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February 12
2019

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Mastering Water: Producing the Effects for AQUAMAN

By IAN FAILES

Wrangling the visual effects for a major blockbuster is no easy feat, but that task was made all the more challenging on director James Wan’s Aquaman thanks to many complex underwater – and out of water – action sequences.

Helping to guide the effects effort was Visual Effects Producer Kimberly Nelson Locascio, who partnered with Production Visual Effects Supervisor Kelvin McIlwain to oversee a number of VFX and previs/postvis vendors (including ILM, Scanline, MPC, Method Studios, Digital Domain, Rodeo FX, Weta Digital, Luma Pictures, Proof, Halon, The Third Floor and Day for Nite).

Locascio tells VFX Voice how water impacted the effects, how a version of every single effects shot was completed for the director’s cut, and how the global VFX production was managed.

Watch a behind-the-scenes featurette on Aquaman.

“We started by first doing a version of every single shot in the movie for the director’s cut, which gave us the blueprint for the movie. It allowed James, Kirk Morri and the editor to really dig into the shots in a real way because a lot of the live-action photography didn’t really tell the story.”

—Kimberly Nelson Locascio, Visual Effects Producer

VFX Voice: What did your role of Visual Effects Producer entail on Aquaman?

Kimberly Locascio: My job was to be the creative glue to hold everything together, both in first identifying the best path to achieving the work, and then working hand in hand with James Wan, the director, and the VFX supervisors. We had Kelvin McIlwain on the production side, and then the supervisors of the various facilities responsible for the design and execution of all of the shots. I’m also responsible for the budget and the schedule, and the moving pieces that that involved.

It was an interesting process on this film because we started by first doing a version of every single shot in the movie for the director’s cut, which gave us the blueprint for the movie. It allowed James and editor Kirk Morri to really dig into the shots in a real way because a lot of the live-action photography didn’t really tell the story. So that was our first step, and from there we started analyzing what exactly was going to remain in the movie, and how that was going to be achieved.

That was sort of the first step of the process. Then it was about the evolution of the shots, designing all of the things that were particular to this film with the underwater worlds, the movement of hair and clothes and the plant life, sea life, all of that kind of stuff. It was just about James’ imagination and being able to achieve the look that he was after.

 

VFX Voice: That’s really interesting about doing a version of all the shots for the director’s cut. To get that done on a timely basis, were you doing the shots to, say, a postvis level, or something else to give a flavor to some of the harder visual effects shots?

Kimberly Locascio: It was both. For the director’s cut, it was really just a postvis effort, but it was pretty sophisticated, enough so that it allowed good decisions to be made about what was working, what wasn’t, how to improve things, and stuff that had to be elevated from there. It was a very smart way to go on a film like this because it eliminated a lot of waste, if you will, because we knew after that what the best path was. The evolution of it was a really great process because we could just keep going until it achieved James’ desire and his look.

Large underwater environments filled with sea creatures and characters were the big challenges of Aquaman.

“For the director’s cut, it was really just a postvis effort, but it was pretty sophisticated, enough so that it allowed good decisions to be made about what was working, what wasn’t, how to improve things, and stuff that had to be elevated from there. It was a very smart way to go on a film like this because it eliminated a lot of waste, if you will, because we knew after that what the best path was.”

—Kimberly Nelson Locascio, Visual Effects Producer

On this film, unlike any other I’ve personally worked on, we would just spend hours a day with James. It was this incredible experience of really watching –  doing dailies for hours sometimes, looking at the animation, seeing what’s working and what’s not, looking at every aspect and development of the things that we had to create.

The interesting part, as well, was tracking all of that. The thing about this movie is that the creative had to come first. It was the only way to achieve the work on it. Of course, I had a responsibility to the studio for the budget as well. So it was putting the creative first, and then following through with making sure that we could figure out how to do everything that was on the list with the funds that we had, which is also a fascinating and fun part of it.

