‘We treated that mice sequence as though this was Gollum’

How Temprimental delivered the zany VFX for the zany ‘Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar’.

You might not think of director Josh Greenbaum’s Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, created by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, as a big visual effects film. But the comedy actually has more than 500 VFX shots, and some of those are pretty crazy, especially the ones involving a band of mice and wave-surfing turtles.

Behind the visual effects work was Temprimental VFX, and befores & afters caught up with the key creative team to discuss their approach—including how they filmed a real alligator on bluescreen, animating killer mosquitoes, and handling CG culottes.

b&a: What were the first conversations you had about the kinds of effects required for this film?

Raoul Bolognini (VFX producer / Temprimental founder): As is sometimes the case, the script started out with some very ambitious visual effects, which unfortunately became cost prohibitive for the production – there just wasn’t enough time in the schedule to cover everything, and trust me, there were some very funny scenes that didn’t see the light of day.

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So in the early stages, it was about managing how we take this script and fit everything into the allocated budget to give us the best quality effects on screen. It was also critical for me to find the right vendors and artists to take on all of the different tasks. In the end Temprimental had 9 different vendors and 25 artists from across the globe working on the VFX, which was incredibly exciting, but also extremely labor intensive given all of the different time zones everyone was working within.

Robert Grasmere (VFX supervisor): We went into an early meeting to talk through all the visual effects. And usually, in those, you know in your back of your head, ‘This is going to be expensive, and this is probably what they’re going to get rid of.’ I remember we spent a lot of time in that meeting talking about the CG mice for the band that plays. Josh loved those mice. He was like, ‘How do we do it?’ And we said, ‘Well, you can do CG animals and a little miniature…’. We described how you go about it. And he’s like, ‘Oh, that’d be fantastic. We don’t use real mice or anything?’

We thought, this is one of those scenes that’s so out there that it will probably get cut for the budget. And I have to say it was so cool that Josh and Kristen and Annie kept it, because even though it wasn’t a long sequence, it was the zaniest craziest thing. And I was amazed we hung on to it and that we actually did it.

Actually, we spent an unbelievable amount of time perfecting those mice. We would have post-production sessions, where they’d say, for the mouse who is the bandleader, ‘Maybe he could raise it up a little higher, or the one with the timpani, when he puts his head down, it looks like his head’s going through the drum.’ I’m telling you, we treated that mice sequence, with Josh and everyone involved, as though this was Gollum. It was incredible.

b&a: I obviously want to ask about some of the creature effects done, but first, what sort of crew did Temprimental have on this film and what sort of time was required?

Chrissy McDermott (head of production, Temprimental): The way that Temprimental operates is that we are able to recruit and resource teams from all over the world. Thats our DNA, we are a remote visual effects company. As the pandemic took hold of our industry we were in a very fortunate position to already be set up as a remote VFX company, so as Raoul mentioned we could reach out to our partners across the globe to put a team together very quickly, and we did thankfully! One interesting thing was, at that time, we were one of only a handful of VFX companies in Los Angeles that was working. When we went in to DI to finish the film at Fotokem in Burbank we had 3 DI rooms to work out of, which is almost unheard of.

Robert Grasmere: They had a limit on how many people could be in each room for health and safety guidelines. And luckily, there was no one else doing color, no one else. So they just gave us all their rooms and remoted the image. So the director and the editor sat in one room, with the colorist, and we sat in another room. I would have to run back and forth. Josh would have a question, so I would go in and stand in the back of his room and try to answer his questions with the mask on. It was pretty crazy.

b&a: You’ve mentioned the mice, what about some of the other creatures?

Robert Grasmere: Well, they had an animatronic crab built. We weren’t supposed to have anything to do with it. But in the end, there was some CG work done on the animatronic crab.

This movie had a tonne of stuff. As we got into post, with this kind of movie, and they start to develop the gags, things get added. So, the characters were supposed to ride in on a wave. Well, how about if they ride in on a wave with two turtles? Which means we didn’t know we were going to be doing turtles way back in pre-production. There was a lot of things that came out of the editing room.

We did know we were going to do an alligator, but that sequence ended up being a combination of a real alligator and a CGI alligator. I had to shoot an alligator on bluescreen in Mexico. And it’s not that easy. I was DP-ing and operating the camera. When I do that, I become kind of like a Berserker, I lose all fear. At one point the alligator was snapping and doing the things we wanted. People were literally pulling me back, and I’m fighting them to get the camera closer to the alligator.

It was an absolutely crazy day, shooting with this live alligator. We didn’t know how it was going to behave. What do you have to do to film an alligator? Where do you put the bluescreen? We ended up making these two channels out of blue, because the alligator wouldn’t walk where we wanted it to walk. Also, alligators don’t do things like you’d think. Like, if you held up a piece of chicken, in my mind, it’s going to go, boom, and then you pull the chicken away and we’ve got a wonderful shot of the alligator biting. Nope.

They said, ‘No, no, no, these alligators eat like once a month. And they will only eat in one spot. And we feed them in that spot.’ This alligate, the only time it tried to bite was when it got mad at me.

Then we have the CGI alligator. Note to self, do all real or all CG, because all of a sudden now the CG is a slave to the real. And the real is a slave to the CG, because the real won’t do all this stuff.

b&a: In that scene, there’s two alligators, right? Do you mean one was real and one was CG? Or did you mix and match?

Robert Grasmere: It was a mix. I had to have the real one come down a bluescreen channel. And then we moved everything, and I moved the camera over. And we had it come down the same channel, but we pretended it was a different alligator. Then for the CG shots, we used our CG alligator for both.

