Caution: This text may contain spoilers.
Matilda (Alisha Weir), a lonely, but resourceful little girl, makes up lots of tales to keep her spirits up while living under the thumb of the odious Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson), Headmistress of Matilda’s bleak primary school. One of the most dramatic of Matilda’s tales is that of the daring Acrobat and her Escapologist husband, who perform a hair-raising circus act performed over a pool of sharks.
In Matilda’s dramatic story, the Acrobat performs a high wire act not just over a pool of sharks, but with sticks of TNT clipped into her hair for added excitement. However, the daring Acrobat loses her footing and while the fuse is rapidly burning, the Escapologist must free himself from chains, and a cage, to save her as she begins to lose her hold. The sequence was brilliantly over the top and the production was very ambitious in the scope of what it wanted to achieve. An important part of the Previs process was to test the assumptions before shooting to ensure that what they planned was not only possible, but feasible.
Previs was supervised by NVIZ’s Head of Visualisation, Janek Lender who came on board in 2020 to work closely with Director, Matthew Warchus, Cinematographer, Tat Radcliffe, and VFX Supervisor, Simon Stanley-Clamp, to help work out this complicated scene before the production went to set. NVIZ used their proprietary virtual camera system, ARENA, to enable the filmmakers to create all the camera moves of a complicated acrobatic performance and to plot out the action. The sequence went through several iterations as ideas were presented, problems resolved and lights, action and camera moves were explored and confirmed.
A rapid turnover of iterations is one of the many useful features of ARENA, along with the ability for the creatives to get their hands on the camera in the virtual space. “We were pleased that our director, Mathew Warchus, was fully invested in ARENA” says Lender, “It made the whole process run very smoothly.” Warchus and Radcliffe would frame up shots themselves using ARENA, or describe what they wanted to Lender, who would then capture them. Warchus was able to make technical changes on the spot, such as camera angles, but he was also able to adjust the flow of the narrative to create maximum impact . “They (Warchus and Radcliffe) took to the ARENA sessions, both live and virtual, really well” says Lender, and as a result some of the sequence was restructured to help to amplify the sense of double and even triple jeopardy thanks to the insight that was gained during the sessions.
Despite the numerous terrifying elements in the sequence (sharks, TNT and high-wires) the most challenging aspect of the work was completely unexpected. The Previs was in full flow just as the pandemic struck in 2020 and the team had to quickly move to virtual sessions for ARENA sessions and feedback and approvals. Later they were able to flip between live and virtual depending on the covid status at the time. “This was the first time that ARENA was used in a remote capacity, and it was incredibly successful”, says Lender, “We were able to keep the show running when so many were shut down during those early Covid days."
NVIZ also provided Postvis in addition to the thrilling previs created for the Acrobat’s Story.
Matilda is now streaming on Netflix.