More than creating, ZERO clears elements using VFX for ‘Black Mass’

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VFX is known to create extensive backgrounds, expansive landscapes filled with mountains, waterfalls, as well as urban buildings, tall towers and huge skyscrapers. But, VFX can also be used vice versa to not create such prominent elements. Sounds confusing? Well, because we have been used to witnessing VFX being used to create larger than life elements and characters.

Zero VFX has redefined this ideology in the film Black Mass by using visual effects to clear the large green backgrounds and create barren land, convert the spring season into the winter spark and create minute detailing rather than paramount elements which claim VFX work right in your face.

Directed by Scott Cooper and written by Mark Mallouk andJez Butterworth, Black Mass heads back to the seventies to tell the story of Whitey Bulger – the brother of a state senator and one of South Boston’s most infamous criminals. Starring Johnny Depp as the lead character James “Whitey” Bulger, the film was released worldwide by Warner Bros. on 18 September, 2015.

The film demanded the recreation of the bygone era of Boston city and Zero VFX was thus appointed to manage the VFX angle of the project. The Zero team worked on 375 shots in total, straddling period enhancements, shot corrections and violence augmentation. The name of the game was realism, which, while adding to the drama of the film, was a challenging task.

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Zero, VFX supervisor, Sean Devereaux said, “The director, Scott Cooper, wanted the film to be totally true, in every way possible, to the time it took place. That meant shooting on location in Boston, and sometimes in front of buildings that wouldn’t have existed in the time period. It was up to us to remove those buildings from the plates.”

So, more than adding buildings, the team of Zero had to remove buildings and houses of the current era of Boston in order to portray the old city. The entire buildings were removed, and an epic reversal of Mother Nature was achieved, but despite these impressive feats ZERO’s involvement needed to remain as low key as possible. Also, in terms of the flora, the green bushy trees that exist had to be replaced by withered scrubs now as the film demanded a winter weather rather than the ongoing spring in Boston.

Change of Seasons…

Black Mass was shot in late spring, whereas most of the scenes in Black Mass take place in a much colder late winter. ZERO’s team of seasoned supervisors, producers and artists took on the monumental task of swapping seasons.

It involved creating CG snow and removing the thick foliage from the trees visible during footage. “There’s really no way to just take off leaves from a tree – you have to replace the entire background,” explains Devereaux. “A lot of our shots became over 80 per cent digital in order to accomplish that, with entire backdrops of green foliage changed to snow-tipped branches.”

Thus utilising a diverse array of tools including Maya, NUKE, and Photoshop, Devereaux and his team went about transforming mild spring to a stark winter.

No Green screen used to create VFX…

All of these changes were impressively created without the aid of any green screens. For Devereaux, this wasn’t necessarily an issue, as it gave the director much more creative freedom in how he approached each shot for the film.

“I want to give the director as much time as possible to figure out how he want his shot to look, and as soon as you put that green screen up you’re instantly limiting his ability to have more time with the cut,” explains Devereaux. “In avoiding that, yes, it meant we had to focus on rotoscoping, but it allowed the director more freedom in the editorial process. We wanted to engender that creativity, not distract from it.”

Most Challenging shot

Devereaux states that the most VFX-intensive shots faced during the production were those set within a moving vehicle. “They did take the most resources,” explains Devereaux. “We had to replace absolutely everything outside of the windows, including the reflections, which required a lot of careful, meticulous work from our artists.”

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Crowd, fight and blood

Crowd extension was achieved by duplicating extras. “There were no CG people involved in Black Mass’s crowd extensions,” explains Devereaux. “It was a case of simply duplicating extras from multiple takes. We achieved the effect in 2D using assets captured from other takes and angles. The result was totally seamless.”

As Black Mass is a violent film with a number of fight sequences, it meant a great deal of arterial spray being used to enhance the special effects occurring in the original plates.

Zero’s work didn’t just include enhancing the violence, but also toning it down. “If you’re a sucker for authenticity you know bullet holes don’t have smoke come out of them when you shoot somebody, but squibs sometimes cause that,” says Devereaux. “As such a lot of our work involved squib cleanup. It was about making things look more real while also enhancing the impact of the violence.”

Can you recognise Johnny Depp?

At the first glance at least you can’t recognise that the lead character is the pirate star Johnny Depp. Make-up designer Joel Harlow created unflinching piercing blue eyes, stained teeth and eerie smile with an Irish complexion that makes Johnny Depp look surreal like the actual actor.

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Harlow’s team started with full prosthetics and then began scaling back little by little. According to a repot in Deadline, achieving the look of the boss of the sociopathic Winter Hill Gang took time — 22 hours to be exact. Every hair on his Irish head — and that includes eyebrows — had to be plugged one at a time and by hand.

Harlow explains, “He’s got a prosthetic that goes from his cheeks and the bottom of his nose to the middle of his head. His eyebrows were covered so they are false eyebrows. Each hair was individually punched into the prosthetic each time before it was put on. There were about 45 forehead pieces that needed to be done.” Make-up effects hair artist Khanh Trance also contributed his own skill by working on each strand of hair.

From augmenting crowd shots to swapping one season for another, ZERO’s work on the project was far- and wide-reaching as it aimed to live up to its name, leaving no trace of its fingerprints across the production.

“We managed to implement a diverse range of invisible effects across Black Mass, working directly with the plate photography. It was challenging, but I think 99.9% of the people who see it will never know we touched a single frame of it,” concludes Devereaux.

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