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February 26
2019

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Inside the BIRD BOX of Effects

By IAN FAILES

When millions of viewers tuned into Susanne Bier’s Bird Box, which began streaming on Netflix in December 2018, they might not have realized that several key sequences in the film – which tells the story of a strange presence that makes people who look at it commit suicide – were made possible with visual effects.

These included the dramatic river sequence, in which a blindfolded Malorie (Sandra Bullock) rows herself, along with two young unnamed children (played by Vivien Lyra Blair and Julian Edwards) through a series of rapids in the hope of finding sanctuary. VFX were also crucial in scenes showing the initial chaotic impact of the unknown entities, the birds that signal their approach, and to hint at their almost invisible existence.

Visual Effects Supervisor Marcus Taormina engaged several vendors to craft Bird Box’s effects, principally ILM London and ILM Singapore. VFX Voice asked Taormina about some of the main effects challenges for the hugely successful release.

Watch the trailer for Bird Box.

Jessica’s death

Mass suicides suddenly begin in the city where Malorie and her sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson), live. This causes roadway carnage, as people affected by the unknown presence begin killing themselves. Jessica becomes affected herself, and slams the car into another, causing it to topple over. “To suspend that car upside down, we had a gigantic forklift wrapped in blue that was supporting that entire car, so we had to clean that up,” says Taormina. “Then we had interior coverage of Malorie and Jessica which was shot on a greenscreen stage that utilized a rotisserie rig.”

Jessica then commits suicide by walking in front of a large truck. For this, a digital double of Poulson was created and a combination of multi-element passes, a stunt performer, and the digital double, along with added gore, made the final shot possible. “The thing that was interesting about that was, for one of the first computer simulations that we did on the digital double, it caused the simulated hair to blow back over her face, and it kind of felt like there was this volume of air moving towards her that did that,” outlines Taormina. “In normal circumstances, I’d ask the facility to re-sim it, but, for whatever reason, that felt real, it felt right. We tried a couple of other versions, but they never had that realistic feel. In the end that’s what’s in the final cut.”

Jessica (Sarah Paulson) emerges from a crashed vehicle after being overtaken by the unseen presence, and walks into the path of a truck.

A series of other crashes and explosions made up the sequence as more chaos ensues. These were a combination of practical effects, stunts and effects simulations, along with subtle compositing. One moment, immediately after Jessica’s death, saw visual effects intervention as Malorie looked to run after the truck to see if there was any hope that her sister may have survived. To make it impossible for her to get there, the VFX team expanded on a small explosion produced on set to have fire and debris crawling over the truck.

“Our idea was to have this gasoline leak jump over the garbage truck and cause the garbage truck to explode, and at the same time spew gasoline and debris that creates this fire debris wall or field that Malorie sees and knows she can’t penetrate,” says Taormina. “And all of that was actually done in post-production, and it seems pretty seamless.”

A scene requiring a woman to be engulfed in flames in her car in the initial chaos was filmed without the fiery explosion.

Visual effects artists added the destruction.

Running the river rapids

Searching for sanctuary, the children and Malorie survive a blindfolded journey down a river, including through dangerous rapids. Initial location scouts found a suitable flowing river, but when it came time to shoot the water level had reduced significantly. With stunt work necessary, specific rapids shots required and a limited schedule on hand, the ultimate approach involved filming as much as could be done practically, extending scenes with digital water and environments, and splitting in tank elements.

Dangerous rapids scenes could be filmed in more controlled environments and extended with VFX.

An extensive plate shoot on location gave the VFX team great reference for extending scenes and simulating the rapids.

During the shoot, the VFX team acquired river plates and backgrounds to produce a digital archive of the locations. Says Taormina: “We also did a ton of virtual backgrounds – digital 360-degree still frames or cycloramas – of these locations where, if we had to, we could reconstruct the background, if there wasn’t a lot of movement. We then added CG water simulations to that. We also knew we wanted to cover a big stretch of run towards the end of the sequence, so we ended up doing a Spidercam three-array camera rig that spanned that run, and we captured that via a 360-degree cyclorama.”

The shots became a mix of full 3D builds and re-projections of the textures that had been shot on locations, projected onto Lidar scans. “To meld those two things together,” explains Taormina, “we would put debris along the banks, or we were lucky enough to already have the atmospherics that we also added into the scenes.”

Some river scenes made use of tank plates, with the actors shot against bluescreen.

