Interview: Discussing the Incredible Visual Effects of ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ with Ethan Feldbau and Jeff Desom

Everything Everywhere All at Once’s visual effects are incredible, even more so when you realize that they were designed with a team of only seven (!!!) people. Want to be even more impressed? Over 90% of the film’s visual effects were handled by only five people, which seems crazy since the movie has a ton of elaborate VFX-heavy action sequences and consistently shifts universes during its runtime.

On approaching the design of these visual effects with a small team, lead visual effects artist Ethan Feldbau explained that since the team had previously collaborated with the Daniels before, “we’re permitted to have a shorthand, which might not have been possible had it just been a new VFX team. To go a little further, we came up with concept art, illustrations, and design, in a synergistic relationship with the film happening. I worked remotely and came up with artwork and concepts to pass on to the set. As we started to pull on more artists like Ben [Brewer] and Jeff [Desom], we had more people to present concepts directly with the Daniels to make an entire department happen very quickly with just a few people attached to it.”

Jeff Desom added that “the Daniels knew what was needed for the visual effects and skipped specific steps like storyboarding. They can improvise on set and know that something can be pulled off in post-production with their experience, working with the same software we use. And even by skipping many steps, they could make it work with a shoestring budget.”

In separating the tasks with a team of only seven, Feldbau explained that the team “took on a couple of different hats each. We all have diverse backgrounds in film. All of us are directors, and many of us are visual artists. Jeff happens to be a powerhouse for 3D. He has specialized skills in Blender and Cinema 4D, which were very helpful. I have a background in being an art director. I could take on the responsibilities of concept art, matte paintings, etc. Ben Brewer is also a director with a tremendous interest in 3D work. He was the other 3D support artist. Zak Stoltz, who was overseeing the organization of all of this, has terrific skills for data management and constructing the workflow, being the right conduit for communication to pass through to everybody. And that’s how the operation worked.”

For Feldbau, one of the most challenging shots he worked on was “designing and figuring out how to do the exterior matte painting of the IRS building. I’m not a 3D artist, but I have a background in oil painting and drawing and decided to do that as a 2D drawing. I don’t think I would ever do that again because there’s a challenge and getting your perspective right. We’re in a world where, at this point, 3D could more easily give you a proper rendering of perspective. When I started on that shot, production had gone dark. We had questions about how resources would be found, and the most economical thing to do was to have new work for two or three days, make a drawing, and see if we could have that pass. Fortunately, it did. But it took a lot of convincing with the directors that we could put it up on the screen, and it would be okay.”

Desom thought that the most challenging shot he worked on was “the showdown of the film where it comes to the confrontation between Jobu/Joy [Stephanie Hsu] and her mother [Michelle Yeoh] near the bagel in the IRS building. She’s gradually stepping back into the bagel until it absorbs her completely. The trickiest part was that 80% of the image was a green screen. You have this big, emotional, pivotal point, and you don’t want to distract the audience from that with bad VFX. I tried not to do too much that was too flashy and distracting from this emotion. It has to hit right. We had to find something balanced between looking good and not being distracting and throwing you out of the moment.”

Desom also talked about the development of the bagel and explained that most of it were designed through Blender, and the same element would be repurposed throughout the film.

“When we first go into the bagel, that shot in itself, it’s one of the best shots in the entire film. I was so impressed with how they pulled that one off. We started using that same element of the bagel, which was a 2D bagel. We would reuse the same bagel for many of the shots in the sequence during the showdown because time was short. We would use the 2D bagel, relight it a little bit with some techniques, or reposition it with 2D techniques to recycle this one bagel I don’t know how many times over without hopefully nobody noticing that it would be the same one.”

One of the best scenes Feldbau and Desom worked on was the Raccacoonie sequence because approaching it was daunting.

Desom talked about how challenging it was to pull it off “because he was pantomiming as if he was chopping up all these vegetables and doing these amazing moves that were super precise, and there was nothing in the kitchen. My job was filling out that blank space with vegetables, shrimp, and whatnot flying around. Initially, the idea was going to be a full 3D solution. We would have model onions and tomatoes, which we would then light and animate. You’ll have to apply physics to them, but that was too much work. Instead, I just drew a round shape and gave it a few edges to make it look like it could be an onion or a shrimp. I then animated it frame by frame as you would with a cartoon. And I could control where every little vegetable would land in the frame. If it was chopped up, you add a bit of motion blur and some drop shadow, and it somehow worked, and it didn’t take me very long to do that. It’s still one of the shots I’m probably most proud of.”

Feldbau added that this element “was a keystone moment in figuring out how to accomplish all the shots for the movie. The first inclination for anything that had to be realistic was, “Oh, well, I guess that it will be 3D. We’ll simulate it. Knowing the budget and resources, we could not make the film that way after looking at a couple of excellent 2D animated examples, such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It became evident that the live-action cartoon quality of the movie, going in and resurrecting 2D animation and 2D compositing techniques, was going to be the secret. Animators have worked for decades without computers and made their shots look real. And if you apply an artist’s eye and mindset and think about physics, it’s still enough. Fortunately, we had a good team of people with that way of thinking and skillset, which unlocked many of the shots we were the proudest on for this film.”

Everything Everywhere All at Once is available to rent or buy on video-on-demand.

[Some quotes were edited for length and clarity]


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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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