Directed by Oscar nominee Marjane Satrapi, Radioactive tells the story of Marie Curie's pioneering work, based on the graphic novel “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Story of Love and Fallout” by Lauren Redniss. In the male-dominated society of late 19th century Paris, Marie Curie was a Polish and naturalized French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, and the only person, man or woman, to win those two Nobel Prizes in two unique scientific fields.
Rosamund Pike plays Marie Curie as a passionate scientist who, despite her apparent brilliance, struggles to advance her groundbreaking research. Together with their colleague and future husband Pierre Curie, they advance their research into radioactivity and discover not just one, but two new elements: radium and polonium.
The film deals with her early years and those after the tragic death of her husband Pierre. The film is interesting because it also interweaves glimpses of the future. It provides insights into the positive and negative results of Curie's research into radioactive elements.
The visual effects were provided by Union VFX in England. From the start, this project was a creative collaboration between the Union's VFX supervisor, Simon Hughes, and the director, Marjane Satrapi. This collaboration was critical in building a creative language that can be used throughout the film. Satrapi has a background in animation and "is creatively experimental and brave which makes her very exciting to work with," commented Lucy Cooper, MD of Union. "She had created extensive animations and storyboards and provided many references that led us to a shared creative vision of the more conceptual design elements."
The Union's work has often been used to illustrate science to the public, either for explanatory purposes or in a more abstract sense, to link Marie Curie's thoughts and dreams to her research. The Union team conducted extensive research on fusion, cell structures, and the behavior of radium in a cloud chamber to inspire creative interpretations based on reality. As shown in the film, Marie Curie was able to isolate pure radium, an element that is a million times more radioactive than uranium. Radium salts also have a remarkable quality: They glow in the dark, feel warm and seem to give off an inexhaustible supply of heat. Radium's green glow and eerie glow properties influenced many aspects of the movie's visual and VFX. While the film is a period drama, it has both a glimpse into the future and highly stylized interpretations of atomic research. "We showed the atom splitting to discover radium, which we introduced a photographic quality to so it wouldn't feel like an educational video," explains Hughes.
When Marie meets Pierre and they bond in science and marriage, “a beautiful visualization shows the shadows of their love rising and turning towards a sparkling night sky that turns into a fantastic idea of the movement of atoms with a scientifically accurate vision "Creation" transformed to polonium, "adds Hughes. 3D scanning actors Rosamund Pike and Sam Riley, wearing nude suits in intertwined suits, provided Union with an asset that they could recreate in a 3D bedroom and light, creating the shadows that the team then animated. This results in a starry polonium sky created in Houdini.
After her husband dies, Currie's dreams are heavily influenced by the effects of her work. She is shown actually going to bed with a nasty radium every night. At that point, the film puts her at the center of a complex radium dance that mimics the scientific phenomena that surround her – somewhere between art and science.
The dance choreography was inspired by Loie Fuller, a pioneer of dance whose performances combined modern dance, costume and theatrical lighting techniques. Fuller had performed regularly at the Folies Bergère Music Hall in Paris, so Curie could actually have seen them before World War I.
This beautiful complex sequence has many cuts (60 VFX recordings in total) and LED strips were sewn into the blue-green silk costume to illuminate it from the inside out. These combined factors would have made the handling of blue or green screen very difficult, so a gray background was chosen for the studio shoot in Budapest. "When we re-timed in Kronos, the light artifacts in the costume looked like electrical charges that created a kind of temporal effect that we used as part of an overall treatment to create the ethereal effect," says Hughes. "We then had to put Marie and the dancers in a fully CG Samaritaine cobblestone environment to create a three-dimensional feel with FX."
In a similar scene, Curie also sees her husband's coffin, from the sides of which blood is leaking onto cobblestones. This was achieved with CG blood in combination with elements of fluid drainage captured with a phantom camera at a high frame rate. Originally this sequence was supposed to be a much larger cobblestone sequence, but it has been scaled down to improve the editing and flow of the story.
As a shot on the LEFT and the last shot on the RIGHT
The biggest environmental challenge was creating a full CG version of Paris with La Samaritaine. There were no panels for the team to use, but the Union team had roof top photos from a previous shoot and items from a site survey in Budapest to help. The team added small details like matching the burned out lightbulbs on the sign, as well as adding a small animated cat on the roof to add reality and detail.
As a shot on the LEFT and the last shot on the RIGHT
Currie's husband Pierre experiences a dramatic end when he is trampled on by a horse-drawn carriage on his way home. To show this, the filmmakers combined VFX, face replacement, and stunts. "We had to create a fully CG Rue du Pont Neuf bridge with cars and people on the street and replace the stunt actor with a mix of digital double images and the footage we shot on Sam's night," explained Hughes. "We also removed the support stunt people and added a painterly effect to get the stylized look Marjane was looking for."
The shooting took place at 3 a.m. at -10 degrees Celsius and was filmed at slow speed. "We logged the camera position on every run and got Sam to end up filming records that we could use to replace the stuntman," recalls Hughes. "We also scanned him in costume so we could place him in the middle of the fatal act using head replacement techniques and animated facial expressions based on the records." The ending sequence is both shocking and tragic. In many ways, his death is a pivotal turning point in the film.
