How No Time To Die’s hidden VFX brought James Bond to the Oscars

James Bond marked plenty of milestones with No Time To Die, the 25th film in the franchise under producer Eon Productions and the fifth and final performance by Daniel Craig as the titular secret agent with a license to kill. Craig’s farewell performance as the iconic spy received a trio of nominations for Academy Awards, with the film earning just the third nomination for visual effects in the franchise’s long history.

Under the direction of filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga, the VFX team for No Time To Die was led by overall supervisor Charlie Noble, and included two-time (and now three-time) nominee Jonathan Fawkner (Guardians of the GalaxyGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), who served as the supervisor for VFX studio Framestore on the film. Pro Well Tech spoke to Fawkner about the unique experience of working on a James Bond film, the invisible effects woven into No Time To Die, and the unique role he found himself in as time constraints and a global pandemic closed in around the film’s creative team.

This article is part of Oscar Effects – a 5-part series that puts the spotlight on each of the five movies nominated for “Best Visual Effects” at the 94th Academy Awards. The series explores the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams used to make each of these films stand out as visual spectacles.

An "Oscars Week" badge on an image of Daniel Craig stands in a forest with a rifle in a scene from No Time To Die.

Pro Well Tech: Congratulations on the Oscar nomination! James Bond films aren’t typically nominated for their visual effects, so were you surprised?

Jonathan Fawkner: Thank you! It actually is a surprise, because it’s not the flashiest VFX movie on the roster this year.

When it comes to working on a franchise like this that isn’t going for flashy visual effects, what sort of direction are you given?

The general approach was “Don’t put any visual effects in my bloody movie!” but eventually, it was, “Okay, that part’s going to be you [the visual effects team]. And that’ll be you, too. And we can’t do that, so that’ll be you, too.” That was the nature of this film, though: To always be playing catch-up. The first director [Danny Boyle] left, and then it went to a new director. Everyone was racing around, writing as fast as they’re shooting, so inevitably more and more work ends up being put to one side to think about later.

But even so, the mantra was to shoot as much as possible in-camera. They really do shoot a lot of stuff, and it makes doing the work much, much easier when you’ve got great reference of what things are supposed to look like. Cary Fukunaga didn’t want to make a visual effects movie. He’s very detail-oriented with what he shot, so he’s also very detail-oriented with the visual effects, too. But it wasn’t as much of an uphill battle as I thought it might be. Some people can’t be bothered with the VFX process, but he was very engaged, despite being a bit… wary.

Rami Malek wears a white winter suit as Lyutsifer Safi, standing on an ice lake

There’s such a unique vibe around Bond films that’s different from other franchises. On your side, is the experience different than with other franchises?

I hoped it would be, and initially it wasn’t, but latterly, it was. Let me explain: There were a lot of secrets around this film. More than any other Bond film. So we didn’t see much script, and were kept at arm’s length as visual effects vendors. If there were any secret plot points involved in a scene, they kept the circle very tight. So initially I felt like, “I’m involved, but they’re not really being very communicative… ” and I felt a bit uncertain about it. In the nature of doing this work, though, you have to understand more about what’s going on, and that happened over time.

By the end, I was spending half my days in their post-production office and half my days at Framestore.  Charlie [Noble] and I ended up splitting that post-production responsibility in trying to get the film through the door in 11 weeks or whatever it ended up being. It was a dreadfully short amount of time. So we were working side-by-side. […] I was in the edit rooms, and it was a much better experience to be able to go directly to the film’s editors. When I had a question, I could go straight to the editor or Cary, because he was always around.

Wow. That must have been a lot more efficient!

Yeah, it normally would have been just Charlie handling it all, but there was a lot to do, so we just pushed through together. And when you can WhatsApp photos from your screen and send them directly to the director, it’s quite helpful.

A winter landscape in Norway from the opening scene of No Time To Die.

Framestore worked on the film’s opening sequence, which unfolds on a remote, frozen area of Norway near a lake. What was involved in building that scene?

Well, they went to Norway in February and looked around and went, “Ooh! It’s all eerie and spooky and very Cary Fukunaga! This is what we want!” There was mist everywhere and frozen trees, and so on. But then they came back two months later and it didn’t look the same. Norway in April looks quite different from Norway in February. There’s still snow on the floor. The lake is still frozen. But all the snow in the trees is gone.

But they still went to Norway. Really, they could have filmed it at a car park, because we replaced the ice, we replaced the background… We even changed the time of day. So we said, “Okay, we’ve got to replace a lot of it, but it can’t look like we replaced any of it, because that’s the geography Cary wants. We’ll keep that in every way.” So we built a CG version of the whole thing.

So it was mostly CG?

Interestingly, no. That didn’t end up as the final shot. We built the CG version and worked with it, and in one frame in a shot we created, Cary was like, “That’s it! that’s the lighting I like!” It was one shot out of all of them. So we took that frame and said, “If that lighting was to exist on all the other shots they filmed, what would all the other shots look like?” We used our CG lighting environment to figure out what the sky would look like with this luminance against this amount of ice and so on, and we used that frame to grade every single sequence together they shot and made sure it all looked just right.

So you built the entire environment digitally, but used that CG environment to find the right measure of lighting Cary wanted, and then applied that to what was actually filmed?

Precisely. And when we went up to a high, wide shot, we even knew the level of atmosphere that needed to be off into the distance, because we built 40 square miles’ worth of CG environments to compare it to. It was a very, very expensive render to use as a reference, but it worked.

A person swims under the ice of a frozen lake in a scene from No Time To Die.

