Bill & Ted Face the Music VFX Interview – Nancy St. John, VFX Producer
August 28, 2020 – VFX Producer Nancy St. John, talk to VFX Online about working on the Bill & Ted Face the Music.
Bill & Ted Face the Music is a 2020 American science fiction comedy film that acts as a sequel to Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) and the third installment in the Bill & Ted trilogy. It is directed by Dean Parisot and written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon. Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves reprise their roles as the respective title characters, and William Sadler reprises his role as the Grim Reaper, while Kristen Schaal, Samara Weaving, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Anthony Carrigan, Erinn Hayes, Jayma Mays, Holland Taylor, Kid Cudi, and Jillian Bell join the cast. Bill & Ted Face the Music was simultaneously released in theaters and through video on demand in the United States on August 28, 2020, by United Artists Releasing.
// From Nancy St. John, VFX Producer
How did you get involved in this film?
Mutual friends let me know that Producer Scott Kroopf, who I had worked with on the movie Limitless, was looking for additional VFX help on-set in New Orleans. Major parts of the movie were about to be shot in large green screen stages with minimum sets and plans were being discussed to start up a second unit. After reading the script I signed on.
How did you feel working on Bill & Ted Face the Music?
It’s always a challenge to jump in mid-stream but everyone was super supportive. A few hours after landing in NOLA, we were discussing major Green Screen sequences. I felt like I had time travelled in and it felt perfectly normal. I knew there would be major challenges, especially financially, however I believed in the Director’s vision and ultimately felt that the fan base would be happy with the end result.
How was the collaboration with the director Dean Parisot? What were his expectations and approach about the visual effects?
I was a big fan of Dean’s Galaxy Quest and loved the VFX work done at ILM by VFX Supervisor Bill George and his team. In my first meeting with Dean and Scott it was clear they knew what VFX shots they needed to tell the Bill & Ted story and also conceptually knew what the shots should look like. Dean had put together a creative book of images for inspiration and in that book was his vision for the Future, inspired by Architect Santiago Calatrava. Although Dean described what he wanted very clearly, he was also very open to thoughts and suggestions. I knew my job would be to find the teams who could deliver his vision and be great collaborators.
How did you organize the work?
I acted as the overall VFX Supervisor/Producer.
Once we moved into Post-Production and Dean was willing to hand over his Cut of the movie, our task was to evaluate how to achieve the VFX as envisioned within a very tight budget. A lab was chosen and a vfx editor was hired. Packages were sent out for bidding and before long a small team of companies were selected to create the 459 shots. BUF Montreal was contracted to complete 119 shots and another Montreal based company MELS Studios was contracted for 168 shots. The remaining 172 shots were created by LA California based Shade VFX.
Key to accomplishing Dean’s vision was to secure VFX Supervisor Bill George from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) to complete all the designs and conceptual paintings. Dean and Bill had developed an incredible creative shorthand during Galaxy Quest and their partnership on Bill and Ted was electric. Under Bill’s direction the VFX companies were able to achieve Dean’s vision and more. It was so exciting to see their collective efforts result in producing VFX that, as Dean said, ‘moved the story along’ and created ‘a time capsule for the audience to cheer on Bill and Ted’.
How did you work with the art department to design?
The Art Department had its hands full designing and building the on-set pieces. The VFX ‘fantasy worlds’ were built by the VFX vendors Buf, Mels Studios and Shade VFX in unison with Conceptual Designer and VFX Supervisor Bill George from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).
Where were filmed locations?
New Orleans Louisiana. The Kid Cudi concert was filmed in Hollywood, CA.
Telephone booth is seen in various lightning effects. How is that effect created?
Dean saw the phone booth as a rusty old car that needed encouraging to do its part to help Bill & Ted fulfill their destiny. The electricity or lightening effects were affected by where they landed in the space time continuum and what was going on with Bill & Ted’s journey. Both vendors Mels Studio and Shadevfx had their own Phone Booth and integrated it into their sequences based on the lighting and the emotional impact of those scenes.
How did you create the crowd simulation?
Mels Studios in Montreal Canada created the period CG crowd and stadium for the Babe Ruth record setting scene. VFX Supervisor Luc Julien and VFX Producer Cynthia Mourou managed a team of incredibly talented artists who recreated the 1932 World Series scene perfectly. I asked Luc to write a brief description has to how they achieved those and some of the incredible shots and here is what he wrote;
How did you create the CG crowd in the 1930’s world series/babe ruth shots.
