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‘Rebel Moon’ Roundtable Interview with VFX Supervisor Marcus Taormina

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Rebel Moon – Part 1: A Child of Fire is one of the year’s most anticipated projects. Writer-director Zack Snyder is a figure of renown and controversy, with his films often splitting audiences right down the middle. Nonetheless, Netflix believed in him enough to greenlight his massive Rebel Moon project.

The project will entail a two-part film, including a director’s cut, a comic series, a potential anime and video game, and more. The first part of his massive project is now released on Netflix, following Kora (Sofia Boutella), an ex-soldier in a far away galaxy who gathers a ragtag team of soldiers to take down the vicious Imperium.

To make this wider universe’s debut, they need a strong visual effects supervisor. Enter Marcus TaorminaTaormina has done visual effects on such projects as Bird BoxTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and The Amazing Spider-Man. He was gracious enough to sit down in a roundtable full of journalists, including our own Ayla Ruby and James Preston Poole, to discuss a variety of topics.

Our conversation ranged across many topics, including working under Zack Snyder’s vision, creating new worlds, textured CGI, and the response from the fans. For those who have watched Rebel Moon – Part 1: A Child of Fire or are simply curious about what goes into making these movies, this conversation is a can’t miss.

The interview with Rebel Moon VFX Supervisor Marcus Taormina

[Please note, the following interview has been slightly edited for clarity.]

Interviewer: Zack Snyder has a very distinctive visual style, which carries across all of his work, how much room did that leave for you to innovate and develop your own?

Marcus Taormina: That’s a great question. I think the thing that’s great about Zack is he has that visual style. He has that distinctive characteristic, but he also lets us kind of riff. So he usually storyboards the majority of the film. Will go out and will shoot, you know, basically shoot his boards. On occasion, just as shooting goes, there’s an organic quality to it. So every once in a while go, “oh, it’d be cool if we look this way and do a big, big, you know, huge scopey shot.” So I’m like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” But again, the thing that’s really good about him is he lets you riff and he kind of lets all departments riff a little bit and take it upon themselves to make it their own.

And so I think obviously, there’s certain things that are Zack Snyder, like the slo-mo. But, you know, I enjoyed taking the opportunity to say, “Okay, this is your style, but we’re gonna amplify it by adding certain details to it.” You know, I think we really enjoyed doing that. And, and I think it turned out really great. And I got to applaud Zack for just kind of letting us go and not only me as a, you know, the creative lead as a visual effects supervisor, but, you know, all the facilities and all the artists were right behind it, too.

On his favorite location in Rebel Moon to work on

James P. Poole: Watching this film, there are so many great eye-popping locales we get to visit. What was your favorite personally to work on in terms of location or planet?

Marcus Taormina: Oh, that’s a good one. Man, you know, I gotta say, Gondival. Gondival at the end of the third act only because it took so long. And actually, if you- I’m sure the materials come out soon, but that was shot on a tiny little green screen stage. It was actually segmented across multiple stages. So none of- obviously all of that is a full digital build. All the atmospherics is full digital effects, past compositors worked a very long time to make those shots look the way they do. And when it came, you know, when it was like, “Yep, those are done,” I was just super excited and super happy with that environment. But all of them to an extent, you know, and some of them are one offs. We have a somewhere around the count of about 38 environments, depending on the complexities throughout the movie. But I think that one’s probably my favorite.

On the Oscars and audience reaction to Rebel Moon

Ayla Ruby: I want to shift a little bit to the Oscar shortlist. Can you talk about, you know, when you found out what that was like? Just you know, your reaction to all of that because that’s amazing. Congratulations.

Marcus Taormina: Yeah, thank you so much. I actually found out yesterday, pretty much like everyone else did. But it was exciting. Because, you know, we’ve worked so long. I’ve been on the project for two and a half years now projects, I say because I’m working on the second movie as well, for two and a half years. And I was telling Emily and Mia too. For a while, we were working in a vacuum, right? And no one had seen the movie, they were very, you know, lock and key with the film. So I just, it’s one of those moments where you know that you’ve worked so hard, and everyone’s worked so hard on the project.

