of Phil] Tippett.” Beyond refining the signature shape-shifting creatures there were two more major issues. “The other things were the ‘Bella Effect’ and the Renesmee Baby, which in the next movie grows rapidly [into an adult].” Bill Condon needed to be guided through the unfamiliar world of visual effects. “Bill said, ‘I trust you know what you’re doing,’” recalls Bruno who had to address an overriding concern for the filmmaker; Condon did not want the performances of his actors to be replaced digitally. “The biggest thing in this whole approach was to never lose the expression and the emotion in the eyes of the characters.”
“In movie one, Bella was going to lose weight and look very bulimic,” states John Bruno who utilized a combination of practical and CGI effects to make the 200 ‘Bella Effect’ shots believable. Under the supervision of John Rosengrant, the creature effects company Legacy Effects made a series of appliances which were added to actress Kristen Stewart during a three hour makeup session; they were designed to sink in her eyes, and enhance her cheek bones, chin, and collarbones. Test footage was shot and sent to Lola VFX which was responsible for squeezing and thinning the image. “The main reason for using the prosthetics was the hope that many shots would be good enough in camera, and it would reduce the digital shot count,” explains Lola VFX Visual Effects Supervisor Edson Williams who had previously collaborated with Bruno on making Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Professor X (Patrick Stewart) look 25 years younger in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). “It ended up creating more work for us because the appliances stuck out at the temples creating odd shadows that then had to be removed; in addition we had to deform the prosthetics down to where Kristen’s natural temple line existed.”
“Altering Kristen Stewart’s body was incredible challenging,” admits Edson Williams. “Fortunately, Legacy created an absolutely amazing life-size puppet of an emaciated Bella; we constantly referred back to it for the body deformations. Most of the shots had both facial and body deformations so we thinned up Kristen’s forearms and legs, and added bony ridges to her knuckles.” The original reference material had to be abandoned. “During our initial development phase of the ‘Bella Effect’ we viewed images of starving young women. The images were horrifying, and we immediately began to search for another source, something much softer. We ended referencing thin fashion and runway models with very defined jaws and cheekbones.” Adjustments had to be made. “John immediately noticed we were reducing the width of Kristen Stewart’s jawline; once we restored the original width, she immediately appeared more emaciated.” 3D head references were used for every shot. “Lola VFX developed a trick to shrink wrap a 2D image onto tracked 3D geometry. Essentially, we had two 3D heads of Kristen Stewart, one normal and one that has been emaciated in Z-brush. We projected the plate photography onto the normal 3D model; then based on surface normal transferred the colour to the emaciated 3D model. It worked because both models had the same number of vertices, and we were only deforming the orbital ridge and cheekbones.”
“Our biggest challenge was maintaining a consistent look across the shots,” reveals Edson Williams. “Changing the camera position and slight alterations in lighting created huge variations in Kristen’s face, so we would have to adjust the amount of deformations between each cut. Using a 3D tracked [PFtrack] emaciated Kristen Stewart, CyberScan was critical to this consistency and it allowed us to maintain exact placement of her orbital ridge and cheekbones. Eyes were always problematic because we had to sink them back into Kristen’s face without making her look ghoulish. Bill Condon was very particular with the look of Kristen’s eye region. We ended up reducing our initial work so the sunken eyes would not draw too much attention.” John Bruno was pleased with the final result. “Over the last 35 minutes of the movie, one of the characters says, ‘You look terrible.’ Kristen is a good 10 pounds thinner. You would have to A/B the [before and after] pictures to see that. Then there’s a scene where she stands up, lowers her rob and stares at herself in a mirror; her bones and ribs are showing. It gets a gasp from the audience.” Bruno observes, “It’s the big reveal in the movie and it pays off quite well.” Helping the visual effects supervisor was the courageous support of the lead actress. “Kristen was a great sport. What we’re saying to her is, ‘We’re going to make you look not good.’ As an actress her whole thing is about beauty and looking great; what we were going to do was beyond her control and she let us do it.”
Matters become worse for the pregnant lead character. “Bella is screaming because the baby is breaking her bones and she collapses to the floor; they throw her onto a gurney and take the baby out. It’s bloody,” recounts John Bruno. “The only thing we didn’t do in the book was to have blood spewing everywhere.” Kristen Stewart sat at a 30 degree angle in a chair situated underneath the examination table; left exposed was her torso, shoulders and arms while in front of her was placed the life-size puppet. The sequence is shot from the perspective of Bella. “Bill wanted the birthing event to be as visually realistic and emotionally riveting as possible for the audience. It was important for us to use Kristen Stewart as much as we could while shooting the scene. We wanted the audience to experience the birth with her which everybody says they did.” A Pulp Fiction (1994) moment occurs in the sequence. “There’s a point where Edward thinks she dies; he takes out a big horse syringe full of vampire venom and stabs her in the heart. We did that as a medium-wide shot. When the film went out for ratings Bill called me and said, ‘We’ve got an R rating.’ I went, ‘Oh that means I’ve got to lose my favourite scene.’ The whole idea was that if you go through vampire lore you stab them through the heart to kill them but this was stabbing Bella through the heart to revive her. He said, ‘No, all the blood, and birth is fine. We have to cut back the sex scenes.’”
