Making Maleficent Fly

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Walt Disney Pictures’ Maleficent stars Angelina Jolie, Oscar winner for Girl, Interrupted, and among the smallest handful of actors we can refer to as true movie stars. It retells the story of one of Disney’s most iconic villains, the evil witch from Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty. Its intent is by no means to lighten Maleficent up, as much as to illuminate her. As Angelina told Entertainment Weekly, “It’s about the struggle that people have with their own humanity and what is that that destroys that and kind of makes us die inside.”

Not exactly kid stuff, but the first reaction of audiences has been strong: an extremely rare Cinemascore rating of “A” from the people who’ve seen it, on top of an opening weekend north of $170 million worldwide.

Maleficent is directed by first-timer Robert Stromberg, who had a long career in visual effects before moving to Art Direction, where his first two outings (Avatar and Alice in Wonderland) both earned him Academy Awards. Maleficent screenwriter Linda Woolverton also wrote Alice in Wonderland (the first woman to be the sole writer on a billion-dollar picture), Beauty and The Beast (the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar), and collaborated on the screenplay for one of Disney’s talking animal trifles. The Lion King. You may have heard of it.

In addition to Robert and Linda, another member of the team responsible for the success of Alice in Wonderland, now working again with them on Maleficent, is Visual Effects Supervisor Carey Villegas, whose work on Alice in Wonderland in fact netted him an Oscar nomination. Along with work on vfx-heavy franchises including Superman and Spiderman, Carey’s diverse credits include What Dreams May Come, Fight Club, and Cast Away. We spoke to Carey about his work on Maleficent, coordinating the efforts from Digital Domain and the Moving Picture Company, the challenges of making realistic visual effects, and keeping Maleficent the movie grounded while making the character Maleficent fly.

CREATIVE COW: This is a big movie.


CAREY VILLEGAS: Yeah, definitely, definitely. It’s, for me, I think, just shy of two-and-a-half years on the project, so it’s also a long, long time.

Can you tell me about what happened when on that timeline?

Maleficent VFX supervisor Carey Villegas
Carey Villegas
Disney's MALEFICENT</p><br /><br />
<p>Conceptual Artwork</p><br /><br />
<p>(c)Disney 2014
Conceptual Artwork for Disney’s “MALEFICENT” by Director Robert Stromberg. ©Disney 2014

CV: Sure. I went out to London, January of 2012, after speaking with Robert Stromberg, the director, and Dave Taritaro from Disney, who’s in charge of visual effects over there. There wasn’t an agreement to make Maleficent in place yet, so we just started to have conversations about the script and all the different characters involved. Before we knew it, we just went full-on into pre-production, and just started designing characters and trying to come with techniques for executing the story.

I know you were the VFX supervisor on Alice in Wonderland, which was another very visually rich, world creation, and not just a movie story being told, but a world being built. How would you compare your role on those two?

I’ve collaborated with Robert Stromberg before in his role as art director, on a number of projects over the years, including Alice in Wonderland. Our challenge with that was the same as for Maleficent: how to create these magical, fanciful environments, while still making them feel kind of realistic and believable.

In the case of Alice in Wonderland, we were going for much more stylized feel. That was primarily done within a green environment with very few set pieces. In that way, the film was designed more in post-production.

This time, we wanted to ground it a little bit more in reality — still having the fanciful things that we had in Alice in Wonderland, but to also have more practical things to ground it, starting with more sets and more locations.

What’s the role of effects for a fantasy movie at the more realistic end of the spectrum? That’s a lot of different threads to try to be weaving.

I’ve done a lot of projects with invisible types of effects, for instance, Cast Away. Movies like that aren’t trying to showcase any particular visual effects. You’re just trying to extend the world, make it more believable, and also do things that may not be practical for actors to do, or locations to go to. So when you get into an Alice in Wonderland-style film, or a film like Maleficent, the great thing is that you’re really trying to say, “Wow look at me.”

We’re always striving to bring realism to some of these things that we’re creating entirely on the computer. You can do that in a number of ways, whether it’s performance capture or motion capture, or even if you’re doing traditional key frame style animation. It really depends on the characters.

The key for me on this particular show was that there are so many different characters. For example, there are 15 or 16 different types of fairies, and within each of those classes, there were variations on them. That meant creating 40 or 50 different-looking characters, and all kind of families of characters.

Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning). Photo credit: Film Frame. ©Disney 2014
Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning)

Then in addition to that, we had to create pixies, which was the hardest work in the show, to be honest. They would go from these 21-inch tall, flying, little characters to real actors, and then back to their digital counterpart later in the film. We wanted to make sure that we created them in such a way that they were stylized, but also still had a connection to the real actors playing those roles, like Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple.

Disney's MALEFICENT..L to R: Thistlewit (Juno Temple), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Flittle (Lesley Manville)..Photo Credit: Film Frame..©Disney 2014
.L to R: Thistlewit (Juno Temple), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Flittle (Lesley Manville). ©Disney 2014

We also wanted to push the facial animation to the next level, and that’s the primary thing I think we did: raising the bar in terms of the technology that we use, and pushing how we went about that process.

I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about Maleficent as a character, and Angelina in particular.

Maleficent is a fairy, so the first challenge was that we had to give her wings. Because her character starts as a young girl, we also wanted to make sure these wings would work both proportionally with that young girl and with Angelina later on.

It took quite a bit of time to figure out how the wings wanted to be. Were they made out of feathers? What was the texture?

Also, think about when you’re simply talking, you’re gesturing with your hands. We wanted those wings to have that type of quality and motion to them as well, just a natural extension of her gestures, so we knew we had to take a digital approach.

Once we came up with the design, we built a full-scale version of the wings. That served a couple of purposes. First and foremost, as a reference. As a digital artist, it’s great to have something very realistic that you can model, and photograph, and really get the sense of what it will look like.

And then also for Angelina and for everyone on the set, we used them to show the mass of the wings. Fully extended, they span over 12 feet. Just having those here on set, we were able to show, “Here’s what you’re dealing with, and this is the kind of space that they occupy when they’re fully extended.”

Disney's MALEFICENT..Maleficent (Angelina Jolie)..Photo Credit: Film Frame..©Disney 2014v
Fully extended, Maleficent’s wings span over twelve feet.

Once we had the physical wings, we focused on two technical issues. First, you have to make these wings stick to Angelina’s back, and track them properly. That’s really the trickiest thing. Even when photographing her from the front, we have to be able to map the wings behind her back without the use of blue screens or green screens.

The next trick is trying to integrate the wings properly into the scene, and then light them, and to make them feel like they actually are attached to her and belong in the environment.

Disney's MALEFICENT..Maleficent (Angelina Jolie)..Photo Credit: Film Frame..©Disney 2014
Maleficent (Angelina Jolie)

One of the ways we took care of both at once was to create kind of a little backpack device, and Velcro it to the back of Angelina’s costume. I stuck these little pads on her back, and we put these little antenna-like tracking sticks with little orange balls at the end onto those little backpack things, so you could actually see how they would track. [chuckle] It looked kind funny. She had this beautiful costume, and then she has these little sticks with orange balls coming off her back.

We eventually replaced these little pads with the full-scale digital wings. Maleficent has very long hair, so I wanted to make sure that her hair had a place to gather and channel between the wings, so that it would interact with the wings in realistic ways. The pads on her back made that work, which helped us later on with the integration.

What were the other things that you had to do with her besides wings?

The purpose of the wings is to fly, so flying was a huge component of the work we did for Maleficent’s character. We had many different flying rigs for Angelina, whether they were wire harnesses or what we call “the fork rig”, which basically attached a harness at her hips and waist, that we could move her within a space.

We actually moved her quite a bit throughout the blue screen environment, to fly, but there were certain dynamics and certain flying bits that we knew that were just way too fast, or in terms of the acrobatics that was just way too much for any person to accomplish. So we had to do those things fully digitally, with a digital double of Angelina.

There’s still a big physical component to the role. That’s often the case for Angelina.

Oh absolutely, she’s amazing. She did all her own stunts for Maleficent.

Not only is she on point every take, you get such a great variety of performances. She’s able to do that while she’s suspended 20 feet in the air, which is pretty amazing.

She has a great stunt double who’s worked with her for many years, Eunice Huthart, who’s now a stunt coordinator herself. She and Angelina have done a lot of films together, and she was able to work closely with Angelina on very specific approaches to these maneuvers. It was a great collaboration for us. We could just let Angelina and Eunice work these things out, which made it much easier for us to augment in visual effects.

