The Greatest Showman is unashamedly a musical. You can put an Australian Hugh Jackman on stage under lights anywhere and you have the makings of a great musical right there. The story of P.T.Barnum’s life was corralled by first-time feature director Michael Gracey, told with pace, dance and song.
Crafting a period New York City, painterly backgrounds and colourful effects was the job of a band of VFX studios which included MPC, Brainstorm Digital, RodeoFX, RaynaultFX, SoloVFX, Lola FX and Factory VFX. Recently, I spoke to the VFX Supervisor for RodeoFX Martin Lipmann who, as luck would have it, was staying in Adelaide for the New Year with family, away from his native Montreal.
Martin Lipmann told me RodeoFX was mainly in charge of set extensions on The Greatest Showman, but that brief was stretched as the production took off. This included Barnum Museum being built and then burning down. A sequence called the Million Dreams at the beginning of the movie involved a complex fly-over on a period scale model of Brooklyn. This was created practically, built on a large illuminated table, to accentuate the city lights rising up between the buildings.
“RodeoFX is deeply involved in the shooting of this miniature,” describes Lipmann. “The Director Michael Gracey, Nathan Crowley the production designer and his four crew were basically 3D printing the miniature city buildings of the correct size, wall by wall, for a scene flying across the top of Brooklyn and the Hudson River.” Gracey wanted to have a montage of this flyover of the city model. From there they laid everything out on a huge table that was lit from underneath, as described earlier. Live footage of some characters would be added, showing them moving around in the streets below, so everything had to be up to scale and shot at the right angle.
This sequence was shot with a Techno Dolly, a 30-foot arm looming over the top of the city model. “We programmed the move from previz which had been planned out for a lot of the shot, and we rebuilt those moves on set,” says Lipmann. “With the repetitive movement, we were able to create different lighting scenarios. From the dark, to moonlight, to the sun and everything….”
“We had people under the big table, placing the buildings from underneath, and even setting black tapes along certain areas to make that bit darker. We’d set up the Techno Dolly and run some takes, then play with the compositing later on to drop in some action in the streets below. Very much a mix of old-school and new technology, and it was very fun to work with.”
On set, Martin Lipmann says he had a lot of freedom so he could cover as many scenarios as possible. “I wanted to have as much information as I could so we decided on between six or ten passes per model,” he explains. “We did a dark pass to cover the darkest we could see the streets, and we’d go from there. Windows, turn some off and some on and four different brightnesses, so we didn’t have to do it in grading.”
RodeoFX was able to compose the shot in different ways. They used a bit of CG to add lighting inside of windows on the miniatures as well, and they recreated all the background and sky by matte painting to direction.
The shoot was very detailed. For the Barnum Museum, RodeoFX created an exact replica in CG based on the miniature created in pre-production. “What we had on set was based on the first floor,” Martin explains. “Michael had a very specific vision for this Museum. What we had was a mix of live and miniature and all the background had to look painterly, 2D, with very few parallax lines. It wasn’t supposed to look exactly real. It was a mix of these different disciplines, and all of us were well out of our comfort zones. The scaling, the proportions, everything had to be flat, almost not final. It was all in Michael’s head in the beginning. The scaling was purposely ‘wrong’.”
Additionally, MPC was able to contribute widely with their celebrated CG animal work, especially with the horses and elephants seen in circus performances. Their work on Jungle Book and Tarzan ensured their part for this production, with no competition. With the Barnum house going up in flames of course there was a need to bring in CG animals for this sequence. Everything was lit so it was simply a compositing matter. “RodeoFX worked with Raynault VFX as well,” he says. “They contributed brilliant matte painting work of the New York environments and the post-fire Barnum Museum at the end.”
Another complex (albeit swift) shot for RodeoVFX begins with three children stomping in the puddles in wintery New York streets. The ripples clear to reveal a hint of colour in the reflection and a quick camera tilt reveals the circus tent. “The shot’s complexity is increased with the children then running through the entrance of the tent into the studio where everything had to be recreated,” Martin describes. “There was body matchmove work on the three children while running in the slushy snow in New York in winter. There was no tent at all so we had to create not only the tent but the life around the tent, the Brooklyn Bridge and surroundings.”
RodeoFX is one studio with a lot on their plate over the next few months. They have teams working on The Nutcracker, Dumbo, the latest in the X-Men franchise, Ant-Man 2, and Jungle Book 2. Busy busy busy.