‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ VFX supervisor Frank Petzold explains why the effects had to ‘take a step back’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

When “All Quiet on the Western Front” director Edward Berger called visual effects supervisor Frank Petzold, with whom he worked on the AMC series “The Terror,” about “getting the band back together” for the war epic, Petzold’s first reaction was a “big gulp.” “It’s such a historical and literary iconic book that before you start thinking about the effects of technology or how are we going to do it, your first thought is, like, ‘Oh, my God, you really wanna touch that?’” Petzold tells Gold Derby at our Meet the Experts: Visual Effects panel (watch the exclusive video interview above). “Because it’s such an important book and especially with the current events.”

Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s best-selling 1929 novel of the same name, the film follows Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), an idealistic young German soldier in World War I who soon learns the harrowing reality of war. Because of the intimate perspective and to capture the verisimilitude of life in the trenches, Petzold’s goal was to ground the visual effects in photorealistic reference points. In other words, in this case, less is more.

“In VFX, you usually wanna be bigger, louder and have the newest stuff and all that stuff, but we knew right away that this is material where the actor has to shine and everything else has to sort of take a step back,” Petzold explains. “And I think the biggest challenge for us was really just to make sure that we do everything perfect so that not only the acting can shine in the foreground but that we also historically and photographically — it has to be absolutely perfect. It can’t be another big, loud war movie, which is, for VFX artists, hard to do because we all have those moments where we go, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be great –’ and ‘Oh, let’s do this!’ or ‘How about a view from the blah plane when this happens?’ We didn’t want to do that.”

SEE ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’: Oscar return engagement?

Rather than adding the photographic elements to CG, Petzold took the opposite approach. That meant shooting as much in camera as possible. “If it’s not in the one pass, well, then you have to do 10 passes and really make sure that everything is set up right so that you can add stuff on the day, maybe even as short as an hour later, on another piece of the location and redo the extra elements. We really wanted to put the responsibility of the look in photographic elements,” he says. “We wanted to build everything photographically and then sort of mend it with CG. Of course, there’s digital map paintings and planes and tons of tanks.”

One tank in the film is very much real (with some CG). In a memorable sequence, a tank, one of the numerous new military technologies in WWI, emerges from the fog, looming over the soldiers like a predatory monster. That was exactly the vibe Petzold was going for.

“We were able to drive a few yards and I always wanted to save it for the closeups because as soon as you have the interaction, they’re bombing people out of the tank. I still had CG models to be able to do stuff with it. I love projects where there is a creature in it, but this time around, I didn’t have a creature, so right away in the first production meeting, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to elect this tank to be my creature,’” he shares. “And there’s a few moments when they break through the fog and they see it for the first time and they don’t know what it is. The key for animation is, like, really have it break through like a monster and then sit there and there is a Mexican standoff. And then the tank does something. What can a tank do? Well, it can lower its gun. Those kinds of things. I mean, it sound silly, but it really became our creature.”

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