Walt Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is a crucial project full of deep VFX and incredible CG. There are insanely complex CG actors’ faces produced for the fairies, bringing new kinds of tech online. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is a sequel to the 2014 live-action retelling of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, in Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie.
The director Joachim Rønning called back Production VFX Supervisor Gary Brozenich, with whom he’d worked on the original. Rønning previously also worked with Brozenich on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. The Mill Film crew was headed up by VFX Supervisor Laurent Gillet.
The Mill Film crew created the environments, textures, lighting, and surfaces work for the home of the Dark Fey, a magnificently spikey-looking nest where Maleficent finds herself after falling from her flight.
Mill Film joined the project a few months into post-production, and they immediately got to work on some environments and asset builds for over a dozen sequences, totaling over 320 final shots for the movie.
“One of our first steps was to dive into everything that had already been started, and get up to speed across whatever existing briefs, concept art, and references Gary Brozenich and Joachim Rønning had put together,” explains Laurent Gillet, Mill Film’s VFX Supervisor. “The task then became to establish clear lines of communications among the different facilities sharing assets and overall workload.” This project was shared across two Technicolor brands [MPC and Mill Film], working in four different time zones on three continents. The production teams really had to take the lead on ensuring client notes, reviews, and processes were streamlined and kept everyone working on the same page. “By the end of the show we had become incredibly efficient at it,” Gillet adds.
One of the first environments built by Mill Film was the Fey Island location, where they had several separate areas to build out. The idea behind Fey island was to have different worlds within the same island, so it was a great challenge for the team to create these intersectional environments. “The first environment we saw was the infirmary [the room Maleficent wakes up in after being saved by Connal] which had bright corridors she had to walk through on her way out,” Gillet explains. “We needed to strike this creative balance of being inside a giant bird’s nest, which was made out of pieces of vines, roots, bird spit, etc. It had to appear that light could make its way through the translucent areas of the walls of this corridor. The end result is really cool.”
Mill Film also tackled some big establishing CG shots of the Island, seen from outside. The main Island CG asset was built by their team in Bangalore using Pixologic’s ZBrush, Autodesk’s Maya and Foundry’s Mari. The FX [ocean, waterfall, snow], lighting, DMP enhancements and comp were done in their Montreal facility. “There’s a ton of detail in these shots as we had to establish the sheer scale of the island in very wide-angle shots,” adds Gillet.
Another environment came from the two giant extensions in sequences where the Feys are gathered as a part of this tribal celebration during the pre-fight Borrat speech sequence of the film. The cavernous environments were required to blend with the overall Island’s internal design and atmosphere. The builds themselves followed a classic pattern. “We started by building a rough geometry to set the main volumes, shapes, and openings through the main key shot angles [which covered close to 360 degrees of the set]” explains Gillet. “Our CG team then built it ‘for real’, up to the first pass of shading, and then the DMP team took over to refine things and add all the great details”.
The wedding scene includes several nods to the original Sleeping Beauty animated feature. The creeping white flowery branches are extended magnificently around the background of the set. The Mill Film’s work totaled over 320 shots made up of CG environments, set extensions, FX particle simulations [CG water, magic FX], creature animation and fur dynamics.
There was a lot of focus placed on wings throughout this show. The wings themselves are separate assets that were placed on the back of both actors and the digi-doubles. Actors had blue pads on their backs during principle photography which were showing the team where the CG wings needed to be attached. “The wings were beautifully stylized with strong, long, thick feathers,” explains Gillet. “Some of the feather animation, like having a vibrating reaction to wind, was procedurally embedded in the rig. But their overall animation was classic keyframe work and Joachim knew exactly what he wanted when it came to their key poses.”
On a few occasions, animators didn’t have enough control to get a particular wing shape, so in those situations, the team would go back and conduct a pose from which the technical animators would then work out into their final shapes. “The technology team then re-wrote the feather backend on the internal Mill Film software Furtility to help create the feathers faster and use less memory,” Gillet notes. “That was helpful as it also reduced the load on the tech animation teams, who then didn’t have as many feather fixes to complete.”
A large part of delivering Rønning’s vision for such a fantastical project was through Mill Film’s lighting and comp teams, who were able to help set the mood and tone of certain scenes throughout the project.
The Mill Film crew used references of lava spikes, tundra, and forest to create the rugged interior and exterior terrains of the nest environment. The result is a dark and moody almost cave-like micro-universe, which draws the audience deep into the world of the Fey. “The nest was such a great challenge to work on, as there were both extreme close-ups and wide angles that required us to build a variety of different models and materials,” explains Sergey Kononenko, Mill Film’s CG Supervisor. “We employed a combination of 2D and 3D elements which allowed us to work across any scenario, so it meant we had to actually design what the home of the Dark Fey could look like, even though the cameras never made it there.”
When it comes to working for a team of blockbuster clients, Mill Film’s Producer Marie-Eve Authier and Compositing Supervisor Gaëlle Bossis explain what allowed the team to form the connections it took to deliver Disney-grade work within the studio’s first year of operation: “Gary is one of the best VFX Supervisors I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Both Marie-Eve and I had previously worked together on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, so we were excited to hear we’d be working together again on Maleficent this year. He knows exactly what his director wants, how to express it, is opened to new suggestions and was concise with his notes,” explained Bossis. To Authier, it’s about establishing great communications with the studio’s clients and looking to create longer-term relationships: “It’s great when we get to work with clients like Gary who allow the studios they work with to open up, and create that dialogue and partnership – while keeping things creatively challenging for everyone – that’s exactly what keeps this industry growing.”
Mill Film as a budding new studio, pulled together a diverse crew from all kinds of different backgrounds and life experiences to deliver a Disney-quality product. “That’s a big accomplishment for a studio, especially in its first year,” says Gillet. “Our team quickly came together to forge the same type of working bonds and processes that majorly established studios have established over several years. That’s a feat to be proud of, and we got there because everyone across our team was committed. I’m going to remember the team, the bonds we forged, and the great work we accomplished together on this project.”
Built on the Academy Award-winning legacy of the original Mill Film, co-founded by Ridley Scott and Tony Scott in 1997, the company has been supported by Technicolor’s technology and global infrastructure.