The dog in the hills is…amazing.
It was only after audience members got a chance to view Alt.vfx’s online video breakdown of its visual effects work for Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog that many realized the extent of invisible VFX in the film. This largely consisted of environment extensions, CG cows and a subtle re-purposing of some hills and shadows to provide the intriguing dog-shape central to the movie.
Here, in this excerpt from issue #5 of befores & afters magazine, Alt.vfx visual effects supervisor Jay Hawkins breaks down the many and varied storytelling effects shots in the film.
b&a: The one kind of invisible effect in this film that still ‘gets’ me is the dog in the hills. How did this come to be?
Jay Hawkins: I agree. I think that was the most interesting challenge and probably the first challenge when we first met with Jane. We talked about a lot of things, but the main challenge, the main thing she hadn’t cracked yet with her production designer, was the dog and the hills.
We talked about what it could be. Is it a rock formation that physically is shaped like a dog? Is it something that only comes out in different types of light? How do we sculpt this in? Do we just go location scouting and look for some hills that we can make CG hills look a dog shape?
About six months before production had started, I went on a location recce with Jane, Ari Wegner, the DOP, Grant Major, the production designer, Sally Sherratt, the location scout manager, and Chloe Smith, the producer. We went around the South Island in New Zealand looking at prospective locations for, amongst other things, the ranch house. While we were there, we spent a very long day looking around. We were driving up to a recce location for the picnic scene and the sun was going down at the time. We were just watching the light streak over these hills and cast these incredibly long shadows from the ridge line onto the hills themselves. They were making shapes. Ari and I were saying, ‘Oh, it’s kind of like a witch’s face,’ or, ‘That looks like a tiger claw.’
Pareidolia is what it’s called. It’s when you see something in the clouds and we thought, ‘Oh, that’s a really interesting thing.’ So I shot a shitload of photos and then when we got back to Sydney, I worked with the concept artist to look at different shapes of dogs, different states of aggression, different silhouettes, and started sculpting hills to look like dogs.
The last thing I tried, I said, ‘OK, let’s try and throw a shadow from a ridge line that only happens at a really late breaking light and cast a dog’s face. Let’s see how we go.’ Of all the concepts I showed Jane, immediately, she just loved that one as an idea. So we set to work to making that happen.
b&a: It’s such a great solution. What did you have to do comp-wise, or in CG or 3D, to get that right shape?
Jay Hawkins: Well, it is a massive comp trick in that we have a dog that we want to look very specific and we had hills that were definitely not catching the shadows. We also had the challenge of when we had recced it, it was winter time and now it was summer. So the angle of light was nowhere near as ‘sexy’ as it was when we had recced it.
So we did two things. One, we shot all of the dog-mountain scenes in the evening. But in order to achieve those nice long shadows, we shot plates at first light in the morning when the sun was coming from the other side. All those scenes that you see with the dog in it are actually flipped backgrounds to get that kind of long ridge line. Then we started working with where we wanted our shadow to be and what our face of our dog would be and then we worked backwards to re-sculpt the ridge line so that they would cast that same shadow.
Now, in order to have it not feel like a static matte painting, the other thing we had to do was create a fully-shaded version of the mountains and a fully-sunlight version of the mountains with the shadow revealed. Our comp artists then used some time-lapse photography that I had shot on the same hills to extract moving-cloud patterns skirting along the ridge line to reveal and hide parts of the shadow at different times and give us a sense of movement.
Throughout the film, a big theme is clouds rolling over those hills. We didn’t want to have something that was going to be too static. We also wanted to have a way that we could hide the dog where we wanted to.
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