“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is totally non-stop.
The film tells the story of Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a woman who owns a Los Angeles laundromat, is having trouble with the IRS and is desperately trying to retain a connection to her queer daughter (Stephanie Hsu) and her husband (Ke Huy Quan), who, unbeknownst to her, wants a divorce. Of course, things become infinitely more complicated when a version of her husband from a parallel universe tells her that she might be the key to saving the multiverse from an unstoppable evil. Honestly, you’ve never seen anything quite like it before – it’s a rush of ideas and emotions and doesn’t stop until the credits roll (which is no surprise if you’ve seen prior work from the directing team known as Daniels, which includes 2016’s “Swiss Army Man”).
And how the visual effects for “Everything Everywhere All at Once” were created is just as incredible a story as anything that happens in the movie. As visual effects supervisor Zak Stoltz tells it, it was a small team of dedicated artists, who against all odds and with incredible limitations on time and money, managed to craft an unforgettable visual experience.
Over the weekend somebody told me that the visual effects department was insanely small.
I can confirm this for you, so we had five people doing a majority of the almost 500 shots. So that’s crazy.
That is crazy. Can you talk about that?
Yeah. I was actually thinking this morning, I was like, I need to go back to any big movie that comes out and just count how many people, because I want to be able to say that there were literally 100 times more visual effects artists on other movies coming out than on ours. I don’t know for sure. I’m sure that’s probably close to being accurate.
The way that came about was very early on… I’ve been working with the Daniels for a decade and I got started with them just because I wanted to make stuff. They had just started making stuff. They’d made two music videos and I met them at a screening and I was like, “Hey, I do weird stuff like you do.” I gave them my card and never heard from them. And then I ended up making something called “Beard Punch” where it was just me and a friend. And my beard got punched off my face. I had a full beard and then it got completely punched off.
And I sent it to them and they’re like, “We need help. We’ve got this music video that we were just booked for The Shins.” This is right when they had started blowing up in music videos. And like, “We’re doing this, we have the short film called ‘Pockets’ that we need help finishing. We have some shots that are hard. Can you help us with it?” And I just got into this relationship with them where I became one of their go-to guys and they’re like, “We have these visual effects, we usually do our own visual effects, but these are some hard ones and we’re having trouble with them. How would you do it? How can you help us with this?”
And eventually I worked with them on multiple music videos. They helped me get signed as a director myself. I started doing music videos. And so we had these parallel music video careers and they split off and then they did their movie and I co-directed a music video with them right before that. I was their visual effects supervisor, but when they did ‘Swiss Army Man,’ they went a more traditional route. They worked with a visual effects house and they weren’t very happy with that process. They didn’t like how hands off it was, because they were so used to us all just being in our bedrooms, just hanging out and doing stuff together. On this movie, they came to me and asked if I’d be interested in heading up a small team and basically starting a little ad hoc boutique company for this movie because they wanted to have a lot more interaction with the artists. They wanted to be able to iterate on things and be looser and more creative with things because, you’ve seen the movie it’s insane.
It is insane.
There’s too much going on. And so how do you communicate that to a visual effects company? When we were doing visual effects while they were editing, we were doing a lot of research. We were being like, “Oh, try this thing out.” They’d be like, “Hey, we’re looking for something like this. We don’t know…” And we’d give them something. At first it was just me and two other guys who are both also directors. That’s also another interesting thing. Every person who did visual effects on this movie is also a director who has done a lot of stuff. And it was just a way for the Daniels to be able to feel like they had friends working on it. People who really cared about the project and they knew that we could just come in and help when they needed help. And they wouldn’t have to worry that they weren’t providing the most detailed previs and stuff like that. Because there was no previs, there were no storyboards.
Yeah. None of that stuff. I think there were some storyboards for the fight scenes, but some of them, like the final fight scene, I think I saw some BTS because I wasn’t there that day, but I was on set and there were no storyboards half the time, there wasn’t a full shot list until the day.
It feels like a movie that would’ve taken 10 years to get every little piece that’s in the movie. Were you guys shooting some of that stuff too? How did you divvy up the responsibility?
The great thing about working within the Daniels is that, I share the sensibility that they want to do everything as practically as possible. Because to be completely frank, we all learned how to do visual effects on YouTube, 10 years ago or when we were in college. It was like, well, we wanted to rely on as much practical as we could and just augment it in the way that we are familiar with. And that very textured hands-on feeling DIY effects style. It’s like this weird genre of bad/good where it’s not like the top end ILM stuff because that’s impossible for us to do with five people. But it’s also not like we’ve never done this before. We’ve been doing this for 10 years.
