Editor's Letter: The Secret VFX of 'Walter Mitty'
Issue: January 1, 2014

Editor's Letter: The Secret VFX of 'Walter Mitty'

I remember a couple of years ago, you would do a 400-shot movie and it was a huge film,” recalls VFX supervisor Guillaume Rocheron, who was part of the Oscar-winning team that worked on The Life of Pi. “You work on the blockbusters nowadays, and you work on 1,200 shots pretty easily. And some go up to 1,500. It’s a pretty significant number of shots.”

Rocheron recently supervised VFX for Twentieth Century Fox’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which “only” has 700 visual effect shots. In it, Ben Stiller (who also directed the film) stars as the lead character from the classic James Thurber story, escaping his mundane life by slipping into fantastic daydreams of action and adventure.

“It’s quite a lot for a non visual effect-driven movie,” notes Rocheron. “What I found interesting about Walter Mitty is, it’s not really a visual effects movie. The visual effects are here to support story… but it’s not about showing a lot of visual effects. It’s an everyday story.”

Rocheron assembled a large team of VFX studios to meet the film’s needs. “MPC was one of them,” he recalls. “Framestore in NY and London did some work; Soho VFX in Toronto did some work; Hydraulx in Vancouver and Los Angeles did some work; Rhythm & Hues; Mr. X in New York; plus other facilities that did smaller bits and pieces.”

One of the most challenging visual effects takes place during the film’s storm sequence. “It is all based on large simulations, and it’s very difficult to art direct,” he notes. “You need to find very specific timing and very specific timing controls. It requires a lot of computer processing and a lot of artist time to turn around different iterations. It’s something that’s pretty complex to put together.”

Hydraulx handled much of the fluid simulation. “I’ve done that before in The Life of Pi, with all the digital oceans, and it’s something on its own that is a very complicated thing to solve. We had Framestore dealing with the wider shots and vistas, and at some point Walter jumps into the water and the camera goes into the ocean. Hydraulx, from that point on, tackled the close up water. That involved less large-scale simulation, but more of a certain detail, and foam and sprays. It was really about trying to find what was appropriate and spread out the work nicely.”

Soho VFX handled the volcano eruption, which also presented challenges. “We were trying to simulate that plume of smoke that comes down onto the village and chases Walter’s car as he’s trying to escape,” says Rocheron. 

“It was a combination of creating that big cloud chasing the car. At the same time, volcano smoke does not move that fast. If you did get it to move fast, you can destroy the scale a little bit, so it took a lot of iterations to find the right timing.”

The fight scene between Walter and his nemesis Ted was yet another challenging sequence. “It’s all about that cool surfing into the streets of Manhattan,” notes Rocheron. “It involved creating digital doubles of the two main actors, but also tearing up the roads and concrete-destruction effects.”

Rocheron says his favorite sequence can be seen when Walter goes to Himalaya Mountains. “It was a sequence that was done by Look Effects,” he recalls. “It’s a virtual sequence because it was all shot in Iceland — a fantastic location with mountains, and they shot all that beautiful, practical photography. For every shot, we replaced all the backdrops with digital mountains and reshaped the terrain to make it more high-altitude and on-top-of the-world landscapes. At end of day, there’s pretty much visual effects in every single shot, but when you watch it, it was filmed in a way that most people don’t question it.”