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Animal Logic Film’s Designer/VFX Supervisor, Andy Brown, worked on the digital effects in Holy Smoke, Jane Campion's latest film, starring Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel; he talks about visualising Harvey Keitel's hallucination.
By Sandy George and Rachael Turk.

What was Animal Logic’s contribution to the film?
AB: "There are two aspects to our design input: the visual conceptualisation and the technical realisation. In all, there were 13 sequences, which equalled about six minutes of the film. These included the main titles, ‘Prue’s vision’ sequence in which Ruth is touched by Baba, ‘PJ’s hallucination’ sequence, ‘Boyfriends’, ‘Postcards’ and the sunset (the end shot of film). We devised the concept, design and production of visual effects and this included 3D animation, compositing, colour treatment, tracking, matte painting. I was also involved in previsualisation and shoot supervision."

Which scenes did you find most challenging and why?
"Crawling across the desert, PJ (Harvey Keitel) has a vision of Ruth (Kate Winslet) as an Indian goddess. A lone figure appears first in silhouette, then distorting like a mirage. She refracts into multiple images, her many arms opening to him. She merges with the heat haze and transforms into three characters walking towards him. The design of this sequence involved substantial input from our compositor Kirsty Millar."

"At first I thought my idea was too obvious - using smoke to form the main title. But Jane liked it because the background plate shows steam coming from a chai pot. So the concept became the title forming hypnotically from the steam before drifting off again, like a realisation almost grasped then gone. A lot of themes in the film relate to belief systems and the way they can be changed; truth as inconstant as smoke or a magical trick.

"The challenge for me was that I didn’t want the design of the title to be a typeface or font. I wanted each letter to form in a natural way, trance-like. 3D animator Brett Feeney did a great job in creating the smoke using proprietary software written by Chris Bone, Animal Logic’s Head of R&D."

"For me, this is one of the most important shots of the film: it has to convince the viewer that Ruth really believes in Baba. Because it’s from Prue’s point of view, there’s a level of over-reaction, the enlightenment is deliberately overplayed. Had it been Ruth’s vision, it would have been different.

"Dion (Beebe) filmed the scene with the bold colours already in shot - gold, magenta, whites. We enhanced the religious iconography by isolating these colours, ensuring sufficient contrast whilst softening off highlights. The celestial rays give Baba a religious energy; his eyes are enhanced and this is transferred to Ruth as her eyes take on the same quality, even fill with 3D tears, as she falls back into the spiritual ‘jouissance’.

"For this section, which involved many versions and an intense previsualisation phase, I designed a kaleidoscope of metaphors: Eastern spiritualism meets Western materialism as Ruth’s inner self radiates outwards. Lotus flowers, clouds, her third eye; pink butterflies from her bedroom wall and a koala bear (her favourite toy). Each object has a meaning."

"We used typographic sequences of the two scenes as introductions revealing cropped sequences of shots. The whole thing was heavily graded with the ‘India look’. For PJ’s letter we envisaged a computerised font as if he was typing it somewhere."

What was your reaction to hearing you were going to be doing the film and how did you prepare for it?
"The pitch involved assurance of both visual and technical design. Jan, Jane and Dion approached us to do a test on the sequence where Ruth is touched by the guru and falls into a state of enlightenment. We shot this ourselves in 16mm and entered a process of creative and technical experimentation.

"To create the desired ‘Indian vision’, we surrounded the figure with a painted loudscape, celestial light and eyes revolving around her head; kaleidoscopic elements. A grading and colour treatment to give the desired look, almost like a Bollywood movie poster.

"Because I’d been to India before, I really clicked with this. And I had collections of Indi posters which were a major inspiration, though I did do a lot more research. I was ecstatic to work with a director I had so much respect for."

What did director Jane Campion tell you she was trying to achieve?
"Jane works very collaboratively. Rather than working to a fixed brief or board she talks about the mood and feeling and what’s going on in the narrative. Bouncing ideas in an open environment. This inevitably takes more time but did bring out the best work. Design is an evolving process.

"For ‘PJ’s hallucination’ (above) she made me listen to music which conveyed sweet, warm imagery. She’d talk in that same language. I would then interpret this and develop a storyboard to create a focus in a certain direction. From there we did video temps, which took on rich, golden hues to convey the right feeling. So again, I’d take it to a point, then Jane would come in and take it further, and so on. An evolving process."

What other features have you worked on during the past 12 months and why was this one different?
"From pre-production to finished material, this project took me a whole year. Prior to that, I art directed some sequences for Mouse Hunt, worked a little on Face/Off, and worked on Dating The Enemy and Dead Heart."

How are attitudes of local directors changing towards visual effects?
"Jane Campion uses visual effects as a collage of metaphors, adding a new level of meaning to the story. Everything has to have the right feel and mood."

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Andy Brown


Says Daily Variety of Holy Smoke (premiered at the 1999 Venice Film Festival):
"A ravishing title sequence swiftly conveys the overwhelming physical presence and heady spiritual allure of India, where vacationing Ruth (Kate Winslet) becomes convinced she has found something to believe in... [Dion] Beebe's camera tirelessly seeks out unusual details, and the film is peppered with surprising visual inventions, some of them narrative expedients and others just clever stylistic touches. These include Ruth's enlightenment in India, shot like a Bollywood fantasy sequence, her appearance before PJ as a Hindu goddess and an amusing recap of her past relationships" (September 7, 1999).


HOLY SMOKE (Opens December 26, 1999)

Title Design and production: Animal Logic Film

Designer: Andy Brown

Executive Producer: Zareh Nalbandian

Producer: Fiona Crawford
Compositor: Kirsty Millar

R & D: Chris Bone

3D Animator: Brett Feeney

Visual Effects: Animal Logic Film

VFX Supervisor: Andy Brown

Executive Producer: Zareh Nalbandian

Producer: Fiona Crawford

Lead Compositor: Kirsty Millar

Compositors: Charlie Armstrong, Robin Cave, Leoni Willis

3D Animator: Aidan Sarsfield

Technical Support: Naomi Hatchman, Aaron Barclay


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