Did you end up using any fully CG shots?

We did do a full CG shot when they’re running across the ice and it’s cracking, when you can see all the beautiful fissures and this glassy surface. We were on a real ice lake, but it was just not the right sort of ice quality. They shot underwater with real IMAX cameras in that scene, too, literally going under the ice, but it was pretty dark and wasn’t quite beautiful enough. They went to the trouble of doing it, though. That’s why, when they were looking at the finished, slightly more beautified, CG shot, they didn’t go crazy about it. They had a real basis in photography that helps with subjectivity in things like this.

One of the big scenes your team worked on was that epic chase with Bond driving an older Land Cruiser, and being chased by high-end Land Rovers. What was your work like on that sequence?

So that scene was set in Norway, filmed in Scotland, and then when Scotland was rained out and they couldn’t shoot anymore, they shot it in Salisbury and tried to find a hill that roughly matched up. What we had to do was pin all of that together. They later cut out a huge chunk in the middle, too, which meant that all the continuity of the vehicle placements and everything else was basically gone.

That’s where you come in.

Exactly. They went and shot it all, but the ground got chewed up in doing so. Instead of looking like a beautiful Norwegian hillside, it was just mud. They had ramps and all sorts of stuff for the motorcycles to jump over, which was in the section they cut out, so we had to get rid of all of that stuff. Ultimately, what it meant for us was that we rebuilt an awful lot of grass. We had good reference for it, but only from the first take. After the 19th take, it didn’t look so good. So we were rebuilding grass, adding tracks and dirt in that should be there, removing others, and filling in where the editorial direction had changed for the scene. There were parts when we had one-to-one replacement, putting the Land Cruiser somewhere else that it needed to be, but also adding two Land Rovers in a shot, or three Land Rovers in where there used to be a bike, and so on.

A car drives across a stream while a helicopter hovers nearby in a scene from No Time To Die.

It sounds like you had a lot of filmed material to work with, and then had to do a lot piecing things together for continuity based on how the story evolved. Is that the case?

It was, but that’s the Bond way: To throw as much time and energy at shooting everything they possibly can. We were the beneficiaries of that, though, because we had so much reference. And it didn’t stop them from going for full-CG shots in the middle of it. Editorially, we need to hook everything up. We need the audience to know where Bond is at the same time as the baddies, so we did probably three or four full-CG shots in the whole of that sequence, which you wouldn’t know, because again, they based it on existing footage we had as reference.

For example, let’s say there was a fixed camera on a Land Rover driving down Salisbury Plain. The problem was, it was reflecting Salisbury, not Scotland. So you take the Land Rover out. But the ground was mud, so you take the ground out, too. And then they say, “Let’s have a motorbike going past as well, because that puts the bike in the story.” So that goes in, too, based on the reference material. You wouldn’t even know they made those choices later editorially, and that we replaced the whole damn thing.

A Land Rover flips over James Bond's Land Cruiser in a scene from No Time To Die.

Which other scenes did your team work on extensively?

Well, shortly after that chase, when they go in the in the forest, there was a big shot that was a great crossover with special effects, when they flipped a Land Rover upside down. For that shot, Daniel runs through looking at where the Land Rover’s going to be, and then runs down the hill and shoots at where it would end up. In the second pass, the real Land Rover drives through and they flip it upside down. But when it was shot, the Land Rover went up, and then landed on the motion-control unit [a filmmaking tool for replicating the exact same camera movement across multiple shots]. So, the first half was good, but the second half? Not so much.

It ended up being a mid-air takeover for VFX with that shot. We used an A.I. system and said we want [the car] to go around one point and skid, then do this flip and land upside down, sliding down the hill and crashing into a tree. We didn’t have reference for that last part, so it was all animation. That scene finishes with Bond pulling the car down, but they didn’t film anything at that point, because they hadn’t figured out exactly what they wanted to do. They went, “Okay, so what’s the car actually leaning on?” […] In the end, they said it’s going to be leaning on a rotten-ish tree trunk, so I went in and filmed a tree trunk in Windsor Great Park with the permission of the park people. I filmed it on my iPhone in slow-motion as the park guy just kicked over a tree, and that’s what is in the film.

A car flips over James Bond in a forest in a scene from No Time To Die.

Framestore worked on the opening title and gun barrel sequence for the film. Those elements are so iconic in Bond films. What sort of guidance do you get to ensure they’re unique to the film, but in the Bond tradition?

Well, there’s a lot of Framestore heritage there. We’ve done all but one of them since Goldeneye. Danny Kleinman is the designer of that and has a huge amount of input into all of those things. Cary gave some stylistic input, but then it’s really about Danny and his stylistic choices — what moments in the film he’s going to bring through, and so on. That’s on him. When it comes to shooting it, the whole team gets very involved, though, because those elements can be fun to shoot. These days, they’re slightly more more politically correct than they used to be, though. [Laughs] I’m just glad I didn’t have to actually do that particular work, because listening to the same song over and over for months on end would probably drive me crazy.

Well, congratulations on being part of James Bond’s legacy!

Thank you! I’m a massive Bond fan. I was super, super pleased to have been involved in this film. It’s an ambition fulfilled, because I’ve been doing this job for 20-odd years, and there’s always been Bond on the periphery. And for this to recognized like it is, I think is really nice.

Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, No Time To Die is currently available via on-demand streaming.

This article is part of Oscar Effects – a 5-part series that puts the spotlight on each of the five movies nominated for “Best Visual Effects” at the 94th Academy Awards. The series explores the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams used to make each of these films stand out as visual spectacles.

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