Florian Ballhaus, ASC, guides The One and Only Ivan from Disney + through a dense jungle of live action and virtual workflows.
by Kevin Martin / Photos by Wallace Michael Crouch and Simon Mein / Framegrabs courtesy of Disney +
Art is just one of the many channels people use to express their creativity, but it's not exclusive to people. Case in point was the real silverback gorilla Ivan who, after being captured in his teens and raised in a human home, had exhibited for most of three decades as part of a low rent circus in a Tacoma. WA shopping center. During his tenure, the monkey developed a taste for finger painting and brushes added to his repertoire after moving to the Atlanta Zoo, where he spent his last seventeen years in much more humane conditions.
The life of the silver back inspired a children's novel, KA Applegate's The One and Only Ivan – illustrated with an almost cinematic sense of light and shadow by Patricia Castelao – which serves as the basis for Disney's film adaptation, directed by Thea Sharrock, based on a script by Mike White . Says Sharrock: “The script was developed by producer Allison Shearmur, who sadly passed away shortly before production started. Then Mike and I did a lot of work to improve the balance between human and animal characters. "
Sharrock has also teamed up with actor Bryan Cranston to create an arc for his character Mac, "which is more complex than the book where his human is more obviously the bad guy," the filmmaker continues. "I wanted to make sure we weren't portraying it as a vision of people – bad / beastly – good, and revealing Mac's real affection for Ivan went a long way towards adding a deeper gray area to their relationship."
For her cameraman Sharrock chose Florian Ballhaus, ASC. Ballhaus has experience with VFX-heavy projects like Insurgent and Allegiant, and is best known for more traditional live-action dishes like The Devil Wears Prada and Sex and the City. He says that when he got on board, Production had already decided on a hybrid approach to the film. “In addition to the live action, there should be more than a third of the CG animal figures,” Ballhaus describes. “With these scenes, the recording would not take place on the set, but virtually, after the set has been scanned and recreated on the computer. Motion capture sessions and animations are generated between these steps. This led to a very complex preparation – at 16 weeks the longest I have ever had – with many parallel developments. "
With so many main furry characters to be animated and rendered, MPC was a natural choice as the movie's only VFX provider. "Because of the human element in our film, this was a little different from her work on Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book and The Lion King," adds Sharrock. "But they had a knowledge base that made sure the animation was spectacularly believable."
For visual effects supervisor Nick Davis, the benefits of virtual cinema were creative, especially in terms of the inclusion of live action. “If you're just shooting blank plates, it can be a very sterile and restrictive way of working. You're not sure where the animals will be in the picture, and you can't even know for sure how much of the scene should be in focus. "
The process started with a primitive version of the set in which Ivan and his animal cellmates live. "It was a black box theater stage where we taped the various contours and aspects of the actual set," notes Davis. “This is where the director began to immerse herself in the actors who portray the animals. Once she understood how these scenes would play out, we transferred the optical black box to a motion capture stage. The mocap artists in their suits could then work there, with high-precision proxies of props and shapes that would be on set. "
Andy Serki's co-worker Ben Bishop "played" the role by Ivan for all scenes with real people. “Ben was fantastic; Its behavior and movement were as good as that of a gorilla, ”says Sharrock. “We also had a puppeteer to stand in for Bob the dog on set and an amazing stuntman huddled in a tiny gray lycra suit walking around Ruby (a new baby elephant new to the circus) on all fours allow. They were able to respond to my instructions like everyone else on set, and I think their presence went a long way in enhancing human performance. "
Davis says fifty pages of Ivan's performance were taken in motion. "That wouldn't work for the other characters," he notes, "but the presence of puppeteers and cast made Ivan's eyes easier. Any approved shot was considered a master scene, with data passed to animation. The animators figured out how to do it the other animals would move while using Ivan's mocap data to create a proxy representation, and from there we took it to the virtual stage where the live-action filmmakers could carry virtual dollies, cranes, steadicams, and handhelds. The master scene was run through Unity's game engine and displayed in real time on large monitors so the crew could see a performance and move their cameras as needed to record the scene. "
Ballhaus reports that there were nightly reviews of animations before “we went on the virtual stage with the goggles on to select working camera angles. We didn't want to have to change the animation, which would have resulted in massive slowdowns. Fortunately, the entertainers had examined the actual creatures and knew the actual turning radius for adult and small elephants as they move in circles. That kept us honest, so we didn't try anything on stage that a real gorilla wouldn't or couldn't do.
