Uncut Gems takes us into an opal, through the universe, and finally out through Adam Sandler's bowels. How? Why? Only one man can really tell us.
When you think about Uncut Gems you might not think VFX. Yet there were a few critical effects shots and sequences in the finished product that made the film that much more exciting to see.
Having time to chat extensively with VFX supervisor Eran Dinur about them gave us not only tons of insight into his process, but also into the making of the film on the whole, and the ideas behind it.
Check out our interview below:
No Film School: How did you first get involved with Uncut Gems?
Eran Dinur: The film was produced by Anthony Katagas, along with other people, and we worked together on James Gray movies, like Lost City of Z and The Immigrant. So he was one of the producers working with the Safdie brothers (Josh and Benny) on Uncut Gems, and he brought us in.
NFS: Tell me about when you first met with the Safdies and spoke to them about this movie? Because this isn't a movie people will see and think about the visual effects, but there are some really notable sequences. What were the first discussions like and what was the plan?
Dinur: We met them at a coffee shop, myself and Rich Friedlander, who's the VFX producer and one of the owners of Brainstorm Digital, and it went well immediately. I've got to say, I really like them. They're young and bold and full of ideas, and they just talked in general about the idea of doing this movie about the guy who is trading in gems and the idea of doing a journey...an imaginary journey...through the gem, something that goes into his inner self in a way.
Then there were some discussions about other little smaller VFX shots through the movie, some of which we ended up not doing, and we only focused on those two big sequences: the whole opening sequence and the ending sequence.
NFS: So the first sequence, it takes you by surprise. Like you said, we go on a journey through this opal. What was the creation of that? What tools did you use to create it?
Dinur: It was an iterative process. First, it was just ideas. So, the first stage was just to identify the main technique, and it was clear to us that it had to be all in CG, that is, we're not working with any plates. I mean, we will have to connect what we're creating to the shot before the shot at the ending, which was part of the challenge, I'll talk about it later... But this whole journey inside the gem has to be created from scratch, so it has to be done in CG. At that point, we contacted an artist that we worked with before that I really liked, a CG artist, so it was basically a team of two: him and me.
Usually, I'm the VFX supervisor here, so I supervise shots and give notes to the other artists and review shots. And this time, I felt like I want to be involved in the look development on the compositing side, so we worked as a team of two. First, there were just discussions about ideas and looking at different references, things that Josh or Benny sent to us.
Then I think the point where we started getting a stronger sense of the look of what we want to create is when Josh introduced us to Edward Gubelin, who's the early 20th-century researcher who was focusing on gemstones and did the first microscopic images of gems.
NFS: Oh, interesting.
Dinur: It's really amazing stuff, and he literally just scanned pages from a book he had and sent it to us as a PDF, with little circles and markings, like, "I like this. I like that." Because in a way, it's not only just getting into the head of Howard, the main character in the movie. It's also getting into the head of Josh and Benny Safdie.
Dinur: (Laughs) You know?
Understanding what they wanted was an exciting thing for us because not all the FX work is as creative and imaginative. A lot of times, it's a lot more technical. There was a photographer, a microscopic photographer, called Danny Sanchez, whose work was introduced to us by Josh, and we were stunned by the amazing shapes. It looked like mini-worlds.
And he (Danny Sanchez) has a technique, because when you shoot something that is microscopic, the depth of field is very, very narrow, so you get only a tiny percentage in focus and everything else is out of focus. So that was impressive and inspiring. The first stage was we started creating still images in Maya, building them in 3D, using Maya and Houdini, using different techniques, like procedural modeling, where you have things like the corals.
We did a bunch of images, some of them imitating the photography that we've seen, some of them going into different realms, or looks. It was mostly Josh (Safdie) involved in these sequences, and he said what he liked more, and what he didn't like.
So, we started narrowing down different elements, or we called them "rooms", and ended up with several. We had the "volumetric", which is like a cloud-like kind of amorphic environment that the camera goes through. Then there was what we called "the tunnel", which looks like a sort of a cave that the camera goes through, and then we had the "crystals", or "corals" with floating rocks and light beams.
Then, I took what Manuel was rendering in CG and added a lot of flares and little light beams. We kept that very shallow depth field to give a sense that we're in a microscopic world, but Josh wanted it to be both microscopic and cosmic at the same time, to feel very tiny and also very big.
