What if instead of the Napoleonic Wars pushing 18th century Europe into conflict, it was actually a supernatural threat – a zombie pandemic – that plunged the continent into war? That brain-eating alternate history is the central conceit of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, director Burr Steers’ nearly straight-faced adaptation of author Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel of the same name. The genre-bending parody transforms Jane Austen’s Regency era novel of manners into a zombie-slaying tale of love, classism, and kung fu.
Although the film’s title is fairly self-explanatory, it is the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies opening sequence that does the necessary worldbuilding a mashup like this requires. Creative Director Ben Smith and the team at The Mill were tasked with developing a prologue that would ground the utterly insane concept in some semblance of reality, and, at the same time, explain the differences between this zombie-filled history and our own. To encapsulate this turbulent time, the team employed the talents of renowned political cartoonist Martin Rowson to illustrate the sequence in the style of 18th century caricaturist James Gillray. The results are magical; the viewer gets the impression that, if not for the legions of undead eating their way across the pages, this commemorative tunnel book should be in a museum somewhere.
The finished sequence takes the form of a bedtime story being told by Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance) in between the hushed whispers of young Elizabeth and her sisters. Bolstered by beautifully timed animation and Rowson’s irreverent illustrations, the prologue plays out not as some fairy tale dreamt up to scare children, but as practical, life-saving advice being passed from one generation to the next – from a well-meaning father to his well-mannered and very well-armed daughters.
A discussion with Executive Creative Director BEN SMITH and Visual Effects Supervisor YONGCHAN KIM of The Mill and Illustrator MARTIN ROWSON.
Could you give us some background on yourselves and your respective roles at The Mill?
Ben: I’m currently one of the executive creative directors here at the New York office. I’ve directed projects, before that I was a co-director, before that I was Head of CG. I’ve been at the New York office for about 10 years, I was at London for about four years before that, so I’ve been at The Mill for quite a long time.
Yong: When I was in university in Korea I was really enthusiastic about motion graphics. But I wanted to go abroad to learn more about 3D and visual effects. I thought I might be limited if I just stuck with motion graphics. I got the opportunity to attend the School of Visual Arts in New York when I graduated college and a year later I met Yann Mabille, who was my thesis advisor and the head of 3D at The Mill. He gave me the chance to work at The Mill as a junior 3D artist after finishing my thesis. That was about five years ago.
Martin, you work primarily as an editorial cartoonist in the UK. Is title design a field you ever thought you’d work in?
Martin: It’s not the sort of thing I ever thought I’d be doing, although I’m aware of my fellow cartoonists who’ve done this kind of thing – Ronald Searle, obviously. It came along out of the blue, which was very exciting.
But I’ll tell you what was so wonderful about it: It was engaging work of a completely different kind. It also happened during the election we had over here last year. It was so boring! I thought, I’ve got to do another fucking cartoon about Ed Miliband talking bullshit or David Cameron talking bullshit or people speculating on what the Scottish nationalists are going to do… Oh no I haven’t, I can go and draw some 18th century zombies instead! Brilliant! [laughs]
Let’s talk about those zombies. How did you go about making this opening?
Ben: The first meeting was in person at a place called Light Iron, where they were renting some editorial suites. We met the director, Burr Steers, and we got on. He gave us an outline of the film, the main tenets of what it was about, and then what they were looking for.
Originally it was a prologue only, to explain the history up until the moment the film takes place. It’s quite an unusual premise, it’s a real mashup of cultures – Jane Austen’s Regency England with all that intricacy, mixed with the blood-dusted zombie genre and also kung fu!
Together at last!
Ben: [laughs] Yeah, so it needed a bit of explaining. Burr wanted to do that through the prologue. One of the things that stuck with me from the beginning was that he described the film as being inherently humorous but played straight. That really resonated with me.
Was the prologue in the screenplay or was it developed later?
Ben: No, it was completely us. In the second meeting Burr gave us a PDF with a timeline – it was a history of the zombie plague. It went all the way through the 18th century, from 1706 to 1800, which was around when the Jane Austen novel takes place. So 100 years of history in a couple of minutes was the ask.
There was very little input from the director, but he outlined some things that he liked. One thing that really inspired me was his parallel universe idea. He wrote down “the Bubonic Plague = the Zombie Plague” and “the Napoleonic Wars = the Zombie Wars”. I am a big fan of sci-fi, alternate realities, and things like that, so I started thinking about it along those lines. OK. If the zombie plague is taking the place of the Bubonic Plague, how can we tweak things synonymous with the Bubonic Plague to have a zombie tilt?
