Here’s how those masterful mirror gags were pulled off in Edgar Wright’s ‘Last Night in Soho’

The film’s visual effects supervisor reveals how they were done via sliding mirrors, clever choreography and digital compositing.

Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho is a story about the experience of two young women in London’s Soho district: Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) in modern-day Soho, who is able to enter a 1960s Soho where she somewhat ‘mirrors’ wannabe performer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). Ellie effectively watches Sandie while being reflected in actual mirrors that are part of the scenes.

Those mirror moments were achieved with a combination of meticulous choreography and practical work, coupled with visual effects led by DNEG. Production visual effects supervisor Tom Proctor explores how the mirror gags, alongside digital environment work and digital make-up effects for the ‘Shadow Men’ who haunt Ellie were achieved for the film, in this interview with befores & afters.

b&a: This is clearly an ‘invisible effects’ film, but what were some of the early visual effects-related conversations you had with the director about the work?

Tom Proctor: Well, the very first discussions we had with Edgar were about the tone of the film in general. He wanted to be sure that the whole team got off the ground running with the right kind of sense of what it was going to be. So as you probably know, he’s an amazing cinephile and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of movies and a real love for a lot of classic movies. He was drawing inspiration from a lot of classic British films in the 1960s. One of the ones that we watched was Don’t Look Now, for its sinister psychic tones. And then there were the kitchen sink dramas. Darling and Poor Cow were two ones that we watched. And another real touchstone film was Polanski’s Repulsion. Giallo movies of the 1970s, particularly the Mario Bava movies, as well. There’s Blood and Black Lace and Black Sabbath. And, obviously, Suspiria is a huge influence on the film, of the lighting, those red and blue drenched scenes.

Then we quickly got into discussing the specifics of the film. The Shadow Men were actually one of the first things that we talked about because they needed the most exploration, and the methodology was going to require VFX to help work out how to make them. There’s a lot of films with masked figures in them with sinister, obscured features. And we looked into sleep paralysis, this phenomena where people wake up or think they’re awake when they see dark figures sitting on their chests or approaching them. This was something that inspired Ellie’s first visions of the Shadow Men.

b&a: How were those Shadow Men visualized?

Tom Proctor: We got into doing some concept work and I shot a couple of super Lo-Fi tests at DNEG, using some of our crew. We experimented with different makeup and then we quickly got into doing some proper camera tests at Ealing Studios with the team that was assembled. Oscar, Edgar’s brother, has always played a big part in his films, in getting concepts and key visuals so he was involved in this, too.

We also got together with Barrie Gower, who’s an amazing prosthetics designer. Edgar was really keen that the film have a tactile feel to it. Everything needed to be grounded and shouldn’t feel visual effects-y. And I think it’s really important for a crew, on the day, to understand what it is everyone’s getting into together, especially in a horror movie, which is dependent on a palpable sense of dread. It’s a real physical, visceral thing. There’s something I actually learned on A Cure for Wellness, where you don’t really get the effect on the audience with a temp. If there’s some tracking markers on the villain’s face, then you’re going to have a hard time really knowing if you’ve landed it. And that’s what the film is entirely dependent on.

This is all to say that Edgar wanted to have a practical approach, at least partially practical approach, to the Shadow Men so that it helped get the right sense of dread across to everybody working on the film. We knew we wanted to do some prosthetic work, but we also knew it was going have to be enhanced digitally, because there was going to be a subtractive component to it.

We had Barrie’s team make these prosthetic facial appliances which would cover over the eyes and the mouth. The idea was that we could, maybe at a distance and in some shots, we wouldn’t have to do much in the way of visual effects to enhance them. But in the closeup shots, we’d be making the eyes more sunken and caved in, and adding this stretching membrane over the mouth.

As it happened, the prosthetic appliances proved very hard to see through and breathe when they were being worn, so it made some of the physical scenes, where Ellie’s being chased, quite difficult, especially in the dark. And on location, on cobblestone streets, it was hazardous. So eventually we moved away from using the prosthetic appliances, and had them in this ashen gray makeup instead. We did the eyes and mouths completely digitally.

b&a: Tell me a bit more about that digital makeup that you had to do. Was it essentially very meticulous match moving? And what sort of approach did you take to the actual digital makeup work?

