VFX Legion was recently called on by Blumhouse Productions to create the visual effects for director Scott Derrickson’s supernatural thriller The Black Phone. Co-written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill (Sinister, Dr Strange) and starring Ethan Hawk as the maniacal villain, the chilling tale is an adaptation of Joe Hill’s short story of the same name. Legion, the company that provided the effects for Sinister 2, re-teamed with Derrickson, Cargill, and Blumhouse, delivering over 200 shots for their new psychological thriller, which opened in theatres on 24 June.
Set in suburban Denver, Colorado in 1978, The Black Phone is the story of Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), the latest victim of a sadistic serial killer dubbed The Grabber (Ethan Hawk). The boy is held captive in a basement where help comes in supernatural form through calls from his kidnappers’ previous victims on a disconnected phone.
Led by co-founders and senior VFX supervisor James David Hattin and VFX producer Nate Smalley, Legion’s team designed and produced a wide range of shots that run the gamut, from complex sequences combining animated digital doubles with practical stunts, green screen, set extensions, CG environments, rebuilt camera transitions, crowd duplication, and a mix of dynamics to removing rigging, and digitally deleting elements out of place with the authentic look of the era.
The LA and B.C.-based visual effects company contributed to every phase of the creative process from pre-production and on-set supervision, through post-production. Brought on board early, Legion visualised digital options and worked closely with the director, helping develop the tone of the film before shooting began.
Hattin said, “Working with Scott to find the right look for the visual effects was a very collaborative process. There was a lot of back and forth and quite a few iterations as the effects-driven otherworldly elements of The Black Phone evolved from magical aberrations to a look firmly grounded in the everyday life of suburban Denver circa 1978.”
Derrickson’s decision to keep the horrifying events experienced by Finney and the other children rooted in a true-to-life environment came from a personal place. Fear was part of everyday life in the rough area of Denver where Derrickson grew up during the 70s, and the trauma that children experience in The Black Phone is set in the reality of that era.
Legion was relied on to meet the challenge of designing dozens of nuanced visual effects that heighten the visceral impact of paranormal events without ever taking the audience out of the seemingly real world where the story unfolds.
On-set VFX supervision
VFX supervisor Kent Johnson was on the location during practical photography in North Carolina, capturing references and calling out issues revealed during production. Working closely with the director, cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz and editor Frédéric Thoraval, Johnson identified problems and put solutions in place that maximised the impact and efficiency of effects-driven scenes.
“Having our VFX supervisor on the set was invaluable to the production and postproduction process. Equally important, Kent ensured that the director could move forward with confidence knowing that the shoot would run smoothly, practical footage and CGI would come together seamlessly, and the final film aligned with his creative vision,” added Hattin.
A mix of particularly challenging visual effects helps make inexplicable otherworldly occurrences based in reality all the more powerful.
Digital doppelganger/practical stunt
One of the most difficult sequences combining animation with a practical stunt sees Vance, one of the Grabber’s previous victims, forcefully pulled back from the real world into the spirit world. On the day of the shoot, Johnson supervised the set-up and action as an actor outfitted in stunt rigging was jolted into a dark void, ensuring that the practical footage met Legion’s specifications.
The CG phase of the shot began with Legion making a 3D body scan of the actor, retopologizing the geometry, and then putting the textures onto the digital Vance. Animation enabled artists to manipulate the digital double of the ghost child and achieve the rag-doll physics needed to replicate natural movements. Clothing and hair were simulated to match the actor, and then practical footage and digital assets were seamlessly integrated into the final shot.
While the director’s brief, likening his vision of the shot to someone getting sucked out of an aeroplane, gave Legion the benefit of very specific direction, animation-wise, it was a tough task.
“The challenge was making the digital doppelganger look like he was physically out of control while still directing the animation of his movement. At the same time, the high-velocity effect had to be slow enough to clearly see that the character was flying out of the basement, beyond the confines of the real world and into a dark void,” explained Smalley
Hattin added, “It was a tricky sequence. Having that underlying practical effects with a human actor to combine with the animation enabled us to create an authentic-looking final shot.”
Rebuilding camera moves
“In another complex scene, the biggest challenge was rebuilding camera moves with CGI, and precisely adjusting timing to create a single shot with smooth transitions between the interior floors of a house. Digitally taking over the camera moves enabled us to combine footage of the house with computer-generated interiors and maintain a slow, constant speed as the shot moves from floor to floor. Many a late night was spent working with the film’s editor, Frédéric Thoraval, just trying to add a frame here and take away a frame there – until the sequence finally worked for him editorially,” said Hattin.
CGI and animation replaces practical gags
Legion stepped in with a digital solution during post-production when it was discovered that a shot designed as a practical stunt using monofilament to move a cord didn’t work. Artists digitally rebuilt the cord and rigged it to animate along a similar path as it makes its way through a rolled-up carpet and weaves in-between the bars on a window. Simulated dust was added as the cord pulls against the bars to help sell the authentic look of the derelict basement.
Hattin concludes by saying, “The visual effects for The Black Phone keep the supernatural events on the fringe of reality, heightening the sense of anticipation and fear without crossing over into a magical visual effects language. Working with Scott and our artists to establish that feel and the look of each of the visual effects was a very satisfying creative process.”
VFX Legion created all the visual effects for The Black Phone remotely, using a variety of tools, including Autodesk Maya, Foundry’s Nuke, SideFX Houdini, and Maxon Redshift.