Inside The Shimmer: Oscar-Winning VFX Supervisor Andrew Whitehurst Takes Us Behind Annihilation‘s Stunning VFX

Many filmmakers have attempted to translate the unknowable horrors of the Lovecraftian mythology to a visual medium. With Annihilation, Alex Garland brings his genre-tested hand to a loose adaptation of a novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer.

A big part of the success of Garland’s film hinges on the design of the visual effects and the methods by which these effects are able to communicate the terror of a world we cannot understand and the indescribable wonder of this same world. At the center is “The Shimmer,” the mysterious, closed-off zone that lies at the forefront of the government’s attention. As an alien force spreads across a mass of land, the effect of The Shimmer on this land is a visual effects artist’s dream.

Annihilation‘s special effects are dense and ever-changing, much like the contained world inside The Shimmer. Under visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst, everything that surrounds the film’s five explorers comes to life with a mix of vibrant practical effects, real sets, and CGI. MovieMaker spoke to the Oscar-winner about making this ambitious sci-fi spectacle—one which serves as a showcase for creative and stunningly realized VFX.

Ryan Williams, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How do you handle the balance between practical effects and digital effects that we see in the film?

Andrew Whitehurst (AW): The goal is to always do something practically if it can be done that way. This isn’t always the case, however. Every production needs to look at resources, time and cost, and—based on these—make a call whether to go practical or digital. Many of the visual effects in Annihilation are actually a combination of practical work and CGI. The alligator entering and bursting out of the water is digital, but Hayley Williams’ special effects crew built practical versions of the alligator shape that they could drag into the water, or put on a launching mechanism to make it burst out, and so even though the finished creature is all digital, the alligator’s interaction with the water is practical.

MM: How did you go about crafting the unique (and often terrifying) creature designs that we see in the film?

AW: Each creature went through its own design process. Sometimes, like in the case of the bear, we worked with Alex to come up with designs that would then be passed on to Tristan Versluis’ creature crew. The crew would then construct practical creations that we would use on set, even if they would ultimately come to be replaced with digital creatures in the finished film. We always tried to have a representation of the creatures on set so the actors had something to work off. This also allowed cinematographer Rob Hardy to frame his shots knowing where the creature would be. The alligator was the opposite process, with Tristan’s team designing and building a full scale model which we scanned and used as the basis for our digital version. We would continue to work on the designs throughout post-production as we adjusted each creature to make its level of beauty, horror, or mutation appropriate for the section of the film that it appears in. It was a very fluid design process.

Natalie Portman observes one of Annihilation‘s many creatures. Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

MM: What were the challenges in jumping from your Oscar-winning work on Garland’s Ex Machina to your work with Garland here?

AW: Annihilation is a very different film from Ex Machina. Ex Machina has a main character crafted through digital effects in Ava. Once we knew what she would look like, it was a matter of maintaining that look throughout the rest of the film. Ex Machina is also set in the real world so we could rely more heavily on practical locations and sets. In Annihilation so much of what you see on screen had to be designed either by art department or our visual effects team. Because of this, the workload in Annihilation was much, much heavier than it was on Ex Machina. In some ways, this was more rewarding, as we all felt that we really got to contribute a lot to the project.

The other way that Annihilation differed is that, because it is the story of a journey, every scene has new and different elements that all had to be designed, and then reworked so that they complemented the mood of the scenes as they played out.

MM: How did you work on the building of the sets?

The sets were designed and built by art department. In some instances, like the Southern Reach facility, we (in visual effects) would extend the practical sets built by art department, but it was always a collaboration. We were able to help with the design of the chamber under the lighthouse by using CGI to make a model of a mathematical shape for the room for the art department to use. So, although we sometimes collaborated where we could help, ultimately the beautiful sets are the work of Mark Digby’s art department.

MM: Were the majority of the visual effects planned out and crafted beforehand?

AW: We planned as much as we could ahead of time so that we could make sure to shoot the material that we needed to make it work. Inevitably, on a film with as many changing elements as Annihilation, we ended up revisiting our designs in post-production and changing them where necessary. It’s good to plan where you can, but you have to be open to the idea of change when it serves the story.

MM: The third act of Annihilation is full of visceral and visually imaginative surprises. How much of what we see was on the page; how much came from yourself and the creative team working together, and how much came from you alone?

AW: Everything you see on screen is a result of collaboration between Alex, the visual effects department, Director of Photography Rob Hardy, art department, and the cast. The whole process was one of evolution where one idea would inspire something else and so on. Sometimes those ideas would reveal themselves as a dead end. Sometimes an actor’s performance would change how we thought about part of a sequence and that would force us to re-evaluate our approach. We were always open to the idea of changing things to better serve the narrative. Ultimately, the narrative is our master.

A gruesome surprise for the explorers of Annihilation.

MM: Without going into spoilers, the last act delves into quite a bit of psychedelia. What were some of the influences that you turned to in crafting the visual effects?

AW: Our influences on the film were drawn from numerous sources far and wide. We looked at a lot of electron microscope imagery of cells, mathematical forms, lichens, mineral growths, molds, and deep space images. Surrounding yourself with such references is quite trippy in itself, and we could use that wealth of material as a creative springboard to explore visual ideas through concept paintings, story boards, and animation tests. It was an imaginatively fertile time. We had so much freedom to explore strange trains of artistic thought and see where they led us.

MM: How did your previous work—serving as 3D supervisor, CG supervisor and digital artist—prepare you for what the role of a visual effects supervisor entails?

AW: It’s incredibly helpful for an effects supervisor to understand as much of the nuts and bolts of making visual effects as possible. It also helps you make better decisions on set and helps working with the artists in the visual effects facilities, because you know what is difficult or time consuming and what is more straight forward. I’ve done many jobs at Double Negative over the years and each gives me a different insight into the whole process which I hope makes me a better artist. It is also very helpful to know how other departments, like camera, costume, or make-up work too, as you are able to have more meaningful conversations with them about the most practical way to tackle all the creative challenges on a film.

MM: Having worked on numerous big budget films before, was there anything that surprised you while working on Annihilation?

AW: I was surprised every day on Annihilation. Whether it was a beautiful concept painting, walking onto a set for the first time or seeing the visual effects artists’ work in our dailies review sessions, there was always something to take the breath away. Annihilation is such a visually rich film that everyone was able to contribute something beautiful, and I was lucky enough to get to see it all as it happened. MM

Annihilation opened in theaters on February 23rd, 2018, and opens on Netflix on March 12, 2018. Photographs courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

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