 

VFX Voice: In addition to the director’s cut, were you also getting things like a review cut ready or a test screening cut ready for an audience to see? Can you talk about some of the challenges of each stage of finalization of a film like this?

Kimberly Locascio: Absolutely, that is probably the most challenging part, especially on these gigantic films because the shots take a minimum of 16 weeks production time. So it’s always a balance between when is it ready to actually show to an audience and who may or may not understand what they’re actually looking at. What you’re always asking yourself is, ‘Does it tell the story? Is it good enough there?’ You also don’t want to create a lot of waste. You don’t want to produce shots that are going to end up on the floor because they’re not part of the actual shot production.

You have to balance all of those things, and then come up with the best plan for each sequence. In some cases, on a movie like this, because so much was being created after the fact, it was really challenging. We had to pick a date that was the perfect sweet spot where we would have enough work that was not going to be wasted that was finished enough for everybody to be able to understand what they were looking at. There’s a lot of pressure when you have that type of deadline. I think everyone rose to meet that challenge on this movie in a wonderful way, and I think the studio was very smart and supportive about picking the right dates. Otherwise, you have the postvis that you’re using for a very small audience cut in, and that’s never going to be ideal.

Director James Wan on the set of Aquaman.

“All of the underwater sequences were the most challenging. The one that I could watch every single day, because it’s so gorgeous to me, is the underwater battle. There’s so much there. I’m hoping every time an audience sees it they’re going to notice new things. The level of design that [director] James [Wan] brought to this movie is just massively appealing. An audience member has never been to a world like this.”

—Kimberly Nelson Locascio, Visual Effects Producer

VFX Voice: Films these days, including Aquaman, of course, are global efforts. Can you talk about some of the challenges in just wrangling companies and filmmakers around the world and the constant communication process?

Kimberly Locascio: We developed a schedule that worked for all of the different time zones, because we had New Zealand, we had Montreal, we had Vancouver, we had London – we had a little bit of every time zone. We would schedule our day based on when we could get people started in each time zone, and go throughout the day. We would often ‘pipe people in’ so that they would be on the phone with us as we were reviewing their work, so that James could have direct access to discussing things with them. The biggest challenge in working with all of the time zones was that if something came up, we might have to wait until 2:30 to talk to New Zealand. But it is a global business, and there’s so much incredible talent worldwide that you just kind of find a way to make it work.

 

VFX Voice: Is there one particular shot or sequence that, as the movie moved through these various cuts, was really tough or challenging, but as it evolved you were particularly proud of it?

Kimberly Locascio: I think all of the underwater sequences were the most challenging. The one that I could watch every single day, because it’s so gorgeous to me, is the underwater battle. There’s so much there. I’m hoping every time an audience sees it they’re going to notice new things. The level of design that James brought to this movie is just massively appealing. An audience member has never been to a world like this.

I remember a moment when we saw a shot where I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is the movie we’re making.’ It was so exciting. It still gives me chills right now because to really be able to rise up to that and achieve it was something that everyone worked so, so hard to do. It’s always amazing to see it get to that stage.

Characters fight underwater, which required live-action footage to be augmented and enhanced, sometimes with digi-doubles and often with simulated hair and clothing.

VFX Voice: Finally, you’ve been involved previously in some big films that have involved water, such as Waterworld. It seems like fluid simulations have been mastered in recent years, but how hard is it still to tackle these water films?

Kimberly Locascio: It was exciting because the technology obviously has advanced so substantially. I worked on The Hunt for Red October and on Waterworld. On Hunt for Red October, we were on a stage over in the East Bay shooting dry-for-wet in a smoke-filled stage, and now we’re doing all of this incredible stuff that is all digital. Part of the fun was being able to do every single thing that needed to be something underwater – from the hair and beard movement, to the particulate matter in the water, to the ripple effect – digitally, and have it look real. I loved that part of it.


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