PHOTO: Steve Carell, Alan Arkin and the ‘drunken sailor’ dove.

Much like the magicians in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, VFX supervisor Bruce Jones likes creating big reactions. And, also like a magician, Jones appreciates that even simple and small effects can provoke great responses – providing they are believable. 

"Magicians usually use a slight of hand to pull off their tricks, which involves a magician getting somebody to focus on a certain area, before using a split second to distract the audience to perform the trick," says Jones. "So in Wonderstone, we made sure that the actors incorporated these same movements. However, in some cases, we exaggerated them, so that the 'flourish' sold the trick, making them look real and captured in camera, although the tricks were actually VFX."

One of Jones's favourite effects in the movie involved an imploding building, which happens just after Steve Carell has left a cab to head inside for a job interview.

"This is called the ‘Hotel Implosion’ shot," says Jones. "Rising Sun Pictures took the plate photography that I shot of an abandoned Vegas hotel (The Lady Luck) and then they created simulations to make it look like it actually imploded.

"They pulled it off by running numerous simulations, both large and small, which allowed them to provide an accurate, full scale interpretation of the implosion, as well as the enormous dust cloud that follows from the building collapsing. The integration of all these elements made the shot look believable."

Jones also enjoyed working on another scene, which involved extremist magician Steve Gray (played by Jim Carey) trying to set a new record for staring without blinking his eyes.

"After 24 hours, (the character) decided to up the odds by having pepper sprayed into his face, while keeping his eyes open," says Jones. "RSP created realistic rivulets and droplets, which ran down his face from his nose, chin and hair. This took a fair amount of research & development to get it right and to make sure the match-moved CG water appeared real in terms of its refractions, reflections and density."

Jones found this shot and the hotel implosion to be some of the most technically challenging during the making of the film. "However, we also faced a big task when we create a realistic CG dove that had to move like a real bird, but yet have some anthropomorphic (human) qualities, after it emerges from a salt shaker and hits a window. We pulled this off by making it to stagger off like a drunken sailor."

Jones also revelled in the challenge of making an entire audience disappear from a Vegas hotel and transporting Anton Marvelton (played by Steve Buscemi) to the Nevada desert about five miles out of town, with the Vegas strip in the background.

"This was called the Mystery Mesa shots," adds Jones. "This scene was created by Crazy Home Effects, which involved producing a matte painting to fit into the plate, so that it looked like they were only a few miles off the Vegas strip (whereas, those plates were just a few miles from LA).

Jones says that these effects all played a big part in helping to tell the story and could not have been achieved any other way.

"For example, no one can keep their eyes open while having pepper sprayed into them. Additionally, a dove cannot actually come out of a salt shaker. In these instances, VFX can be used to sell the illusion, whereas it could never be attempted for real."

However, the VFX were also used to enhance some of the practical effects created on set, as Jones recalls.

"For example, when Gray holds his arms over candle flames to burn the words into his arm: 'Happy Birthday Judah' (which were written on his arm using practical effects), we used VFX to enhance the writing so that it was readable. And of course, the candle flames and subsequent smoke were a combination of CG flames and smoke elements that we shot for real. So in reality, all he did was hold his arm above non-burning candles."

Jones's team also created some interesting VFX for a second unit film scene that he directed. Inside this sequence, Wonderstone is discombobulated inside a giant Rubik's cube and Marvelton had to move the cubes around to put Wonderstone back together again.

In an age when big effects are extremely fashionable, this film’s down-scaled approach is unusual but refreshing. The use of effects, though small, lie at the heart of the story, enhance the humour, assist the narrative and remain impressive enough to achieve those big reactions Jones so enjoys creating. 

This article first appeared in IF Magazine Issue #152

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