CGSociety :: Production Focus
18 February 2010, by Renee Dunlop
Terry Gilliam's imagination is leaking again, in a display of imagery from his brain to your eyes. From landscapes of giant high heels to airborne jellyfish, he takes the viewer on a journey that is
nothing less than a spectacle of inventiveness. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus utilizes Gilliam's wide range of talents in his unique way, this time incorporating digital FX into the soup.
Parnassus Original Designer and Art Director David Warren, whose wry sense of humor is entertainment in its own right said, "there are a few jobs in the film industry apart from directing which Terry
would like to do and can do. He's very interested in how VFX works," proven by his co-founding of the Peerless Camera Company, "and visual FX is running through his blood. But, bloody hell, you have to go fast to keep up with him, because he does push out the ideas!" Gilliam himself did the storyboards for all the major Imaginarium sequences, scanning and placing them in a library file and "hell have
no fury if you don't look at them."
While tackling the issue of funding, Gilliam and his concept artists assembled a book of roughly 20 Photoshop renderings consisting of "the stuff that is in the darkest recesses of Terry's mind,"
"Some of it's been in there for twenty years, and it all came out. I don't know where the transvestite police came from, do you? I wouldn't know where to start but I think, in working with him, you
very, very quickly get to know that almost anything is acceptable as an idea as long as it fits in with the taste of the piece."
The practical shoot was as economical as possible, based around Parnassus's traveling theater. Everything else was shot against partial sets and bluescreen. According to John Paul Docherty, Co-VFX
Supervisor from Peerless Camera Company, "we started off with about 250 shots, went up to about 850, and between 650 and 700 stayed in the movie. We had eight weeks to shoot all the bluescreen."
With a budget of around $20-$30 million, it was one of those movies where everything could only be done once, and the required complexity and number of FX was very difficult to achieve. For example,
the exploding derby tavern was a miniature, and a scene they had to get right because there was no money to build a backup. "Fortunately, it looked cool. Had it not, it would have been, 'Terry!
Rewrite!!' and I don't think he would have been too thrilled."
Every practical effect was heavily augmented with CG, particle systems, Houdini fluid motion, etc, using the miniature work as a core, "partially because we wanted the look, and because to do some of
that stuff digitally just cost too much. To build the temple digitally would have probably bankrupted us in one sequence. Also, Terry has a huge miniature experience and understands them inside and
out. The trick for us was putting it together with all the digital bits."
As mentioned, the temple was a digitally enhanced practical model, but why? "Terry didn't want to do the film completely digitally, but by the end of the day a balance had to be struck, and CG wins on
many arguments. With the monastery, even I was thinking it could have been a matte painting.
"But when we actually built the thing and Terry saw it, he wanted to get the camera close to it, inside, around it. I think the fact it was physically there gave him an extra impetuous to redesign the
For example, when Jude Law is marching around on stilts, Gilliam was very conscious that if they simply made him hang on to two sticks standing on the ground, the weight and motion would have been
completely wrong. Instead, they did intensive previs of walking on stilts to get the gait they liked, then used a physical motorized rig that Law held on to with movements based on the CG previs.
I asked David Warren if any ideas that started out as practical wound up as digital. "That's a really good question, very difficult. I've got to think now," Warren quipped. "There were more ideas
initially where they, from my experience, would have worked better as miniatures because they needed that kind of depth and texture and lighting, but it just wasn't worthwhile. The only way to allow
the film to expand as Terry shot it was to do the amount we did digitally, especially all the landscapes."
"Terry ran with it, he wanted to shoot and shoot. Also, when a miniature model is done, that's it. When you are doing something digitally, it's always under construction until its final. A director can say, lets chuck another 50 feet on either side of it, and add more rockets, and lights, and bits and pieces. I think the fact that some things were miniature it was good, since it meant they were
Of course, they did chuck far more than 50 feet on either side. It was still enhanced digitally with matte extensions on sides and top, fires and smoke were added, and the canyon where it sat was
extended proving what all digital artists know: It's never really done until the Directors Cut DVD is released.
Though Gilliam loves the texture he gets with miniatures, he knew there were many sequences that were so wild and infinite they had to be done digitally.
