In Seth Rogens An American Pickle, the immigrant Hershel Greenbaum emigrated to America in 1919 in search of a better life. However, the unfortunate Herschel falls into a vat of cucumbers at the factory where he kills rats and wakes up 100 years later in 2020. Herschel then discovers that he has a living relative, his great-great-grandson Ben, who is also played by Seth Rogen. The film is directed by Brandon Trost in his feature film debut, who has worked with Rogen on previous projects as a DOP. Nviz supplied the visual effects under the direction of the film's VFX supervisor, Adam Rowland. Nviz & # 39; own VFX supervisor was Jason Evans.
All images: Courtesy of HBO Max
An American pickle posed a number of challenges for the VFX team as the two main characters were played by the same actor. Nviz was an obvious choice to address these issues, given their experience with split screen and face replacements in the movie Legend. where Tom Hardy played the Kray twins. But an American pickle added an additional complication that one of Rogen's characters, the accident-prone Herschel, had a rather spectacular beard while his grandson Ben was clean-shaven. This meant the production had to shoot half the film first and then come back 6 weeks later to shoot the other half.
To make this possible, the split screens had to be planned very carefully so that the team could shoot the second half under exactly the same conditions or as close as possible. Filming took place in Pittsburgh over a period of three months at the end of 2018. During this time the weather changed from warm and sunny to cold and snowing. Even so, the production team was careful to secure the same location at the same time of day and under the same conditions. Adam Rowland says, "I haven't seen any movies like this done on location. When you use split screens, most of the time you're doing it on set in a controlled environment where you can leave the camera in the same position to suit the conditions That was quite unique for this production and a great challenge in itself. "
Not all of the split screens were captured on site, most were captured at the beginning. and although this was easier to do, the team still had to record the second half of the split screens 6 weeks later. To help them with this, they used UV pens to mark the bottom of the set. You can quickly see in which position the camera had to be for each setup, which lens was switched on, which picture was being filmed and so on. “With the ultraviolet pen, we were allowed to make comments fairly freely on all the boards in the set,” says Rowland. “When we got back we just had to throw a light on it and we could find out where the camera was that is hot. Otherwise we would have kept moving the markers – or creating many more VFX recordings that would have to be colored in. "
One of the most difficult split screens to achieve was a long shot of Hershel and Ben chatting and walking towards the camera, which is backing up on a steadicam. Much thought has been given to how to do this successfully, as the camera constantly moving and the backgrounds changing in different ways would make it impossible to do a traditional split. The team shot a reference version with Rogen and his double and another record without the characters in it. They then figured out how fast the characters went to keep up with the camera. With this data, they shot the two separate characters against the green screen and ran on treadmills that were set to walk at the right pace.
Other examples of innovative problem solving were the shots of the two characters walking side by side on a busy New York street. In order to appear authentic, the hustle and bustle had to interact with Rogens characters and people had to go their own way. This had to be carefully choreographed in a version that shot all the crowd and goings-on without the main characters. Extras were choreographed to walk the Roe characters' paths, but only at times when they couldn't interact with them. It was an example of a "simple toggle" that required careful logistical planning, including weather and lighting variations, to run correctly, also taking into account the 6 week time difference between shooting schedules for the two different characters.
When it came to the full face replacement that was digitally rendered to another actor, it was used sparingly and only when there was either extensive Ben and Herschel interaction or complex camera movement. In these situations, the production would shoot the main platter as usual with markings on the front of the stand-in. As soon as the main record was shot, the editorial team selected their preferred settings and prepared the footage for a separate face replacement shoot. “This prep work was mostly about stabilizing the shot around the head in both translation and rotation with a quick and dirty 2D approach,” explains Evans. "Once we had the cordoned off action, we were able to get Seth to recreate this movement on a stool in front of a green screen under a closely coordinated lighting device." The team took several shots from each setup and shot at 90 frames per second to make sure they had something to use in post production. You would re-measure any movements that were not perfectly aligned. “In the post, the easiest solution to integrating the new face was usually to do a full head replacement with the collar attached. This worked well for over-the-shoulder shots, but on some shots we had to hold at least part of the head from stand-in to make it feel natural, ”he adds. In this case, if the replacement element is well aligned, the team could use the markings on the front of the substitute to track and warp the replacement element in 2D. You would then just put the main facial features together and keep the neck and hairline off the plate. Where that didn't work, a more complex solution was needed. “On some of the shots, the elements weren't aligned very well due to editorial changes or variations in angle or height. Here we projected the texture from the green screen element onto a 3D scan by Seth and traced that model into the slab to align it with the action of Evans' stand-in outlines. Any missing texture was then removed using paint or reference photography. According to Evans, this technique gave Nviz the ability to subtly adjust the angle of Seth's head in the green screen element without losing "the lighting, texture, or any of the micro-movements in the muscles of Seth's face, and kept us away from that pesky creepy valley!" ”
Note: The two alternates in each of the two plate recordings with tracking marks on their faces.
