A look behind the scenes at the making of the film with the VFX team.
In Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984, the main character Diana Prince, played by Gal Gadot, needed to perform many superhero moves. She needed to take on the apex-predator superhuman transformation of Barbara Minerva into Cheetah (Kristen Wiig) in a fierce final battle. And she also needed to fly.
To help realize these complex set of sequences—and more, such as an opening Amazonian games competition set in Themyscira—the filmmakers called upon a strong collaboration between stunt choreography, special effects, makeup effects and visual effects.
In this befores & afters breakdown, VFX team-members on Wonder Woman 1984, including production visual effects supervisor John Moffatt, DNEG visual effects supervisor Huw Evans and Framestore visual effects supervisor Alexis Wajsbrot, recount the details of that collaboration for key sequences and characters.
The opening games on Themyscira is part of a flashback sequence featuring a young Diana (Lilly Aspell) participating in a race against older peers, watched in a stadium by thousands of spectators. The Amazonians here pull off incredible feats of athleticism, necessitating some equally incredible stuntwork as the initial basis for the shots.
“The essential theme of the way that Patty wanted to work was that it was always, ‘If we can shoot something, we should shoot something,’” recounts John Moffatt. “The stunt team and the special effects team did a great job of being able to let us fly performers. So, even though it might be a really small element in [the final shot], the shot was driven by what could be achieved practically.”
Stadium and surrounding scenes were filmed in Fuerteventura and Tenerife, and in the UK. For the various mechanical contraptions and apparatus that the Amazonians leap and jump across in the stadium, art department designs informed what would be built on location for the performers to interact with. Sometimes these were bluescreen-covered pieces or gold-surfaced pieces that VFX replaced, but, as noted, they served as the apparatus that stunt performers, overseen by stunt co-ordinator Rob Inch, did leap and jump on. Special effects supervisor Mark Holt was behind the mechanical and other on-set effects in the film.
DNEG tackled the games VFX shots (the studio’s work was led by visual effects supervisors Huw Evans in London, Chris McLaughlin in Vancouver and Jonathan Bowen in Montreal). For the stadium itself, an initial helicopter fly-in reveals the structure nestled into the side of a Themysciran sea cliff. Plates filmed in Masca Valley in Tenerife and extra photogrammetry photography served as the basis for the digital environment created by DNEG. Says Evans: “We knew that Patty wanted a real location and we would then need to augment on top of that with our CG extension.”
Stadium crowds were achieved by starting with crowd extras filmed in Fuerteventura on a partial stadium section. “We shot a bunch of practical plates of different crowd elements,” details Evans. “We did standing watching, sitting watching, cheering, etc, and shot them at different times of day to get different lighting. We knew that we were going to always have to do some digital crowd, certainly for the ones high up in the rafters just to get the angle of them correct, but having that base set of plates meant that in some shots we could drop those right in. The stadium build itself was probably our biggest build item.”
One of the additional challenges of this opening sequence for DNEG was dealing with the necessary safety harness and wire removal work from the stunt performances. This was particularly the case with Lily Aspell as young Diana, who performed her own stunts ‘wired up’—adding bulk to her costume and also covering her shoulder, which without the wiring would normally be bare.
“We did have a bunch of hopefully invisible shot work where we needed to digitally replace sections of her body,” advises Evans. “Obviously we don’t want to change any of her performance where her performance is her, but we had to try and remove straps underneath her costume and a bulky rig around the waist just to make sure she looks true to herself rather than looking like she’s got a ring around her. It’s the kind of work that we’ll spend hours and hours and hours on, but probably no one will see or notice, which is actually great.”
Wonder Woman in Washington
The film jumps to 1984 where Diana is working at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. She also takes time to carry out some trademark superhero saves as Wonder Woman. This includes foiling the theft of some stolen antiquities, including the ‘Dreamstone’, by a number of criminals from a shopping mall. Production filmed the sequence at a disused mall in Virginia dressed to the period by the art department.
