The Grand Budapest Hotel is the fifth film LOOK Effects has worked on with acclaimed Director, Wes Anderson and the first produced principally out of their recently established Stuttgart facility.
Featuring Ralph Fiennes as the concierge of an opulent European hotel involved in the theft and recovery of a priceless Renaissance painting, The Grand Budapest Hotel also stars Adrien Brody, Jude Law, Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton. Fox Searchlight Pictures released the film in the US on March 7th 2014 and it will screen in European theatres from February through March. Principal photography took place in Germany.
Visual effects were produced in LOOK Effect’s new Stuttgart studio based in the Animation Media Cluster Region Stuttgart (AMCRS). LOOK is the first US based studio to partner with AMCRS and joins with 19 other allied businesses in the cluster. LOOK was instrumental in helping secure substantial funding for the film with a regional film-funding grant from Baden-Württemberg’s MFG.
CGSociety speaks to Gabriel Sanchez about his experience and the challenges that he faced assembling a team in a different country and moving rapidly to work on over 300 shots for The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Gabriel slid into visual effects bootstrapping by night at Digital Magic in the days before any specialist schools existed. Graduating with a degree in Business Administration, he got a job in the 'vault' back when film and beta tapes had to be wrangled on a daily basis. He found himself drawn to the area where the artists hung out and immersed himself in the world of Quantel, Domino and Henry. Feeding this fascination he would spend hours of his own time on the graveyard shift familiarising himself with the basics of compositing while playing with Flame. "This was in the days before digital noise reduction existed" says Gabriel. "I would pull down a shot, run it through a noise maker and then retouch it by hand to get practice"
Gabriel practiced routinely in his own time, principally concentrating on Flame, until one night a rush job came through the door, and he was the only artist available. He did the job, wowed the client and found himself in the artist's chair shortly thereafter. Progressing quickly from here, he worked as a contract Flame artist for DRes, CRC Digital, Digiscope and Pacific Title before taking a freelance job with LOOK Effects. Not long after he won a permanent position with LOOK and now, almost ten years later, he is still there. Working principally as a Flame Artist, Gabriel learned very early that the fundamentals of compositing are much the same regardless of platform. He found himself working across all areas of the company more-and-more until he was awarded a supervisor's role.
Working with Wes Anderson on previous films assisted LOOK with the smooth running of the VFX work on The Grand Budapest Hotel. As is often the case, the shot list grew with the original 100 or so shots ballooning to a total of 300 for LOOK. Additional shots were undertaken by Luxx with the Studios working in tandem to meet schedule.
With principal photography completed prior to LOOK opening the doors of their new German studio, Gabriel didn't get to spend any time on set overseeing the shooting of a complex array of shots using both film and digital cameras. "Having worked with Wes before really helped here," says Gabriel. "We often had a good idea of what he was aiming for from previous experience and I spoke to the production team regularly during the shoot raising concerns I had about things that needed to be covered off so they wouldn't catch us later on".
The film included a substantial amalgamation of the old (film) and the new (digital) and a mixture of technologies that, when combined, present a unique look to the finished film. Principal photography was captured using Arricam ST with much of the miniature work relying on Red Cameras over three different aspect ratios. Gabriel noted it was interesting when working with some of the younger artists as they hadlimited experience with film and were fascinated to learn the nuances of stock and grain and how to build skills to seamlessly bolt film and digital together.
Many of the shots were challenging as most of them had multiple requirements. "In the chase sequence, for example, we had to cover off miniature integration as well as stop motion and mattes and weld it all together. One of the main challenges was getting the tension and speed of the chase sequence right. If that wasn't enough many shots required the addition of particle effects to enhance the snow. There seems to be a lot of snow in The Grand Budapest Hotel! Gabriel also noted that there were a lot of effects done 'in camera'. Most of the snow, for instance, was created on-set and a really good job was done of it.”
Matte Paintings were an important part of LOOK's work on the film. Wes provided an extensive array of reference shots to illustrate how he wanted the landscape to look which prompted Gabriel to create a full mountain range to use for the set extensions. "I wanted to be able to spin the camera 360 degrees in any scene and be able to see a full back drop with no flipped scenes or repeats".
When we ask what shot Gabriel thinks best demonstrates the rapid development of his new team, he points to the 1960's hotel. "We were provided with a miniature of the hotel and had to rebuild it digitally. Not a complex job on the surface with the hotel really just being architectural geometry however it rapidly became obvious that the lighting and the mattes would need to integrate seamlessly with the model to make it really work, and this is where the team really proved itself." says Gabriel. "We got together and, thinking outside of the box, worked out how we would do it. We determined that concentrating on how the shadows would expand and move across the building would create the magic. This to me really showed the team working well, as the shot came together not because of the modelling, or the matte painting, or the compositing, but the whole combination working together to create something that really 'popped'".
