Wellington's Weta Digital makes its mark in Fantastic Four

Miles Teller as Reed Richards is strapped to a gurney in Fantastic Four.

Miles Teller as Reed Richards is strapped to a gurney in Fantastic Four.

Wellington's Oscar-winning Weta Digital are often asked to make fantasy a reality on film. It's ranged from the emaciated Gollum to the gigantic Kong, to creating entire worlds, including Avatar.

But when it came to Fantastic Four, the visual effects studio really had to stretch itself.

Weta Digital is one of several of visual effects companies which contributed to the US$120 million (NZ$182 m) superhero reboot.

In this instance, Weta Digital's job was to create the stretch effect for Reed Richards (played by American actor Miles Teller) who finds that he can extend, twist and bend his limbs and change his facial features.

The tricky bit says American Kevin Smith, Weta Digital's visual effects supervisor for the film, was getting the balance right between realism and the fantastic.

"It's an odd effect, but not in the sense that the result is odd. It's very unusual," says Smith, whose visual effects career stretches as far back as James Cameron's True Lies in 1994.

"Although movies can be very different, you get asked to do 'a monster, a blue monster, a green monster, a red monster'. 

"And this was like 'we want a guy that can stretch his arms out like 2 metres and yet retain his humanity'. It [was] like 'Wait. Don't you want a monster?'

"We knew there was going to be a bit of a challenge, not just even the technical aspects , in arriving at a solution that visually worked as well."

About 300 Weta Digital staff worked at some point on computer-generated visual effects for the film for a total of about 100 shots. 

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Some of the effects were added to live action shots, including an emotionally resonant scene where Richards is lying very still, strapped to a gurney with his arms stretched out. Smith says for the scene the actor Teller held dryer air exhaust pipes "which are about the size of your arm and you can stretch it out" as marker props and Weta Digital then added the stretch effects.

Notably, while Richards stretches his limbs in surreal lengths the joints remain visible. Smith says was partly to retain some sense of believability and realism despite showing something fantastic. "It was definitely on purpose," says Smith,  who worked on The Lord of the Rings and returned to Wellington to work on Avatar, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Adventures of Tintin and The Hobbit.

"If you look at the comic strip, he'll stretch an arm out and it's all rubber bandy and a tube. While it works in print, it didn't really work [in film]. One of the things we settled on was that you always wanted to see, especially with his shirt off,  recognisable anatomical landmarks. Here's his elbow, here is his wrist, see his biceps. So we kept the stretch to only between the joints."

Smith says having those limitations established early in the film also meant one of the final confrontation scenes with villain Doctor Doom on Planet Zero became more poignant because we see Richards losing control of his ability and being stretched to the point of falling apart.

Ultimately Weta Digital relied on its knowledge base built from years of experience on other projects, while also facing new challenges. "One of the things I hate is reinventing the wheel," says Smith. "That's the nice thing about working here. We've done Lord of the Rings and [King] Kong and Avatar and the Apes movies. You can basically stand on the shoulders of giants and harness all the things you've done before ... then spend you energy on the one problem you're having instead of building everything up from scratch."

Fantastic Four is screening now.

 - Stuff

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