“It looked real, basically, and it was real, and it was full with real extras,” outlines Moffatt. “We didn’t do any crowd extension or any kind of additional matte painting of shop fronts or anything like that. Our work was to remove the rigging, which was not insignificant, that enabled the stunt performers to fly, and Gal to fly, through the space.”
One exciting moment sees Wonder Woman leap over a railing having lassoed two of the criminals while the camera follows. The shot was achieved with a ‘Texas Switch’—two wired stunt performers performing a take-over from each other—one for the initial leap and the other waiting below the railing, only revealed as the camera continues over the side.
DNEG took on the rig-removal work, along with some face replacements, and implemented Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth which she uses to round-up the thieves. Still, says Moffatt, “the name of the game was to start with something real and keep as much of it as we could.”
At one point, there is a jet flight that occurs on the Fourth of July where the characters fly through a fireworks display. Aerial plates served as the basis for the jet flight, with a cockpit setup shot on a gimbal against bluescreen and practical fireworks filmed on an airport runway used as elements for the scenes.
“The firework was suspended off a crane, but it didn’t fly off up in the air as a normal firework would, it just detonated in space,” explains Moffatt. “Then we drove the camera through it.”
This ‘camera’ was actually a six ARRI ALEXA Mini array atop a Technocrane on a tracking vehicle driven through the fireworks as they were detonated. “It gave us this incredible high-resolution material that we could use for some of the shots, and also gave us something to match to for the look of the fireworks,” says Moffatt. The final visual effects for these flying scenes were crafted by Method Studios, overseen by VFX supervisor Aidan Fraser.
Lessons on the Lasso of Truth
Wonder Woman’s primary weapon, her Lasso of Truth, helps her leap great distances and snag criminals. Both DNEG and Framestore had lasso shots, with perhaps one of the most stand-out sections in the film being Wonder Woman’s use of the weapon as a shield in a fight at the White House. Here she spins the lasso incredibly fast to generate the force-field, with DNEG generating refractography-like patterns as it twirls.
“I’m a bit obsessed with refractography,” admits Moffatt. “It’s basically lensless photography and it creates these incredible visuals. I wanted to get some hints of that into it as an aesthetic thing. You’ve got these ever so subtle moving light patches in it, which just keeps it alive.”
“We had a lot of discussion about how that would look,” advises Evans. “Wonder Woman couldn’t just spin it around because people are firing bullets. So we had to go to this overcranked very, very fast speed. And then we were trying to figure out how magical is it? Do you actually see the bullets deflecting? Does it have like a magical ripple as it hits? So we had a lot of discussion on figuring out what that magical effect would be. We wanted to ground it in some kind of reality, but obviously, inherently, it has magical abilities.”
“Then,” continues Evans, “when she starts having the fight sequence, there’s a lot of tricky shapes we needed to get. The animation team and the FX team worked hand in hand to give this lasso character and life. It’s not just how you’d normally do a rope and let physics take its course and it does what it does. We had to drive it, yet still make it feel that Wonder Woman is in control.”
The road attack
Diana meets a barrage of resistance from several armored vehicles while on a desert road in Egypt. Live-action for the sequence was filmed on a roadway in Fuerteventura, which ran alongside the sea. “It gave us a five-kilometre run of road which we could drive up and down at different times of day,” discusses Moffatt. “All the vehicles you see in the shots were filmed for real, but ultimately a lot of times we ended up replacing them for a whole host of reasons.”
One shot that made use of computer-generated vehicles, for example, was for a moment that follows the path of a bullet extremely close to a running Wonder Woman’s head. “We had to get a camera to fly past Gal, but we couldn’t fly it that close to her,” says Moffatt. “So, all of this is a face element where everything else is digital, and then as we get past her then we’re back into the plate.”