The key was thinking about known moments of history or cultural components of history from that era and then twisting them to be driven by a zombie plague. I thought about was the unification of Great Britain in 1706, where Scotland and England joined – I suggested that the unification was driven by the need to collaborate in fighting the zombie plague. But the thing that I liked that actually made it in was the madness of King George. Instead of it being a genetic disorder that caused his illness, it was actually witnessing some horrific zombie attack that made him mad. That’s why he went mad, nothing else.
That sounds like a lot of fun to develop. Yong, at what point did you get involved?
Yong: I actually saw Ben working on the treatment in passing and it caught my attention. There were a bunch of images of old classical and grotesque illustrations that he was using as mood reference for the pitch. I went to the scheduler right away to see if I could help out. We ended up creating about a five-second render test of the tunnel book using those images he found.
So let’s talk about that tunnel book concept. What was the origin of that idea?
Ben: Once I had that parallel universe idea developed, I looked at the timeline again and it seemed clear that it needed to be a story, like a nursery rhyme or fable. In one of the opening scenes of the film, you see the father, Mr. Bennet – played by Charles Dance – with his daughters all around in the drawing room, and instead of doing sewing and knitting and the things a proper lady from that time period would be doing, they’re cleaning weapons! [laughs]
It was an awesome moment, so along those lines I thought: what if Mr. Bennet is telling a story to his daughters when they’re younger? Maybe the story could be told by him almost as a warning to his daughters, voiced by Charles Dance with his lovely, deep, commanding voice…
You can certainly do worse than Charles Dance for a narrator…
Ben: I know! Exactly. Voiceover was not a mandate but it fit really well with his voice and his character. So then I thought it should be a book, maybe a bedtime story. I worked with Burr and another writer to make that, trying to fit in all those parallel universe moments. I wanted to make it more like a paragraph from story prose as opposed to just a list of key dates.
Then I started to look around for the vehicle to bring this to life. Tunnel books were something that I was aware of and liked, and they are actually from that era. They were the first pop-up books and were often used to commemorate historical events. It was perfect. This can be a tunnel book history lesson commemorating the 18th century from start to finish, which just so happens to correlate with the beginning and end of the zombie invasion. We did a test for the pitch where we cut out some images from James Gillray and faked this little diorama. We then presented it to Burr and the team along with other visuals.
Ben: I knew about Gillray already, but Burr had specifically mentioned that he loved him. It just seemed to fit so well. The whole film has a seriousness to it, but it’s taking the piss as well. Gillray is the master of satirical piss-taking and doing it in a really subtle way. So we went for this high fidelity, beautiful and textural sequence, with these illustrations that have a sense of humour to them.
Where do you find a modern illustrator who can recreate the style of an 18th century satirical cartoonist?
Ben: [laughs] That was the next challenge. I wrote a brief and gave that to a number of illustrators but nobody really came close, to be honest. I started to get worried and turned to the Internet, as you do. I came across Martin Rowson. Martin has written about Gillray, he can mimic Gillray’s style, so I thought he would be perfect.
Martin: I’m a huge fan of Gillray’s and Ben had this vision of these images in the style of Gillray. I can do a pretty good Gillray pastiche! I’m a professional satirist. I know how Gillray thought, I know how he would have responded to these things because it’s what we all do. It’s one of those unquantifiable things – it’s like how you can tell a replicant from a human being – it’s that added ingredient which he obviously felt he needed.
Ben: It was actually quite difficult to get hold of him though. We tried through the normal channels and we couldn’t get ahold of him. We ended up managing to get ahold of him through Twitter. He replied to a tweet that we’d written and we had a phone call from there.
How did the production process for the illustrations work, considering much of the team was in New York and Martin was in London?
Martin: The process actually worked really well, considering the time difference. They would email over very rough ideas – referring sometimes to some of the Gillray originals they were thinking of or that they wanted me to reference. I would then work up a rough illustration, and they would then say can you change this, can you change that.
Yong: Our initial idea was to use Martin's black-and-white illustrations as-is, since they not only tell the story very well but also have great depth as pieces of art. We did a lighting test with those using a saturated candle light, but we decided to colour them when it came out a bit flat.
Ben: We did the colouring here, but Martin did a couple of versions for us that were coloured in the same technique that Gillray would have done.
