Birdman VFX: Rodeo FX tells us how they created visual effects to make the film appear as one continuous shot

Rodeo FX has produced all of the VFX work involved in Oscar-contender Birdman, ranging from the spectacular to the nearly imperceptible. The work for the film by Alejandro González Iñárritu included seamlessly stitching together all the individual scenes, to create the illusion that the entire film was shot in one continuous take.

At the VES Awards, which took place on Wednesday in Beverly Hills, Birdman won the Montreal studio one of the many ridiculously long-named awards, for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal/Live Action Feature Motion Picture.

“It is so rewarding to create seamless visual effects that serve the story,” said Ara Khanikian, VFX supervisor at Rodeo FX after accepting the award. “We contribute to the magic of the movie, supporting an amazing story that will carry away the audience with its intense emotional currents.”

Ara accepted the award with Ivy Agregan and Isabelle Langlois, the VFX producers on Birdman. “This team of visionary filmmakers and artists has invented a new way of making movies,” said Isabelle. “Audiences don’t realise how much work went into Birdman, which makes this such an extraordinary technical achievement. Ara and I are thrilled to share this award with the amazing team at Rodeo FX who worked so hard.”

A team of more than 75 visual effects artists, project managers and technicians worked for more than four months on the dark comedy, which features cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and stars Micheal Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, and Naomi Watts.

In one sequence, washed-up actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), famous for portraying the iconic superhero Birdman on film, wanders aimlessly in the streets of New York with the Birdman character following closely behind and goading him into returning back to his superhero form.

The streets suddenly appear to transform into a war-zone and a monstrous eagle starts firing and destroying everything around him. Rodeo FX not only conceived, designed and created this digital creature, the studio also generated the CG helicopters, missiles, explosions, and Birdman’s wings.

"At our very first meeting with Alejandro he gave us the freedom to conceive and conceptualize the look and movement of this creature, a process we enjoyed so much that we even built a back-story for its armour", said executive producer Jordan Soles.

As Riggan emerges from this destruction sequence, he rises to a new consciousness, levitating to the top ledge of a multi-storey building, made possible through a combination of visual effects and a well planned and executed shoot by the production team and Rodeo FX.

The same method was used to create the ensuing sequence in which Riggan jumps off the roof and soars like a bird through the streets of New York, landing in front of the St. James Theater.

"We built a team to quickly generate a previsualisation of the entire sequence that was used by Alejandro González Iñárritu and his DP Chivo as reference when filming", said Isabelle.

When Riggan storms into his dressing room after a fight with Edward Norton’s character, he uses his telekinetic abilities to trash various objects in his dressing room, including throwing his makeup box against the wall, exploding light bulbs, blasting his wooden chair, and smashing a Birdman poster against the wall. All of the props that get destroyed in this fit of rage were modelled, textured and animated by the artists at Rodeo FX, based on on-set photography.

The visual effects had to be imperceptible and seamlessly integrate into the cinematography and contribute to the fluidity and precise rhythm required by Iñárritu.

“This was a painstaking and technical exercise, which required not only the artists’ talent and hard work, but also a selection of software and custom scripts written specifically for this project,” said Khanikian.

“Birdman is a real masterpiece, not only because of the storyline and performances, but because of the technical accomplishments of incredible cinematography, editing, and imperceptible visual effects,” said Sébastien Moreau, president of Rodeo FX. “It was an honour to collaborate with these passionate filmmakers on this extraordinary movie.” 

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