In Seth Rogen's latest film, An American Pickle, immigrant worker Hershel Greenbaum emigrates to America in 1919, in search of a better life for his family. However, the unfortunate Herschel falls into a vat of pickles in the factory he’s working in and wakes up 100 years later in 21st century Brooklyn. Herschel soon discovers that his only living relative is his great-grandson, Ben, also played by Seth Rogen. The film is directed by Brandon Trost in his feature debut, having worked with Rogen and his team as director of photography on previous projects. The NVIZ team was led by the film's VFX Supervisor, Adam Rowland and NVIZ's internal VFX Supervisor Jason Evans.
An American Pickle presented a very specific set of challenges to the VFX team, as the two main characters were played by the same actor. NVIZ was an obvious choice to help solve these problems, following their experience of split-screens and face-replacements on the film Legend; where Tom Hardy played the Kray twins. But An American Pickle added an additional complication, in that one of Rogen's characters, the accident-prone Herschel, was sporting a rather spectacular beard, while the other was clean shaven. This meant that the crew had to shoot his half of the film first and then come back 6 weeks later to shoot the other half.
In order to facilitate this, the split screens had to be very carefully planned to allow the team to shoot the second half under exactly the same conditions, or as near as possible. Filming took place in Pittsburgh over a 3-month period late in 2018. During that time the weather moved from warm and sunny, to bitterly cold and snowing. Despite this, the production team was meticulous about securing the same location, at the same time of day and with the same conditions. Says Rowland, 'I don't know of any films where this kind of thing has been done on location. Most of the time, if you are doing split screens, you do it on set, in a controlled environment where you can leave the camera in the same position so you can maintain conditions. So that was fairly unique to this production and a big challenge in itself'.
However, not all the split screens were shot on location, the majority were captured on set; and though this was easier to deal with, the team still had to allow for shooting the second half of the split screens 6 weeks later. To aid them with this they used ultraviolet pens to mark the floor on set; allowing them to see quickly the position the camera needed to be in for each set-up, what lens was on, what shot was being filmed and so on. 'The ultraviolet pen meant we were allowed to annotate quite freely all over the floorboards of the set,' says Rowland, 'and then when we came back we just had to shine a light on it and we could work out where the camera was for that shot. Otherwise we would have been constantly moving markers around - or creating many more VFX shots where we have to paint them out'.
One of the most difficult split screens to realise was a long shot of Hershel and Ben chatting and walking together towards the camera, which is tracking backwards on a Steadicam. A lot of consideration went into how to achieve this successfully, as the constantly moving camera and the backgrounds changing in different ways, meant it would be impossible to complete as a traditional split. The team shot a reference version with Rogen and his double and another plate without the characters in it. They then worked out how fast the characters were walking in order to keep up with the camera. Using this data, they went on to shoot the two separate characters against greenscreen and walking on treadmills that were adjusted for them to be walking at the right pace.
Other examples of innovative problems solving was in another shot where the two characters are walking side by side on a busy New York street. In order to seem authentic, the bustle had to interact with Rogen's characters and people needed to walk across their paths. This had to be carefully choreographed in a version where all the crowd and bustle was shot without the main characters. Extras were choreographed to walk around and through the Rogen character's paths, but only at times when they couldn't interact with them. It was an example of a simple gag that required a great deal of meticulous, logistical planning, including weather and lighting variations, to pull off correctly, while also taking into account the 6 week time difference between the shooting schedule for the two different characters.
Although NVIZ worked on many complicated split screens, the bulk of the VFX the team created for An American Pickle centred around transforming modern day Pittsburgh into early 20th century Schlupsk (the fictional Eastern European town Herschel came from) or modern-day New York. This involved a multitude of matte paintings and environment enhancements.
One of the most challenging and creative shots of the film is a charming time-lapse of the outside of the factory building within which Hershel slowly pickles over a hundred years. The shot is used for the opening credits, bridging the two time periods in the story. Multiple variations of the same NYC skyline matte painting were created to depict it changing throughout the 100 years.
Initially the idea was simply that it would be a time-lapse from 1919 to 2019. The audience sees the factory boarded up and slowly dilapidating over time, while Manhattan gradually rises up in the background, trees growing and skies changing. It was decided to keep the time-lapse as daylight in order to maintain gentler transitions and focus on the changing weather and seasons. The early period section of the film has been largely shot on antique lenses, which has a specific aged vignetting quality - with the rest of the contemporary section shot on modern primes. It was decided therefore that not only should the shot fast forward through the seasons and the century, but also through the age of cinema. Over the course of the shot, the aspect ratio changes from 4:3 to 1:1.85 and the grade shifts from almost monochromatic in the 20s, through bright technicolour in the 50s and 60s and culminates with a very sharp digital look by the time it arrives in the 21st century. 'Once we'd worked out the rules of the shot it just worked; the parameters we set, resulted in an aesthetically more pleasing result' recalls Rowland.
In addition to the split screens and the environment work, NVIZ also created the rats that live in the pickle factory. The team was given reference from the director, including cartoons that Trost liked, to work from. The aesthetic for the film, particularly the 1919 period is a kind of fantasy realism, and the rats are no exception, having a slightly cartoonish quality. 'The final result is almost photo-realistic caricature versions of rats, exaggeratedly mangy and horrible, and also occasionally scarier and of course, funnier than your average rat!' says Rowland, 'It was great that they were stylised, and we were really able to lean into it and have some fun.
The rats were developed at NVIZ by CG Supervisor Sam Churchill and Zach Du Toit. From a distance they look just like real rats, but up close they often look ridiculous; and have more unique characteristics, such as particularly mangy hair, red or cataract style eyes and idiosyncratic movements. The director liked the idea that the rats were a gang and like all gangs had a leader, who is even more disgusting than the others!
For the very few shots that showed upwards of 60 rats the team settled on a crowd simulation tool that could be adjusted to do keyframe animation on top of it. However, for the majority of shots that included no more than 10 rats, it was hard to justify doing anything other than keyframe for the animation as the crowd simulation tools are essentially designed for use on bipeds' says Churchill, 'If you get too close with crowd simulations the holes start to appear, so the close up shots always had to be keyframe'. Churchill created a rudimentary crowd simulation layout pass in Miarmy to establish volume, general position and motion. Once these points were approved by the director, Churchil wrote a script which converted the Miarmy sims into individual rigs and Head Animator, Andy Fraser, took things over from there.
After Fraser took over the animation, it was simply a case of putting in the time in good old fashioned key frame animation. 'This was the really exciting phase for the team,' says Evans, 'The sequence actually came alive very quickly, we went from the blocking stage to a fun, exciting stage in a short amount of time'. Once the animation started to progress, Brandon (Trost) realised the rats needed a malevolent pack leader and began to add idiosyncratic touches. Using the James Herbert book Rats as the main point of reference, the team began to add distinctive quirks to the rat pack leader, giving him a glassy, milky eye, scars, bald patches and a missing ear. He also boasted a girth that eclipsed all the other rats, in order for him to be identifiable as the leader from any angle and in the darkly lit environment. The team used Xgen for the fur and built a system that allowed variation for the different rats.
'It was a great experience working with Brandon' says Evans, 'His notes were brilliant all the way through. He had a very strong idea of what he wanted the feel of the rats to be, and was really consistent in the way he communicated. He gave us a lot of creative freedom in animation and design, gave the direction of where he wanted it to be, but the freedom for us to decide how to get it there'.
Take a look at HBO's featurette for more info on the filming of An American Pickle.