Tom Proctor: There were 13 cast members, so it was quite a lot of digital build to do. We knew we had about six of them that tended to feature a bit more than the others, so for their faces, we had Clear Angle scan them. And then we built a digital version of their face with the sunken sculpt of the carved features, their sunken features. And then this was match-moved. We would selectively mix through or blend through the portions of the face that we needed to.

We tried to keep as much of the performer’s expressions as possible. Barrie’s work was incredible. It just naturally tended to impede a little bit the ability for the brows to scrunch up or the mouth to stretch open, so we helped that along. In the end it was a lot of very careful, precise match-moving and body tracking, and then shot-sculpted facial animation to enhance the ghoulish look of the faces. This work was all done by DNEG and supervised by DFX Supervisor Fabricio Baessa.

b&a: There’s a blurriness to their faces in there too–can you talk about that?

Tom Proctor: We were looking at Francis Bacon’s paintings at one point. Part of the effect is that Sandie is trying to suppress this trauma of all these horrible men coming to visit her. We were looking at ways we could overlay the features. We shot them in multiple passes, so we’d have multiple Shadow Men approaching, going through the same moves. Jennifer White was our choreographer and movement coach. She would coach all of the performers to go through the same motions at the same time in multiple passes, so that we could then selectively blend through, not only the individual obscured face, but facial features of other performers as well.

For the blurriness, they’re kind of phasing in and out. And when she is first visited by them in her bedroom, they’re switching, they’re phasing through one Shadow Man to the next, with the flashing of the light. So the flashing light in the bedroom added a whole level of technical complication to the scenes. The fact that the light is flashing, we’ve got these multiple performers doing kind of the same performance, and we needed to sync to that. Also, it’s all set to a soundtrack, so we needed to make sure that the same motions were going to be able to be brought through on the beat. All of the flashing of the light was timed out to the music, programmed in on the desk. And then we’d often have to have different speeds of flashing light, depending on whether we were shooting at 24 frames per second or 32. Many of the scenes in the room are shot at 32 frames per second to get a slightly more dreamy look to them.

We did a little bit of motion control work where we really needed to get an accurate camera move, time and time again, for these multiple passes. But it was often down to just our incredible camera operator, Chris Bain, who’s like a human motion control rig. He’s just great.

b&a: The fire sequence combined with the Shadow Men seemed like an intense visual effects sequence but still with that invisible effects feel.

Tom Proctor: The interior shots for the fire were at Ealing Studios. It’s a pretty compact studio, and the sets really filled it out. Our SFX supe, Stephen Hutchinson, did a great job using as much fire as we possibly could, which gave us a lot of great interactive light. But we ended up shooting quite a lot of elements separately. There’s a lot of practical fire elements that were dressed into the shots, a lot of embers and smoke.

For the exteriors, we couldn’t actually put fire on the building on Goodge Place in Fitzrovia, so we created a full size buck of the building at a backlot, and filmed fire elements there to complement the shots. There was a good deal of practical light set up around the building. But I thought it was pretty superb comp work throughout all that. Really nicely done. My DFX supe, Julian Gnass, who’s worked with me on a number of different shows, is just amazing at that sort of stuff.

b&a: Let’s talk about those initial dream shots of Ellie transitioning to see Sandie, which start with Ellie waking up, and there’s that void, and then it goes into the club and we see all the mirror work.

Tom Proctor: The dream sequences were a big part of what we wanted to explore. Edgar wanted to shoot on film. He was interested in having the 1960s really ‘pop’. So we shot the 1960s portions in anamorphic. You get this kind of big, glitzy, glamorous look. And I don’t know if you noticed in the cinema, but the sound really explodes when Ellie first walks out of the void out on Haymarket.

The sequence begins as Ellie goes to sleep in her bedroom in her new flat for the first time. And then pulls the sheet over her head to hide or to block out this flashing neon light that’s coming through the window. We then travel through this blanket tunnel, if you like, a metaphor for going into a dream. And that was a digital blanket extension, with cloth sims on it. Then we find ourselves in this black void where she awakens. She walks through this dark passageway out onto the busy streets.

