Learn the (VFX) secrets of ‘mother!’ with visual effects supervisor Dan Schrecker

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When I was interviewing visual effects supervisor Dan Schrecker about the VFX of Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, I was still getting my head around the movie. I knew I loved it, but I wasn’t clear on everything that had happened (I don’t think you’re meant to be, by the way).

The result, though, from talking to Dan, was that as he guided me through many of the sequences that VFX had had a hand in, I found our discussion almost as gripping as watching the actual film! Suddenly, major plot points and thematic elements became obvious, and I enjoyed hearing about the problem solving involved in simply getting mother! made.

I hope in reading this Q&A you might find that too. Of course, I suggest you see the movie first – not just because of obvious spoilers but because a lot of what Dan and I talk about probably won’t make sense otherwise.

In the interview, Dan describes how the visual effects requirements evolved through planning, production and post. There’s a great story about using VR to plan the shoot in the house, and other anecdotes on specific VFX design decisions and changes made along the way. Here’s your last chance to back out now, so again, beware of spoilers…

vfxblog: When did you come on board the film, and what were some of the early considerations in terms of the VFX?

Dan Schrecker: I came on in prep, I’ve been on the whole run of the show. With Darren, it’s always going to be about being seamlessly organic and we knew that it was going to be handheld in 16mm, so we were wanting to make sure that we hit that look and had it integrated seamlessly.

We knew what some of the bigger effects set pieces were going to be, so we were able to plan for those pretty well. Those being the fireballs at the end of the film, the un-burning effect that’s the two bookends of the film, where the woman at the start and then Jennifer Lawrence’s character are burning and then also the un-burning effect, where the house un-burns itself.

Those were the things that we knew pretty early on, and because we knew what those were early on, we were able to award those pretty early to ILM. We were able to work with Ben Snow again, who we had worked with on Noah, and had them dialled in from early, which was great.

Other things we knew were coming, but with a little bit less assurance in how we were going to get it all done. Some of that stuff was the crystal, which initially had a different design completely. So that sort of evolved as we got into production and into post.

The other things that we knew, like I said, were when Mother, Jennifer’s character, gets beat up at the end, we knew there was going to be some work with the baby. There was a great animatronic baby that Adrien Morot built, and then a number of real babies on set as well.

And then there was some major things that evolved in post, which included what’s known as the ‘Darkness of Her Imagination,’ which are in the film four times where she puts her hands on the walls and closes her eyes, and you go into the wall, into this organic matter that evolves over the course of the film, and that was something that in the script was really darkness – she closes her eyes and we hear some sounds, but as we got into post, it seemed like there was a need for something a little more definitive and clear.

The whole thing takes place inside the house except these handful of shots, and that whole environment that we see outside of the house, where you have the house surrounded by some grass, and greenery and trees, and then outside of that is this scorched earth in a circular pattern, and that was something that evolved in post. All the shots where we were outside, which include the first time we got outside when Mother runs out on the porch after the brothers have fought and we see her standing alone on the porch and we pull back, and see the house in the middle of the field and pick up a little bit of this burned, scorched earth in the foreground at the end of the pullback. Mr. X was responsible for this.

So that was a shot that evolved from what was basically originally a set extension, where the first floor of the house was built on location in a field outside Montreal, and we were just going to extend the house up and get a full shot of the house, but as the story evolved it turned into this pullback, which become a full CG environment there, where the only thing left from the original footage was Mother herself on the porch.

The other challenges later when we go back outside, is when He, Javier’s character, writes the poem, and as Mother sits down and reads the poem, we go back outside and see what was there before, which was this burned house in the middle of this burned field, and as Mother appears and they hold hands, the field un-burns itself, and we see the house rebuild itself and it goes to this shot from above where we look down on the field un-burning until we end up with this circle of green amidst this mass black, charred environment.

All of that sort of evolved, because it was a simpler idea in the script, where it was, ‘there’s a burned house and she appears and that’s about it.’ This whole idea of seeing the house un-burning and everything evolved in post, as did the final shot where the house explodes. That was a new shot that got added in post as well.

vfxblog: How were the interiors shot, what was built as a set?

