An Interview with Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald VFX Supervisor Arnaud Brisebois

We talked to Rodeo FX's Arnaud Brisebois about Fantastic Beasts 2 and the VFX industry.

Fantastic Beasts 2: The Crimes of Grindelwald VFX

As visual effects become more and more integral to Hollywood storytelling, it’s increasingly important to learn about and recognize the VFX artists who help bring your favorite movies to the screen in vital, imaginative, and technically-articulate ways.

Arnaud Brisebois is a leading creative designers at Rodeo FX. Brisebois was kind enough to answer our questions about the work he and his team did to bring the world of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald to life, his contributions to Paddington 2, and the VFX industry in general.This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Den of Geek: You work as a VFX supervisor for Rodeo FX. Can you explain what that job entails?

Arnaud: Well, there are two titles for VFX supervisor: You’ve got a client supervisor, which is basically the director’s interpreter for the overall show. He’s in charge of prep and onset, and carries through post, with the help of vendor supervisors. As vendor supervisor, I’m briefed on the specific scope of work for a sequence or for an asset that would be shared with other vendors.

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It’s representing the director’s vision within the facility and overseeing every step of post from assets creation to all departments involved: modeling, texture, rigging, shading, room, and then tracking layout, animation, FX, feature effects, all the way through final compositing. So I oversee everything, every shot, and I follow up on the work of every artist pretty much.

I do have some help, but I’m held responsible for and accountable for basically everything that is being done here. 

That is a very big job. You mentioned that it is really about implementing the director’s vision. Is there huge range in terms of director’s experience with visual effects? 

The more experienced with VFX the director is, the more confident his choices are going be in terms of approval, if you see what I mean. Whereas a director who has no idea about how things are done, can ask for impossible things at the very worst moment, which can impact schedule or scope of work. If this is not well enough explained or described throughout the process, it’s very dangerous for both parties.

So, we make sure that we explain ourselves very well, using scope description, shot description, what the shots involved will be, and also the process through which an asset or a shot is going to be needing to go through in order to get to the final objective. We protect ourselves in that way, and we make sure to check with the director enough along the journey so that we have a chance to make changes. Also, it’s an opportunity for them to flag if there’s been a misunderstanding.

read more: Fantastic Beasts 2 Review

But I would say the worst case scenario would be an inexperienced VFX supervisor and an inexperienced director with VFX. The VFX would think of jumping into something and wanting to show something really nice and work on it for too long on without showing it and then the director would go, ‘Well, I was expecting this and this and that,’ and then you basically have to start everything over.

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It really depends on the knowledge of the supervisor, but it’s also our responsibility as a vendor to take the client by the hand and walk him through all these steps so it’s clear from the get go what the steps are involves and what are the impacts that certain decisions could have on the process.

Yeah, that sounds very important. I did want to talk about Fantastic Beasts too, which you worked on. So Rodeo did, was it 200 shots and 15 sequences for The Crimes of Grindelwald? Which parts did you work on?

So we worked on the London Ministry of Magic, the Hearing Room Interview with Newt, with the Pensieve Table. We did lots of shot extensions, set extensions, rooftop views and street views, many angles, varying sequences, and then we did the Irma Dugard sequence, which is the face off between Credence and Grimmson.

We also did a bit of stuff in the sewers … A bunch of that was omitted, but that was another environment that we were dealing with. Also, the banners, the sequence with the black cloth covering the city. The whole Kama flashback—Leta’s nightmare sequence where all the individual storylines kinda blend into one-

Yeah, that’s an important one. A lot happens.

Well, it’s really subdued because it’s all like background stuff basically what we did, but all the peeling off of the environment, leaving the memories behind. So lots of that was shot with fully green screens because the locations that they wanted, well, couldn’t be shot at, so they basically just scanned everything, built a very rudimentary set for actors to interact with, which was all green [screen] and then we basically reproduced the desired location. 

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Do you have a specific shot or sequence that you’re particularly proud of?

Yeah, the Irma Dugard sequence was the most fun, I think, for sure. It’s just the perfect length because it happens really quickly in the film, but it’s still a solid, interesting chunk of the action. It’s perfectly placed in the story that it kind of wakes you up just at the right moment.

