Hovering between the real and surreal

MPC breaks down the visual effects for several key scenes in Alejandro Iñárritu’s ‘Bardo.’

Director Alejandro Iñárritu’s Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths sees journalist/documentarian Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) returning to Mexico and experiencing several visions.

Helping to bring these surreal (and sometimes real) moments to life was MPC, led by visual effects supervisors Guillaume Rocheron and Olaf Wendt, visual effects producer Christoph Roth, and a team of 700+ artists.

Here, Wendt describes for befores & afters some of the most challenging VFX work orchestrated by MPC over more than 480 shots, including the opening disembodied shadow in the desert, the birth scenes and more.

On the overall approach to the VFX

Olaf Wendt: What was so interesting about this project was that Alejandro really treated visual effects as just part of the storytelling. For him it’s not storytelling, it’s a visual experience. It’s not just what the plot is, or what’s being said, it’s about the totality of that experience. And visual effects forms an integral part of that. He doesn’t think of VFX as something separate. He makes it part of his process, which is actually very interesting. The film hovers somewhere between the surreal and the real. Alejandro even told us, ‘If you want to analyze this thing with logic, that’s not going to work. You need to experience it.’

Disembodied shadow man

The opening of the film with the shadow is a three-and-a-half thousand frame shot. It’s the first time we see the main protagonist, Silverio, and the shadow had to express the personality of his character. The actor was shot on stage on wires, and we motion-tracked this to explore how Silverio would jump and how he would fly.

Alejandro wanted it to feel like when he first tries and he flies that it’s joyful, and then he lands, and the next time he flies, it’s more purposeful. He gets better at it. There’s an arc even within this single shot. The whole shot itself, it’s like a dream, as I understand it. This came out of a dream that Alejandro had of him flying and a dream he had repeatedly.

We’d get notes from Alejandro in Mexico saying, ‘I was in the pool, seeing how my shadow behaves on the ground. What’s really interesting is that it stays sharp, but gets more de-focus.’ Even little elements like this become very, very important because they can change the emotion.

The other really interesting thing about this is that Alejandro did a sound mix with foley footsteps and he really wanted us to follow that audio. We nailed it to the audio, and then we could ramp it up. The sound becomes part of the experience.

It’s a hallucinatory, surreal, half dream-like experience. And you can look at this in a number of different ways. Silverio at the end, dies, although not explicitly. So is this a flashback? That’s the kind of tension I think that Alejandro was looking for.

Birth

There’s three babies in the film shown at different stages. For the baby birth in the hospital, they did shoot with a puppet, which was static, and some reference of real babies. Ultimately when we did the CG baby, we had to give it a performance. We originally built a newborn that had a much more squashed head, like newborns do have. We worked with that for a while, but then I really wanted it to read as the same character across the three scenes. So the head shape became more rounded.

We would replace the puppet and then even have to animate some of the hand movements of the doctors, and then replace the whole table it’s being put down on with its own digital cloth sim. It was a shot that we all felt was, ‘This is make or break’. As Alejandro would say, ‘If this doesn’t work, the film will not work. The film is dead. No pressure.’

It was a really long shot–you have to run the fat sim, the hair sim, you have to sim the table, you’re trying to get all the tech to work. That’s all challenging over that length. There were also considerations about the white covering over the baby–the vernix–it can’t be too icky. We had one version where, well, several versions actually, where in the end the baby looked a bit beaten up so he had to pull back.

The train and the axolotls

The train sequence was shot on an LED volume in Mexico City. The axolotls were real in some shots and then CG in others. They’re interesting creatures. They’re semi-translucent. They look quite different under the water than they look up above water.

This whole sequence is interesting because we see Silverio chase the axolotls through the watery train and then he ends up in his apartment disembodied in the desert. They did actually do a build in the desert, but we would also do some clean-up and add a separately shot studio element of Silverio.

Silverio meets his father

This sequence had Silverio’s head on a child’s body, meeting his dad in the bathroom. We shot this with a 10-year-old actor, then with the Silverio actor sitting on a stool. In some of the shots we could actually use the body of the kid directly, but in quite a few shots they just didn’t line up very well, so we had to project the head of Silverio.

For example, he might just be performing on a chair that was sliding along the ground, and his head wouldn’t bob up and down the way it would when you’re walking, so he had to completely re-time that.

To get a believable connection between the head and the body, you really have to feel that all the movements tie together, the balance, the weight distribution. In those cases we used a CG body for the kid.

What was interesting about this whole sequence was that Alejandro initially wanted this to be quite funny. There was an earlier version of the sequence where the size relationship between the head and the body was even more skewed. It was a bigger head on a smaller body. We tried this on a still frame and in some shots it actually looks really funny, but then it’s really hard to make that work in terms of biomechanics. So in the end we inched back towards keeping the head the real size it was shot at and the body at the real size.

Zócalo square

This was shot on location in Mexico City. We added a digital version of Centeōtl, the Aztec god of maize. There was a practical set piece for hand contact But the rest of the statue is digital. Then there’s the pyramid of dead people.

When Silverio climbs this pyramid, it was shot on a stage with quite different lighting. That was very challenging to integrate completely. We made a recreation of Zócalo square and also did a CG extension for this pyramid. We had to double the size of the pyramid and just try to make the lighting feel continuous across the whole scene with a digital recreation of the square.

The battle of Chapultepec

This recreation of the Mexican Civil War was a lot of in-camera work. We added in smoke, and some of the soldiers were sliding around on green trolleys on the ground so we had to paint those out.

Some of the shots featuring tons of soldiers were assembled from multiple takes, which was actually a massive piece of work. You’re looking at dozens and dozens of days of prep and paint outs to do that. I think on that tilt down on Chapultepec, that’s over 300 days of roto in that shot alone.

Into the sea

This was where the baby is being released from the urn and then crawls into the sea. That was shot with a little practical puppet, which we then had to replace. The plate contains the water, but we had to add the baby, the shadows, the water interaction, the sims. It’s 3000 frames long where you’re animating a human character. There isn’t actually a lot going on in the shot. The baby was just reacting to being picked up, reacting to the sunlight, all those little subtleties. But you have to maintain that. This is really subtle work where you just have to keep the audience’s gaze.

Silverio and the mirror

In this shot, Silverio meets a mirror version of himself. We pieced together a number of takes for this. We did shoot Silverio in front of a mirror–a practical mirror in the desert–and then we had to paint out all the camera crew and re-create the ground and shadows. To get the performance, to get Silverio and his reflection to do the right actions, was a massive piecing together from different takes.



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