That kind of work in the scene, along with some environmental augmentation, was handled by DNEG, which was able to extensively scan all the real vehicles and Lidar the location. “As a matter of course,” notes Evans, “we’ll always take as much reference—probably more references than we’d ever need—any vehicles, any characters, any background characters, we’ll always try and photograph. Even if the whole thing has been shot practically, there’s always a ‘just in case.’ And that’s saved us a bunch of times, that ‘just in case’ where we were asked, ‘Ah, could you just tweak this a little bit?’ And we’re like, ‘Great, we’ve already got this asset that we can build.’”
Perhaps the signature shot in this ‘open road’ sequence sees Wonder Woman perform a giant leap as one of the trucks flips over. This stunt was actually filmed for real. Moffatt says the digital side to the shot came into play to make it as dynamic as possible. “Patty called me up fairly deep production and she said, ‘I don’t think this camera move is necessarily the best way for us experience the Wonder Woman reveal. Instead of the camera pulling up, do you think we can keep the camera pulling back?’ So, she was able to direct this shot in post because of the way that we’d approached the visual effects build.”
“We’d augment that with things like boxes, small detailed bits flying off as well,” says Evans. “For those kinds of shots with Wonder Woman, we did have a digi-Wonder Woman in some of those cases. But the shots where she is on the side of trucks and being wedged in between trucks as they’re travelling along the road, again, a lot of that was shot practically. It would be shot at a slightly slower travelling speed for safety reasons, so we would sometimes have a digital road that we could travel underneath a lot quicker.”
In the clouds
Diana gains the ability to fly. Scenes of her above the clouds for this moment and later in the film were made possible with a combination of aerial cloud plates, extensive bluescreen wire and rig work of Gadot, and digital augmentation of clouds and Wonder Woman by Framestore.
In Tenerife, Moffatt joined an aerial team to shoot plates of a cloud layer at a relatively low height. “We went up in a helicopter and shot a load of backgrounds, reference and some plates to use as the driving look for the clouds which Framestore did. That was their starting point.” Indeed, the initial ‘blanket’ of clouds was expanded to include a more diverse weather pattern in the sky, as well as incorporating clouds whizzing past camera to help generate a sense of flight speed.
Meanwhile, the process for gathering live action plates of Gadot was somewhat unique, Moffatt attests. “Conventional logic in visual effects would say, well, you stick the performer on a gimbal and then you move the background. But Patty was really keen that we would fly the performer, because she felt that she’d get a better performance and it’d be more authentic. We also shot outside so we ended up with hopefully a natural look to it. Then we created the background environment using the clouds that we’d shot at a starting point.”
These wire rig plates of Gadot served as the basis for the action on the character; typically her head and hair from the plate was retained and her torso replaced with the digi-double version of Wonder Woman, occasionally with CG hair elements to aid with bluescreen integration.
“But there is always something real in the plate, which I think gives this illusion that it doesn’t feel like a CG fest,” states Framestore’s Alexis Wajsbrot. “Patty did not want to just capture the face, she wanted at least a performance, even if we ended up keeping the face only, she wanted her performance to feel like she was flying.”
The gift of golden armor
The film’s climax is a stunning battle between Wonder Woman and Cheetah at a satellite installation. One method of attack and defence Wonder Woman uses in the battle is to don the armor of Amazon warrior Asteria. Costume designer Lindy Hemming created the golden outfit. Framestore then produced a matching CG costume, along with the foldable wing portions—all referenced from real props available on set.
“Two stunt guys would run out so we’d have a real lighting reference of what they’d look like, and then we’d add the wings later,” says Moffatt. “That was when we saw all of the wings. If there were shots where we were just seeing Gal’s head and shoulders, we had some smaller wings that were cut off at the shoulders that she could actually fit on her costume. So, wherever possible, on a shot-by-shot basis we decided what the best thing was.”
