When cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchia, ASC, put together his Filmmakers Forum column for the upcoming November issue of American Cinematographer about his experience shooting the stylized live-action-CG hybrid film, Bunraku, he mentioned what an ambitious and experimental movie it was.
When I got to talking with him, Juan also described Bunraku as a sterling example of a filmmaking collaboration. He told me, as he describes in his column, how director Guy Moshe put together a team consisting of himself, co-producer Alex McDowell, production designer Chris Farmer, and visual effects supervisor Oliver Hotz to labor a couple of years to make the movie look like it was taking place in an Origami-style, bending paper universe. The effort was meant to evoke the feeling of watching a theatrical presentation in the style of the Japanese art form of the same name—Bunraku—that the movie pays homage to.
Moshe agrees on the importance of the group effort he enjoyed with his colleagues to achieving the unique vision he had for the film.
“It was a great collaboration—I had my vision for it coming in, but it was a bit abstract at first, which was intended to allow (his team) a certain freedom to explore within the boundaries of the universe I imagined,” Moshe explains. “The key department heads would come in with suggestions based on ideas we discussed, and I would weigh these possibilities and be able to determine the ‘rules’ of this universe. And then, those guys helped me flesh it all out and bring it to life. Our collective effort took the seed that was the original vision and made it really bloom.”
As Juan describes in his column, Bunraku is a colorful, exotic, action-fantasy built around the concept of ancient Japanese puppet theater. It’s filled with delicately choreographed martial arts battles that borrow from tales of the Samurai and the Old West, and a wild, flying camera without boundaries that carries the action from one scene to another in a non-traditional way. The virtual background is based on theatrical stylings and classic art, features unique, constantly changing skies, and was incredibly complicated and technically challenging to create.
In his column, Juan explains how he shot the live action on film on stages in Romania—this was over three years ago and he felt no available digital cameras were up to the task at the time. Since he covers that part of the story in detail, I decided to reach out to two colleagues he achieved unity with—director Guy Moshe, the mastermind of the whole thing, and visual effects supervisor Oliver Hotz, who oversaw the approximately 1,000 digital effects’ shots completed by his own company, Origami Digital of Los Angeles, as well as about 200 shots from other vendors. They explained the creation and evolution of the virtual Bunraku universe.
Filmmakers say the design of the Bunraku universe took years to plan as Moshe and co-producer McDowell (also a production designer by trade) created the “folding universe” idea. Eventually, as his column will tell you, Juan shot the live action in such a way as to establish a unique, stylized color palette of evolving/changing hues through extensive use of lighting gels.
Moshe says the idea was to make the skies look as far from realistic as possible, and let “all the visuals be perceived as fake in the sense of clearly being an alternate reality, or rather, an artificial reality. I wanted it to look colorful, theatrical, holistic, based on early European paintings like German Expressionism, and so on. When I went back and studied that kind of art, I discovered something very interesting—those paintings were broken up into graphic lines. Like them, I wanted a graphic interpretation of reality. That’s where we came up with the theme of Origami art, which relies on geometric lines and also ties in with our story’s Japanese themes. That became the building block for this universe we created.”
Moshe elaborates that the reason for pursuing this kind of a look and style was because of his original goal to achieve cinematically what the Bunraku form of Japanese theater achieves on a stage—to reveal the puppeteer manipulating the unfolding action. Only, in this case, the puppeteer is metaphorical—he is the camera and the camera movement, in essence. So, a universe stylized and beyond anything realistic in this fashion was the proper environment for making this illusion work cinematically.
“I wanted every frame to reflect this concept—that as an audience member, you are constantly aware you are watching a show,” the director explains. “I wanted the cinematic puppeteer to constantly be felt.”
While Ruiz-Anchia shot the movie, Hotz and his team at Origami Digital worked to create the environment and match colors and themes to the live-action imagery. A key part of this mission involved an ongoing, evolving pre-visualization process on location, even after production was underway. Ron Frankel’s company, Proof Inc. of Los Angeles, under the direction of Proof’s pre-visualization supervisor, Jotham Herzon, created original pre-viz during the film’s lengthy development phase, which began the process of creating a template for the Bunraku world. But that visualization process was ongoing and continued unabated once production began.
Indeed, for certain complicated sequences, filmmakers employed a process of creating some kind of previz or post-viz piece after almost every take on set to make sure the final effect would work as they envisioned.
