Roni Rodrigues, Overall VFX Supervisor on News of the World, is quick to extol the virtues of working with historical reference to rebuild the Old West with visual effects.
“It was tremendously important to me that we paid attention to the historical architecture of each city we built. Every church, building, road, prop, costume and sign in the towns such as Dallas and San Antonio, mimic the real city from the 19th Century. I provided the VFX teams with old maps and photos to use as reference when building 3D assets to ensure we were depicting the real feeling of an old Western city and respecting the history of the time.”
The film, which launched theatrically in North America in 2020 and then on Netflix internationally in February 2021, features Tom Hanks as Captain Kidd, a Civil War veteran who crosses paths with an orphaned girl named Johanna (Helena Zengel). What follows is an epic journey across the barren Old West in search of acceptance and, ultimately, redemption.
“I joined the project initially as a consulting VFX Supervisor from Outpost,” explains Rodrigues. “We then flew out to New Mexico to join up with Paul and support him on set. At this point I was asked by Paul and Universal to join them production-side as VFX Supervisor and run the show alongside Aliyah [Lopez, VFX Producer].”
With Rodrigues now working client-side, Outpost VFX Supervisor Ian Fellows was asked to take the reins in house and manage the production of over 350 visual effects shots for News of the World alongside Outpost VFX Producer Josh Sykes.
“Our initial award grew very quickly into a full show award which we had to adapt and plan for in a short space of time,” says Sykes. “We also had to hit some very early screening deadlines which the team worked exceptionally hard for.”
Visual effects were used to either extend or create many of the film’s environments from scratch. This was a combination of full-CG environment techniques as well as 3D set extensions where practical buildings and props had been used on set.
“Environments and set extension made up a large proportion of the VFX work in News of the World,” explains Rodrigues. “This covered the full gamut from simple removal of mountains and terrain that didn’t fit a particular shot to full-blown CG environments and everything in between. Some of the locations like Red River relied on huge, fully-CG establishers to evoke scale that then became more subtle set extension and DMP work when we get down to street level.
“Along with the traditional environment work, these locations needed to feel tangibly busy and alive. This meant an awful lot of 2D and 3D simulated trail dust, smog, chimney smoke, crowd replication and even CG creatures like cattle walking along the old streets of places like Dallas and San Antonio.”
Many of the shots in and around Red River featured a CG river achieved with a water simulation. Beyond this, though, FX took a prominent role throughout the film to achieve set pieces and to enhance practical effects captured on set.
“The sandstorm sequence was tricky as we had to choreograph everything to Tom Hanks’s acting, meaning we had to make some top-down plans of how fast the complex simulations were moving to maintain continuity and hit at the right time,” adds Craig Tonks, CG Supervisor. “The river presented a more physics-based challenge, and we looked at scientific visualisation of how rivers flow to understand this better. This led to adding unseen features to control the movement, like adding deep shelves on the riverbed so water would pool and affect the flow in a realistic manner.”
Although a rain machine was present on set, many sequences were re-shot in the colder months. This made using real water to drench the performers an impossibility on grounds of safety.
“A funny thing with FX is sometimes the easiest-looking things are the hardest to achieve,” continues Tonks. “This was definitely the case with all the rain in the film! We had to have lots of artistic control to iterate on the look. Rain right in front of camera was a different challenge to rain at the back of shot, rain streaming off a roof was different to rain hitting a canopy. A delicate balance between FX and compositing was required to make it photoreal!”
An already challenging project quickly became even more challenging with the arrival of Covid-19 and the subsequent UK lockdown in 2020. Over 70% of Outpost artists were sent home to work remotely more or less overnight, with our tech team fast-tracking our remote working infrastructure to ensure we could still hit Universal’s deadline for VFX.
“Managing a largely remote team required an almost back to the drawing board moment as to how we functioned as a production,” says Sykes. “With this came additional daily structures for all departments and individuals along with the required technology to support us. We prioritised keeping the client experience as similar as possible, but we were obviously limited in certain scenarios such as in-person reviews. However, the team adapted extremely well.”
“Covid hit incredibly quickly and I am so thankful we had such a strong systems team sorting out the tech side,” explains Tonks. “Creatively we just focused on what we’d always done well and how in-office interactions needed to translate to digital ones. To take something positive out of this terrible situation, the workflows developed and the accelerated familiarity with remote work has also strengthened the way we collaborate globally. Whether it’s with someone in Montreal, LA or a bedroom down the road we can continue delivering the biggest projects with the same spirit and efficiency.”
Overall, Outpost VFX delivered over 350 VFX shots for News of the World, featuring everything from CG environments and FX simulations to creature sequences and complex face replacement.
“Like with all of Paul’s work, the goal was to promote realism at every turn and ensure that VFX was used to complement the narrative, rather than contribute anything extraneous,” concludes Rodrigues.
“There are elements in the film like the sandstorm and other natural phenomena that can be achieved practically to a level but ultimately rely on visual effects to provide a grander sense of scale, particularly when you’re making a film like News of the World.”