Director Bob Zemeckis is well-known for conjured places long gone. He “rebuilt” the World Trade Center for “The Walk” and crafted a “Zelig”-like series of impossible historical encounters for “Forrest Gump.”
He’s back at it in “Allied,” the upcoming Paramount release starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, which depicts several vintage locales across Europe and Africa — often invented whole-cloth out of digital.
“Bob wanted a believable snapshot of what things looked like during World War II,” says visual effects supervisor Kevin Baillie of Atomic Fiction, who has worked with Zemeckis for a decade. “Some things obviously had to be stylized. For example, during the London Blitz, nobody kept lights on in their houses, so all our night exterior shots had to be played under moonlight. There was no reference footage because film was really slow back then, and making something stylized feel authentic was a huge challenge.”
Adding to those constraints was the fact that “Allied” was shot mostly indoors, on stages in the U.K. Traditionally, shooting against bluescreen requires actors and directors to rely heavily on concept art and rough pre-visualization to understand the context of a scene. But VFX artisans like Baillie, who came of age in the digital era, are exploring a broader tool kit that includes virtual reality gear.
“I think it’s a natural evolution for directors to view virtual images of a scene while they are on set,” Baillie says. “And VR tools will become increasingly important for actors as sets get sparser and sparser. It will allow actors to experience what it’s like to walk around inside a scene rather than simply see it printed on a page.” Baillie is primed to push the digital envelope further. He co-founded Atomic Fiction after stints at the now-shuttered shops The Orphanage and ImageMovers Digital. Over five years, Atomic Fiction amassed a 200-person crew at three locations and worked on major franchises.
Despite his technical savvy, Baillie believes the best effects continue a through-line that began with classic techniques. In “Allied,” he updated rear-projection methods from vintage noir films. “In scenes where the actors were driving cars, we built a 100-foot-long U-shaped wall of LED panels that wrapped around the car. On those screens, we played back footage filmed on location or digitally generated. That gave our visual-effects team useful reflections on the car, and it gave the actors something to act against.”
This kind of thinking is likely one of the reasons that Baillie was invited this year to join the Visual Effects Branch of the Motion Picture Academy. He’ll be one of the “digital natives” who are increasingly making their mark on how the craft evolves.