- We are lucky to have an extensive library of crowd plates that we gathered over the years. The stadium was built in 3d matching the plan of Wrigley Field, the 3D position of each seat and passed it along to the comp department where we instanced footage of crowd matching the action of the sequence. We used many reference photos to match the time period.
How did you create the lighting fx on the phone booths – NOTE – in FRENCH Phonebooths are called cabins.
- For the booth, we designed the lighting and smoke effects in Houdini, we had several caches for different actions that were reused throughout the show. Each cabin was rendered with Arnold in Maya. At Mels all our scenes are managed with our proprietary pipeline called VGAS, it plays a crucial role when delivering complex sequences in continuity. The comp department received all the passes require to enhance the look for each shot.
What did you use to create the infinity booths shot.
- The infinity booths were one of the last shots we worked on, at this point we had all the ingredients available to craft this epic shot. Layout and FX as been made in Houdini, digi-double and cabin made in Maya, rendered in Arnold. For this shot, our lead comp did a fantastic job of layering all those elements to enhance the action.
How did you create the shot at the end of the movie.
- for the end shot, we made a CG earth in Maya, and comped various elements of fluids to keep the organic look in the shot. It was very important to pack as much detail in as we could to keep the scale of the shot.
Finally, Bill & Ted was a great show for Mels, from the seamless split-screen shots to those epic full CG shots. Every show is so different but one of the things I’m the proudest is that we always manage to have fun and build a great relationship with our client.
Can you tell us more about the various particles creation in the film?
Are you referencing the Circuits of Time shots? They were created by Shade VFX and are entirely 3D. We tried to pay homage to the original Circuits of Time and yet make them more modern.
Did you create any 3D elements for the film?
There were many 3D sets created for the Film. All the sequences in Hell – arriving and leaving Hell, walking up to the Gates of Hell, everyone meeting in the Pits of Hell and the setting for Death’s House were all 3D CG and created by BUF. Some sets were built to accommodate the actors but the remaining set extensions were all done using digital matte paintings and adding FX fire and lava.
The Future was entirely 3D and created by Shade VFX under the Supervision of Bryan Godwin and from the designs of Bill George. Bryan and his team created both the daytime and nighttime shots which are pretty spectacular. The flying robot ships in the Future were also 3D and were created by Mels Studios.
Mels Studios also created the 3D Infinite Phone booths shot as well as the final shot where all that was happening on earth was reflected into space. Alex Winter told Bill George that it was one of his favorite shots in the movie.
What was the most challenging shot or sequence that you did and why?
The Future hands down was the most challenging. The TV show Westworld had shot in Spain at the City of Lights and all the Santiago Calatrava designed buildings. We had to create our Bill & Ted Future Calatrava city all in 3D and place our actors realistically in that Future. I think the night shots in the Future were some of our best work.
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
The Ending of the Movie on the Freeway that was done by Shade VFX and the last shot into space created by Mels Studios. It felt so rewarding to see Bill & Ted succeed, to see their daughters help make that happen and to see them rock on. That’s the ending we all wish for.
What type of software did you use for Bill & Ted Face the Music?
Buf used proprietary software while Shade VFX and Mels Studios used off the shelf software and wrote additional simulations and other vfx plug ins as needed.
The software I’d like to highlight is the software we used to finish the movie remotely during the pandemic lock down. There were 3 very important programs we used daily – Cinesync & Frankie – https://cospective.com – and Zoom. Cinesync and Frankie allow you to review shots with participants from around the world at any time. Without these tools we could not have finished the movie.
Of course the world is now aware of zoom and it’s ability to bring groups of people together and it was essential for us to group together to review shots many times a day.
How long did you work on the film, what was the overall shot count, and what was the size of the team?
I started working on the film a year ago. Our final shot count was 459 shots. My little team included our VFX Coordinator/Production Manager Willa Nielsen and VFX Editor Richard Sanchez. We were very fortunate to have steady visual guidance from Bill George and we all worked with our brilliant editorial team Editor Don Zimmerman and Asst. editor David Zimmerman. Our Post Production Supervisor Michael Urann kept us all together to the finish.
What is your next project?
I’m hoping a talking animal movie will get the green light once Covid-19 has been dealt with and we can all get back to making people laugh.
We would like to thank Nancy St. John for the great interview, and if you would like to know more about the team, please visit the website of Bill & Ted Face the Music.