In The Lazarus Effect, a new horror film from Blumhouse Productions (Paranormal Activity, Sinister, Insidious), a team of scientists led by Mark Duplass’s character, Frank, is working on a way to bring the dead back to life. Their test subjects are newly deceased dogs until Zoe (Olivia Wilde), Frank’s fiancée, is accidentally killed during an experiment. Refusing to let her go, Frank pushes the team to bring her back from the dead. The result is disastrous and the transformation of Zoe throughout the film is horrific.
Still, director David Gelb’s (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) goal was to have the film’s VFX, practical and digital, be as organic and believable as possible. For help, he called on his friends, Brandon Parvini and Jeff Lichtfuss, co-founders of Los Angeles-based Ghost Town Media. Involved from the concepting phase, Ghost Town used Cinema 4D, After Effects, X-Particles and other tools to create all of the VFX for the film, as well as the opening titles.
“We have close ties to the director, but we still had to show them what we could do,” Lichtfuss recalls. “Originally, we were brought on to create all of the user interfaces for the medical equipment in the lab, but we hustled to put together concepts and mood boards and things and I think we sold them on going with us for all of the visual effects.”
When Parvini, Lichtfuss and a handful of other independent designers, animators and content creators started Ghost Town Media in 2006 they quickly realized their success depended on their ability to be nimble, clever and innovative. Embracing the mantra to “make every frame count” they’ve made more than 300 music videos artists, including Tiesto, Linkin’ Park and Kanye West. Increasingly, they’re also being tapped to work on independent and feature films and have so far completed work on three feature-length films in the past two years.
The Lazarus Effect, Parvini says, was a test for Ghost Town because it was the biggest studio-run project the team has done so far. One of the biggest ways they helped achieve the director’s vision was to “have answers before people even asked the questions.” And because they were involved with the film from the start, Ghost Town was able to come up with solutions quickly when shots didn’t work out like they were supposed to.
“It helps that our office runs like an active laboratory where there is no right or wrong way to approach things,” Parvini continues. “For this job, we usually had no more than five or six guys sitting together working in small teams, trying to do things like figure out how to make photo-realistic CG fire and get it integrated into a seemingly untrackable shot.”
For VFX involving the actors’ bodies, Ghost Town artists worked extensively with digital doubles created from 3D scans, so the geometry could be imported into Cinema 4D. One of the major builds they did for a scene involved making Olivia Wilde’s character’s feet appear to be levitating above the floor. With timing and production conditions leaving few options, Ghost Town used a scan of the actress' feet and in C4D, rebuilt the texture data from the scan, extracting normal, occlusion and bump maps.
“Once we had that, we were able to re-project the shot footage onto a surface and integrate a rigged set of the scanned and textured feet for usage in the scene,” Parvini explains. X-Particles was used to create the effect of flaking flesh and embers emanating from the character as she floated.
As Wilde’s character decayed and transformed, there were many scenes in which her skin appeared to burn, scorch and fall away. For the shots involving close-ups and macro shots, Ghost Town’s team found themselves needing to improvise after finding the complex particle-emitting rig they created too cumbersome.
“Yeah, we had a really fun, complex rig using emitted particles that would pull torn polygons off with it and it all looked pretty good until you tried to adjust the build or navigate the viewport,” Parvini says. “It was simply too heavy to effectively deal with.” Instead, they tossed the scan into a series of MoGraph effectors, making the scene extremely light so they were able to quickly make the adjustments they were unable to do efficiently in the previous build.
“So what we failed to properly execute with Xpresso and Thinking Particles in our timeframe, we managed to easily pull off with a combination of an Explosion and Displacement effectors,” he adds.
All together, Ghost Town worked on the film for about six months, mostly on and off with long breaks in between screenings. They used X-Particles extensively for the UI builds. “We read through the script to see what we needed to convey with the screens, like we needed to show that the effects of a serum used in the film, so we were able to art direct the particles to show when it was working, or at other times how it began destroying cells that it touched,” Parvini explains. “It sounds really nerdy, but it was a ton of fun, kind of like setting up a big Rube Goldberg device that you would shoot the particles through.”
All of the screens were created practically to allow the actors to interact directly with the information during scenes, even to the point of having fully interactive interfaces built out for specific scenes. “At one point someone needed to hack into a database, so we actually made an interactive app for them to match the keyboard and make it look like they were an elite coder/hacker,” Parvini says.
Having to do a fair amount of coding for this project was “terrifying,” Parvini says, because Ghost Town isn’t naturally drawn to code. To generate some of the UI assets they relied heavily on Processing, an open-source programming language. “It’s a really incredible little trickster,” he continues, adding that while the visual coding language is similar to Java, it includes a wide array of third-party packages and enhancements that the community has built for it.
Recently, Ghost Town finished work on another feature, as well A Faster Horse, a documentary that will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. They’re looking forward to doing more film work in the future but, really, Parvini says: “If we can keep doing cool stuff and keep the lights on, we’re happy campers. For us it’s really about relishing the opportunities for ingenuity in projects like this. ”
Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.