All Quiet on the Western Front VFX

All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the films honored with a shortlist nod and will present at the Oscar bakeoff next week (fxguide will be there to cover the event). The film is actually short-listed in multiple Oscar craft categories. The shortlist includes Heike Merker for make-up and hair, Volker Bertelmann, aka Hauschka, for the film’s score, sound lead by Frank Kruse, Markus Stemler, with Lars Ginzel and the VFX team, led by Frank Petzold. The film itself is also in the Oscar’s international category.

All Quiet on the Western Front tells the harrowing story of a young German soldier Paul Bäumer, (Felix Kammerer), on the Western Front of WWI. Paul and his comrades experience first-hand how the initial euphoria of war turns into desperation and fear as they fight for their lives in the trenches.

The film is by director Edward Berger and is based on the world-renowned bestseller of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque. This film is told as a POV movie with long tracking shots, epic visuals and on a scale that is both intimate and harrowing. The film was crafted to be a subjective, emotional perspective rather than a literal one. The film and craft of the artists involved is gripping, immediate, visceral, and immersive.

The VFX supervisor was Frank Petzold (The Ring, Armageddon, Starship Troopers, The Golden Compass). Frank was formally at Tippett Studios and his goal in All Quiet on the Western Front was to create visual effects that were photorealistic and did not distract the audience from the film’s literary and cinematic legacy.  The VFX was based on extensive research, to be as historically correct as possible. Commenting that he was using his art as another way to support the acting in as an invisible way as possible, for the emotional drama.  To achieve this look, the VFX team decided to put an emphasis on using as many photographic elements as possible.

The shooting was very tough and extremely strenuous.  Filmed outside Prague, the production had a large area where they could build the German and French trenches, the no-man’s land in between, and the hinterland behind, including the barbed wire, the bomb craters, animal carcasses, and the corpses of fallen soldiers. The production built out an entire battlefield. Moving around this battlefield during filming was psychologically testing, challenging and depressing. Not to mention, it was cold and wet, and muddy. The production filmed in March and April in truly inhospitable temperatures. Just before shooting it had been snowing, so everything was frozen. The ground only started to thaw as the crew began filming, and in no time it became a mud bath. Principle photography wrapped up at the end of May last year, and post/VFX began.

The overall VFX mantra was to allow the footage from principal photography to serve as the primary material for compositing, as opposed to creating CG elements in VFX to augment the scenes. “I believe that adds to the visceral, immersive quality of the film,” Frank Petzold explains. “So in other words when, say, there was an explosion scene, we did not entirely rely on CG models.”  Rather, the team used photographic elements as the primary foundation, implementing CG simulations to augment principal photography. The effect was naturalistic, and the integration aimed to be seamless.

The VFX matched and added to what DOP James Friend and the production designer Christian Goldbeck created on set with the actors and the special effects Unit. The VFX team often enhanced the thick fog of war with carefully layered, detailed CG fog,  “making the battlefield endless and claustrophobic at the same time.” This naturalistic approach was more time-consuming – but visually more rewarding and very much led by the decisions made during principal photography.

Before shooting begins, The director Edward Berger broke the movie into individual shots, and then with the DOP he created precise shot lists covering weeks of work. “If it is a straight-line scene, it may be enough to describe it precisely in writing. For example, when General Friedrichs sits at the table with his adjutant and eats duck, it is a technically relatively simple scene, for which the shot list is often sufficient,” the director outlines. But for the complex scenes such as the battles,  “we use detailed storyboards to create more and more refined shot lists.” During the pandemic, the creative team was sometimes in three different countries and had to produce some of these via Zoom. He adds that “the storyboards were our bible. We not only filmed the movie exactly as we’d drawn it, but also cut it almost exactly the same,”

All locations and props were 3D scanned and modeled, to support the placement of the photographic elements with CG shadows & reflections.  The appearance of the first ‘machines of war’ were handled in 3D, as the team wanted the machines to come across as gigantic creatures. Some of the close-up tanks were separately shot with SFX support, and 3D was used to control the timing of the tank fleet as they break through the fog and attack the soldiers.

The Oscar Bakeoff is in LA, Saturday, January 14th, 2023.