Lola VFX also digitally manipulated the face of the newborn baby. “Renesmee was based on the performances of over 30 babies captured using the Lola projection rig,” remarks Edson Williams. “We ended up using small bits and pieces of about 5 of these babies to created the final look, like a patchwork quilt Franken Baby. The eyes were CG and based on the actual eyes of baby Kristen Stewart.” A CG baby was created for the scene at the fireplace when Jacob does his imprinting; he looks into the future and sees her age into a grown woman. The revelation sets up a key plot point for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (2012). “All the Renesmee shots are based on a 10-year-old actor named Mackenzie Foy, this proved challenging when we had to make this 10-year-old look 18,” states Williams. “To accomplish this task, we shot an 18-year-old model running though a park, and then captured Mackenzie’s performance in the Lola Projection Rig. Using Flame software, we modified Mackenzie’s facial featured to look much older, and then modified a CyberScan of Mackenzie to match the older proportions created in the Flame. The older looking Mackenzie image was projected onto the older looking Mackenzie 3D geometry, and then this combined data set was tracked onto the model running thru the park. To create an accurate representation of a future Mackenzie, we used the same techniques used to find missing children. It was fun trying to guess what a child would look like in 8 years, and these were the most enjoyable shots we worked on. In 8 years we get to find out how accurate our 18-year-old Mackenzie shot really is.”
There are 186 wolf shots which are more than the previous installments combined. “When you do animation when you have somebody who is 150 pounds morph into something that is 1200 pounds there’s always a question of reality,” observes John Bruno who gave the responsibility to Tippett Studio. “A lot of it comes from Stephanie’s book,” states Visual Effects Supervisor Phil Tippett whose California-based company has been involved with creating the wolves since The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009). “They transform very quickly and that was a magician’s slight of hand trick. It’s not like An American Werewolf in London  or The Wolfman  where it was all about the scene of transformation. This is not the same kind of deal. You’ve got a 150 pound kid and he has to turn into a 1500 pound wolf really fast so there’s no time to think about it. A lot of the transformations would be worked out in the choreography so that Taylor [Lautner] or any of the other guys when they had to transform would have the right performance pattern. It would happen in a leap or some kind of dramatic gesture. When they turn into wolves they’re usually pissed off.” More detail was added to the wolves such as making them scruffier and incorporating muddy paws. “They were shot in daylight so we could have some shape to them,” says Bruno whose decision made things somewhat harder for the team at Tippett Studio. “Daylight is tricky because you are matching reality,” states Tippett. “It’s a waste of time to light the wolves like you would actors; we shot the background as is and placed them naturalistically within the scene. We’d go in and do all the little tweaky dramatic lighting to make the picture look better.”
A particular cinematic moment involving the wolves stands out to John Bruno. “There’s a scene in movie one where they all meet up at a lumber yard and discuss attacking the Cullen Clan. It’s a two minute and half minute sequence where it’s the wolves talking to each other. It was quite difficult.” Phil Tippett enjoyed the creative challenge. “There was a lot of meat in it to get your hands around to build the scene. We did some pretty significant pre-viz, got a bunch of the animators and certain people from the shop together, and they read all of the lines. We were like the Berkeley Players. We created a dialogue track, got a temp track of music and built the scene. For the log scene, we had two days to do 50 setups which are quite a bit.” The majority of the footage was filmed with the second unit film crew with the rest consisting of a handful of shots featuring the main performers. “The stuff cut together like we planned it. Then working on the actual scene itself, we came up with a number of tricks because these wolves are talking telepathically.” One option was considered impractical. “If their lips move it’s silly. The wolves weren’t designed to do that; they would immediately turn into cartoon characters.” Director Bill Condon cut the dialogue for the scene in half so to allow the performances tell the story. “We developed a pantomime that was like pitching a ball. When one wolf threw his lines out the wolf that was listening would catch it. It was played on a subtle level.”
“Nobody seems to have noticed that we shot this movie on a stage in Baton Rouge, Louisiana,” states John Bruno of the interior/exterior house set which had the actors looking out at a green screen. “Every time you’re in the house it’s been composited in some way. There are 600 composites of windows and windows reflections. When we got to Vancouver they didn’t build the third floor. We had another company build the third level of the house; there are almost 50 shots of that.” The third floor was digitally created for the wide outside shots. “There’s a shot where Jacob parks his motorcycle, walks into the Cullen house and heads up the stairs all in one shot to the second floor,” recalls Method Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Bruce Woloshyn. “The trouble is as the camera starts craning up to look at him walk up the stairs we can see the camera, the crane, the operator, and all of the lights that are in the reflections of the actual windows.” A major correction needed to be made to the actor. “We rebuilt part of Jacob because he got in behind some of the reflections.” Woloshyn explains, “If the camera is moving generally the reflection doesn’t cover the same thing on every frame. You look for pieces at the head or the tail of the shot where the reflection isn’t covering what you need to replace. You can grab that as a still, take the film grain out of it, track it back over top of that reflection and re-grain it to match the rest of the plate.”
