The following is a report from our visit to the set in June, 2011.
The bus rumbles down the road, and urban London slowly turns into what I can only assume is Sherwood Forest. That’s in England, right? The more we continue into the dense trees, the more curious I become as to what we’re going to find in Long Cross Studios, where Jack the Giant Slayer is being filmed.
The answer starts to become clear as we are escorted to the set of Bryan Singer’s 3D epic through a murky swamp with a round cage hoisted in the air. Upon further examination, I notice it is just big enough to fit a person standing up. A gigantic castle set lies just beyond, where King Brahmwell, played by Ian McShane, leads his people without his trademark Deadwood swearing (even though Singer notes that they wanted so badly to fit it in somehow). The sight, even with an occasional enormous green screen against the sky, is breathtaking.
A large group of extras are inside the castle walls, as they are shooting part of the climactic scene where the castle is under attack. The extras are mostly scowling, which is due either to being in character or being on the verge of passing out from the unnatural heat on this summer day. The video village allows us to see full 3D of the stunt-double versions of the king and his posse riding into the castle, and it looks great. So where do Jack, a giant, and a beanstalk fit into this?
Plot details henceforth…
Singer is more than happy to give us the details. First of all, this isn’t just one giant protecting a golden goose in the clouds. Singer's giants aren't slow and lumbering, but "athletic" with "agility and movement" and something to be feared. In his story, they were banished from the land, with the beanstalk being the only link between worlds. The giants have been plotting their revenge. All they need is the unlikely appearance of a new beanstalk…hmm….
This is the part that will sound familiar. Warm Bodies' Nicholas Hoult plays the poor but warm-hearted Jack, who gets embroiled in a great cow scandal at the market and ends up with a handful of beans. But this time, the lovely and feisty Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) gets caught up in the madness. The beanstalk scene was one of the first things they shot, and Eleanor says that they went through a lot of script-tweaking to get it just right, but now they’re "very happy" with it. It's the first plot point where you have to really believe what's going on in order to buy the rest of the story.
Singer seems equally as confident. Even though he admitted that this movie marks a lot of firsts for him (3D, fairy tale, fully rendered CG characters, creature characters, takes place in a time before electricity, has horses), there are some things that are the same. He makes sure to mention that this is his third movie with a cat in it, but more importantly, that it’s his second with visual effects company Third Floor, who also did the effects for X-Men: First Class. And they have their work cut out for them.
Feats of technology abound!
Perhaps even more intriguing than how the team will make this fairy tale interesting for a modern audience is the cutting-edge technology that creates it. Singer praises his Epic Red digital video camera because of its size and ability to capture great differences in light, but along with that is the SimulCam. The entire movie was plotted out with animatics, so they could budget which $80,000 giant shots absolutely had to exist. Those animatics are put into the SimulCam, so while the camera operator is capturing a scene, it shows the animatic with the real-life image as well. This results in shots that are perfectly framed to include huge imaginary giants. The actors and crew can watch playback of what they just shot with the animatic giants.
Another computer-based wonder is what they can do with motion capture. Bill Nighy plays Fallon, one of the meanest giants. For one scene, he picks up a tiny doll that represents Jack. He shakes it and tosses it about. The computer takes the information about the movement and feeds it into a gimbal with Nicholas Hoult strapped into it as Jack. It moves him exactly the way that Nighy moved the doll, and the two match perfectly.
Not everything about the film was created in post-production, though. Some things still had to be practical. When the house is taken away by the beanstalk in that scene Tomlinson mentioned had to be just right, those effects were partially real. Hoult describes that the floorboards would explode and a rig made the entire house shake. He would run across the house and a ram would hit him in the stomach, sending him flying out the roof, all while he had dialogue to say. Aren't you glad you aren't an actor?
Ewan McGregor, who plays military leader Elmont, said the project didn't originally appeal to him until he opened the script and found its humor similar to How To Train Your Dragon, and he was in. With a lack of clichés and a good heart, the story grabbed him, just like a giant would to a pesky human.
By all accounts, it's an even match of technology and story, that we're excited to see on the big screen come March 4.