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Mill Film Spices Up 'Chocolat'
By Bjorn Thoresen
January 26, 2001 06:01 PM PST

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Another shot in the film's opening section shows Vianne and her daughter, clad in Riding Hood-red cloaks, making their way up the river bank toward the town. While the river seen in the shot did exist in the location the scene was shot, Mill Film needed to apply color correction and digital snow to make the scene match the opening helicopter shot. "There was a little practical snow around where the actors were walking up the road, but we did additional work to add snow to the rest of the trees and the rooftops of the town," Pettipher said. "We also added falling snow to that shot. We've got our own library footage of practical now shot against black, which we used to composite into the scene. Our brief was to create a general buildup from shot to shot of snow falling, so we layered it up a little bit more on each shot as the sequence progressed."

Another shot in the sequence circles around the town's church and central square. Pettipher explained that the camera movement in this shot required 3D tracking to place patches of snow in the scene; Mill Film artist Kieron Helsdon used 3ds max and Scene Genie to perform the tracking. "We used 3D tracking on that shot because the camera move was slightly tricky. The camera spins nearly 360 degrees around the church and then there's a crash zoom downward as the wind blows the church doors open. On those shots we used SceneGenie to help us lock in the snow patches on the ground. It wasn't a blanket of snow -- it was meant to look as though it had snowed a few days before."

Just as the film opens with an aerial shot moving toward the town in winter, it closes with a similar aerial shot pulling back from the town to reveal the summer landscape. While the second helicopter shot did not require the seasonal change applied to the first, both shots required stabilization. Mill Film also composited a flock of birds and a dog into the film's final shot to add a bit of motion to the frame. "For the final shot, we took a track off the village church, because that stayed in the frame all the way through, and locked onto it. We used that to capture the motion path of the plate and then inverted the motion to stabilize it -- if the frame jerked to the left, we would apply a corresponding pull to the right. Obviously, we didn't want it to be too perfect, so we gave it a more generic, smooth movement. You need to apply that stabilization when you have title cards coming up, because otherwise the movement would show up even more in contrast to the static titles. Stabilizing the shot makes the titles more readable, and just makes the shot a little more perfect, really.

"Once we had smoothed out the shot and added the title cards, the production team felt that the town looked too quiet -- there wasn't much movement -- so we added some birds flying across the frame and tracked in a dog running across," said Pettipher. The birds were created using 3ds max. "They were very small in the frame," Pettipher said. "We were able to put that animation together very quickly -- the birds just flutter briefly across the corner of the frame, which gave an extra bit of life to the shot." While the birds are a purely digital creation, "the dog belongs to the guy who does our film scanning," Pettipher said. "We shot the dog running across his back yard. We've got our own 35mm cameras, so when we need to shoot an element fast, we can go and get it. We shot the dog on a nice, sunny day -- the weather conditions that day were very similar to those shown in the final shot. We had the right kind of sunlight casting shadows at a similar angle to the angle of the shadows in the scene. We got up on the roof of the house to shoot the dog so we could match the angle of the helicopter shot looking down on the town. We shot the dog running across the grass -- it was a black dog against the green grass, so it make a perfect greenscreen -- and then we cut him out and tracked him into the shot of the town."

"Raft Before"
Mill Film also applied enhancement to a romantic scene between Vianne and Roux that takes place on a small riverboat covered with a white tent. "In the scene, the boat is backlit and the action is suggested through shadows on the tent," Pettipher said. "On the actual plate, there weren't any shadows on the tent -- we created that element. We had one of our workers and his fianceé, who also works here, come onto a stage and we shot them backlit against a white screen and got them to have a bit of a kiss and a cuddle. We then extracted that shadow element and tracked it onto the boat element." In another scene, Mill Film replaced a dog's leash to accent the dog's performance. "There is a scene where a man's dog eats some of the chocolates, becomes excited and tries to mount another dog. That was shot in reverse -- one dog was placed on the other and sort of climbed off -- so we had to reverse the motion of the shot. But the dog wasn't really straining at the leash the way he needed to be, so we shot a dog leash against bluescreen, pulled it tight, and tracked that onto the dog so it would look like he was really pulling on the dog lead. We did lots of little things like that to help sell certain bits of the story."

"Raft After"
In addition to these digital enhancements, Mill Film digitally created transitions -- fades and dissolves -- and speed changes that would normally have been done through optical processes. "They wanted the traditional optical things all done digitally," Pettipher said. "It gave us more control to try things out. We also went in to remove telegraph poles and pylons from certain shots, and did repair jobs to remove a few scratches from the main unit footage." An example of the speed-changing occurs in the scene where Vianne accidentally drops an urn containing her mother's ashes -- the shot briefly freezes into slow motion as the ashes scatter. While this effect would have been traditionally accomplished in post through step-printing on an optical printer, it was created digitally by Mill Film for "Chocolat." "The re-timing was done for dramatic effect," Pettipher said. Mill Film also enhanced the ashes digitally in a later scene. "There is a scene at the end of the film where Vianne scatters the ashes out of a window," Pettipher said. "When they shot the scene, it was a windy day, and the ashes just flew straight up into the air. We shot some ashes against black on our soundstage, tracked them in and got the ashes to behave as we wanted in the shot."

Mill Film's work on "Chocolat" began in early September and wrapped in early December. "We did initial previews in the end of September," Pettipher said. "We got everything sort of roughed up for a first version, and then we were able to revisit it, refine it and massage it all for the final version, which we did around late November and early December. It was a fairly fast turnaround." Mill Film team kept in contact with the film production both through e-mail and snail mail. "It's important to keep up a dialog with the cutting rooms and the director," Pettipher said. " The sooner the editors can cut stuff in, the sooner they can get a feel for the final shot. Every day, or every couple of days, we would e-mail them stills and send them TV-resolution temp videotapes that they could cut into the Avid. They would then give us feedback; for example, if they felt the snow was too light or too heavy in a certain area, we could make that change. It's also nice to be in close contact with the cutting room because they know that even right up to the last minute, they can get something changed if they need to. Our initial quote wasn't for the 60-odd shots that we worked on -- it was a lot less than that. But as the creative process went along and the film started to take shape, the production team found additional shots they wanted to enhance. It kept us busy for a few months; the tricky shots for us were the opening shots, the re-grading and the tracking-in of the birds and the dog. Those are the kind of things the viewer doesn't really notice -- everyone's aim is to get the invisible effect. It's quite fun working on that stuff."


Production Companies:

David Brown Productions
Fat Free Limited
Miramax Films


Lasse Hallström
Screenplay: Robert Nelson Jacobs (from a novel by Joanne Harris)
Editor: Andrew Mondshein, A.C.E.

VFX Company: Mill Film, London

VFX Producer:

Antony Hunt
VFX Production Accountant: Brenda Coxon
Digital Supervisor: Angus Cameron
Digital Manager: Dan Pettipher
Digital Compositors: Mark Bakowski
David Sewell
Helen Ball
Alice Mitchell
Sean Danischevsky
3D Tracking: Kieron Helsdon
Digital Artist (River, Birds): Evan Davies
VFX Cameraman: Rick Mietkowski
VFX Focus Puller: Andrew Stevens
VFX Clapper Loader: Matthew D'Angibau
Scan and Record: John Grant
Production Assistant: Katherine Lofting
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