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‘The Green Knight’: Inside the Mystical VFX Behind David Lowery’s Mind-Blowing Medieval Fantasy

Weta Digital breaks down the surreal medieval vibe with retro-looking matte paintings, naked giants, and time-lapse changing of the seasons.

The Green Knight

“The Green Knight”

Courtesy of A24

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Director David Lowery’s comfort zone with Weta Digital was cemented from the start with “Pete’s Dragon,” and has continued with “A Ghost Story,” and now “The Green Knight” and next year’s “Peter Pan and Wendy.” Eric Saindon, the director’s go-to VFX supervisor from Weta, explains the collaboration as creating “atmospheric landscapes and strange characters and telling time in different ways.”

On “The Green Knight,” Lowery’s mystical, hallucinatory adaptation of the 14th-century Arthurian poem about slacker Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) risking his head to earn knighthood, Weta’s work conveyed the story’s long journey and eerie medieval vibe. “It’s all about the experience,” Saindon said. “And it’s the perfect type of movie for visual effects. It goes back almost to ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ But it’s hard to believe that the first one was only 250 visual effects shots. So it was similar to that where we got to work with plates all the way through and add to it to help David tell the story, but not make it about the visual effects.”

Thus, “The Green Knight” further demonstrated Weta’s lighter touch, relying on compositing with practical elements, subtle environment work, set extensions — and, yes, even a talking CG fox. From the start, Lowery was intrigued by the idea of reverting back to old-fashioned glass matte paintings for the environments, referencing both the original “Dracula” and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” among others, as inspiration.

The Green Knight

“The Green Knight”

Courtesy of A24

“We did all these city extensions and castle extensions and the medieval city [shot in Ireland],” Saindon continued. “And we did a lot of work on our comp side to make them look like old glass paintings with the aged imperfections you get and and variation in lighting. It was fun to make this film look like it came out 30 years ago when you couldn’t replace an entire city with CG. We took an actual render and flattened it out and added lighting imperfections to the back and the bounce of multiple light sources. It had to match the cinematography [of Andrew Droz Palermo], of course, but you also needed to add these subtleties without making it look like a bad comp.”

The most surreal moment occurs when a weary Gawain encounters a group of naked female giants walking across a foggy valley. Lowery drew the concept in storyboard, and Weta photographed the women one at a time from every angle on a green screen stage. “We shot them with higher speed cameras at 90 frames per second so we got slow motion for the proper dynamics on [their] bodies,” Saindon said.

“Then we took them as previs and generated the valley environment between mountains in New Zealand using generic aerial photography to capture the proper size and scale,” he added. “David allowed us to take the performances that worked best and fit the performances in between the mountains and blocked them walking around. Then we went back in and refined it. This was not CG but in camera effects, stitching together lots of environments.”

The Green Knight

“The Green Knight”

Courtesy of A24

Another hallucinatory moment was done by Palermo as a single 180-degree shot at 120 frames per second in a forest with Gawain tied up. Weta comped it into a very subtle time-lapse sequence with a full rotation of the seasons where Gawain turns into a skeleton and then back again. “We got David to shoot it in a place where there weren’t many branches to the trees so we could add branches and leaves,” added Saindon. “We built it as a winterscape, built it again as a summerscape, made the leaves fall off, and then mixed between the two for spring.”

The CG fox, meanwhile, which follows Gawain on his journey, needed to fit in with the mood and setting, requiring several iterations to avoid over animating or under animating. Lowery drove the performance himself by providing reference footage. “David wanted a fox that you’d find in nature: thinner, matted fur, and looking like he just wandered in,” Saindon said. “We broke the reality a little bit with talking while looking physically correct. We also got this great reference from a store that had a poorly stuffed fox. We had that on set as lighting reference, but David got so used to it that he had us incorporate some of the matted fur and asymmetric look so that it fit into the plates better.”

As for the titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), Lowery dismissed a fully-animated option for the giant humanoid tree character who offers up the bizarre game of decapitation. Instead, he relied on the organic work of prosthetics designer Barrie Gower (“No Time to Die,” “Game of Thrones”). However, Weta made a CG head that gets chopped off by Gawain at the beginning, and then applied CG very subtly when the Green Knight’s face transforms into every character later on. “It’s all a bigger magic trick,” said Saindon.

The Green Knight

“The Green Knight”

Courtesy of A24

Yet after Weta completed its work, Lowery still wasn’t finished with the VFX. When A24 was forced to postpone the release during last year’s pandemic, the director continued to fine-tune his edit, making the film longer, and extending a few VFX shots. He hired director and VFX supervisor Nicholas Bateman (“The Wanting Mare”), who massaged 25 shots while adding an additional 60 with a team of five artists at his Maere Studios. They upped their game with the creation of 3D landscapes and atmospherics to expand the scope of the the giant sequence, a puppet show, and a hallucinatory glimpse of Alicia Vikander (who plays dual roles).

“It was really amazing, because David was the editor and we were able to talk very directly about the cut,” Bateman said. “He was able to put temp shots in that he would make on his cell phone or with little sketches. and we kept seeing how much we could get away with. It was never about fixing things. With David, it was always: ‘Can we do this? Does this work? Is this interesting?’ It was a fantastic joy and a constant search.”

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