The Café de Paris was shot on a different street than it really was on because it was going to be better for our accessibility and the scale. Marcus Rowland, the production designer, and the art department, did a pretty amazing job dressing the location with as much period-authentic details and set dressing as possible. But we did a great deal of extension work on that. We had a period-authentic bus that drove through, and several cars, but we added lots and lots and lots of digital cars to the street. Plus a lot of crowd sprites that we shot. And a whole lot of building extensions. It’s ironic that, actually, Piccadilly Circus is at one end of the street, but it’s the opposite end of the street because of where we shot. So we swapped that around.

And then Ellie goes into the foyer of Café de Paris. As she walks in, the cloakroom attendant walks up to take her coat. And as he does so, it reveals on the other side of him that her doppelganger has appeared, Sandie. The way we did this was we had a doubled set and a mirror, which could slide back. So when she first walks in, the mirror is in place. But as the cloakroom attendant walks past, the mirror slides away, its edge being hidden by his body. And that reveals the doubled set where Anya Taylor-Joy as Sandie is performing on the other side.

Again, this was a brilliant choreography job by Jen, who coached the actresses to perform this move in lockstep with one another. And also, Oliver and James Phelps, who played the cloakroom attendants. These were actually twins playing the cloakroom attendant on either side. They take Ellie’s sweatshirt and Anya’s cloak, and then they go to hang it up in the cloakroom. So they were performing in sync with one another. And then as Ellie walks up to the mirror to examine it, we push in on Sandie in the mirror. And then when we pull back, they’ve swapped places.

That end part of the shot was done with another take that was just brilliantly smooth and seamlessly repeated by Chris Bain, the Steadicam operator. And it was all comp’ed together really, really, really seamlessly by DNEG. We added a fingerprint on the mirror and a little bevel around the mirror, which was in there to kind of sweeten it and set it all in place.

b&a: Because in that moment, Ellie and Sandie actually touch each other’s fingers, don’t they?

Tom Proctor: Yes, they just tapped a point in space. And they really, really did a great job getting their performances locked in with one another. I think we did tweak a couple of timing moments in comp, just adjusting, just re-speeding things, details here and there to get everything perfectly synced up. But I think it’s one of my favorite shots ever. It’s just such a cool, slick and seamless invisible effect.

It was so much fun devising it. There’s a lot of mirror gags in the movie. It was a lot of fun going through with Edgar and Oscar, and looking at all sorts of different movies where mirror gags have been used before, and trying to think of ways we could come up with our own and keep people guessing, and not just rely on digital effects, but work some SFX and some practical magic in there, too.

b&a: Actually, did you look at these mirror gags in different films to get an inspiration for how they might be done?

Tom Proctor: Yeah, absolutely. There was one in Contact that we looked at. There is some great mirror stuff in Poltergeist III, which was really cool. We talked to the director, and he talked us through how some of them were achieved. And it was wonderful because, I mean, it was all practical. There were no digital effects back then.

Of course, I think they had a lot longer to work those things out. They gave themselves a lot more time to plan those sorts of things back then, because there was no other way to do it. But it was a great privilege to see that. There’s a fantastic one in Sucker Punch, which was nice because I’d worked with DJ, the VFX sup on that one. That was nice to pay homage to some of his work.

b&a: In the film there’s a mirror shot with a spiral-like staircase. And the mirrors, they’re like multiple mirror panels. How did you do that shot?

Tom Proctor: That was multi-pass photography, with motion control on one of the bigger moves on it. There’s also a shot where they run up the stairs at the end, which we shot, in which Matt Smith as Jack and Anya are holding hands. And you see Matt and Thomasin in the mirror holding hands. But that was just, again, repeat moves by hand, and just really skilled comp and a lot of roto and prep.

b&a: There’s a kissing scene in the phone booth–can you talk about achieving that gag?

