Directed by Mexican-born Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth tells the story of little Ofelia who is escapes by moving into fairy tales and magic lands in an enchanted forest, set against the backdrop of Spanish fascism. We caught up with VFX suprvisor Everett Burrell of CafeFX to discuss the film.
When the harsh world of the Spanish Civil War becomes too horrific to bear, young Ofelia looks inward for escape and finds that the imagination has the power to heal her real world wounds in director Guillermo del Toro’s visually rich and complex fable Pan’s Labyrinth, whose mythical land is largely the creation of CafeFX.
We caught up with CafeFX VFX Supervisor Everett Burrell to discuss the film. CafeFX was not only the visual effects house but a production partner on the film, giving them both tremendous access and great scope for creative collaboration.
CafeFX, founded as ComputerCafe in 1993 by Jeff Barnes and David Ebner to produce broadcast promotion and television ID packages, today works on major motion pictures. Their work includes such films as The Departed, Sin City, and The Aviator. Operating at Santa Maria and the Santa Monica studio, the company uses primarily Autodesk Flame, Commotion, Lightwave, Fusion, Photoshop and After Effects. On this production the primary pipeline was Maya and compositing with Fusion.
VFX Producer Edward Irastorza, formerly of Tippet studios, was del Toro’s visual effects supervisor on Hellboy and Blade 2. Irastorza and Burrell had worked years before on Hercules and Zena so Burrell asked him to come and work with the crew at CafeFX. It was through Irastorza that Guillermo contacted CafeFX. “Guillermo approached us while we were working on Sin City, before the screenplay was even written,” says Burrell. “He gave us an outline and a list of the effects. ”
At a dinner to discuss the film, del Toro described the film as a sequel to Devil’s Backbone. “I loved Devil’s Backbone, I love that film and I was honored to be asked,” says Burrell. “We shook hands and then Guillermo disappeared for a year. We did not hear anything from him, then we get this phone call from Guillermo: ‘I am in Spain – come on let’s go – let’s make this movie.'”
This was in 2005, and in June the team flew to Spain and spent 5 months filming around the forests of the country. Burrell felt the project seemed really special and seeing Guillermo’s enthusiasm and realizing it was a great opportunity to show off our their character animation and effect skills. Few studios wanted to work or invest in the film, says Burrell, but CafeFX found the experience to be an outstanding once in a lifetime opportunity.
Tasked with 300 shots and five months of post-production, the VFX crew embarked on a journey that required both artistic and technical inspiration to bring director Guillermo Del Toro’s visions to life. The production had very detailed storyboards and the team stuck to those designs “religiously”. While the production was extremely well prepared, there was still a degree of education that was required to allow the production to shoot for effects or characters that were not going to be added until months later.
Leaving the Horrors of War
The story of Panâ€™s Labyrinth follows the adventures of Ofelia, a young girl taken from her comfortable home in the city to a Spanish hillside country village where Captain Vidal, a Francoist officer and Ofelia’s new stepfather, is hunting a band of rebels. Unhappy with her new surroundings and her stepfatherâ€™s ill treatment, Ofelia retreats to an ancient stone labyrinth where she imagines adventures with a faun, fairies, magical creatures, and monsters. Meanwhile her motherâ€™s pregnancy is not going well, and the Captain (the real monster) is hunting down a ragged band of revolutionaries. It’s not long before Ofelia’s fantasies collide with harsh reality with catastrophic results.
When considering the fine line that production needed to take between realism, harsh imagery and child like fantasy, Burrell recounts that “Guillermo always said this is a European film- we can do the whatever we want , we ever have no MPAA, we don’t have to deal with that – so we just went for it. And he is a big horror fan and I have worked on every zombie movie you name it! Day of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead the remake…I have been through the horror gambit, he really respected that and I really respected that about him.”
Burrell says that together “we thought what a great opportunity to do some really good gore, but do it in a classy way. Hey let’s make it really cool – that was the task at hand. How can we make really great gore palatable for an art house crowd.”
