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Red Notice might be last year’s biggest visual effects triumph?

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The fourth star after The Rock, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot are the VFX artists

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Frank Masi/Netflix © 2021

Reviews for Netflix’s star-studded, globe-trotting heist movie Red Notice were all over the map, but one thing seems objectively true: The fact that it exists at all is a miracle.

“One of the first challenges that we encountered was when we were shooting, we had our production schedule split up in half,” Hiram Garcia, president of production for Dwayne Johnson’s Seven Bucks Productions and a producer on Red Notice, told Polygon around the time of the film’s release. The plan was for Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot to shoot a number of interior scenes in studio space in Atlanta, then start jumping around the globe — Italy, Sardinia, France — to stage the major set pieces that would define writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s spy-like adventure. But as Red Notice reached the halfway point on its 70-some day shoot, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and production shutdown.

“We shut down for six months, and then nobody knew if we were coming back,” Thurber recently said in a conversation with Jungle Cruise director Jaume Collet-Serra at the Director’s Guild. “And then, Netflix, to their credit, was like, ‘No, no, we’re coming back.’ I thought we might be like a boogeyman story that studio executives tell directors before they go to bed. ‘Remember that movie they almost made? The same thing could happen to you.’”

A new visual effects reel from Industrial Light & Magic sheds light on just how much digital lift was required to bring Thurber’s movie as close to the original grand, on-location scale of the original pre-pandemic plans. Much like David Fincher’s history of hidden VFX, so much of Red Notice’s naturalistic world was built or supplemented with CGI. Even for the trained moviegoer’s eye, the lengths artists went to construct the movie’s simplest sequences can go overlooked.

“We couldn’t go to Rome, we couldn’t go to Sardinia, we couldn’t go to Paris, but we had all these plans,” Thurber said. “I didn’t really want to shoot it in my backyard. I wanted to go to these places. But we couldn’t. So we had to shoot everything onstage in Atlanta or in the parking lot of the Atlanta metro studios.”

Red Notice originally opened with a massive car chase in Italy, but the action sequence was scaled down post-COVID to a more contained foot chase between Johnson and Reynolds through a museum. Garcia said the conditions forced Thurber to innovate within those confines, and ultimately the creative team landed on the use of tight-quarters drone photography. As Reynolds zips around the museum obstacle course and eventually through scaffolding, the camera follows, and sometimes dips into POV. “We hired one of the world’s best drone fliers,” Garcia said, “it was like watching an Indy driver navigate a McLaren on the on the road — it was awesome.”

Red Notice behind the scenes of Dwayne Johnson and Gal Gadot on a soundstage but also on a boat Photo: Frank Masi/Netflix

While some action scenes were already in the can by the time the pandemic closed shop, including the explosive prison breakout scene, others were cut short. Garcia recalled that filming on the bull scene was the final day they had before the crew went on hiatus, and it was ultimately filmed after the fact with the help of on-location plates (not to mention a digital bull built to take down Johnson).

Visual effects artists also stepped in to supplement what may have simpler shots in a pre-pandemic world. According to Thurber, all the dancers at the masquerade ball (which was always written to be a masquerade ball) were able to slip on N95s under their masks. But because they couldn’t have too many extras in the room at a time, moments with Reynolds, Gadot, and Johnson were filmed in an empty dance hall, and layered into other shots of random background action through visual effects. “They’re dancing in an empty room,” Thurber recounted, “like something out of The Shining.”

Red Notice did not make the 2022 Oscar shortlist for VFX — Black Widow, Dune, Eternals, Free Guy, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Godzilla vs. Kong, The Matrix Resurrections, No Time to Die, Shang-Chi, or Spider-Man: No Way Home will eventually take home the Academy Award — but in a strange way, the work done on the film by ILM and the other houses involved feels like a testament to what’s now possible with visual effects. Not to mention that it’s the most 2021 movie of any 2021 movie. Thurber admits he isn’t sure of the final budget on the movie, but that it was an extremely expensive just by circumstance of making it under COVID conditions. The duress of bubbling with a crew, and then handing shards of filmmaking off to visual effects artists, just praying it all comes together, is an experience feels particularly poignant for Garcia and Johnson.

“We worked closely with the CDC and Netflix, and really made sure to provide everything we needed to get the movie done,” Garcia said. “They were phenomenal partners, they stepped up in a huge way. They lead with safety and they support it, and made sure we had the financial backing to do what we did. And so it allowed us to successfully complete the movie, keep everyone safe. It wasn’t an easy process, but something Dwayne and I always talk about is: we’ll never forget this crew.”