Tom Proctor: That’s another one where we had a sliding mirror in the back of the booth. So when they first move into place, the mirror is there. And then they go in for an initial kiss. When they part, we’re sliding the mirror back to reveal Thomasin on the other side. We had a double for Matt, performing. We always kept his face turned away. I think there was a little bit of digital sweetening done on the timing, very slight, and obscuring the edge of the mirror as it moves away in the slight shift that you get in the doubled set. But yeah, that was a great one. That’s one of my favorites. I’m glad you noticed that one.

b&a: I feel like I want to watch the film again just to ‘spot’ more.

Tom Proctor: [laughs]. Well, we did some motion control work in the bedroom when Sandie first sits down at her Triptych vanity mirror, and you see Ellie reflected in it. We had witness cameras to put the images on the side mirrors. And then we shot multiple passes. We had a doubled set on the other side of the vanity, in the center. And then we used the TechnoDolly to repeat the move so that you see Sandie in it twice. Then you see Ellie in it twice at the end of the shot. After the camera turns around, she steps into frame again.

There’s another one where after the Rialto, they look at the dress in the window of the dress shop on the street. So we shot that in two parts. We had shot the interior first in the bedroom, and then we shot the material on location in Soho, again, using a TechnoDolly to repeat the camera as it moves out and you pass. So you see Ellie’s reflection between Matt and Anya on the street, in the dress shop window. And then you pull out through the mirror surface, and Ellie’s sitting at the vanity. And she turns around to see Matt and Anya getting into bed together.

b&a: How did you generally plan all these shots? Does someone draw stick figure diagrams? Do you do any kind of animatics or previs?

Tom Proctor: We previs’d the mirror shot in the foyer. The other place we used previs was in the car, for the CG shots of Piccadilly Circus. But for the most part, we had like little maquettes of the sets in some places so that we could visualize what the angles were going to be. And then when we began building the sets, it was just a lot of walkthroughs and talking things out and shooting tests.

I eventually broke down and made a set of methodology documents that had each of the layers drawn in super crude, cartoon figure form, talking through what was going to be needed and then how they would be assembled. It’s really difficult to get them straight in your own head, and then make sure that the key people: myself, Chung-hoon Chung, the DOP, Richard Graysmark, the first AD, and Edgar, and Jen, and our camera operators, we had to hold this in our heads straight. And then we also had to convey it to the rest of our crew. And the performers too, they really needed to be on board and understand what it was we were trying to do.

b&a: There’s also a couple of moments where they’re in a booth in the club, and then Ellie is through the mirror. And then at one point, she’s smashing the mirror saying, ‘Don’t go with him,’ or something like that. How were these done?

Tom Proctor: That was again complicated by the intense flashing lights in the scene. There was a six different color light sequence that flashes throughout that. We had a double booth. The mirrors in the booth were removable. So if you looked at the shot of the booth, on one half, you’d have the punter, who’s coming to visit her, reflected in the mirror. And on the other half of the booth, we’ve removed it, and there’s a cavity there with the booth doubled in. There’s a greenscreen beyond, so we would comp the reflection of the club in there, being careful to make sure the sequence of the lights was flashing to match.

We created the sense of a mirror surface there. A little bit of a sense of film on it, maybe some fingerprints and smudges. When Ellie goes to smash it, we had a little plexiglass card, which we held up at the mirror surface, so she had something to strike her hand against. And we painted that out. We had a great in-house comp team that did a lot of the shots. Helen Bunker and Demis Lyall-Wilson did some really awesome work for us, on lots of those shots. And I think they deserve a lot of credit because with the flashing lights, it made for a very difficult greenscreen pull. And then DNEG did the shots of the shattering glass.

b&a: I was going to ask you actually, with those mirror gags, was it something that you needed a quick slap comp done on set to check that it worked? Or were you confident in what you had?

Tom Proctor: We had an on-set comp’er with us for a good deal of time. Any of the days that we had one of these technical shots, our guy, David Aulds, was there. And he would really quickly slap the takes together from QTAKE. It was a huge source of relief for, I think, Edgar to see that the plan was working, and then he had something he could drop in the cut immediately.

