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Less Marvel, More ‘Ghostbusters’: Behind the Handmade Visual Effects of ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’

The team that crafted the wonders of Daniels' multiverse tells IndieWire about their unique collaboration.

Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once

“Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Allyson Riggs/A24

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The visual effects in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the latest film directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (the filmmaking team known as Daniels), are abundant and impressive in the way that they turn the film’s ordinary heroine, Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), into a multiverse-hopping action star. The movie’s hundreds of effects shots are even more astonishing when one watches the end credits and realizes that they were not the work of a high-end post-production facility but a handful of craftspeople led by Zak Stoltz, a friend of the Daniels who had never served as an effects supervisor on a feature film.

“They came to me because they had worked with a post house for visual effects on their last film, ‘Swiss Army Man,’ and they didn’t love the process,” Stoltz told IndieWire. “It felt very impersonal compared to the way we had always worked together, where I would bring my computer over to Dan’s house and we’d just sleep under our desks while renders were going. They wanted to be able to have more intimate conversations with the artists instead of just saying, ‘This is what we’re looking for’ and then sending it off and getting something back and saying, ‘Ah, actually not quite like that.’ So ultimately my task was to figure out how to do it the way we’ve always done it, except bigger.”

To keep the process as personal and handmade as possible, Stoltz assembled a small team comprised of visual effects artists who were also directors, filmmakers that had learned effects as a necessity while working on their own projects. “We all learned how to do visual effects on our own in our bedrooms because we needed to,” he said. “Ultimately five people ended up doing over 80% of the visual effects shots.” The core team consisting of Stoltz, Ethan Feldbau, Benjamin Brewer, Jeff Desom, and Matthew Wauhkonen dispensed with the typical visual effects hierarchy to individually create shots from beginning to end, largely working in programs they were all familiar with like After Effects. “We don’t all know Nuke, we don’t all know all the 3D programs,” Stoltz said. “But we all know After Effects and it’s really flexible in how it works.”

A visual effects team comprised of directors gave the Daniels the best of both worlds, as Stoltz and his team understood the filmmakers’ needs but also had the creativity and autonomy to add unique touches to the imagery. “There wasn’t really the scale of a traditional post workflow where someone designs it and then you pass it to someone to build and then people finesse it,” said Feldbau. “Coming at it like a director, you need to know the material and have the initiative to make decisions and present what you think would be best to help the story.” Desom said that most of the time, each effects artist would work on his shots from start to finish, “from layout all the way to compositing and rendering it. You’re responsible for every single element within the shot.”

The sheer volume of effects shots was daunting, and Stoltz “was really worried about time and money, because that was my job.” His team adopted the mentality that they needed to get a version of each shot that they would be happy with in the movie, even if it wasn’t perfect. “We wanted to make sure everything was a solid B first, then if we had the time we could go back and take things to the A or A+ level as needed and desired. With so many effects and so few people and so little money and time, you have to prioritize certain things and be strategic about asking where the diminishing returns come in. It wasn’t just go until it’s perfect — it was go until it’s good enough, and then let’s choose the things that we want to make perfect.”

The limited resources helped shape the unique visual style of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which cleverly combines an ’80s effects aesthetic with contemporary motion graphics. “We ended up using CG very sparingly for a couple reasons,” Stoltz said. “One, we aren’t the best at it. And two, it didn’t end up being necessary for most things. The motto was less Marvel, more ‘Ghostbusters.’” Feldbau looked to another ’80s classic as a reference point as well. “I brought up ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ often because that’s a film that gives body and weight and dimension to hand-drawn illustrated characters,” he said. “They didn’t have high-end fancy computers. They just had a human brain and an eye for light and shadow and drop shadow and animation and motion.”

“We weren’t going to try and emulate the look and feel of a Marvel movie because we just didn’t have the resources or the people or the computing power to do so,” Feldbau added. “For example, I have a background in analog film and optical printing and hold in my mind some very antiquated ways of how they used to do effects on film. I found that even though they were old, and even though we were being told that this is not current and what the cool kids are doing, a lot of those really simple tricks looked perfect. So we banged out successful shots using more traditional principles of image making and painting without having to go through the processor-intensive world of full 3D and CGI.”

