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MALEFICENT

Visual Effects
"Maleficent" has huge scale and scope with expansive vistas across both the human and fairy worlds-plus fantastical creatures and magical transformations. It is a story that could not have been told without visual effects. Carey Villegas, who has worked with Robert Stromberg over the last 15 years on many films, joined the production team as senior visual effects supervisor. "The last film I did with Robert was 'Alice in Wonderland' and everything that we created was pretty much created in post where Rob would design things on the computer and give us renditions of what those things should look like," says Villegas. "On 'Maleficent,' we're doing a lot more set builds, a lot more real things. It definitely has a different feel, more realism, grittier. It's a fanciful film, but it also has a very realistic quality to it."

Making a movie where much of the background and many of the characters exist only in the imagination is a challenge on many levels. "Acting against a blue screen background is a special challenge but we have such a talented cast that they make you forget there's not actually a fairy world around them," says Robert Stromberg. "We've gotten amazing performances from actors who have to imagine the world they're in-and even the size of the bodies they're inhabiting."

Continuing, Stromberg adds, "The pixies are a good example. For part of the movie, they are actually just two-and-a-half feet tall and they fly around. But we have these wonderful actresses bringing their humor and personalities to the roles and I can be sitting there watching them perform and completely forget they're saying their lines dangling at the end of a wire, wearing outfits that look like space suits with all these painted dots on their faces."

For Villegas and his team, creating those pixie characters was one of the biggest challenges on the film. "We have these brilliant actresses who are playing those characters and we want to make sure that every nuance of their performance comes out in their character because the characters are 21 inches tall and they're very quick, like bumble bees; they're able to move very quickly and bounce around very abruptly. So we knew that we were going to need to create them entirely as computer-generated characters."

Villegas and his team used performance capture for the three pixies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple) when they were in their original 21-inch-tall size in order to capture all the talented actresses' subtleties. The visual effects team used 150 markers on each of their faces to track their facial expressions into computer-generated characters. These fun characters were slightly caricatured in their 21-inch size, with larger heads, bigger eyes and their natural figures exaggerated.

Another technical and creative challenge for the visual effects team was Maleficent's wings. "Maleficent is a fairy with wings and because she has wings, she's able to fly and her wings are almost a character of their own. They have a mind of their own, a life of their own. They're always supposed to have movement to them and because of that we made a decision early on to create wings entirely in the computer. It's one of those things that if technically we don't achieve the right look, you're not going to buy that character right off the bat. So it was key for us to make that as seamless as possible."

Luckily, Villegas had something tangible to work from as prosthetics makeup designer David White and his team actually built a full-size set of wings for Maleficent. "One of the best things that we can do in visual effects is actually have real photographic reference or something tangible that we can actually hold and feel what the texture and quality of it is and then take it out into real lighting conditions to see how the sun reflects on it and see how it casts shadow," explains Villegas. "Any time we can build something by hand, even though we won't necessarily photograph it in the film, it just gives the computer-generated version of that object so much more realism and detail."

The shape-changing Diaval was also a challenge for Villegas and his VFX team. Originally just a raven in the animated film, Maleficent can now transform Diaval into any animal she wishes, including a human. "Those transformations made creating this character very difficult for us, especially because you see different transformations throughout the film. You want every one of those transformations to not be exactly the same, so what we tried to do is have whatever's happening in that scene-his body motion or the body of the raven as it's flying through the shot-help motivate some of this transformation."

Adding another level of difficulty, Villegas decided to incorporate birdlike elements into the Diaval character when he transformed. "We tried to incorporate the feathers in some way in each of the forms that he took," informs Villegas. "For the wolf, we obviously took the feet of the raven and transferred those onto the wolf. But the feet of the raven are so delicate that it was quite a challenge to make these delicate structures fit into a creature as large as the wolf."

Bringing all the fairy creatures that inhabited Maleficent's fairy kingdom to life also fell to Villegas' team. "The process of creating all of the characters in the film, from the pixies to the moorland fairy creatures, was very much an ongoing process. You're never finalizing a character until you're putting the final touch in that particular shot. We're very much involved because we have to create every facet of those creatures, like how their hair responds to gravity or to wind and just every little nuance of what their skin looks like or fur or the clothing that they may be wearing."

The process begins with deliberating over sketches to decide on the style or design of the character and what the filmmakers want that character to convey. The next step is to see the character in motion and fully realized and dimensional by putting the artistic rendering into a computer program especially designed to turn it into a 3D model.

Villegas' team of VFX designers also created the massive Thorn Wall that Maleficent employs to protect the fairy world. Describing the wall, Villegas says, "It's basically like the Great Wall of China, but it has that type of scale to it like the beanstalk from Jack and the Beanstalk. It's very organic, and we see it grow onscreen. The Thorn Wall also is involved in a battle where many soldiers are trying to burn it down and it's very much a character in those scenes. We had to have organic qualities to it but also still have some qualities that would allow it to actually do things that hands would do or arms would do by picking up soldiers and throwing them."

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