The Lady of Heaven is one of the most anticipated films of 2021. The historical drama centers around a young Iraqi child learning of the power of patience and the unique tale of Lady Fatima, daughter of the great Prophet Muhammad.
Due to the religious guidelines of Islamic tradition, Holy Personalities cannot be portrayed by living human beings or be visualized on screen. So, the decision was to take the CGI route which allowed the use of actors’ performances that could be developed on The Holy Personalities’ CGI while still abiding by religious codes.
Executing the film’s astounding visual effects was no easy feat; each and every shot presented new challenges and complexities for the visual effects team. With around 200 shots featuring Holy Personalities, each shot had to be done with meticulous precision and required distinctive stages prior to filming, during filming, and after filming. Visual Effects Team Supervisor, Marcin Kolendo, explained how the pre-production stage was crucial in ensuring the production’s success; this process involved working with the Client (Enlightened Kingdom), the Creative Consultant (John Stephenson), and the Director of Photography (Michael Brewster).
Before filming, Kolendo revealed, “We designed and pre-planned every VFX shot of the project, paying special attention to Holy Appearances. It became clear the CGI needed to meet certain standards and scrutiny including photorealism, natural behavior, extreme close-ups as well as wide shots, and different environment conditions”. A slight change in lighting could affect the entire look of the Holy Personalities, so the visual effects team worked hard to test night vs. day time, external vs. internal lighting, fire, smoke, and other elements. Additionally, every shot had to be approved by religious experts to verify that the CGI representations of the Holy Personalities were respectfully and accurately captured. After confirming the specifications, the filming stage began with specific steps to maximize efficiency and success during filming.
“HDRI (High Dynamic Range Images) needed to be taken for every shot in order to replicate lighting conditions of every shot and a chrome and diffuse ball needed to be used for the same reason- to capture the light conditions of the environment during the take” noted Kolendo. Throughout the filming process, the team took hundreds of reference photos in order to aid in making the post-production process go smoothly. For every shot taken by the camera, film specifications were documented, including tilt, roll, height, lens type, and other particular data like exposure.
After meticulously filming and noting specifications, the post-production stage involved transferring the CGI representations onto the original actors faces. “Firstly all the Holy Personalities’ faces needed to be created (Asset Build) by 3D artists. Modelling, texturing, rigging, groom (hair), animation, and lighting departments were utilized to produce bespoke CGI faces for each of the Holy Personalities, all carefully and painstakingly created on computers taking into account references and advice from Enlightened Kingdom” detailed Kolendo. Every shot needed to be camera tracked, which involved creating a special virtual camera that follows the camera used to film a particular shot. This process involved tracking the camera’s position and movement and using tracking software resulting in a virtual camera identical to the camera from the shot. Also, the actor’s movements were tracked in order to replace any actions for the CGI animation. The CGI model would sometimes need to be adjusted to fit a particular scene’s lighting conditions with the head’s specific tracking data. Kolendo explained how “CGI models were also rigged- a term used to describe a process of inserting virtual bones and muscles into a CGI asset. This enabled animators to replicate the speech and other facial expressions on a shot-by-shot basis so that elements such as voices in ADR sessions (automated dialogue replacement) were able to be added”.
Another hurdle that the Visual Effects team faced was creating photorealistic representation of The Holy Personalities that maintained the approved visualization and abided by religious codes. During the filming process, amendments were often needed, such as needing to slightly alter the facial expressions on a shot-by-shot basis or adjusting the lighting or other elements such as smoke or dust.
The Lady of Heaven Visual Effects team diligently and successfully created CGI representations that are beautifully stunning and respectfully follow Islamic religious codes.