“The majority of the work we did in this film is invisible visual effects,” states Bruce Woloshyn who led the Method Studios team situated in Vancouver, British Columbia. “We did a lot of different things depending on what production needed as the edit evolved. We did everything from set extensions to rig removals to enhancing automobiles for Volvo.” He confesses, “The sad thing is that my favourite shot isn’t in the film. It was in the teaser trailer. It was a set extension inside the Vulturi Castle and it looked great.” As for the work that made it into the picture, Woloshyn remarks, “We did quite a few shots for the wedding; everything from fixing focus on some shots to adding little bits of subtle glints especially to Bella’s engagement ring and her diamond encrusted hairpiece.” A product placement had to be digitally corrected. “The biggest thing that we had to do in the wedding sequence was the work done on the new Volvo S60 sedan. When the photography was being put into the edit they didn’t quite feel it was identifiable enough. We did some test enhancements early on with the existing photography and it was decided that we would replace the frontend of the car. We had high resolution still photography which was tracked using Mocha Plainer tracks onto the front of the car and applied in Nuke. We also redid the headlights.”
The outdoor settings required some digital alterations. “Because the show was shot on exterior locations weather would change throughout the course of any day or night,” states Bruce Woloshyn. “In a lot of cases there was a little bit of rain or it would have rained before they had shot the specific take so you’d get water droplets dripping off all of the surrounding trees even though it wasn’t raining. We did a lot of paint out work like that which was all done in Nuke.” Woloshyn reveals, “No raindrop appears in the same frame and place twice. As they’re falling you could reveal from one frame to a previous frame; we did a lot of paint reveals that way. The night stuff was trickier because it was harder to see except in specific channels. We would do channel separations and blends, then paint it back.” There was a more complicated issue to address. “The rain certainly wasn’t as hard to deal with as the breath,” admits Woloshyn. “We had a couple of shots of young Seth [Booboo Stewart] where the camera dollies up and the breath is all over him. We had to rebuild the actor; that was tricky because there are so many moving parts. Our match move teams would go in and give us virtual cameras for these things. We used a technique similar to something we developed when we were working on Invictus  a few years ago. We would take what is called a plainer track of individual pieces of the actor [such as his clothes, chin, cheeks and neck]. We would stabilize little patches of all of these things with Mocha. We would go and paint a nice still frame with no breath in it [generally an airbrush job based on the real photography]. We would backwards engineer these patches that stabilized the warping nature of the movement and put our patches back overtop. One of the things that we spent a fair bit of time making sure it matched the plate photography was the motion of his neck and his Adam’s apple.”
“I always think its funny when people talk about removing something from a shot,” admits Bruce Woloshyn. “You can’t go back into the photography and take things out. You have to cover it up to make it look like you took it out.” Woloshyn gives an example. “The Black house is supposed to be isolated; they did an establishing shot where Jacob is driving up on his motorcycle and you can clearly see that it’s not the only house around. There’s another little farm quite visible in the plate because it’s only a few hundred yards away. The nice thing about a shot like that is with modern tracking it’s easy to get a virtual camera to match with what the practical camera is doing. We setup a 3D space once we had a camera track and place cards to where things would be. The tree line behind the house we extended as a matte painting to cover the farm. We also removed all of the power lines going to other properties.” Woloshyn observes, “The trouble with anything that’s real world is people know what it looks like.” The movie industry veteran is assisted by the ability to view the work on a big screen. “I have the luxury of a big facility and a nice theatre so I can look at it in full scale the way the audience is going to see it when they go to the movies. We would run the original background plate on one side and the composite right beside it on the left.”
During the premiere of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1, the visual effects veteran witnessed for the first time in his 30 year career 7000 audience members screaming. Questioned about the final installment, John Bruno remarks, “Breaking Dawn – Part Two starts one minute after the last shot of this movie. We shot one and two at the same time in 31 days.” The sometimes the only difference onset would be a change in the furniture or the paintings on the wall would be switched. “The Wolf Clan joins the Cullen Clan to fight the Volturi Clan; it’s a giant battle in the end to kill the baby.” Phil Tippett remarks, “The shooting schedules on theses things are absolutely insane and we were shooting two movies, Breaking Dawn – Part 1 and Breaking Dawn – Part 2 back-to-back, which I do not recommend anybody doing because it’s hard enough to make one movie.” Tippett agrees with the studio decision to not follow a current technological trend sweeping Hollywood. “Summit knows their audience. The content doesn’t require 3D.” He adds, “Bill didn’t worry about technical things and was only concerned about the dramatic and story aspects of the show so all of the discussions were very creative.” Bruce Woloshyn believes, “The nice thing about Breaking Dawn is for all of the different vendors it ran the gamut of, ‘Wow, that’s a visual effect!’ to tons of stuff that’s invisible.”
Production stills © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC.
VFX images © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved. Images courtesy of Method Studios Vancouver and Tippett Studios.
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Many thanks to John Bruno, Phil Tippett, Edson Williams and Bruce Woloshyn for taking the time out of their schedules for these interviews.
Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor John Bruno
Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett
Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor Bruce Woloshyn
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.