To say moviegoers have never seen anything like “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is not exactly true. Pop culture has been suffused with its various in-your-face references — from “Super Mario Brothers” coins to “Seinfeld” bass lines to Japanese manga visuals and beyond — for decades. But what no one has ever seen is a film that so seamlessly and energetically gathers them all together into a neon pastiche of flashing graphics, sound cues and linguistic nods.
What makes this entertainment patchwork all the more impressive is that it takes place within a recognizable world: neighborly, snow-covered Toronto. Welcome to magical realism, 21st-century-cinema style. Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), the sleepy-eyed hero, fights off his girlfriend’s nefarious exes in a series of video game-influenced battles and shuffles his way through life as bright graphics pop up to introduce characters and moods.
How did the filmmakers pull all this off? And where did they get all these references? Visual effects supervisor Frazer Churchill was kind enough to walk MTV News through the creation of some of these cultural odes, as well as to talk about the film’s mixture of practical effects and CGI wizardry. Here are five “Scott Pilgrim” secrets revealed. Beware of mild spoilers below!
“Arkham Asylum” and “Soulcalibur” References
Many of the video game references are fairly obvious — “Super Mario,” “Street Fighter” — but others are less so. Pay close attention during the fight scenes, and you’ll see what we’re talking about.
“Often we’d be in a fight sequence and when people get hit, these impact graphics appear, as per a game,” Churchill said. “We’d go and look for a game that had a cool impact graphic that fit well with the scene. We had 150 people on our crew, so we had a good research base. We found impact graphic ideas from ’Batman: Arkham Asylum’ and ’Soulcalibur.’ ”
Once they found a suitable reference point, the trick was to make the graphics “feel photographic, rather than graphic” — as in, part of the real world, rather than part of a video game. “Sometimes we would take the graphics and split them apart into their various color channels, so you had this kind of film look, like chromatic aberration with a lens, and there’s a slight red, green and blue fringing to a graphic,” he said.
How They Created the “Pee Bar” Scene
One of the funniest scenes in the film is one in which Scott heads into the bathroom and a graphic “pee bar” meter floats over his shoulder. When he drains the meter and opens the door again, the apartment is gone and a dreamscape exists behind him. You might think director Edgar Wright employed some fancy CG work there, but it was all done with practical effects.
“That’s actually a set that’s on wheels,” Churchill said. “As he walks in, the door closes, and 15 grips wheel the set away and wheel another one into place and he walks out into a dream corridor. It’s not a green screen shot. If you were to hear the real sound from the shot, you’d hear these enormous shuffles and rumbles as the set was being rumbled away.”
What Is CG and What Is Real
That bathroom scene is just one example of the seamless merger of CG trickery with practical effects. Churchill revealed to us a few instances of what’s real and what was created inside a computer. One ethereal scene in a park, when Pilgrim and his girlfriend Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hang out on swings in the snow, looks like it was shot using a blue screen, but Churchill revealed, “We went up to a park in Toronto and shot at night. We added snow later with CG.”
Another scene in which Chris Evans’ character skateboards down an enormous rail was shot with a combo of blue screen and CG. “The legs and Chris’ reaction are all blue screen and the environment is CG, but it’s based on an actual location,” Churchill said. “Those Casa Loma steps exist, but we exaggerate them a lot.
“The desert of Scott’s dreams is purely blue screen,” he added. “For the subspace, they’re floating on a wire rig in front of a blue screen and we added everything later.”
In addition to the video game references during fights, Wright also incorporated the look and feel of manga. He actually culled together some of his favorite cartoons and handed them off to Churchill and his team, which they then reconstructed with CGI technology.
“We had a reference reel of cartoons and manga series like ’Naruto,’ which was a big influence because it has those ’killer moves,’ ” he explained. “In ’Street Fighter’ or ’Mortal Kombat,’ there will be a ’killer move,’ but in ’Naruto’ you’ve got that real manga style, so when somebody gets hit with a ’killer move,’ the background will drop out and a huge graphic will be superimposed behind them.”
The Secret of Pilgrim’s Flaming Sword
During Scott’s climactic battle, he ends up pulling a flaming sword from his chest. Once again, the filmmakers employed a combination of computer and physical effects to get exactly the right look.
“We had a metal chest plate strapped to him with a sword piece welded to it, [and] the handle and the blade has these red LED lights on it,” Churchill said. “So when he’s leaning back, he’s got the sword strapped to his chest, and he grabs the handle, which is real. And then we put in the flames later and erased any trace of the metal prop. When the sword comes out, he has to react. We removed the physical sword and we put in the CG sword. You’ve got that mix of physical and visual effects, which make the scene work so well.”
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