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the joker smiles on top of a police car while rioters crowd around him Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

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Last year’s most impressive VFX shots were barely noticeable

Not everything is Thanos

There are 1,048 visual effects shots in the Oscar-nominated drama Ford v Ferrari. You weren’t supposed to see them.

The embellishments in James Mangold’s racing drama don’t tend to make their mark in the same way as a computer-generated Thanos, an exploding spaceship, or a fleet of superheroes emerging from portals. But Ford v Ferrari’s visual effects are just as crucial for storytelling as those in every Marvel movie, and without them, the film may well have had empty racetrack stands (and sometimes no racetracks at all).

Ford v Ferrari is also one of several films that emerged in 2019 with a host of invisible effects. These include movies like 1917, Parasite, Joker, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, and Knives Out. Indeed, you may not have realized there were any effects involved here at all.

War-torn France: an invisible effect

1917, the Best Picture and visual effects Oscar nominee that just won the BAFTA Award for VFX, employs a raft of invisible moments to stitch together takes so as to make the film appear as if it was shot all in one go.

It can be hard to see where those stitches are — that’s the point — but if you look closely, you might notice them when a character walks behind a tree or through a doorway, or jumps off a bridge. MPC, the visual effects studio behind 1917, even had to do transitions when an actor’s face was fully visible in the frame.

For Schofield’s final run, MPC added practical explosions and restored the appearance of the ground.
Images: MPC/Universal Pictures

1917 also contains some more “classic” VFX shots, like the plane crash — which involves a number of separate elements, including a partial plane body that’s crashed against blue screen — and the moment when Schofield finds himself in a raging river, which was actually actor George MacKay filmed in a former Olympic whitewater rafting course, transformed into a river environment.

Visual effects allowed director Sam Mendes to pull off his “one-shot” movie without restriction; any modern artifacts, crew members, or camera gear left in the frame could simply be painted out after the fact. The same kind of artistic freedom was afforded to Martin Scorsese on The Irishman, where the performances of a de-aged cast were captured without facial markers, making the CG process “invisible” to legends like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.

Most films that involve CG actors or de-aging VFX require performers to wear a helmet-mounted camera rig or some kind of painted dots on their face. Those elements can be crucial for acquiring data on facial movement, but they can also get in the way of an actor’s performance. The approach employed on The Irishman, which was developed by Industrial Light & Magic, instead shot each scene with three different cameras — a rig dubbed Flux — that extracted the actors’ performances and translated them to computer-generated younger versions of the actors. The idea was to preserve the original performance as closely as possible.

Real, but fake

The hope for most visual effects is to convince the audience that a camera crew was able to go out and film the footage in question. Crews often do that, but budgetary limits, safety reasons, or simply the passage of time often restrict a realistic approach. For example, Ford v Ferrari is set in the 1960s, but many of the race venues no longer exist today as they did back then. Recreating history meant shooting at locations that could be transformed through visual effects. Le Mans was made up of locations in Georgia and Southern California, including Agua Dulce Airpark in Santa Clarita. VFX teams added cheering crowds to stadiums, and aided in executing high-paced racing scenes with CG cars and augmented crashes.

Invisible effects aren’t always so high-octane. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a film few would consider a visual effects spectacle, includes a host of enhanced shots. They were used to extend city scenes, including in the climatic rainstorm. The sequence was filmed against a blue screen on a partial set that could be flooded, with the blue parts used to fill the background with buildings and other details, giving Bong total control over the shot choices and actor blocking. VFX also added an upper layer to the “rich” house in exterior shots, which were actually filmed with a blue screen placeholder area for the second level.

the rainstorm in Parasite with a blue screen behind hit Photo: CJ Entertainment

Todd Phillips’ Joker eschewed the VFX-driven approach typical of superhero films for a much more grounded story, but the Best Picture contender still contains hundreds of visual effects shots. Many of them were employed to set the fictional Gotham City in the 1980s; artists digitally painted over city streets in the opening scenes, during shots of slums, and in the climactic riot scenes. Some of the more gory moments in the film also utilized digital, rather than practical, blood, such as when Arthur murders some people in his apartment. CG blood avoids long reset times during filming, and allows for a consistent look to the final “digital” makeup. It’s similar to tactics used in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, especially for a scene in which characters battle amid glass cases full of weapons. The glass wasn’t really there — Method Studios added it all digitally.

Method Studios creates glass after the fact in John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum.
Images: Method Studios/Lionsgate

Few people would have caught the subtle use of visual effects in Rian Johnson’s mystery hit Knives Out. In one scene, the character Ransom (Chris Evans) is shown returning to the mansion at night through a back gate. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin revealed on Twitter that this shot was actually filmed “day-for-night,” literally meaning it was captured during the day and turned into a nighttime shot. Yedlin said he even carried out the necessary VFX work — rotoscoping, compositing, and color grading — himself on his laptop. Compositing software such as Nuke, which Yedlin used, has become one of the go-to tools for many filmmakers (not just VFX artists) for large-scale and more subtle visual effects work.

Invisible effects ... in major effects films

Invisible effects aren’t limited to small or non-VFX-driven films. The big blockbusters often contain their own brand of unnoticed CGI. A stunning example: the spacesuits featured in Avengers: Endgame (another VFX Oscar nominee), which were completely digital.

Visual effects studio Framestore grafted the suits onto live-action footage of the actors (other studios also worked on digital costumes in Endgame, and CG wardrobe is a regular feature in most Marvel movies). Why didn’t the cast wear real suits on set? Well, the designs simply hadn’t been finalized by the time of the shoot.

Yet another VFX Oscar nominee, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, similarly contains scores of “unseen” effects shots, amid a wider, perhaps more obvious set of CG characters, spaceships, and planets. To bring Carrie Fisher back to life as General Leia Organa, for example, the filmmakers incorporated unused footage of the actress, with a stand-in on set. You may have known that, since Fisher died before the filming of The Rise of Skywalker, but where the VFX went further was in Leia’s clothing and hair, which were completely synthetic.

It’s just another example of the magic trick that visual effects plays in just about all the films you see, large or small.