“I'm made of rocks, as you can see. But don't let that intimidate you. You don't need to be afraid unless you're made of scissors. Just a little rock-paper-scissor joke for you." The last thing visual effects studio Luma Pictures worked on for Taika Waititi had been an entirely rock-based alien named Korg: a gent who forgot to print enough pamphlets for the revolution. Voiced and performed using motion capture by the director himself, Korg went on to become one of the breakout characters beloved by fans of Thor: Ragnarok (2017).
Fast forward a few years and Waititi had a new project he wanted the company to work on: a dramedy set in World War II. The world of war-torn Germany as depicted in Jojo Rabbit (2019) couldn’t have been further from the intergalactic realities of Asgard and so too were its challenges. Crafting a creature that can move, emote, and quip entirely out of computer-generated rocks is one thing. Blending the modern world into 1940s Germany turned out to be another.
Crafting the practical visuals of Jojo Rabbit was production designer Ra Vincent, who broke his own record as the first Indigenous man ever to be nominated for the Best Achievement In Production Design Academy Award in 2020 for his work on the film (he was previously nominated in 2013 for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)). A long-time friend and collaborator of Waititi’s, the fellow Kiwi had worked on his films What We Do in the Shadows (2014), Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Next Goal Wins (2020) and television series What We Do in the Shadows (2019– present) and Wellington Paranormal (2018–present).
“In a world of moviemaking that relies on visual effects, it’s nice to be working with large sets that are manmade,” said Vincent on the set of film Mortal Engines (2018), which shot in Wellington. As someone who pays meticulous attention to the detail of every object in a scene as well as the overall look of a feature, Vincent and Waititi were clear they didn’t want Jojo Rabbit to have the “darker” palette of most World War II films. This was largely because the audience would experience the world through the eyes of a child, Jojo, giving the grim reality an enhanced sense of magical realism. “Ra always makes it a rule that visual effects has access to all the art department servers and similarly, he had access to our visual tech server,” visual effects supervisor Jason Chen told FXGuide. Together he and the Luma team explored varying aesthetics before settling on the look that felt most like Jojo’s.
Luma worked on all of the Thor films and for Ragnarok specifically they delivered more than 200 VFX shots for the final project. With Jojo Rabbit, the Melbourne and Santa Monica-based company was tasked with taking scenes filmed on the streets of present-day Czech Republic and making them more historically appropriate for World War II Germany. That included removing contemporary elements and replacing them with period accurate ones, which is subtle, painstaking work that helped weave the tapestry of Jojo’s reality: both real and imagined. They were also in charge of set extensions, which meant compositing digital worlds into the background of scenes to create an entire panoramic landscape when only a small portion of that was filmed practically. Compared to their previous work on blockbusters like Aquaman (2018), Captain Marvel (2019) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), Jojo Rabbit had a much smaller budget – $14M USD compared to, say, Aquaman’s $160M USD – and a tight 35-day shoot.
“They had been interested in the script for years,” said Chen, who was surprised when he spoke to Luma about the production. “A film of this scale is generally not in the wheelhouse, but as soon as I called them they were excited about the project and really excited about working with Taika again.” Any film featuring war requires a lot of bang, which was something Luma were more than equipped to handle by helping create “complex explosions”. The company was extremely fond of the source material, with VFX supervisor Brendan Seals and the team ensuring the film would have all the resources a production with ten times their budget would have. That included the creation of one of Jojo Rabbit’s most important moments, as represented by a butterfly fluttering to a heartbreaking revelation. “We wanted to make it a little bit whimsical but at the same time, we had to make sure it looked completely real,” said Chen on his work with Luma. “It’s always a fine line on a movie like this. We’ll go to the extreme creatively, but then we always bring it back to make sure we stick within reality because we want to represent this with great respect.” A blue butterfly, of course, isn’t just a blue butterfly. In the context of the story, it’s seminal and the Luma team were hyperaware of this fact, obsessing over not just the movements but the “personality” of the computer generated being. It’s this obsession that helped contribute to Waititi’s overall vision, something that was heralded as one of the most original of 2019 and received six Academy Award nominations.
– Maria Lewis