And you know, you feel that the work is good, but you’re not quite sure how the audience will react to it. Right? And so there was a little bit of nervousness to that before the movie released. But when everyone just reacted so positively to the trailer, I was like, “Yeah, this is good.” And then when we got the announcement yesterday, I was just super proud, and I kind of keep reminding myself that the work speaks for itself. Right? So I’m very proud of it.

And we had a great leader in Zack, and amazing artists across the globe did a fantastic job and really kind of got behind the ideas of what we wanted to accomplish. What those worlds were, the cinematography, which is very challenging just because, you know, it’s these one of a kind lenses. And so, in order to make our shots look, just like the practical photography, we had to do a lot of R&D and create a lot of tools to make that kind of pop and go hand in hand. So it matched visually.

On seeing the cast at the Rebel Moon – Part 1 premiere

Interviewer: I just saw that you guys had the world premiere last week on the 13th at the TCL Chinese Theater. I just wanted to ask real quickly as far as you attending that, and just seeing everybody there including the fans, how was that reaction to everybody at that event?

Rebel moon cast poster
Rebel Moon promotional image (Netflix)

Marcus Taormina: The energy was amazing. It was so much fun. It was so much fun to see. Everyone reacts so positive about the movie. And I think one of my favorites, favorite parts of it, was seeing the cast. Because I’m out there when we’re filming going. “No, no, you got to do it this way. Like, don’t worry. Like, it’s not gonna, you’re not gonna have egg on your face. Like, when you’re touching the bennus, like, trust me, it’s gonna look good. And you really got it like…” And then explaining these characters that are really just like green screen heads or nothing “right over there, you’re gonna see it.” And you know, Zack, and I, obviously, understand what that looks like in our minds, but no one else does. And to walk the cast through that is challenging sometimes. And they did a fantastic job.

But when I got to see them, I’ll specifically target Sofia [Boutella] because I like looked at her. And I smiled, and she ran up gave me a huge hug. She’s like, “Oh, my God, I’m- my mind’s blown. How did you do this? Like, I don’t understand.” And she wanted to know all the technical details, which is great about Sofia because when we’re out there, she’s asking questions she wants to know, she wants to understand it to better herself.

And, you know, everybody else too, like Staz [Nair] is like “You blew my mind. I don’t understand how you guys do it, you do. But you did such an amazing job.” I mean, you know, for Staz, he’s sitting on this green screen buck, in a parking lot in Los Angeles that’s going this swaying like this. And we’re like, “Don’t worry, we’ll make it look cool.” So to have them to have all the reactions from all of them to just be so you know, ecstatic about what the final film was awesome!

On making different worlds feel real with VFX

Interviewer: First off, congratulations, love the movie, watching it yesterday. I love film. And one of the big things about film is visual storytelling. And we go to a lot of different worlds in this movie. And I just want to ask you, how do you make worlds feel lived in? How does it feel to have like a history, culture, customs? And look and feel? How do you create these worlds from scratch?

Marcus Taormina: That’s a great question. And I actually appreciate the question a lot because, you know, we work I said it before, we kind of work in a vacuum. But also, we, in order to get it to feel in my opinion, you know, in order to make everything feel real, it’s about what’s the story behind this. So for the worlds we talked a lot about when we’re designing them, and when, you know, the production designers are designing them, we talk a lot about, “Okay, where is this? What is our inspiration? Where do these people come from? What are their values?” And then in post-production, we take that and we just amplify it even more.

So we have a lot of conversations, and we talk about if in these worlds if there’s creatures that we have to design, what are those creatures? What are their motivations, right? So it’s not a lot of people think oh, just digital, like you’re just gonna do it. But we actually take a lot of care into figuring out, you know, the background of those environments. What makes it feel real, what real-world reference can we pull, you know.