It was just, technically, a very interesting challenge to tackle for many, many reasons, and it was also a visually-interesting concept as well. I thought it was fun that you’d play with the debris that an explosion would create, and then seeing real closeup shots and real wide shots. That was really fun and the obscurus being present in the sequence, it was actually not planned out that way at all.

We had blocked the sequence entirely and all the choreography of the debris in every shot. I think it was about mid-May that [director] David Yates said, ‘I think we need to see the obscurus in the air.’ And it was a complete curve ball like because there’s so much in these shots already, but I was super afraid then to scrap it on an aesthetic level, and that it would look like something unassumed or unfinished.

So it was a design challenge even more so than the schedule challenge because the scope of work of adding the obscurus in there at that moment in the schedule, it was lots of added pressure. It’s a very unstable FX setup. Very unpredictable, so it’s really hard to control, and it takes lots of iteration to get to an interesting result, being so abstract.

How many people were on the team for you guys?

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I will need more stats to tell you, but I would think it was probably 160 to 180, something like that. But it varies across the course of the project, as well. You don’t get 180 people working during the same month. It’s really across the duration across the whole project.

You mentioned you know how important it is to communicate and to collaborate with the director, but obviously you’re not the only visual effects company working on a movie this large.

No.

What does that look like in terms of communicating with other VFX houses about what they’re doing…? How much of that goes on?

Well, it doesn’t actually, unless you have shared shots, right? Or you can share assets as well, but that rarely happens because it makes things much more complicated obviously.

Like, in the first Fantastic Beasts, we had a sequence, Newt’s Suitcase, I think we were like eight vendors working on the same sequence, and it becomes really complicated because not everyone has the exact same workflow. So, when you start sharing cameras or assets, the many components of it which are, how can I say… proprietary tools?

Yeah, yeah, that makes sense.

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Yeah, so it becomes really complicated. You have to strip it down from those, so you can share something that is not as complete as you would have internally, but it’s also the question of communicating through the client. It can happen, but most of the time that’s why it’s split.

Maybe, a good example I could give you is we did a lot of Paris extension, tall buildings. It’s really simple, it’s mostly textures and shading. That’s something that’s easy to share. So, if a vendor has this sequence to do with a Paris extension, which is part of a scope involving one asset that is not gonna be shared, most likely clients are going to ask us to just deliver all of our assets so that the vendor can get a bit of a push on his schedule.

So, it’s just to help each other out, but anything that can be recouped with too much trouble if need be, well, it’s going to happen, but it’s well split out usually that you’re in charge of your part of the project, and then everybody does their own little business. I think it’s more the knowledge of the franchise aesthetic that really binds everything together.

How much do you look at the Harry Potter movie when creating effects for their prequels?

Well, the historical stuff, I guess, is the easiest part to … It’s just reproducing something. When it’s a period piece like this, there are some interpretation as to what reality was, and that’s driven by [production designer] Stuart Craig, obviously. So we master what Stuart provides us with.

In terms of matching Potter, well, we do have this gaping time, which kind of allows for some differences but also some similarities, but it’s just enough, you know that time difference is just enough to allow for a bit of flexibility because what I know for sure is they liked to hint at the original Potter series, obviously it is part of the same universe and everything but they’re also very keen on creating a new experience.

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read more: Fantastic Beasts 3 Filming Pushed Back

So, the essence of what was there is always the most important is your roadmap, but then there’s what you have access to as tools and more precision. So there’s always an opportunity to revamp with something that was seen in the Potter series for sure. But there are lots of new opportunities as well, which are the ones where, I guess, we focus more because there’s no expectation. It’s just creating a surprise, and showing something different.

The VFX industry seems to move and evolve so quickly. Were there things you were able to do with The Crimes of Grindelwald that weren’t possible when the first Fantastic Beasts movie came out?

Well, it’s not stuff that we couldn’t have done. It’s more the effort and development that we would’ve needed to put in back then. I look at some older stuff we did and it looks fine and it’s cool and it holds up, but it’s more about the way you’re going to be handling that problem, [versus] with more recent tools and approaches.