NFS: It felt like images of a galaxy sort of. It felt like you were going through some sort of strange inner-space. Then you were traveling through the gem into his body.
Dinur: Right, exactly.
NFS: So Josh was the one who was more engaged with you guys on this part of the project. Is there any particular reason, or was it just how they divide up tasks between the two of them?
Dinur: It's how they divide up tasks. I think Benny was editing. He was working with Ronnie, who's the writer and editor. So, I think this [sequence] was really Josh's baby in a way, that's how I felt. But I think that's how they work. Even on set, they complement each other.
It was really interesting also being on set, on those days where I was there. Josh came up with the idea pretty early on that we want to start [the movie] with somebody in the mine, holding the stone, and the camera goes close into one of those, they call them windows, and into the gem, and to come out in the colonoscopy, inside the character's bowels basically.
NFS: Yes. And were you there when they shot that?
Dinur: I was on set when we shot the colonoscopy because we did have a green screen monitor, into which we added the colonoscopy footage. I was just there to make sure that everything would work for us.
NFS: So how much of the colonoscopy did you create?
Dinur: That's the trick. It was done a lot later. By that time, we already had most of the journey developed, and the camera going through it. We also didn't have the beginning shot, because that was shot much later on in South Africa. So, we had to wait until the production actually went there to shoot. We got that later and the colonoscopy was actually real footage. That took time too, to get the rights from real colonoscopy footage.
NFS: Wow. I wonder what it's like to release that footage. But anyway, yeah, so you had to match to the actual rock, then at the end to an actual colon.
Dinur: Exactly, and that was a challenge. Both ends of the sequence were tricky. At first, the camera goes up to the rock and obviously cannot go any further. And you have to make it feel like you're actually going into that gem, so we created a volumetric environment that has the same colors and shapes as what you see on that gem and kind of made it look like it's behind it and continued to move through it.
To match the ending, we had to change it. So towards the end, the tunnel...the shaders and the textures on the tunnel gradually change to look more wet and fleshy basically. And we also gradually turn on a spotlight because the little camera they stick into you for the colonoscopy has a little spotlight, and that's what you see.
And on top of that, we had to gradually start degrading our footage, because our renders were a lot more high resolution and better quality than colonoscopy footage, which was just HD.
NFS: Yeah it's not exactly...cinematic.
Dinur: We had to do all these tricks, then find a place where we can seamlessly do an unseen cut. And it happens when there's a little fast movement. In the end, it worked, but it wasn't easy.
"...story-wise, the way I see it, the actual movie is hyper-real, very gritty, noisy, ugly, New York, every character, every face there. But there is this layer of mysticism that is partially in his head"
NFS: From a conceptual standpoint, did you and Josh ever talk about why you were doing this elaborate sequence? Going from inside a stone, into the galaxy, and then into this man's colon.
Dinur: Not really.
Look, it was already in the script, or in one of the versions of the script when I read it in the beginning. To me, it was very clear why he wants to do it in terms of story. We didn't have a lot of discussions about it. It was like, "Okay, that's the idea. We go into the gem in the mine. We come up into the colonoscopy. Sounds great."
But story-wise, the way I see it, the actual movie is hyper-real, very gritty, noisy, ugly, New York, every character, every face there. But there is this layer of mysticism that is partially in his head... yet he's also managing to bring it to the basketball player (Kevin Garnett). There is some mysticism around that. There's a level of the transcendental to the movie that these two sequences bring in.
NFS: Absolutely, yes.
Dinur: It's mysticism that goes into his bowels.
[Editors note: There are spoilers in the discussion from this point forward]
NFS: Yeah, so we can talk about the end now, and from here on there will be spoilers. I would hate to spoil anything for people going into the movie because we're discussing an amazing moment. A shocking moment, and then in this beautiful bookend, you come back into the story. Because we go back into the body that we came out of. So take me through that. How did it look in the script, how did you guys talk about it, and then the process of building that last sequence?
