How Wonder Woman 1984’s Practical Effects Set it Apart
Patty Jenkins' action filmmaking philosophy of "real people doing the real thing" makes Wonder Woman 1984 a cinematic breath of fresh air within the superhero genre and beyond.
Going back to Themyscira is one of the most anticipated aspects of Wonder Woman 1984. For many fans, the Amazons were the highlight of the original film and an all-Amazon movie can’t come soon enough. The physical prowess and the pure joy of seeing so many women not only in combat, but engaging in fight choreography that’s developed around their physical attributes/gifts/features, is a rare and wonderful thing. The resulting actions sequences were unlike anything on screen before: highly stylized yet clearly effective.
Heading into WW84, director Patty Jenkins and her team (which now includes Gal Gadot as a producer) had a reputation to uphold, and then some.
“There was just no way we’re going to take any shortcuts,” Gadot said during a WW1984 press conference. “And we’re just going to raise the bar and give everything we have because we knew people were so invested with the character and cared so much about her.”
One of the biggest opportunities for action on an epic scale is the so-called Amazon Olympics, an extended opening sequence from Diana’s childhood, where she competed against some of Themyscira’s best in a triathlon of sorts involving an obstacle course high in the air, swimming, and archery on horseback. Lilly Aspell returns to play young Diana who’s now 10 years old. She did at least five months of training to run the obstacle course, which she actually runs through herself. Some of the more fantastical elements are enhanced with green screen and CGI for her safety, but all of the running, jumping, climbing, and swimming is Lilly herself.
If the Amazons were the high point of the first movie, the unequivocal low point was the final fight in the third act, a messy overlong CGI spectacle that felt out of step with the spirit of the warm, character-driven movie audiences had fallen in love with up until that point. While no one mentioned it by name in interviews, it’s not hard to imagine that’s what Jenkins is keen to avoid when she talks about avoiding CGI action – or when Chris Pine refers to “cataclysmic computer graphics explosion nonsense.”
As star Gal Gadot put it: “Patty really made a point about wanting to have a minimum amount of CGI in our movies. So most of the stuff that you’re going to see is real people doing the real thing. Whether it’s us or the stunt people, it’s real people. So it took much longer. You have to prep and to rehearse much longer.”
Gadot calls WW84 “the hardest movie I ever got to shoot by far” but also says it was worth it.
“[The first movie] was received in such an amazing way that there was just no way we’re going to take any shortcuts. And we’re just going to raise the bar and give everything we have because we knew people were so invested with the character and cared so much about her,” said Gadot. “When you see it in the movie … you can just tell that it’s the real deal. You can see by the face expressions that it’s real. You can see the weight and the movement and the speed.”
Practical effects have major advantages, and directors like George Miller and David Leitch, who directed female starring action movies Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde, respectively, are big fans. But there are disadvantages as well.
“The hardest parts were just how demanding the shoots were and how physical it was, because it was very important for Patty that we do minimum amount of CGI,” Gadot told Den of Geek and other outlets during a recent press event “So most of the stuff that you see—the running on Penn Avenue, the Amazon sequence, the fight with Cheetah—most of it, it’s real people doing it for real. And for the obvious reasons, it took longer to shoot and it’s very tiring on your body. But then you see the result and I was so satisfied with it cause I was like, ‘Oh my God, you can see the difference. You can tell the difference between real action to CGI action. You can see it in the way that we move, that we hold, our faces, our bodies.’ So that was the hardest part. The rest of it, honestly, Wonder Woman feels like a second home for me.”
There’s a decent amount of wire work in the film which, as Gadot pointed out, isn’t exactly new so much as something that’s fallen a bit out of favor with the rise of CGI.
As fans of the comics know, and the trailer has alluded to, Diana and Barbara have a relationship of sorts before Cheetah enters the picture. Gadot, Jenkins, and Wiig discussed the unique nature of their climactic altercation at a press conference for WW84.
“And I think Gal and I talking about this from the very start,” recalls Jenkins, “saying, ‘However they would fight, it would be completely different. And they’re friends.’ Right? Or at least they have this friendship in the past. It’s not about punching in the face … They’re both trying to literally get the other one under control. … So, narratively, it was fascinating, and then how it would work spatially was fascinating, and then executing it was long and laborious and wild.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this before,” Gadot says. “It’s not like when you see women try to fight like men. No, we’re females, our bodies are different, the way we move is different and this is how we do it. And just to see it, it was so great.”
Each part of the set was carefully designed around the needs of the fight choreography. Eagle-eyed viewers might pick up on a railing or two that play key roles in how the performers bring the action to life.
“We designed what we wanted something to feel like and look like and what the moves were. And then we had to build. There was no stage big enough in the world so we had to build the stage,” Jenkins says. “And then we had to build all those things. And then we have Cirque du Soleil performers practicing them and showing us what things are going to look like. And then these guys have to end up doing it. And so it was incredible, but it was fun to really aspire.”
Of course many fans are simply worried how Cheetah herself will look. As Cinema Blend helpfully points out, while Cats and WW84 were made around the same time (and filmed in adjoining studios) Kristen Wiig looks significantly better than the cast of that delightful little monstrosity.
“Finding the right blend of prosthetics and CG to make that transformation was… it took a ton of (research and development),” Jenkins told Cinema Blend. “It started from the day I started it, and we didn’t complete it until the day we finished. It was so complex trying to figure how to pull off that character. I would lose so much sleep over it. Honestly. Because I was like, it could go so wrong. The first thing I did when I got on to the movie was that they said, ‘We can do this all CG. We can put hair on people.’ And I was like, ‘Show me the best example of that.’ And I saw it, and I said, ‘That’s not good enough. If that’s where our technology is, that is not good enough.’ … Cats was shooting on the stage next to us, and I knew that they were going through the same thing. And then I heard that they were just going to do it in CG. And I was like, ‘I hope it works out for you!’ But I’ve never been so thankful for the process I went through.”
It’s worth noting that while they were filmed at the same time, WW84 is coming out a full year after Cats. The VFX artists who worked on Cats were famously mistreated, rushed to put out an inferior product in order to make financial and awards show deadlines (the latter of which they missed) and then many were laid off and their work publicly derided, an all-too-common occurrence in the industry. Nevertheless, Jenkins once more opted for practical effects as much as possible, and held off on incorporating CGI until absolutely necessary.
“I didn’t want Kristen’s face to become some animated bizarreness. So then we ended up doing tons of prosthetics. Real work. And we only took over certain parts of her body. The rest of it is prosthetics.”
Perhaps most importantly, the action in WW84 is an extension of characterization and moves the plot forward—one of the biggest advantages of using practical effects and a reason actors often cite when they insist on doing as many of their own stunts as possible. The opening sequence in Themyscira illustrates a lesson that shaped who Diana is as a person. Her relationship with Barbara informs her tactics in battle. Her stance on violence and war in the first film—a tricky but welcome one for the genre—is refined here, and directly impacts how she fights.
Wonder Woman isn’t just a demi-goddess who punches her way to victory—how, who, and when she fights matters, both behind the scenes and within the story.