2022’s heartwarmingly quirky film Everything Everywhere All At Once enthralled critics and filmgoers alike, introduced legends Michelle Yeoh and James Hong to a new generation, brought former child star Ke Huy Quan back to the silver screen, and rightfully earned dozens of award nominations, from BAFTAs to Film Independent Spirit to Screen Actors Guild awards — and a number of wins at the Oscars!
Along with the deserved nominations and wins for the actors and directors were a wealth of nominations for the film’s impressive visual effects, which extended and amplified the heart, as well as the quirkiness, of the script, direction, and acting performances. The visual effects were helmed by Pretend VFX, a scrappy, five-person independent VFX studio powered in part by Wacom technology.
We spoke with two members of the Pretend VFX team about what it was like working on a major film, how Wacom tech helped them stay efficient and innovative, and what’s in store for the studio’s future. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your work on this film coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which necessitated an innovative workflow. What was exciting and what was challenging about the experience?
Zak Stoltz, Visual effects supervisor, artist, and producer: The most important aspects of this film, for me, were just the development of the process, all the different tools that we used, and the general vibe of the visual effects work. I think the process is the thing that is unique about it, because you can look at everything in the film, and you can marvel at the beauty of certain shots. But the question is, how do you get there?
With an indie visual effects budget, we didn’t have the same resources or time as a lot of bigger projects. And it was a bit of a blessing in disguise, having COVID happen right when we started. That did create an environment where we didn’t necessarily have a strict deadline of when we had to deliver everything, but we did have a budget … time was money. So the process was one of figuring out how we could make the most efficient use of our time.
We created a very open process, which was a big deal for the Daniels [the film’s directors] in particular. We wanted to have as much direct communication as possible. Building out something from scratch without any infrastructure was a bit of a revelation. It took a lot of work, but it also allowed us to be very smart and efficient with how we did things.
Because we were small and nimble, we ended up having five people responsible for 90% of the visual effects in the movie. That hadn’t really been done before at this scale, as far as I know. And it was done in a way that everyone could feel like they had the time to play and explore ideas with the shots and not feel completely overwhelmed.
Jeff Desom, VFX Artist: I came on board when Zak had already established a very coherent workflow. So there were barely any hitches for me. The fact that we didn’t really have a deadline relieved us of some pressure; I didn’t feel like I had to really rush to get things done, which was really nice – I was able to explore a little bit.
There was a moment – I think it was at the penultimate quality control screening – and there was one shot that wasn’t quite there yet, and it was happening right at the emotional climax of the movie. This was before Joy steps into the bagel, and the bagel wasn’t holding up on the screening. The directors and I were like, OK, we have to go back, we have to really nail this shot. It was a make or break moment, and I think we ended up with like 36 iterations of that particular shot. And by the end of it, it was a great moment. I felt like I’d really achieved something.
You mentioned how crucial efficiency and collaboration were. What were some of the tools you used that helped make the process efficient and collaborative?
Zak: For keeping track of the shots, we used Airtable, which is an online database tool that has really great capabilities around keeping things organized. We also used a tool called Resilio Sync, which is a cloud-based peer-to-peer tool for sharing all of the different work that everyone was doing. We were all using Adobe After Effects for creating the shots primarily; that was our main visual effects compositing tool, and then we also used Blender, Cinema 4D, and Mocha Pro [for planar motion tracking and rotoscoping].
Check out 55:55 for a demo of the Prism features in Continuum used with After Effects, or check out 1:02:43 to see how they distorted faces and bodies using Power Mesh in Mocha Pro for the bagel scenes.
Zak: Hardware-wise, many of us were just working on kind of, consumer or prosumer grade machines. We were all working out of our home offices or our bedrooms, on a MacBook Pro or a desktop Mac. And we were also using Wacom products. I love my Wacom Intuos; it’s an Intuos 5 and it’s been a workhorse. I originally started using a Wacom tablet when I was working at a visual effects company just as a freelancer. I learned that there was a fluidity to it … being able to do a lot more things that would have been just tedious with the mouse. It was specifically useful when it came to things like rotoscoping and painting.
My favorite thing about my tablet is being able to use the stylus and have more accurate control over where on the screen you are, and have that be fluid. But I also love the ExpressKeys, and being able to have macro capabilities. Whenever I’m editing, I have a macro to, for example, set an in and out point, and then I hit one button and basically it cuts out that little piece, and pastes it at the end of the timeline, then goes back to where I was? It’s a very unique macro, and it’s a very personal workflow that I developed, but it’s so great and it’s so efficient. Wacom tablets have that functionality with the ExpressKeys, and I love it.
Jeff: We did our own rotoscoping for a lot of this, and it’s great to quickly draw the splines inside Mocha Pro on the Wacom tablet. I use the mouse as well, but the Wacom tablet does really accelerate when you have to quickly draw the splines for various shapes. And then, I also used it for painting.
There’s this shot, where Harry Shum, Jr. has Racacoonie on his head, and he’s like doing all this crazy juggling and mid-air slicing of vegetables. And for that shot, I had to paint the vegetables inside After Effects with, really, just a paintbrush. I used the Wacom tablet for some of that where I was painting just, like, raw pepper, and then gave it some highlights and some shadows, and I drew some shrimps.
Zak: There was this feeling that we made a bit of a live action cartoon in some ways, and there were a lot of these very “painterly” qualities to a lot of the effects that we did. They weren’t hyper-real or polished, you know. We used very little CG in this; we relied a lot on 2D techniques. And so, being able to have the flexibility and control, and put our own fingerprints, or brush strokes, on the effects was very nice.
I can’t draw with a mouse. I need to use the tablet for any sort of paint. I definitely used the Wacom tablet when I needed the brush sensitivity or the pressure sensitivity, to get the best results. And you want to have that quickness, as though you had like pen and paper.
Check out 2:10 for the hibachi chef scene Jeff mentions above.
What does the future look like for Pretend VFX?
Zak: You know, this was our first big thing that we did. We were kind of thrown into the fire and developed this process out of necessity. But I think that it’s going to inform a lot of how we move forward. I think that we love any tool that we can get our hands on that makes ourselves more efficient in the creative process, whether that be the software side or the hardware side, like we touched on with the Wacom products.
In terms of future projects, it runs the gamut from bigger, more established studios to some very independent films that just need visual effects help. People are seeing what we did on Everything Everywhere All At Once, and want to try out our process because they want to have that more intimate, creative relationship with their visual effects collaborators.
Zak Stoltz is a multidisciplinary filmmaker whose work over the past decade has ranged from directing award-winning music videos to visual effects supervising the Oscar-nominated feature film Everything Everywhere All At Once. He lives and works (and plays lots of disc golf) in Los Angeles with his dog, Boba.
Jeff Desom is a writer, film director, and visual effects artist. Combining live action, found footage, and digital effects, his work has been selected and awarded at a number of festivals around the world. He works between Europe and Los Angeles.
Wacom would like to give a special shout-out to our partner Boris FX! To learn more about how well Boris FX and Wacom partner together, check out how Boris FX Optics can help you make stunning photo edits or level up your cosplay photos, or learn about some of the best features of its video editing suite: Sapphire and Continuum (visual effects plugin suites) and Mocha Pro (planar motion tracking and rotoscoping), which was used extensively by Pretend VFX on Everything Everywhere All At Once. Or, check out this webinar for even more details and instruction on the Boris FX Suite!