A lot of like atmospherics and like mood and lighting and composition, all those things factor in when we’re designing those shots just because we want to we want it to be seamless. We want it to feel like oh yeah, your planet’s a planet, but it won’t go oh, that’s all digital. And part of that too is grounding, grounding for this movie, grounding our cameras or even our digital cameras in practical constraints, and making sure that they match the practical cinematography. and movement that Zack as the DP and director did such a fantastic job with.

On working on both a regular cut and director’s cut of Rebel Moon

Interviewer: Hi, thanks. Congrats again. Just in the multiple cuts of the film, of course, we know there’s like a director’s cut coming. So how was the work schedule with both cuts? Like working on the shorter version and the longer, was it a case where you work on both simultaneously? Or you start with one, and then move on to the next? How was that?

Marcus Taormina: So I’m not supposed to talk about entirely that, but I can give you a little insight to it. So we did start talking about the filming, actually, because we shot 152 days 157 If you count, you know, my selfish days of shooting elements and stuff like that. And that was in itself a task. And along the way, we kind of we tried to shoot as best we could, in chronological order for both movies. And then towards the end of it, we tacked on some additional scenes.

But a lot of a lot of what the part one cut is derivative from the mass of the amount of shooting days we had. So that’s kind of all I can say right now. But as far as the workload, we tried to do it in, again, chronological order, and we’ve gone from one… I’m currently finishing two, and then we’ll be working on the extended cuts. Sorry I can’t give you more.

About the challenges of filming Rebel Moon so far

Interviewer: Hello, thank you for taking this time. The question that I have for you is really about the challenges that you’ve faced. I’m really curious about what was the biggest challenge? And also, how did you overcome it?

Marcus Taormina: Oh, that’s a that’s a good one. I’ll try to focus on like one challenge, but it’s hard to, filming was incredibly difficult. Filming that long, was incredibly difficult. And when we were in Veldt, the shoot conditions were very difficult. It was, sometimes it was 110 degrees out on in Veldt, and we were there all day in the sun. It was very gritty and dirty, which I absolutely love about our film, I think it kind of sets it apart from you know, more clean aesthetics of like films. But that also meant every day, we’re like picking dirt out of everything, washing our hair. So the filming was difficult.

But then from a post-production standpoint, it was the sheer amount of volume we had to get through. And just the amount of shots, the amount of environments we had to create and the amount of creatures so in segmenting that, in my mind, was difficult because you had to I had to align in post-production while we’re shooting.

That was the other thing. We were filming while we were turning shots over. So actually my days were very long, I’d get in the car at 6am to be driven to set and while I’m being driven to set, I’d be turning over shots on the computer, I’d have a little like remote, you know, Wi-Fi and be doing all that I get to set, and I film anywhere from 12 to 14-hour days, get back in the car, and then do all the posts through. So I’d work straight. But the second segmentation of all the creatures and environments and making sure that we gave them enough time to explore a little bit early on. So we could make them look absolutely fantastic. When we needed to later on.

So I hope I gave you a couple of answers. I hope that there’s something in there that you could use. I think it’s hard because it’s not just one thing. It was just multiple things. I mean, we’re also working on four movies right now.

On making something with cinematic impact onscreen

Interviewer: I wanted to say in a world where video games look increasingly realistic and there’s a big overlap in the way some effects are generated. How do you create something which still has that cinematic impact and makes people want to see something on a big screen?

Marcus Taormina: Oh, man. Lots of time. Lots of effort, lots of care, lots of details. I’m obsessive about details. You know, Zack, Zack will get in there sometimes. And I’ll be like, “the shot. I’m not ready with it yet.” And I’ll show him the shot and be like, “it looks really good.” I’m like, “But I’m not done with it. Yeah, I want to do this, this and this.” And he’s like, “great, go do it.” Again, a great filmmaker will allow that to happen.

And it’s the tiny details to me. That really matter. And, you know, we kind of have to push, push the technology every single time. I think a great example is, you know, when we started out in this film, it’s like, Okay, what’s, what’s our palette? What do we want it to look like we have said in this interview, is like, we want it to feel gritty, right, and dirty. And so what does that mean? Okay, well, we absolutely loved Dune’s, dust, but can we, you know, and it’s not a disrespect to them. It’s like, we love that, but we want to make it better. So how do we make it better?

