One day, while filming a scene for Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit film, Sir Ian McKellen, playing Gandalf, reportedly broke down in tears. Sitting in a small green-screen room standing in for the Bag End dining room, he found himself accompanied only by the printed-out faces of a dozen dwarves and a hobbit, and the frustration of the moment overcame him. “This is not,” he muttered mutinously, “why I became an actor.”
Actor frustration and modern visual effects often go hand in hand. To be deprived of the usual co-ordinates of other characters and an environment with which to interact is a tricky process for actors. It’s a demanding business for the crew too, who for every shot have to be singularly scrupulous about lighting, camera focus, actor positions, angle of gaze and so on in order to ensure continuity across a currently unseen landscape.
Cast and crew on the GSP Macbeth set seem scarcely to have broken stride in response to the challenges that accompany green screen production. Once the actors got used to looking at, say, a duct-taped pink cross on a wall instead of a far-off Norwegian army, it could almost have been any other film set – or, indeed, theatre stage, which is more how the actors who spoke to One&Other came to think of the space. Akiya Henry, playing Lady Macbeth, said she actively liked the sparseness of the set since it carried on feeling to her more like a rehearsal room, and so provided a very comfortable space in which to act.
Principal photography is now all done and so it is that the next major chunk of work on the film begins. In the evolving life of Macbeth the project is now handed over to a crack-team of VFX artists in the GSP Studios post-production lab based at the University of York. The team is led by Ben Louden, who was interviewed alongside Tom Wexler – visual director of the film – for this week’s One&Other webisode, above. The footage has all been tightly classified and the coffee stock-piled in anticipation of the work ahead. Since every second of this Macbeth has been shot on green screen, the task ahead is a considerable one. A 90-minute film is made up of 140,000 frames, as Ben explains, and they’ll be painstakingly working on each one.
This brave – some would say masochistic – approach to film-making is director Kit Monkman’s brainchild. Kit’s background is in designing dance and theatre sets, immersive art installations and musical events. The thing that drives him, he tells One&Other, is his interest in “the relationship between the thing that’s made and its audience, and how that relationship can be navigated.”
Kit’s first film was The Knife That Killed Me, an introspective and uncompromising exploration of teenage isolation and violence. Knife used similar visual techniques to tell its story – basing the film in a computer-generated, impressionistic world that gave graphic and disturbing expression to the interior life of its central protagonist. But whereas The Knife was based quite firmly in the mind of its main character, Macbeth will take a more suggestive approach to exploring the inner life of its turbulent Scottish lord and his troubled wife.
"We’re determinedly de-supernaturalising Macbeth," Kit once said – none of that euphemistic ‘Scottish play’ business for him. His Macbeth can use no ‘forces of destiny’ cop-outs: this is a tightly focused depiction of a man in a moral and psychological freefall of his own making. And yet we wonder if the supernatural fog that permeates Shakespeare’s play – the eerie uncanniness of the witches or the abstract dread of the cannibal horses, ghosts and sleepwalkers – might yet find some expression in the shifting, surreal CGI world that Kit and the VFX team are crafting. Time will tell…
That just about wraps it up for our production diary. We’re going to leave the VFX team to it, and One&Other will check back in with Kit and the rest of the GSP team later this year. We can’t wait to see what they come up with: whatever it is, it certainly won’t be run-of-the-mill.