VFX Supervisor Bryan Hirota Interview: Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Screen Rant spoke with Scanline VFX Supervisor Bryan Hirota about the effects, Easter eggs, and more about Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League released almost four years after the theatrical version, thereby restoring the director’s original film. In addition to removing the changes made for the 2017 cut, the colloquially-named Snyder Cut also included over two hours of footage never before seen. But while there was an assembly cut ready the whole time, that version of the film still needed VFX done before its release in March 2021.

Scanline spent months working on the Snyder Cut, which came years after they had worked on the 2017 film. Screen Rant spoke to VFX Supervisor Bryan Hirota about the experience of working on both movies as well as the intricacies of Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

Related: Zack Snyder’s Justice League: Every Easter Egg & DCEU Reference

Justice League is quite an interesting situation. Scanline worked on both versions of the film, so what was that experience like, and what were the differences in making both of them?

Bryan Hirota: Well, the original theatrical one started with Zack and, at some point in post, Zack left the project and Joss came in with a bunch of reshoots. We finished that, and that sort of seemed like that was that for the show. Then three or four years later, after we had wrapped and archived that show offline, we hear that doing Zack’s version is a go. I’ve worked on a number of shows with Zack, and I’ve been in contact with him casually, as well. We had talked about the possibility of people seeing his version of the film, but it was always in the context of the Richard Donner cut of Superman II, where it would be 10 or 20 years down the road.

I can’t recall something like this happening. I don’t know that there’s ever been something like this, where within five years of the theatrical release, a very different version of the same film gets puts out there. it’s not even some extra feature shoved on a Blu-ray or something. I think that the whole thing is super weird and unique. But getting back into it at this scale was sort of crazy, because Scanline needed to do around 1000 shots. I think that from the time they said, “Hey, we’re gonna do this thing,” to when they wanted it done was seven months. It took us a good month of just re-onlining the archived show, seeing what was left over and what still worked in the pipeline. Because three or four years is a long time in any kind of tech-related field, so our internal pipelines for many characters and effects and lighting have evolved in that time.

It’s a number of complications, too. Shots that were ostensibly fine in either version of the film still needed to be checked, because for the theatrical cut, we were finishing to 1:85, and Zack’s version was finished to 1:33. There were shots that would have been fine, aside from the fact that we didn’t have tops or bottoms for it. Worst case scenario on some of the shots, we had to render new stuff just to fill in the top and the bottom.

There was a lot of double checking for continuity, too. Because while certain aspects of both films are very similar, they’re also different. In the park in the theatrical, there’s no Humvees or military, but in Zack’s version there are. In the original photography, there are Humvees, so they were painted out of the theatrical. And there were different configurations of the cop cars in both versions to facilitate whether there was military there or not.

We had to go through and make sure that some of the deep and medium background details matched up. We had to make sure we didn’t paint out a soldier or police officer or something, for example, that needed to be in one version but was removed from another. There was a lot of detective work that needed to go into many of the shots just to make sure that it played with the version of the film we were working on. It’s the kind of things that you don’t normally have to do, because you’re not cross-checking two different versions of the same movie.

Flash Running in Snyder Cut

Aside from restoring original shots, you also had to work on two hours’ worth of adding shots – including a new character like Martian Manhunter and the cosmic scenes with Flash. How much creative freedom did you have in designing all that, and what parameters did Zack give you?

Bryan Hirota: For the cosmic rewind bit, Zack had some descriptions of what he wanted: the mother boxes destroy everything and leave Flash ultimately in some kind of void, and as Flash takes off and is running faster than he’s ever run before, Zack wanted the world to rebuild around him. He imagined that there was, with each of Flash’s footsteps, these mini big bangs beneath him to go along with the story that he’s rebuilding the universe.

This sequence was an idea in Zack’s original version, but it didn’t get very far in its development. There were some pre/post viz of the material that we could use as a rough guide, but aside from those initial conversations about it with DJ and Zack’s guidance, they gave us a pretty wide berth to dive into those ideas and explore them. We developed it and showed them something that they quite liked, which I was happy with, because ultimately that little bit of the film is my favorite part. I love the bit where Flash rewinds time.

But Zack had a pretty good idea of the shots he wanted, and the basic story points and content he wanted, but for specifically how we brought all that together, they gave us a pretty good amount of creative license to go out and explore and create something cool for them.

With everything you added into the film or worked on, what particular scene did you feel was most complex or fulfilling and rewarding?

Bryan Hirota: I would say three things. The cosmic rewind, I like, and I think it’s a nice conclusion of the Flash’s arc in the story as well. I just think it’s neat visually. I like that we got a chance to do the opening up the film, where we revisit Superman’s death. Because we had never dealt with Doomsday in BvS, and we got the Doomsday asset out of the Warner Brothers archives to recreate that moment from BvS from different angles, and then followed Clark’s screams to wake up the mother boxes. That whole bit was cool; it helped establish what this movie is about and who the key players are. I felt lucky to be able to help contribute to that.

Lastly, while it unwound a bunch of the movie, replacing the old Steppenwolf with the new Steppenwolf design was for the betterment of the film. Then bringing back sequences that involved Steppenwolf that were cut from the theatrical, like the beach torture scene with the Atlanteans, I thought made him more menacing. He just had a lot more backstory.

I think you also worked on Silas’ death. People have been discussing that the way he died is very reminiscent of Jon Osterman’s death in Watchmen. Was that done on purpose or more of a coincidence?

Bryan Hirota: A little bit. Zack and DJ thought that it could be something like the birth of Dr. Manhattan, so that definitely was a touchstone as an idea. That was definitely one of the things we were thinking about as we were developing it. I think one thing that was a little different is Silas has a close-up where his skin is bubbling like inside of a microwave and little bits of his hair are catching on fire and stuff. I think Silas’ death is a little more gross than on Watchman, but there are shades of that in this.

In general, when I finish interviews, I like to give the interviewee an opportunity to share something that they maybe haven’t been asked before.

Bryan Hirota: I’m just really happy for Zack and Debbie that they got a chance to do this, that it got out there and that people like it. Because they’re both such lovely people, and the circumstances around everything before this were just terrible. To see them get a chance to come back and finish it the way they wanted, and also to have it be received by critics and audiences as well as it was, is such a nice story.

Who would have thought that this would be a thing? I think that’s great, and it makes me happy for them.

Next: Zack Snyder’s Justice League: All Endings, Cliffhangers & Setup Explained

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