And so we had to push our resources to the limits and get this really dirty, gritty feel, while also going, you have to match this because we did practical dust plates with a helicopter for some of the first drop-ship landing. And then you kind of have to meld together and just create that, like, I want to say, cinematic realistic look.

And again, I think just grounding the cameras with the surrounding footage. And also, like I talked about earlier, the optics that kind of gets into the next click, which, you know, I know, some people don’t love the shallow depth of field, but it’s a choice. It’s a creative choice. So I don’t want to go and have you know, all these this practical footage of our cast shot, and then in between there do a crisp CG shot. It won’t work, people are gonna be like, “That’s digital.” So, you know, I want to make sure there’s subtlety, but a lot of detail to each of our shots. And that’s, kind of, hopefully, I answered your question without saying a bit too much.

On supporting the storytelling and actor’s performances with VFX

Interviewer: How did you make sure the visual effects complimented the storytelling, without overshadowing the performances of the cast?

Marcus Taormina: That’s a great one. That’s a great one. Um, I’ll talk about Jimmy for a second because Jimmy is a great one where we kind of had to limit ourselves creatively, right? We could have done all this crazy stuff with Jimmy. But the history of Jimmy is interesting because we started out very early. We designed, we had a bunch of design phases through it with our production designers, Stephen [Swain], and Stefan [Dechant]. And we, we kind of landed at a point where we got to make this because it’s shooting soon.

And so we push that over to Fractured Effects. And they created that like beautiful chest plate and faceplate. And then I talked to Zack and I said, Well, you know, if [Anthony] Hopkins is going to voice this, we should get them in an ADR booth, do some scratch tracks, and give it to our performer so he can listen to it. And for me, that was really important. Because I’ve been in situations where you have a voice of one person, you have a performer of another, and they never meld and no matter what your brain just knows, and then it goes, “That’s not right.”

So we did that, Dody Dorn our editor, created a quick like slap edit of that. And we gave it and we video recorded as well, of course, we gave it to Dustin [Ceithamer] who was the Jimmy performer. And he went and studied it. And he really studied it. Like I thought he was just going to do it a couple times and have it. I could tell that he really studied it because when he first got on set in the suit and again, the suit was the beautiful head, a beautiful chest play and some shoulder plates. And he did the performance. But it was Anthony Hopkins, it was very even for me, I was like something’s weird here, like in a good way. I know that he studied it to a tee. And he kind of had the right movements to complement Anthony’s voice.

And so when we got in the post, I had a lot of discussions with Scanline, who did the work, and I said, I know how this is going to hurt. But I don’t want to if there’s any. There’s a majority of shots that we can preserve the chest plate and the faceplate. I want to do that because the lighting so great on it. But also we don’t need to skew from the performances. We don’t need to make Jimmy a robot and robot movement, Dustin’s performance is there, and it’s like beautiful and that’s where we had to limit ourselves creatively because we could have done so many other things right. But it’s we wanted to you’re like Dustin is great. Anthony Hopkins’ voice is great.

Rebel moon Jimmy
Jimmy in Rebel Moon – Part 1: A Child of Fire (Netflix)

What do we do? And that’s where you know… Sam and Aris at the river, where you have the subtle shift in his luminous of his eyes, and they blush, right? And so we brought in subtle human characteristics that all of us could relate to where you’re like Jimmy has soul now he has kept, you know, he’s a character that has soul.

And the same can be said with Levitica as well,. You know, Tony [Amendola] is amazing performer. And he did such a good job out there. And so we did a facial capture with Tony. But I said Tony’s performance is there, we just have to compliment it and retarget it to our creature. And like those are what we want. And that’s the, you know, the subtle movements in the lips or the eyes. And it’s like, that’s what the audience is going to relate to. And again, Levitica is amazing too, where he feels a little bit human there. So hopefully, that answered your question.