“We had a couple artists with me in Romania to do pre-viz on location, even on set as we figured things out,” Hotz elaborates. “There is one specific sequence that takes place with a character descending multiple staircases, fighting his way through a prison that is meant to appear as if it was shot in one long continuous take. For practical reasons (the staircase set was built for two stories but the story required the character to descend four stories), we determined that the sequence had to be shot in multiple passes and stitched together in post. To ensure that we were getting the plates needed to complete the shot, takes that Guy liked were composited together on set before each setup was struck. That gave us an opportunity to see what the final shot would look like while we were filming.”
The skies, in particular, were influenced by the famous paintings of Lyonel Feininger, and Moshe gives Hotz and his team great credit for adapting the particularly hyper-stylized concept and making it come to life with computer animation.
“Those skies alone took months, especially because we were creating them to work in a 360-degree universe,” says Moshe. “A lot of material you perceive inside a green-screen environment is created by light reflections. There is no real matter in a CG environment—you can’t type in ‘wood’ and get something that looks like wood, or iron or plastic. Instead, the only way to achieve it is by making a surface reflect light in a similar way, because everything we perceive in reality is just light reflection. Therefore, to make something look real, you need to manipulate things based on photographic reference and real-life situations, and then you mimic the shades and materials and how they behave in real light to make it seem real so the eye cannot tell the difference. However, in our movie, nothing is supposed to be real or made out of typical materials. We have a forest of paper trees, for example. No one has ever see a forest made of paper trees obviously. So there was already a challenge there in trying to make something look like real matter, but then stay true to our concept in which everything needs to be fake as though it were made for a theatrical stage. Just thinking of it can make your mind bend.
“Then, in addition, we had it all intentionally lit from multiple directions in order to create a deliberate, but beautiful, artificiality. So our sky emits some kind of avant-garde theatrical or circus type light, with two or three sources of light from every direction. That’s the work Juan did on set and it was gorgeous, but then, Oliver had to also do it with visual effects and spread it on an entire universe. Since there really are no points of reference, we had to determine it on a per shot basis.
“And then, Oliver also had to deal with technical issues about tracking every shot and removing greenscreens, which were more complicated because we shot on film and there was a lot of grain. Plus, he also had to deal with so many colors—we had lighting so intricate and specific that he had to recreate the same type of light on the horizon in a 2½-D kind of way. That’s very complicated to do with 3D tools, so I really have to commend Oliver.”
Moshe, as director, and Ruiz-Anchia, as cinematographer, were therefore far more involved in working with Hotz throughout the visual effects process than is typical, simply by virtue of often having to put their heads together and experiment with different CG looks until they pushed into territory that felt right to Moshe. That came after Hotz was hotly involved on set during the shooting phase in order to literally document each one of Ruiz-Anchia’s lighting setups for reference, among other things.
The other important innovation that Hotz’s team arranged for the production involved wiring multiple stages at MediaPro Studios in Romania with a live video conferencing tool. Since two or more units were working simultaneously throughout production, the system gave Moshe a way to communicate with Ruiz-Anchia and others, and see what they were shooting, even when they were on separate stages.
“I guess you would call it a form of video assist, so that Guy could always monitor shots and give advice to and chat with the cinematographer,” says Hotz. “Before flying to Romania, we had developed a system for cataloging set data notes that linked the information with a recording from each camera feed. It’s based on a technology platform we developed at Origami called LOCO—in this case, we called it LOCO DVR. When we realized there would constantly be two units shooting with multiple cameras, we leveraged the scalability of our system and were able to provide Guy a way of essentially being in two places at once.
“We had a little visual effects desk at each stage, and Guy could walk to it and talk on a laptop to whomever he needed to talk to on the other stage and see exactly what they were shooting on that stage. We’ve had incarnations of it for prior work, but here, we geared it solely to provide interconnectivity on multiple stages. We could stream one or multiple cameras to any place the director was, either way. The editor (Glenn Garland), who was in Romania, also had access to those feeds, and each take was automatically archived on the server and linked to the appropriate set notes for him to review.”
Hotz suggests this method of collaboration on a relatively low-budget movie in a stylized, hybrid, fantasy genre is quite unusual, but turned out to be a meaningful and educational experience.
“I wasn’t on shows like Sin City or 300, but from what I know about such work, usually they have dedicated visual effects supervisors who supervise teams that each do particular parts of the job,” he says. “Here, we wanted all of us together—not just myself. We wanted our artists at Origami sitting with the director, everybody interacting and contributing ideas. That let us get to a result quicker while, at the same time, giving our creative team the freedom of exploration.”