How Switch VFX Made the Most of a Knack for Digital Gore

When VFX industry veterans Jon Campfens and Peter Denomme founded Switch VFX in early 2004, the idea was to escape the big-facility environment and start a boutique that they could believe in. (Campfens had worked at Canadian giant GVFX, and Denomme was running Calibre Digital Pictures, which was part of Alliance Atlantis.) They didn’t count on being the go-to guys for high-impact horror movies, but as it happens some of their best gigs have come from the genre – George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead last year, James Gunn’s tongue-in-cheek monster movie Slither earlier this year, and now the box-office behemoth Saw III.

Switch has kept busy with some high-profile TV work, including Tilt for ESPN, last year’s Kojak revamp for USA Network, and an upcoming BBC/Discovery Channel children’s series called Dinosapiens, about dinosaurs that have continued to evolve over millions of years. Switch has also teamed up with Yowza Animation, which gives some of its artists the chance to move back and forth from Switch’s photorealistic environment to a more traditional animation studio. (Switch contributed a 3D CG element to Yowza’s work on the 2D-animated Disney sequel Kronk’s New Groove.) But the studio’s work on Saw III is no doubt its most notorious to date, and it runs the gamut from putting a simple chill in the air to making splatter even splattery-er. We asked co-founder and VFX Supervisor Jon Campfens to fill us in on what they did. Read the Q&A, below, then load up our interactive flash presentation to see some before-and-afters with more detail on technique.

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FILM & VIDEO: How did you land Saw III?

JON CAMPFENS: The executive producer, Dan Heffner, and I had worked with before on Anonymous Rex, a SciFi/Fox production. We’ve tried to work together on a number of projects since. He’s been involved with Saw from the beginning, and with Saw III he became executive producer and signed me on. Originally it was just going to be a few shots. The formula for Saw has always been to do most of the stuff in camera, but there are limitations to what can be done that way, and the shot count grew on this one. On Saw there were only a few, on Saw II there were maybe 50 or so, and this one blossomed to about 130.

So how did those shots come together during production?

The biggest sequence was the freezer sequence. Toronto was going through a heat wave and they were shooting in a studio, and it was just so hot. And it was really difficult to convey that it was cold in there, and the cold was an important element in that sequence. We decided to add digital breath to it, and create atmosphere in the freezer as well. It was very difficult because David Armstrong, the DP, always has the camera moving all over the place. It was really hard to find tracking points in certain areas. I’ve seen a number of films where digital breath has been successful, but I’ve seen films where it hasn’t been successful. [Darren Lynn Bousman, the director] wanted it to be very subtle, just so you got the feeling psychologically.

What about the more unsubtle bits?

The special-effects and make-up guys did a great job, and when we went into post there were certain things where Darren just wanted to up the ante. “You know, it works. But we just want to make work even more.” A lot of what we did was augmentation of blood and stuff. We were working on it for five to six months, and some of the shots were really tough to look at. There was a real battle with the MPAA. They were saying, ‘No, you’re getting an NC-17.’ So we had to keep reworking it. We’d be working on shots, and Darren would go, “Yeah! But we’re never going to be able to show that.” Some of it will be on the DVD version. But in certain areas we had to be a little more subtle than we had hoped. It’s funny, because our lead compositor, Gudrun Heinze, is a vegan. She doesn’t mind this at all. She says, “If we’re hurting people, I don’t care. It’s when they start hurting animals I have a problem.” That whole rib-cage scene [one of serial-killer Jigsaw’s victims has her rib cage torn open by elaborate machinery on screen] was really hard to look at. You know, you can imagine having your rib cage just taken out, so all the organs and everything being held on have to collapse into each other, and we had to add this river of blood flowing. She had to create all that stuff and have it collapse in and start to move just before they do the close-up of the organs falling out. It’s nasty!

You guys have done several horror films now, so you have a library of practical shots you can draw from.

Yes. For Land of the Dead we shot an enormous amount of blood and chunks and stuff like that. Romero’s film had a lot of shots where zombies are getting hit, and there’s big blood spurts, chunks coming out, and head explosions. We had a lot of elements we could pull from, which was really helpful because we didn’t have the opportunity to shoot a lot of that stuff for Saw III. So we’re now looking for a cute and cuddly film.

You need some bunnies and flowers.

I have two kids, a 3 and a 6 year old, and they keep asking when they’re going to be able to see a film I’ve worked on.

Saw III had a digital intermediate. How does that affect what you do?

As far as I’m concerned it’s a great process. Once the scans are made, we don’t have to record our work back to film. It’s a great tool because there seems to be a better latitude in color timing, from what I’ve seen. We work in a digital environment, and it makes a much better transition from shooting it to working on it and delivering it. We’ve got a couple of really good DI places here in Toronto ‘ Cine-Byte and Deluxe. We actually did the DI at Deluxe, and they did a great job.

How do you keep color under control?

It’s always a tricky thing. The best-case scenario is to always have the stuff come in color-corrected the way the DP wants it to look. We usually don’t like to touch and color-correct the main element. When you do, it just creates problems in the back end. In this particular project it was quite difficult because there was an enormous amount of lighting changes. When our first scans came in, we actually had to have them redone because it was difficult to color-correct them the way they intended to present it at the end. The way David shot it originally was very different from the way it ended up in the film, especially the freezer sequence. We shot yellow, and it wound up going blue. So you definitely want to be working hand-in-hand with the DI facility so all your machines have the same LUT they do and you’re working with the same image.

How were you were able to understand, when you were doing your work, what the final look would be?

When he would bring in the dailies, the editor would do a color-correct himself. So we had an idea of the end result. And it was very radical. It was one of those scary processes. As we were working on shots, we would send stuff to Deluxe to have a test done to make sure there wasn’t going to be any problem on the back end, because sometimes what you do in editorial is a little different from what you can do on film at the end of the process.

How’s business in general? Canada’s dollar isn’t as strong against the U.S. dollar as it used to be.

For certain industries it’s great. But for the majority of industries in Canada that’s not a good thing. And now we’re competing with Eastern Europe, which is becoming quite strong ‘ Romania and Budapest and such, and the big push is India and Asia. From what I’m hearing about India, it’s just incredible what they can do a show for.

But Indian artists are still working mainly within the Indian film industry, right?

Yes, at the moment. But I think that’s drastically changing. Everything now is done on FTP sites. It’s phenomenal. It’s so easy to transfer the material, and quite easy to send the finals as well. In order for companies to survive, they’re gong to have to continually, continually improvise. If they have a 10-year business plan and they say, ‘OK, we’re going to stick to it,’ they’re never going to survive. Larger companies will always survive, especially down in L.A., but it’s the medium-sized ones who are really having trouble staying afloat, and it’s the smaller boutiques that are able to control their costs and adapt to the changing scenery all the time who are going to survive.

You have to be a businessman as well as a VFX guy.

Yeah. And I don’t like that! I’m a sculptor. I went to art school to be creative. And now it’s a small part of what you have to do.