Martin: I only coloured about three or four of them, just to show the palette I was looking at. Gillray had a specific colour palette. He would engrave them or etch them, and then they would be printed in black and white. The ones that we see nowadays, the most famous Gillray prints from the end of the 18th century, were actually hand-coloured by anonymous women. It was so you could sell them for more money. The print shop that he sold his prints to would send them out to these women, who would go in blind painting these things. But there was a very distinct palette of colours which he used, so I established that palette and then they reproduced it.
Ben: He supplied the rest of the illustrations to us as black-and-white imagery, which we then coloured digitally in that Gillray palette.
Martin, how many illustrations did you produce for the sequence?
Martin: I produced something like 150 or more drawings in different stages. Some of them took no time at all. “You want this person standing there, this person standing over there.” I would scan them, email them over, they would say, “Yes, can we have them like that,” and it worked extraordinarily well.
Ben: What was amazing about working with Martin was just how fucking fast he could do everything!
Martin: Yeah, most of the stuff I produce, I produce in about three or four hours and it’s really quite finished artwork. I kept thinking, hang on, they’re paying me by the day. I’ve got to slow down! [laughs] I hate doing roughs for newspaper cartoons because it’s a waste of time, but on this occasion it was different, a different kind of deadline. They were surprised by how quickly I work, but that’s because newspaper cartoonists do work really quickly.
Was there a particular Gillray print or engraving that informed your process on this project?
Martin: All political cartoonists in the UK, we all look back to Gillray because he was more or less the father of the profession. He did this famous image called “The Plumb-Pudding in Danger,” which was Pitt the Younger and Napoleon Bonaparte carving up the world between them and it’s a plum pudding.
Martin: In zoological terms you’d call this the type specimen; it’s the thing you’d have in the natural history museum. So that’s the type specimen of a political cartoon, where you take recognizable, real human beings, you transform them through caricature into marionettes that are being controlled by the cartoonist, and then you set them up in a narrative of your own choice which is meant to mock them. And this does it perfectly. It perfectly describes the geopolitical struggle between Bonaparte and Pitt the Younger, but we’ve all stolen it, over and over and over again because it works for anybody. I’ve done Saddam Hussein and Clinton, I’ve done Iran and Condoleeza Rice, and on it goes. So it was that one that was always at the back of my mind.
With Martin’s illustrations completed, what were the next steps?
Ben: Then we started putting it into the computer and doing that camera move that drifts through. We did a couple of scratch reads based on the script and then through 3D animation we lined up how we would reveal the different elements from Martin through the camera.
Yong: That process was extremely helpful for us to determine the camera work. We created EPS vector files from Martin’s illustrations. We then put this rough sketch layer into the 3D tunnel book set and tested the timing with voiceover from Ben's script. We also had a chance to test lens depth of field at this stage, which was useful for figuring out when we had to focus on which layer based on the VO.
Was trying to shoot this practically ever a part of the conversation?
Ben: It was always VFX. I knew that because things would need to change up until the very last minute, we needed to have the flexibility to do that. Wonderful as it would have been to try to shoot it with a periscope lens or something, we would never have been able to get the single camera move – we would have ended up having to cut in places.
Ben: I was really confident from the get-go that we had the skills and the people here, as well as the technology, to be able to put in all the fine details that make it believable. The dust, the crap on the lens, the slightly shaky way the camera moves, the jerky fashion of the cards entering, the scratches in the paper, the little folds – all the little details that make it feel a bit fucked up and a bit old – that was what made it feel real, as well as the magnificent lighting the guys did. Much credit needs to go to Yong for executing it the way he did.
Yeah, the cut-outs look absolutely photoreal! How did you simulate paper and candlelight?
Yong: We really struggled to find the right kind of candlelight. It was difficult to determine exactly what would fit the mood of the film, so we ended up creating about 1000 frames of the sequence that mixed four or five different light sources.
We also put a lot of effort into creating a realistic-looking cut-out layer. The most effective method was to add detail into the 3D models, as we couldn't get what we wanted simply with a flat layer mesh even though we’d added a lot of detail to the textures. We physically distorted each single layer mesh by bending, deforming, folding, or rolling the tip of the edge.
Yong: Our previs actually isn't that far from the final result, and this was because we had a solid rough sketch based on the script that Ben wrote. This also let us focus on the little details at the end of the job more than ever, as opposed to wasting our time on visualizing a director's vague idea.
Ben: I’m over the moon about how it looks. The rendering quality, the dustiness, the level of reality that we managed to get in there. Martin was kind enough to sign a bunch of the illustrations and give them to me, so I’ve got quite a few of them framed on my wall. My two favourite images are the egg and soldiers one and the Battle of Kent.
