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machine gun kelly on fire human torch style in project power vfx shot

Project Power VFX Artists Share How They Pulled Off the Netflix Original’s Superb Visuals

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Project Power’s VFX is clearly one of the stars of the Netflix original movie, alongside Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The movie, which features a cop, teenage drug dealer, and ex-soldier teaming up to track down the source of an illegal street drug that gives its users super powers, is built for high octane visual effects.

Framestore, a noted VFX shop with offices worldwide, took the reins for Project Power‘s VFX duties. One might know the VFX outfit best for its past and upcoming work on Avengers: Endgame, Wonder Woman 1984, and Disney‘s live action Mulan.

We were lucky to steal some time away from Ivan Moran, overall Project Power VFX supervisor, as well as Project Power VFX supervisors Joao Sita and Matthew Twyford. They shed some light on the explosive (literally) visuals, detailed the technological and technical challenges they faced, and talked about what super powers they’d like to take on if Project Power ever gets a sequel from the streaming giant.

Ivan Moran, Overall (Project Power) VFX Supervisor

joseph gordon-levitt gets shot but invulnerability saves the day in this project power vfx shot

FICTIONPHILE: Tell us a little about yourself and your path to your current position?

IVAN: I started my career over 25 years ago in Sydney, Australia, working in TV commercials before joining Australia’s leading broadcast design house called EXTRO Design. That experience was quite unique as I was surrounded by incredibly talented graphic designers who would storyboard these beautiful sequences that I essentially brought to life digitally. That taught me so much about composition, colour and design fundamentals that I had never really learnt before. In addition, I did every part of the execution process from digital modelling right through to compositing into live action plates so I unknowingly built experience with every facet of a visual effects department pipeline – and I would ultimately lead teams of hundreds through decades later. My father was in mining so we travelled a lot when I was young and I have always had wanderlust as part of my psyche. After moving into film compositing at Animal Logic in Sydney, I worked in New Zealand, Amsterdam, London, New York, Montreal and Los Angeles rising up the ranks as Lead Compositor, Compositing Supervisor and ultimately Visual Effects Supervisor on the production (studio) side. 

FICTIONPHILE: I read that LED lighting played a part in Project Power’s VFX. Could you explain its role and how its implementation differed from other projects?

IVAN: We wanted to shoot as much practically as possible and augment the actors digitally rather than replace them entirely when it came to the big action moments. The single biggest challenge of digital fire on a real human is the lighting problem. How to illuminate the actor with interactive light that would play as light from CG fire is not trivial but absolutely crucial to achieving true reality. I devised a network of LED strips that formed a “suit” that could be programmed with looping fire animations as well as being able to control the whole body of them to “extinguish and re-ignite” Machine Gun Kelly (the actor playing Newt on fire) live on set. LED body technology has been used before but what was groundbreaking and an industry first on Project Power was having the entire suit with wires and cables physically embedded in the many layers of full body prosthetics so we could keep as much of the real actor’s performance on screen. 

FICTIONPHILE: I read that you were actually on set for the filming. How closely did the director and cinematographer work with you and how did that influence the final result?

IVAN: I was involved very early on before prep and spent a considerable amount of time with the directors concepting and devising pseudo-science around each of the powers so we could arrive to prep with a clear visual portfolio and concentrate solely on execution. In prep the HoDs (Heads of Department) of the various film crew departments meet regularly to discuss and plan. I worked very closely with stunts, SPFX and prosthetics through prep and during shooting as we always wanted something real to give my vfx crew perfect reference to be able to achieve the visceral reality the digital effects required to feel grounded and truly believable. The cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, and I worked extremely closely together discussing camera formats, sky replacement techniques, camera styles. We have to innately trust each other, it’s an extremely collaborative environment.

FICTIONPHILE: What’s one of the Project Power VFX shots that was especially hard to pull off, whether because of technical demands or artistic hurdles?

