Elvis is in the (VFX) House

Elvis is Baz Luhrmann’s stunning biopic of one of the legends of Rock and Roll, told only as the creative and flamboyant direct can. Elvis stars Austin Butler and Tom Hanks and is a lead film going into the 53rd Oscars in multiple categories.

Baz Luhrmann, director of Elvis at the film’s premiere.

Fin Design + Effects is an Australian visual effects and design company with studios in Sydney, Melbourne, Shanghai, Singapore, and Los Angeles. Established in 2001, and starting with just seven members, the company is now 180 people strong. Fin is home to a close-knit team of VFX artists, designers, and producers. Heading into Oscar weekend we spoke to them about their work on Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 film Elvis.

Fin was engaged at the onset of the Elvis post-production in mid-2021 to create post-viz on three major sequences. Then over the next 8 months, the team worked closely with VFX supervisor Tom Wood and VFX producer Fiona Crawford, together with the editorial and post-production teams on a multitude of musically driven ‘digital optics’ sequences for the film in Fin’s Flame suite. Fin was brought on during post to create post-visualization for a few scenes and create visual effects for others. Close collaboration with Wood and Crawford and the post team, together with descriptive briefs, production designs, and a vast set of style and frame and archival references provided, gave clarity for what Baz Luhrmann wanted. Fin produced substantial visual effects and complex recreations for three major sequences: Tupleo Town, Elvis’ Louisiana Hayride show, and the Lisa-Marie Jet at Los Angeles Airport.

“Fin was tasked with a significant body of work that needed considerable creative and technical input,” Fin’s Head of Visual Effects, Alastair Stephen explains, “the work on Elvis was diverse in its scope and involved all aspects of Fin’s artistry to produce.

A team of over 50 talented Fin artists, crafted visual effects on 180 shots across key 3 key Elvis sequences:
Tupelo town: the ‘shantytown’ tent scene of Elvis’ influential connection with gospel music
Louisiana Hayride Stadium: the concert scene and nascent of the Elvis mania
Los Angeles (LAX) Airport & Lisa-Marie Jet: the poignant separation scene between Elvis and Priscilla on the tarmac. In addition, Fin also worked on a significant number of creative ‘optical’ transitions.

Tupelo Town

Tupelo Town provided a key sequence to show the separation of the slums of Elvis’ birthplace from Tupelo, Mississippi. To create the environment of Tupelo town the team had a style guide or ‘look book’ of visual references of the actual Mississippi area, as well as other historical photos, and art department style frames that guided the post-viz. From the style guides, the team went through a blocking phase to set out layouts in the foreground of the location build and what was to be shot on location, determining and creating the final look via CG extensions and 3D Digital Matte Paintings.

Set reference photos and LIDAR scans were essential in recreating the physical builds and matching the style of the art department sets. Working from the art department style frames as well as the actual location set, Fin built the main layout in post-vis which drove how the final environment looked. For the immediate area around the Pentecostal tent, they used set reference photos and LIDAR scans to create assets to kitbash additional buildings and extend the physical sets. For Tupelo town and the farms in between, there was an extensive asset build based on references and using maps to derive where the major landmarks and the roadways were located, and the layout connecting the two separate towns.

 

Hayride

This was a complex sequence, with a lot to solve structurally, Fin needed to authentically recreate the entire auditorium and audience digitally. The original plates consisted only of the front four rows of the audience and a large number of ‘sprites’ to manipulate in building up the crowd.

Aaron Barclay, elaborates, “Fin did a lot of work across all scenes to match the anamorphic lens characteristics using an in-house tool called Ledgy. This tool is a dynamic convolve that allows per-pixel kernel manipulation to match the smearing along the edges of an anamorphic frame. This was used to achieve technical matching and also to lose any digital feel, – it creatively enhances the vintage look of the frame.”

Fin’s primary challenge with crowds was how to deal with the quantity of footage and shot elements, and how to manipulate them to the different camera angles shot, and offset them so they didn’t look repeated.

