Everything Everywhere All At Once: Small VFX team, big results

Everything Everywhere All At Once: Small VFX team, big results

As its title suggests, Everything Everywhere All at Once is everywhere you look these days. The film, from writing-directing duo Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, casts Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) as a woman who finds herself caught up in a wild adventure through the multiverse, and it has quickly developed into a mainstream hit with its blend of expertly choreographed action, outrageous comedy, and heartfelt emotion.

Along with becoming another box-office success for independent film studio A24, Everything Everywhere stands out for its unique, small-scale approach to filmmaking, with Kwan and Scheinert (collectively known as “The Daniels”) opting not to bring in a large visual effects studio to handle the film’s array of surreal elements and (seemingly) effects-driven sequences. Instead, the pair assembled a small team — only seven people are credited for the film’s visual effects — led by visual effects supervisor Zak Stoltz (Breakarate). Joining him on the team was lead visual effects artist Ethan Feldbau (Ghost Ghirls), who worked with the two Daniels and Stoltz on earlier projects.

Digital Trends spoke to Stoltz and Feldbau about how they made the small-scale approach work for the Daniels’ grand vision for Everything Everywhere All at Once, and what it’s like to see the independent film achieve such unexpected — but well-deserved — success among general audiences.

Michelle Yeoh performs kung fu in a scene from Everything Everywhere All At Once.

Digital Trends: Everything Everywhere might have one of the shortest lists of Visual Effects credits of any film I’ve interviewed the VFX team on. Was it intentional to keep the team small?

Zak Stoltz: I have to say, towards the end [of post-production], we really were like, “Do we need to bring on more people? If we do, the list will get bigger!” But, it was a conscious decision to keep it really small, and it was also a functional thing. Originally, Dan and Daniel came to me to head up the visual effects for this movie because they didn’t really like working with a larger [post-production] house. They wanted to make sure they had a more intimate connection with the artists and were able to help on some of the stuff themselves. On [their 2016 film] Swiss Army Man, they worked with a bigger post house and didn’t love the experience. They ended up doing a lot of effects themselves. So, they figured, “Why not just do it all [on this film] as this smaller, DIY thing?” And then Ethan was the first person I brought on.

Ethan Feldbau: Zak was the first hire, as visual effects supervisor, and then he hired me. But, I had worked in the past with the Daniels as a production designer for some of their past videos. We also went to college together. I had just finished working with Zak on one of his own shows, called Breakarate, as the visual effects artist. … That was how it all started: Just the two of us. Zak was VFX supervisor, figuring out how to organize, manage, bid, schedule, process, hire, and think through the logistics of it. I have an art director’s background. So, for a while, I was able to do a large amount of concept-ing with this small team to figure out how to take the words from the script and make them visual.

And then production went dark just as they were completing shooting because of lockdown. That actually gave us some extra time to be a very small crew while everybody figured out how to move forward with the movie.

Visual effects production often involves so much delegation of work on certain elements, but you didn’t have many people to delegate to. How did that shape your approach to the work?

Stoltz: Well, a big part of it being the way it was, is that we had no money. That was the big task I had to figure out. Ethan will be the first to tell you I became slightly intolerable before I finally learned to just let go and let things be what they were going to be. [Initially,] it was like, “Okay, can we afford to have a third person on for a week? Can we afford to do this or that?” … There was a separate amount [of funding] that had been set aside in case this process didn’t work out so they could go to a bigger VFX company, but we were like, “No, we’ve got it,” and it ended up staying all in-house. So, there was a bit of a risk involved in the way we did it, but we ended up proving it could work. So, it was a successful experiment.

Feldbau: 10 years ago, I was working at a commercial post-production house in Boston on The Proposal with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. The film had a five-person visual effects team — the same size as our movie, but for a movie that wasn’t visual-effects intensive at all. On this film, Zak found himself with a very visual-effects intensive movie that wants to be done intimately, like the Daniels’ music videos were, with a bunch of friends working together. The challenge was: How do you realistically scale up that intimate process without a multi-tiered and structured visual effects department and all the go-between that usually happens on a movie? It was hard.