Angelina Jolie on set as Maleficent..Ph: Keith Hampshere..©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved..
Angelina Jolie on set as Maleficent. Photo by Keith Hampshere. ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

What was it like for you working with multiple VFX houses?

I had previously worked with Digital Domain on their facial capture system for another project, and when Maleficent came about, I knew that I wanted to capitalize on all of that work. We were pretty much trying to take Clu from TRON to the next level. I knew right away that I wanted to use Digital Domain to do that work.

The other company was pretty clear choice, Movie Picture Company, MPC. They’re just such a massive company with many resources, and they have facilities all over the world. I work with Adam Valdez at MPC in London, and also Seth Maury, who I’ve worked with many times over the years, with MPC in Vancouver. So, it was these three major facilities, in Digital Domain and the two MPCs. Where DD did the Maleficent digital double work, the wings, and the pixie work, MPC pretty much handled the rest.

We did have a couple of houses that we brought in at the very end to just do a handful of shots, including Method and The Senate. I also had a pretty big internal team here in Los Angeles as well who pretty much handled everything else in-between. We did between three and four hundred shots internally.

There’s a portion of the film where Maleficent puts Aurora to sleep with her magic spell, and Aurora levitates into the air and floats. All of that work was done with my internal team as well.

Disney's Maleficent: Aurora (Elle Fanning)..Ph: Frank Connor..©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved..
Aurora (Elle Fanning). Photo by Frank Connor. ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

This was one of the films where, because so many of the things are interrelated, every shot, every sequence has elements that would have to be shared across multiple companies. It really made no sense to break it.

Some of these films nowadays work with 15, 16 different companies, and that’s just not feasible when you have a character animation show. All the rigging, all the rendering, and all those nuances are proprietary, or at least very specific to each facility, so we knew that we had to limit how broadly we distributed all this effects work.

Did I hear right, that every shot needed more than one house touching it?

That’s right.

Again, we had Digital Domain doing all of Angelina’s work in terms of her wings and all of her digital doubles. Then there’s a big battle sequence in the beginning where these earth-dwelling fairies that come burrowing in and out of the ground emerge from the moors in this big, forested area. Those characters were all created by MPC. Then we have a lot of the shots that are being shared with Angelina’s cutaways, and shots where she’s directly reacting to soldiers. The soldiers were done by MPC, and Digital Domain did the Maleficent component of it.

Disney's Maleficent..Ph: Film Still..©Disney 2014

Disney's Maleficent..Ph: Film Still..©Disney 2014
Battle sequence comps with the earth-dwelling fairies and soldiers.

There’s a sequence toward the end with dragon that was done by MPC, and interacting with DD’s digital double of Maleficent.

Disney's MALEFICENT..Dragon..Photo Credit: Film Frame..©Disney 2014
Dragon by MPC.

There’s a lot of shared assets there, so it was tricky. When you’re dealing with 1500 plus shots, it took a lot of management to keep it all straight.

So what was the biggest thing that you learned from your experience on Maleficent?

I’m always learning, to be honest.

There were so many things for me to learn on this three-year project, but if I had to say just one thing, I’d say that collaborating with people who you’ve worked with in the past is always great.

In this case, I had many people like Kelly Port over at Digital Domain, and Seth Maury at MPC, and even Robert Stromberg, directing this time, but I’ve worked with him many times as an art director. You learn how to communicate with each other, and what you’re looking for from the technical aspects of things, and also understand each other’s artistic sensibilities.

It’s clear for me on a film like this, where there’s so much involved, that the more of those types of relationships you can keep moving forward, film after film after film, the smoother things go. I can’t imagine not having those relationships on a film like this. It’s just so large, and there’s just so much to do, and that made things a lot easier.

Disney's MALEFICENT..Maleficent (Angelina Jolie)..Photo Credit: Frank Connor..©Disney 2014
Maleficent (Angelina Jolie). Photo Credit: Frank Connor.

So I’ve learned to keep working with people that you know and like.

Last question. How did it turn out?

[Laughs] I think it turned out pretty well.

Over the course of time, story points evolve and maybe something that you thought was crystal clear in the script, once it’s photographed, it’s not as crystal clear as it might be. Or maybe something changes in the edit.

For me, it was just trying to make sure going in what the expectations on me would be, from the studio and from Robert, and keep adapting to the changes. I think I fulfilled their expectations and delivered visually what they were looking for. In that respect, I think it turned out pretty well.



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