Mr. X Delivers Visual Effects for Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock

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Fri, 08/28/2009 - 20:00 -- Nick Dager

Toronto post house Mr. X created visual effects for director Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock which opened in theatres last month. 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 ” says Taylor. “At Mr. X we’ve created a unique environment where we engage with the filmmakers ” says 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.”

 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 ” says 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 colors – 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 ” says 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 ” Taylor says.

 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 ” says 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 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 pretty early on which is very much the model for Mr. X in general ” says Berardi. 

The concert venue is presented three times during the film. The audience first sees it in its undisturbed rural splendor. 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 ” says 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 green screen. 

 “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 ” says 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 opened 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.