The visual-effects team on Alexander Payne’s satirical sci-fi comedy Downsizing created a realistic but artful miniature visual world.
James E Price’s brief on Downsizing was to go for effects that were “spectacularly banal”. At least, according to Price, that is what director Alexander Payne requested from his visual-effects supervisor when the two were contemplating how to get the satirical sci-fi comedy-drama — about the life-changing experiences of a mild-mannered everyman shrunk to five-inches tall as part of a plan to solve the Earth’s over-population problem — on screen.
“Obviously visual effects were going to be required to tell the story,” Price explains, “but they were never to upstage the story. So it was our goal to craft effects that were realistic and artfully done but didn’t distract from either the performances or the screenplay.
“My mantra to the artists was that our job was to help the audience get it and then forget it,” adds Price, whose 20-year career as a VFX supervisor also includes credits on Enemy Of The State, Australia, Pacific Rim and the 2014 reboot of RoboCop.
Downsizing’s effects — which mostly, to give a realistic feel, used origina. l photography and photographic elements that were then augmented digitally — are more prevalent in the film than they might at first seem. When nice-guy hero Paul (played by Matt Damon) moves to Leisureland, all the exterior and many of the interior shots employed digital effects to show the roof and wall of the pristine scaled-down community — for which sets were built on a soundstage at Pinewood Studios Toronto — where the better-off among the voluntarily downsized choose to live. Effects were also necessary to create the workers’ city just outside Leisureland, where the less privileged small people make do with grimier accommodation.
For sequences in which Paul and the other main characters visit the original downsized colony on the shores of a Norwegian fjord, effects were deployed to contrast the travellers and their scaled-down yacht with the landscape, flora and fauna around them. Price and his team did their most intricate work, however, on scenes in which the story’s big and small characters interact in the regular-scale world outside Leisureland.
Most of the shots were achieved by combining footage of regular-size people on normal sets with images of ‘small’ people (actually regular-size actors) performing on greenscreen stages. To ensure that the performers’ eyelines met, five-inch stand-ins for the small characters, made using 3D-printing technology, were placed on the sets. And digital technology was called on to precisely measure camera positions relative to the performers and stand-ins.
Because Payne’s filmmaking style involves little camera movement and infrequent cuts, “the shots were subject to a high level of scrutiny,” Price explains. “You’re lingering on the shots, so the audience has a lot of time to think about it and pick out any flaws. So we were very, very detailed in our photography. We took a lot of care to match the perspective and the lighting of the elements and also the eyelines.”
Besides giving the film a realistic feel, basing the effects shots largely on photographic elements also allowed editor Kevin Tent to cut Downsizing almost as if it were an effects-free feature. Tent — who has edited all of Payne’s films since 1996’s Citizen Ruth and received an Oscar nomination for his work on the director’s 2011 outing The Descendants — says he, Payne and Price “worked really closely together. They were in an office right next door to ours and we were constantly having meetings.
“It was a multi-level process because as we were going through the cutting, [Price] was coming up with what this world would look like and we would show him scenes and discuss how they should look. It was very much back and forth, very fluid.” The fluidity made it possible, notes Tent, for he and Payne “to approach the editing as we do on most of his other films — we really let the performances guide our cutting and our storytelling.”
The close co-operation between departments also helped Tent, Price and Payne meet one of the major challenges inherent in the unusual blend of intimate drama, subtle comedy and startling visuals that gives Downsizing — which had its world premiere at Venice Film Festival and Paramount will open on December 22 in the US and January 24 in the UK — its genre-defying edge.
“Because it’s all performance- and locations-based with a realistic setting, there wasn’t going to be any escape plan,” Price points out. “We weren’t going to be recreating shots digitally in post and we weren’t going to be adding a digital character if we needed a little bit of extra coverage. It all had to be figured out in production and shot like a normal movie.
“That was one of Alexander’s edicts to me from the beginning. He said he wanted me to trick him into thinking he was shooting a regular movie.”