IVAN: Art’s Power was incredibly challenging to design, devise, shoot and ultimately execute in vfx from a technical and storytelling perspective. It was really important to the directors and I that we clearly visually told the physics that was happening to produce the explosion which is one of the reasons why it is in slow motion, and also because slow motion is just cool. My pseudoscience theory for the movie was that the Power pill amplifies subatomic vibrations within us (and remnant animal DNA from animals past and present) and in the case of Art these manifest into powerful infrasonic waves that emanate out of him and cause liquid water to vaporize (steam) and ultimately ionize (plasma). Have you ever microwaved two grape halves? Definitely DO NOT but you can check it out on YouTube. Waves turn the water in the grapes into plasma, same theory. There is also a neat animal reference for this as well believe it or not which Art alludes to earlier in the movie: The Pistol Shrimp. Check it out on YouTube too. The reason this power was so tricky was because if I closed my eyes I could imagine the sequence in my head but for everyone involved, from the directors to all of the film crew, actors and my VFX team, they would all look me at various times and ask: “Ivan, this is ummm, this is gonna work right? It’s gonna look cool right?” I had to trust my gut, imagination and experience more than ever before in my entire career. 

FICTIONPHILE: That fire FX looked so real. How did you pull off such a level of authenticity? Feel free to get technical–our audience likes details.

IVAN: Two things really: true interactive light on Machine Gun Kelly (achieved by use of the LED suit I designed and discussed earlier) and real fire reference in every shot. I worked closely with our immensely talented Stunt Choreographer and Second Unit Director, Kevin Scott, and we broke down Machine Gun Kelly’s incredibly terrifying performance into beats which we repeated with a real stuntman on fire. As a VFX Supervisor, I always find it easier to copy reality rather than try to imagine it from scratch which can lead to an uncanny valley type unreality with 100% cgi shots that can become tricky to pinpoint exactly why they don’t quite look completely real. Every shot in the fire sequence has real fire somewhere in the frame (on walls etc) to match colour temperature, exposure. That’s why it looks so real, you’re copying not guessing. Also what does an earth fire look like on a man leaping out of a chair, fighting, swinging punches at camera, grappling, running down hallway, dropping through hole in the floor? I don’t think any of us know. So we repeated all of those performance beats with Tim, our real stunt man on fire and copied it digitally. This is why the sequence has that gritty visceral reality to it that is the key to why it is so terrifyingly effective.

FICTIONPHILE: If you were given input on a sequel, what super power FX would you most like to tackle?

IVAN: We soooooo wanted to do Cheetah speed. The Quicksilver scene in X-Men is genius and we wanted to pay homage to it and up the ante and do something even more daring. Just couldn’t fit it into the movie but if there is ever a sequel I think this one would be probably as groundbreaking as the fire sequence.

FICTIONPHILE: How many in-the-chair hours did Project Power’s VFX take in total for the team?

IVAN: Ooooo….let’s see, 100-250 artists over 18 months post…half a million is my gut?

FICTIONPHILE: Did the team learn anything from your Project Power VFX work that you’ll be bringing forward on new FX projects?

IVAN: That I’ll never let you rest in the pursuit of excellence. As I always tell my teams:  “If it was easy, everyone would do it.”

FICTIONPHILE: What are you most proud of from the final product?

IVAN: That I can challenge even my most savvy peers to guess what is real and what is not and they still can’t get it right! Is the ship real? In only about 5 shots. Is the sky real? Rarely. Is the water real, is the rain real? Oh nowwwwww I’m teasing. Hahahaha.

Joao Sita, VFX Supervisor

jamie foxx looks beat but has a pill up his sleeve in this project power scene

FICTIONPHILE: Tell us a little about yourself and your path to your current position?

JOAO: I am from Brazil and I’ve been in Canada for the past 14 years. I grew up in Brazil’s countryside surrounded by nature and always spending a great deal of time observing nature and its elements. I loved photography and illustration and when my parents got us our first computer I instantly started playing with Painter and other drawing tools. It was after while in university that I really got interested in filming and editing which ended up taking me into getting my first job as a teaching assistant in the university’s video studio. I would spend my whole days there, playing with linear editing systems and later with Avid and After Effects. Late 90’s 3D Studio MAX 1.0 came out and blew my mind, then I would start incorporating 3D elements into my edits and spend most of my days at work and most of my nights creating new things in 3dMax. After that, one thing led to another, I was hired to work on a post production facility inside a production house in Brazil which allowed me to be around the DOPs/Directors and spend some time on set as well as get to work in commercials which was incredibly exciting, challenging and rewarding. There I got to learn how to work with Flame and a few years later, I got an offer to join Hybride Technologies in Canada. It was an awesome experience, working in Zack Snyder’s 300 really opened the door to the film industry for me and from there on, it was a continuous journey to find nice projects, meet talented people, learn different workflows and etc. Ultimately, I landed a VFX supervisor position on a short film and from there on I’ve been working as a visual effects supervisor on various projects. Currently I am at Framestore’s Montreal studio and I’ve just finished Project Power as VFX Supervisor.

