What life was like as the VFX producer on ‘Mulan’

Diana Giorgiutti discusses her day-to-day on the film, go-to production tools, and the evolution of the Phoenix.

At befores & afters we often explore the technical aspects of how certain VFX shots are achieved, but we don’t always get the opportunity to discuss the mammoth effort that goes on behind the scenes in breaking down how those visual effects shots will be managed, including in relation to bidding, recruiting vendors and managing shot delivery.

Which is why I’m excited to feature this look at Niki Caro’s Mulan from the perspective of visual effects producer Diana Giorgiutti.

Here, Giorgiutti describes how the VFX work was split between vendors, how she kept track of the many VFX shots, how a particular parcel of the VFX work involving the Phoenix character evolved, some ‘invisible’ effects you should keep an eye out for, and what her typical day on the film was like at various stages of production.

‘Mulan’ visual effects producer Diana Giorgiutti.

Splitting up the VFX work

One of the key tasks Giorgiutti was responsible for on Mulan, along with visual effects supervisor Sean Faden, was breaking down the script and vendor bidding. These tasks also involve, of course, awarding vendors with specific VFX shots or packages of shots.

“Thankfully Mulan was rare,” says Giorgiutti, “in the sense that breaking the work up pretty much fell into place naturally. After much discussion and working through thoughts with Sean, we landed on Weta Digital for everything located in the Imperial City, all the Phoenix shots with Framestore (originally the Phoenix played a bigger role), and then all the battle and avalanche work with Sony Pictures Imageworks, which then left the remainder of mostly environment work for Image Engine.”

“And as is the go with most big VFX films these days, towards the last two to three months of post, we had accumulated enough added work for the need to bring on Crafty Apes to help with over 400 added shots.”

“The complexity of work was pretty much the same for each vendor,” continues Giorgiutti, “mostly lots of environmental work, but the Imperial City work was definitely somewhat harder, specially as around 250 shots—the end bamboo palace fight with Mulan and Bori Khan—was set outdoors, but the fight shots were covered indoors on set pieces with lots of greenscreen.”

As for the Phoenix character—which replaced the dragon spiritual ancestry animal seen in the original 1998 animated feature—as Giorgiutti mentions, it had a larger role initially as a CG character traveling alongside Mulan. “She was meant to appear in around 100 shots, but by the end it was only 19 shots, as more of a visual apparition guide to help Mulan grow along her path.”

“What this meant for us with such a shot count drop,” details Giorgiutti, “was to work out how to fill the gap at the vendor with replacement animation work. As the vendor had prepared for their work to be more animation-heavy, they were crewed for this, so it was not as simple as just finding another 80 shots to fill the gap. We had to juggle things around to make the replacement shots as animation-centric as possible.”

Tools for the job

With hundreds of VFX shots to oversee, Giorgiutti turned to her trusted set of digital tools to help with that process. Her ‘number one’ tool? It’s Excel.

“I live and breathe by this software. It definitely has its quirks, and I know Apple has done their own version, but Excel is still the best for managing the complex breakdowns and budgets that we end up creating these days to manage a big film. Meanwhile, File Maker Pro is the database tool we use to manage and track all our shots. We usually start building our database in prep, but it really kicks in full gear in post, as we turn over shots to our vendors.”

In terms of communication with vendors, cineSync was the go-to here. “cineSync has been in use now for many years, and though there are a few newer interpretations on what it does, cineSync still remains in the forefront,” identifies Giorgiutti.

“Then, of course, now there’s also a plethora of video conference tools we’ve all had to add to our collection, due to the onset of COVID-19. Zoom and Blue Jeans are the ones we use most, with Zoom, in my opinion, now being the most reliable.”

The VFX shot to look out for

Amongst a myriad environment work, effects simulations and character animation, a particular visual effects accomplishment—largely invisible—in the film is one of Giorgiutti’s favorites.

Diana Giorgiutti and visual effects supervisor Sean Faden talking through shots during a scout.

“I think our CG Blackwind horse was amazing, and perhaps one of the items that people might not realize is CG, especially as the actress did do some of her own riding, but not the full-on galloping.”

“There are several shots of Mulan riding Blackwind that were shot on greenscreen with a buck,” explains Giorgiutti. “This is best shown in the moment where she rides through the avalanche towards Honghui to rescue him, and some of the shots where she chases after Bori Kahn into the Crater scene.”

The day-to-day of VFX production

Giorgiutti’s typical day on Mulan depended on what stage the production was up to. In pre-production, Giorgiutti worked closely with Faden to break down the script in readiness for vendor bidding.

“Breaking down the script is one part of the budget to figure out assets and shots,” notes Giorgiutti, “but then I would also have to budget all our VFX staffing and overheads, including lidar and cyber scanning, element and plate shoots, mocap, office and supply costs.”

Also in pre-pro, at least once to twice a week Giorgiutti and Faden would attend previs reviews with Caro, as well as heads-of-department (HOD) meetings to talk through shoot methodologies for the more complex sequences. “Sean and myself also attended lots of meetings and planning towards our China shooting and how best to cover this.”

Shooting took place predominantly in New Zealand, but also in China. “As Mulan was very much an ‘outdoor’ film with epic locations and landscapes involved, and we had both main and 2nd units rolling the whole time, it presented us with more challenges than usual,” observes Giorgiutti. “Prime one being—how to cover everything the whole shoot, especially with communications being somewhat limited, like the lack of internet in the wilds of New Zealand.”

“Usually 2nd unit only rolls half the time of main unit,” adds Giorgiutti, “so we VFX’ers get breathers here and there to catch up and regroup on plans, but this was not readily the case for Mulan.”

Ultimately, Giorgiutti would spend a fair amount of her time traveling between main and 2nd units to keep up with what was shooting, what extras might be coming up later in post production, and, she says, in some cases troubleshooting the trickier situations.

“Part of my shooting duties also include keeping the studio in touch with a weekly report, and doing this in a way that would not set any unnecessary alarm bells off.”

As things turned to post-production, Giorgiutti role as VFX producer first involved getting the vendors’ shots turned over so they could get started. Initially she would then spend a lot of time with the editorial team.

“The key thing to keeping as much ahead of the game as possible, is working with the editor to get as much of the scoops as possible. Communication is what it’s all about—getting info from the editor(s), and then sharing the important pieces with our vendors.”

“This way,” Giorgiutti adds, “everyone gets the crucial info needed to feel confident with pushing forwards, and then everyone also feels more a part of the film. After all, we could not pull off any VFX films without our VFX vendors. They are what makes these bigger visual films come to fruition. Kudos to them all!”

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