TORONTO: August 26, 2009… Mr. X, one of Canada’s leading creative visual effects houses, recently completed work for director Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, which opens in theatres Aug. 28. Based on Elliot Tiber’s autobiographical book, the film is a coming-of-age story set in the social upheaval of 1969. The narrative follows the progress of a young man returning home to help out at his parents’ motel in upstate New York. There he becomes involved in organizing the seminal Woodstock concert. Mr. X completed visual effects for the film, including faithful recreations of the concert venue as it takes shape, and a visually stunning 10-minute acid trip sequence.
VFX supervisor Brendan Taylor led a team of 45 artists at the Mr. X facilities in Toronto and Montreal over a period of eight months, delivering 138 shots on the project. Previously, Taylor had collaborated with Ang Lee on Lust, Caution for a series of detailed shots recreating WWII-era Hong Kong and Shanghai. The work was completed at Mr. X in 2007. "I do a lot of research for sequences like these. I want to find out everything I can about the time and place. Getting the details right does a huge amount to set the mood for a film," explained Taylor.
"At Mr. X we’ve created a unique environment where we engage with the filmmakers," explained company founder, Dennis Berardi, "Our team leaders work with the director to interpret and understand the work. That vision permeates the culture here for the time that we’re on the job and informs our work, both technically and artistically."
The Acid Trip – Making an Inner Experience Visible
One of the film’s most memorable moments depicts an LSD experience. Julian Sancton in Vanity Fair called it "the best visualization I’ve ever seen of an acid trip." Movieline says it is "a stunner [with] overlapping pastel lighting effects, green-screen animation, shifting film speeds, lens trickery and undulating CGI…"
"LSD affects each of the five senses," explained Taylor, "and we needed to portray this overwhelming experience using visuals alone." The acid trip begins with the main character, Elliot, inside a van mesmerized by a painting, which appears to come alive as he watches it.
"We wanted the ‘trip’ to come on slowly – to gently coax the audience into the hallucinogenic experience," said Taylor. "In our research, we found that one of the common things users describe is a definitive ‘pulsing’ when they are on acid." The team at Mr. X used this pulsing effect on the colors in the painting. At first the colors start to move very subtly. This was accomplished by keying out individual colours – red, turquoise or yellow – and then rhythmically applying carefully calibrated displacements on them.
There were three different visual motifs within the acid trip sequence. First, there is the scene with the painting in the van. Then Elliot leaves the van and the effects of the drug really begin to take hold. Finally, we come to the climactic scene where the concert stage transforms into a giant nebula that spins out towards the audience.
"It could be argued that this is an acid trip, so the rules of optical physics don’t apply," observed Taylor. "But we felt that if the imagery wasn’t rooted in reality, the audience wouldn’t believe it."
The night scenes during the acid trip made use of a water shader written by Jim Goodman, a member of the programming team at Mr. X. "It was very effective – especially for adding reflections which enhanced the otherworldliness of the images," said Taylor.
The nebula shots, presented a number of challenges for Mr. X compositor Kris Carson. "Ang emphasized that these images had to feel organic. Kris had to assemble 100 disparate elements. Each element and the way it interacts with its surrounding elements is incredibly complex. Yet, when looked at as a whole, there is a beautiful simplicity to it."
As the main actor moves about this drug-induced wonderland, he was shot at 48 frames per second. These shots where then slowed to 36 frames per second, "just to make it feel a little slower than life, but not quite" while the hills around him undulate with the crowds "riding" them.
"I am really proud of the acid trip sequence," said Taylor. "Ang wanted something that was an ecstatic revelation, not something frightening. This is a key moment in the story arc for the lead character’s personal development. Ang wanted to bring the audience right into Elliot’s experience, and to feel that they were on an acid trip themselves."
During preproduction for Taking Woodstock, Brendan Taylor joined Ang Lee scouting locations in New York. The actual site of the concert was not available, and even if it had been, it no longer looks the same as it did during the summer of 1969. "We were involved early on, which is very much the model for Mr. X in general," said Berardi.
The concert venue is presented three times during the film. The audience first sees it in its undisturbed rural splendour. The second time the site appears it is undergoing a transformation as the stage and concert infrastructure are being constructed. Finally, it appears as it looked during the three-day concert, drenched in rain and awash in mud. "Each of these moments reflect the stages of the main character’s own growth," said Taylor. "The director wanted the final concert venue scenes to be reminiscent of Vietnam, the defining conflict of that time."
Recreating the site required a wealth of historically accurate detail, especially with respect to the crowds who numbered in the hundreds of thousands. To create the throngs of hippies at Woodstock, the artists at Mr. X used a combination of an in-house particle-based Houdini script, and a library of crowd footage, which Taylor had shot in front of a greenscreen.
"Ang wanted a very natural-looking, historically correct take on this. He didn’t want it to look synthetic in any way. But of course this is a work of art, so not only did we need to be photoreal, we also had to be believably stylistic in the context of the director’s intentions for this film," explained Berardi. "Digital work needs to respect the photographic elements so that it fits seamlessly with the director’s narrative weave."
Focus Features’ Taking Woodstock directed by Ang Lee, stars Demitri Martin, Dan Fogler and Jonathan Groff. Taking Woodstock opens in theatres August 28. Along with the facility’s work on Taking Woodstock, Mr. X provided visual effects on Ang Lee’s previous film, Lust, Caution, and recently completed work for Fast and Furious. Currently, the facility has a full slate of productions, including Amelia, which is scheduled for release October 23. For information visit www.mrxfx.com.
About Mr. X, Inc.
Founded by Dennis Berardi in 2001, Mr. X is a digital studio specializing in feature film animation and visual effects. By collaborating with filmmakers from pre-production through post, Mr. X helps to define the look and feel of a film. Mr. X has facilities in Toronto and Montreal with a combined staff of over 100 filmmakers, artists and programmers. For more information, visit www.mrxfx.com (http://www.mrxfx.com).