Frantic Films VFX Does Previz for ‘Watchmen’

Frantic Films VFX, a division of Prime Focus Group, announced that it has contributed extensive previsualization (previz) work on the Zack Snyder-directed feature film “Watchmen” from Warner Bros. Pictures. It was released in theaters on March 6.

A complex, multi-layered mystery adventure, “Watchmen” is set in an alternate 1985 America in which costumed superheroes are part of the fabric of everyday society, and the "Doomsday Clock"—which charts the USA’s tension with the Soviet Union—moves closer to midnight. When one of his former colleagues is murdered, the outlawed but no less determined masked vigilante Rorschach uncovers a wide-ranging and disturbing conspiracy with links to their shared past and catastrophic consequences for the future. Their mission is to watch over humanity…but who is watching the Watchmen?

Frantic’s Vancouver office worked closely with VFX Supervisor John “DJ” DesJardin and Production Designer Alex McDowell. But because director Zack Snyder – who shot the movie entirely in Vancouver, allowing easy access to the Frantic visual effects team – was adamant about remaining as faithful to the story as possible, Frantic’s previz department found itself digitally storyboarding a hybrid of the graphic novel and Zack’s thumbnails, using the original source material as its “bible.”

Two scenes in particular required substantial orchestration to achieve. For one pivotal sequence, Dr. Manhattan teleports to Mars and builds a glass palace – a massive crystalline structure comprised of interlocking spiked rings that rotate and function like a clock.

“Each of these rings represented a measurement of time, completing one rotation every second, minute, hour, day, year, and so on, so one of our biggest challenges was making sure the rings were rotating without intercepting,” said Aaron Weldon, Visual Effects Supervisor, Frantic Films VFX. “We broke down several ways to set up the glass palace movements, including removing large chunks so they didn’t come crashing into each other, but that sort of took away some of the visual power. So working closely with DJ and Alex, we experimented with subtly shifting the rotating rings apart from each other and then shifting them back to their original axis so they didn’t collide. DJ and Alex were very happy with the result, and this was the solution you see in the movie. It turned out to be one of the film’s most visually arresting scenes.”

Interestingly, the most challenging shot for Frantic Films to map out was actually a 10-second clip that appears in the opening title sequence. The haunting titles tell the backstory of the Watchmen from the 1940s to present day and is interspersed with key moments in U.S. history such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“Because the Zapruder film of Kennedy’s assassination is such iconic material and so recognizable, our goal was to make sure we mapped out this entire sequence as closely to the original footage as possible,” added Weldon. “There’s a ton of documentation about this footage online and countless conspiracy theories, with everyone breaking it down and analyzing it frame-by-frame, so we couldn’t get away with anything less than perfect. Additionally, the production considered four different set locations before they finally settled on a parking lot on which a partial practical set – a small hill and fence built up on stilts – was constructed to mimic the Dealey Plaza environment (the rest was added digitally in post). For each of the possible set locations, our artists had to recalculate the scene to ensure that the exact speed, grade and proper distance was represented in these less-than-ideal shooting locations.”

Frantic’s software toolkit for the pre-viz work included Autodesk 3ds Max for modeling and animation, eyeon Fusion for compositing, Adobe Photoshop for adding details and textures and Adobe Premiere for editing.

About Frantic Films VFX
Headquartered in Winnipeg, Canada, with offices in Vancouver and Los Angeles, Calif., Frantic Films VFX has been operating divisions that provide visual effects for film and television, and VFX software development since 1997. Frantic Films’ VFX award-winning visual effects teams have worked on films including Watchmen, Dragonball Evolution, Red Cliff, W., Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer, Grindhouse, Superman Returns, X-Men 3, Poseidon and many others. The company’s software tools were developed to solve complex production challenges on in-house feature effects projects, and are also in use at many leading 3D animation and effects facilities worldwide. In November of 2007 Frantic Films VFX became a division of international post and VFX leader Prime Focus Group. For more information, visit

About “Watchmen”
“Watchmen” is directed by Zack Snyder from a screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse, based on the graphic novel co-created by Dave Gibbons, published by DC Comics. The film is produced by Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin, and Deborah Snyder. Herbert W. Gains and Thomas Tull are the executive producers, with Wes Coller serving as co-producer. The film stars Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Patrick Wilson.

Warner Bros. Pictures and Paramount Pictures present, in Association with Legendary Pictures, a Lawrence Gordon/Lloyd Levin Production, a Zack Snyder Film, “Watchmen,” being distributed domestically by Warner Bros. Pictures and internationally by Paramount Pictures.

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