The cast of Everything Everywhere All At Once sits at a desk in an office building.

One element that a big VFX studio would typically bring to the table is the sort of computing resources necessary to process and render the massive video files for a film like this. How did you handle that aspect of the process?

Feldbau: Well, I can definitely say this movie could not have been made this way ten years ago. … You could not have sat at home with an inexpensive workstation and made 4K images quickly. It just could not have happened. But, technology has changed. Zak was brilliant at piecing together the appropriate workstations for us on our modest budget. That was very important. And ancillary to that is the fact that, because we had a bit of a shorthand working with the Daniels and knew their quirks and process for improvisation — and also what they were going for with this — we could work faster than if we had to train a whole group on how everything should look.

Stoltz: Yeah, because it was a small group, it wasn’t hard to get on the same page. I could hop on a Zoom with four people and be like, “Here’s how we’re going to do this.” We had a lot of show-and-tell in the mornings. But Ethan and I, our paths in post-production have been very different. I’ve never worked with a bigger post house. I’ve only done visual effects myself, because I needed them for my own projects. … I’ve also worked on four or five of the Daniels’ music videos, and we co-directed a music video together. It’s been a long relationship. So, it was easier for me to go into this with a small team.

It was like a useful ignorance as to what the process would be like with a larger team. I was like, “Oh, we have a small team, so we’ll just do what we usually do, but for a movie!” And we just stuck with what we knew and learned the things we didn’t know, because that’s what we’ve always done. As for stuff like renders, we just set up a process based on what we had available to us. We’d say, “Set up stuff to render overnight when you’re done working,” and then we’d just figure it out in the morning. What was your longest render, Ethan?

Feldbau: It was like 30 hours or something.

Stoltz: So, with something like that, it was like, “Okay, that’s a weekend one.” It was all about knowing the limitations we had and working within those limitations. You hear that all the time: You can make the best stuff when you work within your limitations as opposed to trying to do everything you want to do. So, a lot of the effects in this movie seem a lot bigger, but they were actually made in much simpler ways than you would in a traditional pipeline.

There was very little CG, for example. The “everything bagel” was a pre-rendered element that got composited into the shot, with a bunch of 2D effects layered over the top of it. The main bagel we used throughout the film was just one element we reused over and over and over again. We just messed with it in a bunch of ways to make it feel different.

Everything Everywhere All At Once directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert discuss a scene.

Were there some shots that challenged your small team more than others?

Feldbau: Yeah, and some of them might not be the shots you were expecting, because the effects are rather invisible. The film allowed us to be a little imperfect with our physics, a little imperfect with how it was made. I often cited Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit as a live-action cartoon which had qualities like our movie: Done by hand, without computers, as a project where they got the look right — and that’s all you really needed.

For example, I did a relatively straightforward, matte painting of the IRS building in 2D. Normally you’d make this shot in 3D, but at the time we needed it, we were very concerned with budget and were trying to be very minimal with our crew. I attempted it in 2D, almost like a hand-drawn painting.

Stoltz: This is the shot where we’re going toward the exterior of the IRS building, by the way, and the camera tilts up and you see the whole building and sky. It was just a one-story building [where it was filmed], so everything above that was a matte painting.

Feldbau: Exactly. And we had thought, “Yes, it could be outsourced. It could be done in 3D. But lockdown is new and we’re all just hanging out at home anyways.” So, at that point, it was cost-effective for me to spend three days hanging out in Photoshop, creating this building. That was an appropriate mindset for that element. And even though the matte painting isn’t as perfect as a computer could do, the live-action cartoon quality of the film allows it to work. … These experiences and experiments sort of opened up a conversation while making this movie, that sometimes your first thought on how to achieve an effect isn’t the only way to do it.

I thought it was interesting to note that nearly everyone listed in the visual effects credits for the film has directed short films or music videos themselves. That’s not common, in my experience.

