VFX: <I>Wonder Woman</I>
Issue: June 1, 2017

VFX: Wonder Woman

It took more than 70 years for DC Comics’ Wonder Woman to get her own live-action feature film, but director Patty Jenkins and Warner Bros. have finally brought the comic book hero to the big screen, just in time for summer!

Gal Gadot stars in the title role of Wonder Woman, a film that explores the superhero’s origins and follows the story of Diana, princess of the Amazons. When a pilot crashes on her home island of Themyscira and tells of conflict in the outside world, she leaves home to fight ‘a war to end all wars,’ discovering her full powers and true destiny in the process.

“The time is absolutely right to bring Wonder Woman to movie audiences,” says Jenkins. “Fans have been waiting a long time for this, but I believe people outside the fandom are ready for a Wonder Woman movie, too. Superheroes have played a role in many people’s lives; it’s that fantasy of ‘What would it be like if I was that powerful and that great, and I could go on that exciting journey and do heroic things?’”

Joining Jenkins behind the camera were director of photography Matthew Jensen (Chronicle, Fantastic Four, HBO’s Game of Thrones), Oscar-winning editor Martin Walsh (Chicago, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), composer Rupert Gregson-Williams (Hacksaw Ridge, The Legend of Tarzan), re-recording mixer Chris Burdon (see related article that follows) and two-time Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer (Life of Pi, The Golden Compass). 

“The credit to Patty is, this is really a character journey between [lead characters] Steve Trevor (played by actor Chris Pine) and Diana (Gadot), and we’re the supporting act,” says Westenhofer, who Jenkins describes as a “VFX wizard.” “With the exception of our third act battle, where there was a lot of full-on effects, this is a little different from, say, Justice League or BVS [Batman V Superman]. There’s a lot more practical stuff in Wonder Woman. And what Patty wanted was, to feel Diana’s journey. She starts off not really knowing her powers and then, through most of the middle of the film, she’s doing superhero things, but it’s a little more grounded in reality.”

Wonder Woman was shot on film, at locations throughout the UK, France and Italy, as well as Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden in southeast England, on predominantly Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2 cameras, along with Arriflex 235 and 435, with Panavision Primo lenses. 

According to Westenhofer, who got involved with the film in March 2015, Jenkins “really wanted to keep things grounded” when it came to the film’s visual effects shots. “It’s a superhero movie, but everything is through the eyes of Diana — if Diana was walking across a frame, Patty wanted all eyes to go to her. She didn’t want anything to over power her. Towards the very end we get there, but Patty wanted to feel it building to that point. She didn’t want the effects to be too over the top.”

In total, Westenhofer says there are about 1,800 VFX shots, created through the combined efforts of VFX studios Double Negative (Dneg), MPC, Pixomondo, UPP, Platige and Weta, which came in at “the 11th hour to pick up a few shots at the end of the film.”

“We had a pretty decent in-house team as well,” stresses Westenhofer, who adds that previs and postvis work had been handled predominantly by The Third Floor, with several scenes completed by Proof. “The Third Floor’s Vincent Aupetit was our previs supervisor — they did a great job for us.”
Westenhofer breaks down the VFX work, starting with Wonder Woman’s powers, bracelets and lasso. “You see her [bracelets] for the first time in Themyscira, when she’s fighting Antiope, her mentor/aunt, and she’s trying to show her mom that she’s trained and good enough to go be a warrior. She’s on her back and about to lose the fight, when she accidentally bangs her wrists together and creates what we call the ‘boosh’ — her power force when she clangs her wrists. Dneg did that effect. We have a particle simulation and refraction field as the wave flies through and there’s also a glowing effect that we apply to the bracelets. When that happens, she wreaks some devastation and she scares herself, so she doesn’t want to use it again. And, she doesn’t, until the absolute final battle when she takes on Ares — that’s kind of when she’s arrived. 

“As for the lasso, three companies had to touch on it — MPC and Dneg did the most, Weta worked on it a little bit for a flashback scene. We kind of played the lasso as a little more than a rope. We didn’t want it to just be like a Lariat that a ranch hand tosses around. It actually will arc around and, if she’s throwing her wrist, it can arc towards the target for her and tie itself around places. That was all hand animation. We also had an LED rope on-set that would give lighting reference, so basically, what she had in her hands to illuminate her costume.”

There was also an extensive amount of training involved for the film’s star to pull off many of the action sequences. “Gal is fairly athletic to begin with,” says Westenhofer. “Since Patty really wanted to tell this from her point of view, it was really important that our work would allow Gal to participate and look like she’s participating in just about everything. We didn’t want to have stunt doubles with faces turned away all the time. We had plenty of face replacements to do early on. Then, as the character gets stronger, we start doing things more a la 'man of steel,' with digital takeovers on leaps and things like that.”

Westenhofer also describes some of the film’s other key VFX sequences. For instance, Diana’s home island of Themyscira in the opening act.  

“We have a lot of nature work in the first act for Themyscira,” he says. “We wanted to ground that in some reality, so we chose an ancient city in Italy called Matera. People have been living there for 8,000 years in caves. It’s amazing. It’s almost biblical in the way the city looks — buildings on top of buildings. We used that as a starting point to which we added the motif for the island. We added some Asian mountainscapes, areas of Vietnam were inspiration. There’s a lot of natural arches and this white cliff look that was actually from a location in western Italy that was all built into a design that we came up with in concert with production designer Aline Bonetto (Oscar-nominated for Amélie and A Very Long Engagement).