CafeFX, which previously worked with del Toro on Hellboy, was asked to help create Pan’s highly imaginative, atmospheric world. Burrell and co-VFX Supervisor/VFX Producer Edward Irastorza traveled to Spain for on-set supervision, spending some five months in Madrid, working seven days a week. “When you work with Guillermo, you’re on Guillermo’s clock,” said Burrell.
CafeFX was asked to create several creatures that exist only in Ofeliaâ€™s imagination, including a healing mandrake root that acts like a newborn baby. Pan, the earthly faun played by a costumed Doug Jones, has cgi eyes and legs and a surreal goat-like body. The eyeless ghoul, also known as the â€œpale man,â€ has an appetite for young children and can only see through his eyes which he places in the palms of his hands and raises to his forehead.
The giant, grotesque (and hungry) toad started out as an animatronic puppet, â€œwhich was great looking, but a bit stiff as an actor so we inserted a completely CG toad, which allowed for much more movement and expression,â€ says Burrell. Irastorz adds that â€œit was made of foam rubber, which when placed in the mud became wet, heavy foam rubber. The poor girl inside was unable to move it.â€
â€œIn animating the fairies, we noticed something interesting,â€ said Animation Lead Ron Friedman. â€œMale artists tended to design fairies that were sloppier in their movements, sort of slovenly, with their legs spread. Female artists designed fairies who appeared more proper, always keeping their legs together and perfectly posed. Ultimately, we selected the female version. And, while we gave each fairy a unique personality, one being more levelheaded than the other two who are prone to argue, we kept them poised and pretty.”
One fairy originates as a stick bug, who follows Ofelia to the Captainâ€™s home, before transforming into its true form. â€œThe stick bug is my favorite creature in the film,â€ said Irastorza. â€œItâ€™s as realistic as any creature weâ€™ve done, yet still has character. Like the fairies, its movements were formed from studying an actual stick bug that we acquired. And, for its transformation, we blended one model into another.â€
â€œThe transformation of the stick bug into the fairy was one of the most complex of all the character animation shots,â€ explains CG Supervisor, Akira Orikasa. â€œBecause the director did not want to present the transformation as a simple overall morph from one target to the next, careful planning of the action and use of in-house software was utilized to allow the character to transform different parts of its body over different periods of timeâ€”the legs, wings, hands and body. Ultimately, we animated the two characters using a “shrink-wrap” process to blend in a percentage of the fairy on top of the stick bug in 3D. Unlike a morph, were you have to have two identical sets of point geometry, the “shrink-wrap” process allows you to take two separate objects of similar proportions and blend them seamlessly without worrying about point order.â€
The Mandrake Root and the Unborn Baby
“Guillermo was so open about it, if you guys create something that is cool – I’ll sure it, .. it was a rare film to work on,” says Burrell. “Normally on a big film you go through so many middle men and other people. On this film it was really Guillermo, myself and Ed, and no one controlled the film but Guillermo…normally there are so many people between you and the director… this film was so refreshing to work on.”
Creating the mandrake root for Pan’s Labyrinth was a significant challenge since its relevance to the story had to be told in a few shots of film. The connection between Ofelia’s mother and the mandrake root needed to be established quickly and clearly through the character’s actions and attitude. The scene where the mandrake root comes to life in a bowl was originally shot with Ofelia holding a puppet which was bent from head to toe. The initial goal was to transition from a live-action element, or puppet, to the CG element of the mandrake root prior to it coming to life. Ultimately, a 3D character replaced the live-action element through the entire course of the shot, requiring the CG element of the mandrake root to be perfectly match-moved to the action of the actress.
