Scott Daugherty on Practical Magic

Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman star in Griffin Dunne’s new movie, Practical Magic. But the real magic of the movie wasn’t Sandra’s good looks, or Nicole’s sexy smile, the real magic came from Cinesite Hollywood and their team of talented digital effects artists. Scott Dougherty, Cinesite’s visual effects producer for the movie talked with us about how the company worked their wonders.

Hi Scott, and thanks for talking with us.
My pleasure.

Can you give me a little background on yourself; how did you get into this industry?
I originally wanted to get involved in production design work, so I moved to LA and started working as an art department production assistant. I did that for a couple of movies, and then landed a job as a production coordinator on a low-budget feature. This experience led to a job as production manager for the company’s next film. When this project was put on hold just a few weeks before filming was to begin, I decided to do some temp work at Cinesite here in Hollywood until the film started up again. During this waiting period, I accepted a full-time position at Cinesite as a production accountant. Working so closely with the facility’s production department led to other positions as scheduler, coordinator, associate producer, and eventually to my current role as visual effects producer.

What sort of effects did Cinesite produce for Practical Magic?
For Practical Magic there were a wide range of effects, some more straightforward than others. One of the more extensive effects required us to create the look for a character who is killed and brought back to life several times during the film. The look that the director and production designer agreed upon was that of a daguerreotype, an old photographic technique that used a light-sensitive sheet of metal as its medium. We studied various examples of these photographs and found them to be fairly monochromatic images that tended to pick up spots and other marks of age over the years. Using an in-house optical flow technique, we were able to generate data for the actor’s movements and then apply it to a number of textures in order to get them to track along with his image. The end result, which can be seen during the attic confrontation in the film, is an overall desaturated character with darker patches throughout his body.

How many shots in the film would you say you handled?
We completed approximately 100 shots.

Which shot do you think was technically the most interesting?
Well, we had a sequence where the character of Jimmy is exorcised and exits his host as a cloud of dust. He hovers on the ceiling above a coven of witches before falling to the floor, at which point he is swept through the house and out the back door. Some of these dust effects could have been shot practically on the set, though the concept for the scene changed during post production. Once the character falls from the ceiling, we used the sweeping action of the witches’ brooms to affect the movement of computer generated particles. By compositing this 3D animation together with live action dust elements, we created the illusion that the women were actually sweeping the leftover ash throughout the house.

We also worked on several shots featuring computer generated flower petals. The flower petals play an important part in the film when young Sally casts a spell to ensure that she will never die of a broken heart. The spell called for petals to swirl around in a bowl, then fly up into the sky and across the moon. To achieve this effect, our artists modeled 3D rose petals and animated their travel through supplied background shots of an empty bowl and the young girls standing on a balcony outside the house.

What software were you using for the movie?
Our 3D work was done using Maya and Dynamation. On the 2D side, we used Cineon for all of our compositing.

Do you have a favourite shot?
One of my favourite shots occurs when the spell that young Sally casts results in a flurry of white rose petals falling from the sky and encircling young Hallet on a pony. Once again, we supplied the computer-generated flower petals. This is a very pretty shot which always evokes a positive response from the audience. I also like the shot where Jimmy lifts up out of Gillian prior to his confrontation with Hallet in the attic. There are many different elements and textures which have been carefully layered in order to create a truly gut-wrenching effect for this sequence.

I guess there were a lot of subtle effects in the movie, wire and rig removals etc.?
Yes, we had several of these shots. In many cases this type of work was done in order to prepare elements that would be incorporated into more complicated shots. For example, the film originally featured a much more extensive scene of the witches flying outside the house. In order to make them appear to fly, the actresses were lifted off the ground by wires and shot in front of a greenscreen There were also some shots, including Gillian being thrown across the living room during the coven sequence and a frog coughing up Jimmy’s ring, which required the removal of wire rigs or strings used to affect certain actions on-set.

Are you happy with the way the movie turned out?
Yes, I think the movie turned out very nicely. The director’s concept was to have subtle effects that were not overly visible. For instance, there are no lightning bolts or energy trails that one may expect to find in a film about witches. Instead the magic happens more naturally, with objects being moved and transformed without the need for glowing or sparkles. The end result is a film where the magic supports the central themes of the story without overshadowing them.

Well Scott thanks for your time – its greatly appreciated.
Thank you.