How the FOLKS VFX team created the world of ‘Beau is Afraid’

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Alexandre Lafortune is the FOLKS VFX supervisor on the newly released film Beau is AfraidBeau is Afraid is a comedy horror about a mild-mannered and anxiety-ridden man who recently lost his mother and has to embark on a journey to face his fears. The movie stars Joaquin Phoenix and is directed by Ari Aster. 

Alexandre and the FOLKS team worked on various effects, from simple TV screen inserts to creature work and simulations. One of the most thrilling shots they worked on was the scene where Beau's stunt double was hit by a truck. The scene required extensive visual effects to make the impact look realistic. Another scene the team worked on was destroying the main street corner, which needed extensive DMP work. They added posters on walls and trash to the streets to enhance the lived-in environment they were going for. 

In this interview, we spoke to Alexandre about his work on Beau is Afraid, how he constructed scenes, as well as utilizing various special effects to tell the story.

PH: Hi Alexandre! When did you first get into the industry? What drew you to visual effects?  

Alexandre Lafortune: Back then, I studied fine arts, but illustrations and cartoon drawings were my true passion. As early as 1992-1993, I had the chance with my built portfolio to be selected for a new private nine months intensive 3D course where we learned all the basics of that new digital medium, and the software was called Softimage 3D then.  

I was curious at first, seeing this as an opportunity to learn something new using computers. This was a big leap for me since I had never touched a mouse or a computer when I began this journey. Being young, anything feels impossible, and I’m so glad I took this path, the digital realm! 

PH: Can you talk a bit about some of your work? How has it evolved and shaped you into the type of VFX Supervisor you are today?  

Alexandre Lafortune: I started my career in 1994 in Montreal. I mostly worked on advertising for the first years. I think the short timelines in advertising helped me develop my problem-solving skills and apply that to visual creations. During that time, I also learned some compositing software to work with; this was quite common in the early days since most of us were considered generalist artists, creating with all available new tools we got under our hands. Around 2000, I worked on a movie for the first time; it was new and exciting and quite rare for Montreal. The movie was called Xchange. 

A few years later, I worked as a CG artist on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Brokeback Mountains, and a few others before getting more involved in the “cinema” world.  Around 2010, some sequences of a movie called Source Code (released in 2011) were awarded to the facility where I worked. I took charge of that project as a young VFX supervisor. 

Since then, I have worked on more than 40 pictures, TV shows, and series. 

PH: How do you go about selecting a project to work on? Do you have a certain criteria you follow? 

Alexandre Lafortune: Through the years, I have been involved in all kinds of projects; after a while, when working for a company, your employers start to know your strengths. I think I can perform working on simple comps to the complex environment set up, but what is always challenging in my mind is creating a full CGI creature; of course, creating a human from up close is on another level. In the world of VFX, that is the most recognized and respected by our pairs when it is well done. 

For the past four years, I’ve been at FOLKS Montreal, which is now part of the Pitch Black Company. I can see that we are getting more involved in that category of effect, creating living creatures for a TV series or Movie; we are getting better and better at it as our internal team builds the knowledge to achieve that goal from project to project.  So, if you ask me, I will ask for the creature work, but sincerely, I’m all in with another kind of work. 

PH: How did you become involved with Beau is Afraid?  

Alexandre Lafortune: This surprising project was brought to FOLKS by the onset of VFX supervisor Louis Morin, with whom I’ve been collaborating for 20 years now. I’ve worked with him on many interesting projects, such as Source Code, On the Road, Sicario, and Arrival by Denis Villeneuve, to name a few. So, it was a no-brainer for me to accept and be the in-house VFX sup for this new project at FOLKS. After reading the script, I knew it would be a special and challenging project directed By Ari Aster. 

PH: Can you talk me through your pre-production mindset when constructing the design and effects?  

Alexandre Lafortune: Most of the pre-production workload was handled by Louis Morin since he was the onset supervisor for the main photography part.  

