"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
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
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
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
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
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