Mirror gags, mountain extensions and *that* beach scene: the VFX of ‘Decision to Leave’

Go behind the scenes of the invisible effects in the South Korean film everyone is raving about.

It’s hard to describe Park Chan-wook’s film Decision to Leave without giving too much away. And it’s also hard to showcase the fantastic invisible effects work in it, also without giving things away. So, take this as your major plot spoiler warning for this romantic mystery.

The film uses visual effects in clever ways to tell quirky–and major–story points, thanks to visual effects supervisor Lee Jeon-hyoung, who has collaborated with Park on several projects.

Decision to Leave was recently selected as that country’s entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 95th Academy Awards. If you haven’t yet seen it, here’s the trailer, below, and then befores & afters’ interview with Lee Jeon-hyoung about the VFX.

b&a: It’s so fantastic seeing the invisible effects in this film. What were the initial conversations about with the director about the ‘style’ of visual effects required?

Lee Jeon-hyoung: I participated in almost all of Director Park Chan-Wook’s projects. Beginning with Oldboy in 2003, I learned and experienced the various visual expressions in his many sequences through working on his films. These days, we don’t have too many initial conversations. Perhaps, we don’t need to. Even without having a conversation with him, I can already imagine and predict what he needs. For instance, the script of Decision to Leave begins with the mountains and ends on the ocean.

Grid applied.
FX elements.
Final whirpool shot.

Associating the common visual image of the mountain’s features and the waves of the ocean, then constructing and applying these images in principal photography and post-production; some of these images appearing in the film as if they were hidden, while others appear as if they were intentional, and through this effect, the image is visually enforced and suggested upon the audience, adding a fundamental narrative force to the film.

Director Park gives me many questions and hints through the script, and I predict, suggest, and create based on what I believe he wants. All of these adds up from principal photography through the end of the post-production process, and they are expressed visually in the film.

b&a: For the rock climbing scenes, can you talk about the planning involved in working out what could be filmed ‘for real’, what could be filmed on set, and how you would orchestrate digital set extensions?

Lee Jeon-hyoung: The upper portion of Beegeum Peak that the actors interact with was built on set, and the rest (extension, BG) was created with CGI. We designed the design and space of Beegeum Peak before the shoot, and proceeded by distinguishing what will be built on set and what will be CGI-ed by creating a techvis. The climbing scenes, which were more difficult to work with, were filed with chroma key, and we used CGI to create the surfaces of Beegeum Peak that looked similar to the background.

Depth pass.
Final shot.

Most of the space in the sequence of Ki Do-soo’s fall was created with CGI, and falling Ki Do-soo was created as a digital character to execute the angles and camera movements we wanted. For any scenes that would endanger the actor or were impossible to film, we built the rocky surface on set and filmed with the chroma key; we used CGI to created different camera movements and extend the surfaces of Beegeum Peak, in addition to adding the background in the end.

b&a: What were some of the major shooting and then technical challenges in crafting the end beach scenes, especially dealing with the surrounding environment, the hole and the tide?

Lee Jeon-hyoung: The final beach sequence was filmed at three different beach locations, so it was important to make all of them look like one natural location. There were varying weathers (wind) and varying environments and landscapes. One of these sequences had too much snow and rain, so we created a new space using digital matte painting and planned out their places, so that it aligns with the shots filmed in other locations. We also had to match varying color temperatures and exposure levels and add mist to the space to minimize the differences between these different spaces.

FX elements.
Final shot.

For most of the cuts, the space around the hole included CGI-ed background. As for the waves that crash onto the mound of sand in front of the hole, we built the sand mound and the special effects team made water flow onto it at the right timing to make it fall apart. We used CGI to match the strength of the waves to the strength of the water that was filmed on camera and completed the scene by adding a sunset in the background.

b&a: What might be one shot or sequence that featured invisible effects work that you don’t think audiences will realize involves visual effects at all?

Lee Jeon-hyoung: Working with director Park Chan-Wook, I am able to freely and creatively approach creating both visual effects the audience might not notice and those that are intended to capture their attention.

The rocks at Seo-Rae’s last space and the shape of the lie detector graph are designed based on the outline of the geography around Beegeum Peak

The whirlpool that is created as Seo-Rae’s hole fills with water, and the whirlwind of mist created as Hae-Joon’s car passes through. The red bloodied line created in Ki Do-Soo’s eyes from his point of view shot, the same bloody line from the point of view of the fish, and finally, the red line that overlaps on Four Heavenly King statue’s eye at the temple.

The steam from stirring coffee creating a whirlwind, and Seo-Rae’s mother’s ashes surrounding Hae-Joon in the form of a whirlwind.

And the best example of a hidden effect would be the interrogation scene. Physical focus and defocus shifts to physically impossible focus work for creative purposes. Normally, the camera focuses on the subject and the background is defocused accordingly, but in the interrogation scene, the focus changes depending on the two actors’ dialogue and psychological state. When Seo-Rae is speaking her line, instead of Seo-Rae’s reflection defocusing, Hae-Joon, sitting to her right, is defocused. At other times, except for Seo-Rae in the foreground, Hae-Joon, and the reflections of Seo-Rae and Hae-Joon are all defocused.

Plate 1.
Reflections plate.
Background removal.
Final shot.

This is to intentionally bring out the duality of the two characters’ psychology, and to show the audience rational doubt of the suspect in the criminal sense, but also an emotional investment at the same time. If you consciously take note of this as you’re watching the film, the delicate emotions of duality would feel as if they are profoundly intersecting each other.

Finally, the beginning of the final sequence in which Hae-Joon arrives at the beach to look for Seo-Rae. The overhead shot shows Hae-Joon park his car and we can see the gentle waves on the right of the frame. We changed the shape of the waves here, so that they resemble the profile of Seo-Rae’s face. It acts as an easter egg, but more importantly, it foreshadows that Seo-Rae has already made the decision to leave and became one with the sea.

b&a: Briefly, what can you say about the state of play of the South Korean visual effects industry right now — there is such amazing work being done.

Lee Jeon-hyoung: There are a number of creative and talented VFX supervisors and studios in Korea. With the growth of OTT platforms, Korea has been producing a wider variety of content, and the VFX industry, accordingly, has entered a new phase of growth. Additionally, for a long time, creative directors and producers in Korea have been consistently requesting VFX studios in the country for new technology and ideas, and in turn, provided great creative content; they have created an environment that is able to produce original and high-quality output.

Such experience and know-how that has accumulated over time are being given the opportunity to shine in various films and OTT content these days. Films with an original style such as Decision to Leave and equally creative visual effects are being consistently created in Korea right now. This has been tremendously helpful for the Korean VFX industry and has greatly contributed to improving Korean projects’ visual quality.

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