FICTIONPHILE: What was your biggest challenge for this project?

JOAO: Project Power had a high volume of shots that required complex FX work that would need to be read as natural events and at the same time art directed to guide the audience’s eyes across the screen to enhance the storytelling. So, the balance between what looks real and hyperreal was very challenging as we don’t want to have the audience question the believability of an element but instead feel immersed in a possible reality. 

With that in mind we were in charge of delivering the one take shot of over 2000 frames that would follow the agony of the girl inside the ice box as she was losing control of her power as well as portrait a gun and fist fight in the background. It was a major challenge as everything was captured in camera in a set with hundreds of flashing lights and we would have to replace the walls of the ice box, partially replace the main character and create all the havoc in the background. From early concepts for the Frozen Girl, it was clear that we would keep a balance between a realistic death by cold (frostbite/skin cracks and pigmentation change) and a more screen friendly version of that, so, with our Head of Vis Dev Sylvain Lorgeou leading the final iterations on the concept, we toned down some of the realistic features and instead focused on how to integrate the ice elements in her performance and how to have a more complex display of the ice growing/spreading over her body and affecting her mobility culminating in her death. The whole process took over 1 year and heavily relied on accurate body tracking which was tweaked throughout the process as we realised that some areas would need more fidelity than others and how much of that fidelity would be used to trigger specific fx elements. Worth mentioning that Etienne Glazer and Nathan Reid were true heros and stayed relentlessly motivated and dedicated through the show!

Alongside the paint department had to remove numerous crew reflections into the glass as well as roto the finest hair detail possible. The shot ended up being split in sub shots with overlapping frames so we could progress the shot in various disciplines at the same time.

Lighting was crucial as the sync between the flashing lights on the set and the CG would prove to be fundamental for the believability of the shot. With hundreds of lights in a rig that was controlled on the fly on-set, our lighting team ultimately hand animated all the lights to get the right exposures/colours and had it baked into the renders ultimately splitting that to comp for any further tweaks in a much smaller set of lights. Another interesting aspect of the shot is that due to the various lights, angles of incidence and colours lookdev kept working on the shot during the whole process as we tweaked material qualities and how to change the quality of the materials based on specific fx inputs. It was an immense task.  

FICTIONPHILE: What Project Power VFX that you worked on are you especially proud of?

JOAO: The frozen girl 1 take inside the ice box is just something so complex that I am really proud of the work that the whole team did. The multitude of fx elements created from simple cold breath and diamond dust elements syncing with the breathing out pattern, “dry ice” volumes coming off her body, ice spreading all over the set upon her touch to the full display of the ice growing over her body, cracking and breaking when her motions were to extreme to the full facial coverage and the final touch of having icicles coming out of her mouth (internally we called those mouthcicles) is just insane. We created this “floral patterns” that would come out of her hands as she touched the glass and spread the ice over the surface that were super interesting to develop and looked great. The FX team did an amazing job of matching real life references then moving that into setups that could be art directed and implemented across the whole length of the shot.

FICTIONPHILE: If you were given input on a sequel, what super power FX would you most like to tackle?

JOAO: What really struck me about Project Power was how the POWER can have side effects and how it runs out of time. In that sense in a sequel for Project Power I would love to see what a “teleport” type of power would do, what kind of distress would the body/mind suffer from dematerializing in one environment and getting recreated in another. How would a regular citizen use it?

FICTIONPHILE: In your opinion, when it comes to film as an art form, how does VFX complement that goal?

JOAO: SFX gives the actors and the camera something to react to and brings a lot of what “reality” should look like into the picture. It allows a lot of interaction between what is happening and its surroundings.VFX is also another tool that helps create experiences that carry emotional power. In that sense, VFX gives to any creator a blank canvas to experiment and get involved with.

Matthew Twyford, VFX Supervisor

Rodrigo Santoro eyes two super power pills in Netflix's Project Power

FICTIONPHILE: Tell us a little about yourself and your path to your current position?