Stephanie Hsu, surrounded by confetti and wearing an Elvis jumpsuit, in Everything Everywhere All At Once

“Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Allyson Riggs/A24

What was initially intended as a six-month process stretched into a year and a half due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a development that afforded the team extra time but also required an entirely new workflow. “The original plan was a quick post-production period where we would be working under the same roof with Paul Rogers, our editor,” Feldbau said. “Then as soon as we wrapped production, the lockdown happened and all of that went out the window. We had to completely rethink how we were going to work together, just in terms of data management, passing files between each other. No longer could we hang out and have a sleepover and pizza party and chat.”

Stoltz’s first step was figuring out how to get everyone the shots that they needed when they needed them. “It doesn’t matter if you know how to track everything if people can’t get access to the shots quickly,” he said. “We ended up settling on Resilio Sync, which is essentially a Dropbox alternative built on a BitTorrent protocol where it’s a peer-to-peer thing. It allowed us to sync our hard drives as though we were doing like a network attached storage, and the nice thing about it compared to a Dropbox is that I could say, ‘Here’s a drive that has everything on it. I’m going to clone that drive, send it off to Ethan and then everything that changes on these drives is going to update in both places.’ That meant people who were doing a lot of different shots would have access to everything all the time.”

The access the team had to each other’s work led to a greater sense of discovery and experimentation, according to Desom. “Sometimes I would peek in somebody else’s project just to see how, for instance, Ethan would do things,” he said. “I would learn a lot and see, ‘Oh, okay, I want to steal this little trick here and apply that to my projects. It was a great learning experience to work in such a tight collaboration together and see how everyone was doing it on a molecular level.” For Stoltz, the key was organization. “I tried to make it as simple and as templatized as possible. Every shot had a very specific folder structure and was prepped so that you could just open up the project. Everything’s ready to go.”

Although “Everything Everywhere” is filled with dazzling moments, some of the most difficult to achieve were effects that were not intended to be perceived by the audience. “The first time that the Jobu Tupaki character appears in the corridor and meets Evelyn, Jamie Lee Curtis was in several of the shots,” Desom said. “Then in the editing they decided that Jamie Lee Curtis had to go, so we had to erase her in all these shots. They were moving shots, tracking shots with flashing strobing lights everywhere, so it became my job to get rid of Jamie Lee Curtis. She was wearing this furry coat, which didn’t make it easier at all. Fine contours of hard lines are easy to replace, but with furry stuff and no green screen it became a frame-by-frame job to replace the geometry of what the corridor should be and get it all wide in perspective with the moving camera. That was very challenging and nobody will ever know it was there.”

Even the movie’s most original and delightful effects, like the “everything bagel” that threatens to destroy the multiverse, adhered to the DIY philosophy Stoltz and his collaborators initiated. “The first time you see the bagel come in through the curtain, you would think that entire environment was CG,” Stoltz said. “But we had one render of the bagel with the lighting the way that we wanted it to be, and then everything else was done in 2D and After Effects. So it was just all composite. It was a lot of going in and being like, ‘Oh, let’s change the mood here. Let’s mask this off here,’ and just treating it as though you were actually lighting it on set except doing it as a 2D thing that you could have immediate feedback on, because render times were something that we couldn’t wait for. We needed it to be more or less immediate.”

Cutting down on the render time required by more elaborate effects was key to getting the work done on time and on budget, but even more important was the fact that Stoltz and his collaborators all had a past with the Daniels and each other. “Knowing that allowed us to say, ‘I know this would be incredibly difficult for me, but I know that Ethan would kill this.’ There was a lot of figuring out what everyone was good at, what everyone wasn’t good at, and the history and understanding meant that there weren’t a lot of insanely challenging things. If there was something that would a deal breaker for someone or they realized, ‘I’m just not going to do this,’ it’s like, ‘I’ve got four other people and one of them is going to be able to do it really well.’”

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