Martin: The one I like the best is the Battle of Kent where you have these monstrous, giant zombie figures looming out of the horizon vomiting over London, which is a very 18th century Gillray image. I really liked that one. What I also did – which is something English cartoonists frequently do – is I actually put Ben and the director in various crowd scenes.
Ben: [laughs] Yeah, Martin told me at the premiere at Leicester Square in London a few months ago. I still haven’t found myself!
Martin: Also there is a rotting zombie figure in one of the crowd scenes who is actually the British Finance Minister, George Osborne.
Ben: [laughs] Really? I love it.
Always have to keep it political!
Martin: [laughs] Got to keep it political!
How big was the production team on this?
Ben: It was maybe about five people working on it at once. After Martin’s work was done it was down to Yong, an animator, and a compositor.
Yong: Damien Bastelica did the colouring on Martin's illustrations. Sam Crees did a nice job on the animation, Emily Meger and Lauren Shields worked on lighting. Dan DiFelice and John McIntosh worked on comping. Chet Hirsch came up with the design of the title card at the end.
Ben: The one thing we did have a lot of was time. I think it was almost eight months or something from winning the pitch to delivering it. That’s really rare, but really wonderful to be able to give it the level of polish that we did.
So which tools and software did you use to put this all together?
Ben: Well, we used this great biometric piece of software called Martin Rowson for the drawings… [laughs]
Martin: I work on bristol paper, which is a very nice, smooth paper. You can do a lot of damage to it and it will withstand it. I normally sketch something out in pencil just so I know where it lies on the page. I outline it in Indian ink and send them that. If they were happy with that, then I’d put in the detail.
Yong: We used Photoshop to do the colour, Softimage to create a mesh from the illustrations, Maya for lighting and rendering, and NUKE for all the compositing.
Ben, when we spoke about Marco Polo in 2015, you mentioned Strangers on a Train as one of your favourite title sequences. Has anything caught your eye lately?
Ben: Have you seen Under the Skin? The Jonathan Glazer movie? That opening is amazing. It’s one of my favourite film; I absolutely love that movie. Once you go back and watch the title sequence again, it just makes so much sense. It sets you up in a really scary way, but the language of the imagery is just bang-on. It’s really clever.
Yong: I'm still a big fan of the title sequence of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This piece got me thinking about how huge the impact could be when you have a strong concept paired with a strong visual medium. I'm also a fan of Elastic’s work nowadays for similar reasons.
What about you, Martin?
Martin: I’m wracking through the rolodex of my memory for an answer… The Charge of the Light Brigade. It’s by the great animator who made Roger Rabbit, Richard Williams. It had this sequence in which they took 19th century cartoons and animated them so they would suddenly start moving. I remember watching that film when I was very young and just thinking, look at that, this is absolutely extraordinary!
You mentioned illustrator Ronald Searle earlier. Do you have a particular favourite of his out of the titles he created?
Martin: There was the Gilbert and Sullivan film he made, which of course wasn’t just the titles of course… Dick Deadeye? There’s something about his line, the way he breaks things up. Somehow he turned from being a really good cartoonist to a truly great cartoonist sometime in the 1950s when he stops worrying about lines crossing over each other. [laughs] He could do something with a line which was breathtaking.
Martin: If you try to recreate it, it’s thin and then it’s thick and then it goes thin and sort of catches on a bit of the fabric of the paper and it spatters. When Gerald Scarfe or Ralph Steadman or Steve Bell or I do that, those spatters are blood or shit, but when he did them they were champagne bubbles!
Searle seems to have had a huge influence on your work.
Martin: For British cartoonists there are certain giants who we’re always looking back over our shoulders and thanking them. I presented a TV show about 11 years ago where I was actually drawing to camera. I realized while I was doing this that actually every line in British cartooning for the last 60 years is impossible without Ronald Searle.
He refused entirely to collaborate with the makers of this BBC programme, which is fair enough since he valued his privacy. But then about six months after it was broadcast I got a letter and I said, “Hang on, I recognize that writing!” And it was from Ronald Searle, which is now framed and hanging on our kitchen wall. “Thank you very much for the laurels you laid on my head,” and things like this. Then, six months before he died, he sent me a box of his pens which he’d found in the back of a cupboard he’d bought in Paris in 1962. He said, “I have enough of these to last me out, so I thought you’d like them.” And I use them, I mean, I did put them away, but they’re brilliant pens. It’s like getting a high-five from God!
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