Dan Schrecker: So, there were two houses built. One, which was built in a field outside of Montreal, a place called Île Bizard, where they built the downstairs, the first floor of the house, which included everything on the first floor except for one of the rooms, which was the guest room. I guess, because there needed to be a holding room for crew and cast, and stuff.

And there were stairs going upstairs but they lead to nowhere. Essentially the first half of the film, that takes place during the day, was shot on location, in the house in the field. And that meant we didn’t have to do greenscreen for all that interior day work. We could have done greenscreen, but it was going to look better shot practically, and it’s much better for the actors, and I think for Darren, to be out there in that location.

For the second half, we moved into a stage, where the entire house was built, both floors, with the full staircase and everything, and that was basically for all the night work. There was a handful of day shots that we shot there as well that had greenscreen, but for the most part it was hanging blacks outside the windows and shooting all that stuff on the stage. There were a few shots where we augmented the black by adding a few night trees, so it didn’t look completely black, in this rule of thumb that if a door was open or a window was open, then we would see a hint of trees behind, but for the most part those windows played black as they were.

A replica of the house was re-built on the stage, and that was really where a majority of the work was done.

vfxblog: There’s a lot of really great sequences following Jennifer Lawrence. Were you needing to do any composites there and even seams, or transitions, or was it really just choreographed well?

Dan Schrecker: There really wasn’t a lot of stitching, there may have been one or two, but it’s more just to marry two takes than it was the need to bring two locations together in some way. It was really well choreographed. And no Steadicam, it’s all just handheld.

There was a long rehearsal process, where here in Brooklyn, they went to a warehouse, and basically taped out the floor to show where the walls were and everything, and then Matty [DOP Matthew Libatique] was there, and they shot a lot of it, and worked out a lot of things before we even got to the set.

The other thing we did on this one that we hadn’t done before, was we got a model of the house that the art department had built in a Sketch-up, and we brought on a team in Montreal to put together the VR setup for us. That was led by Merik Pelletier of Paper Ghost. We had goggles and a joystick, and Matty and Darren could basically move around the house before it was built and look at angles and look at different places where we could set up shots, and that also helped plan this stuff out. So it was pretty tightly choreographed, which is generally Darren’s MO, with the exception of maybe The Wrestler, which was a little looser, I think.

vfxblog: How did you approach that VR setup?

Dan Schrecker: It worked really well. Merik had worked with us on The Fountain a while ago.He basically built an app, we were using the Gear VR, it was just running off of a Samsung phone, but the fact that we could be in the house, and actually look around and say what’d happen if we moved a step over here, what’s our eye line looking in this direction? Things like that. It definitely helped Matty a lot, because he was able to see what the issues were, when we were going to have to do extensions, if that came up, and things like that.

And we could also go into the VR and do screen grabs and share them, so it became pretty helpful. Definitely something that I’d like to do again. This was a really good application of it. There are other times where I think doing the VR stuff may be gratuitous, and it’s a bell or whistle, but in this case, it was really helpful because there was no set until we got up there. There was no location or anything.

vfxblog: Let’s talk about the un-burning effect. Can you tell me a bit about how that look was developed and pulled off?

Dan Schrecker: The idea there is basically a time-lapse approach to it, where we had a set, we had these four or five set pieces built, little stand-alone bits that recreated pieces of the house, and we had a motion controlled camera, we had a Technodolly on set, and programmed the moves, and basically shot them in reverse.

We had this pristine set piece, and shot it with our motion control, and then let loose the guys with the flame throwers, and they came in and burned the set. And then, burned it a little bit, and then we did another pass with the Technodolly, burned it a little more, did another pass, and end up with probably around 15 of these passes, so it basically became much more of a comp approach, where we would layer these different passes on top of each other and dissolve between them.

ILM did the work on that sequence in Singapore, and I think they rebuilt some of the geometry to give us a little more flexibility there, and then projected back on top, enhancing it with CG in certain places. But the idea there was to really make this look as real as we can. We did a test early on, where we just had a DSLR and we went out in the parking lot and we took that approach to see how it would work, and we were all really happy with it. Then we set up this little mini unit, our motion control camera, and proceeded to just burn stuff.

