A teen discovers a hidden sanctuary on an island where children, known as “peculiars,” have special powers, dark secrets and some deadly enemies called Hollowgasts. That’s the general plot for 20th Century Fox’s Hollywood adaptation of Ransom Rigg’s bestselling novel, "Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children." Here, children are invisible, can manipulate the air, create fire with their bare hands and control bees, all under the watchful eye of headmistress Miss Peregrine who, herself, can change form into a bird. The story is both weird and wonderful, and who better to helm such a project than director Tim Burton, known for his own 'peculiar' style, with offbeat films such as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and
Alice in Wonderland.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children stars Eva Green (Showtime’s
Penny Dreadful) in the title role, young actors Asa Butterfield as Jacob, Ella Purnell as Emma and support from industry vets Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench and Allison Janney.
Shot predominantly on Arri Alexa cameras at various locations, including Florida, Belgium and the UK, Burton was joined behind the scenes by DP Bruno Delbonnel, editor Chris Lebenzon (who cut on Avid) and VFX supervisor Frazer Churchill.
Here, Burton and Churchill speak exclusively withPost about some of the film’s production and post challenges, as well as some of the more complex VFX sequences.
TIM BURTON, DIRECTOR
Burton told Post during our conversation on July 4th, that speaking about the film while still putting the finishing touches on it was “A bit like talking about a baby before it’s born — it’s bizarre, but I’ll do my best.”
Why did you want to make this film? Did you read the books by Ransom Riggs?
“I wasn’t aware of the book — but Jane Goldman wrote the script and I got the book and I think what I loved about it was — I just loved the way Ransom used these photographs, because I collect old photographs, not as much as he does, I don’t know if anybody does, but what I love about old photographs is that you look at certain ones and they’re haunting and poetic and creepy and emotional and mysterious. That’s something that was very fascinating to me. Even though we’re not out to recreate the image of the photograph, there’s a feeling of which you get that’s really interesting when you look at a photograph. I guess the thing that we were trying to do with it, what I felt Ransom did, was try to create more poetic, strong images but not trying to copy them and try to give the flavor of what he did in the book. I also felt a connection to the Jacob character in the sense that he's not a big action hero…he’s just a kid who feels awkward, and feels like he’s crazy — [a] feeling that’s easy to relate to. And the other kids being peculiar and that sort of thing — they’re basically kids — they’re not weird, they have these weird peculiarities, and all of that just spoke strongly to me. It’s hard to recreate. It’s an interesting challenge in a different way, to capture the flavor of what he wrote.”
Were there any technical challenges with the shoot — production or post?
“More things seem to go wrong, because it’s all digital. I find more things going wrong, just by the flick of a button or switch or this or that. But I mean, also just the usual kind of stuff — different locations, a bunch of kids, the weather — that’s enough, isn’t it (laughs)? Throw in a few animals…"
How early on in the process did you integrate post? Did you have your editor Chris Lebenzon on-location?
“We bounced around a lot. Yeah, I did. I like to cut as I go and Chris Lebenzon, who I worked with for many years on many films, it’s a kind of a thing where I like to keep on top of it, so that you don’t want to spend a bunch of time shooting something that’s not going to be in [the film], and that keeps it more focused for me. For the most part, [Chris] came to our many wonderful locations. All the hot spots — Florida, Belgium, the Blackpool [England].”
Which part of the filmmaking process do you enjoy most?
“Strangely, the most satisfying is the actual production, because it’s the good part of filmmaking — where you feel like part of a weird family. Also, you’re just fighting the elements and each other. You’re not fighting the studio or the marketing or the business side of it. It’s more about getting in there and doing it. It’s probably the more difficult part, but for me, it’s the more enjoyable part.
“Some people like pre, some people like post. I’ve had projects that I’ve worked on for a long time that didn’t happen so I’m always a bit wary of the preproduction process because of having a couple of projects not go through. You get traumatized for life. But it is fun to create images and look at it and plan that kind of stuff. There are great things about that. Post is also good because by the time you’re done shooting, you’re about ready to be checked into the hospital, but instead, you go to the editing room. They all have their good aspects.”
What about VFX? I would imagine there are quite a few in this film?
