Visual effects are often taken for granted nowadays. Pretty much every horror film relies on them, and yet we know surprisingly little about how how the masters behind these vital visual elements apply them to our favourite movies.
Things have come a long way since the primitive (though still fun and effective at the time) techniques applied in the 1980’s with films like Evil Dead. And when director Henry Hobson was looking for effects to create the realism needed for forthcoming zombie drama Maggie, he turned to the British effects veterans Cinesite for assistance.
The film, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin is a zombie flick with a difference. It follows Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger), a father that stays by his daughter’s side as she transitions into zombie form during the outbreak of a killer contagion.
Hobson explained his decision behind choosing Cinesite for the task, a company that has worked on films such as Skyfall, World War Z and the Harry Potter films:
“Coming from a visual effects world, I was very conscious of its potential benefits. With nearly 250 shots in the film, I was very keen to find a partner which understood the nuances of filmmaking and how we could create Maggie’s world.
“We had limitations in time and budget and we didn’t have a VFX supervisor on the shoot, so Cinesite solved many problems.
“The landscapes were a delicate balance of creating a dead world, whilst maintaining a natural look. VFX Supervisor Aymeric Perceval and the VFX team worked miracles and blew my expectations away, understand- ing the needs of the film and the powerful role that VFX played in the drama.”
Several of Cinesite’s shots establish the eerie and abandoned “dead world”, which has survived the zombie virus apocalypse. It’s the usual deal with abandoned houses, burnt out cars and lots of debris. Many of these locations were created using a clever technique of using a series of 2D cards placed in 3D space. Layers were projected onto these cards to create realistic new locations and sky, with authentic parallax as the camera moves.
One shot, of an abandoned freeway interchange, is entirely computer generated. Again, layers were projected onto geometry in a software called Nuke, to create the various levels of road. Atmospheric elements including flying newspapers and the addition of a truck gave life and realism to the finished shot.
As previously mentioned, Maggie is a more sombre zombie film so it was important that the zombie effects were subtle. Much of the zombie look is achieved using make up but ultimately but VFX were utilised to add an extra dimension of realism.
Weeks pass between the moment Maggie is infected to when she finally loses control, so she succumbs to the infection very gradually. The disease spreads slowly from the wound via a network of dark veins, progressively covering her arm, shoulder, neck and finally, face. Her eyes gradually cloud and her skin begins to decompose.
To achieve the effect on screen, Abigail Breslin’s head was rebuilt digitally, using photographic reference taken on set. Cinesite’s team could then track the movement of Breslin’s face using the painted veins as markers.
As the budget wasn’t available to create fully CG skin, Layers of displacement were sculpted and various textures of veins, bruises and scabs were created to apply areas of disease progression over the original make up base. The end result was dramatic yet understated, suiting the film’s tone.
You can get up close and personal to the hard work that went into finessing Maggie when it is released in UK cinemas. It opens nationwide on 24th July.