It certainly *looked* like Michelle Williams was playing the piano in ‘The Fabelmans’…

…but actually that was the result of some very neat visual effects work from Industrial Light & Magic.

In Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, Michelle Williams’ character Mitzi is seen playing the piano. There was just one problem. Williams does not play the piano in real life.

Such scenarios are often dealt with in other movies by shooting from behind the actor, or cutting from shots of the actor’s head and face to another actor’s hands actually playing the instrument.

This was not an approach that would work for the Fabelmans scene, since Spielberg and Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski wanted to move the camera and play with the reflections of Mitzi in the piano during the piano moments.

So, the director looked to his visual effects supervisor—Pablo Helman from Industrial Light & Magic—for a solution, one that needed to offer a relatively quick turnaround and, for time and budget reasons, avoid any kind of 3D digi-double build.

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“Given those constraints,” outlines Helman, “I said, ‘Why don’t we just get a pianist that has the same body or the same body characteristics as Michelle, and we shoot her? Then we have Michelle there to watch that performance, and then we shoot her through the same move, and then we just do a head swap.’”

That’s exactly what they did

This was ultimately the approach that was undertaken, with one extra very specific challenge: the camera moves would not be done with the aid of any motion control, that is, they would be repeated by hand, as were, of course, the ‘mimicked’ motions of Williams.

While challenging, Helman was unfazed at the approach, having actually done something similar on The War of the Worlds with Spielberg several years ago for the highway scene featuring a camera moving in and out of a moving vehicle.

“The one thing that we had done in War of the Worlds in the car that was a bit different was we had recorded a count,” identifies Helman. “There, the 1st AD Adam Somner recorded a count so that everybody could hear it, and we had marked the path, so we knew that by number seven we had to be there with the count. But in this case with the piano, we didn’t have to do that because it was all tied to the music. The music you hear in that scene was actually recorded live, not dubbed, it is what they got on set. So everybody was attuned to a certain part of the music and they knew where to be.”

How it was shot

Three passes made up the final different shot piano playing scenes. The first pass featured the stand-in pianist playing the piano for the purposes of using her hands and body. She wore small greenscreen markers near her shoulders for a ground truth matchmove reference. Then Williams ‘performed’ the piece of music with the hand-repeated camera move, also with those tracking markers in place. Helman placed a bluescreen behind the actor in order to extract parts of her.

Finally, a third clean pass with no performer but with the piano and set-pieces remaining was captured. For each pass, the camera and dolly operators followed a series of marks on the stage floor to line up the moves.

“Between the three passes, I knew that we could do it,” says Helman. “I also immediately passed those plates to the editor and also my visual effects editor, and we very quickly put them all together just to make sure that if there were discrepancies that we could overcome them. I showed this to Steven and he said, ‘Great, you work it out.’ He didn’t worry about it anymore. The next time he saw the shots they were basically done.”

Final VFX and a VFX legacy

Visual effects artists then extracted Williams’ head for the scene and warped and morphed where necessary to marry each plate. Despite the time pressures and lack of motion control, Helman is extremely pleased with the way the piano scene played out. He puts this down to the fine work of the visual effects artists at ILM, as well as the close collaboration between him and the on-set team which has spanned several years.

“The funny thing is, it was the same people that we worked with 15 years ago on War of the Worlds. Here we were 15 years older with a lot more gray hair. It was so great to work with them again.”

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