The auditorium crowds were a sprite-based particle setup in Nuke. The shot elements were projected onto seat locations in the auditorium. The auditorium was filled with sprites and each different shot was adjusted in position and direction, based on the camera’s location. This gave the team the flexibility to place a digital camera anywhere in the CG set, and provide spites at the right angle to use. Fin’s Co-Head of Comp, Aaron Barclay explains, “These ‘sprites’ needed to be categorized based on the actors, the action, the angle the camera was shooting them at, as well as the direction that their chair faced so that we could put them together into a large particle system and get a proper orientation to the camera.“ Fin utilized Nuke’s 3D particle system to handle the placement and orientation of each of the cards within a 3D space aligning to the CG seat placements that were in the digital Hayride set. Each individual ‘sprite’ could be offset in time and adjusted to get the best performance for each shot. Barclay adds, “having this all within Nuke allowed for a much higher degree of control in integrating the crowd into the plate, thereby giving the ability to get a nicer falloff around lights and blend of the crowds into the shadows. The final pictures had to have complete authenticity.”

LAX Airport

Fin’s biggest challenge was the jet sequence on the Los Angeles airport tarmac, requiring extensive research to achieve realism, particularly for the Lisa-Marie Jet, as well as the period LAX surrounds and buildings.

Baz Luhrmann has a reputation for very strong production design can bridge to a type of hyperrealism requiring Fin to balance invisible realism and dramatic visual designs. In Elvis, the director’s renowned elaborate production design was channelled into evoking and achieving the right mood, time, and place of the Elvis era across every detail when replicating locations and settings. The visual effects for Elvis, supported Luhrmann’s creative vision while keeping the film grounded with authenticity and photo-realism and supporting the ’emotional’ storytelling.

The LAX airport tarmac scene with the Lisa-Marie Jet was initially proposed as a part prop but eventually carried greater credibility to be visually recreated fully in CG. The visual effects approach of the whole film was grounded in reality and then adjusted based on the story requirements. As a result, there were a lot of detailed CG builds. All shots were rendered using Redshift.

With the original jet still parked at Graceland, there was some great photographic reference, but the plane had deteriorated quite a lot, so the team needed to come up with a new-looking version of the jet, that had all the polish and CG detail required to hold up credibly in a wide variety of shots.
Using blueprints of the Convair 880 as well as the photographic material of the actual Lisa-Marie jet, the team built a detailed CG jet with all the small details to show the plane in her glory days.

For LAX airport and the tarmac itself, the team had a very sparse space that they needed to fill out with the setting and surrounds of Los Angeles Airport. There was very little built of the actual blue-screen airport set, – just a set of boarding stairs, two cars, and the actors. Everything else was recreated and dressed to create visual interest, including the rain-puddled tarmac, the LAX environment, CG versions of the Lisa-Marie and other background private jets, plus their hangars, and additional stand-in CG cars to allow augmentation with the right reflections for visual accuracy.

The team worked off LAX aerial maps and photography of the 60s to build the base structure of the airport, recreating key landmarks such as the theme building that marks the airport distinctly as LAX.

Oscars

The visual effects team naturally worked in concert with the distinctive cinematography of Elvis.  The Director of Photography on the film was Australian Mandy Walker.  She recently upset front-runner, Top Gun: Maverick’s Claudio Miranda at the 37th American Society of Cinematographers Awards, and so all eyes are on the Oscar ceremony, to see if she can become the first female DP to win the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Elvis is also nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor for Austin Butler at the 95th annual Academy Awards. The film has eight Oscar nominations in total, including Film Editing; Sound; Makeup and Hairstyling; Production Design; and Costume Design. Catherine Martin, nominated for her costume and production design, is Luhrmann’s wife, and a previous winner in those categories for her husband’s films Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby.

Baz and Tom have fun singing Elvis at the Sydney Premiere of Elvis.