One consideration was where a heckler wakes up in a spooky forest surrounded by broken bottles. Though many of the props were available at Peerless from previous films like The Brothers Grimm, they
decided it just wasn't plausible to build practically because of the number of shots, shooting with motion control, and the amount of time on stage. By doing it in CG, it eliminated those problems and
also gave Gilliam space to work with an infinite landscape, from forest to towering mountain.
There were eight specific design looks to manage, shared between Co-VFX Supervisors Docherty and Richard Bain of Bain VFX. Bain said, "we decided early on there was going to be more work than one VFX
Supervisor could handle. Plus I was going to be in Canada with Terry doing previs stuff and building miniatures. I wouldn't be able to do both jobs, so it was decided that Paul would look after the
London side and I would look after the blue screen shoot and make sure we got what we needed for the post work."
When Bain returned, he got involved with Peerless putting together the mirror dance sequence with Tom Waits and Lily Cole, where Cole's character Valentina thinks her father has died and she runs,
pushing reflections of herself away until she encounters the 'His and Hers' mirrors. Shot with multiple cameras, it was a sequence that needed working out before building any CG landscapes, shards, or
"I took every camera setup and started moving the camera shots around in a 3D space within Shake, so it was a Shake composite to start with. We weren't aware what the choreography was, and it was
pretty much decided on the day what the camera setups would be."
A free form camera unit around Waits and Cole was used, then the sequence was edited together. They had to work out what the CG would entail, so building a 2D environment was the most expedient way to
handle that scene.
They used every nearly every major software: Maya, XSI, Houdini and other propriety software. They composted on Shake, Fusion, Nuke and Inferno for high speed compositing. Mochi, Vue, Terragen for some
mountains, all orchestrated through a render manager they called Rush.
"It was pretty nuts," said Docherty. "We had gigabytes of references, paintings and drawings and production drawings for every sequence."
The distinct looks were based on what Gilliam brought to the table early in production. He and Warren created concept drawings based on paintings of Grant Wood, such as the ladder landscape, and
Maxfield Parrish who inspired the gondola sequences, and Odd Nerdrum. "It meant we had to write some extra software to get the looks we wanted. No single pipeline would suffice, so it was being warped
and molded and mangled from sequence to sequence pretty much all the time."
There is a great deal of digital work done around the practical.
"It was probably the most heavily prevised show I've ever seen, partially because the stuff was so complex and partially because we couldn't afford to waste anything," said Docherty. "Then we did what
we dubbed midvis (also known as on-set previs, as defined by the Previs Society), which is when we got to the point of editing in bluescreen shooting, we realized the previs wasn't good enough to give
the actors an idea of what they were going to be wandering around in."
Editing was faced with hundreds of shoots of people standing in a blue room, which isn't the easiest thing to cut together with any sensible level. "So we took all 800 shots up to a different level- not to a finished level because we couldn't afford to do that with every shot, but to a level sufficiently close, using everything from Terry's
storyboards to artwork to CG, digitally composited to look enough like the end environment so that valid creative and editorial decisions could be made." In essence, "we did the 800 shots a couple of times. That was a monstrous task in itself." That, from a digital point of view was very important.
"That was as much work as the digital work on the final shots, getting it down to the point where we weren't wasting big renders, large particle systems and caches, and we had to fine tune the edit to
the point that the heavy duty digital work was pretty much all going to stay on the screen and in the movie. Otherwise we'd have never finished it, it was the only way we could get through with the
time and money that we had."
They also built digital equivalents of all the practical models, as well as all the actors, animating them complete with camera movies, turning over new versions overnight, and sending them off to
either the miniature studio or to the shoot.
"We would dump what we had and transfer it up the next day. It was an ongoing process that had to happen all the time, or else we didn't stand a chance of the stuff joining up. The heavy previs
and midvis allowed us to be reasonably sure it was going to stick together and also allowed Terry to get a strong input rather than arriving on the day being told, 'this is what you get'.
"Terry isn't the sort of director that would react well to that sort of discussion. It was very important that by the time we got there, the things had been built and everybody was committed, and that
Terry had been involved at every step of the way and was behind it."
Warren, who was experiencing the digital effects process for the first time, found it a real education."I don't normally do post production, so it was very interesting to see how a company operates on the inside. The level of work doesn't go down, does it? There's a certain level of stress I'd equate
with shooting the film, and when you go into post production, it doesn't become like 11:00 AM breakfasts at the coffee shop. I think they all live on Red Bull and Doritos."
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