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How Welcome to Chechnya became the first doctor to be shortlisted for Oscar for visual effects

The first documentary ever selected for Best Visual Effects, Welcome Beings of Chechnya with a warning acknowledging its use of movie magic: For their safety, people fleeing for their lives have been digitally disguised. The film by director David France (Oscar nominated 2012 How to Survive a Plague) is a chronicle of violence against the LGBT population in the Russian Republic of Chechnya. Because being denounced as gay is punishable by torture or death, 23 people seen in the film had their faces masked in post-production with the faces of volunteers. Visual effects supervisor Ryan Laney (Ant-Man) filmed the anonymous volunteers at a Brooklyn studio using an array of nine cameras to capture data from their range of expressions. Laney then spent a year in an unknown location in California, healing the original images. France and Laney spoke to TheWrap about making the landmark project, days after the Oscars announcement that the film had been shortlisted in the categories for Best Visual Effects and Best Documentary. TheWrap: First of all, congratulations on your selection of the best visual effects. What was your reaction when you heard it? RYAN LANEY: I was taken aback at the time, just because I thought of what we were doing as support effects. But I understand the value of what we did and it was hard work. It’s wonderful that others have seen the value too. The Oscars are the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and it’s a movement that helps art through science. DAVID FRANCE: I was proud of the visual effects industry for seeing it and recognizing what Ryan had accomplished. And what he did really revolutionized documentary filmmaking and created a great new tool. I was delighted that the industry understood the importance of this. It’s a rare film that announces visual effects in its very first words. Was that still the plan, to be completely open? LANEY: Yeah, we tried to make it clear who was covered digitally and who wasn’t. There has been a lot of talk about media integrity and journalism. We wanted an honest translation of the emotions, but we didn’t want to modify the images in a way that could mislead the audience. So we discussed what the opening disclaimer would say. And there were several turns on how we would show the effect. Also read: “Welcome to Chechnya” Director on the dangers of filming an LGBT documentary How did the effect change as you talked more about it? LANEY: We came back and added some smoothness, a little bit of halo around the face, so the audience would connect it to what we call the FBO, which means a fancy blurry oval. When you see a blurry oval on a face, that’s visual language. You know that person is protected. We didn’t want to lose that connection. They are witnesses and they step in to tell the story. It was a very important part. So those times when there’s blur around the face, is it deliberate? LANEY: Absolutely, yeah. For the first 20 shots, we went back and increased the blur. To help acclimate the public to it. There was always a sub-blur in the composite, which was there on purpose. Maybe on some streaming services it doesn’t show up as well, but our idea was that if an audience had a question, they would know. It is obvious that this person is covered. What would you compare that to, in terms of the power of the technique? Some have mentioned the aging and aging process that Martin Scorsese used in The Irishman. LANEY: The Irishman was amazing work, but their goal was to create believable characters. On a normal effects project, the goal is to deceive the audience. It was not ours. So we had to rethink our own expectations for a different set of requirements. It was a strange question to ask ourselves: how can we produce effects that are obvious while creating good work? Read also: “Welcome to Chechnya” wins Courage Under Fire award from the International Documentary Association The film was also mentioned in the same breath as the deepfake videos, the digital mimicry of people without their knowledge. FRANCE: Yes, but it’s just the opposite. Ryan and I were both convinced that everyone involved should be totally consenting, including the public. We wanted the public to know what we had done and we wanted everyone to be involved in protecting these people. That’s why we’ve increased the effects. Did not invite additional danger to these people at all. And did not deceive anyone. LANEY: Plus there’s a really honest translation of emotion in what we’ve been trying to do. We’ve seen the original footage and it’s so fantastic how subtle emotions can convey the same message even though it’s a different face. And it’s not like layers of paint that could be removed, right? There is no way to decode the effects? LANEY: That’s right. In the algorithm we used, the machine models have been encrypted in such a way that you cannot reverse it. Effectively encrypted the face and none of the original pixels are there. HBO David, can you describe your own research and methodology with visual effects? FRANCE: Yes. A big milestone was when we went to the neuropsychology lab in Dartmouth, and we brought these approaches that we had developed to disguise the subjects. Some were lively, some were looming. And we put them through a real human subject test, where they measured each sample for empathy. This is how we settled on the slight blur. We knew it didn’t interfere with people’s emotional connection, yes we still had the say that we were looking for. What did you discover during the Dartmouth testing? Well, they had done studies in that same lab with Professor Thalia Wheatley on empathy being so related to the eyes. So we thought, Oh, what if we had the actual eyes of our subjects, but the face would be digital otherwise, it would help be people. But the opposite has happened. It scared them. Professor Wheatley is one of the weird experts in the Valley and she was even surprised at how badly it worked in front of her subjects. And with that knowledge, did you film the faces of the volunteers in Brooklyn? LANEY: We shot in Brooklyn for a week. We call it data acquisition, it was all face capture, for all of the volunteers who were sitting in front of a blue screen and lending their faces out like human shields. We opted for an array of nine cameras to minimize the time volunteers would have to sit down, making strange movements with their necks and heads. We had to get many different angles in different lights to capture the face. HBO FRANCE: Although there were 23 people covered in the movie, there were fewer people who were volunteers. At least one person’s face is on two different bodies. It worked perfectly because this person was both a male body and a female body. One of our trans activists, who volunteered, and it worked really well. The volunteer who plays Maxim in the film and whose face is on the poster, what is his name? FRANCE: He is anonymous. Most of our volunteers are anonymous for various reasons. Also Read: ‘Welcome to Chechnya’ Film Review: LGBT Refugees Flee Violence in Striking Documentary There is a highlight with him, where the digital face dissolves in a courtroom, as the subject real life shows up on the abuse he suffered. FRANCE: He claims his name and his story of tragedy and abuse in this genocide. With his own face. This moment became a central part of our story and how visual effects would be a really crucial part. Why? FRANCE: Because we knew even before we started our post-production that this moment would happen. We therefore asked ourselves whether or not he should be covered at all, since he had identified himself. But we felt that having already introduced visual effects as an editorial idea, it would help us see and feel his courage on the spot. LANEY: It was a great philosophical perspective on how we were going to do it. This moment helped strengthen our focus. Ryan, what was the reaction of your colleagues in the VFX community? LANEY: Positive. I expected a bigger backlash or a bigger misunderstanding of what we were trying to do, but I had a number of former supervisors contact me and tell me how they were excited to use their skills to help documentary films. It is extremely positive. And bringing attention to the film is great for the message the film brings to the world. This is the really beneficial part. Welcome to Chechnya will appear in TheWraps Awards magazine’s Oscar nominations preview issue. Read the original story How Welcome to Chechnya became the first doctor to be shortlisted for Oscar for visual effects at TheWrap

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