At last year’s VES Summit, indie-minded filmmaker Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) described how, as a black woman from Compton, she learned to overcome her fear of VFX and incorporate it into her storytelling arsenal for “A Wrinkle in Time.” This was crucial as the first woman of color to tackle a $100-million studio tentpole: “I pride myself as the queen of the scene in a room…I know how to make the past and the present,” said DuVernay. “I don’t know how to make the future — until now.”
But when Industrial Light & Magic’s Rich McBride (the Oscar-nominated supervisor 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.”
The Flexibility Factor
In adapting the beloved 1963 novel by Madeleine L’Engle as a multi-racial sci-fi fantasy revolving around 13-year-old Meg Murry (Storm Reid), DuVernay defined everything by emotion, including the VFX. That required 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.
“There was a certain limit to the complexity and detail that she wanted to know,” said McBride, who served as production VFX supervisor. “But she did want to understand the language, so that when we started to look at the various steps (concept art, rough tests, motion, simulation, compositing, lighting, rendering), we were on the same page.”
According to McBride (who tapped several other companies to assist with the work, including MPC, Digital Domain, One of Us, Luma, Iloura, and Rodeo FX), the biggest challenge for DuVernay was getting the performances she wanted without VFX getting in the way. This was particularly true of child actors Reid, Deric McCabe (Charles Wallace), and Levi Miller (Calvin O’Keefe). “That is why she required flexibility from the visual effects, planning out in a way that would allow her to shoot with multiple cameras and later on find those performances for the movie,” he said. Previs/Postvis boutique, Proof (led by supervisor Chris Batty), was also a contributor in planning and revising sequences.
A Celestial Makeover
The biggest design decision centered on the three shapeshifting, astral travelers: Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling). But instead of going for a glowing, CG-enhanced approach, DuVernay was more exotically grounded in costume (Paco Delgado), hair, and makeup (LaLette Littlejohn and Kim Kimble). “She didn’t go over the top with the magical element,” McBride said. “It’s not in line with Disney movies but the studio supported it.”
The new conceit for Winfrey’s Mrs. Which was that she can’t control her size, growing to 18 feet in the backyard and 35-feet on the lush planet Uriel. Choreography, eye lines, and interaction with the kids proved challenging, so McBride approached it with minimal digital manipulation. They shot Winfrey on a scissor lift beside the other actors in Meg’s backyard, and utilized an eye-line pole for the other actors in New Zealand (for Uriel) when shooting Winfrey separately on a stage.
For Mrs. Whatsit transformation for the flying sequence, the director rejected the novel’s centaur-like creature and requested a plant-like character more indigenous to Uriel’s vegetation. She was after beauty and nature in keeping with the CG talking flowers designed by ILM’s Ben Wootten. Multiple sets of petals were arranged and configured into various positions for communicating, and large ones opened up and caught the wind like sails for their flight.
DuVernay also wanted the flight on Mrs. Whatsit to resemble waveform movements similar to the time-traveling, tesseract effect (billowing fabric textures created by One of Us in London). The kids sat on a motion control rig with separate arms that cycled through pre-programmed float and drift maneuvers.
VFX to the Rescue
However, the flexibility came in handy when DuVernay requested a last-minute environmental change to the goodbye between the kids and the three astral travelers. The scene was originally shot in Meg’s backyard, but didn’t test well with a preview audience. To provide smoother continuity, DuVernay re-conceived it on the planet Camazotz, once consumed by darkness but converted to light.
But that entailed brand new CG work and Digital Domain and Proof stepped in quickly to handle it. The kids were rotoscoped out of the exterior scene and placed into the new digital environment, yet the lighting had to match the golden look of the backyard. “The support that I saw from the studio for what Ava wanted to do was there the entire time,” said McBride. “They never wavered and it was a very collaborative effort, trying things out to find the best possible version.”
While reviews were mixed, it looks like “A Wrinkle in Time” will hit a respectable $100 million and DuVernay will take what she has learned to another big-budget tentpole driven by VFX: Warner Bros./DC Comics’ standalone “New Gods.”