The Observatory Shot is another that Gabriel notes as being significant. Once again the LOOK Effects team was presented with a miniature, in pieces this time. It was digitally built and with actors shot on green screen and added. Then over 20 other elements were incorporated developing a very large script. Then. Further elements were added in various iterations at the request of the Director. As Wes had a very clear idea of what he wanted we usually had 7-10 revisions to completely dial in his vision. Usually we had no more than three in-house revisions to complete the shot "It was really satisfying to watch this grow and to see it run smoothly. Render time wasn't that long. The way we set it up was, once we got it to a certain approval level, we had simplified the script to have pre-rendered layers. This allowed us to do the final render in about an hour per shot".
The establishment of a new team of 15 artists in Germany presented some challenges for Gabriel but it was evident that this amalgamation of cultures and countries led to a great result. When we ask what benefits he feels the collaboration bought to the film beyond the obvious financial ones, Gabriel is excited. "As the film is set in Europe, being there really helped. I was immersed in the environment, the architecture, the culture and the feel of Europe. It certainly bought some intangible benefits to the project but they are very difficult to articulate. On a more practical level, while we collected lots of references, if we had to model something like a cobbled street , for instance, there was usually a real one no too far away".
It’s clear from talking to Gabriel that working in another country presented an initial level of culture shock on a personal level. "Everything was new and different,” he admits. He also owns up to bit of homesickness and while language was not a big barrier as English is spoken by everyone in the studio, many of the nuances of communication had to be considered as slang terms don’t always translate well across languages.
In terms of putting his team together Gabriel got it right. To start with he put a workflow in place, established basic testing processes and built a reliable pipeline. However beyond that he was very aware that he would need to do more to build a great team. "I knew walking in the door with an ego would have been the wrong approach," says Gabriel. "I had to demonstrate I was a part of the team and prepared to dive in". Working with his new team on R&D proved to be the platform for this. Gabriel knew that he had to show his team that he could roll up his sleeves and get into it.
With only 4 of the Stuttgart team having worked in big films before it’s obvious from talking to Gabriel that his team was energized by a hunger to learn that played out in really strong collaboration and effective problem solving. "All the team had a big hunger to do 'top notch' work and a big hunger to learn" says Gabriel. "The collaboration of the team was especially strong and we would often find ourselves around a monitor with different people saying, let's try this or let's try that".
So with runaway production being such a hot topic at the moment, how does Gabriel feel having travlled halfway across the globe to do a work? Understandably Gabriel chooses his words very carefully answering this. In fact, I think he would have preferred I didn't ask it at all! While it is obvious working in Stuttgart with a great team was an experience he enjoyed, being a home-grown Californian guy he obviously prefers to live and work in his home country. He is upfront in saying that having the attitude, "We are Hollywood.. pay attention" is not helpful. This is what you would expect to hear from a VFX Supervisor who is prepared to roll up his own sleeves and get into it - Gabriel is a very humble guy. He believes talent is the key and believes that Hollywood must preserve its strong talent pool above all else.
When asked if he would work overseas again Gabriel says that he has been asking himself that a lot lately and it would depend on many factors, mainly the challenge of the job. In reality he would prefer to cross that bridge when he comes to it. For now, however, he can rest assured that his work establishing the LOOK Effects Stuttgart team and the work they all did on The Grand Budapest Hotel is a success that should be celebrated.
Visual Effects by: LOOK Effects, GmbH
Visual Effects Supervisor: Gabriel Sanchez
Visual Effects Executive Producer: Henrik Fett
Compositing Lead: Jan Burda
Visual Effects Producer: Jenny Foster
Digital Compositors: Jonas Stuckenbrock, Nina Pries, Andreas Dahn, Enrico Perei, Tobias Gerdst
Matte Painting: Simone de Salvatore, Marco Wilz
Visual Effects Editing: Dirk Stoppe, Benjamin Mauz
For over 16 years, LOOK Effects has been a leading provider of digital-effects solutions for feature film, episodic television and special venue projects. With operations in Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, and, suttgart, Germany, LOOK offers a knowledgeable and resourceful approach in partnering with their clients to supervise and produce visual effects. In all four locations LOOK offers ideas and options for digital effects design, on-set supervision, set-extension creation, 3D animation and complex compositing that dovetail smoothly into production schedules.
This combined experience and expertise has earned LOOK a high level of trust and an impressive list of clients and credits. LOOK’s effects for Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan were nominated for both VES and BAFTA awards for visual effects. Their other film credits include: Noah, Sabotage, Draft Day, Warm Bodies, Life of Pi, Moonrise Kingdom, Alex Cross, The Muppets, Underworld Awakening, Captain America, Limitless, and The King’s Speech. Television credits include: “Bones,” “Game of Thrones,” “Nashville,” “Castle,” “The Finder,” the Emmy-nominated effects for “Life After People” and all of the VES-nominated effects for the final season of “Lost.”