Why The Revenant is a landmark in VFX

The Revenant is an at-times gruelling but always compelling filmmaking experience. It is also that rariety in cinema today – a movie where the visual effects do not overwhelm the storytelling, but enhance it instead. We asked VFX creative director Jordi Bares to explain the craft behind the film’s magic

“It is important also to consider the conditions in which the filmmakers operated on The Revenant,” says Bares. Courtesy 20th Century Fox/Think Jam.

VFX and cinematography techniques have evolved rapidly over the years, but like a kid with a new toy, filmmakers have often abused them. There are too many major movies where the technology overwhelms the story.  So I am pleased to say that The Revenant, from director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, is the perfect incarnation of what visual effects should aim to be: not so much used for their technical ‘chutzpah’ but for their ability to serve the story.

The superiority of the digital cameras used to make the film, in particular the Alexa 65, has made possible what to me is one of the very few truly cinematic experiences for a long time. This film brings the epic and ever-diminishing wilderness into the comfort of a cinema.

The incredible scene in which Leonardo Di Caprio’s character grapples with a bear has wowed audiences. This indeed showcases the modern way of doing visual effects, where context is everything and can be used to make an actor’s performance truly memorable.

What do I mean by context? Over the years I have been championing the importance of how a blend of traditional filmmaking, practical (ie non-digital) effects, pyrotechnics and CGI can work together. If we invest effort in the ‘right effects’, this will move the film forward and help make a seamless experience for the audience that won’t disconnect them from the story.

I was the Revenant bear: Stuntman Glenn Ennis, photographed by Scott Ateah wearing the blue performance capture suit used in filming The Revenant’s famous bear fight scene. The film’s visual effects were created by Industrial Light and Magic working with director Alejandro González Iñárritu
I was the Revenant bear: Stuntman Glenn Ennis, photographed by Scott Ateah wearing the blue performance capture suit used in filming The Revenant’s famous bear fight scene. The film’s visual effects were created by Industrial Light and Magic working with director Alejandro González Iñárritu

What is particularly remarkable about the bear scene is that the filmmakers used a professional stuntman to interact with Leonardo DiCaprio. This brought emotion to the screen, in terms of movement, in terms of shadows, lighting, contact, and an actor’s reactions to another actor’s performance. The physicality of the interaction was perfectly captured. This, in essence, drives the scene.

Of course the CGI bear then has to be ‘shoehorned’ onto the stuntman’s performance, using the same volume of space and interacting with DiCaprio in a realistic way. Considering the size of the stuntman is different from the bear, this means the animators have a very difficult challenge. This is one of the most accomplished moments in 2 3 the film, as it is truly invisible.  It is clear the filmmakers have used all the knowledge of physical-based rendering that, as an industry, we have been building over recent years. This is the reason the bear looks so credible.

The other notable scene for me is the avalanche. I was looking for clues of digital compositing but found none. Of course, when I dug into the making of this sequence, I found out it was done for real with helicopters producing a real avalanche using explosives. This shows how the practical effects role was embraced, fooling experts, critics and obviously audiences, with the net result that you are sucked into the story instead of being pulled out slightly by a suspicious visual effect. Too often this is not the case.

Leonardo DiCaprio as frontiersman Hugh Glass in The Revenant. Courtesy courtesy 20th Century Fox/Think Jam
Leonardo DiCaprio as frontiersman Hugh Glass in The Revenant. Courtesy courtesy 20th Century Fox/Think Jam

It is important also to consider the conditions in which the filmmakers operated on The Revenant, both because of the weather (in cold conditions it is very difficult to operate equipment, let alone deliver a performance) but also because practical effects and prosthetics are very involved techniques that require time and considerable patience so they can live up to the modern expectations of the new cameras, lenses and of course, audiences. This is what I find fascinating. They have not shied away from doing it properly – from the use of spherical lenses to get the scale required in camera, to the challenges put in ILM’s hands for the VFX, it is a very considered work.

As a professional I was wonderfully surprised that the filmmakers used VFX where I was not expecting it, and certainly where the audiences won’t. They have invested their dollars in the important things and made use of the various departments to drive the story forward in a seamless way. This is my own goal, on a totally smaller scale of course. The emergence of visual effects working together with other departments makes me very happy – we are back on track. I do hope that not only DiCaprio,  Iñárritu, Lubezki and ILM get their Oscars for this project, but also that the industry as a whole looks at The Revenant as a landmark piece that becomes a reference going forward for how visual effects are utilised.

Jordi Bares is creative director at Glassworks This article was first published in the March issue of CR, a Film and TV special

  • Love Of Carnage!

    what a stunning film and documentary.