“Yes and no. It’s not like your average superhero film. Obviously, we have computer-animated effects, a little stop-motion, animation, some live, but one of the reasons I enjoyed doing this film was because it’s more human, a more grounded kind of story. So, it didn’t feel like one, giant special effects project. There are effects, but not as many as you might think.”
How many VFX shots?
“Ca-ching! It’s going up on a daily basis (laughs)."
What is your overall feeling about visual effects?
“Well, I’m bad at technology — in fact, if you ask anybody, I think I have some kind of electrical energy because anytime I walk into a room, somebody’s computer crashes. When people use effects in an artful way, in a way that helps the story, it’s amazing. It’s gotten to a place where those lines are blurred very well. It’s like anything, it can be used for good or evil.”
Your VFX super was Frazer Churchill. Who was the lead VFX house on the film?
“Double Negative. We moved it around a bit. I mean, it’s one of those kinds of films where you need one house to take the brunt of [the work]. This is such a piece meal sort of thing — a little bit of Double Negative and a few other studios. [Frazer] is great. First time I worked with him. First of all, it has to be somebody I feel like I can talk to and connect with, which I did. And he knows that I rely on [the VFX supervisor] to pick the right people given what the specifics are. It’s a bit like casting. They’re like a director in their own way, about casting the right people for the right job.”
What was the most difficult sequence?
“We’re still working on them. It’s not like a superhero movie, where you have certain kinds of effects that are meant to do a certain kind of thing. This is much more human and down to earth, even though there are some big effects, some of our biggest effects are — they’re not saving the world, but going from one place to another. We use effects in a different way and that interested me. It’s a more human story. It was important that the effects felt as grounded as possible — whether we were doing live effects or computer effects, stop-motion animation, to just try to make it all blend. I wanted them to have the same kind of simplicity I felt the book had.”
Is the film turning out the way you hoped it would?
“Again, I will say, the baby is yet to come out of the womb. I don’t know…”
FRAZER CHURCHILL, VFX SUPERVISOR
With more than 1,300 visual effects shots, Churchill discusses how he, along with contributing VFX vendors Double Negative, Scanline VFX, MPC, Rodeo FX, One of Us and The Third Floor on previs, along with a mix of tools, including Nuke, Maya, Clarisse and Arnold, pulled off some of the film’s most complex sequences.
What types of VFX were required for this film — character, CG, set extensions, environmental?
“It’s weird, because you read the first 30 pages of the script and there are barely any [VFX], and then it suddenly explodes into the fantastical world of Miss Peregrine. Really, the whole gamut of VFX work was required. In reading the script, you start to understand it. There’s a whole sequence set underwater, so you have to think about how to approach that. And there’s a big sequence of skeletons battling people on a pier, and obviously as you’re reading it, you realize VFX are involved, but it’s the scale of which they’re involved that you’re not quite sure of. There’s a whole range of environmental work — Miss Peregrine’s house and the grounds of the house and effects surrounding the characters, such as Hugh and his bees. Emma and her air, Olive and fire, etc.”
And Miss Peregrine herself can change into a bird?
“She does and she also can control time and can make it run backwards. That’s also an effect that needed to be considered. There’s a whole range of things. It’s one of those films where it’s not straightforward, where effects carry over and over. There’s lots of different types of effects. Each scene is unique and it’s all got that certain Tim Burton flavor to it. Each set piece is kind of unique. You’d be reading the script and suddenly it would say, ‘and the loop collapses’ and you’ve got to try and visualize what that means. Suddenly, the circular time loop that Miss Peregrine’s created was interrupted and would return to normal, so you have to think, what does that mean visually? It’s a very tricky film, effects-wise, because there’s lots of design work to do. And that’s sort of the kind of film I like doing the most, to be honest. It’s complex. But the underwater sequence and the time reset were the toughest things to do.”
Can you discuss the more challenging sequences?
“The time reset, where Jacob is in the house with the kids for the first time and they want to show him that they live in a loop that lasts for 24 hours. Every 24 hours Miss Peregrine has to go into the backyard and she resets the time loop. It’s a bit of a show for the kids and they want to show Jacob how it happens. So they’re standing in the backyard of the house, during a German bombing raid, because it’s set during the second World War, and their house is ultimately destroyed by a German bomb. But the loop is reset moments before the bomb hits the house. So just before it hits the house, Miss Peregrine takes her watch out, pushes a button, slows time down to the point where it freezes, and they watch the rain slow down and the bomb stops and she rewinds her watch and they watch time run backwards 24 hours to the point at which the day began. It was a case of how to work out exactly how we were going to achieve this — all the kids in this back garden at night, time running backwards, — it was a complex thing to design.
