Director Kenneth Branagh on Virtual Production
Studio Daily, 25 July 2019
Employing Cutting-Edge Techniques While Serving the Needs of Actors On Set
The following interview with Kenneth Branagh is an exclusive excerpt from The Virtual Production Field Guide, a new 77-page how-to manual published by Unreal Engine creator Epic Games. It describes the use of virtual production techniques for cinematography, visual effects, animation and more. Written by journalist and technology analyst Noah Kadner, the PDF guidebook features different techniques for integrating CG elements live on set, virtual location scouting, and using photoreal LED walls for in-camera VFX, explained through interviews with award-winning industry professionals including directors, producers, cinematographers, VFX supervisors, and more. The complete guide is available now as a free download [PDF] from Epic Games.
Sir Kenneth Branagh is an award-winning actor, director, producer, and screenwriter who trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. He received Oscar nominations for his acting and directing work on 'Henry V'. His additional work as director includes: 'Much Ado About Nothing', 'Hamlet', 'Dead Again', 'Thor', 'Cinderella', 'Artemis Fowl', and 'Murder on the Orient Express'.
When dealing with scenes featuring virtual elements, how do you guide the actors’ performances?
We try to think laterally and involve all our visual effects colleagues with the actors from an early stage. So for instance, there’s a formidable creature that exists in 'Artemis Fowl'. We determined with our visual-effects colleagues and our prop-making colleagues, despite producing a creature that would essentially be computer-generated, we would create a 13.5-foot high, entirely three-dimensional model of him.
We shared this with the actors on set and early on, and although the features may change, it gave a sense of scale, sense of bulk and everything. Something that might come in useful in all sorts of other parts of the production process and was inspirational for the characters who are interacting with this creature, for actors who would be part of the motion capture element of giving the internal performance. And those conversations were had between me and the actors, but also in this case, with Charley Henley, our visual effects supervisor and the actors as well.
Charley and I worked together previously on 'Cinderella' and it’s a very harmonious way of trying to make sure that maximum information is had by the actors. If, as I believe it usually does, it’s going to make a significant difference to the way they perform. In addition to maybe just realizing a 3D version of a massively important character, which is different from only seeing concept illustrations or whatever. We’ll also definitely offer up the sharing of previsualization of sequences not to limit the actor, but to let them understand how to embody parts of that ultimate, fully fleshed out sequence we’ll have that they’ll contribute to.
And also by the same token again, to use Charley as an example, I was at work with a number of visual effects supervisors, but he would also be part of those kinds of conversations early enough to potentially include and fold back into the previs process the comments from actors who are now owning their characters from a different perspective. So the holistic and early involvement of key collaborators is for me, an important factor in trying to just make an organic integration of performance and visual effects execution.
On 'Murder on the Orient Express', the imagery outside of the train car windows was created via LED screens. Did that have a positive effect on the actors in terms of their sense of immersion?
Massively and critically I would say. And it was a version of a process that was arrived at through extensive testing. So we went out onto real railway carriages and shot interior train scenes while moving against a real and live background and moving background. And we compared it with plate photography that we played on LED screens, and were confident that the photographic possibilities were equally creative in both ways. We also ran the numbers on the logistics in that case, carrying potentially our 12 movie stars to locations that depended on us having control over railroads. And frankly, that with all the health and safety issues of every conceivable time, meant that to be practically shooting on trains was very, very difficult in terms of our particular project.
And so those projection screens were critical because in the test process we absolutely understood that the quality was going to be more than acceptable, in fact, it was exceptional. But more importantly, that combined with the hydraulic underwiring of the carriages so that they moved at that computer-programmable facsimile of the movement of rail carriages across certain parts of Europe at night on certain gauges of rail track.
The combination of that hydraulic movement underneath the train with the very brilliant, very specifically gathered plate photography that we used, meant that from the very first day that I got on to test it, not only did it seem entirely convincing, but when it was actually transported and immersed, there wasn’t an actor who got onto that train who wasn’t similarly galvanized. To the point where I remember going for a walk down the train to the next carriage to have a look out at the scenery and even I had to remind myself I wasn’t looking at a real scenery, I was looking at projected images. But they were completely convincing and entirely transported the imaginations of the cast and the crew.
Does the use of previs affect your sense of agency over the visual direction of the film?
My goal as a director is to guide tone; to offer up anchor scenes and shots that become part of the visual signature. I get less worked up about the authorship issue—these are very strongly collaborative enterprises and frankly, I forget who had an idea. I am often pleased to remember that sometimes I have some of the ideas as well. But certainly my job is to direct and guide them, and to keep giving people an understanding of what the desired tone, feel, mood, atmosphere, and pace of storytelling is. That’s where the unification of the presentation comes from.
We’re doing that right now on 'Death on the Nile'. Much of our shot preparation is based on a very specific understanding of exactly the dimensions of the boat and what an angle or a longer lens is going to do at any particular point on that boat, to understand it as a vocabulary of atmosphere, which is very key to summon up particularly when you’re trying to produce a mystery or a thriller. For previous movies, sometimes you offer up to a previs designer or visual effects supervisor a sense of atmosphere about the film and invite them to respond.
For example, on 'Murder on the Orient Express', it came to simply an understanding of the larger, digital terrain that had been created, inspired by literal landscape around the Jungfrau and the Munich Sea and on its borders, the Matterhorn. Then it was possible to talk about wanting an aerial shot that combined as much dynamic difference in the scenery and topography and texture of the landscape as possible, without being able to say something like, “Stop the airplane just left of the Jungfrau.” That’s a situation where I would be asking for a spectacular offering to come back my way at whatever level, of a kind of gray scale level or whatever.
But we could talk so you could get a sense, you can knock back and forth the dynamics of the shot. Do you start low on the ground? Do you want to go sheerly up, something like the north face of the Eiger? Do you want to flip over the other side of that or would you want something bigger and larger? There are all sorts of ways of talking about that; all of them are legitimate. They can be references to previous films, it can be found footage where you say, “Something like that but please include this.” Or it can come straight from the imagination of a concept illustrator or an animatic designer, or a series of shared conversations.
Or as we did with 'Artemis Fowl', you go into a virtual world designing shots. That took us through the underground world of Haven City where we had an enormous range of possibility in conveying a complete parallel universe, not dissimilar to the kind of challenge and the expansive possibility that we had on Thor when we were going into Asgard for the first time. So it becomes a sort of very stepped process where, from my point of view, all contributions are welcome.
As filmmaking technology continues to evolve, does knowing what’s possible inspire you to create projects that you might not have conceived of 10 years ago?
Yes. I think it’s an exciting time. Particularly, I enjoy the fact that my background comes from a very intensely lived connection with performance, but which now sits next to a much greater experience of really anything being possible. We have, obviously, financial and time constraints sometimes but, for me it’s possible to be more varied, and the possibility of limitless creativity can exist where you can have the best of both worlds.
When you’re in the middle of directing a visual-effects intensive scene, how do you remain present and focused on the performance?
It’s in some way whatever you can, wherever it intersects, retain the human element. Retain a way of considering character and intention. Never let it be merely the brilliance of an extraordinary, photographic spectacle. But always try to actually reassure yourself by locking the work that you do to story, to character, and wherever you can, find the human element at the center of it.
By that I mean the motivational element, even if you’re dealing with completely inhuman characters. Still, they will have intentions. Still, they will have desires. Still, they will have needs. And try to find those to motivate and calibrate the action or the spectacle so that there’s always a necessity for it. You’ve got to find that necessity of storytelling imperative even in the midst of all the sound and fury.