“For the virtual shoot, we wanted camera movement that would have the same flaws as tracking footage on an actual dolly,” he continues. “So MPC recorded the actual movement of our rig and our track in motion. A lot of engineering had to be invested in all of this, as a Technocrane move, if you only have a virtual crane, means answering so many questions in advance: which arm do you have? Which way is it pointing? Where is the crane floor attached? "
Although the film was shot on ALEXA 65Ballhaus strived to create an analog look. "I did anamorphic photography to make the film look like it was made on lenses rather than a computer," he explains. “But without the ability to redesign things vertically, Disney was rightly concerned about anamorphosis. We went for DNA lenses that have nice properties – a rich look but not overly sharp – and are slightly out of tune to make things a little funky to pair with the 65. We used two sets of lenses: the B set had a little more character while the A set was cleaner. Shooting 65 with longer lenses increased the depth of field, which was evident when taking close-ups for the smaller creatures. While I love the nice focus drop, I ended up shooting at a higher than usual value between 4 and 5.6 so these beautifully rendered background creatures weren't just registering as blurs. "
With almost the entire film shot on soundstages, issues related to the size of the '65 were controversial. "That little bit of extra strength wasn't a factor, although it was the first time I used one for such a large part of a shoot," admits Ballhaus. “The 65 offered a rich quality that made viewing daily newspapers a pleasure. However, this is not a dynamic camera film, it is about animals trapped behind bars. Much camera movement was related to how Bob the Dog (voiced by Danny DeVito) could nimbly slide in and out of captivity while his best friend Ivan could not. We used the ALEXA MINI there because it was nice to just put the camera on a broomstick. "
Production designer Molly Hughes, who was tasked with creating the habitat for the beleaguered animals, says the Backstage was inspired by a gorilla habitat in the Disney Animal Kingdom in Florida. "We took what it took to properly house elephants and gorillas and made everything a little sad," she explains. “Since Thea comes from the theater, we worked with it like a set to make it more interesting. Ivan's room was two levels so for each show he could climb into the area where it is revealed to the audience. From there, in Mac's office or outside, he can look at the billboard advertising his presence. He also needs to be able to see what he thinks is freedom in the circus, in the mall, and across the parking lot. Ivan's ability to observe the world outside, coupled with his curiosity, leads to his existential crisis and the desire to paint. "
Hughes' art department created both a large white model of the entire set and a 3D model and illustrations. The drawings then went to MPC, which displayed them in VR. “This enabled us to make sure the kits were the right size to make compositions that would work with these different sized animals in the site,” added Hughes. “I can imagine that in the future VR rooms will be housed in the art department so that everyone in production can just take out protective glasses and check things out. VR seems to work well for architectural spaces; Although with full landscapes there are slight inaccuracies in perspective in the distance. "
While the film imagines that the animals are talking Mostly when they are alone in their cages at night, Ballhaus says: “Maintaining 40 percent of the running time could have been a bleak experience. This story has a heavy theme for a children's film that ranges from imprisonment to death. A realistic treatment in which these animals were only illuminated as silhouettes was therefore not possible. We started adding visual accents as if the work lights were left on. With the rest of the mall visible behind them, these lights have opened things up visually. "
The large 007 stage at Pinewood Studios could encompass the animal husbandry and the surrounding interior of the mall. “In situations like this, I like to build a huge softbox with lights to create a feeling of heaven,” Ballhaus adds. “We received enough SkyPanels from ARRI to achieve this effect. This also allows us to control the color and the sky temperature and thus achieve a wonderfully flexible way of working. I've made four films in London with gawker Paul McGeachan and he agrees that not having to worry about gelling everything, changing color temperatures and dealing with the heat emission from tungsten makes everyone's life easier. But we still needed those big 24Ks for sunlight as there is no alternative for this type of effect. "
McGeachan spent a week pre-lighting the dimmer board and attracting attention. “With this we can get around an age-old problem,” he explains, “when the AD comes to you and you ask whether day and night work should be planned separately. It was great to be able to tell them what is best for the schedule. “200 Space Force Chroma-Q lights and 440 SkyPanels were used to simulate lighting scenarios from sunny days to moonlit nights. There were also conventional lights on the set that the animals were locked in – par cans, 10km, 20km. "Part of it was giving the light a slap from above that cast some shadows and built up the contrast," adds McGeachan. "But we also had a lot of units on the ground." A 7 foot octagon with 20 SkyPanels added the necessary filling.
