A breakdown of Rodeo FX’s Berlin dining hall visual effects in ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore’.
At one point in David Yates’ Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, the characters Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and Eulalie ‘Lally’ Hicks (Jessica Williams) find themselves in a Berlin dining hall bounding towards each other on a makeshift bridge made of book pages.
To film that scene, production had the actors run across a purpose-built platform in a dining hall set. This platform would then be replaced by Rodeo FX with a bridge of papers, with the VFX studio also orchestrating a magical maelstrom of dining plates, cups and other debris throughout the sequence. The final effect is a portkey allowing the characters to escape.
Here, Rodeo FX visual effects supervisor Arnaud Brisebois, who worked with production VFX supervisor Christian Manz on the film, breaks down the dining room sequence, from the live-action shoot to final shots.
What they shot
Arnaud Brisebois: They made ‘plates’ for the actors to jump along. They were a foot and a half diameter foam circles that were put on a semi-solid suspension rig on top of a platform, so that their stride would be uneven, as if pushing through papers or pages that would be giving a weight to their movement.
It was a huge rig. It took up 60% of the frame sometimes. We rebuilt the entire hall. We’d then extract the characters from the live-action and put them into a full CG background. Not for every shot, but where it worked. The fully-CG room allowed for all the flexibility we needed.
Interestingly, the walls had these large paintings where the people in those paintings had to be animated. We were originally asked not to touch the paintings in terms of any big movement, but then David said, ‘Oh, it feels like we’re missing a bit of energy. These canvases should be moving and flipping in the wind from the magical storm.’ We were very thankful that we had it all as a CG set which meant we could add animation and FX sims in there to make the canvas flap in the storm.
Crafting a book bridge
For the book that gets used to make the bridge, we had that as a rigged CG asset with maybe 400 or 500 pages attached to the book. For the individual pages, we had to make these with a bunch of texture variations.
In postvis, we came up with a way of giving the bridge a magical formation in order to create an arch that they climb. We tried a simple control to have it flip and rotate so that it would start from a book opening and then the book cover separating, and then creating a spiral. Then as the pages would split, they would flatten out and there would be another ripple flipping them over and then spreading.
This got us to a certain point and we actually built a rig that did that, but it only worked really for a single shot. After that, we needed to do the formation with effects simulation because that gave us so much more control. We could redefine the spacing exactly as we wanted, multiply the amount of pages, the rotation, all of that.
We needed to make the bridge work for different beats. First, it was the throwing. This is the accordion-type look, which sees the pages spreading. Then once the arc is created and the characters are running on it, it starts to fold and starts to spin and rotate into that portkey. So it wasn’t one giant setup that allowed for all of the shots–there were about four or five modules to it.
Storm of teacups, plates and even fire
For the storm, we had to build all the dressings and every single food and cutlery piece in the hall. We made something like 400 assets for that, every single piece of asparagus! For the storm, we rendered all that in deep, because there were so many pieces to deal with for the compositors.
Also, a fire spell is cast, and it burns the pages that are right behind our characters. As the pages were coming up, there’s this wide shot where the fire spell burns a bunch of pages right behind Jacob, who loses his balance a bit. The fire propagates between all of the pages behind Jacob. Even though the bridge is disappearing as it’s curling, it’s also burning.
A curious challenge: dark and light marble
What ended up being unusually tricky about this whole sequence was that the room had white marble and then dark marble. It also had the paintings, which had lots of various tonalities in there. Then you’ve got your silverware, which is very reflective, and glasses which are basically transparent shapes.
What was tricky was, there was so much going on. There were so many small elements, but you’re never against the same type of tonal value for very long. There was a point where I went in and said to my team, ‘Okay guys, when you start going over the white marble, you’re going to need to bring up your ambient, so that things pop a bit more. When they’re against the dark, you’re going to bring up the spec, so it shines a bit.’
We developed a few tricks like that to make sure that we’d retain the overall motion of things and so that you wouldn’t lose something when it goes over a white wall.