Raoul Bolognini: We have to thank our friends at Rhythm and Hues for doing such a great job bringing those alligators to life!

b&a: What was it like working on a film that was a bit more, say, grounded in reality but also hallucinogenic, with these hilarious things going on?

Raoul Bolognini: I think the big challenge with these type of films is that there’s a very fine line between having the money to do it the right way and not having enough money to pull it off. That was our biggest challenge, making sure we stretched the dollars without taking the audience out of the movie. The alligator sequence and even the culottes is a very good example how horribly wrong things could have gone, because they were conceived as practical effects, with 2D splits for the alligators and 2D wire removals for when Barb and Star float down to the shore, but as is often the case, the production time came and went, the pants didn’t do what they were supposed to, and the Alligator was having an off day, so both scenarios needed our help, plus Josh wanted to ‘up the ante’ with more dynamic shots for when Barb and Star jump off the cliff, so Visual effects came into play.

Our invisible effects, however were very straightforward, 2D split-screen composites, geographical 2D clean up, 3D crowd enhancement, cell phone composites and so on, and then we got into the more challenged areas of the VFX assignment, the mosquitoes and THE WAVE with Turtles, my goodness what a labor of love those scenes were. Robert and I fought every step of the way to get those effects right – even on the last day of the schedule we were still trying to push the artists to give us a little bit extra, and we got there in the end!

b&a: How did you approach those mosquitoes?

Robert Grasmere: They wanted absolutely real. In fact, in the film they wanted things that were not real to look absolutely real. I mean, if you saw the model of the mosquito itself, it was a real mosquito.

One of the things I think we did well was, these filmmakers are really creative and zany, and we kept up with them. They had new ideas all the time. And they were like, ‘What if we do this? Can we do that? Can we afford this?’ And we were all just always trying to find solutions that allowed them to do it. And I think sometimes we found non-VFX or hybrid effects solutions.

You know, filming a real alligator in Mexico is not that expensive compared to CG shots, so we tried to do less CG shots and at least have a few real alligator shots. And then we thought that the audience would believe the CG alligator shots, if they’d seen a real one in the beginning, and they would not realize it wasn’t the same creature.

It was interesting blend to make things look fake and not real at the same time, like the crab. They didn’t mind that it was an animatronic crab, but they also wanted it to be able to walk towards the water, which the original crab couldn’t do. It was being operated from under the sand. There was a person under the sand.

And, I mean, turtles don’t really behave like that. The director said, ‘We want the turtles to wave.’ How do you make that look realistic? There’s nothing in nature that tells you how that’s going to look. So all of a sudden your shot doesn’t look real, and you’re going like, ‘Oh my God, this looks so fake. It looks so fake. We need more splash. It’s the lighting.’

Chrissy McDermott: I think we also walked a really great, fine line in tandem with Josh, as far as what works best for the shot and the joke. And what made it funny, but also made it real.

When we were talking or thinking about the mosquitoes, Robert, I remember you and I sitting there and trying to individually pick out specific mosquitoes and their animation path and where they flew. You’d say, ‘Would they fly that way?’ But at the same time, you’d say, ‘Is it that funny that it flies that way?’ Or, ‘Does it need to come closer to camera?’ And I think that was a really cool part of the experience was, here we are nitpicking individual mosquitoes and talking about, ‘Well, how many is really in this cloud?’ And, ‘How many is funny? How many is too much that it’s terrifying or not terrifying enough?’

Robert Grasmere: That was pretty funny, going through it frame-by-frame and saying, in cineSync sessions, where you can circle things and show them, ‘This mosquito shouldn’t be there.’ So we take one mosquito out, out of hundreds…

b&a: Let’s talk about the arrival of Trish played by Reba McEntire, with the turtles. How was that pulled off?

Robert Grasmere: They planned to just have Reba. She came down to Mexico. She flew in on our first day of shooting and she jumped in the water, and it was just going to be the spirit of Trish and just kind of waving, like a little teeny cameo. In post, they wanted to grow the cameo and have her in the water and have the turtles. So there was a lot of visual effects heavy lifting, to make those plates work, lighting-wise and everything, for the light coming up underneath her.

Photo credit: Cate Cameron. Copyright 2021 Lionsgate.

b&a: Anything else you’d like to mention about the project?

Robert Grasmere: There’s one thing I wanted to mention—Raoul knew a local supervisor from a previous project. His name is Miguel Lavin, and he came on board for two weeks, as second VFX supervisor, because we had too much going on. And I just want to do a shout out to Miguel, because he really helped out, and he was fantastic. What he brought in to help me during those two weeks, I literally could not have done it without him.

Chrissy McDermott: Thinking about post specifically and how we finished the film and how we went through the process during lockdown and the pandemic and all of that, something that was really remarkable and made the whole experience that much more positive, was the tone and spirit of the movie and how the zany quality of it very much translated into every aspect of post-production as well, in the way that we operated.

Raoul Bolognini: My parting comment as the VFX producer would be that the challenge of my job is to break down a script, present a budget to the studio and then make it work! So putting together a VFX team to execute that is key to the success of the project. Having a seasoned VFX supervisor like Robert, and my head of production, Chrissy holding down the forte in Los Angeles combined with some great vendors and individual artists that really went that extra yard for us, is what makes my job so rewarding. Added to this, our commander in chief, director Josh Greenbaum sent out such a positive vibe from the get go that everybody became one big family, I know its a cliche but its true, that’s what happens, so I would personally like to thank Josh, and everyone in the VFX community that contributed to this film, and in particular to Brianna at Lionsgate for being so supportive with our highs and the lows. Thank you!

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