Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is set to be released on Digital on March 9th and 4K, Blu-ray and DVD March 18th. To celebrate, we recently had the opportunity to catch up with BAFTA-nominated VFX Supervisor Christian Manz (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) to talk about the work Framestore did on the sequel.
We cover a lot of bases here, including creatures like the Nifflers, Bowtruckle, and that mind-blowing sequence featuring Grindelwald's escape. Christian also addresses how the VFX house avoids spoilers leaking online and comments on the possibility of working on a Marvel movie down the line.
He provides some fascinating insights into the incredible amount of work that goes into bringing a movie like the Fantastic Beasts sequel to life, taking us through many processes step by step. As I mentioned above, Christian and his team have actually been nominated for their work on the movie, so I'd like to once again wish them all the best and thank him for his time. Enjoy...
Can you start by explaining to our readers the role of a Visual Effects Supervisor?
We work with the director from the very start of production to when we deliver the finished movie. We, along with the director and producer are almost the first on and the last off as we're there for the whole process. We're there in pre-production to help design the creatures, so creatively, we're leading a team of people to design them and the action set pieces in the movie.
Then, in the shoot, we're on set all the time making sure that we're working with the director to ensure we can integrate stuff we've designed that's not going to be there into the finished picture. We also work with the director and actors to help make sure that their interactions with creatures that are not there will work later on and then as we move into post-production, we begin working with teams of people – and there are up to about one and a half thousand on a film like this - and they're led by their own supervisors at various companies in the UK and Canada mainly.
So, we'll collaborate with them and they'll be creatively directing their work and sending that back to David [Yates] so we can all then get that into the finished movie.
Was it exciting to see a creature like Nagini return from the Harry Potter series and did the process of creating her differ at all to The Deathly Hallows?
That was one of the things that when I first read the script, it made me stop and say, 'Oh, she's a woman...and then she's a snake!' That was obviously very interesting and Tim [Burke, VFX Supervisor] had supervised Hallows on the production side so I hadn't worked on Nagini but the general tech was the same. We used, in fact, the same snake handler who handled the real snake reference for all of the Harry Potter movies.
The main difference, this time, snake-wise, was the huge level of detail that you can put into a creature like that not only in terms of the outside and the scales but also the muscles and anatomy as that can be more accurate now. We brought a real snake in which was tough for me as I'm absolutely scared to death of snakes so I actually had to be on the other side of the studio but I had a team of people who scanned it, photographed it, and took lots of videos so we could figure out how to do the snake.
As for the transformation part of it, we initially had some concept art and David was thinking more American Werewolf in London, so quite a painful, realistic transformation but that then seemed a bit too dark so he went for something more grounded that had to be quick and take the audience by surprise. We looked at how the human form could bend and thought we could bring in some contortionists as they're people who push the human body to its limits. So, we had a couple of them come in who we recorded doing lots of different moves watching how far they could push themselves and then the animators took that reference and animated a digital human form and we began playing with how we could transform that into the snake and came up with the idea that maybe it would look like coils are appearing and she gets consumed by the snake as that's literally the story we're telling because eventually, as a Maledictus, she will not be able to turn back. It felt right that when she was transforming, she looked like she was being consumed by it.
So, then when we filmed it, we had the lovely Claudia Kim playing Nagini in her costume and then we had Claudia Hughes, the contortionist who was also fully costumed, who performed the scene where she arches her back over. That was in camera and then Framestore, who did the finished shot, built a full build of a CG version of her as a human wearing the dress and the snake. For the transformation, seven snakes were used and that entire shot was one year's work for fifteen seconds. I think where the difference is from Harry Potter to now in terms of what we can do, the technology is freeing us up to be able to play more and come up with and visualise that idea in 3D much quicker than we would have been able to five or ten years ago.
We meet a younger Pickett in this movie: can you take us through how you went about de-ageing him so to speak?
[Laughs] That was an interesting one because we initially had other Bowtruckle in the tree that was based on the same design as the first movie when we saw a smaller Bowtruckle tree so the idea was that Newt, the one he had in his case, was based upon one he had as a child. Initially, we had other Bowtruckle designs but there wasn't that connection with Newt or the audience so we thought, 'What if we have a young Pickett?' and discover that he had him at school, basically. So, we just looked at the design and decided because he almost already kind of a sapling look and was quite green, so we greened him up even more and proportioned him so it appeared he had a bigger head and slightly longer limbs so he is a bit more baby-like and maybe again in his performance, slightly less confident. It was nice to be able to do that.
We then integrated that into pre-vis and took ideas from the art department and second unit director; all those ideas are used in previs for the finished sequence. We then started the planning of how we were going to film it. Stuart had designed a lovely carriage which was physically built by carriage makers in Europe and we had a full version of that and the art department constructed another partial version of the carriage which was just the box people sit in and that was mounted on a motion base that was computer controlled so that we could make it move and we had different setting for diving, high turbulence, and going across the water. When someone was on the front of it like Johnny [Depp], he would be moved and jostled around, so we realised a lot of the external shots would be shot like that with Johnny on the front of the carriage completely soaked. We would literally hose everyone down before every take and blow them with four huge fans so we had the sense of flying at 100mph through a storm. Getting that reality of the wind blowing and water moving across the human form really made it feel real.
Grindelwald's escape is a lot of fun so can you tell us about the work that went into creating that sequence?
Well, that was a journey and one of the things in an early version of the script that stuck throughout. First, in terms of storyboarding and pre-vis. So, David and the storyboard artists came up with various ideas because it's those sorts of things, script-wise, that [J.K. Rowling] is generous enough to let David develop with us rather than it being too detailed. David wanted it to feel very real and visceral and we wanted, after the first film, to come up with something that had a little more sense of reality to it in terms of look and feel. From there, we went into pre-vis where we're constructing the story with animation and we're creating the whole sequence as an animation shot for shot figuring what lenses we're using and working out all the different story beats.