On using the elements with VFX, such as Jimmy in the river

James P. Poole: One thing that really blew me away in this film was the use of the elements, such as, of course, that dirt and water and how tangible it looks. One scene in particular, that blew me away, was where Jimmy is washing himself in the river. Now, how did you accomplish that very convincing interaction between these fully CG characters and the elements?

Marcus Taormina: So with that scene in particular, it there was a moment we’re like, Ah, I think we’re doing the right thing. And so I just let Dustin go, you know, we just let Dustin go and Zack direct Dustin. And when we got into post. I looked, I looked across it. And there’s only a handful of shots that we actually added, had to do a water simulation back over, just because some of the things would break, you know. He had blue gloves, and he had a version of his robot hand, but you know, there’s no negative space in it. So there’s, you know, occlusions to the simulation, or those occlusions of the practical water that wouldn’t be there.

But the majority of those are really performances in, in situations with a couple of blends between digital and practical water. And then, obviously, the extensive paint work that needed to be done needed to happen for the inner workings of Jimmy.

But again, I just kind of like the details, right? So if you look at those shots, that means not only I had to paint, we had to paint out what’s behind him, but it’s actually the reflections on the water as well. And so you have to paint him out on the water, and then make sure his reflection plays correctly over the water. Which you know, a little bit of digital magic there. But that’s another scene where there’s small details like, okay, the faceplate, keep the faceplate when we can. Or we had to, you know, in the blush moment, you had to replace the majority of the faceplate. But we said, keep the chin because there’s a droplet that goes off the chin that catches light because it’s backlit in the right way, as a specular highlight that like I know, we could replicate but like, why would we? It’s so beautiful the way it is.

On challenging visual effects in Part 1: A Child of Fire

Interviewer: What was the most challenging for you for the visual effects? Because I heard Jena Malone’s character was kind of difficult to get just right. Can you explain that process a little bit? Like, what do you what did you feel was the most, that was the most effort for you to get in the film?

Marcus Taormina: I’d say. It’s hard. Like, I want to say technically, that was the most challenging because that was such a tricky obstacle. And that was the scene that every single department was like, and I said this already. But it’s true is every single department showed up, and they’re like, I got you. I got you and all of us were working, like firing on all cylinders at exactly the same time.

And that was a hard one because you got stunt performance. You got [Bae] Doona’s performance. You have Jenna’s performance. You have the spider that’s not there. So in my mind, I’m going okay, where’s the legs? And having to tell cast, “don’t go over there. There’s a leg over there.” And then just making sure that I have all the capture of the environment for the paintwork. So technically, that was very challenging.

And I think for the Bennus… Beatrice the Bennus took the longest to get to where the final product is just because it took so long. Again, it’s a small details, right? It’s like the dirt and the feathers, the iridescent. And then the environment itself was a very tricky environment because it’s bright sunlight against a basically a big bounce board. Right? So the sand is so bright that it bounces back up. So some of the first a lot of the lighting renders came across, and it was like just not looking right. And so we had to push it a little left and right, if you will, to get it to sit in.

And then, of course, the interaction between Staz you know, was difficult too, and I have to say that the animation team did just an absolute bang up job and took my obnoxious notes in stride. Because it’s like, there’s so many good, I want to say, like, ticks in there, if you will, for Beatrice, the ear flicks and the eye darts and the peacocking. You know, and all those things add to the believability. So that one probably was the most took the longest, I’d say, which is a challenge in itself.

Zack Snyder’s Rebel Moon Part 1: A Child of Fire is now streaming

Rebel Moon – Part 1: A Child of Fire is now available on Netflix. Let us know what you think of the film on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord.

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James Preston Poole

James Preston Poole is a Houston-based writer who specializes in genre film, while also screenwriting and working on film sets whenever he can. He believes that as long as there’s someone out there to champion a movie, then there’s no such thing as “objectively bad.” James holds a Bachelor of Science in Radio-Television-Film from the University of Texas and owes everything to his friends, family, significant other Catherine, and their three-legged cat Trinity.

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