Stoltz: Everyone who did visual effects on this film is also a director. We’ve all directed stuff — and not just something in high school. We’ve all directed professionally. So, we have this sense of trust in each other to know that if we hand something to someone, it’s not like they’ve only ever known the typical system of being handed a shot, doing one part of it, and moving on. We’re all people who have had to come up with solutions to really difficult problems while working on our own projects. Realizing that eventually set the tone for the rest of the movie for me, and I was able to chill out a bit more about time and budget.

Michelle Yeoh stands in front of her character's husband and daughter in a scene from Everything Everywhere All At Once.

This is the sort of film where it’s difficult to figure out where the visual effects are, and what’s done practically. Did that play to your strengths, too, as both VFX artists and part of such a small team?

Stoltz: Yeah, the only reason we were able to do it with a small team is that this is the way it works with the Daniels. None of us go into a project thinking, “Oh, just make that visual effects,” or “We can just do all of that in visual effects.” Anytime someone comes to me with a job, I tend to be like, “Can you do it practically instead?” It requires a lot of conversations. … It always starts with a practical base, and then that’s enhanced with visual effects as needed. “Racacoonie” [the raccoon under the chef’s hat] is one that comes to mind that we did nothing with. There were zero visual effects on Racacoonie.

Is there a VFX shot you’re particularly proud of in the film? Do you have a favorite scene you worked on?

Feldbau: I sure do. I got to do the shot of the security guard coming over the cubicles spread-eagle and… landing. You know the shot. The eagle truly landed with that one. That shot is the crowd-pleaser. It’s the moment you go to the theater for, and you hear everybody react to it. How fortunate that nobody else was as excited to take it, and that it will be there to punctuate my effects reel forever.

Stoltz: I knew you would love to do that one, so I gave it to you!

Feldbau: Thank you, Zak! That was truly a gift.

Stoltz: For me, it was the moment near the end when the bagel enters the IRS building. I was staring at that shot for… Wow, I don’t even know. That shot took a long time. There were so many elements. The camera goes through her eyes, and then there’s all these people who weren’t actually there but were shot on green screen later, and then we had to figure out what the bagel is doing once we introduce it. I started that shot six months before it was actually finished.

We were creating a lot of effects while they were editing the film, so it was a very long, creative, frustrating, but also satisfying process of iterating things and having 30 versions of a shot before we were like, “Okay, this is good.” Some of it was just running out the clock, like, “This is good, but can it be better?” We just kept on going as long as we could. Art is never finished, it’s only abandoned, right?

What has it been like for you to see the positive response to the film after working on it for so long and so closely?

Feldbau: It’s been amazing. I said to Zak recently, “This must be what Rebecca Black felt like when Friday became a big thing!”

Wow. I did not expect a Rebecca Black mention in this interview.

Feldbau: Right? But we lived this film. We started on this in November of 2019, and I was in isolation with it for so long. It kept me going through the isolation of the pandemic, so it was a very important part of my life. You’re not making it for attention. You’re just focusing on how to make it speak clearly and how to make it work. This has been my first moment of something I’ve worked on going out and having everybody talk about the specifics of our involvement. It’s been very nice, and I’ve gotten a lot of compliments.

Stoltz: It’s weird, because I’ve been off social media for a while, and now I’m feeling this intense pressure to get back in there and be like, “Oh, hi… fans? Do I have fans?” It’s a weird thing, but it’s also very cool. I enjoy seeing the articles that come out or hearing, “Oh, it’s so crazy that they did this with five people!” We had a few more people that helped out, but it really was around five people doing over 80 percent of over 500 shots. So, it’s a wild experience, and it’s also very gratifying, because we always wanted that to be part of the story.

When the movie first came out, there weren’t a lot of people talking about it, but now it’s like, “Oh great, we’re seen!” We feel like we did a good job and it is this impressive thing that we always thought was impressive. I’m glad that other people are recognizing it, because it’s something that was really hard to create, and it makes it all feel worth it.

Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All at Once is currently in theaters.

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