Girl Power!
Linda Romanello
July 12, 2017

Girl Power!

It took more than 70 years for DC Comics’ Wonder Woman to get her own live-action feature film, but director Patty Jenkins and Warner Bros. have finally brought the comic book hero to the big screen, just in time for summer!

Gal Gadot stars in the title role of Wonder Woman in a film that explores the superhero’s origins and follows the story of Diana, princess of the Amazons. When a pilot crashes on her home island of Themyscira and tells of conflict in the outside world, she leaves home to fight “a war to end all wars,” discovering her full powers and true destiny in the process.

“The time is absolutely right to bring Wonder Woman to movie audiences,” says Jenkins. “Fans have been waiting a long time for this, but I believe people outside the fandom are ready for a Wonder Woman movie, too. Superheroes have played a role in many people’s lives; it’s that fantasy of ‘What would it be like if I was that powerful and that great, and I could go on that exciting journey and do heroic things?’”

Joining Jenkins behind the camera were director of photography Matthew Jensen, Oscar-winning editor Martin Walsh, composer Rupert Gregson-Williams, re-recording mixer Chris Burdon, and two-time Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer (Life of Pi, The Golden Compass)

“The credit to Patty is, this is really a character journey between Steve Trevor (played by actor Chris Pine) and Diana (Gadot), and we’re the supporting act,” says Westenhofer, who Jenkins describes as a “VFX wizard.” “With the exception of our third-act battle, where there was a lot of full-on effects, this is a little different from, say, Justice League or BvS [Batman v Superman]. There’s a lot more practical stuff in Wonder Woman. And Patty wanted to feel Diana’s journey. She starts off not really knowing her powers and then, through most of the middle of the film, she’s doing superhero things, but it’s a little more grounded in reality.”

Wonder Woman was shot on film, at locations throughout the UK, France, and Italy, as well as Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden in southeast England. 

According to Westenhofer, who got involved with the film in March 2015, Jenkins “really wanted to keep things grounded” when it came to the film’s visual effects shots. “It’s a superhero movie, but everything is through the eyes of Diana – if Diana was walking across a frame, Patty wanted all eyes to go to her. She didn’t want anything to overpower her. Towards the very end we get there, but Patty wanted to feel it building to that point. She didn’t want the effects to be too over the top.”

In total, there are about 1,800 VFX shots, created through the combined efforts of VFX studios Double Negative (DNeg), Moving Picture Company (MPC), Pixomondo, UPP, Platige, and Weta Digital, which came in at “the 11th hour to pick up a few shots at the end of the film.”

“We had a pretty decent in-house team as well,” says Westenhofer, adding that previs and postvis work had been handled predominantly by The Third Floor, with several scenes by Proof. The Third Floor’s Vincent Aupetit was the previs supervisor.

Power of Effects

Westenhofer breaks down the VFX work, starting with Wonder Woman’s powers, bracelets, and lasso. “You see her [bracelets] for the first time in Themyscira, when she’s fighting Antiope, her mentor/aunt, and she’s trying to show her mom that she’s trained and good enough to go be a warrior. She’s on her back and about to lose the fight, when she accidentally bangs her wrists together and creates what we call the ‘boosh’ – her power force when she clangs her wrists. DNeg did that effect. We have a particle simulation and refraction field as the wave flies through, and there’s also a glowing effect that we apply to the bracelets. When that happens, she wreaks some devastation and she scares herself, so she doesn’t want to use it again. And, she doesn’t, until the absolute final battle when she takes on Ares – that’s kind of when she’s arrived. 

As for the lasso, three companies had to touch on it – MPC and DNeg mainly, while Weta worked on it a little for a flashback scene. “We kind of played the lasso as a little more than a rope. We didn’t want it to just be like a lariat that a ranch hand tosses around. It will arc around and, if she’s throwing her wrist, it can arc towards the target for her and tie itself around places,” explains Westenhofer. “That was all hand animation. We also had an LED rope on set that would give lighting reference, so basically, what she had in her hands to illuminate her costume.”

There was also an extensive amount of training involved for the film’s star to pull off many of the action sequences. “Since Patty wanted to tell this from [Wonder Woman’s] point of view, it was important that our work would allow Gal to participate and look like she’s participating in just about everything. We didn’t want to have stunt doubles with faces turned away all the time. We had plenty of face replacements to do early on. Then, as the character gets stronger, we start doing things more a la ‘man of steel,’ with digital takeovers on leaps and things like that.”

Wonderful Environments

Westenhofer also describes some of the film’s other key VFX sequences – for instance, Diana’s home island of Themyscira in the opening act.  

