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January/February 2020

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BITS & PIECES 4 POST JAN/FEB 2020 FRAMESTORE HELPS THE AERONAUTS TAKE FLIGHT LONDON — Framestore recently delivered visual effects environments for director Tom Harper's action-adventure The Aeronauts, now streaming on Amazon Prime. The work added sheen to a film that took stars Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne from the streets of London to vertiginous heights. Produced by Amazon Studios, The Aeronauts is a semi-biographical adventure that follows pilot Amelia Wren (Jones) and scientist James Glaisher (Redmayne) as they find themselves in an epic fight for survival as they attempt to reach record altitudes in a hot air balloon. With the weather — and the science thereof — playing a major role in the story line, a key challenge was to produce stunning cloudscapes that were un- precedented in terms of volume, precision and art di- rection. The work began with Framestore's in-house art department providing concept art for atmospher- ic cloudbanks and striking city environments, which conveyed director Tom Harper's vision. According to VFX supervisor Christian Kaestner, Framestore was the main vendor for the film. "We basically took the audience from the establish- ing, launch of the balloon shot and the release, and reconstructing a stadium and CG crowds and establishing a period — an 1862 London cityscape — to accompanying the whole ride of the balloon as they fly over London, ascend into the clouds, get caught in a storm, come out of a storm, and go into these beautiful cloudscapes above the storm. And then them breaking the record and the struggle that comes after that…Framestore did all the visual effects up until the point when they are basically about to descend too fast and that's where RodeoFX took over, for the last sequence to the crash landing." When referring to the brief, Kaestner explains, "It had to be realistic, but it also required a subtle hint of the fantastic. It had to tell the story of this dangerous endeavor with beautiful imagery and believable cinematography." The film's establishing shot features a CG set and full crowd extension admiring the pre-take-off spec- tacle. Once the balloon lifts off the ground, the cou- ple looks down onto 1862 London for some 1,000 frames — a lingering sequence that required high levels of historical accuracy and extensive research. "It was one of the most challenging shots we faced,'' says CG supervisor Britton Plewes. "If something didn't look quite right, the audience would have had time to pick up on it. It's a sequence that sets the tone for immersing the audience into the story." Shortly after take-off, Amelia and James, filmed on a bluescreen stage, encounter a storm — entire- ly shot in CG — filled with lightning strikes, misty clouds and heavy, pelting rain. But after the rain comes the sun, and the duo is rewarded with the spectacle of several thousand migrating yellow CG butterflies. To accurately re-create this fleeting moment of beauty, the FX team carefully captured the delicate motion and swarming of butterflies, combining animation work with particle simulation. Later, as they reach extremely high altitudes, Amelia is tasked with climbing the balloon — a thrilling scene that takes place in complete and utter silence. "The lack of music and the sense of absolute solitude is really striking," says CG supervisor Ben Magana. "It's an inspired moment, but it also put the pressure on us as artists — we felt very much alone there, left with nothing to hang on to but Felicity's performance and our pixels." Kaestner agrees, "The scene where Amelia has to climb the balloon almost reminds me of Gravity in the sense that, there wasn't any music or dia- logue. There wasn't really any sound, other than the breathing and the cracking. That was it. There was nothing to support us other than Felicity's perfor- mance and our visuals. Creatively, that was definite- ly one of the most challenging scenes." Clouds in all their forms surround the pair throughout the film — high up and close up, in thun- derstorms and sunny weather, which proved to be a creative, technical and, at times, philosophical feat. "We've all been looking at clouds our whole lives and have become accustomed to how intangible and ephemeral they are," says Kaestner. "But that poses a strange challenge when they form so much of the film's environment — you instinctively know what looks real and what doesn't when it comes to shape, pattern, movement and how the light travels through them. This meant we had to spend a lot of time working on believability." A large part of the story lies in Amelia and James' journey upwards (and — spoiler alert! — downwards), and the team had to creatively convey the sense of travel, distance and direction at high altitudes. Contextualizing the actor's performances in freezing weather conditions also required some post production work, as compositing supervisor Luigi Santoro explains. "Condensing breath was a challenge that was solved by filming voice actors reading lines in a freezer truck," he says. "We then used facial tracking to place the breath elements at the right scale, perfectly matching Eddie and Felicity's amazing performances." The balloon's 40,000-foot ascent required a similarly micro approach to VFX artistry, with Framestore's effects department filling the sky with floating ice crystals. It was important to Harper for the audience to have a sense of the direction in which the balloon was travelling. Snowflakes and tiny glittering ice particles became a great way to utilize visual effects for storytelling. "At one point, the snowflakes fall at the exact same speed as the balloon, and it was challenging to make them appear as though they are still mov- ing, without creating a Matrix feel,'' says Plewes. To complete the project, Framestore relied on Houdini for crowds and environments, Maya for modeling, Framestore's own in-house rendering system Freak, and Nuke for compositing. VFX super Kaestner Butterflies (below) and Jones' climb (top, right) were among the most challenging VFX sequences.

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