The whole thing was shot on 16mm, and there were a handful of things that we shot on RED later on, for certain reasons, but the burning was one that in hindsight we probably should have shot on RED, if for no other reason that the gate weave that you get from 16mm invalidates some of the beauty of the motion control. Because, even though the camera’s locked on the Technodolly, and you’re getting this repeatable move, there’s still bouncing around from the gate weave, which was something I probably should have saw ahead of time, but required some additional stabilisation on ILM’s part.

vfxblog: The reason I like the un-burning effect is that it wasn’t just a simple time-displacement effect, or a simple fade. There was something else to it.

Dan Schrecker: Yes, in some ways it was a straight-fade, but it faded between multiple layers, it wasn’t just A to B, it was A to B to C to D, all the way through to F. And in addition, there were certain things, like, one of the issues that we knew we were going to be dealing with was as we were burning a wall and paint chips started to fall off the wall, you have this debris piling up, and one of the questions throughout was how does this debris and how do the walls come back? Do we want to see debris magically fly up and reattach itself to the wall, or it does it fade back on, and what happens to the debris pile on the floor, does that just fade off?

And that was a place where we introduced some CG to give this semi-fade, semi-time lapse jittery effect, where these piles of debris on the floor and again on the mantel shake and shrink and pop off, so it has a little bit of a time-lapse feel, but not too much, so we went back and forth on that for a while in post to get that to feel right.

vfxblog: Those Darkness of Her Imagination scenes, where she put she puts her hand on the wall, how did you tackle those?

Dan Schrecker: In prep and in the shoot, that was just going to be black and it was going to be an audio cue, but as the story developed and the need for some sort of imagery became obvious – and that was as tricky a design issue as I’ve faced – because what we were looking for is something that represents how she feels, it’s got to be organic, but sort of hearken back to some of the imagery in the film, and it just took us a while to really figure out what this thing looked like and how it behaved and what the progression was.

 

Early on, it was all these ideas that there was little bits of plaque that were floating in the atmosphere as we went through the wall, and this plaque would float in towards the heart, and so it starts smothering the heart and constricting it. So we spent some early iterations and design ideas playing around with that idea, and the way iron filings flow to a magnet, and things like that.

Eventually just the more we simplified it, the better it got, we already had all this burning imagery and the idea that this ‘heart’ that was inside the wall would start to burn until it ended up where it did at the end of the film, where it basically becomes what it is that he pulls out of her chest at the end. It made more and more sense as it got simpler, and it was trying to figure out the right way to show that imagery, what it looked like in its cleanest form at the beginning of the film, what it looked like at the end, how we went through the wall.

We played around with different ideas of the walls cracking, and different physics of it breaking, and again, the simpler it got, the cleaner it became, and we started to do not quite a dissolve, but close to just magically pushing through these walls. But it was definitely a challenging set of shots as far as figuring out what it is we were even communicating, because it’s all really abstract. We started with a few concept artistsm and ILM, again, helped out on that sequence.

When it first happens, she’s mixing the paint, and she puts the paint on the wall and feels the house and then knows what colour to paint the wall. It’s basically that there’s more here than meets the eye. And then it evolves, so as things start to happen, as the brothers fight, and as people start to show up in the house, and then the last one is after she’s gotten beaten up, you see that the house is getting sicker; that’s the idea.

vfxblog: What about the crystal – what visual effects challenges did you have there?

Dan Schrecker: Originally it was a black obsidian crystal, a prop that was sort of opaque. We had played around with ideas that it was almost like a filter to another dimension. So whenever you held up the crystal you would see a star field, and that star field wouldn’t move with the crystal, it would almost be like as you move the crystal it revealed different areas of the star field.

We tried out some ideas like that and we tried some other ideas introducing some of that heart and some of the organic matter into the crystal itself, and a number of design iterations in exploring it. We shot it again with this opaque prop, but we knew it was going to have some sort of magic, but we had room in post to play around with that.

Raynault VFX in Montreal did all the work on the crystal – that’s led by Mathieu Raynault. When we eventually arrived at this actual crystal, a clear glass crystal, they created a CG asset and tracked it in throughout, adding these little, subtle, orange veins that appear inside the crystal, and they have a little bit of life on their own, as well.