MATT: I always wanted to work in Special/Visual effects after being massively influenced by movies such as Indiana Jones and Star Wars. There were no obvious college courses or training in the UK at the time of my leaving school but I was lucky to get a place at the Polytechnic of Central London (now the University of Westminster) on a rather unique degree in Photographic and Electronic Imaging Science. This knowledge still underpins my everyday work as it gave me a deep understanding of how the science of imaging can be used creatively for compelling storytelling. Having worked before with Ivan Moran (overall VFX Supervisor) I knew we had a shared passion about making real science lead how the pill’s powers could work on screen.

I started out in the industry as an editing assistant, learning how to cut film under Tony Morias and Mark Norfolk at Post Production Services (Hong Kong) before moving to online editing when I was blown away by the digital age arriving in the form of the Quantel Harry. I continued working mostly in commercials and Promos in Hong Kong and London for around 7-8 years before making a move into feature film visual effects at the end of the 90’s. This was when the digital technology fired by the great ideas in tv and video was now a real option for cinema. The next fifteen years was this fantastic freelance journey collaborating with some of the worlds best talent from multiple facilities around the world. Knowing that I always do my best work surrounded by the best people, I settled down at one of my favorites – Framestore, after being offered the chance to work on Gravity. I now head up Framestore’s 2D Film Department, work on shows as VFX Supe, 2D Supe and still love getting on shots as an artist, life is very full! Currently I have worked on 87 Features, 10 as VFX Supervisor and 22 in a supervisory position (2d & Compositing) and in there are 9 VFX Oscar Nominated films with 2 wins and 11 BAFTA VFX Nominated films with 3 wins.

FICTIONPHILE: What was your biggest challenge for this project?

MATT: Definitely the MOF (man on fire) sequence where Art (Jamie Fox) battles hand to hand with Newt (MGK) while he is a human fireball. It covers multiple locations and had to feel real, dangerous and spectacular. This was to be the first time you see the Power in full force. It starts with subtlety in the way we enhanced Newt’s apartment into this hot, steamy micro-climate and then explodes into a full stunt driven fight, chase and finally showdown where we had to take our superheated character overdosing on Power being dunked into a bath. Ivan was fully focused on making this look completely believable and came up with a new way of getting interactive light onto the characters and environment via embedded LEDs in the prosthetics. We then developed a procedure that turned the visible LEDs into part of the burning character instead of painting them out and this meant the interactive light lined up perfectly with the FX. The fire, embers and smoke were mostly cg simulations as we wanted to develop it a bit more as a sort of character in it’s own right. To make sure we never veered from realism everything was referenced with the stunt team repeating the takes with a real man on fire and we used the stunt fire regularly mixed in with the cg to keep it ‘real’.

FICTIONPHILE: What Project Power VFX that you worked on are you especially proud of?

MATT: We loved working on the individual macro shots, especially the close up eye reactions. You got a hint with every character of how the power was going to manifest with a quick VCU of their eyeball. The challenge was how to tell the story with its message of beauty, gruesome or chaos with a short standard template. This is where I had a great time working with the Visual Development department (VisDev). It meant we could throw wild ideas around quickly on these very individually unique shots without worrying too much about how they would go through the pipeline. Instead, they were hand crafted as single shots using all sorts of standard and non standard tools from both the 2d and 3d side.

FICTIONPHILE: If you were given input on a sequel, what super power FX would you most like to tackle?

MATT: I’m always a sucker for punishment so it would probably be something very difficult to visualize, maybe a gravity type force! I’ve always been attracted to projects that try something different and push the boundaries in terms of technique and storytelling.

FICTIONPHILE: In your opinion, when it comes to film as an art form, how does VFX complement that goal?

MATT: VFX is an amazingly versatile tool that can go from the completely invisible, to subtle nuances or cranked to the max to bring a punchy wow factor. It can help to ground realism, set perspective and allow stories to be told that would be impossible otherwise. For me the value is in the creative collaboration with the other filmmakers in making visionary projects not only possible but fully engaging.

Project Power: Where to Watch

In project power, vfx shines, as evidenced by the glowing pill in this promotional shot of the three main characters

You can watch all of Project Power’s VFX shots, and of course the entire movie, on Netflix. The film is available streaming now for free with your Netflix subscription.

Project Power stars Jamie Foxx as Art, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Frank, Dominique Fishback as Robin, and Rodrigo Santoro as Biggie. The film is directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman and written by Mattson Tomlin. Supermarché is the production company behind the movie, which was distributed worldwide by Netflix.

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