VFX Legion recently wrapped work on Ma, Blumhouse Productions’ new psychological horror film. The Burbank and British Columbia-based independent studio digitally mutilated and eviscerated characters, and augmented practical footage with computer-generated sequences, large-scale dynamics, new digital assets and composited shots that enhanced some of the movie’s most gruesome scenes.
VFX Legion company has created visual effects for a long roster of horror films, including several Blumhouse films, such as Sinister 2, Insidious: Chapter 3, Ouija, Amityville: The Awakening and two films from the Purge franchise.
Ma follows the story of Sue Ann (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer,) a middle-aged woman living a solitary life. Abused, mocked, and shunned in high school, her past traumas fuel her obsession with fitting in. When a group of under-age teens asks her to buy them some liquor, Sue Ann sees an opportunity to finally make some friends.
Taking on a maternal persona, she gains the teenagers’ trust, extending the hospitality of her home as a safe haven for their drinking parties. Ma soon begins to insert herself into their lives, and the partying and fun turn into a ghoulish nightmare as she takes revenge for the suffering that she endured decades earlier.
As the plot unfolds, the evil protagonist goes from friend to captor, keeping the horrified teens in her basement as she calmly goes about torturing them. During one nightmarish scene, Ma sews a girl’s lips together. A prosthetic applied to her face enabled practical footage to capture the stitchery, with Legion’s digital effect adding chilling realism to the piercing of girl’s flesh.
Ma brands a boy with a red-hot iron, calling for artists to create digital steam and smoke that emanates from his chest as the iron makes contact with his skin and design the CG charred flesh and fresh look of the scar. Legion then digitally cleaned up the scene and delivered a sequence of shots that seamlessly melds the synthetic imagery with the texture and feel of the live-action footage.
Visual effects were relied on to heighten the impact of the entire final scene of the movie, which shows the house catching fire and the blaze growing, ultimately consuming the structure. Legion’s team created CG flames with a scale and ferocity that envelope the house. Computer-generated smoke, particles, and burning embers layered into the shots added texture and depth.
“The final scene presented the biggest creative and technical challenges,” says VFX Legion creative director James David Hattin. “It closes the movie with a sweeping aerial shot that begins at a distance and passes over the house revealing a 360 view of it engulfed in flames. The shot was a late addition to the production, included to ensure that the climactic ending left the audience with no doubt as to the fate of anyone still inside.”
The original camera move shot from a drone wasn’t stable, so it was left to Legion to digitally recreate director Tate Taylor’s vision of the movie’s final moments. Crafting a CG sequence with this panoramic view required a model of the house to be built from scratch, and then enveloped in a computer-generated inferno.
“Our team wasn’t on-set during the shoot, so we didn’t have a scan of the house or detailed specs,” adds Hattin. “This presented the kind of challenge that makes our remote pipeline invaluable. Tapping our ability to work as a single unit with Legion’s global collective of talent, we reached out to our master model builder and CG Artist, London-based Mark Hennessy-Barrett.”
Working on a tight schedule with only a plate photo taken by the drone, and eye-level footage from the movie as visual references, Mark built a destructible, detailed replica of the house from the ground up. Once Hennessy-Barrett completed the model, Legion was able to begin work on the dynamics. Artists simulated raging flames coming out of every window, scorching and incinerating the exterior of the structure as well as CG smoke, smoldering embers, and falling debris. The final shot recreated the sweeping camera move, climatically ending the film with a single overhead shot of Ma's house of horrors consumed in flames.
“Of the dozens of CG elements that we created, some of the flames simulated in Houdini to cover sections of the roof didn’t quite hold up for the whole camera move,” says Legion’s head of production, Nate Smalley. “We opted to use stock footage from ActionVFX’s library. Layering the high-resolution elements into the shot provided an efficient solution, maintained the integrity of the shot, and kept us on schedule.”
“Legion’s team is always excited when we’re called on to create visual effects for a Blumhouse film, and Ma was no exception,” says Hattin. “We’re thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with them again and proud of our artists for meeting every challenge that Ma presented.”
VFX Legion www.vfxlegion.com