“We worked with The Third Floor on previs — they designed a whole bunch of interesting shots in conjunction with us. Quite a lot came out of the previs and we shot the sequence exactly as per the previs. One of the hard things was working out how to get the light moving across the characters, because you have to have a whole cycle of night and day running. We had to have Bruno, our photography designer, working with the sun moving around the children very quickly. The difficulty was, the sequences were at night and we had all these children, and the children aren’t allowed to work after 5pm. So, we shot this on a bluescreen stage at Longcross Film Studios. We ended up putting a large bank of 20K lights around the stage to show the progression of the sun and the light moving across the children and the shadows shifting.
"Double Negative designed the whole CG environment. It was all based on the real location of the house, which was in Belgium, which we digitally scanned and created a CG model for the garden and the grounds and the house, and obviously, the German bombers. We had the characters standing on the stage with light flashes going off, to simulate the German bombs, and then when time went backwards, we had this kind of light sequence to simulate that 24 hours of light was passing.
“To achieve that, we actually went and shot real timelapse of the location because we needed to see the various viewpoints of time changing in this garden. We had various members of the visual effects team go out with Canon [EOS 5D MKIII] cameras and positioned the cameras around the grounds of the house.”
Can you talk about the underwater sequence?
“Yes, that was particularly complex. It was one of those things where, you really want to try and get the characters under the water because of the way they move and look, the way people swim and the way their hair moves, it’s almost impossible to simulate. So it was important for me to get the characters under the water. We did that. We shot the sequence in an underwater tank in Pinewood Studios and we had lots of backlit greenscreens in the pool. The sequence was designed by Scanline, after The Third Floor had done the previs.
“In fact, this was the first scene I had approached in terms of the film’s design and the previs. I was brought on in February 2014 and we just finished the film, so it was a long process and the underwater sequence was the first thing I wanted to tackle. And Tim agreed that we should get to that. We did the previs and designed an underwater environment. The characters dive down to an underwater wreck, an ocean liner, where Emma keeps her secrets and photographs, and she shows Jacob the various bits and pieces he needs to know about their world and the Hollows, and it’s all hidden in this underwater shipwreck. This was going to be a completely-CG environment and we built one of the rooms in the ship where there’s a big dialogue sequence. So, they swim down into the ocean, into the ship, they go through a skylight and swim through a cocktail lounge and a dining room that’s full of skeletons. They end up in the cocktail lounge and when they’re there, because [Emma] has powers over the air, she blows all of the water out of the cocktail lounge, and they’re left in a damp, but also dry environment. So really, the design process was, ‘How do we do that? How do we get them down into the ship? What do we build for real? And how do we do the gag where she clears the cocktail lounge of water?’ So, the environment was pretty much CG with some props built and placed under the water as kind of reference of elements for Scanline to make their CG environment. Once we were in the cocktail lounge, we had to design a rig that would enable them to go from being under the water to above the water, but the trouble with that scene is, all the gravity works the wrong way and all the water is dripping down and the hair is hanging the wrong way, and it doesn’t feel as if they’re standing up. It would solve the problem of getting them out of the water, from being wet to dry, but it wouldn’t solve the problem of gravity acting incorrectly. So we had to design a rig that rotated them out of the water and with the camera fixed to that rig so you didn’t see them being taken out of the water, all you would see was them going from being under water to being above water and them standing there, dripping wet and everything going the right way.
“Scanline did a great job of doing everything from designing the bubbles to the props on the table to fish swimming around and crabs and water dripping from the ceiling. So much work went into it.”
Thoughts about how the film is coming out?
“I saw the final shots a few weeks ago — I think it’s great. It’s a fantastic film and I can’t wait for people to see it. It’s really something unique and special, and Tim has made a great movie — and Ransom’s book and Tim’s twist on that — he does deviate from the book quite a bit, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff people could look forward to seeing.”