In Poor Things, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ newest journey into the bizarre, the lead character, Bella Baxter (played by Emma Stone), embarks on a strange journey across Europe that involves a lovestruck lawyer, mutant animals, saucy Parisian prostitutes, and sex … lots and lots of sex. Adapted from the novel by Alasdair Gray, the movie is a comedic meditation on gender, class, and what it means to be truly independent.
Poor Things is also one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year, and part of the reason why is due to its stunning imagery. Although set in the real world, Poor Things‘ visuals are often otherworldly, extraordinary, and surrealistic. Helping to create the movie’s unique world is Simon Hughes, who, as the film’s creative director and visual effects supervisor, brought Bella’s steampunk surroundings to life using almost all the tools in his considerable VFX arsenal. Digital Trends recently chatted with him and VFX producer Tallulah Baker about working with Lanthimos, being inspired by the liquid artworks of Chris Parks, and the unique challenges of creating strange Frankensteinian creatures.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: Poor Things is your first project with Yorgos. What was it like working with him?
Simon Hughes: Well, Yorgos is an incredibly visionary director who has a strong understanding of what he’s trying to do with a project. He’s an experienced director in the sense that he knows how to work with his crew. He knows how to find the right team and allows them to do their roles.
He doesn’t micromanage; there’s a really good level of trust, and that’s based on talking with him early on. A key part of Yorgos’s process is not only finding the right team but also getting them together, getting them talking, and allowing them to work together properly.
How did you become involved with Poor Things?
Hughes: He reached out to us based on the work that we’ve done with other independent directors like Danny Boyle, Kevin Macdonald, and Stephen Frears. We like to work with independent directors and Yorgos shares a similar methodology with those directors.
We were invited to pitch for it. We were hired because we understood that they had some very key things that they were trying to problem solve, like how the hybrid animals [the creatures Willem Dafoe’s character creates at the beginning of the movie] would be visualized.
We knew we didn’t want to use only CGI to create these animals, so we came up with a solution that offered us as much in-camera cinematography as possible. Obviously, there would always have to be at least some degree of CGI involved to make those creatures work, but I think what appealed to Yorgos is that our approach allowed for a photography-based methodology.
You both have worked on smaller-scale pictures and more elaborate fantasy and sci-fi movies. Just this year alone, you worked on Poor Things and All of Us Strangers, which is more of an intimate drama. How do you approach something like Poor Things, which is VFX-heavy, versus a movie like All of Us Strangers, where the special effects are all but invisible?
Hughes: That’s a difficult question to answer. I think that even though Poor Things is very much a visual effects-heavy film, the intention is to be as realistic as possible. Yorgos didn’t want to employ CGI or flashy visuals just for the sake of it. Whether it’s All of Us Strangers or Poor Things, the sensibility is the same; the focus is on the storytelling and the photography than anything else. Poor Things just has a larger canvas than the others.
Poor Things has a striking look that’s both original and referential to past art movements and movies. Did you look to outside sources for inspiration in creating the look of the film?
The overall look of the movie was led by Shona Heath and James Price, the production designers. Shona is more from the fashion and set design world and she’s very much excited by surrealism.
We knew that things like sky environments were something that they wanted to find a way of elevating. We wanted to come up with something surreal and fluid and unusual, but still within the realm of believability. We did a lot of research looking at things like slow-motion photography of different liquids in water, like inks, to see how they create a sense of miniature clouds that move in unusual ways.
We also looked at artists within the art world to see how they were using them to create unique shapes. That really influenced Shona and James, who looked at an artist named Chris Parks. He created a lot of these liquid experiments in water that influenced the visuals in the movie. It was a big cross-collaboration project between the VFX and Production Design teams.
What was the most challenging VFX sequence you had to create for Poor Things?
Tallulah Baker: Challenging but rewarding? [Laughs]
Hughes: Creating the animals was a challenge because we did it partly in-camera. We got the animal wranglers to show us all types of animals and what we could do with them. We did a series of test shoots with various breeds of hens, ducks, geese, dogs, and rabbits to look at their different body shapes and which combos could work as a hybrid creature. We looked at the body shape of a chicken and how that lines up with the shoulders of a dog. Could you combine the two without looking ridiculous? We then determined which animal combos worked the best and shot more test footage.
We also did CG scans of the animals, which was a bit difficult to pull off since animals like to move. [Laughs] We tried a 2D approach. We did our best to try to merge the animals, but it wasn’t quite perfect. We then did a route animation using a CG version of the animal and then brought it back into 2D, and reprojected it to try to fix things that didn’t quite work.
There were several rounds in this process. You start with a 2D version, then you give it a 3D version, the 3D team gives it back to the 2D team, the 2D team do another pass, and then they give it to the 3D team, and so on. In addition to all of this, we had to create surgical scars on the animals to give them a Frankenstein feel. There was a lot of experimentation in finding the right look for the animals that eventually satisfied everyone.
The other big challenge was creating the unique environments seen in the film. Alexandria, in particular, was difficult. There’s a big pull-out shot that takes place there when Bella runs down the stairs after she slums it for the first time, and it reveals this entirely new world to her and the audience.
That sequence involved using miniatures, live-action play, CGI environments, CGI oceans, digital holes, effects, dust, and sand. We used miniature plates of cable car systems in the background, even palm trees, to showcase the complexity and detail of the location.
Baker: We had over 60 assets in the project, and we used lots of different elements to put those shots together.
Is Poor Things the most challenging project you worked on?
Hughes: Every project has its own challenges, but it’s up there. This one was challenging because the world we were making pushed us on a creative level that doesn’t occur on most projects. Also, working with a director like Yorgos was challenging and rewarding because he has a very high-quality threshold and a singular vision of what he’s after. It was a big project to be involved in.
Baker: Yeah, there was a lot of teamwork from the very start. It was a massive creative collaboration for everyone involved in making Poor Things and bringing it to life.
Poor Things is playing in theaters nationwide. For more related articles, check out DT’s interview with Poor Things’ cinematographer, Robbie Ryan.
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