â€œIt was critical that the audience believe that they were seeing something absolutely real, especially as the character begins to mimic the mother’s actions,â€ says Burrell. â€œWe were required to duplicate the live action of the mother’s movements as closely as possible, to communicate to the audience that the mandrake root was now magically connected to the mother. When the mandrake root burns in the fire, the challenge was not only to express the pain that the character is experiencing as a result of being burned, but also to show that it is slowly becoming less alive and returning to its state of being an inanimate object.â€
As a central character in the film, Pan came to life through both live action and CG magic. In addition to animating Panâ€™s eye blinks, his legs were the creation of CafeFX. In order to make Panâ€™s faun legs appear long and crooked, the actorâ€™s legs passed through the knees of his full body foam latex suit, and his feet were locked in shoes floating several inches above the creature’s feet. The actor’s legs and feet, as well as the welded metal frame and shoe, were all covered in green screen material. Removing the actor’s legs and replacing the lost background behind them proved to be a tremendous challenge.
â€œThe compositing department developed a mostly 2D approach,â€ says Compositing Supervisor Tom Williamson. â€œThe actor’s legs were removed with an animated polygon mask. Still photos from multiple angles were shot of the costume legs with the shoe brackets removed. Small pieces of these stills were used to fill in the missing legs and feet by tracking parts of the legs and locking sections of the stills to the tracks. Extensive paint work followed to blend all the pieces together seamlessly.â€
In addition to the magic and beauty that CafeFX created on-screen, they were also required to delve into the harshness of civil war era Spain. “It was a dry season in Madrid,” explains Burrell. “We weren’t allowed to fire any weapons or rig any squibs, and we definitely weren’t allowed to blow anything up due to the risk of fire. In every muzzle flash, all the blood sprays from bullet hits, and all but one explosion was computer generated. We fired Luger pistols to get a muzzle flash reference and then added it to a scene where the actors would normally fire blanks, but in this case the guns were empty.”
Graphic CG Wounds
CafeFX got close-up for some of the more graphic atrocities. In a scene in which a local is brutally beaten by the Captain, CafeFX gave the actor a new face. “Guillermo wanted the damage to be shown very graphically, more than just fake blood,” says Williamson. â€œWe created a new nose and cheekbone area so the effect of the blows was visible and detailed.” Another scene has the Captain tending to a facial wound of his own, stitching his own face together. The scene started as a practical make-up effect but never looked right to the vfx crew. Rather than create the wound on a moving actor, they were able to give it the detail to make it cringe-worthy.
In one scene, the lead Army character has had his face cut and he stitches his face and cheek back himself in a sequence that is very graphic on screen. Guillermo pulled no punches on this scene says Burrell, and claims that Guillermo just went for it. The shot hangs on the slashed face for “an extremely long time (and) normally a shot like this would be done off camera,” Burrell jokes. “But we went – hey let’s make it really cool – and that was always our approach, … that shot goes on for ever, when he sows up his check, that is really gratuitous. Itss way of the top but it is absolutely intentional. Guillermo was like – ‘ I want the guy to sow up his check and I want the audience to feel it’ ”
The Throne Room
The throne room sequence created for Pan’s Labyrinth was a challenge of geometry and design. â€œAs an entirely CG creation, the Throne Roomâ€™s live-action plate consisted of only a partial floor, the bottom half of the three thrones, and the entry door,â€ said Compositing Lead Mike Bozulich. Concept art for the throne room set was conceived and developed with the help of both del Toro and artistic consultant, Robert Stromberg, and then modeled, textured, lit and rendered entirely in Lightwave. Special emphasis was placed on surface texture to achieve the director’s rich vision. Once rendered, the various elements were used to construct the throne room composite using the concept artwork as a guide. Additional layers of particle dust and light beams were layered on to add atmosphere. The composites consisted of over 30 elements to build a complete throne room shot.
A master shot of the throne room was developed to achieve continuity for the entire throne room sequence. Rich textures of gold and wood elements were layered into the models to give them a grand scale and luxurious feeling. Once the models and textures were approved, the set was lit with a combination of spot and area light. Global illumination was selectively used to fill shadows and enhance detail, adding grand realism to the scene. The set was then split into various elements including the background arena and rosary, mid-ground buildings and towers, foreground structures, the three thrones and floor, as well as the CG king and queen.
