Students learn visual effect tricks behind Birdman, The Equalizer

by Cathleen Cusachs / Beacon Staff • January 29, 2015

When filmgoers see the a big-budget movie at their local multiplex, many don’t even try to understand the behind-the-scenes work that went into making the final product look just the right way.

But on Jan. 22, Emerson students and faculty got a firsthand look inside the movie magic. The visual effects supervisors for the films Birdman and The Equalizer spoke to a packed Bright Family Screening Room in a presentation organized by the Boston Creative Pro User Group.

Denis Kirkman-Moriarty, a junior visual and media arts major, said he attended the event because he wanted to gain a better understanding of the field.  

“I attended the presentation to gain a larger appreciation of what goes into visual effects when making a movie,” Kirkman-Moriarty said. “The amount of work and the amount of results that they can achieve with visual effects today [is] really jawdropping.”

Sean Devereaux, 38, spoke about his company’s work on The Equalizer. Zero VFX, which is based in Boston, has worked on other movies including Fury, American Hustle, Zookeeper, and The Interview. Devereaux, the company’s co-founder, said visual effects like these are a dream come true, and it took a lot of passion to get him there.

He said he was first discovered while cleaning sinks. He had an internship for Digital Domain, a visual effects company, right after graduation, where one day he saw a mess in the kitchen sink and cleaned it up. According to Devereaux, going that extra mile is what made him stand out. 

“I had a lot of people, because of that passion, pull me to their desk and say ‘Let me show you something’ and taught me how to do it,” Devereaux said. “And then I would stay late and do it.” 

Visual effects from The Equalizer include computer-generated explosions, blood, and weapons.  Because of child labor laws concerning the production’s young actors, scenes that were meant to take place in the evening had to be filmed during the day. For example, there is a diner that Denzel Washington’s character, Robert McCall, frequents in the evening. The scenes, however, were filmed in the daytime, Devereaux said.  To solve this problem, he said he had to fix every window to make it seem like night.

Ara Khanikian, 35, spoke about using computer generated imagery to join takes together, such as with his company’s work on Birdman. Critics have praised the movie because of its cinematic stylings. The movie seems to have been filmed in one shot, with one camera. However, Khanikian showed that this wasn’t the case. Throughout production, Khanikian’s company, Rodeo Visual Effects, handled 46 shots themselves—about half the film—and created close to 100 stitches.

For audience member Harry Brownstein, a junior visual and media arts major, this revelation was the most fascinating part.

“I recently saw Birdman and I was enamored by the whole aesthetic of the one long take and how the effects really help tell the story,” Brownstein said. “It’s really cool to go to these events and meet the people who actually worked on movies and meet the person who basically told the story of Birdman.”

The one word Khanikian used to describe the job was “challenging.” 

“The one thing that’s extremely important for [the director] is rhythm and pacing,” Khanikian said. “He shot the movie, [the editing team] put everything together, and then he kind of went ‘Okay, this part here is a bit too slow, here is a bit too fast...’ I have never personally seen re-speeds at this level.”

Besides re-pacing scenes, another challenge Rodeo faced was mirror shots, Khanikian said. Scenes filmed in front of mirrors physically required the full crew to be in view of the mirror. During editing, they had to remove the crew from view and replace them with an exact copy of the background. Khanikian said this was difficult because throughout each shot and stitch, the reflections had to be consistent. 

“In case people were wondering how the mirror shots were done: brute force,” Khanikian said. “All of the dressing rooms, anywhere in the theater, there are always mirrors everywhere in this movie...so this ended up being [computer generated] backgrounds for all the reflections.”

Other Birdman secrets that he revealed included using Go Pros—compact video cameras—and green screens for flying scenes, replacing a stuntman’s face with Michael Keaton’s, and creating computer-generated wings for the Birdman costume. Khanikian said the easiest scene was, perhaps surprisingly, the giant computer-animated bird monster at the end of the movie.

“It was a hard project, I’ll be honest,” Khanikian said. “But as soon as you finish and you start getting recognition and people start talking about it. When you start seeing the hundred people that were working on the movie with you being proud of the movie, that’s when you feel good about it. At least it was for something.”