For example, I think in the boards we had Grindelwald filling his carriage up with water from a storm in the air but as we began to construct it as a pre-vis sequence, we thought 'Well, wouldn't it be more interesting if we pull the carriage down to the river for a bit' and we filled it from there. So, we had the three beats of the initial escape from MACUSA through the city and then down on to the river and up into the storm. Then, once we got that whole sequence pre-vized out and a blueprint of what we're going to film that David is happy with, you're also working concurrently with the stunt coordinators so we came up with the idea of using riders on brooms and developing a rig that was called the tuning fork rig that people could sit on and have them throw their weight around rather than them being on a fixed point and made them feel like they were actually flying.
We shot the carriage and riders as separate elements and we had the moment where we were filling the carriage up with water and while we initially thought about putting the carriage in a tank, we shot it dry for wet so we shot it at 48FPS, blew it with the air inside this partial carriage set and had a couple of people on wires in there. When we're scanning people for our VFX models we do a thing where we cross polarise them with a special filter onto our still camera lenses to remove all the reflections from your face and that's kind of what happens when you're in a swimming pool. You look underwater and you suddenly don't have any shiny bits on your face or hands. So, we did that with the film camera and lights putting gel filters on them so when they were shot, they didn't have any reflections on them so it looks like they're underwater to the point where I walk onto stage in the middle of a take Kevin Hughes was laughing at me because he thought I was holding my breath for a long time before he realised I wasn't underwater as it looks so convincing and real.
Then, once we've got all of that shot footage and elements, we then get Image Engine in Vancouver to finish it all off as we essentially replaced the carriage which we knew we'd have to when we filmed because it was black and reflective and was reflecting all of us when we were filming and it needed to have the water running across it correctly as if it was flying.
So, in the end, it was a mixture of digital broom riders transforming into the real ones and we had Johnny, who wasreal in all of it and the people inside. We constructed a whole digital New York, the digital water, and even when we had Spielman in the water at the end we had him in a tank but then replaced that water digitally so it was at the correct scale. But without all the real stuff we did like shooting people really in the carriage, really on brooms, really in the water, it just wouldn't look any good as you'd be faking it too much. So even though we do a lot of digital stuff later on, it's all grounded by that stuff. We started pre-vis in March 2017 and delivered it September 2018. So, yeah, about 18 months work with a lot of people and I'm really proud of that sequence. It was good fun and what we had in our mind's eye when we set out so job achieved.
Niffler was a breakout creature from the first movie, so what was it like bringing him – and an entire family of Nifflers – back for the sequel?
Oh, it was great. The Niffler is still my favourite really as he's such a great character to be able to play with. In terms of the adults, it was trying to think of what else we could do that would make us laugh and certainly when we got him out in the square for him to help Newt, we wanted to show what he would actually use him for and why he has him in the case like his tracking skills when Newt produces a gold spell that attracts the Niffler to certain areas. But as soon as the animators came up with the great thing of him rubbing his belly across the ground and rubbing his back everywhere, immediately, you're like that's just funny and charming.
As for the babies, they were initially bald but when Tim progressed that work with Method, who did the finished shots, they began to think of them as little duckling versions of Niffler and they came up with some great concepts and some great names for the little red furred one and the black and white furred one. That whole sequence in the kitchen came from that idea of, 'Oh God, they've got out again' and what would they be doing. We went into the set with Eddie quite early on in pre-production and looked at what props were there, what they could be up to, and what they could be stealing. It was that real moment where you get that connection with Eddie, Newt, and his animals and I just love the moment when he's shoving the little weight into his belly and it's brilliant because they're in the film for minutes but those really sit with the audience and make Newt relatable.
The movie obviously features a huge twist ending so I was wondering if you could explain how Framestore goes about avoiding any spoilers leaking during production?
We gave codenames to people so Nagini was 'Natalie' for eighteen months and you got used to that being her character name! The various reveals like at the end with Credence's heritage, we just gave them different names to the point where one of the senior people at Framestore came in and said 'I really don't get the ending...you've never heard of that family before' and I'm like 'It's a codename!' We're used to working on lots of projects, Marvel projects, different Disney projects, and Warner Bros. projects, and it's part of your thing that you keep everything in code names and, for me, the joy is that I read a script now as we're starting film three and I know that what I've read, I can't tell anyone for two years. That's almost the joy of working on it and part of the enjoyment of sharing it with everybody when it comes out. It's part of the job so that's the environment we work in and it's about respecting the product and that's what we all want to do and protect that until it's officially shared with everybody.
I know you've worked primarily in the Wizarding World but Framestore has also done VFX for a lot of Marvel movies, so is that a genre you're at all interested in?
I'm happy where I am at the moment, definitely, because I'm going to be doing this for the next couple of years but yes, I do enjoy the superhero genre so I'm sure it's something I would not be averse to in the future. I think really in the sort of movie I'm doing and Marvel, I think you're all trying to do the same thing. The interesting thing with characters like Doctor Strange, for example, we're all trying to do magic in different ways now and it's quite a challenge when you read a script and think 'Wow, we have to try and creatively innovate and come up with something new.' That's the challenge these days but I think whether you're on a film like this or Star Wars or Marvel, you're all doing the same thing and with visual effects, one of the most important things we're doing is supporting the story because, without the storytelling, the film isn't going to be great anyway, I don't think.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is out on Digital March 9th and 4K, Blu-ray and DVD March 18th.