Gray Matter Gives HBO's Biopic That You-Are-There Feeling
"We don’t want to use the wordsÃ¢Â€Â˜TV movie’," admits Gray Marshall, whose
Gray Matter FX has just finished visual-effects work for the HBO Films
production And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself. Directed by
Bruce Beresford and starring Antonio Banderas, the film is slated for
theatrical release in Europe. What’s more, its featured battle scenes
have the kind of scope and electricity that belies its made-for-cable
status. Accordingly, Gray Matter was charged with creating effects that
enhanced a sense of you-are-there realism, rather than drawing
attention to themselves. "There was a budget challenge, but we didn’t
ever feel we were too clamped down."
Distorting and Magnifying a Legend
Airing in September, And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself tells
the story of the famed Mexican revolutionary from a new angle. A film
crew, working under the very distant auspices of D. W. Griffith, cuts a
deal with the cash-strapped Villa to make a biopic using a combination
of authentic battlefield footage and staged recreations of key events
in Villa’s life. The relationship between Villa and young P.A. Frank
Thayer is a fulcrum of the picture, which winds up speculating on the
ability of a carefully edited film to distort and magnify the story of
a legend in his own time.
Shooting on location in Mexico, the production unit got great value for
its money, with many of the impressive sequences shot live. The first
big set piece depicts the 1914 battle of Ojinaga. Only two shots were
CG-enhanced to enlarge the crowds. "One is over the shoulder of a
federales up on the ramparts, looking out at the gathering hordes,"
says Marshall. "We flushed that out from 200 people with multiple
passes. A couple of shots later, there’s a scene through an officer’s
binoculars, scanning the crowd, and that’s where we got into our
One particularly impressive CG shot, of an oil derrick on fire, wound
up as a last-minute victim of history. "It turns out that part of the
country did not have oil derricks at the time," Marshall says. "That
was not found out until a final vetting [of the film] by oil experts.
We looked for a solution, and the solution was to cut it."
In all, Gray Matter worked on about 150 shots in the film, according to
Marshall. Most of the compositing was done using Shake, but several key
shots used Flame and Inferno. Houdini was brought in to generate smoke.
A CineBOXX view station from BOXX Technologies, which plays back 2K
imagery in real time, was used to preview the work in house and also to
show to the client for approvals. "This was definitely a full toolbox,"
Marshall recalls. "There’s everything in here, from simple clean-ups
and speed-ups to whole computer-generated armies and significant matte
Gray Matter managed the crowds, however, without resorting to a
specialized program like Softimage’s Behavior. "It was a matter of,Ã¢Â€Â˜OK
we need blending here, so we need the elements to make it work.’ We
developed what was necessary on our own. We looked at Behavior, and for
what we were doing here it was a bit of overkill. If they had said,Ã¢Â€Â˜We
want a village of soldiers to run up, fire, engage and swat at each
other,’ then OK- we would have used Behavior."
Gray Matter’s contribution to these scenes was subtle, but critical.
Editorial matters dictated more visual-effects contributions- at a
couple of moments in the film, the editor had the footage he needed,
with the minor caveat that a featured actor hadn’t actually pulled the
trigger on his gun. Gray Matter created the blasts digitally.
The balance between practical effects and CG is evident in one
memorable shot where a storm of machine-gun bullets perforates a wall
from left to right, coming perilously close to ventilating a cameraman
catching the action on celluloid. "There were some practical hits in
there, but we added about 400 percent more into that shot," Marshall
says. The sequence showing Villa’s army riding across the Mexican
countryside atop a speeding train also required some CG work to augment
what was already in the can. "The train only had about 14 cars, and we
ended up using duplication and paint work to extend it, adding CGI
smoke in about five or six shots."
Don’t Age the Footage
Gray Matter got to do some unconventional work when it came time to
create the effects for the sequences where the film within the film is
screened for a variety of audiences. The trick was not so much adding
the projected image to the scenes, but developing a look and style that
would evoke the period, but would also vary depending on which
screening environment was being depicted: "Is it a field projector and
not a very good piece of gear, or is it a beautiful, presentation piece
of equipment for a world-premiere screening? It’s all built into the
The task wasn’t to age the footage. "Really, the purpose was not to
make [the footage] look period, but to make it look very current,"
Marshall says. "The thing to keep in mind is that this footage is being
made by a movie studio at the start of moviemaking, so they had all
this technology available at that time. The material they were
producing was pristine. It had not gone through generations of
duplication, it had not been scratched, it hadn’t increased in
Gray Matter took the original footage and used Shake to convert it to
black and white and otherwise manipulate it. "All of the footage was
shot in color, and most of it was shot at 12 fps," Marshall explains,
"because we felt that step-printing it gave it the feel we were looking
for- something a little jittery. We hoped to find a plug-and-play
solution, but to a certain extent, every shot had to be timed to bring
out [Villa's] character as it went through the black-and-white
"It was complicated. One of the things we did to emulate the
orthochromatic film of the time [which was insensitive to the color
red] was to weight the look much more toward the red than the greens.
The way modern monochroming is done, green is brightest, then red and
then blue, but we bent that balance much more toward the red. The
facial tones came out much brighter than what you’d normally see, so it
has an unusual look to it. Working with Peter James, the director of
photography, Bruce Beresford, and Mark Warner, the editor, we had a
feeling as to what it should look like. Mostly Peter James established
the look of the contrast range and the balance of chroma, then added a
bit of glow to the highlights since there was no anti-halation backing
in films of that time. There was quite a lot of thought put into the
To finish the look, Gray Matter used the source footage to generate
projector beams in Maya, which were added to the complete image as a
Marshall compares the process to the one the animators at Digital
Domain went through when he worked there, helping create rocket-launch
effects for Apollo 13. "I was a kid during [the original Apollo
program], and it was fantastic. And our memory of it was so much
different than what actually happened. The actual NASA footage was old,
scratchy, and in different formats, and it didn’t feel the way you
remembered it. In order to present it to modern audiences, you have to
present it not the way it naturally was."
The same principals apply to Pancho Villa. "Ultimately, it
becomes a matter of what feels right to us- what looks right rather
than what actually was. It’s more important to produce a good feeling-
that you felt you were seeing it as it looked originally, rather than
seeing what it actually was."