Although Nviz worked on many intricate split screens, most of the VFX the team created for An American Pickle focused on what is now Pittsburgh in early 20th century Schlupsk (the fictional Eastern European city of Herschel) or New transform York. This included a variety of matte paintings and environmental improvements.
Source photography: Pittsburgh for Eastern Europe "Schlupsk".
Finale: Herschel and Sarah Greenbaum emigrate to America in 1919 after their village was struck by Russian Cossacks
In addition to the shared screens and environmental work, Nviz also created the rats that live in the cucumber factory. The team received a reference from the director, including cartoons that the director wanted to refer to. The aesthetic of the film, especially the 1919 period, is a kind of heightened realism, and the rats are no exception as they have a slightly caricatured quality to them. The end results are almost photorealistic caricature versions of rats, exaggerated mangy and terrible, and occasionally "scary" but certainly "funnier" than your real New York rats! Commented Rowland, "It was great that they were stylized and we could really sit in and have fun."
The rats were developed in Nviz by CG supervisors Sam Churchill and Zach Du Toit. From a distance they look just like real rats, but up close they often look "ridiculous" and have more unique features such as particularly mangy hair, red or cataractic eyes and idiosyncratic movements. The director liked the idea that the rats were a gang and like all gangs had a leader who is even more disgusting than the others!
For the few recordings that showed over 60 rats, the team used a crowd simulation tool that could be customized with additional keyframe animations. With most shots of no more than 10 rats, it was difficult to justify anything other than keyframe animation because the crowd simulation tools are essentially designed for use with bipeds. Churchill says, "If you get too close with crowd simulations, the holes appear so the close-ups always had to be a keyframe." Churchill created a rudimentary layout pass for crowd simulation in Miarmy to determine volume, general position and movement. After these points were approved by the director, Churchill wrote a script that turned the Miarmy Sims into individual rigs, and head animator Andy Frazer took over from there.
After Frazer took over the animation, it was simply a matter of spending the time doing traditional keyframe animation. This was the really exciting phase for the team, says Evans: “The sequence actually came to life very quickly. We went from the blocking phase to a fun, exciting phase in no time. As the animation progressed, Brandon (Consolation) realized the rats needed a malicious pack leader and added idiosyncratic touches. “Using the James Herbert book“ Rats ”as their main reference point, the team began adding distinctive quirks to the leader of the rat pack that gave him a glassy, milky eye, scars, bald spots and a missing ear. The team used Xgen in Maya for the fur and built a system that allowed variation for the different rats.
"It's been a great experience working with Brandon." Evans says, “His notes have been brilliant throughout. He had a very strong idea of how the rats should feel and was really consistent in the way he communicated. He gave us a lot of creative freedom in terms of animation and design, gave the direction he wanted it to go, but the freedom for us to choose how to get it there. "
One of the most challenging and creative shots in the film is a charming “time-lapse” of the outside of the factory building that Hershel has been slowly swirling around for over a hundred years. The setting is used for the opening credits and connects the two periods in the story. Multiple variations of the same matte painting of the NYC skyline have been created to depict how it has changed over the 100 years.
Recent recordings show the changes over time
Originally the idea was simply that it would be a time lapse from 1919 to 2019. The audience sees the factory boarded up and slowly deteriorating over time, while Manhattan gradually rises in the background, trees grow and the sky changes. It was decided to keep the time-lapse as daylight to maintain smoother transitions and focus on the changing weather and seasons. Most of the early section of the film was shot on antique lenses that have some quality of aged vignetting – the rest of the contemporary section was shot on modern primes. It was therefore decided that the shot should go fast forward not only through the seasons and the century, but also through the age of cinema. As the shot progresses, the aspect ratio changes from 4: 3 to 1: 1.85, and the note changes from almost monochromatic in the 20s to bright technicolor in the 50s and 60s, culminating in a very sharp digital look over time it arrives in the 21st century. "Once we worked out the 'rules' of the shot, it just worked. The parameters we set resulted in a more aesthetically pleasing result," recalls Rowland.
Many thanks to Aisling Newton for contributing to the writing of this story.