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The Lovely Bones lies between heaven and earth

Joe Letteri, senior VFX supervisor at Weta Digital, talks about the other wordly components of The Lovely Bones.

At a paltry 140ish minutes (including credits), one might suspect Peter Jackson of short-changing audiences this time around. His last four directorial outings average 184 minutes, or 220 if you prefer director’s cuts. However, cinema operators and those lacking sufficient posterior padding won’t be the only ones rejoicing.

Letteri hasn’t seen the finished film, and last saw a rough cut about two months ago, which is an indication of how busy Weta has been these last few months, spending more time on The Lovely Bones after its release was put back and completing Avatar.

At the height of its busy year, Weta had around 950 people working on TLB and Avatar. Quietening down for Christmas, and having shipped those two films out into the world, they’re down to around 750, most of them focused on the first TinTin and pre-production for The Hobbit.

Weta is known for its R&D work, developing software to meet the requirements of its film work and the demands of Peter Jackson but, according to Letteri, there was limited need for that on TLB. Most of the effort was directed to achieving the look, rather than developing new technology or software.

Even so, the finished film contains over 600 effects shots, most of them in Susie’s in-between world, which kept a lot of people busy for over a year.

The look of the in-between world was something that was hard to pin down. Weta started with little existing reference, unlike for Lord of the Rings and King Kong where there was a wealth of previous material to select from, adapt or reject. It was a journey of exploration and discovery, which is perhaps appropriate for creating the afterlife.

VFX supervisor Christian Rivers said, “The look we came up with is what I would call super-real; it’s heightened and vibrant and has more life than the normal world, which has a grittier feel … Peter and Fran’s wish was that it would feel like the stuff of dreams.”

A gazebo features in multiple incarnations, in a mall, in a watery glade, eventually as disintegrating structure.

Imagery shifts back and forth between objects that exist in both the real world and Susie’s afterlife, referencing events and memories, existing both as real objects (actual props) and CGI objects.

The ships in bottles that Susie’s father makes are one example, seen as real props that Susie and her father work with while she is alive and, in CGI, as part of her witnessing of her father’s distress after her death.

“We wanted to walk a fine line so that the ships wouldn’t look like blown-up miniatures but so that they also wouldn’t look quite like real ships. We worked to come up with just the right look, and then we came up with animation that would allow them to smash apart like real ships run up onto rocks.”

The cornfield near Susie’s school also appears in the afterlife, transforming into a lush, fertile, golden barley field that morphs into a waving sea into which Susie is submerged. “Peter had seen some artwork early on where Susie was running through a field that became an ocean and he fell in love with that,” Rivers said. “So, we had to come up with a way to create it! Ultimately, we shot Saoirse in a water tank splashing around, then we created the whole rest of the image digitally.”

Sometimes when you watch shots you’re aware of the components, even if it’s not a flashy shot of someone flying or something occuring that you know can’t actually happen with FX input.

Shots like the ones of Susie in the water are totally convincing, but they are a half-dozen amongst 600. We could have spent a long time asking Joe to dissect any number of shots in the film, in terms of how they were put together, but settled for a catch-all, and asked whether any shots were especially challenging.

“All of heaven,” he said.

So, only about 90% of the job, then.

During the course of the film, many of the FX shots were reworked or replaced as decisions changed about what would best serve the look in any one scene. This led to knock-on changes in other shots and scenes, so a fair amount of those 600 shots have been done more than once.

Getting the right look for each shot has required a combination of approaches. There’s a reasonable amount of conventional blue-screen shots, for example where a character looks through the windows of a doll’s house. There are many more where several elements are combined to stunning effect.

Some shots were prepped as pre-viz, giving the actors and director a feel for what they would eventually be sharing the screen with; others have come from shooting the actor first and then working to build other elements around the performance.

Peter Jackson makes his trademark cameo appearance, in a sequence that contains other references to his oeuvre. He is known as a director who likes to both prepare well and try things out on set, so Weta often worked at both ends of a shot’s creation, prepping ideas and then either fine tuning or starting over once the actors had done their stuff.

Although Susie’s in-between world dominates the film visually, simply because of its visual strength, telling the story always remains the focus. The film has received mixed reviews, including some criticisms of the use of Weta’s visuals, but ultimately it’s one person’s vision of what an afterlife might look like. With a few hundred Weta Digital staff and computers beavering away to bring that vision to life.

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