“We have a lot of nature work in the first act for Themyscira,” he says. “We wanted to ground that in some reality, so we chose an ancient city in Italy called Matera. People have been living there for 8,000 years in caves. It’s amazing. It’s almost biblical in the way the city looks – buildings on top of buildings. We used that as a starting point, to which we added the motif for the island.

The artists added some Asian mountainscapes; areas of Vietnam served as inspiration. There are also a lot of natural arches and a white cliff from a location in western Italy. It was all built into a design devised in concert with production designer Aline Bonetto (Oscar-nominated for Amélie and A Very Long Engagement).

In that early work, the crew augmented plates, shot on a beach in Italy, with digital extensions to build up the island of Themyscira for a beach attack early on that was the first contact Diana had with men on the island. “There was a location Patty liked, but it was practically impossible to shoot, so we added in the cliffs and turned that beach into the beach you see in that scene,” says Westenhofer. 

Most of the set extensions and the city were done by DNeg; the beach battle in the opening act was done by MPC.

Another segment of the first act features a flashback scene by Pixomondo that offers some background on Steve Trevor, involving him attacking a Turkish base. A fort in London called Tilbury was the basis for the fort in the scene. Aerial plates shot in Italy were used for the extension of the Turkish landscape around it.

From there, the story moves to London, where there was plenty of source material to work with. “The good news for us was that a lot of the same buildings from World War I [the time period in which the story takes place] still exist in London,” Westenhofer explains. “We just needed to get rid of whatever was modern.” A lot of the period work here was completed by UPP. 

When the main characters first arrive in London, they are shown floating down the Thames, work handled by DNeg. “We went out on a barge back and forth, up and down the Thames, past the Tower Bridge – lots of great stuff that was period legit,” Westenhofer says. “We just augmented or changed the color of some of the paint on the bridge that’s been changed, and added some ships and more period buildings.” Then, UPP did a lot of digital set extensions of some period areas in London proper. 

When asked about a favorite scene in the film, Westenhofer immediately refers to “No Man’s Land.” In this case, it’s the space between the two trenches – the German and British sides – in one of the key battle scenes. “This is where you couldn’t cross because there’s so much machine gun and sniper fire,” he says, noting there’s nothing groundbreaking about it, but it involved a real muddy trench built on the back lot of Leavesden that was as hard to shoot on, as it probably was to fight on. To this end, a Spidercam was suspended across it. 

“That’s why Gal Gadot is my absolute hero. Not only is she an amazing person, but also she went out in a bathing suit in February and ran across a muddy field in England – and never complained. As we’re huddled up in our parkas, she’s doing that,” says Westenhofer. “She was Wonder Woman for all the crew, for sure.”

In a sequence featured in many of the trailers, Wonder Woman takes down Germans holding civilians hostage in a village. Gal is used for the first half, and then a stunt double with a face replacement is used. “One of my absolute favorite digi-doubles is when she leaps out a window. In a shot done by MPC, we originally filmed a stunt double leaping out, but it just didn’t have what we wanted, so we ended up using the full digital double,” says Westenhofer. “For the face replacement, we ended up putting five Alexas on an array and had Gal sit down with facial dots and act out various sequences from the movie. We played her back the dailies, and she performed to that.”

The bulk of the visual effects work is in the third act, complete with fully-digital locations and greenscreen shots, by DNeg, for an all-out battle finale between Diana and Ares. There’s a storm that destroys most of the airfield where the scene takes place. This is also where the character of Ares fully transforms into his true self. 

Westenhofer describes the sequence: “They fight for a bit, and finally there’s a big explosion with a bunch of bombs and projectiles all around, and [Ares] is caught in the flames. He then assumes his true form, and draws in a lot of metal from around the airfield and builds a sheet of armor around himself. From then on, it’s a digital creation. There are times when he’s completely digital, and we use the face from that same four-camera Alexa rig, and then there are other times when, in close-up, we had [actor] David Thewlis in a tracking suit so we could track the body and use just his face from the photography. The armor, though, was always digital. That involved a great deal of motion capture. Stunt doubles with face replacements for Diana were used here, as well as digital doubles and a fully digital airfield and tank. NNeg did quite a bit of work here, too, enhancing the scared face of one of the film’s villains, Dr. Maru, as well as creating an effect for Ares’ face after he takes a pill that gives him powers.”

Despite the number of visual effects shots in the film, Westenhofer says he doesn’t look at this as a typical heavy VFX superhero movie. “This is special with regard to superhero films in that it’s a character journey. The effects and the action sequences you expect are all there, but playing a nice supporting role,” he says. “There are great action sequences, that’s not to be denied, but it is first and foremost a journey of Diana and Steve.” 

And it’s a journey that has been well received by audiences around the world.

Linda Romanello ( is the chief editor of Post, CGW’s sister publication.