I know that’s getting a little bit of away from your question. But when I was on set, I was mainly there to just make sure that, “Okay, is this thing going to work for us in post?” Because they are moving a million miles an hour, they’re going super-fast on everything to the point where sometimes it’d be like, “Oh I need that.” I’d see a shot, I’d be like, “Oh, we need to get a blue screen back there.” They’d be like, “Okay, how big?” And I’m like, “Oh what’s the action?” It’s like, “Don’t have time, got to shoot it.” I’m like, “Okay, put this one up there and we’ll figure out.”
There was some of that going on, but luckily it wasn’t like these were huge CG-filled scenes. We had very few CG elements and it was only when we needed that, because the bagel was a CG element, but everything else… Because we need to be able to light that from a certain angle. We need to be able to have it rotate in a way that we couldn’t really do with a practical element. We thought about shooting a practical, just like everything bagel, like spray painted black, and that was going to be our thing. But we just ended up realizing that it was very easy to do a CG one. I apologize. I’m meandering away from your questions.
What about the scene where Stephanie Hsu’s nails change colors?
They were painted green. And Daniel Scheinert did that whole thing. That was his thing.
That’s the other nice thing. They do their own visual effects a lot of the time. At first the idea was going to be, oh, we’re going to have a small team to handle… I was there to mainly oversee and put together the entire workflow and be like, “How do you actually pull this off?” But they were always planning on jumping in and helping us with visual effects towards the end of the movie, which they did. And it wasn’t as much as we would’ve wanted given how many shots there were, but that was a nice thing. I built out a system that was using a very simple tool that we were all familiar with.
We were just using After Effects and handing projects back and forth. And I created this workflow that would allow us to all have access to everything all the time remotely. Because at first we thought we were just going to all be in the same room. The vision was small team of friends doing visual effects in one room at this post house Parallax where they did the editing with our friend Paul and then they’d be editing in the other room. And then we could just walk back and forth and be like, “Hey, what’s going on?” “Oh, you want to see this thing?” “Cool. Let’s talk about this.” And then the lockdown hit on our last day of shooting and then we’re like, everything’s remote. And so we’re trying to figure out how we maintain this thing remotely.
I ended up creating this workflow that we used something called Resilio Sync, so we could sync all of our hard drives together. It’s kind of a Dropbox alternative, but then we’d pull down shots and treat it like a cloud server that we had. And then we’d have Zooms every morning and talk about shots and share work and just pass projects back and forth. There are some visual effect shots in this movie where I think everyone touched them. It’s like five people had worked on different parts of this one little shot, which isn’t crazy if you think about how a big movie is done, but for us it wasn’t just like, “Oh, you do the tracking.” “You do the lighting.” It’s like, “Oh, let’s add our own little stamp to it. Let’s play around.” And it felt more like this exquisite corpse-style working on a visual effect shot.
Can you remember the hardest shot to pull off?
Yeah, pretty much all of the bagel shots, all the hero bagel shots. Once we got into the craziness in the office at the end, it wasn’t that bad because that was just like, it was chaos. It could be a little more ridiculous, but I think there are probably six or seven shots where we had over 30 versions of it that we did.
We did a lot of different versions of the bagel just very early on while they were editing before we started doing visual effects. We did a ton of different development on what the bagel would do. How about it looks like, how it interacts with this environment, stuff like that. But in terms of actual shots, the first time we see the bagel, that sequence was really tricky, because that was one of the only things in the movie that didn’t have a practical component to it. There was the going through the hands and seeing the temple and that’s all practical. But as soon as you get into the bagel, there was nothing there. It was just like, “Well, what does that look like when the background falls away and we’re in this kind of like heavenly universe, what does that look like? What does that feel like?”
One of the things that Daniels said very early on was like, “Less Marvel, more Ghostbusters.” We really tried to adhere to that idea of like, Okay, this let’s treat this like a movie that could have been done in the ‘80s, in terms of a lot of the techniques that we were using. It wasn’t a lot of big flashy 3D stuff. It was a lot of stuff that it was a little more 2D, a little more stylized, but yeah, the bagel stuff was tricky.
“Everything Everywhere All At Once” is now playing exclusively in theaters and expands nationwide today.