The Jacket VFX

VFX Design for John Mayburys "The Jacket" :

One from the archive...

An article I wrote detailing my design work for the film "The Jacket" in 2005

Returning Gulf War veteran Jack Starks is accused of murdering a police officer and incarcerated in a Mental Institution. While in the care of Dr.Becker he is subjected to a series of brutal unorthodox confinement treatments designed to reduce his aggression. During these harrowing treatments Starks is convinced he is time travelling, he witnesses his own death and meets a mysterious lover, together they try and piece together the mystery of Jack Starks and avert his impending murder.

The challenge of creating the VFX for The Jacket was entirely design based, here we had a script in which the main character was hallucinating while experiencing mental breakdown, travelling through his own fragmented memories and time itself. Our task was to visualise this process. We had to convey Jacks disorientation, terror, disturbed state of mind and journey through time.

The design process began long before production, we had our initial meetings with the Director John Maybury who was chosen for the picture because of his experimental style. John has been making underground and experimental film and video for around 20 years which meant he was going to bring something very interesting to the film, it also meant we had to bring something very interesting to him. During our discussions John referenced numerous experimental artists such as Jordan Belson, Loren Sears and Stan Brakkage who had made 100’s of short films one of which he produced by crushing moths wings between celluloid and recording the resulting projection.

The Key for John was that although we were making high end visual effects that they should look Lo-tech, dirty and organic; the effect should also be disorienting and disturbing, beautiful yet terrifying, which is a very tough brief.

We talked at great length about what the mood and the effect of our work should be and after 2 meetings it was time for us to show him something. I set about putting together a sequence made up of various stills I’d taken, Gulf war footage, clips researched from other movies and material generated at double negative to provide John with a design outline of what we were thinking about. This was the starting point for what would become known as “The Jacket Sequences”.

During the production, which took place in Glasgow and Montreal I was constantly taking stills and video on and off set of anything I thought might be of use in creating the sequences. Peter Deming the D.P. would often shoot strange, interesting and disturbing images which he thought would be useful in the creation of “The Jacket Sequences”. Peter shot Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive for David Lynch so he’s got a pretty good handle on shooting disturbing and unsettling images.

As shooting came to an end the design process was well underway. We had played around with numerous ideas and one began to take shape. The experiences Jack Starks has in the drawer consist of his memories and his ‘inner landscape’ and they are essentially a journey which ends in a transition to some point in Jacks Future. From the earliest point in the design process we knew that Jacks eye was the entry point into his ‘Inner world” however we didn’t want to just go ‘through the eye’. So working closely with Effects designers Mark Michaels and Mike Eliis we presented an idea in which Jack’s experiences were played out ‘on the eye’ thus heightening the sense of claustrophobia, Jack’s Iris always being visible and reacting to the images playing out on the eye, John went for it and this became our initial concept.

Although we had shot numerous close-ups of Adrien Brodys face and Eyes what we really needed for the effect to work were extreme close-ups of his Iris that would be difficult if not impossible to photograph. This necessitated the creation of a photoreal CG Iris that would serve as the canvas for the ‘Jacket Imagery’ to play on. Effects artist Jesper Kjolsrud brought this element to life.

John and Emma were very keen that these sequences serve the story rather than be ‘whiz bang’ eye candy. They wanted to move away from the 2001 ‘stargate’ idea. Emma would put together pieces of footage to give a feel of what each ‘Jacket Sequence’ should be, this was essentially a montage of 35mm, super 8mm, digital video and stills; all the imagery having some relevance to Starks’ emotional state at various points in the film. We would take this footage and layer it up, integrate it into the CG Iris while creating various looks and treatments for each piece of footage depending on what was happening in the story at that point. There are sequences where Jack is disoriented and disturbed, sequences where Jack is at peace enjoying childhood memories, sequences where he is thinking about his lover all had to have a different feel.

The key to the development of the effect was a very close communication with the Cutting Rooms. They kept feeding us footage and, Emma would often say “we know this sequence has to be 5 seconds long and include this footage, have fun…” we would take their guides and push them in different directions coming up with visuals and transitions that just aren’t possible to create in a cutting room.

After the film was previewed John felt that we had to go more psychedelic with some of the effects sequences, this meant going back to the original ‘journey’ concept. For this I decided that we had to go through Jacks eye and into a void from which various images appear. The trick with the void was to create a feeling of movement and disorientation as we (the camera) travel through it. I thought that we could achieve this if we filled the void with some sort of particulate; the idea of travelling through a viscous liquid filled with bubbles. When you see underwater footage a lot of the feeling of movement is derived from particulate hanging suspended in the water so taking this idea to it’s psychedelic conclusion I decided that the void should be filled with thousands of tiny spheres, some of which are eyes, Irises and some like rivulets of blood .

The sequences all begin in the same way : The camera pushes in to Adrien Brodys tortured face and eyes, we then ‘impossibly’ continue in to the CG iris until it fills frame and starts dilating as Images from his minds eye appear, . This involved Multi-layer compositing with the CG Iris being composited into the photographed eye while numerous images originated from various sources were layered within the texture of the Iris and ‘projected’ onto the surface of the pupil, much of the imagery is warped to create seamless transitions that ultimately take us to the next scene which is at some point in Jack’s future.

Once we had completed the effects work John took some of the sequences to an experimental artist to paint scratch and draw on the negative. It worked particularly well in one sequence so it was included in the final effect. The Jacket Effect Is a great fusion of editing, CGI and traditional methods, you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. The different variants of the effect throughout the film create an unpredictable and unsettling effect that ‘s completely integrated into story.