LOCO VFX, ADDING MAGIC TO MAD BUDDIES
Modern-day movies could not be more different from their soft-focused predecessors of the golden era; these days it’s all about the visual effects (VFX) and visual impact required to impress moviegoers and keep them filling up seats and the big bucks rolling into Hollywood.
3D animation, visual effects (VFX), pyrotechnics, crazy stunts and advanced editing techniques have all created a new cinematic reality for filmmakers. Even the most formula-driven, run-of-the-mill love story now requires all of these factors, as well as massive stars to get bums into seats and attract the ever-important opening weekend audiences.
Aside from extensive real-world gender and race-changing makeup, outlandish wardrobe and one or two computer-generated creatures, VFX and visual wizardry are not aspects of filmmaking that most of us would associate with Schuster's films. They've always been about the laughs and the comical situations, not the spectacle. Just the way South African audiences like them.
Mad Buddies, Schuster's latest offering released during June 2012, is still all about the laughs but Schuster has raised the bar, adding more VFX and visual wizardry than ever used in his past releases. The movie features over 230 VFX shots sprinkled liberally throughout the movie, all realised by Johannesburg-based VFX house, Loco VFX. The technical research and development (R&D) required to bring these characters to life began three months before shooting even began.
"Some of the initial research and development on the frog and tin can sequence had taken place when we were bidding for the work. The tests done as part of the bidding process included a CG frog in a tin can, so we had laid some preliminary foundations for the various challenges presented by that specific shot. One of the aspects of VFX that keeps us on our toes is that, no matter how many times we do a certain type of shot, or have to deal with a specific challenge, every shot is different and every shot has its own idiosyncrasies and built-in 'gotcha's' that we have to iron out, enhance or make invisible to the audience," says David Whitehouse, Executive Producer at Loco VFX.
A lot of focus is placed on the work, artistry and technology that go into creature and character work in modern feature films, but there's often a lot more magic and visual trickery taking place than the audience may realise. In slapstick comedies like Mad Buddies, the script often calls for real-world objects to do things which are, by their very defiance of the laws of physics, impossible. Unless you add a determined director and a team of artists armed with digital paintbrushes. A great example of this is a scene in the movie in which Boetie (Schuster) and Beast (Nkosi), riding a motorbike fitted with a sidecar, hit a telephone pole at high speed. The motorbike and sidecar then part ways, heading in opposite directions, leaving Boetie trapped in the sidecar as it careens in seemingly out of control circles. This stunt sequence was pulled off with the clever use of guide rails for the motorbike/ sidecar impact sequence, and a mechanical gantry to which the sidecar was attached for the out-of-control sidecar sequence. 'Clean' plates were shot which gave the Loco team footage without the gantry, sidecar or characters in shot, as well as footage showing the characters, sidecar and gantry, shot from a similar angle. The 'clean' plate was then used to painstakingly paint out the rails and gantry, effectively making the mechanical wizardry in the shot invisible.
There's an old adage in the movie industry along the lines of "Never work with children or animals!" In Mad Buddies’ though, heeding this warning was not an option. Three of the big sequences in the film featured animals, and to top it off, they were all required to do something they would never do in nature. The Mad Buddies menagerie consists of a determined frog, an emo tortoise and a flying male ostrich who, without a little help from the team at Loco, would never have made their debuts on the big screen. The tortoise sequence was a scene that had been there from the start of production. Finding a tortoise that wasn't camera-shy and that could actually act, proved to be an impossible task. In the shot, the tortoise was required to react to Beast describing the tortoise' impending journey to the cooking pot.
The filmed sequence shows Beast talking to a real tortoise but, as expected, the tortoise wouldn't come out of his shell no matter how many times Gray Hofmeyr, the director, called "Action!". This had been expected though, and Neill Vermaak at Loco had begun modelling a stand-in CG head for the bashful tortoise. Lighting measurements and High Dynamic Range imagery were used to record the lighting conditions on location on the day this sequence was shot. The plates were then tracked in software specifically designed for the task and then fine-tuned manually, meticulously matching the movement of the CG head replacement to that of the real tortoise in Kenneth's hands. Once that process had been completed, the CG model of the tortoise' head was placed in shot and the actual animation process began.
"We had received a very clear brief on the range of emotions and their related expressions which the tortoise had to experience, with Gray actually acting out sequences for us, contorting his face into the expressions he needed us to create for the sequence to work,” says Neill, who was the shot lead on the sequence in question.
Another old movie FX favourite, limb removal, was another method we pulled from our bag of magic tricks for Mad Buddies. In the movie, Boetie's right big toe is shot off by Beast in the mishap that forms the basis upon which their story in the film revolves. During a mescaline-induced bender, Beast begins sewing a toe onto Boetie's foot. On the day, Leon's big toe was painted green to facilitate removing it during the post-production process, but we found that replacing the whole foot with a CG version gave us more control over the shot, enabling us to put subtle wiggles into the toes, a little touch which perfectly rounded off the seamless integration of the CG prosthetic into the shot.
Much has been said about the ostrich sequence in Mad Buddies. The ostrich is a strange creature, having a skeletal system which, at first glance, seems to fall somewhere between that of a T-Rex and a chicken. Their feather systems are also a lot more complex and multi-layered than first meets the eye. Creating a CG ostrich within those boundaries, while still suspending the audience's disbelief was a challenge, to say the least, but was also one of the most fun sequences for the team to work on.
Following more than two months of intensive research and development by our technical team, the sequence took a further 6 months from start to finish.
For more information visit www.locovfx.com
Issued by Kelly Dido