It’s not often that VFX excels by plays a supporting role in superhero fights, but in “Wonder Woman” it was all about restraint during the praiseworthy “No Man’s Land” World War I trench battle. Director Patty Jenkins knew it was important to keep it simple and character-driven because this marked the big superpower reveal for Gal Godot’s Amazon princess, Diana.
“From a visual effects standpoint, this really wasn’t groundbreaking,” said VFX production supervisor Bill Westenhofer, who won the Oscar for “Life of Pi.” “It’s pretty straightforward and emotional.”
Supporting the Trench Warfare
Indeed, Diana’s taken to the front lines outside a Belgian village, where fighting has been at a standstill for more than a year. But her compassion and heroism come forth, and she emerges as Wonder Woman for the first time: climbing out of the trench, proudly revealing her costume, and charging 300 yards across a muddy field. She deflects bullets and mortar fire with her Bracelets of Submission and shield, which enables Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and his small brigade to follow her into battle and overtake the Germans.
“We had digi-doubles and face replacements to enhance the action sequences,” said Westenhofer. “We always wanted to make sure you always felt you’re with Gal, even though it went many times more than her capabilities into stunt land.”
The production team built a trench and a section of No Man’s Land on the backlot of Leavesden, the Warner Bros. studios outside of London. MPC handled the VFX, supervised by Jessica Norman. Added Westenhofer: “There’s quite a bit of mud and it was hard to shoot, and Gal Godot gets props for putting on the costume in February and marching through cold mud.”
The action was heavily previsualized by Proof, and shot on 35mm film by Matthew Jensen, containing both extreme and semi-slow motion. The first digi-double occurs when Wonder Woman leaps over the machine-gun fire into the trench, a take-over from live-action to CG.
Additionally, special effects built a “shield shaker” to help Wonder Woman’s shield visually absorb the full impact of gun fire. “We just added a lot of sparks and debris,” said Westenhofer.
Displaying the Power of Wonder Woman
During No Man’s Land, Wonder Woman uses the bracelets and shield in a defensive posture (she previously used the Lasso of Truth). Like everything else. it’s character-driven. She fights only when necessary, as the protector of humanity. “It’s more about athleticism and fighting prowess,” said Westenhofer. “The degree of superhero-ness increases throughout the film.”
However, Wonder Woman doesn’t use the tiara as a boomerang at all, and only displays the full force of her Bracer field during the climactic face-off with Ares (David Thewlis), the God of War.
Wonder Woman and the soldiers then liberate the nearby town. “Once we get into the town, again a combination of a backlot at Leavesden and another location in nearby London, there’s a lot of set extension to destroyed buildings.” said Westenhofer. “And once we get into the fight room, it’s on sets and pretty choreographed out with the stunt team.. .a mix of a lot of stunt doubles with wire pulls and face replacements with Gal. And the final shot where she leaps out the window, is completely digital.”
Overall, the VFX restraint kept “Wonder Woman” grounded and believable. After some of the excesses of “Man of Steel,” “Batman v Superman,” and “Suicide Squad,” it’s a refreshing change for the DCEU.