Again, we were carrying ideas throughout, so once we came up with orange vein inside the crystal, that was something that got incorporated into the tincture that she drinks, where she would go up into her bathroom and dump some of the powder into the glass, and inside that glass, it bubbles. There was a practical effect that changed the colour of the water, but we introduced some magic effervescent going on that incorporated some of those same orange veins in there.

vfxblog: When things start getting a bit crazy and more and more guests arrive, I loved how that scene escalated into something pretty crazy. How was that all filmed and what VFX work was involved?

Dan Schrecker: One of the challenges was there were a lot of people around. As it gets crazier and crazier, you just have a lot of extras, and there’s a lot of logistics of moving people and getting them to do the right thing, a lot of stunts and practical effects of Molotov cocktails, and guys smashing through windows, and big set design questions as well. Which was, by having this house built, and starting its pristine shape, as the film progressed, the art department would continuously smash the set, or cover it in ash, or whatever it was that had to happen in that particular scene. So there was a lot of practical stuff going on there.

The effects in a lot of that sequence was limited to clean up. There were a few areas where we had to put some stuff together, I think specifically when Kristen Wiig’s character starts flying off the deep end and starts shooting people in the head, and then she gets blown up in a big explosion. So that was marrying a couple of takes, where it starts with Kristen walking and then transitions into a stunt double, who was there for the explosion, and adding debris and stuff like that.

For when she’s shooting people, it’s pretty standard gore-enhancement; puncture wounds and adding blood spray. But a lot of the stuff was practical, like the Molotov cocktail when the security forces were fighting with the protesters. That was all real, the Molotov cocktail, real stunts. A lot of the shots where they’re climbing up the stairs and ripping the house apart, a lot of that was all practical.

I think, as much as possible, Darren wanted to do everything for real, so we were there to support. But if something didn’t film exactly as planned or needed a little bit of enhancement, then we came in. One of the areas where we knew we were going to have to do something when it gets really crazy is when Mother gets beat up, and that was one where we shot it with Jen miming and people pulling their punches and being very safe, and then we also did some with her stunt double, Renae Moneymaker, where there was a little more contact and a little rougher.

And so we had different options. One of the things that happened is when Jen did it, her sweater got ripped off, and so it locked us in to using Jen’s takes and not doing any face replacement, even though we explored it with Moneymaker, because some of the action on Moneymaker was fiercer, but it didn’t have the sweater getting ripped off and so we ended up using the Jen takes and then it was just a lot of painstaking frame by frame work of taking hands and bringing them closer to increase the contact and selling transference of energy as a fist or a foot makes contact with Jen’s face.

In addition, we’d be tracking on blood and increasing the wounds, so that by the end of the sequence, it gets to where it needs to for continuity. That was, again, something we knew we were going to do, when we covered it on set for possible face replacement and all kinds of stuff, and once we got it to editorial and saw what was working and what wasn’t, we ended up really enhancing the contact in that scene. Mr. X did that work, led by compositing supervisor Robert Bruce.

vfxblog: How were any of the baby shots achieved?

Dan Schrecker: Right after it’s born, when they’re holding the baby, that’s a real baby. There were a couple of shots in there, where we had more than one infant on set, and there were some continuity issues with the hair, so there were a couple of shots where we replaced the scalp for continuity, to make sure the hair matched. But other than that, it was all real.

Until he starts crowd surfing, and that was an animatronic baby. At that distance, the baby looked great. The baby looked incredible, and so it had played really well at that distance. It had some limitations, the fingers didn’t move, it didn’t always move and kick exactly when we wanted it to, so what we had to do was basically build from the animatronic baby and then enhance it and enhance motion in certain limbs, adding the fingers throughout. So there was a CG baby asset that existed. We had the animatronic baby, we 3D scanned it and we had that as an asset to use, and again, Mr. X did this work.

vfxblog: This all leads to Mother ultimately getting grossly burnt. Can you run down how this was done?

Dan Schrecker: Mother gets a piece of glass and starts stabbing everybody. They beat her up. She says, ‘You’re all crazy, get out of my house,’ and she gets the lighter, runs downstairs, and punctures the oil tank and then starts the huge fireball.

