Chicken Bone VFX work on “Westworld” – interview with John Renzulli and Arissa Blasingame

October 2nd, 2020

In this second installment (part I here), it is my pleasure to talk with John Renzulli and Arissa Blasingame of Chicken Bone VFX about their work on the first three seasons of “Westworld”.

Kirill: A few years ago, “The Hobbit” trilogy tried to push HFR [high frame rate] with its hyper-realistic feel, and a lot of film critics where pushing back against that, arguing that film needs that “artistic” layer where the viewers don’t “need” to be right there in the middle of it. What’s your point of view on it? Is it fine that that pinky finger might be missing from one of those dead bodies way out in the background?

John: It needs to be layered, absolutely. It really depends on what we’re trying to do. For certain parts of entertainment world, that hyper-photo realism is essential. There you need that hyper frame rate with 8K level of detail and the focus on creating a feeling that it’s real.

I think that in most of the entertainment platforms, and types of episodics and cinematics that we work on, you see that artistic layer that needs to limit some of that. Some of that comes from an old school love for film, and my personal favorite format is definitely 35mm. Because the celluloid itself is so responsible for helping create feeling and mood in the way that it was historically in the industry, to some degree that filmic quality needs to stay. It doesn’t mean that the resolution doesn’t get higher, and it doesn’t necessarily even mean that the image doesn’t get sharper.

But if you work with color, through careful analysis at the beginning of a project, talking about what resolution is required, and even working at the very end of the pipe to slightly degrade things to some degree – all of that can introduce that “filmic” quality that allow the viewer to have a specific response to the medium. Everybody sits in a slightly different place. Each creative we work with certainly sits in a different place there. But in most of the material that we work on, we find that there’s that artistic layer that somewhat limits the overproduction of something.

Sometimes it can be as simple as a creative choice, or it could be budget. Budget can also inform some of those decisions. More frames per second means more frames to render and more frames to fuss over. So, processes take longer and they inevitably get more expensive, so budget could inform some of that as well.

Arissa: When you’re trying to create something new with a director that has a vision that’s never been done before, you want to get it as close to real as possible. But sometimes there’s no bar to gauge that against. It depends on the task that you have been given, what that collaboration looks like, and where you get to with the final product.

That’s always a little bit of a risk and a gamble. You don’t know how audiences are going to react to something that may be grounded in reality, but definitely has a fantastical side. It’s the risk and the reward of our industry. You can nail it or it might miss the mark, but it’s always a fun collaboration along the way to get to be that creative and work up something that the audience hasn’t seen before.

I’m sure that on “The Hobbit” they were trying something new and breaking the mold. And something like that is received differently across different audiences. And that then informs something in the future that can only get better with time. It’s an exciting spot to be in.

Chicken Bone VFX work on “Westworld”.

Kirill: I was looking at the work you did on “Westworld”, and it’s this interesting mix of “hero” shots, like the one where somebody gets impaled through their chest with a long knife, and something perhaps a bit more mundane like removing wires or adding blurry background on green screen. Do you have a personal preference on the kinds of shots that you like to work on, or is it more of a spectrum of your work in general?

John: We are the kind of company that works on the gamut of the work. We work on every type of work that there is to do. There are certainly things that we specialize in, and those things are definitely sitting at the top as a high-level 2D creative integration. We’re collaborating with people to optimize their vision and put it into a pipeline in the budget, to create photorealistic sentence set extensions and makeup work – those are our sweet spots.

But more generally, we cover the broad gamut of things that there is to do. We’re not interested only in doing the one thing. We’re interested in serving the entire creative vision of the project. We don’t say that we don’t want to do that, or that you can’t afford us, or that we don’t operate that way. We operate in a strategic collaboration in terms of budget and strategy, and in terms of what do we ultimately need to get it to look like. There isn’t anything that we’re afraid to work on. We work in a variety of content, but more specifically a variety of VFX content.

Arissa: Especially in “Westworld”, some of the removals or the invisible effects were just as creatively complicated as that CG knife blade with a lot of gore. That knife is in your face and it’s an obvious thing, but the background plate reconstructions and removing thousands of reflections can be just as rewarding when you really nail it. It gets so complicated and specific, and there is no room for error in that, because you’re recreating reality in a photo real way. So that can be just as challenging. It’s not as glamorous, but the reward is there.

