Creative Director Phil Dobree of VFX experts Jellyfish Pictures explains the thinking behind the CGI creation of two characters for Film4-backed shorts: a giant fish for Kibwe Tavares’s Jonah and a sympathetic robot for Shynola’s Dr Easy.
Jonah underwater shot
Jellyfish were first approached back in August 2012 by producer Ivana MacKinnon, who asked if we might be interested in working on the creature VFX required in a short film, directed by Kibwe Tavares, about an enormous fish. We were aware of Kibwe’s previous work and were really blown away by the art work he showed us for Jonah – it was unique, and the ideas and designs he had for the fish by illustrator Warren Holder , which were incredibly complex and challenging, fired our imagination and literally hooked us into getting involved. Our relationship with Film4 on previous projects was another huge plus. Our reputation for realistic character and creature CGI work meant this was a great opportunity to stretch our skills on a new and beautifully designed creature with a unique story. The fish was going to be a central part of the story and Kibwe and Ivana felt it was essential to get this right, so we were delighted they felt we were the right fit for the film.
A little later that same year, around November, Robin Gutch at Warp Films recommended us to producer Ally Gipps, who was looking for a partner to get involved in some high end VFX for a short film called Dr Easy that he was producing with directing team Shynola. We get asked a fair amount to work on an investment basis on films for a range of projects, and have to consider carefully which ones are worthwhile for both creative and financial reasons. Shynola have produced some great work over a number of years and this looked like a project that was right up our street – so we were definitely interested. When we met the team and found out about the story, creative challenges and ambition we knew we had to be a part of Dr Easy. It was challenging but just the kind of work we are well suited to, with an opportunity to work with a great team on a really interesting project. Knowing both Warp and Film4 was again a big draw for us to get involved.
With both Jonah and Dr Easy, we were working with directors who had a track record of working extensively with computer animation in a bold and visionary way. Both films have a CGI character as a central part of the story, which was what drew us to them. In the case of Jonah, the antihero is the fish, and it needed to not only be visually memorable but have the character and menace to carry its part in the film. Dr Easy is a CGI robot which needed to feel totally real and seamless in the gritty world of a derelict East London flat where a white collar worker played by Tom Hollander is holed up, armed with a shot gun and surrounded by police. Dr Easy is the medical emergency robot sent in to try to both treat the man’s injuries and talk him down, and is therefore a central focus of the story.
Normally when the VFX are so central, we are involved at a very early development stage, but as it happened we were approached after the shoot on both these films. Given the directors had a very good understanding of CGI, both had fantastic artwork, designs and references for us to use when modelling and preparing the characters. They came with strong ideas of what they wanted – making our job relatively simple from a creative point of view – they just needed to look amazing and not detract from the rest of the film! Technically and creatively we needed to meet these expectations and deliver the fish and the robot that everyone was hoping for.
Dr Easy CGI breakdown 1
With Jonah, there was a certain artistic license, as Kibwe’s film had quite a hyper-real “stylised” look to it, whereas Dr Easy was quite different – the robot needed to look absolutely real and had to seamlessly fit into gritty reality. When people watch Dr Easy it’s important that people think they are actually looking at a real robot – it should certainly not feel too far-fetched or detached from reality. Jonah was in many ways the opposite of this – the deliberate stylisation and the incredible size, design and strength of the fish, coupled with the sets and architecture – designed and rendered by Factory Fifteen – give the whole film a surreal, dream-like feel. Nevertheless, the CGI needed to blend fluidly into live action shot on location in Zanzibar, so the fish needed to have a photoreal quality to sit successfully alongside the shot locations and cast. Jellyfish ended up recreating most of the underwater environments for Jonah, including some difficult fast-moving tracking shots where the fish gets speared and tows the boat. For Dr Easy the challenge was quite different – we only had to recreate the whole environment in one shot which was far too difficult to track, meaning it was easier to rebuild the stairwell in the shot starting from scratch. However, it needed to mimic exactly what had already been shot, rather than to enhance or change what was originally there.
Dr Easy CGI breakdown 2
Each film had its own challenges. We were working with lighting and environment data not collected by us, which is not our usual approach. In the case of Jonah it was challenging for the team on location to shoot the necessary underwater shots – apart from anything else, many needed to be so fast moving and dynamic that it would have been impossible to shoot for real. We recreated those shots entirely from scratch, and where we could, we found stock shots that matched what we were looking for. We had to match both the created and stock shots to location shots, which wasn’t easy. When you are using a mixture of back plates like this, it’s always hard to find matching formats, frame rates and grades. A big challenge with Jonah was to get the very complex seaweed and accumulated debris to feel natural and real on the older version of the fish. We spent some time working out the rigging and simulation but in the end decided to use a hair/fur type solution combined with our own software to get the rubbish to stick to the CGI fish in a natural way.
Dr Easy CGI breakdown 3
On Dr Easy we needed to try to find solutions to get correct lighting set-ups as the robot needed to feel totally integrated into the environments. We ended up using photogrammetry – effectively rebuilding the environments from the images and footage taken – to obtain accurate lighting information that made the shading and lighting work correctly. Normally we would use a special camera on location to obtain the lighting data we need, so this was an alternative solution. There was a degree of guesswork involved, but in the end I think we managed to achieve the results everyone was looking for! Having Shynola work in our offices for the duration of the VFX and post helped enormously with being able to get rapid feedback and answers to some of the questions posed by the shoot.
We are very proud of the work on both films and feel they achieved our original goals. Looking at Jonah and seeing the comments from the audience, we feel that we definitely achieved this and are so proud of the end product. On Dr Easy, we set out to create a seamlessly real robot that made people question how it was achieved – we hope we’ve achieved this too and can’t wait to find out what audiences think when it premieres!
Dr Easy CGI breakdown 4