Discover our VFX with Anelia & Jolene
Just over one month ago, The School for Good and Evil began streaming on Netflix. Based on the best-selling series of novels by Soman Chainani, the fantasy film follows two best friends, Sophie and Agatha, as they are taken to an enchanted school for aspiring heroes and villains.
Such a magical plot called for some pretty fantastical VFX — and at DNEG we were only too happy to oblige! We caught up with Anelia Asparuhova (VFX Supervisor) and Jolene McCaffrey (DFX Supervisor) to find out more about the work that went into creating some of their favourite shots from the film.
The Theatre of Tales
We love the way the Theatre of Tales subtly depicts the contradictions between the two schools, can you tell us a bit about the work that went into creating it in this shot?
Anelia: This is one of the establishing shots for the Theatre of Tales. The two schools get together for the first time, showcasing the stark visual differences between them – the School for Good in bright, vibrant colours versus the dark colours of the School for Evil. Our task was to turn the Theatre of Tales into a more atmospheric environment and to give it an intimate look, despite the big size of the space. We extended the back wall with the signature school’s swan sculpture and added a wood-panelled ceiling, additional stairs, and crystal chandeliers to match the colour scheme on both sides. The volumetric rays were added in comp – we had to make sure the ray layering in depth worked realistically both for the 3D chandeliers and the plate elements, keeping it consistent from shot to shot.
Jolene: We were tasked with customising the school environment, and adding school details, emblems and chandeliers, in a decadent and enigmatic baroque style that would capture the mystery and intrigue of the schools. The volumetric rays were added to all shots and needed to be layered correctly between the objects and the geometry of the room. Our comp team were able to remain agile and keep consistency across the many shots, as we tweaked the mood and ambience in the room.
The Cyclops Battle
There is a lot happening in this shot, were there any creative challenges you faced when bringing it to life?
Anelia: This shot is a part of the sequence where Tedros gets challenged to a duel by a fierce Cyclops from the School for Evil. The master of the School for Evil, Lady Lesso sets the Cyclops’ axe on fire to give him an advantage in the fight. Augmenting the Cyclops’ face digitally was a fun challenge! Normally the two eyebrows on a human face play a huge role in expressing emotions like anger and rage. Being limited to only one eyebrow, with a character who was pretty angry throughout the sequence, didn’t make for an easy task. We added CG fire and embers to the battle axe for most of the fight, as well as extending the set with a digital wall and ceiling.
Jolene: As well as the environment work for the Cyclops Battle, we seamlessly enhanced and reanimated the Cyclops’ face which was a challenge as we are all so used to reading expressions on a face with two eyes and eyebrows! Working closely with the build and animation teams, we created a full range of expressions for the Cyclops – of which we see just a snippet whilst he’s in battle mode. Facial features, tattoos, and hair were blended with the live-action plates thanks to the texture and groom teams. For the battle axe, we added the initial moment of ignition, replaced the axe to give the metal a white-hot glow, and added full flames and sparks which animate and react as he swings at, and collides with, Tedros throughout the battle.
This is such a key moment in the film, how did you go about creating it?
Anelia: This is the key shot, where Sophie goes through a transformation during the battle for Good and Evil. Our art department conceived a few different ideas of how the evil could leave Sophie’s body, trying to find a look that tells the story convincingly and in a visually beautiful way. The practical challenge was to make the FX simulation, which covered her body, move in a realistic way and look integrated with her skin and clothing. We ended up bleeding the plate colours into the particle simulation in a combination of FX and comp tricks.
Jolene: The director wanted it to appear as if evil was tearing itself from Sophie. Our FX team created really beautiful ethereal particles, which we could adjust in timing and volume. In comp, our team skillfully layered these together to get the careful balance of coverage that was needed in order to tell the story. We combined many tricks and techniques, from years of previous experience, to create a unique blend, and added hot embers that burn away as the magic transforms.
Sophie’s Blood Magic
The movement of Sophie’s blood magic is stunning in this shot! How did you determine what it should look like?