As German troops advanced towards Paris, Currie knew that her scientific research had to be suspended. The actual Marie Curie collected her entire supply of radium, placed it in a lead-lined container, and transported it by train to Bordeaux a distance of 375 miles. She locked it in a local bank safe. She then returned to Paris, confident that she would return to her radium research after France won the war. Instead of fleeing the turbulence, she decided to join the fight. This required Union to create the battlefields of World War I.
"Our battlefield environment in World War I was based on a shot in a cold, muddy field outside of Budapest," says Hughes. "There weren't a lot of clothes in the set, so we used our Blackmagic (camera) to create a library of items." There was also and only one vehicle that required a CG version to be modeled to enable the creation of a fleet of them to go into battle. During the war, Currie's daughter persuades her to volunteer for the war effort and bring her portable X-ray machines, or "petites curies," into the field to avoid unnecessary amputation of wounded soldiers. More than a million French soldiers benefited from this during the war.
Left: Plate Photography, Right: Final Images
In the shot above the actual plate on the left, there were practically no details due to the real fog and snow. The Union team had to remove, not just add, snow to get the shot, and this sequence worked visually.
"Redesigning our snow-covered, misty slab required a large matte painting and extra splashes when the wheels went through the puddles, as well as smoke and fire," comments Hughes. Much of the matte painting was done in composition, including some very complex, dense smoke shots where Currie's hair was real challenges.
In one of her visions, Currie also experiences a whole community full of versions of her dead husband. To do this, Union used split-screen techniques that replaced extras (selected with similar body shapes and beards) with several digital Sam Rileys created from a 3D scan of Sam using the main lighting reference.
A look into Chernobyl
One of the most devastating effects of nuclear physics and scientific radiation research was the Chernobyl disaster. The film again combines these events with a rich visual montage that takes the viewer into the modern age and into the burning Russian reactor.
Of course, nobody really knows what it really was like, but firsthand reports describe an entirely different type of fire and the director went for a very stylized, hyper-real, painterly aesthetic with an interesting color palette for both indoor and outdoor shots of the plant.
LEFT is the final image based on the plate photography on the RIGHT
“We did an element shoot where we filmed all kinds of burning gases on a hill against the sky at different frame rates and mixed them with a 2.5D DMP and some CG building structure and debris components to visualize the stylized look of Marjane and cameraman Anthony Dod Mantle, ”recalls Hughes.
In the central chamber, Union added a waterfall and steam coming off the floor with FX and elements that included pouring salt at slow frame rates. The entire room was surrounded by some kind of cloud of particles and strands, inspired by their study of the actual behavior of radium in a cloud chamber. "We also found some old photographic references from other reactors and mimicked the distortions of many of those reactors," added Hughes.
Nuclear weapons are also a consequence of Curie's science, and the film shows the tests of these in Doomtown, Nevada, a testing site established in 1951. Doomtown is a recreated U.S. suburban town with mannequins attracted to the JC Penny store.
“Our Doomtown was filmed in Almeria, Spain, where we expanded the set and added mountain ranges with a mix of CG and 2.5D DMPs. Our expected blue sky did not materialize and instead we experienced a huge dust storm with an oppressive orange sky. The decision was made to take these over and replace previous recordings, ”explains Hughes.
The production was shot in Budapest, the 1950s invited audience who watched the test explosions with ski goggles as the only protection. Union then placed them in the Almeria area.
To demonstrate the effects on the mock city, the production built two equally proportioned rooms, one with mannequins and furnishings and one painted completely black and empty. The inhabited room was wired and SFX did as much damage as the team could.
In the black set, Union worked with the SFX team to adjust the camera angles and include more flammable elements before adding it all in along with a dust storm in Houdini blowing through the window.
The Union's greatest challenge in this task was to recreate the Hiroshima bombing, which resulted in a fully CG Enola Gay plane being built that then drops the payload of the Little Boy. The view of Hiroshima is based on drone footage of Thailand manipulated into a matte-painted environment with Hiroshima's geographically correct river network. “We had to bring our cameras higher than the drones' altitude, but we were able to tile them together,” stresses Hughes. “The impact and the resulting mushroom cloud were our biggest FX shot at the time. We did an element shoot where Dettol was guided through a hole in a black card in two large aquariums that we filmed from two different camera positions at normal and high speed to provide some nice elements but the shot was mostly FX-controlled. "
Union's work encompassed a wide variety of types of effects, and some that are far more artistic and interpretive than the company is usually known to be. Union VFX has a solid reputation for high-end invisible effects. “This was a once in a lifetime opportunity to work with a very creative director with a strong vision. Marjane gave us a lot of creative freedom to develop a science-based visual language to connect Marie's story with the implications of her work. “Hughes explains. “It gave us an opportunity to drive creativity and style. It was great to get into a lot of scientific research and flex our design, CG and FX muscles to show what we are capable of. "