“Westworld” was a fun show in that we got to do a variety of visual effects. It has a lot to offer because it is set in a real-world environment that people can draw on in reality, but that world throws a lot of curveballs at you that make our job very interesting.

Chicken Bone VFX work on “Westworld”.

Kirill: Do you get disappointed or annoyed that most viewers probably don’t realize how much work you did on those “invisible” shots?

Arissa: We’ve been ingrained in invisible effects for so long, and we’re so proud of a lot of that. There’s something to be said for being a company that works on that side of visual effects.

John: I don’t think it bothers me too much. I’m not bothered by the fact that people don’t see that effect. I actually am more excited when they don’t – for that type of work. Being creative and doing things that are in your face – like that knife or another CG object that is nicely integrated but is still an obvious CG object – there’s a certain level of satisfaction that comes with that too.

But the things that get us the most excited are the things that are invisible. If at the end of the day the viewer, whatever kind of viewer they are – critical or not – is not noticing, that is a satisfying thing for us. The level of collaboration that it takes sometimes to get to that integration is quite satisfying.

We’ve talked about the creative vision from the person designing the show, and the more we can get to that without hindering it, the more we can untie their hands so they can get where they need to go – that makes us very excited and it satisfies us along the way.

Kirill: There’s this one thing that I always get sad about when watching the walk-through videos from VFX companies. They start with the original plate with a bunch of empty spaces and green screens, and then they start adding these layers from raw models to the more intricate ones, adding texture and colors and shading and what not, and then just as they’ve built this amazingly perfect dragon, they slap the atmospheric layer on top and you can hardly see anything.

John: That’s interesting [laughs]. We see a lot because we work on things that are often invisible. We see both sides of that fence. In many cases, what we do is sharp, in focus and quite detailed – and we don’t get to hide it behind the smoke. And we know we don’t get to hide it behind the smoke, so there’s a little bit more effort that goes into that to make sure that it’s there. The fact that most people don’t notice it is satisfying.

It doesn’t disappoint me that there are layers of fog put on things sometimes, if it’s serving the creative vision well and if it feels like it’s a tasteful integration.

In some cases, we are trying to hide something. That could be a choice of the creatives, a choice of the VFX process, or a budgetary constraint. I can see how that would be disappointing in some cases, but in other cases it’s a strategy to serve the creative vision, the budget and the frame so the eye goes in the right direction ultimately. Having dragons covered up is a little bit of a shame, because we know exactly what kind of level of detail it takes to get into something like that. But I don’t know that it’s necessarily as disappointing for us. We’re part of that creative process at the beginning, in the middle or at the end, figuring it out together.

Chicken Bone VFX work on “Westworld”.

Kirill: Is there a particular shot or a sequence in “Westworld” that you are particularly proud of?

John: Mine would be the floating bodies in the water. It’s something that we’re very proud. It seems subtle and it took a while to arrive at what it ultimately looks like. There was a lot of collaboration between us and the creatives to try to figure out how many bodies there should be. How deeply are they submerged under the water? Are they face up or face down? Do we need to see more bodies? Let’s see more bodies.

The feeling that the viewer gets when they’re looking at that finished product is subtle and certainly not necessarily the most complicated thing. It sits somewhere in the middle, but it is quite satisfying that we were able to achieve what we did on that. And we did it throughout a sequence, as it wasn’t just a single shot. We’re looking over the shoulder into the sky, and then viewing the big body of water with all the stuff integrated in the background and the people in the mid ground. It’s about all of the shots in that sequence, trying to get to that level of photo-realism and placing bodies in the right places relative to camera placement without actually having a liar of the scene to do that. A lot of work went into that, but the CG knife blades are always fun [laughs].

Arissa: I really liked the sequence we did where we put in a big bear in the middle of the tribesmen gathering with Anthony Hopkins. Everyone is frozen and it was such an aesthetically interesting scene.

