Where the invisible effects sing

Crafty Apes breaks down their key shots in ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’.

A fire tower. Dancing leaves. Bridge removal.

These are just some of the diverse–and invisible–visual effects tasks that Crafty Apes tackled on Olivia Newman’s Where the Crawdads Sing.

The film is of course not a visual effects tentpole, but VFX still played a key role in cementing certain North Carolina marshland settings, and sometimes removing modern artifacts from the plates.

Crafty Apes visual effects supervisor Kolby Kember, who worked closely with visual effects producer Sarah McCulley on the film, details the work in this befores & afters interview.

b&a: One thing I wanted to ask you about firstly was working on a film that feels like it doesn’t have any visual effects in it at all.

Kolby Kember: I know a lot of our team, they really love doing that exact type of work–invisible effects–the stuff that people don’t notice, because that means you do your job really well when you don’t see that. Which is sort of the unfortunate part, too. People watch and say, ‘I had no idea it was VFX,’ but that’s also a backhanded compliment in the sense that that means we did a really great job, right?

In terms of the approach, we knew going into it that, with the effects, we didn’t want them to seem overly whimsical and wanted to ground them in reality and wanted to make everything feel really natural.

b&a: I think an example of the invisible effects work is the fire tower, which I’m not sure I even realized involved greenscreen work. How did you plan that part of the work?

Kolby Kember: Yeah, but, I mean, the thought of how incredibly unsafe it would be to practically shoot something that tall. So the fact that it sells as being practical is awesome because obviously that was our goal. We didn’t want it to feel greenscreen’d and comp’d.

We worked with the production designer, Sue Chan, pretty closely on this one and we knew going into it that we couldn’t build a practical 200 foot tall tower. So the immediate conversation was, how can we chunk this thing out into pieces and where can we shoot scenes practically?

The fire tower was designed to match a practical one that existed in Louisiana. We were able to go down to that practical fire tower way in the farthest southeast corner of Louisiana to shoot some practical drone plates. We essentially shot moving HDRs from each viewpoint of the fire tower so that we could stitch it into one big HDR sky dome and use that to actually comp with, as opposed to just using it for lighting CG elements. And of course we used them to light the CG components because of all the glass in it.

So, we were able to build out this from a practical fire tower to get this really nice environment build for comp’ing and it helped us keep continuity. We could place all the cameras, we knew where they were always looking, so we were never looking at a part of the world that we might have accidentally rotated too far. We were always able to position inside of that practical world space.

Then, there was a practical location where they built the bottom 20 feet for the actors to start their ascent. That’s where we had the big tilt up and we CG-extended all the way past the trees.

Then on a massive parking lot, they wrapped a set with greenscreens. They built another 20 foot middle section and the gantry deck where they could actually go out and walk on it.

We could use the middle chunk for all the different levels they walk up. And for the shots at the top of the gantry looking down or looking out, we would extend the views in CG.

b&a: I suppose shooting the greenscreen elements outdoors was all about matching the lighting, of course.

Kolby Kember: Yeah, that’s actually a really great point because that had come up in our planning phase, as well. We did consider, does it make sense to use this as a cover set indoors and try and light it for outdoors, or do we legitimately try and shoot it outdoors so we get all that natural ambience? The DP on the project, Polly Morgan, was very adamant about making sure we shot this in natural sunlight, which at the end of the day I totally agree with, it really helped the whole integration of it all. That went a really long way in making it feel natural.

Some of the other big challenges with matching it were just getting out there to shoot those plates. It was seriously so far out. We had a small boat with myself, the DP, the director, and a two-man drone team that were able to go out way away from any civilization.

b&a: Maybe one of the more mystical effects in the film are the leaves that dance around–how was that accomplished?

Kolby Kember: The goal was originally to try and attempt this practically, and then extend the background leaves in VFX where needed. The special effects team built a really nice wind tunnel. It was a big tube that the actors stood in with 20 fans positioned all the way around it and they threw practical leaves in, cranked up all the fans and tried to spin it.

One of the challenges was, once you have all those leaves in there and wind, you really can’t control it. There might be too many leaves, or they’re blocking the view, or not enough leaves. So we ended up shooting with minimal practical leaves, say for some interaction where they might land on a shoulder or flutter past, and then we added our CG leaves in.

b&a: There’s the moth in the film, how was that achieved?

Kolby Kember: We approached it like any other CG asset. We shot our HDRs, we collected a ton of reference of wood and moths that were specific to this location.

They also came out there with a couple of practical moths and butterflies that we could shoot reference of on the day. We were able to shoot a lot of their wing patterns and designs in person and use them, which was also extremely helpful.

b&a: How were the birds realized?

Kolby Kember: We partnered with Mr. X for the birds, Chris Ritvo was the VFX supervisor there. I actually found a seagull model at Hobby Lobby that I spray painted gray and put markers on that we could use for size reference in the shots.

We positioned it around the set, and that was very useful for scale and lighting reference.

b&a: Oh nice, I’m a big stuffies fan.

Kolby Kember: It just helped people visualize the non-existing thing that they need to be reacting to. I think it’s always fun to have that in play.

Crafty Apes crew members Times Square: Sarah McCulley (producer), Sam Claitor (head of studio), Kolby Kember (VFX supervisor), Nick Stevens (compositing supervisor).

b&a: Would you say there are other invisible effects moments in the film that you’re particularly proud of?

Kolby Kember: Well, paintouts and splitscreens are common invisible effects. And there’s some shots where they’re out on the water and during filming there’s a lot of managing of boats–boat drift is a real thing–so we would do some tether removal.

They also wanted scenes where Kya is on the water to feel very desolate. They didn’t want a whole lot of man-made structures in play. But one of the locations that they shot at was right off of Lake Pontchartrain and if you look it up, there’s actually one of the largest land bridges in the world that runs right across Lake Pontchartrain that was unfortunately in the background of most of the shots from that location. That was just another little touch of the invisible work.

There were a handful of stunt performances that we aided in, too. This was where maybe they needed punches to have better contact. There’s a whole scene where Kya’s getting beat up and kicked on and we helped the stunt performances there. That actually got audible gasps when we were at the premiere of the film. It’s interesting to see how such a small, invisible effect to make those punches and kicks feel like they’re connecting harder and more intense goes a long way to selling that story point.

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