The VFX of Ascendant

March 20, 2021
VFX company Stage 23 overcame unprecedented challenges with gusto, when they took on Antaine Furlong’s debut feature film, Ascendant.

Kidnapped and held hostage in a high-speed elevator in a 120-floor building in Shanghai, Aria Wolf (Charlotte Best) has no memory of her past, who her captors are, or what they want from her. Pushed to her limits, she begins to realise she has incredible powers within, kept secret to protect her and her family. Now, unlocking these powers is her only chance to save both herself and her father.

Business was starting to gain momentum at Stage 23; the relatively new VFX company that had quietly popped up in Fox Studios, Sydney. With VFX work on features such as Palm Beach, Judy and Punch, Go Karts, and TV shows like The End freshly under their belt, the future was looking bright. When they were approached by director/producer Antaine Furlong to take the lead on his new sci-fi thriller, Ascendant, it seemed to be the perfect next step. Stage 23 was to run the VFX, from concept development to delivery.

Ascendant started out as a relatively simple project for Stage 23; around 50 VFX shots for a feature film. However, in a few short months, those 50 shots had become over 400 – a mammoth undertaking for the company. Then, in February 2020, a tectonic shift occurred in workplaces around the globe; Covid-19 forced the world into lockdown. Suddenly, Ascendant’s director could only communicate by video call and most of Stage 23’s artists had to work from home. As the world slowed to a halt, in little rooms around the country, or in their office in Fox Studios, their small team of artists persevered. Now, in 2021, Ascendant’s theatrical release is less than a month away, and Stage 23’s Creative Director and co-owner, Christian Debney, couldn’t be happier.

We had a chat with Chris to discuss the journey it took to get this film to the screen.

“It was a big job, over 400 shots of photorealistic animation and all sorts of particle effects. A very ambitious film,” says Chris. He and co-owner Jonathan Hairman were involved from the outset, guiding director Antaine through the VFX process from his initial concepts, through to on-set supervision and finally to post-production. “Ant’s a great guy to work with, very passionate and full of enthusiasm. We worked very closely throughout the whole process.”

Chris takes on a very hands-on approach to his projects. “I single-handedly created about 40 minutes of previs in about six or seven weeks, while our 3D team were building and finalising the assets,” Chris tells us. As creative partners, Chris and Jonathan aim to handle all the creative development personally. Then their core team of talented artists bring all this creative development to fruition. “We recognise that a lot of artists wish to have more creative input in the filmmaking process and that is something we like to encourage,” Chris explains. “As a company that’s been created by artists, it’s something we respect.”

As development progressed, Antaine realised that VFX were becoming an increasingly important part of the film. “We started to realise that the 3D and VFX were a big part of the story. A character in itself almost, even though it’s largely an environment,” Chris tells us. The environment in which most of the film takes place was huge. “The scene was very big, complicated, and highly detailed. It was the largest scene I’ve ever worked with.” The film was to also feature multiple particle effect shots. These would end up being some of the most complex in the entire film. “We had some geniuses with particle effects on the team. They really brought the big concepts that Ant had been discussing to life beautifully.”

VFX can be a slow process; drawing together talents and artists across disciplines to create one perfect image. It could have easily spelled the end for Ascendant when the pandemic began creeping across the world. The virus spread and countries went into indefinite lockdown and the usual means of collaboration began to disintegrate. “It was a pretty emotional time for everyone involved. We had no idea what was going to happen,” Chris reflects. But he was to find himself with something of a head-start. “We had initially set up the company to have many artists working remotely, just because we thought this was a fresh way of doing things. Covid only proved how right we were. Everyone’s doing it now.” On top of this, Chris was also pioneering use of cloud-based rendering with Chaos Group’s Chaos Cloud. With this service, 3D shots and assets could be shared from anywhere and rendered on the cloud. It would prove to be the ideal technology for a world in isolation. The project steamed on.

For Chris and Jonathan, it was always important to run a business that was a welcoming space for artists. They try to offer a home to experienced artists who have done their years working for big companies. “We employ a great team. Really the best in their fields. There were only about 15 of us; 2D and 3D.” The core team remained at the Stage 23 headquarters in Fox Studios, and with so few of them, social distancing was manageable. Co-owner and VFX Supervisor Jonathan stayed at the office to steer the company through the crisis. “He was determined to stay with the ship,” Chris recalls.

On top of all this, Chris’ partner was several months pregnant. “It definitely added to the drama,” Chris explains. With Chris and most of the team working remotely, they could only put their heads down and get the job done. As it all began to come together, enthusiasm grew, and momentum picked up. “The renders that were coming out looked great. Everyone was very positive when we finally saw what we’d spent all this time making.”

Now in March 2021, lockdown in Australia is mostly over. Chris is now a father to a healthy baby daughter, and the release of Ascendant is finally upon us. The pandemic has disrupted cinema across the globe, but with a lot of hard work and a little luck, Ascendant will finally be gracing the big screen in Australia and New Zealand on April 8th. “We managed to get through it. It was tough, but we actually learned a lot.” Filmmaking will most likely be forever changed from the disruption of the last year. Remote working and cloud-based workflows were not just a band-aid solution – they have become an integral part of the process. “We just had to adapt,” Chris tells us. “It’s what the industry is all about.”

Ascendant is in Australian cinemas on April 8 2021

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