When indie director Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) became the first woman of color to tackle a $100-million tentpole, Disney’s upcoming sci-fi/adventure, “A Wrinkle in Time,” her biggest fear was tackling VFX. But at Saturday’s Visual Effects Society Summit at the Sofitel Hotel in Beverly Hills, DuVernay described how, as a black woman from Compton, she learned to incorporate the technical language into her storytelling arsenal.
“I pride myself as the queen of the scene in a room…I know how to make the past and the present,” said DuVernay during her keynote Q&A the day after winning a BAFTA Britannia Award. “I don’t know how to make the future — until now.”
One Step at a Time
But when ILM visual effects supervisor Rich McBride (Oscar-nominated for “The Revenant”) broke the process down into layers, the experience became a transformation.
“There are pieces of the puzzle that I didn’t need to see or comment on,” added DuVernay. “I’ve been able to learn and speak to [visual effects] in a robust manner. You can create as an artist with these tools. There’s no separation. The way I’m shaping life with cinematography, I’m doing with my visual effects supervisor.”
Finding the Emotion
In adapting the 1963 novel by Madeleine L’Engle as a multi-racial adventure (starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and Chris Pine), DuVernay defined everything by emotion, including the VFX. That required improvisation and flexibility. So no matter how much action revolved around flying planets, running and falling creatures, and tesseracting through different dimensions, the director wanted to ground it in reality.
And once DuVernay understood the visual context of a shot, she became a VFX nerd. “This needs more texture around the edges and occlusion of light,” she said.
After a preview screening revealed a scene that was visually confusing, the director requested a VFX change. “It hit me as a whole,” DuVernay said. “This whole scene, an exterior [set], I want to take that out, put it inside [an interior digital scene], roto out the people and put them in [the other] scene.”
Although DuVernay admitted that she might never take on another $100-million movie, she implored the VFX community to embrace diversity. “How will you treat a woman of color? Give them the tools to blossom,” she said.