ZERO VFX: The Magic You Won't See In The Magnificent Seven
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Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven plays off the same premise as the 1960 original – a small town enlists the aid of seven unlikely outlaws, who unpack their shootin’ irons to free the residents from the oppression of a corrupt enemy force. The difference here is in the modernity of the approach: Fuqua exchanges old-school derring-do for contemporary attitude, and the shooting location of 1960s Mexico for the rugged landscapes of Santa Fe, Texas. Or so it seems.
2016’s The Magnificent Seven may look like it takes place in the arid landscapes of Texas, but the production actually took place in the humid wetlands of Louisiana’s Baton Rouge. It was Boston- and LA-based ZERO VFX that enabled this transformation, working as lead vendor to create digital landscapes that mirrored the CinemaScope environments of old – not to mention a variety of other effects designed to enhance the film’s narrative.
“We delivered 700 shots across the movie, making it our largest project to date,” begins ZERO’s Sean Devereaux, VFX supervisor on The Magnificent Seven. “And despite that, this isn’t a film about VFX – it’s gritty, it’s thrilling, it was shot on film with anamorphic lenses, and it was vital that none of it felt digital or enhanced.”
“We had to deliver massive explosions, hundreds of cowboys on horseback, and gorgeous cinematic horizons. But we’re called ZERO because we like to do invisible work, and that’s exactly what was delivered here.”
The ZERO team was involved in The Magnificent Seven almost from day one, pitching in while the script was yet to be finalized. This early involvement was the result of the relationship Devereaux and team have built with Antoine Fuqua, having previously delivered similar VFX work for The Equalizer and Southpaw.
During the initial stages, ZERO worked with Fuqua and production designer, Derek Hill, to establish the film’s cinematic style. Reference was made to the 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, but also to the film on which it was based – Akira Kurosawa’s genre-defining Seven Samurai.
"Seven Samurai was a huge source of inspiration in terms of tone," says Devereaux. “The town in that film was beautiful and felt worth protecting, and that became a focal point of the early production work and planning for The Magnificent Seven ’s Rose Creek. We wanted to design a location that viewers felt was worth fighting for – a little slice of paradise."
ZERO carried out an extensive amount of pre-production work on The Magnificent Seven to achieve this goal: “We did more work prior to shooting on than on any film we’ve worked on previously,” says Devereaux. “We created lookdev, animation, stills, previs and tests for every aspect of the story. We even mapped out the battles, where each character would be and when, and went through hundreds of iterations of mountains, landscapes, skies, munitions, towns and buildings, working to establish the right look.”
ZERO also helped scout locations for principal photography. The decision was ultimately made to shoot an hour outside of Baton Rouge, a cheaper location that would also allow for the VFX transformation into Santa Fe, Texas that was to come.
"Baton Rouge has lots of thick, dense vegetation and foliage, while the high deserts of Santa Fe offer majestic vistas and tall peaks,” says Devereaux. “We created a hybrid of both that we affectionately referred to as ‘Santa Fe, Louisiana’.”
Santa Fe, Louisiana
Believability didn’t just mean sweeping vistas full of mountains and fiery skies. The real challenge came in the logistics of consistency: ZERO needed to make sure these digital Santa Fe replications constantly occupied the same space in the background, and that their dimensions remained correct in every shot.
ZERO found a solution in building a full-3D digital recreation of Rose Creek, supported by high-quality LIDAR scans of every on-set building. Between the LIDAR data, the physical set blueprints and high-resolution snapshots, ZERO's photo-real Rose Creek replica matched the real location down to the last creaky floorboard.
Using this data, ZERO was able to accurately position the digital mountains and other background elements without having them feel inconsistent. The data also proved useful in allowing director, Antoine Fuqua, to make decisions on shots long after principal photography had wrapped.
"If we hadn’t followed this preparatory process, guessing where these mountains should have sat would have been a nightmare," says Devereaux. “Placing a digital mountain this close to a set is one of the hardest things I've done in my career. It took a lot of thought and iteration to find the right scale and placement, but that on-set preparation made for a much simpler workflow in post.”
In order to build out the beautiful skyscapes that surrounded the background elements, ZERO shot more than a terabyte of reference footage. This served as the basis for many of the slow sunsets and blazing blue skies that sought to replicate those of Santa Fe.
The direction of light was also important to note: production assistants captured footage of the sunlight from every possible angle during production. This meant that the VFX team wouldn’t have to guess how light would fall on the assets created for the film during post – they could just reference this footage. This enabled ZERO to quickly and realistically light everything from the distant mountains to dust clouds billowing from digital explosions.
During post-production, ZERO brought art director Sean Ryan Jennings on board to fine-tune the digital town and environmental aesthetic. "It was incredibly helpful to have that voice to support the choices we were making," affirms Devereaux. "We had someone that knew what Antoine wanted – who literally drew the plans for the town himself, no less – so could direct on the look and feel that we wanted to achieve.”
The results speak for themselves, the glorious environments transporting audiences back to a bygone era of the American south.
ZERO took an abrupt turn from landscapes for some of our biggest scenes - an action-packed showdown sequence, which Devereaux calls “the most epic, insane, battle in the history of Westerns.”
“It’s heart-pumping, jaw-dropping, and it will literally shake your soul," he asserts. "It’s all about taking that sense of Western adventure to the next level, and the result is an unrelenting, character-driven, and freaking huge battle scene."
In order to make this scene feel as exciting as possible ZERO delivered a variety of full background replacements, digital explosions, whizzing bullets, muzzle flashes, flying arrows, and bullet hits. ZERO worked to establish these effects within the physical realm by adding dust kick-up, splintering wood, and other nuanced effects.
"They’re subtle additions, but each of these digital effects add a real sense of place and grittiness to the film," says Devereaux. “What makes me really proud – as it does with all of our invisible VFX projects at ZERO – is that you really can’t tell that we were there. I think the final results are so believable, and so seamless, that you wouldn’t know we made this film now and not 50 years ago.”
Moseying into the sunset
The body of work presented a huge milestone for the ZERO team from start to end – and all executed while simultaneously delivering on 2016’s Ghostbusters remake and The Do-Over, with more than 1,000 total shots between the three projects sitting in ZERO’s queue.
"It’s even more impressive when you consider that every one of our 700 shots in The Magnificent Seven is a big, meaty, juicy bite of steak!" says Devereaux. “The ZERO team worked incredibly hard to tackle this work, collaborating across the studios in Boston and Venice, California to deliver efficient, high-quality results.”
And, although The Magnificent Seven cost more than $100 million to produce, less than five percent of the budget was spent on visual effects: a huge saving on high-end effects for a production of this magnitude.
"Everyone had the opportunity to really push themselves and do remarkable work on this project," concludes Devereaux. "It just goes to show once again that ZERO is capable of being that all-important addition to a filmmaker’s toolbox – we can help storytellers tell the stories they want despite physical restrictions.
“That’s what we love being a part of at ZERO. It really is our thing.”
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