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Immersed in Movies: How VFX Supervisor Farrar Fixed the Zombies in ‘World War Z’ (CLIP)

Immersed in Movies: How VFX Supervisor Farrar Fixed the Zombies in 'World War Z' (CLIP)

So much for decrying the “fix it post” mentality that plagues so many big budget movies. It evidently saved the trouble-plagued, $200 million-plus zombie thriller, “World War Z.” After production snafus, cost-overruns, and a significant reshoot to streamline the third act, VFX supervisor Scott Farrar (“The Transformers” franchise) was loaned out from Industrial Light & Magic to salvage the zombies.

“I came in after they shot everything and just saw that [director] Marc [Forster] needed some simple things to help put his movie together,” Farrar explained by phone during a break from the set of “Transformers 4” in the Austin, Texas farmhouse that caught fire a couple of days later.

“We talked about what’s working and what’s not working. I said to him, ‘Don’t worry about how we’re going to do it.’ It’s not about technical stuff at all. If you have previs or postvis or any vis, let’s only cut in the things you really like and if we’re missing something, we’ll make it. Let’s do a rough edit.”

Farrar, who’s known for his great photographic eye, liked the concept of the zombies as swift, athletic predators that move in hordes. He thought that was exciting and original. However, the concept hadn’t been exploited enough in the footage, so he worked primarily with the two London-based VFX companies engaged from the beginning, MPC and Cinesite, to fine tune the look and performance of the zombies, going back to the original art work for inspiration and studying ant farms and schools of fish.

“What had happened is that [animation supervisor] Andy Jones was really good at setting the rules of zombie behavior. They would run very fast and lead with the teeth without a care in the world for their own safety. They don’t even think about falling off of buildings and breaking all their bones. They crawl all over each other. So once you develop these ideas, and different stages of behavior, you play it out.

“If you’re going to have an
ant pile of zombies climb up a wall, let’s see how it forms, let’s see
how they do it, let’s explain that to the audience, let’s plus it out,”
Farrar continued. “The helicopters can be flying; they’re overwhelmed
and trying to shoot the pile down and let’s do that and raise the bar.
This is going to be hard work. There are going to be more shots than we
Some of the
highlights (already touted in trailers) include the pyramid wall in
Israel (shot in Malta), pulling down a chopper, and going after the UN
specialist played by Brad Pitt and the other passengers in a
plane. The result of all this additional work, which took more than a year, is staggering. The “zombie tsunami,” as they call it, redefines the ghoulish creatures in a way that’s totally believable. For pyramid formations and tentacle-like shapes, MPC shot motion capture clips, adapted its proprietary ALICE crowd system, and created special ways of rendering these huge swarms.

But the zombie close-ups needed special care as well. Strangely, the CG animation looked too human and the live actors or contortionist dancers looked too fake, so they worked with MPC and Cinesite on a new approach. “Andy and I wanted more people in makeup intermingled with CG zombies. I want to create illusion and keep the audience guessing as to whether they were live actors or CG characters.”

This entailed re-timing movements to make them quirkier and enhancing eyes, popping veins, and other abnormalities. Farrar is especially proud of an opening attack that’s close to the camera and totally animated by Cinesite with convincing cloth sim and hair. “A well-executed illusion — I’m in.”
And Farrar applauds Paramount for taking such a financial risk. “It was brave and scary and an uncertain thing to decide, but it was absolutely the right decision. It’s what’s best for the movie.”
Now let’s see what the box office impact will be for “World War Z,” particularly in light of last week’s industry implosion/meltdown prediction by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

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jim emerson

Bravo, Scott Farrar. I thought the non-comedic zombie sub-genre was exhausted: As "The Walking Dead" proves, week after week, you can only see smashed heads and spilling guts so many times before the repetition becomes tedious (and not scary at all — just gross). True, "World War Z" has only one actual character (Pitt's), but 1) it's not 2.5 hours+ long (less than 2 hours!) and 2) it managed to re-imagine zombie behavior show audiences things they've never seen in a movie before, like the great horror and SFX films of the '70s, from the low-budget ("Dawn of the Dead") to the studio spectaculars ("CE3K").

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