RISE co-founder Florian Gellinger talks about working as VFX supervisor on Lisa Joy’s feature film Reminiscence, starring Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson and Thandiwe Newton
Following a successful collaboration between RISE and her production company Kilter Films on the third season of Westworld, Lisa Joy turned again to the studio to work on her first feature film as director, Reminiscence.
RISE co-founder and executive VFX producer Florian Gellinger took the lead as RISE VFX supervisor for this film. Digital work began in March 2020, shortly after RISE transitioned to working from home due to the pandemic. The entire team had to world-build from their homes, creating over 120 shots digitally submerging Miami in the Atlantic with CG water, creating CG eels, CG trains, digital stunt doubles and major full CG establishing shots to drive the story.
Apart from handling the large scale water simulations, the single biggest challenge was the beautiful opening shot of the film. Lasting a staggering 3267 frames (or 2 minutes and 16 seconds), it is 100 percent digital until the camera arrives in front of Hugh Jackman’s character, Bannister. The camera sweeps over crashing waves and seagulls, tilts up at the sunken skyline of Miami Beach, shows the submerged roads where people have built suspended bridges between rooftops so as to use boats for transport, flies high above the bay with a theme park on an island and into the Miami Brickell canal, crossing a dam for keeping inland Miami dry, until we end up on our main protagonist. As the shot progresses, the time of day and position of the sun is animated in time lapse so that over the entire length of the shot the audience experiences the hot sun until the water gets crowded with traffic and lights turn on magically at dusk.
We quizzed Gellinger on how he accomplished this extraordinary feat with his team working from home.
Tell us about the initial stages of this project. Who were you working with? What was the overall vision for this film, and how did you fit into that?
We did some seamless environment work for Warner Bros on Doctor Sleep that was very well received, and we worked previously on season 3 of Westworld for showrunner Lisa Joy. Her directing a movie for Warner Bros aligned the stars in our favor.
The film is set in a near future where sea levels have risen and coastal cities have either vanished or are trying to keep the water out by building huge dams. This required significant amounts of world building and environment work that would go unnoticed, just subtly supporting the narrative.
Great looking environments are our daily business and the existing working relationship and reputation lead to this.
What made your previous collaboration with Lisa Joy and Kilter Films so successful?
Lisa is a Joy to work with and her in-depth knowledge of architecture and art define her work aesthetically. I like to believe that we visually have a similar taste – and her production VFX supervisor on Reminiscence, Bruce Jones, helped us tremendously in figuring out the geography of the world we were about to build.
Tell us about the team you put together for this project.
Our team on this show was roughly 120 people strong, well established individuals of all flavors. Matthias Winkler was my CG supervisor who previously led our team on Doctor Sleep and Shazam!. Andreas Giesen is one of our VFX supervisors with a strong FX and Houdini background who helped us with his knowledge on large scale water simulations. Oliver Hohn supervised compositing on this show, also having taken on that role on Doctor Sleep.
What key things did the opening scene need to do for the film? How did you accomplish this?
The opening scene needed to establish the universe the film is set in so that, after this 2:14 minutes flight over sunken Miami shot is over, we can commence telling the story and the audience is prepared to dive in and enjoy the narrative.
Bruce Jones and his team on the production side scouted Google Maps to see how we could fly into Miami over the sunken Miami Beach buildings and into the “spill zone” behind the dam in Brickell. We then took that city map and started splitting the city into buildings that are so recognisable they would need to be hand built and others that we could generate from a library of building blocks.
After this initial task was done we focused on water simulations for clashing waves using Houdini’s FLIP solver. The challenge was the amount of frames we needed to simulate since every bit of the city, every drop of water was in frame from the beginning through the end of the shot. We managed this by splitting up the scene into separate packages and by animating the lights in the buildings in compositing using Cryptomatte.
Tell us about the creative process of building the water scenes.
The plan was that everything would be somewhat plate based. We would get a plate, matchmove the camera and build proxy geometry for everything we see in the plate. We’d then drop in an ocean surface with interactive FLIP simulations around the buildings. This only worked for roughly 50 percent of the shots because we changed much more of the city than we had originally anticipated and there are plenty of full CG establishers in the film, too. But I’d still say that this was the ideal way of working. You start with a recorded image that is aesthetically pleasing and can be used for the edit. You then start changing various aspects until you feel the creative objective has been accomplished.
What technologies did you use for your work on this project?
We’re heavily relying on SideFX Houdini for all the work we do. Our pipeline has been 100 percent Houdini-centered for years with all lighting, shading, scene assembly and FX happening here. Maya and Z-Brush are used for modelling, Maya also for animation.
What was most challenging on this project, artistically and technically?
Artistically, I’d say all work needed to be seamless without drawing any attention as being CG or VFX and I think we’ve accomplished this. Technically, the opening shot was something we had never done before and the logistics behind handling a large scene like this was something to behold.
What are you most proud of?
The opening shot is the single most exciting piece of work that I’ve ever worked on creatively with our teams. It was very emotional to upload it to DI for grading.
Was it challenging to manage this project remotely?
It was VERY challenging to manage this, or in fact any project of a certain size, remotely. You can’t shout a question across the room, you can’t take a glance at 20 artist screens on your way to the fridge. This way of picking up information is much slower, it requires much more communication. Also junior artists have little to no chance to watch others work, picking up knowledge along the way.