I really think that’s all it’s about. Because we did creatures before and we found solutions and all of that, it’s just that you get this extra momentum with tools being faster and computers being stronger that you get faster to the same results.

I wanted to ask you about Paddington 2 because I love that movie so much and I know that you worked on it, specifically on the underwater sequence, correct?

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It’s one of my very best projects because it was short, and it was one solid sequence, so it’s completely apart from the rest of the film, and it had a great emotional drama to it. It was like making this little short film, and our development was to be very specific and, yes, we were basically taking Paddington from Framestore, but we also had to ingest it so it works within our pipeline, so that, in the end, it had to match exactly to theirs.

That was really fun, but also bringing new things to the asset itself, like with the underwater.

Is there a kind of movie that you haven’t had the chance to work on that you’d like to? 

I like the very independent, small type of movies, like Arrival. It was really fun. But I’d rather be involved with character work than environment. What I don’t want is blowing up a monument or the pyramids. To me, it’s like fast VFX effects. It’s stuff that you could binge on which you’ve seen hundreds of times. It just gets better every time someone does it obviously because of technology, but it doesn’t carry anything.

I like a character that is a subject and that can emote, that’s the coolest stuff, and it’s also always the biggest challenge no matter how good technology is and whatnot. It’s always the most interesting thing, at least for me. The most motivating for sure.

I noticed that Rodeo has on some TV work as well. Have you ever worked on a TV show, and either way, is it very different, that process versus working on a movie?

Well, it’s not so different. There can be some, how can I say, variables in terms of pipeline sometimes because you want to streamline stuff a bit, but the reality is that it’s much more timeline-based because it’s a series of episodes, so the schedule is super-compressed. So, it’s much, much harder in that way.

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In terms of pressure, it’s much harder, so you don’t have as much time to refine something or to build an asset. You just get to it and get into shots really fast, so it’s a completely different pace. Objectives are much the same, but I’m, again, not too interested in TV stuff for that reason.

As somebody who understands VFX, I’m curious for you just as someone who maybe goes to the movie or is watching a TV show or whatever, are there films or TV shows that you’ve really admired the VFX for as a casual fan?

I don’t know. It’s really difficult to be looking at VFX when you make them. I guess it’s part of why I still like doing this. It’s still the same kid just watching cool stuff. That’s what it’s about. I’m not being judgmental when looking at other films. It’s all good, a bunch of people doing cool stuff, and it’s a great time for industry because there’s so much visual effects involved now in movie-making.

But I look more back at old classics that used just special effects or early CG and just, I don’t know, I guess today is probably too much VFX, in a way. You known what I mean? It’s not necessarily being used as wisely for the spectacle as it used to be.

So, if anything, I don’t like to watch the ones that are just a showcase for visual effects. It needs to still be a film, and I don’t care if it’s got 2,000 [VFX] shots or like two or three really well done shots. It comes back to the final result being something worthier of interest and that creates a suspension of disbelief.

So, if I’m able to forget about, ‘How did they do this?’ and ‘What was that they used?’ and ‘This looks like a green,’ you know?

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Yeah, it’ll be very sad if you could always see how the magic trick was done.

Yeah, well, it’s obviously that you become a bit like that. Like the audience now is also much more experienced with visual effects, seeing a lot of breakdowns and all of these things, so the general public has developed their sense of … They can really pick up on the effects. It’s almost like a general acknowledgement that, ‘This is not real. I’m not even thinking about it anymore.’

I think what’s successful is when people believe it’s real, but it’s not, and the physicality of things as well. Obviously a city collapsing and all these things, like nobody is going to imagine it’s real, but certain small things, in the midst of all of these big effects, some people can’t pick up on and that’s really the most rewarding project to do, I think.

Rodeo FX is a VFX company with studios in Montreal, Quebec, Los Angeles and Munich. They’ve worked on some of the biggest projects of the past year, including Ant-Man & The Wasp, Sicario: Day of The Soldado and Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle. Find out more about the incredible work Rodeo FX here.

Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.