WELCOME TO MARWEN
In the world of top-shelf filmmaking, Robert Zemeckis is known for working at the farthest edge of technology’s capabilities. His collaborators know that they will be working with, and in some cases inventing, techniques as they go. A list of the director’s credits is a series of landmarks in visual storytelling and its tools: Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, The Polar Express. Many of the techniques developed in these films and others went on to become go-to solutions in cinema production.
The technical puzzles behind Welcome to Marwen, Zemeckis’s most recent foray, had their seeds in the mind of Mark Hogancamp, the real-life victim of a brutal beating who recovered in part through the creation of a 1/6-scale town populated with dolls representing himself and his friends. His story was eventually the subject of a documentary film, titled Marwencol, which piqued Zemeckis’s interest.
Cinematographer C. Kim Miles, CSC was brought on to handle the images. In the tiny town, seen through Hogancamp’s imagination, the characters were to be brought to life as a unique blend of Polar Express-style motion capture and live action. Other portions of the film are depicted with more standard realistic photography.
“I thought if anyone could pull this off, it would be Bob,” says Miles. “They were exploring ways of achieving the doll representation without ending up in the uncanny valley. Kevin Baillie, our visual effects supervisor, suggested that the fundamental problem with audiences not connecting with high-res animated characters revolved mainly around how their eyes and mouths were rendered. No matter how well something is done in CG, that’s where the human mind looks for a connection. Once you have real eyes with real moisture and real reflections in the eyeball, it really makes a huge difference in the digital dolls – although it is still kind of bizarre to look at!”
Prep work had led Baillie to avoid real actors, whose movements just seemed wrong when they tried to act like dolls. Motion capture allowed the dolls to be presented as more rigid, with the facial features of the actual actors applied. Further tests showed that lighting the dolls and their sets normally, during the shoot, saved the expense of lighting and modelling in post.
“The doll world was essentially miniature photography in reverse,” says Miles. “With miniatures, you’re usually doing things to make it look bigger than it is – shooting at 60 frames per second, for example. Our challenge was the opposite – to shoot full scale objects and actors and make them feel miniature. The biggest thing with shooting miniatures is the ratio of the size of your capture surface to the objects that you’re photographing. So, if you’re shooting 35mm stills of plastic dolls and you’re filling the frame with their faces on a 50mm lens, then you’re only about eight inches away from these dolls, which gives you a pretty incredible depth of field falloff. There was no way to get a sensor that was in the correct proportion, but we thought we should get something as big as we could.”
Tests with large-sensor cameras indicated that the ARRI ALEXA 65 was the right choice. The Codex Vault-XL was a key element in a dependable workflow that kept huge amounts of data moving quickly and smoothly through complex and interrelated shooting, visual effects and post processes.
“The ALEXA 65 seemed like a win-win,” says Miles. “It was a platform that I was familiar with. It was the largest sensor that was available.”
To take full advantage of the sensor without vignetting, Miles shot with Ultra Prime 65mm lenses from ARRI. Lighting the mo-cap situations came with other conundrums. The filmmakers took lighting cues from Hogancamp’s actual photographs. Because the motion capture cameras within the volume were infrared sensitive, new ways of lighting the actors had to be devised so that the light didn’t destroy all of the mo-cap information. Hogancamp often lit with bundles of Christmas tree lights, so Miles and his team strung clear, bare 40-watt bulbs into 12X12 frames, which looked great on the faces, he says, and were correct in scale.
THE MOST REMARKABLE THING ABOUT THE CODEX AND THE VAULT SYSTEM THAT WE USED IS HOW UNREMARKABLE IT WAS
The ALEXA 65 might seem like a counterintuitive choice. “I’m very much a dynamic range guy, rather than pixel count,” says Miles. “But I was a little nervous about whether it would be too unforgiving. And I found it to be quite the opposite, because there is so much surface area to the capture sensor. The falloff on actors’ faces is so much more forgiving. I found it really flattering for the female characters. As soon as we tested it, we were just blown away by the quality and the portraiture capabilities of the camera. That’s why photographers shoot medium format or large format still photography. It’s just so much more aesthetically pleasing. It solved a lot more problems in terms of imperfection than it exposed. That was a pleasant surprise. Originally, we were going to do the doll world stuff on the 65 and then shoot the real-world stuff on a regular super 35 size sensor with an ALEXA. We ended up falling in love with what the 65 looked like, so we just shot the whole movie on the 65.”
The ARRI ALEXA 65 works with the Codex Vault-XL. See this interview with DIT Chris Bolton for more info on the workflow.
“The most remarkable thing about the Codex and the Vault system that we used is how unremarkable it was,” says Miles. “I don’t recall us ever having any issues with any form of data management. Everything just went smoothly. On the A65, you can’t help but roll terabytes of data every day. The volume of data was something I’d never experienced before. But in terms of its robustness and ease of use, there was not a single issue from my perspective. Codex and ARRI were very supportive, and any questions or concern we had, they’d addressed right away. I know that post production was very pleased with the workflow.
In fact, Kevin Baillie was an early supporter of the ALEXA idea because they’d just been through a bunch of stuff with a different camera and workflow that caused them a lot of issues. They were very glad to have a more stable platform from which to start their work. Our shooting LUTs translated very well into post, and the DI was a treat.”
Looking back on the project, Miles says he relished the opportunity. “I discovered on this show was that it’s really fun to be problem-solving in situations that have never come up before,” he says. “We were doing stuff that no one’s ever done. It was a group of people who were all focused on achieving the same goal. We created a workflow that worked for everybody. We addressed our problems early so that the post production visual effects processes were as smooth as possible, because we knew they had their hands full making these dolls come to life.”
After Welcome to Marwen wrapped, Miles was invited to shoot Project Blue Book, a ten-part miniseries, executively produced by Zemeckis, about UFO sightings in the 1950s. He describes it as “The X Files meets Mad Men.”
I DON’T RECALL US EVER HAVING ANY ISSUES WITH ANY FORM OF DATA MANAGEMENT. EVERYTHING JUST WENT SMOOTHLY
Camera Negative: Codex RAW
Camera Type: ARRI ALEXA65
Camera Equipment Provided by: ARRI Rental
Digital Intermediate Services by: Technicolor Creative Services
VFX provided by: Atomic Fiction and Framestore
Miniatures provided by: Creation Consultants
Codex related product and workflows
Images courtesy of their respective owners.