There was one Sequence awarded to us requiring some previz and was not part of Louis Morin's workload. This Sequence was an 8min long "short" inside the movie that we had to create. This sub-project was called "Hero Beau" and was supervised by another creative, Jorge Cañada Escorihuela.  

To save time during the five days of planned studio shoots and for all the set dress creation, we worked for a full month on all the previz starting from the storyboard. Those previsualizations gave the whole crew the measurements to build the needed sets, the camera lens, and the camera position/motion to capture the needed images to create the Sequence. It is quite impressive to see the result being quite close to all the storyboards and previz done by our team. 

PH: What was it like constructing the scene where Beau's stunt double was hit by a truck? How did you make the impact look realistic?  

Alexandre Lafortune: Beau being hit by a truck is the end of the first part of the movie. At first, all this action was not planned to be VFX shots. There was an “almost” naked real stunt man performing the hit; quite impressive to see those shots. But after looking at the early cut, it was decided that the stunt man had to be replaced since this guy was too much in shape against Beau’s performer Joaquin Phoenix that had gained weight for the role. Even though the action was quite fast, we could perceive his muscular shape. 

So, we needed to recreate a naked Joaquin; we started with a 3D scan that he took during shooting. I want to thank him for this since he was willing to get it done almost bare-naked. From there, it was all about recreating his wet body (he was taking a bath in the previous sequence), adding water droplets to his skin, and wet hair strands on his head. The funny thing is that Ari wanted us to, how can I say this, enlarge his private organs almost to the size of softballs. It was part of the story that this 40-year-old man never had intimate relations yet, thus affecting the size of his organs. 

Once the CGI Stunt character was built, shaded, and rigged, we matched the real stunt action by positioning our lifeless puppet. From there, we alter his performance by changing a few limb positions to avoid the fact that he was protecting his head and body using his arms or hands when hitting the truck or falling on the ground. The lighting artist worked on lighting this scene using Houdini 3d software, ensuring we see the skin details (droplets, etc.). Then it was passed to the comp team to blend all this together after taking time to erase this badass stuntman from the plates to replace him with naked Beau.  

PH: Can you share how you created other various special effects, including blood, explosions, and smoke simulations that helped bring the film's action sequences to life?  

Alexandre Lafortune: This movie does have its share of bloody wounds or bullet impact. Some were handled using digital matte painting enhancements. In some other cases, let's say for a bullet impact, we either used and layered some elements found in our internal 2D element bank or created from scratch the impact by working with 3D particles to get the right perspective over each blast.  

At some point, there is a big explosion where we get to see a character being blown up. For this shot, we combined multiple plates to work with to get some of the interactive light and people's reactions. The blast by itself was fully 3D, using Houdini FX capability for this type of effect. Other than the smoke and dust, we needed to handle the guts flying out. Ari wanted us to ensure we see that man vaporized by the impact. 

PH: What were some of the challenges you encountered and how did you address those?  

Alexandre Lafortune: Globally for this movie, many types of effects had to be created. We needed to create a look or a recipe for almost every shot. On a classic movie, we often end up having 1 or 2 recipes/look devs to apply on many shots. Here it was the opposite. It needed more supervision to get the shots properly done.  A lot of the shots we did had over 1000 frames (40sec), which by itself could be challenging. Just getting the shot to process slowed down the production paste and the number of versions possible to create in a single day for the artists or final delivery. 

Some effects had their subjective challenges that went through many iterations to refine the expected look for some shots trying to catch the essence of the storytelling point.  All in all, it was a great experience, and we’re proud of how the film came out. 

PH: What's next for you and FOLKS?  

Alexandre Lafortune: After Beau is Afraid, I worked as a comp artist for a while. Now I’m working on a small project as VFX sup while still doing some comp work for another show. I can expect to jump on a new project anytime now, and I’m ready for it. 

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