“In that early work, we have real plates that we augment with digital extensions to build up the island of Themyscira — there’s a beach attack early on that was the first contact for Diana with men on the island. That was shot on a beach in Italy. There was a location that Patty really liked, but it was practically impossible to shoot, so we added in the cliffs and turned that beach into the beach you see in that scene. Along with the normal things, you have crowd extensions, digi-doubles and some face replacements on the key hero stunts. Most of the set extensions and the city were done by Dneg; the beach battle in the opening act was done by MPC.”

Also, another segment of the first act features a flashback scene that offers some background on Steve Trevor, involving him attacking a Turkish base. That was completed by Pixomondo. According to Westenhofer, the crew had a real location — a fort in London called Tilbury — that was the basis for the fort, and “then we used aerial plates I shot in Italy for the extension of the Turkish landscape around that,” he explains.

From there, the story moves to London, with which Westenhofer says there was plenty of source material to work. “Good news for us was that a lot of the same buildings from World War I [the time period in which the story takes place] still exist in London,” he explains. “We just needed to get rid of whatever was modern and we had plenty of buildings that worked. A lot of the period work here was completed by UPP. Also, when they first arrive in London, we see [the main characters] floating down the Thames. Dneg did this work. We actually went out on a barge and went back and forth, up and down the Thames, past the Tower Bridge — lots of great stuff from World War I that were period legit. So, we definitely got to keep the bridge and just augmented or changed the color of some of the paint work that’s been changed, added some ships, added more period buildings here and there. Once we get into London proper, UPP did a lot of digital set extensions of some period areas. There are some docks where we see them get onto a ship — Pixomondo added the ship and the crowds of soldiers getting on and off.”

When asked about a favorite scene in the film, Westenhofer immediately refers to “No Man’s Land.” In this case, it’s the space between the two trenches — the German and British sides — in one of the key battle scenes. “This is where you couldn’t cross,” says Westenhofer. “No man could get across there because there’s so much machine gun and sniper fire — that’s ‘No Man’s Land.’ This is one of my absolute favorite scenes in the film, from a digital effects standpoint. Nothing groundbreaking, but the art department actually built, in the back lot of Leavesden, a real trench, which was as hard to shoot on, as it probably was to fight on, with mud. We used a Spider Cam suspended across, just because trying to do any kind of camera move in those conditions was very difficult. That’s why Gal Gadot is my absolute hero. Not only is she an amazing person, but she went out in a bathing suit in February, running across a muddy field in England, and never complained. As we’re huddled up in our parkas, she’s doing that. She was Wonder Woman for all the crew members, for sure (laughs).

“So, we built one trench and detailed it really well. And that actually served for both sides — the British and the German. The effects work here was just a ton of tracer fire. They’ve been pinned down for months and months in these trenches and [Wonder Woman] says, ‘this is ridiculous,’ so she gets up and naively charges across the field, taking on three machine guns. There’s just tons of tracer fire and it’s in the scariness of the machine gun fire that actually kind of creates this beautiful sequence. It culminates with her digi-double leaping into the trench and taking out the Germans and a couple of machine gun nests. That continues to a village that she gets word had been captured by the Germans, and that they were not treating the civilians very well. So, she’s trying to save them. This is what we see in a lot of the trailers — where she’s tearing through the buildings, kicking ass.

“That was a combination of using Gal — including several shots where we use Gal for the first half, pan across and then blend into a stunt double who’s doing some heavy martial arts work with a face replacement — just about every trick you can use in there. One of my absolute favorite digi-doubles is when she leaps out a window. In a shot done by MPC, we originally shot a stunt double leaping out, but it just didn’t have what we wanted, so we ended up using the full digital double. For the face on that, we ended up putting five Alexa’s on an array and had Gal sit down with facial dots and act out various sequences from the movie. We played her back the dailies and she performed to that.”

Finally, Westenhofer says the third act of the film is where a “bulk of the heavy visual effects work” is, complete with fully-digital locations and greenscreen shots for an all-out battle finale between Diana and Ares. “We go inside to a little piece of concrete and from then on, Dneg created everything you see,” he says. There’s a storm that destroys most of the airfield where the scene takes place. This is also where the character of Ares fully transforms into his true self. “They fight for a bit, and finally there’s a big explosion with a bunch of bombs and projectiles all around and [Ares] is caught in the flames. He then assumes his true form, and draws in a lot of metal from around the airfield and builds a sheet of armor around himself. From then on, it’s a digital creation. There are times when he ‘s completely digital, and we use the face from that same four-camera Alexa rig, and then there are other times when, in close-up, we had [actor] David Thewlis in a tracking suit so we could track the body and use just his face from the photography. The armor, though, was always digital. That involved a great deal of motion capture. Stunt doubles with face replacements for Diana were used here, as well as digital doubles and a fully digital airfield and tank. Dneg did quite a bit of work here, too, enhancing the scared face of one of the film’s villians, Dr. Maru (also known as Dr. Poison), as well as creating an effect for Ares’ face after he takes a pill that gives him powers."

MPC had reported back to Post at press time, saying that for this film, it had relied on a combination of tools that included Maya, Zbrush, Houdini, Nuke and Renderman, among others, as well as proprietary tools such as Kali. This is the studio’s in-house destruction tool, which earned MPC an Academy SciTech award.

Despite the number of visual effects shots in the film, Westenhofer says, “I don’t really look at this as a typical, heavy visual effects superhero movie. This is special with regards to superhero films in that it’s a character journey. The effects and the action sequences you expect are all there, but playing a nice supporting role. There are great action sequences, that’s not to be denied, but it is first and foremost a journey of Diana and Steve, and that was really nice.”