Behind the scenes of the film’s 1300 VFX shots, virtual production techniques, and miniatures work.
Greta Gerwig’s Barbie opens with a prologue homage to the Dawn of Man sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That 1968 scene was famously realized with actors in prehistoric hominid costumes filmed with front projection techniques to place them in a water hole setting, where they suddenly encounter an alien monolith.
Barbie’s homage makes actor Margot Robbie, as Barbie, the giant monolith to a group of young girls playing with dolls. In somewhat of a direct lineage from 2001, the scene in Barbie was filmed using perhaps the most modern form of front/rear projection: an LED volume.
“One of Greta’s desires on the film,” recounts Barbie visual effects supervisor Glen Pratt, who hails from Framestore, “was to say, ‘What would a filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick have used if he were around today?’ He’d certainly be relying on the current tools that are available for contemporary filmmaking. Greta was really keen to make sure she was using the best craft to get the most out of our work.”
As you’ll see in this in-depth befores & afters breakdown of Barbie’s virtual production and visual effects work, Gerwig and her team relied on many tools to bring the film to life, ranging from extensive visualization, to large full-scale sets and practical effects, miniatures, LED volumes, bluescreen shooting, and intricate digital visual effects.
Dawn of Barbie
For the opening 2001 homage, Framestore was brought on board to help visualize the sequence, one that would ultimately be filmed on Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden’s V Stage in an LED volume set up and run by Lux Machina. The idea was that the children and Robbie could be captured on a partial rocky outcrop set and the backgrounds achieved via projected imagery on the LED panels surrounding the set.
It was initially imagined that one kind of dawn background could be fashioned for each angle of the sequence, but after studying the 1968 film, Framestore pre-production supervisor Kaya Jabar noted that every single background was different.
“We tried to tag the different skies in the sequence but then ended up with something like 12 skies that are all completely different. So, as a first pass in previs, we lensed up, we did a very rough environment in Unreal Engine of what we thought it would look like and we matched it to every single frame. It wasn’t exact to 2001 but it evoked the right feeling.”
That work was then taken by the Framestore team to the LED stage at Leavesden, where it was refined and tested for the exact camera angles. A set piece was built to work with the roughed out skies and digital environments. The intention was to aid DOP Rodrigo Prieto in planning out the Dawn of Barbie shoot by providing what were essentially 8-16K matte paintings, not fully 3D real-time rendered environments, that could still be displayed on the LED volume. “One of my TDs designed a really cool tool where,” explains Jabar, “based on the distance from the camera, the matte painting scaled correctly. So when you’re on set, you could grab the tracked camera and snap the pre-designed matte painting layers to it with the correct field of view based on the lens.”
Before the actual shoot, the desire to replicate all the exact skies from 2001 was relaxed, which meant just hero skies were relied upon, including a main 360 degree panorama sky Framestore had made. Most of the final frames were aimed to be achieved as in-camera VFX plates, although as is the case with many LED wall shoots, final shots were certainly finessed and some included additional 3D environment and silhouette work and compositing to deal with the giant Barbie monolith (at one point, the view of the giant Barbie is also completely CG).
“In the end,” notes Jabar, “it was almost the perfect use case of having a layered matte painting there and then cg geometry in the mid-ground with a real foreground set piece.”
Welcome to Barbie Land
Another example of the director looking to take on modern techniques, but with a throwback feel, was the approach to crafting Barbie Land. Indeed, recalls Glen Pratt, Gerwig’s early interest in populating Barbie Land was in miniatures, or even just the look of miniatures. “Greta really loved all the ’50s films, and Singing in the Rain and The Red Shoes, and all those dance numbers on sound stages,” shares Pratt. “Films like that had these beautiful scenic backdrops everywhere and Greta really wanted to evoke that kind of language.”
One challenge with adopting a sound stage shooting approach, however, was that the stages the film would be shot in were never going to be large enough to contain the world of Barbie Land. “It would then be reliant on visual effects to make sure that we still created something that felt like a sound stage,” notes Pratt. “We’d have a bluescreen there and then we’d have to extend the world beyond. But, again, we wanted it to feel like there was sense of a stage there, like a scenic painting or even miniatures representing a mountain range or the sky.”
To help Gerwig, and also production designer Sarah Greenwood, flesh out that idea, Framestore’s FPS (Framestore Pre-production Services) visualization team became involved in virtually building and scouting Barbie Land locations with Framestore’s Farsight suite of tools. FPS crafted previs, and later postvis, mostly in Unreal Engine. Jabar notes that this choice of a real-time renderer solution helped with hitting the many bright colors required for Barbie Land and providing, via virtual camera sessions, an iterative and interactive way for the filmmakers to make decisions about set design and action.
All the visualization assets made by FPS for Barbie Land, and for other surrounding areas, like in the desert, tended to make their way from previs, to LED wall stage assets (if required), to postvis and then to final VFX asset in Framestore’s pipeline.
“What was really great was that we also had a visual development team that was doing some tests and some designs. They were working in Blender,” discusses Jabar. “They started building an assetized pipeline as well to try and confer more closely with film and allow for flexible iteration at scale. For example, they were in charge of the neighbourhood when Barbie steps out onto the roof. They had done a beautiful job and we were able to take those environments and then pull them into postvis. All we had to do was republish them with our PBR textures from Unreal, and then for final VFX shots they could be taken even further.”
