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Oscar Effects: How Snow White and the Huntsman made a big cast smaller

Snow White and the Huntsman

As in previous years, five films are nominated for an Academy Award in the “Visual Effects” category, and they each offer a nice look at the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams can pull off on the big screen. In recognition of these five films and one of our favorite Oscar categories, we’re putting the spotlight on one “Visual Effects” nominee each day leading up to Sunday’s broadcast.

Previously, we looked at The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Avengers. Now we turn our attention to Snow White and the Huntsman, a dark spin on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale that had the exiled princess raise an army and go to war against her evil stepmother in order to reclaim the throne.

oscar effectsSnow White and the Huntsman may have underperformed at the box office, but as the film’s Oscar nomination proves the effects certainly aren’t to blame. Packed with lush visuals and working off of a unique spin on Snow White’s dwarf allies, the film employed a host of prominent effects studios to create a monstrous troll, a dripping mirror man, an army composed of obsidian shards, and in one of the project’s greatest feats, a host of full-sized actors shrunk to dwarf size.

While the decision to cast full-size actors in the dwarf roles incurred a hefty amount of wrath from small-statured actors, it was no minor achievement to pull off the effect of featuring stars Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth fighting alongside a miniaturized Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, or Nick Frost. Eight different studios were brought in to produce the effects used in Snow White and the Huntsman, with Lola VFX and Rhythm & Hues (which also worked on the Oscar-nominated Life of Pi) leading the charge in crafting the dwarf effects.

“… using a combination of visual effects and camera tricks we managed to make it work.”

“On the surface, the work was very challenging, but we had developed a technique on Social Network that should serve us well,” said Lola visual effects supervisor Edson Williams in a June 2012 interview with fxguide. “We developed the face projection technique on Social Network to project Army Hammer’s facial performance onto the body double’s face, [which] allowed ‘twins’ to interact in new ways and the twins were even able to row a boat together.”

“The face projection technique was a perfect fit for Snow White because you can shoot principal photography first, then once an edit is locked, you re-shoot the hero actors performance in a controlled environment,” he continued. “Face projection starts by 3D tracking (Pftrack) the body double’s face, then carefully analyzing the lighting changes on the face of the double. The next step is to pre-program these lighting changes into the computer controlled lighting dome, this is done with DMX lights and software.”

But it wasn’t all fancy software and computer-generated effects bringing the dwarf actors down to the necessary size, as a variety of old-school techniques also provided the necessary height transformations that the movie demanded. In certain shots, Stewart and Hemsworth were positioned on risers while the actors playing dwarves walked alongside them on the ground. Wide lenses were used to stretch out the shots horizontally and give the impression that everyone was on the same plane.

“Due to our time limit and budget, coupled with the sheer number of scenes they were featured in, there were some who questioned whether it could be done,” said Philip Brennan, one of the four visual effects supervisors named in the Oscar nomination. “But using a combination of visual effects and camera tricks we managed to make it work.”

snow white and the huntsman dwarves 2Along with face-projection and practical techniques, there was also ample need for green-screen shots that reduced actors’ limbs or eliminate them entirely from a scene, only to be replaced with more appropriate (for a dwarf) arms and legs. The full-size actors playing dwarves were also schooled in how to walk and otherwise move themselves about like a small-statured person.

“Besides their shorter limbs, the selling point from an acting point of view is the way they walk,” explained Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, another visual effects supervisor nominated for the film. “I found out that the center of gravity of a little person – they offset their center of gravity left and right but full-size people offset it forward and backward. So what makes the trick is the wobble that dwarves have when they walk.”

For the team behind Snow White and the Huntsman, the goal of making a cast of full-size actors into believable dwarves relied just as heavily upon a long list of elements working together in perfect synchronicity as Snow White’s quest to reclaim her throne. By blending modern move magic with more traditional visual effects, the end result — and the film’s presence in a hotly contested Academy Award category — certainly seems to speak for itself.

And without a magic mirror of our own to predict the winner of this weekend’s awards, we’ll have to wait until this weekend to find out whether Snow White and the Huntsman stands tall when the Oscar votes are counted.

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