Atomic Fiction Brings New VFX Methodology To "Welcome to Marwen"
This image released by Universal Pictures shows Steve Carell in "Welcome to Marwen." (Ed Araquel/Universal Pictures via AP)
  • LOS ANGELES
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Atomic Fiction (which was acquired by Deluxe Entertainment in July and then made part of Method Studios) handled the lion’s share of VFX shots for Welcome to Marwen (Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures) which is based on the true story of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), who, after a violent attack that shatters his body and memories, heals himself through the power of his artistic imagination. He creates a meticulous 1/6th scale town, Marwen, which he populates with doll alter-egos of people from his life, and photographs it to craft a stunning narrative. Continuing his tradition of pushing cinematic boundaries, writer-director-producer Robert Zemeckis puts audiences inside Hogencamp’s imagination for 46 minutes of the movie.

It was 2013 when Zemeckis first brought the script to his long-time VFX collaborator Kevin Baillie, with an edict. “Actors’ faces are their instruments, just like a violin is to a musician, and we need to feel every bit of their fidelity through the dolls,” Zemeckis said. “How are we going to do this?”

“Traditional motion capture wasn’t an option, so our original idea was to shoot the actors in costume and augment them with digital doll joints,” said Baillie (co-founder of Atomic Fiction, now Method Studios). “That failed horribly, but it inspired us to try the opposite – instead of sticking CG parts on actors, we’d try augmenting the CG dolls with actor parts. We fused lit live-action footage of Steve Carell’s facial performance with the underlying doll structure, and lo and behold, it worked!”

Baillie and Atomic Fiction then developed a proprietary technique to create a seamless blend of actor and doll – for all 17 ‘dollified’ characters. The process of bringing the dolls to life involved motion capture for their body performances and beauty-lit footage shot from Alexa 65s, which were also mo-capped, to drive the dolls’ faces and the CG cameras. Intense teamwork between all departments during pre-production enabled the filmmakers to build the Marwen universe in the Unreal real-time engine. Using a custom iPad application cinematographer C. Kim Miles then was able to pre-light all of the mocap scenes before a single frame was shot on stage. This virtual production process rallied all of the physical departments around a common cause and let filmmakers wrap each day’s shoot with final cameras, actor performances, and lighting that they knew would look great in the finished shots.

Each doll started as a 3D scan of the actor, was adapted into doll form and digitally sculpted by Atomic Fiction. Miniature effects supervisor Dave Asling and dollmaking artisans at Creation Consultants then digitally engineered the sculpts, 3D printed, molded, pressure-cast, hand-painted, and hand-finished them. Atomic Fiction created fully rigged, fleshed-out CG versions matching their physical counterparts down to every tuft of fuzz on their costumes. The miniature Marwen town was meticulously handcrafted by a model-making team who packed it with scavenged and created objects. It was 3D scanned, photographed, and turned into an accurate digital Marwen at Atomic Fiction.

With lighting, depth-of-field and face composites all being integral to the result, Atomic Fiction flattened the VFX workflow and called for all departments to work together in parallel so that Zemeckis could review footage in full context from take one. Using digital versions of traditional photographic tools such as tilt shift lenses and split diopters, artists were able to maintain Hogancamp’s tactile photographic look.

Baillie said, “Bob’s vision was to take the self-healing narrative that Mark created through his photography and faithfully recreate it. The result is that all of it feels alive because, in part, it actually is.”

With Atomic Fiction focused on creating the Marwen world, Baillie enlisted Method Studios to transform Vancouver’s Railtown into New York’s Meatpacking District, blend performance takes with digital morphing effects (which Zemeckis called “blorphs”), composite bluescreen window comps in Mark’s trailer, and craft a unique look for Mark’s drunken flashbacks.

Method VFX supervisor Sean Konrad said, “The scenes in which Mark is trying to recall a past trauma, but his memory is hazy, were really fun to work on and also rather complex. We created this heavily stylized, very dreamlike feeling by stitching together elements from three or four different plates, and fading portions of those layers in and out, giving the audience a sort of drunk feeling.”

Welcome to Marwen stars Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Eiza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie, Merritt Wever, and Janelle Monáe. 

VFX breakdown
Welcome to Marwen has 655 VFX shots, all captured through physical or virtual Arri Alexa 65s cameras. Atomic Fiction (now Method Studios) handled 509 of them, creating the digital Marwen world and the CG doll versions of 17 characters. Framestore handled 82 VFX shots, focused on the opening sequences of “Hogie” crash-landing a P-40 and suffering a Nazi attack, and Method Studios handled 64 VFX shots, focused on performance blending and turning sequences shot in Vancouver into New York City. 

Creation Consultants, led by Asling, fabricated all miniatures, including 24 hero dolls comprising 17 characters, plus backup duplicates of the leads and a set of stunt dolls, two versions of the town of Marwen – each including 14 buildings around a courtyard with a fountain; the P-40 aircraft and all 1/6th scale vehicles used in Marwen, including a DeLorean built out of Legos.

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