Behind the VFX of TENET

VFX SUPERVISOR ANDY LOCKLEY DIVES INTO THE WORLD OF TENET

Having worked on so many Christopher Nolan films, what do you think makes for a successful collaboration with him?

I think there are a few key things that have made for a successful relationship with Christopher Nolan. First, we know what our role is on his film and that is always to support his story; it’s never to showboat the VFX. It’s such a cliché to say, but less really is more with Chris and this means we have to be prepared to be really flexible and not at all precious about the work we do and if that means that half the assets we’ve built or months of testing and research never make it into his film then so be it.

Second, we’ve learned to always have real world reference to support whatever ideas we’re trying to sell to him. If we’re making something up purely from imagination, he’s more than likely not going to buy it. Even the most fantastical effects we’ve done for him over the years have always had some basis in reality with either a real world reference or some scientific research to back it up. Everything, even some of the more trippy shots in Interstellar can be traced back to something in real life.

Thirdly I’d like to think that after all these years we now know at least a small part of how Nolan works and there is a certain shorthand between us; that means he no longer needs to explain the basic rules of how he wants things done. We know roughly what’s going to go down well and what’s likely to get rejected. Not to say we don’t still get it wrong sometimes.

A lot of the projects that you have worked on with him – ‘Interstellar’, ‘Inception’, the Dark Knight Trilogy – have been sci-fi / dark comic-book projects where VFX are a bit more visible compared to ‘TENET’ and ‘Dunkirk’. Do you prepare differently or change your approach for this kind of project?

Not really no, which might seem strange but one of the other reasons I think Christopher Nolan likes working with us is that we have an understanding on all his films that we are prepared for any and all eventualities. If we unexpectedly needed a full CG shot of Batman wrestling two guys down a stairwell or we need to rebuild an entire 35mm shot to work in IMAX we are able to do that because we took hundreds of thousands of photographs and lidar of every location, set, vehicle and actors just in case. ‘Just in case’ is something we say a lot during the shoot. We literally try to capture everything we can during the shoot in case that situation comes up where we suddenly have to fix something unexpected which is why we end up having a large presence on set for films with relatively few vfx shots in the final edit.

TENET’s main artistic device is this concept of ‘inverted entropy’ or reversing time. Can you tell us a bit more about how DNEG helped realize this on screen?

We tried from quite early on to help visualize the different types of reverse entropy, showing how regular objects react to being damaged by inverted bullets, inverted objects to regular bullets, inverted objects to inverted bullets and every combination in between. I think we came up with a list of laws at some point but ultimately these had to be adapted to fit the storytelling and honestly it just hurt our heads trying to justify some of the more complicated scenarios. Eventually we had it all worked out to the point where we convinced ourselves we knew what we were talking about.

Christopher Nolan is well-known as a director who likes to capture as much as possible in-camera. Can you talk about your experience of working with the SFX department and the collaboration between SFX and VFX?

There’s always been a lot of collaboration between us and SFX particularly in pre-production so that tends not to involve me too much, it’d be Paul Franklin or Andrew Jackson that have had that role. My involvement with SFX is usually during the shoot itself if we are working out what bits of rigging need to be adjusted to reduce cleanup or shooting practical elements for later use, and in some cases being involved in shooting miniatures. Interstellar had quite a long miniature shoot schedule for the space ships which I was quite involved with.

You’ve got an impressive filmography, but did you learn anything new while working on ‘TENET’?

I learned that my mind wasn’t designed to think backwards and forwards at the same time.

How long did the project last and how big was the DNEG crew?

I was on the film for just over a year and during that time roughly 300 people worked on the show.

What was your favorite shot?

I don’t think I have a single favorite, but there’s some sections of the final battle that work together   with the forwards and inverted soldiers that are executed so seamlessly even I struggle to remember what we did to each shot.

What was the most difficult shot and why?

The reverse entropy on the Protagonist’s flipped car exploding was a real challenge and we spent a lot of time working on how to make that look special and not just like reversed film, there’s fire and smoke with regular entropy, inverted entropy, mixes of both debris being thrown out and then being sucked back in all at different times from each other. There’s a lot of really subtle detail going on in there and is a great example of the almost impossible briefs that Mike and his FX team had to solve.

Nolan famously shoots all of his work on film, and often with IMAX cameras. What are some of the challenges of this production pipeline for VFX?

I think we have it nailed down pretty well now after 7 films, and the grading which had always been a challenge previously has now been simplified to make it much more straight forward from our point of view. The whole film pipe is geared toward a photochemical finish (no DI in the traditional sense on any of Christopher Nolan’s films) and that had previously been very difficult and time consuming for us as we were trying to match grades to film clips and wait for print reports from LA to tell us how close we were, so it was a very slow process with lots of fine tuning over and over. Working on IMAX scans at 6.3k still has its challenges, but our computers are able to handle it much better now than when we did the first IMAX film for Nolan. It is still a considerable effort though to render and sim such a large resolution.

DNEG has been collaborating with Christopher Nolan for over a decade now and you have been a vital part of this collaboration. What have you taken away from working on Nolan’s projects that has informed your work as a VFX Supervisor on other shows?

Don’t get bogged down in details that no one outside of VFX cares about. Chris has a great gauge for judging whats important and what isn’t; what is important to tell the story of the shot and what the audience either won’t notice or doesn’t care about. It’s really easy to lose yourself worrying about whether there is enough detail in a model or whether the continuity of the clouds in the skys between shots is a match and completely miss that we’re not telling the story clearly, and Chris is very quick to point out when we’re losing focus on what’s important. So I would like to think that I’ve absorbed some of that instinct and can bring it with me onto other shows.

Tell us something we don’t know about the making of ‘TENET’.

During the filming of the final battle there were so many snakes at the location that a professional snake catcher was hired to go out every morning and round up all the snakes on the set.

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