The crowd was accomplished by shooting the production company staff in costume and generating over 20 plates which were mapped onto 3D cards and match-moved into the scene. Glows, flares, and light beams were added to increase the grandness of the throne room as well as provide atmosphere. The final element was the tiny 3D fairies that fly back and forth between Pan and Ofelia.
â€œWe used lightwave for the throne room,” said Burrell. When asked what made lightwave so good for rigid body renderings such as this, Burrell had but one word, “fprime” , Fprime is a plugin for Lightwave written by Steve Worley “I swear to god it is the best renderer in the world, if we could make it render other packages it would make our lives a hundred times easier” , Burrell jokes “Steve Worley is a god”. As to why Cafefx uses Fusion for the compositing, he points out CafeFx has unlimited rendering, and Eyeon “bends over backwards for us, – anything they can do,…, Fusion is cause we are supported 110% by Eyeon”.
One of the surprises on set was how much the camera ended up moving – this lead to a huge amount of 3d tracking, CafeFX used .Boujou, Sytheyes, and 3D equaliser, for the very very difficult shots, and 3D equalizer is the most complex from a user base,” the team found that Boujou works better on higher contrast material, and Sytheyes on the lower contrast material.
Motion blur and displacement are the holly grail of visual effects,…displacement and motion blur do not seem to go together very well,” as a result most of the skin texture and scales were modelled and not done with displacement maps in 3D. Render times were therefore an issue, ” when you ray trace shadows it becomes a huge deal out of Mental Ray, .. it has become a huge huge deal, – the person who develops a good 2D motion blur will be a millionaire.” Cafefx found that to render motion blur in 3D would take a 4 hour render per frame and turn it into a 20 hour per frame. But still they had to work hard to get the realism Burrell wanted.
The Oscars Race
For the first time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences released a shortlist of contenders for the foreign-language Oscar. Pan’s Labyrinth , was among the short-listed films. The other eight films include: Days of Glory (Algeria), Water (Canada), After the Wedding (Denmark), Avenue Montaigne (France), The Lives of Others (Germany), Black Book (The Netherlands), Volver (Spain) and Vitus (Switzerland).
The foreign language short-list came about due to rules changes at the Academy. Previously, a Los Angeles-based committee of a few hundred Academy members chose the five nominees. Now the committee only chooses the nine short-listed films. Then, a 30-member committee comprised of 10 members from the original committee — 10 new L.A. members and 10 New York members — determine the nominees. In addition, the Academy changed the rule which limited the films submitted by a country to ones that were primarily in the native language of that country. This is significant as it excluded films such as Mel Gibson’s Apocolypto, and Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima.
From this shortlist came the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year, including Pan’s Labyrinth. The film was also nominated for Original Screenplay, Achievement in Art Direction, Achievement in Cinematography, Achievement in Makeup, Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score).
Jeff Barnes, CafeFX CEO was incredibly pleased after the announcement. “Our CafeFX crew is proud to have collaborated with Guillermo del Toro to bring his mythic story of Pan’s Labyrinth to life on screen,” says Barnes. “Our crew played an integral dual role for the film as Associate Producer and Visual Effects Studio, creating all of the visual effects shots for the film. Congratulations to Guillermo del Toro and the entire film crew for this incredible honor.”
When we raised the issue of awards and the film’s success with Burrell, he said — while taking nothing away from the films awards — “the thing I care about the most is that Ray Harryhausen saw it and liked it very much…that’s all I care about. He was such an inspiration in my life and Guillermo’s life… the whole film is a love letter to Ray Harryhausen….Guillermo and I made that a conscious effort, this is our gift to Ray Harryhausen, that film is dedicated emotionally from Guillermo and I … to Ray”