The final composite.

Designing the presence

The ‘unseen presence’ responsible for the mayhem was implied by the blowing of debris and leaves, or as shape-shifting shadows, though an initial R&D phase looked at having more traditional creatures in the film. The Aaron Sims Company created some concepts, but ultimately the existence of the presence was only ever suggested. As Malorie and the children near the sanctuary, the presence’s rage is communicated by much more violent acting foliage and static in the hair and on the clothes of the characters, which were accomplished with CG simulations.

For the intense trees and bushes that seem to attack Malorie and the children, production initially tried wire-pulls of real foliage. “It was very difficult to get it to look right, says Taormina. “We looked at a lot of reference of atomic bombs, in terms of the concussion and wave blowing effect, and we could never really replicate that aspect. So what we ended up doing was shooting all our masters by doing a pass or two with these ratcheted trees, and then we moved the company to another location. Then we pulled everything out of the set so it became an empty ground and a handful of blue re-bar to signify where trees were for Malorie and the kids to run through.”

For scenes in the forest of the unseen presence causing havoc, plates were filmed with limited foliage interaction.

CG trees and bushes were then added as effects simulations. 

“We basically did a digital takeover [of the forest, trees and leaves] so we could have full control of the forest behind, and then run our simulations of the saplings being displaced violently. I also knew that I wanted to have that secondary layer of leaves being ripped off the top just to signify a little bit more, to give you a little visual representation othat something was back there.”

—Marcus Taormina, Visual Effects Supervisor

The visual effects team then crafted a digital forest and the rampaging leaves and trees. “We basically did a digital takeover so we could have full control of the forest behind, and then run our simulations of the saplings being displaced violently,” notes Taormina. “I also knew that I wanted to have that secondary layer of leaves being ripped off the top just to signify a little bit more, to give you a little visual representation that something was back there.”

 

Birds in a box

Birds become a literal ‘canary in the coal mine’ object, able to warn Malorie and the children when the presence is approaching. The birds were required to undertake some very specific actions in the film, including getting loud and agitated, or being held gently. The filmmakers turned again to visual effects.

A scene of birds getting aggravated inside a cage was shot with just a green pole standing in.

The birds were computer-generated, enabling them to exhibit unusual behaviors.

“Any time we knew there was a bird scene, we tried to shoot practical birds in the cage, and when there were scenes where those birds would get agitated based on the presence, we knew that we would have to take over [with CG] on those scenes.”

—Marcus Taormina, Visual Effects Supervisor

Some scenes did make use of real birds trained by animal wranglers. “Any time we knew there was a bird scene,” states Taormina, “we tried to shoot practical birds in the cage, and when there were scenes where those birds would get agitated based on the presence, we knew that we would have to take over on those scenes.”

For scenes where the birds were CG and would need to interact with the actors, a small green pole stood in for the animals on set. Footage of the real birds was then, of course, used in replicating them to create digital versions. “We found that leaning in on that footage as much as we could was most effective,” says Taormina, “and trying to do a combination of keyframe and rotomation.”

Empty plate of the bird box.

Final shot with CG birds.

“The one shot that took the longest, but also felt very seamless, was when Malorie is on the river and she gives a drink to the birds. That’s a CG grass parakeet, and then when we come into the coverage of the three birds in the box, that’s actually practical footage. So we tried to marry the two together and really studied that.”

—Marcus Taormina, Visual Effects Supervisor

“The one shot that took the longest but also felt very seamless,” adds Taormina, “was when Malorie is on the river and she gives a drink to the birds. That’s a CG grass parakeet, and then when we come into the coverage of the three birds in the box, that’s actually practical footage. So we tried to marry the two together and really studied that.”

 

Unseen effects

Bird Box is a film that doesn’t feel like it has many visual effects in it, which was clearly a mandate for Taormina. Even an effect that he originally thought would involve a significant CG take-over – the moment a character’s eyes glaze over as they are affected by the presence – was achieved in a much more subtle way.

“Our early designs for this were based on some oil and water still frames and we thought it would be a liquid sim, which we nailed down very quickly. We played around with it a bit more where we tried to add some blood on the edges and pop out the capillaries a little bit near the sclera, but ultimately the director thought it felt a little too zombie-like. So we backed that off and said, ‘Okay, this is good, let’s just roll with this.’ It worked really well.”


Read about the VFX of Netflix movies and shows here!

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