Past Tense: Ben Shepherd talks about Half of a Yellow Sun

Trevor Hogg chats with Ben Shepherd about recreating 1960s Nigeria for Half of a Yellow Sun

Back in 2006 Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published a story about the privilege lives of twin sisters being torn apart by the Biafran War which occurred in her homeland from 1967 to 1970; seven years later fellow countryman and playwright Biyi Bandele adapted Half of a Yellow Sun (2013) for the big screen with a cast that features Thandie Newton (The Truth About Charlie), Anika Noni Rose (As Cool as I Am), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Joseph Mawle (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Hakeem Kae-Kazim (Hotel Rwanda), and John Boyega (Attack the Block).  Assisting the production was LipSynch Post Head of 3D / VFX Supervisor Ben Shepherd (Hangar 10) who oversaw the green screen requirements for the various interior sets at Shepperton Studios.  “LipSync Post is a company that covers all aspects of post,” explains Shepherd.  “We were able to offer a complete post package, including visual effects, which appealed to the producers and also enabled them to save costs.” 

Communicating with the man behind the camera was not a problem.  “We were lucky to have an excellent working relationship with Biyi and his cinematographer, John de Borman [An Education],” remarks Shepherd.  “With his many years’ experience, John was able to ensure Biyi’s creative vision was achieved. Initially, John was quite pragmatic about the film’s visual effects needs and practicalities which enabled us to step up to the challenge.”  The period drama marks the directorial debut of Bandele.  “Biyi was an excellent and enthusiastic director to work with; he was supportive of visual effects and ensured we received the necessary elements needed to successfully achieve his vision.”

Filmed mostly on-location in Nigeria, digital matte paintings were needed to reconstruct t the era of the 1960s and to produce a war-torn county.  Villages were extended and a CG plane was created along with the Nigerian Port Harcourt.   It was important that the visual effects felt naturalistic, and so the visual effects required were augmentations to live-action plates rather than large CG shots,” states Ben Shepherd.  “The film was shot traditionally without requiring previs or postvis, though some storyboards were used.”  Visual research was conducted by utilizing books and the Internet.  “The literary source was not used. We did use historical references when creating matte paintings and ensuring the period was consistent with the times.”  Shepherd reveals, “As a number of the interior sets were shot on a stage in Shepperton Studios, every time we see out of a window, green screen was used in order to add a digital matte painting of Nigeria in post.”

“It was important to have an on-set presence to ensure the visual effects needs were understood,” states Ben Shepherd.  “For example, we had to change one of the supporting cast’s costumes when she appeared in a green skirt on a green-screen set. Additionally, it was great to have an on-set presence so that the director and cinematographer could discuss their creative vision and any questions on the day.”  The digital destruction was not a problem.  “We were quite lucky to have a very talented matte painting artist who created some fantastic assets.”  Smoke and fire needed to be enhanced.  “With the use of our extensive and comprehensive library of elements, we turned modern-day Nigeria into its historical post-revolution wasteland.”  Shepherd remarks, “We created a full repertoire of fireworks using Maya’s dynamic system. The magical elements including colour tints, smoke and glow were added in Nuke.”

A CG aircraft makes an appearance.  “We had to research the period logo and decal designs of Nigerian airplanes for historical accuracy, and utilized one of many 3d airplane models from our extensive library, states Ben Shepherd who believes that three key elements are required to achieve “invisible effects”.  “Great eye, patience and a lot of skill.” There were no major creative issues.  “We were lucky to have a smooth and successful experience working on this project.” There were not shared shots with other visual effects facilities.  “The Airport Sequence was a pleasant surprise as it was not initially shot as visual effects, but came together quite quickly and seamlessly.”  Shepherd adds, “This was my first job at LipSync, and I greatly enjoyed helping this small, independent film receive the same service as a big-budget, Hollywood film, and ensure that Biyi’s vision was achieved.”

Productions stills courtesy of Metro Films.

Many thanks to Ben Shepherd for taking the time for this interview.

To learn more visit the official Facebook page for Half of a Yellow Sun and the official website for LipSynch Post.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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