Interestingly, one of the challenges for Jabar’s group was keeping all the viz work within the desired ‘clean’ look of Barbie Land. “I kept hitting walls with artists where they’re just so used to working on photoreal action sequences – ‘Oh, I want to put some dust to hide this thing’. The challenge in the film was that you couldn’t hide anywhere, which I think was very uncomfortable for us, because we have ways of hiding. We might put some dust here, some debris there. But there’s no particles in Barbie Land. There’s no atmosphere in Barbie Land. You cannot hide your shortcuts.”
This viz work also included a sequence in which Barbie rides her pink Corvette convertible through Barbie Land, which was eventually filmed in the LED volume for the purpose of gathering interactive light on the car and actors. “We would work with the filmmakers to make the sequences in virtual camera, then polish them slightly and then present them as an edit,” outlines Jabar. “Then we did extensive tech visualization of the pieces of the sets that needed to fit within the LED volume and how that could be shot. All the exact same environments that we had been building through previs, we used for an interactive lighting pass.”
One part of that shot of Barbie driving out of her neighborhood was designed in previs to feel much like a toy vehicle. Jabar says FPS used a steep camera angle, removing the horizon and employing deep focus. “There was just something about removing that depth of field on it that just made it feel really small. We had some other cars driving around the town, as well, and we made it all a bit like a game. It looked so cute.”
Barbie Land in miniature, and fleshing out the world
That virtual production stage of the process then helped inform the building of miniatures of key environments in the film. The miniatures unit was overseen by miniatures head of department Duncan Mude. “Building the miniatures,” says Pratt, “was a really crucial thing to just help get something tangible that we could build out from. Once we had them–Barbie houses, street scenes, shop fronts–we could then use that miniature language, that miniature quality, for our visual effects work.”
The built miniatures were all heavily photographed and scanned, by Clear Angle Studios. This informed the set building process, and the digital building and environment builds. Some, adds Pratt, were actual Barbie toys, houses and buildings). While the miniatures themselves do not appear in the final film (their CG representations do, of course), the film’s trailer does include a few miniature shots.
Live action would then be captured on a mix of partial sets, scenic backgrounds or cycloramas, bluescreen and the aforementioned LED volume. For example, for a shot showing the arrival of Barbie at Weird Barbie’s house, part of the scene was able to filmed with a set in one direction, with a bluescreen setup for the other direction. “That day,” recounts Pratt, “Margot was wearing a royal blue dress, and she even said to me, ‘Glen, is this a problem that I’m in this color?’ I said, ‘The short answer is no.’ It just meant we had to do extensive rotoscoping, but of course all of that is part of the toolkit of what visual effects brings and I knew we’d be able to deal with it.”
Framestore’s Farsight Go AR tool was utilized for some on-set filming with the aim of framing up shots that would later need digital set extensions. Says Jabar: “We had built the environments in Unreal for previs. We could then optimize them a bit, put them on the iPad, and then send them out with an operator for those exact same environments. For example, when they were shooting the beach or on the desert, they were relatively small sets, and our AR tool was used to help with finding the horizon line and framing in particular buildings or props.”
The final visual effects work for Barbie Land and its surrounds then augmenting what had been filmed, and what had been visualized, into a colorful world. “A typical kind of visual effects task we had to do in Barbie Land might be, say for Barbie’s Dream House,” details Pratt. “She would be looking out when she’s standing on top of the roof of her house, there’d be a whole bluescreen beyond the stage. We’d build out the houses and vehicles and other things, and then there’d also be a bunch of painted cycs of mountains and sky, which we’d also extend out where needed.”
“We were very keen to make sure that as much as possible there was a tangibility to the sets, because that was something that Greta felt more comfortable with, and it was also good for the actors to have something there. It also meant Greta had something to anchor onto, when she was looking at shots in post-production–she knew how the world should look.”
A device used to depict the travel between the fantastical Barbie Land and the real world in the film involves the depiction of the characters being transported by car, boat, skidoo, bike, rocket and other ‘dioramas’. Several practical sets, rigs, wire work and moving set-pieces were engineered to capture the ‘travelogues’ in-camera. Pratt was particularly excited to see these for real. “You turn up on set and these very beautiful dioramas had been built. They were lovely to look at.”
Framestore engaged in some early techvis to help establish the mechanics of the build. “We had a virtual art director as well as FPS help determine certain sizes of some of the rig pieces that needed to be made, as well as helping SFX know what size their turntables or their caterpillar tracks needed to be,” says Pratt. “So even though there wasn’t really a lot of visual effects involved in the final shots, behind the scenes there was a lot of helping to make sure that everybody knew everything was going to be in the right position.”
The more elaborate VFX work related to those travelling moments came for the arrival and departures from Venice Beach, details Pratt. “Greta was really keen to make it seem as if that stage prop you see there was just being lowered in by crane from Venice Beach, and a scenic painting rolled back onto the beach. That was VFX work–we couldn’t actually bring those things to Venice Beach.”
Barbie would ultimately comprise 1,300 visual effects shots, and many more that might be considered in-camera practical effects ones, plus scores that were designed with the aid of virtual production techniques. Lead VFX vendor Framestore was joined in the effort by UPP, Chicken Bone FX, Powerhouse VFX and FuseFX.
Visual effects supervisor Pratt pinpoints one particular shot he was most proud of, which was the first moment Barbie floats down onto the beach. It involved the need to create Barbie Land around the character. “We started working on that in May 2022 and finished it about a year later. It was a long journey, but I think really worth it, because I wanted to make sure we got as much of it to feel like it echoed what had been built, to maintain that toy-like quality Greta pushed for so much in this film.”