By KEVIN H. MARTIN
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By KEVIN H. MARTIN
Disney’s wildly successful and critically-acclaimed 1992 animated feature Aladdin, co-directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, and starring Robin Williams as Genie, was merely one of many animated dramatizations of the classic story produced since the 1926 feature The Adventures of Prince Achmed. The Disney adaption drew on character and story elements from 1940’s live-action The Thief of Bagdad (itself a remake of 1924’s Douglas Fairbanks silent-era spectacular), a visual extravaganza that featured pioneering bluescreen work in a color film by Special Effects Director Larry Butler, which earned the film an Oscar for its effects.
The success of the Disney feature led to a pair of direct-to-video sequels and a TV series, plus a Broadway adaptation. After some gestation, a live-action adaptation was announced, with Guy Ritchie signed to direct. A veteran of the Ritchie-directed Sherlock Holmes films, VFX Supervisor Chas Jarrett was tasked with both technical and creative control on the project, including a major contribution from Industrial Light and Magic, as well as work from Hybride Technologies, Base VFX, Magiclab, Host VFX and One of Us. DNEG provided stereo conversion for the 3D release, while Ncam and Nvizage handled on-set tracking and virtual camera functions.
Jarrett, an Oscar nominee for Poseidon and BAFTA nominee for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who won a VES Award for the first Sherlock Holmes feature, began his career at MPC. After a decade there, he became an independent supervisor, and in recent years, he headed up VFX efforts on both Pan and Logan. “Our story is very faithful to Disney’s original animated feature,” Jarrett readily acknowledges. “There were many inspirations we could take from it, but it was never our intention to lean too closely towards such an iconic film [for the live-action film]. It was important for everyone on the project that we stood on our own feet.”
Towards that end, pre-production commenced with what Jarrett characterizes as a blank slate. Production designer Gemma Jackson, an Emmy winner for John Adams and Game of Thrones, who had recently collaborated with Ritchie on his King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, put her team in the art department to work immediately by sourcing volumes of reference material and beginning visualization for all aspects of Agrabah, the thriving desert city featured in the film.
“At the same time, we began developing storyboards, animatics and previs with an internal VFX team of around 35 people, who ultimately produced around 40 minutes of animatics and previs for the film,” Jarrett continues. “This was mostly used to establish the more choreographed musical sequences in the film. We also brought on board a large team of traditional animators who were instrumental in developing character ideas and performances.” Proof Inc. also contributed to both previsualization and postvis efforts.
Another major issue during prep revolved around vendor selection. “Choosing the right team for a project like this is crucial,” he emphasizes, “in part, because it’s such a smorgasbord of creative and technical challenges. So my first port of call was to ILM and two of their VFX supervisors, Mike Mulholland and David Seager. Mike was the Overall ILM Supervisor while David joined me on set as our 2nd Unit VFX Supervisor, and then headed back to Vancouver to manage the team there. Also on board early was Animation Supervisor Tim Harrington, joined later by Steve Aplin – two fantastically creative collaborators.” Other supervisors include ILM London’s Mark Bakowski, Daniele Bigi, Animation Supervisor Mike Beaulieu and Jeff Capogreco.
“[Director] Guy [Ritchie] was never inclined to dwell on ‘magical’ effects for long, so they tend to be quick and percussive.”
—Chas Jarrett, VFX Supervisor
Given Guy Ritchie’s trademark gritty approach to filmmaking, it was no surprise that this fairytale would be one with an edge. “Guy was clear from the outset that the film had to take place in a viably real world that felt tangible and authentic,” states Jarrett. “For us, this meant that while there’s a strong fantasy element to the story, the world needed to feel grounded with environments and characters that were plausible. Guy is very open to trying new technical methodologies in his films, and we certainly pushed those boundaries for this project, but working in real sets and locations as much as possible was always his preference. Where we used digital sets and extensions we took great care to base our work on scans and plates of real places to ensure that we stayed grounded in ‘reality’ – which meant the environments were inspired by real locations. So Giles Harding, my on-set supervisor, oversaw LIDAR and photogrammetry scanning of locations in Morocco and Jordan, as well as a hugely detailed capture of all our amazing sets.”