For Framestore, one of the biggest challenges of the golden armor was its reflective surface. “It’s supposed to be gold,” notes Wajsbrot, “and we are shooting on the set so of course you are going to have light reflection that you don’t truly want. And, Wonder Woman is holding a lasso for most of the sequence that is supposed to emit light. In fact, even if it is off-screen, the lasso has a reflection on the scene.”
The wings themselves proved a major challenge, particularly the mechanism for how they would open and close. Wajsbrot recalls Framestore’s crew having to work out, “How do you go from closed to open? And what are the key poses? What is the key pose of the shield? Or, what is the key pose of the flying pose? What is the key pose of the wings being closed? And what kind of silhouettes all of that gives?”
“We worked a lot with different turntable of each silhouette,” continues Wajsbrot. “As soon as we nailed that, the challenge was how do we go from one to another in a realistic way?”
Kristen Wiig’s Cheetah character was one that would appear in both dramatic and high-action scenes. A CG version of Cheetah was always going to be necessary for the most frenetic of moments, but, as Moffatt shares, “Patty was absolutely determined that we were going to use a mixture of prosthetics and CG to achieve the look. The idea was that we would use makeup prosthetics, which were done by Mark Coulier, and then in visual effects, we’d augment that as required.”
Wiig’s performance, or the performance of stunt performers, would always serve as the basis of the final Cheetah shots, which were completed by Framestore. Wiig’s look began with several makeup effects tests. A goal here, points out Moffatt, was to make only slight adjustments to introduce more feline qualities to the character. This involved shrinking the nose and ‘ever so slightly’ widening the eyes—“Moving the eyes just that little bit really helps make it look ever so slightly otherworldly,” says Moffatt—and adding distinctive makeup marks.
“It became very much a mix between a human nose and the nose from a cheetah, but very close to human nose, just flatter, basically,” indicates Wajsbrot, who also notes an initial fur groom on the face was pulled back after early testing. “Then for the makeup, it was all of these very specific lines. Patty was very, very specific. She’s always very specific about the makeup and hair style. And I think that’s why Wonder Woman looked so amazing on every shot because she has really an amazing eye for that kind of thing.”
Earlier, Light Stage and photogrammetry scans, and then on-set daily photograph reference shoots of Wiig helped inform how Framestore would approach its augmentation of the character. During the shoot, a range of capture techniques were employed, although a heavy reliance was not placed on any kind of body motion capture. “The majority of it was stunt performance—live stunts performed on set,” explains Moffatt. “Patty was again keen that Kristen’s performance should be what was driving our CG.”
That meant for the showdown between Wonder Woman and Cheetah, major action beats would be stunt-vis’d and filmed with stunt performers, then hand-rotoscoped or hand-animated to closely follow the original performances. “We couldn’t really have translated any mocap straight into Cheetah because the proportions are different, and she has this reverse foot as well,” says Wajsbrot.
Facial animation and capture was approached slightly differently. Wiig did perform some scenes with tracking markers applied to her face, although a head-mounted camera was not part of principal photography on location. “We didn’t want to put a head-mounted camera on everything we were shooting on the day on set, because we wanted to be able to use as much as possible of the facial of Kristen,” describes Wajsbrot. “As soon as you put on a HMC you are back into the full CG world.”
“There were, of course, some facial shots that were full CG,” says Wajsbrot. “The way we’ve done that was, either we had a very good reference of Kristen acting and we just had to one-to-one match the performance, animating by hand. Or, we also did a head-mounted camera shoot later. So, some shots are head-mounted camera, lots of shots are facial makeup, and a lot of shots are full CG as well. There is really a mixture depending on the shot.”
Moffatt weighs in on that particular approach for Cheetah, which ultimately matched the entire edict of production. “Patty was very much of the opinion that it would need to be based off something photographic wherever possible. Which is great for us, because even if we ended up augmenting it or changing it or replacing it, at least we knew that we’d got a really good, grounded starting point.”Sign up to the weekly b&a VFX newsletter