The camera is moving around. We have this bear that we’re enlarging. We have a lot of characters and we’re freezing all of the tribesmen. A lot of things had to come into harmony with each other to make that shot work. It was tricky and it was rewarding. I think that the final product looked really great. So that was definitely one of my bigger scale favorites.

In season one we worked a lot with the freezing of the hosts, and we developed that look for the show. It theory it’s a standard effect, but it took us some work to develop that easing into and out of the freeze so it wasn’t jarring to the audience. We were able to implement that effect across seasons. It’s always rewarding to collaborate on establishing something that is use long term.

Chicken Bone VFX work on “Westworld”.

John: If I may add one more comment on the more “invisible” things that we’ve worked on for the show, there is this moment with Bernard in the second season where he’s coming down a path, and then he turns around and looks back down the path, and then sees himself walking into a cave. We loved it.

It was a tricky combination of taking two different photographs and putting them together, so the actor is literally watching himself go into somewhere. But it’s also about finding the right moments and the right timing for the shot, because it’s not your average split screen. The camera is a handheld camera and it’s walking around the actor. There’s desert foliage everywhere and we’re trying to blend these two things together with moving cameras that were shot at different points in different times at the wrong angles. It was taking everything that we knew about VFX and putting it into one shot, with a combination of projections, matte paintings and paint work to remove things, re-timing, splitting, rotoscoping, and layers and layers of that stuff on top of each other.

Jay Worth [VFX supervisor] and Jonathan Nolan [show creator] would often give us that type of work because they know we can figure it out. We’re really good at that level of integration. They might have shot it in a certain way, but then the creative direction has changed and they would ask us to technically solve this problem – and they give us the freedom to do it. I have to thank Jay Worth and Elizabeth Castro [VFX supervisor] for that. They hand us these complicated things, they tell us what the length of it should be, and they let us figure it out.

Then we go, we split it, and put it back in a way that confuses the audience – which is what it’s intended to do. It’s intended to confuse and then redirect their focus in a scene, and evoke a certain feeling at the same time. That’s so satisfying to see all of that stuff come together. When you watch it, it’s quite unassuming. Some people may not even notice that it’s a split to try to make something like that work.

It’s fun, it’s challenging, and there’s a lot of creative freedom in that. I have to thank Jay Worth for giving us a lot of flexibility there.

Chicken Bone VFX work on “Westworld”.

Kirill: Has working in this field ruined the experience for you as a viewer? If you watch a film or a TV show, do you catch yourself thinking how certain shots were achieved, or do you immerse yourself in the story?

Arissa: If the story is captivating and the visual effects are well integrated then I’m watching it wholeheartedly as a viewer and barely notice. I’ll think back on it afterwards and it makes me want to re-watch as a VFX person to study it a little bit more.

John: When it comes to good stories that are told well and have good visual effects, I can immerse myself more in those. And then I might be watching something that could be an interesting story, but I’m taken out of it by effects that are not well integrated. It’s distracting for me, but I think it makes me a better artist and a better supervisor. It can help inform the language that we use to talk to our artists and talk to creatives, and not to draw comparisons.

Every project needs something different, but it’s mostly about how we serve the creative vision of this project, and how do we take what we’re given and turn it into something that works to serve that creative vision. I might often be taken out by something cool like a dragon flying across the screen with fire coming out of its mouth – that can be a little distracting for me as well. But I find that those things also improve the way I approach VFX and help inform the level of quality and reset the bar as we see them come out of these fabulous shops that are leading the industry and doing really great work.

We’re inspired by that, and it encourages us to do a lot of our own leading – leading the way for how things are done in the future for some of these complicated 2D split things. These may or may not be noticed, but the technology, the people, and the approach to how we do some of those things is evolving. It’s getting better.

Going back to your question, I enjoy it more often than not. It’s an educational process – recognizing that I just saw that amazing effect on screen, but I wasn’t distracted. How did they achieve that? It’s something for me to look up to as well.

From the trailer of the upcoming “The Queen’s Gambit”.

And here I’d like to thank John Renzulli and Arissa Blasingame for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of visual effects, and Stephanie Pfingsten for making this interview happen. You can see more of Chicken Bone VFX work on their website and Vimeo. Their next project is the upcoming “The Queen’s Gambit”. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.