Indie Wire

Jeff Desom, and effects team for EEAAO, talks about the feature

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The visual effects in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the latest film directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (the filmmaking team known as Daniels), are abundant and impressive in the way that they turn the film’s ordinary heroine, Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), into a multiverse-hopping action star. The movie’s hundreds of effects shots are even more astonishing when one watches the end credits and realizes that they were not the work of a high-end post-production facility but a handful of craftspeople led by Zak Stoltz, a friend of the Daniels who had never served as an effects supervisor on a feature film.

“They came to me because they had worked with a post house for visual effects on their last film, ‘Swiss Army Man,’ and they didn’t love the process,” Stoltz told IndieWire. “It felt very impersonal compared to the way we had always worked together, where I would bring my computer over to Dan’s house and we’d just sleep under our desks while renders were going. They wanted to be able to have more intimate conversations with the artists instead of just saying, ‘This is what we’re looking for’ and then sending it off and getting something back and saying, ‘Ah, actually not quite like that.’ So ultimately my task was to figure out how to do it the way we’ve always done it, except bigger.”

To keep the process as personal and handmade as possible, Stoltz assembled a small team comprised of visual effects artists who were also directors, filmmakers that had learned effects as a necessity while working on their own projects. “We all learned how to do visual effects on our own in our bedrooms because we needed to,” he said. “Ultimately five people ended up doing over 80% of the visual effects shots.” The core team consisting of Stoltz, Ethan Feldbau, Benjamin Brewer, Jeff Desom, and Matthew Wauhkonen dispensed with the typical visual effects hierarchy to individually create shots from beginning to end, largely working in programs they were all familiar with like After Effects. “We don’t all know Nuke, we don’t all know all the 3D programs,” Stoltz said. “But we all know After Effects and it’s really flexible in how it works.”

A visual effects team comprised of directors gave the Daniels the best of both worlds, as Stoltz and his team understood the filmmakers’ needs but also had the creativity and autonomy to add unique touches to the imagery. “There wasn’t really the scale of a traditional post workflow where someone designs it and then you pass it to someone to build and then people finesse it,” said Feldbau. “Coming at it like a director, you need to know the material and have the initiative to make decisions and present what you think would be best to help the story.” Desom said that most of the time, each effects artist would work on his shots from start to finish, “from layout all the way to compositing and rendering it. You’re responsible for every single element within the shot.”

The sheer volume of effects shots was daunting, and Stoltz “was really worried about time and money, because that was my job.” His team adopted the mentality that they needed to get a version of each shot that they would be happy with in the movie, even if it wasn’t perfect. “We wanted to make sure everything was a solid B first, then if we had the time we could go back and take things to the A or A+ level as needed and desired. With so many effects and so few people and so little money and time, you have to prioritize certain things and be strategic about asking where the diminishing returns come in. It wasn’t just go until it’s perfect — it was go until it’s good enough, and then let’s choose the things that we want to make perfect.”

The limited resources helped shape the unique visual style of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which cleverly combines an ’80s effects aesthetic with contemporary motion graphics. “We ended up using CG very sparingly for a couple reasons,” Stoltz said. “One, we aren’t the best at it. And two, it didn’t end up being necessary for most things. The motto was less Marvel, more ‘Ghostbusters.’” Feldbau looked to another ’80s classic as a reference point as well. “I brought up ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ often because that’s a film that gives body and weight and dimension to hand-drawn illustrated characters,” he said. “They didn’t have high-end fancy computers. They just had a human brain and an eye for light and shadow and drop shadow and animation and motion.”

“We weren’t going to try and emulate the look and feel of a Marvel movie because we just didn’t have the resources or the people or the computing power to do so,” Feldbau added. “For example, I have a background in analog film and optical printing and hold in my mind some very antiquated ways of how they used to do effects on film. I found that even though they were old, and even though we were being told that this is not current and what the cool kids are doing, a lot of those really simple tricks looked perfect. So we banged out successful shots using more traditional principles of image making and painting without having to go through the processor-intensive world of full 3D and CGI.”  

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Jeff Desom