Dinur: The end was even more challenging than the opening, not the CG itself because by then we had built all the journey, but because of him getting shot. We had a few shots. He's getting shot at the end, and then Arno gets shot too. It was my decision. We had discussions about it. Should we do practical blood? Should we do any special effects of blood on the set? It was my decision to do it all completely clean. I just felt that if the practical method doesn't work well enough, then we are deeper trouble having to clean it up and redo it. And also, knowing that the end shot, where the camera goes very close to him, we'll end up seeing his bullet hole gigantic onscreen, because we go into it.
I wanted to save the option of doing everything as post work, but then it wasn't easy. The shot of him lying on the ground, I was there when we shot it. He [Adam Sandler] had to lie down, not move at all, with a camera with this giant zoom lens the size of a whiskey barrel stuck in his face, slowly coming close to him. It was hard for him not to move or blink, so we had to, of course, stabilize him and kill the blinking.
Then there was shot of the gunshot itself, where we had to add the blood spurt and that. There were also quite a few versions of that because again, both Josh and Benny were very particular basically about every drop of blood.
NFS: In what sense? They wanted it to feel natural, shocking? It's such a big moment.
Dinur: Throughout my work, I've done a lot of blood. This is part of visual effects many times. Different directors have different concepts of what looks real or doesn't. Some directors care less about realism. They want a giant blow of blood to make it more dramatic. Some directors are very particular. So it changes. You have to learn about each director's preferences. And this is always trickier than people think because we don't go around seeing people getting shot, thankfully, so there's less of a concept of what is real as opposed to like what a building should look like, or a car.
But these were more like straight compositing shots. The ending shot, this is where a third person came on, is our matte painting supervisor, Nick, who spent a lot of time on that shot, was adding all the blood on his face as a matte painting element and adding the bullet hole as a CG element, so that we can get some depth into it when we get very close.
After we did that, they really liked it, but they felt like they want some blood flowing and moving, not just static blood, even though that shot happens 10 or more minutes after we see him getting shot, because he gets shot, you see a shot of him reflected in the ceiling, lying on the ground, on the floor. Then there is this whole sequence of showing a lot of other things happening, and then we come back to him.
They felt like they want to have at least some blood moving, which was another challenge because we had to do a little CG fluid simulation. So as we get closer, at some point, you see a little bit of blood coming out the wound and gushing out, which I admit really helped, but it was tricky.
NFS: It's the only movement in the shot. The camera moves and the blood moves. Everything else is still.
Dinur: Exactly. And by this point, it's not really the actual camera. It's us[the VFX team] moving forward because the camera had to stop when it got really close to him. It was a tricky shot, both for the camera operator and especially for the focus puller, who did an amazing job. But when it went a little bit out of focus it actually helped us to do the transition, especially when we go through the bullet wound.
"...this is always trickier than people think because we don't go around seeing people getting shot, thankfully, so there's less of a concept of what is real as opposed to like what a building should look like, or a car."
NFS: I see. So the focus being off for a split second creating the little opportunities for you to step in and do your work?
Dinur: Yes. When we [The VFX team] take over the camera, and it's our extension of the camera movement, we go even closer. We actually added a bit of fluctuation in the focus to make it seamless.
NFS: You have to go so close to that bullet hole that you created. Was there any concern about realism or look once you get up that close and you go inside of it?
Dinur: Yes. We researched. This is not the fun part of my job, but you have to look at gory images of people getting [shot] and Josh and Benny, they sent us these crazy videos from ... I don't know from where they got them... of people shooting themselves in the foot, and like real stuff.
NFS: Oh no.
Dinur: Grainy YouTube videos. I don't enjoy this part very much, but I can tell you, there are not many images of a bullet wound that close. People just don't do that. I think the main challenge was to keep the highlights inside, kind of moving and fluctuating so nothing feels like a still image.
Once we go in, we're into a similar volumetric world, because Josh didn't want his body to feel like one of those Discovery Channel, kind of like now we're in the veins of a human. He wanted to feel somewhat surreal anamorphic, and he liked very much the cloudy volumetric world that we built, that you can also see at the beginning, a little bit of it.
So we extended that, just made it feel darker and red. And it felt somehow like we're going through tissue. It's almost hard to tell, and then you gradually go into different ... like the blue and orange volumetric, and from there, into the tunnel, then into the coral, then finally, those floating rocks and to outer space. That was basically the order of the end sequence.
NFS: Yeah, and it comes full circle.
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