DNEG VFX Supervisor Tom Proctor has been nominated in the category Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature along with Gavin Gregory, Julian Gnass, Fabricio Baessa for their work on Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho

Last week the Visual Effects Society announced the nominees for the 20th annual VES awards, and DNEG has received 12 nominations across 10 categories for its work on ‘Dune’, ‘The Matrix Resurrections’, ‘No Time to Die’, ‘Last Night in Soho’, ‘Foundation’ and ‘Venom: Let There Be Carnage’. This year’s VES Awards will take place on the 8th of March.

Our interview with Huw J Evans on the VFX of The Matrix Resurrections is here.

Tom has answered a few questions on how they created the amazing effects for this film:

Tell us about the team you put together for this film. How did you split up the work between different DNEG offices, and the other vendors?

Edgar has worked with DNEG on many of his films and has a great deal of trust in the company so VFX Producer Gavin Gregory and I placed any work which required CG with DNEG, and also any tricky comps which would require extensive roto, plate prep, or matchmove. We had a very small team working at DNEG London – primarily DNEG VFX Producer Danny Huerta and DFX Supervisor Julian Gnass who I have worked with on many shows. We also brought the DNEG shoot crew, led by amazing lead data wrangler Ben Brown and coordinated by Mark Koval. DNEG did about 350 VFX shots, split between our Montreal and Mumbai offices. I had worked extensively with my supervisor in Mumbai, Kedar Khot, on previous shows and knew he and his team were more than capable of much of the work, but we also had a fair amount of look dev and facial work to do on the Shadow Men and this was handled by our team in Montreal, led by Fabricio Baessa.

That still left about 350 shots which we gave to our in-house team who really did an outstanding job. While it took some time for most VFX facilities to figure out remote work at the start of the first lockdown, most of these artists were already used to working remotely so they were able to just get on with business as usual.

Tell us about the first conversations that you had at the start of this project, what were the first things to think about, what preparatory work did you do?

My initial meetings with Edgar focused mainly on locking into his vision for the film, and the particular influences and points of reference. I then broke it down into its main challenges: Shadow Men, 1960s period enhancement, mirror gags, the shattering glass of the finale, and the fire that engulfs the apartment. For each of these I proposed and discussed solutions with Edgar, our DP, the Production Designer, the 1st, and the producers.

What can you say about the director’s filmmaking style and how that informed the VFX?

Edgar is always thinking of the music, how he can cut to the beat, and so we were always keeping that rhythm in mind. For this film we were very keen to embrace a practical approach wherever possible, and not just because of budget but because we wanted to retain some of the look and feel of the films’ references from the pre-digital era. With the mirror gags and the big dance scene we wanted to keep the audience guessing by employing not only VFX but also amazing choreography, acting, production design and camera work.

How would you describe the overall aesthetic and creative vision that you had to work within? What references did you use?

Edgar gave me a list of films to watch which only grew and grew each time we met. Don’t Look Now, Poor Cow, Darling, Repulsion, and Peeping Tom were crucial points of reference for the time and tone. And for the use of color obviously Suspiria but also Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Mario Bava’s Blood & Black Lace. Edgar had also commissioned an incredible research bible which helped provide valuable historical context and first person accounts from people who lived in Soho at the time. There were some really harrowing stories in there that informed the sleazy side that the film explores.

What was most challenging on this project, artistically and technically?

Initially, the Shadow Men were the biggest creative challenge. There was a lot of time spent exploring ideas and methodologies around the way they would dissolve into one another and how the faces would be obscured. Again wanting to mix the practical and digital, we employed prosthetic masks on our performers initially. These were designed and made by Barrie Gower. They would obscure the mouths and eyes and then we would digitally make the eyes and mouth more shrunken. It was a good technique and it looked great but unfortunately the prosthetics were quite restrictive and we quickly found that the actors had a really hard time seeing where they were going. So it made some of the movement especially in the chase scenes difficult. By the end of the shoot we had largely moved away from using the prosthetics and instead did full digital facial replacements. That was the biggest artistic challenge. Technically, a big challenge was shooting multiple passes of the different actors which we could comp together while the neon light was flashing constantly – and in time with the soundtrack! We had to program the light to flash in sync with a click track, and then coach the actors to perform the same movements at the same point in time, and then if there was any sort of camera move we also used motion control locked to timecode.

But actually the logistical and physical challenge of shooting on location in Soho at night during high summer was probably the most challenging thing overall. It is London’s nightlife district and it never sleeps so we were constantly having to deal with drunken members of the public running through frame. We did a lot of paint outs of random interlopers! Also there’s just not that many hours of proper darkness so there were a couple nights where we had to do some tricky selective grading on shots where the sun was coming up. Still it was an experience to remember. I can’t recommend pushing an overloaded Magliner with a flat tire over cobblestones.

Can you give an example of a sequence that used a combination of practical techniques and CG that you were particularly pleased with? How did you do it?

I think the shot where we first meet Sandie in the foyer of the Cafe De Paris is a great example of this. When Eloise first enters, we see her reflection in the cloakroom mirror. That’s an actual mirror there. But then as the cloakroom attendant passes her, the mirror slides back, it’s edge obscured behind the attendant, revealing a doubled set beyond, where Sandie and the attendant’s twin brother are acting in perfect sync with their foreground counterparts. At the end of the shot the camera pushes into Sandie in the “mirror” and when we pull back again Sandie is on our side of the mirror – for this we used a second pass of photography and merged it in seamlessly in the comp. And then when we pan back, it’s Eloise on the other side of the mirror – again another take which is comped in. The repeat moves were down to our amazingly accurate and lovely steadicam operator Chris Bain. The actors did a fantastic job syncing their movements with the help of our choreographer and movement coach Jen White. Digitally, we brought it all together – combining the multiple passes, subtly tweaking any imperfections in the actors’ movements, and adding some bevels, smudges and fingerprints to the non-mirror to sell it.

I also love the big dance in the Cafe de Paris where Sandie and Eloise magically switch places. We had a single straight up digital switch which uses Jack’s body to wipe between a take of him dancing with Sandie and one of him dancing with Eloise, and four other “in camera” switches which we helped perfect in comp, just tightening up timing and entrance and exits to make them smooth. If you get the DVD be sure to check out the behind the scenes footage from our witness cams which show the incredible dancing done by the actors, the cameraman Chris, and the grip!

How did you achieve the shots where Eloise’s reflection appears in the mirror? What techniques did you use?

We really wanted to keep the audience guessing about how all the mirror shots were done so we did a lot of homework studying how mirror gags were used on as many films as we could find and we tried to use as many different ideas as we could. There was everything from the sliding mirrors, synchronized acting, doubled sets, and twins/doubles as described above, to multiple motion control passes which are comped together.

Did you do any greenscreen work in this film?

Yes we employ it in a few places but not as many as you might think. For shots where we wanted Sandie and Eloise acting opposite one other on opposite sides of a mirror but we couldn’t have a whole doubled set (in the basement nightclub and in the Cafe de Paris for example) we would put a greenscreen behind Eloise and then comp in a clean plate of the reflection behind her. Besides wanting to avoid slowing down the shooting day with relighting for greenscreens, I sometimes find that the intrusion of a greenscreen takes people – actors and crew – out of the immersion of the set. It can become a distraction. Of course there are times when it’s the best solution. But also roto can be done really affordably and you don’t need to deal with spill and mismatched lighting.

Tanya Combrinck
Author: Tanya Combrinck

Tanya is a writer covering art, design, and visual effects. She has 15 years of experience as a magazine journalist and has written for publications including 3D World, 3D Artist, Computer Arts, net magazine, and Creative Bloq.