Rather than remaining stagebound for those sets, production also availed itself of the studio backlot. “It is always my personal preference to shoot exterior scenes on exterior sets with real daylight and sun, and we were fortunate to be able to build an extensive backlot set for much of our principal photography,” says Jarrett. “Principal photography took place mostly on our enormous backlot set which served as the backstreets of Agrabah and the main parade ground in front of the palace gates, which we digitally augmented where needed to give greater depth to the environments. But a consequence of shooting at a studio just outside London is that you’re constantly at the mercy of the ‘great’ British weather. For this reason, some sets were built on interior stages to give us more reliable weather cover. In these cases, we created digital extensions and skies to offer the shots more depth. As with all the VFX on Aladdin, we were very careful to use textures and color palettes that supported the set and stayed true to Gemma’s designs.
“Obviously,” continues Jarrett, “the bigger, wider views of Agrabah were created by our environments team at ILM, who used scans and photography from the sets and from real locations as a basis for their incredible work. We were extremely fortunate to be able to shoot some sequences on location in Jordan. The wealth of film and photographic reference we gathered in Jordan [during] our time there was pivotal in establishing the desert look for the film. We used drones and helicopters [through Helicopter Film Services and UAV drone pilot Alan Perrin] to photograph and scan some amazing environments which greatly enhanced the scope of those sequences. I also undertook a number of aerial photography shoots in Morocco, Jordan, Namibia and Svalbard to give these shots a sense of scope and realism. In many cases, this aerial footage also provided invaluable reference for our environment and lighting teams.”
No trek through this mythological landscape would be complete without a magic carpet ride. A six-axis hydraulic platform built by Special Effects Floor Supervisor David Holt’s team provided an articulated basis for practically-shot live-action elements. “In some instances, we had pre-filmed backgrounds shot with either wirecams on the backlot set or from helicopters on location,” Jarrett reports. “The hydraulic rig was programmed to move using Flair so we could synchronize it with our motion-control camera. In other cases, we could operate the carpet rig live using a hand-operated input device while we shot the actors from a Technocrane. In general, the process for combining backgrounds with foregrounds required a great deal of digital manipulation.”
With respect to the characters of Carpet, Abu, Iago, Rajah and Genie, Jarrett readily acknowledges that to achieve their full potential on screen, a significant element of VFX involvement would be required. Achieving this required multiple iterations in order to conquer issues of acceptable behavior for the camera. “The characters should lean towards naturalism rather than caricature,” he states. “A good example is [the monkey] sidekick Abu, who in the original feature animation is almost human-like in his ability to understand and communicate. We knew from the outset this character would be entirely digital throughout the film, and that he should be visually based on a Capuchin monkey – but it wasn’t clear to us yet how ‘human’ or ‘monkey’ we should go with his performance.”
A wide range of animation styles and cycles were attempted, ranging from cartoonish to anthropomorphized to natural. “We tried a variety just to see what clicked,” Jarrett elaborates, “and it became apparent very quickly that a ‘real’ looking monkey who didn’t behave like a real monkey didn’t feel right at all. If we had too much ‘human-ness’ in the performance, it just didn’t feel credible. So we scoured the archives for filmed material of Capuchins and found reference clips of behavior that matched the needs of our scenes, and used that as the basis for his performance.”
With the Genie (played by Will Smith), performance capture was a given, but the manner in which he manifested while emerging from his bottle was always intended as a post-production effect. “Genie’s materialization was always planned to be achieved by our digital character and FX simulation teams at ILM, primarily because the look of these effects needed to be carefully designed and controlled in a way we couldn’t achieve with practical effects on set,” Jarrett declares.
“Guy was a strong advocate of finding a ‘language’ for Genie’s magic that would be consistent and recognizable throughout the film. So we developed FX simulations which took color cues from Genie’s costumes and jewelry and combined them in different ways to create some really interesting effects. Guy was never inclined to dwell on ‘magical’ effects for long, so they tend to be quick and percussive.”
In evaluating the work of the multitudes involved in creating visual magic for this live-action version of Aladdin, Jarrett claims, “Every type of VFX work is represented within the film – from character animation, performance capture, set extensions, digital environments, and FX simulations for fur, fire, water, lava, cloth, muscles and skin – to a plethora of Genie magic.”