Anelia: The blood magic was Sophie’s signature throughout her transformation and needed to reflect her moods and feelings. The show team wanted to create a magic that looked beautiful and felt merciless at the same time, much like its protagonist. We conceived a wide range of simulations, from the subtle liquid and particle trail we see in this shot, through a powerful stream washing people away, to a blood shockwave that floods an entire hall.
Jolene: Sophie’s blood magic needed to be evil, mysterious and powerful, but the director didn’t want it to be too gory! It has a magical liquid quality that diffuses out to a lingering smoke whilst Sophie is feeling playful. When Sophie gets really angry she fires a full blast of her blood magic, which is a turbulent broad blast destroying everything it meets. It was good fun getting the impact in the blast shots! We were able to keep the key qualities and look the same in both states. I personally love the lingering blood magic trails, as it whisps and floats away.
Dot’s Chocolate Fireball
It looks like you had a lot of fun with this shot! Were you excited to work on it?
Anelia: In this shot, Dot uses her chocolate-creating powers to cause a fiery havoc in the fight. “We need to create a chocolate fireball” was probably one of the most amusing briefs I’d ever had! This was a fun creative challenge. We went through a few iterations until we found the perfect recipe with the correct mixture of dark versus milky chocolate, and just the right amount of flambé and melt so that it could carry a fireball inside. My chocolate intake increased dramatically during that period!
Jolene: The chocolate fire was a big unknown at the start – a magic effect specific to Dot, that starts as cool liquid chocolate, would become a more solid state, and then ignite into a fierce fireball! There were many state changes to solve, and its movement and look was something that no one had seen before. With any FX like this, you try various things and combine the elements that are working the best. Creating unknown VFX like this is both a challenge and a reward as we create new and exciting imagery to fulfil the brief.
The Fire Wall
Fire FX can be tricky to get right, how did you achieve it in this shot?
Anelia: In this shot, Dot’s chocolate fireball causes a big wall of fire that stops the boys from the School for Good from closing in. We quadrupled the amount of practical fire with an FX simulation, and used comp tricks like heat distortion, flares and lens smudging to give this shot the feeling of a burning inferno. I remember sitting in the dark screening room when this suddenly came on screen and my instant reaction was “Wow! This looks HOT!” — mission accomplished!
Jolene: Our FX team were able to skillfully match the movement and quality of our FX fire to that of the plate fire, and were still able to creatively direct the shape and style of the wall to build the moment as it grows across the shots while keeping key story points readable. The director had a very clear vision of the parting fire moment when Tedros cuts through the fire and makes his exit – something that is really only possible with FX! That’s the great thing about VFX, you make the impossible possible! I’m really proud of the look of the fire. Fire used to be so much harder to successfully achieve, but I think our FX and comp teams have done a really great job here!
In the film, each character has their own distinct magic, how did you go about creating Anadil’s?
Anelia: In this shot we have an example of Anadil in battle, using her magic in order to freeze mid-air the spears threatening to harm her friend. The art department and FX team took on the challenge to give each character’s magic power a signature look. We kept these light and mischievous in comparison to Sophie’s dark and dangerous blood magic. They were all created as a combination of FX particle simulations and comp tricks.
Jolene: The brief for Anadil’s individual magic was that it should be likened to a starburst or constellation. It gave us a great opportunity to use a different colour palette here, and I really like the contrast it gives us in the shots, the colour variation achieved in the magic itself, and the light that spills out into the environment.
One last question for you both! If you were taken to The School for Good and Evil, would you be in the School for Good or the School for Evil?
Anelia: Definitely the School for Evil! I’ll take mischief over needlework any time!
Jolene: Undoubtedly my soul would be in the School for Good but, for the style and parties, I’d be in the School for Evil! But as the film says – look closely for yourself, as things aren’t always as they appear…
Thanks so much for your time Anelia and Jolene, it’s been amazing to learn more about the incredible work that went into creating this magical film. We’re off to see if we can recreate the chocolate fireball…*
*Disclaimer: Please do not try to make a chocolate fireball at home!