A small big top also took up space inside the mall, where McGeachan says, “We can see a character on camera operating an old-fashioned chase point. Parcans worked well as a working light source and to show the limits of the equipment this circus was facing. For the rest of the mall, we had sources that ranged from neon and sodium vapor to tungsten and phosphors. And thousands of lights ran across the shops in a chase pattern, which in itself was quite a task. As a result, our practical crew increased in size to Ivan, surpassing that of the lighting crew of eight. "
Hughes says she and Ballhaus both pushed for the pursuer lights. “They were more expensive, but we felt there were several advantages, ranging from beautiful reflections to keeping the background in the background and moving around,” explains the designer. "I've worked with cameramen – including VFX people – who get nervous about dealing with reflections. But Florian used them to good advantage. The 1980s US mall was a quintessentially American look and idea. In England meant this to convey all the intricacies to a foodie. The mall had ideas of outdoor promenades with hand-painted signs that had aged so the place looked tired. "
The exterior of the mall was filmed on site in Florida with some signage digitally altered. However, inverted angles facing the parking lot and road built on the slabs for reference have been done digitally as these locations make a short-lived escape in during a sequence in which the animals stage an outbreak and go up the hills to undertake nature play a prominent role. A separate unit used for locating plate filming to capture jungle backgrounds used in flashbacks to Ivan's early life in the wild, as well as other scenic views for the film's closing scene at an animal shelter.
To portray Ivan and his non-human cohorts, Davis struck a balance between realism and providing the expressive requirements of their personality. "It was easier with Ivan because he's a primate with features not unlike ours," notes Davis. "With a lot of control devices, we had to go to great lengths to make his eyes the windows of his soul. There was a crew that just looked at the eye shapes and muscles and built controls for the animators to display subtle nuances."
Creating Ivan's eyes required a certain amount of sophistication beyond just reflecting on the environment. "Light doesn't just hit the eye," continues Davis. "It also bounces around in different layers, creating incredible caustic effects due to all of these subtle, imperfect details on the cornea and sclera. These aspects are automatically captured when we look into another pair of eyes."
The mirror hits were especially important with small creatures. "With Bob the dog, you couldn't even tell which way he was looking without the mirrors being right," explains Davis. “As soon as Bob read the script, it turned out to be the biggest challenge. Humans see dogs all the time, so there's an familiarity you don't have with more exotic creatures – one that not only calls for photorealism, but also complies with their limited expressiveness. If you go too far with a dog's face – even with a wonderful vocal performance like Danny DeVito's – it will set off alarm bells that are not real. "
In addition to performance issues, there were challenging aspects of the interaction between creatures and the elements. Probably not since What Dreams May Come, a movie has required such meticulous magic when it comes to creating color in the digital realm. "When it came to water and paint, I knew the VFX guys were going home to put their heads in their hands – at least figuratively – because I was asking for very difficult solutions with those elements," admits Sharrock . "Together with fur and feathers, these are known to be difficult elements to achieve."
These issues came to the fore when Ivan started painting on the glass wall that separated him from his audience. "We wanted a close-up view of the paint squeezing through the fingers of his paw," said Davis. “Finger paint is distributed unevenly depending on the pressure, which means that even more technical aspects are worked out to solve the creative question. We had to deal with a similar problem when Ivan painted with mud (during his childhood) and also when he ran his paw through water. We have refined our existing toolsets. It also happens as we keep developing hair sims and lighting tools to keep things better with each new show. “Shooting that interacted with liquid elements took so long to perfect that they weren't finished until days before the final cut.
To prepare for the DI, Ballhaus created a Look Bible during the Post. "Florian had a monochrome pipeline in place that he later refined," continues Davis. "We worked from CDLs and didn't deviate from them much. The nightmare is always that dragging and sliding colors wastes all the time and effort to make things look photorealistic."
Ballhaus said he found the mix of live action and virtual filmmaking a largely positive experience. "Cameramen see things in their own way, beyond the craft of properly exposing and framing them," he describes. “When I light something, for better or for worse, it is with a particular vision in mind that serves the story and my choice of lens. This individual choice is not a question of right and wrong, but of perspective.
"We fought hard to make the virtual scenes look like the rest of the film so that people wouldn't feel like parts were being shot by someone else or that certain scenes suddenly had a generic look instead of my lighting style," he concludes. “If we did it, it was in large part because of how quickly Thea overcame the visual effects challenges. Instead of getting caught in the flow, she had the will to do whatever was necessary to make this film her own. "
Local 600 camera crew: The only Ivan
Cameraman: Florian Ballhaus, ASC
Operator: Spencer Hutchins, Lance Meyer, Henry Schroeder
1st assistant camera Patrick Sokley
2nd assistant camera: Violet Jackson, Juliana Junker, Ognjen Sarovic
Camera assistants / technicians: Morgan Davis, Anthony Gerace, Michael Howell, Kenny Rivenbark, Ernest Rydberg, John Slade, Louis Smith
Digital Imaging Technician: Joe Dare
Digital Utility: Ian Hernand
Loader: Jaime Striby
Still photographer: Wallace Michael Crouch