I’ve also got to say it was really cool having Paul Machliss, the editor, on set for a lot of the shoot. So much of Edgar’s work is just seamless. The edit just propels you through the movie throughout. And it’s very reliant on actors hitting their beats. And everybody and everything needs to work in sync like this well-oiled machine, a choreographed film crew. So getting to drop the work in immediately with Paul, being able to say, ‘That’s good. We can move on,’ was huge. It’s a great sense of relief.

b&a: Another mirror question, were any Steadicams or cameras reflected in the mirrors? I know we can paint things out and we can make that happen these days, but did you have a certain way of dealing with that at all?

Tom Proctor: We did a lot of painting out of reflections. I remember when I first showed up on set, we knew we had a lot of mirror gags to do, but there were a lot of mirrors in the sets. And I turned to Marcus going, ‘Do you think you could cut us a break here? Let’s lose some mirrors.’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s part of the language of the film…’. And of course I think he was right to include them.

I think in the Café de Paris, there’s something like 170 mirrors on that set. So we painted out the camera or crew here or there. But there’s also a lot of reflections of Ellie showing up in different little places. Where we caught reflections of Anya, we try to put in Ellie wherever we could.

b&a: Oh, nice. Well, now I definitely need to watch it again.

Tom Proctor: In the basement club scene, when Sandie first gets dragged in by Jack, and then she turns to the mirror, and you see Ellie in the mirror. That was a tricky one with our Steadicam op reflected right there. So we had to shoot some extra plates of the club interior that we comp’ed in. And we shot some extra takes of dancers dancing around so comp could use them to hide crew.

b&a: There’s also the Piccadilly Circus scene once they leave the Café de Paris in Jack’s car.

Tom Proctor: That’s one of the shots I’m proudest of–that big, wide Piccadilly Circus in 1965. Piccadilly Circus is one of the busiest intersections in the world, so we couldn’t shoot there. And even if we did, it looks completely different now than it did then. So our team in Montreal, led by Fabricio Baessa, did a really great job. We did a lot of picture research, making sure that we had all of the right signs for 1965, all the neon. And we had a motion graphics team helping us with the programming of the neon sign, so that they’re all animated properly.

We built this incredibly detailed model down to all of the signs. There’s a lot of research done into what the signs on each corner looked like. We shot a lot of crowd sprites. But again, wanting to keep it kind of grounded in reality, we shot the car practically, actually, we shot it on an airstrip. And we had a cherry picker standing in for the statue on the fountain in the middle. And we previs’d it. So I plotted out on the airstrip the path that the car needed to take. It’s a really beautiful, seamless comp work which also involved adding the reflections from the digital environment.

For a film that’s all the while so practically grounded, to have the shot with this massive CG environment sitting in the middle of it nicely, it’s great. There was a lot of period enhancement work done throughout. We did shoot on location in Soho, which is London’s nightlife hub. It never stops. In fact, at 3am, it’s probably crazier than at rush hour in most parts of the city. So, you can imagine for these night scenes, in the middle of summer, there were just revellers everywhere. And quite a lot of work was done having to paint random people out of frame, who were running through.

At some point, we were plotting exactly where the locations were going to be, doing location scouts. And we wanted to make sure that we kind of paid homage to some classic venues, so we made sure that we go past Blue Posts as one of the classic watering holes. And also Newman Passage, there’s a pub at either end of Newman Passage, which are frequent late night spots. So we wanted to make sure that something happened there.

When Ellie and John leave the Halloween party, and they get off the bus and they run past the Raymond Revue Bar, that was probably the most challenging part of the shoot because we had a limited set of rain bars, but it was still quite a lot of water that we were pumping out. And it was just when all the clubs are letting out. So there’s all of these clubs with drunken people getting out. They’re all sweaty. And they see these rain bars going and they’re like, ‘Woohoo!’ They started running through them. So that was going to be a fair amount of work, painting out randoms running through our rain.

I’d like to conclude on a personal note. Principal photography happened before Covid, and we were just beginning post when the world locked down. And when so many people were so terribly isolated at that time, I felt very privileged – I think the rest of the team would agree with this – that we had this tight-knit, creative, inspiring, collaboration carrying on over Zoom each day. It’s so rewarding that the film has finally been released and to get to talk about our work on it.

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