That was a sequence of about five shots, shot on a RED to get more resolution, with different camera rigs, some shots were on a Technocrane, some were mounted on the ceiling, depending on where they took place. There was five areas of the house where they had these shots, and it was again done by ILM in Singapore, under the supervision of Ben Snow, and it was all CG fire. That whole sequence with seeing Him get engulfed by the flames as the fireball travels up the basement stairs, and engulfs those people, into the foyer, up the stairwell into the study and it eventually blows into the study, it was all CG fire with practical people and some really, I thought, great work by ILM to integrate the fire into the practical elements with the real people.

Then the house explodes and we pop back outside and we see the entire house explode and the field catches fire, and that was a post addition, not something that we planned for at all. There was no plates, so that was a fully digital shot, by Mr. X, which I thought looked great. And then, we go back inside and there’s Mother, now burning, and we see, we’re right in her face as her skin is burning and scalding and her hair is on fire.

That was something we planned for. We weren’t able to get Jen in the full burn makeup, but we had what was known as proto-Mother. So at the beginning of the film, it starts on this close up on a woman burning that is not Jen. It may look like Jen, but it’s not Jen, it’s somebody else. It feeds into this cyclical nature of the story. When you get to the end and this woman wakes up in bed, that is also not Jen. So there are actually three women who appear in the movie, right? There was proto-Mother, Mother, and then I guess you could just call her New Mother.

For the closeup of burning Mother, we didn’t have Jen in all that burning makeup, but we did have proto-Mother who appears at the beginning of the film, so we took those textures and those were comp’ed on top of Jen’s face to create the closeups of her burning. And then for her hair, we tried to shoot some plates of burning hair, burning wigs, and it just didn’t have what we needed, we couldn’t really get the right speed, it didn’t burn the way we wanted it to burn. So all the hair in those shots is fully CG, and that allowed us to really dial in the dynamic simulation of having hair removed, as well as how it caught on fire to sell that she was really in the middle of those flames.

So then she’s burning, and then it blacks out and comes back to the house as she’s being carried up the stairs by Him. At this point now she is fully burned. And that was a prosthetic application suit that Adrien Morot built, and a full greenscreen environment, including stairs. We had them walking up the stairs against green, and then the entire burning house and smouldering staircase behind them was a full digital environment that Raynault did. There was some clean up on the prosthetic work to dial in and get it exactly where we wanted, but it was mainly a prosthetic suit that she was wearing there.

Then He gets into the study and lays her down on the desk and they proceed to have their final conversation, and again that was a practical environment that we built as a burned study and then we augmented it with some floating embers and some little bits of burning embers embedded in the environment. A little bit of clean up on the prosthetic, but it’s a practical environment, practical prosthetic suit on Jen.

That scene culminates with Him putting his hand into her chest and ripping out her charred heart, which was a practical setup where Adrien Morot and his team built a body prosthetic where Jen could stick her head out through the desk, but her body is below the desk. This fake charred body is laying on top of the desk and that has a cavity in it for Him to put his hands into, and then pull out the heart. That was again, mainly practical. We enhanced the edges and the bits around the cavity there to give a crispier, charred feel.

And then he pulls out the heart, and as he’s doing that, she completely expires and there are a couple of shots there, one is a closeup on her face as the heart is being pulled out, where Raynault dried the face out and introduced some sort of ashy-ness and a little bit of a ‘mummy’ vibe where her eyes go grey and you see her expire in a close-up, and that was mainly a comp gag where we brought in different textures and elements from the charred body, because Adrien also built a charred ashen body version of it.

We see her expire in the close-up and then it goes wide as he continues to pull the heart out, the whole room dies down and all the embers and glowing orange highlights and embers and coals fade out until we’re left in this cooler, black room with no more fire, and he’s left holding this thing in his hand, which was a practical build that we ended up replacing digitally to bring closer to what was happening inside of the walls, so that we had the continuity from that heart that we’d been tracking through the film inside the walls, to this thing that he pulls out. He takes it, he squeezes it like a diamond, and reveals the clear crystal, that he then puts back on the shelf to start the cycle over again.

Dan Schrecker has been a visual effects supervisor and designer on several of Aronofsky’s previous films, including Noah, Black Swan, The Wrestler and The Fountain. He also worked on the director’s first two films, Pi and Requiem for a Dream.

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