Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix will go down in history as one of the most perplexing of Fox’s X-Men films. It was a movie that didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be – or even who the X-Men are, frankly. One minute, the X-Men are jetting off into space to have a literally out-of-this-world adventure that brings them face to face with aliens, and the next, you’ve got Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey crying in a rainy alleyway.
A large part of Dark Phoenix’s overall unevenness can be attributed to the way the film evolved over the course of its production as Kinberg went back and forth deciding on a general tone and level of fantastical energy. There are few people who understand that better than MPC VFX Supervisor Greg Butler, who led point on the team behind Dark Phoenix’s digital movie magic. When we got a chance to speak with Butler about his work on the film and how it changed in the months leading up to its theatrical release, he said that, at least initially, the titular Dark Phoenix had a much more fiery, alarmingly inhuman on-screen presence that would have been unlike any Jean audiences had seen before.
You’d think that larger-than-life, godlike energy is precisely what you’d want to spotlight in a story about Jean becoming the Phoenix, but Butler explained that as Dark Phoenix’s story came into sharper focus, it became clear that the “classic” Phoenix just wasn’t the right choice to go with.
Gizmodo: There’s been a lot of discussion about the Dark Phoenix that ended up making it into theaters being drastically different than the film it originally began as.
Gizmodo: As someone who actually worked on the film though, talk to me about what kind of story it was when you first came onto the project.
Greg Butler: I came on just in time for principal photography in July of 2017 and it wasn’t until much later that we ended up reshooting the final act of the movie. This was the first X-Men film I worked on personally, but I’d seen all of them and I’ve always been a fan of the comics – especially from series that came out during the ‘80s like Chris Claremont’s “Dark Phoenix Saga.” So I came to the project with, I think, a certain amount of background knowledge and an interest in the comics aspects of things. A lot of my friends worked on films like Days of Future Past and Apocalypse, and it’s a lot of the same filmmaking team here with the major change being Simon Kinberg stepping into his new role as a director.
Gizmodo: This was your first X-Film, but how do you think Kinberg making the transition into the director’s role ended up really impacting the shape of the movie?
Butler: [Simon] brought with [him] what a lot of writers do, which is a focus on story and the actors and the writing itself, with the visual effects kind of taking a back seat. They’re still there; obviously, it’s an X-Men film. But Dark Phoenix was really meant to be much more about the drama and Jean Grey’s transformation.
Gizmodo: When I spoke with Kinberg a few weeks back, we got to talking about there being this purposeful kind of tension between Dark Phoenix’s more grounded focus and the super-heroics that are such a core part of the classic “Dark Phoenix Saga” from the comics. From a VFX perspective, how’d you go about finding the right balance between the larger-than-life, Phoenix-y elements, and this very human story?
Butler: We started with a lot of concepts which were intended to show the buildup of the Phoenix is Jean. It started with just a little glint in her eye and we built her all the way up to an actual bird made of fire in space, and there were of course many steps in between. I think, originally, we had 10 stages of Jean becoming the Phoenix before we realised that we needed more to really capture the spectacle and ultimately decided on 12. A lot of the stages, one to five, were more subtle. Her eyes becoming more intense and you’d see more cracks developing on her face, and we thought about the entire process as a kind of logarithmic wave. During shooting, Simon would come to us and say “Ok, here she’s at a one or a two.” There’s just a glimpse there to let the audience know that something’s happening without it being distracting.
Gizmodo: You can kind of see that fluctuation in her powers, especially during the first third of the film or so. How much back and forth with Kinberg about that “Phoenix-ness” did you have?
Butler: When we had to have something supernatural happen [that] you couldn’t deny, then we would move up to a stage six or seven where there are visible things happening throughout the frame. The big thing that we realised during development, though, was that finding that balance between groundedness and the supernatural qualities became a challenge. Simon had us test things that would either end up going too far or being too subtle. As we were trying to thread that needle, he would stop the movie and reassign the levels, and then we ended up getting rid of a bunch of the higher levels because we realised that we could up the otherworldliness of things in other ways without pulling focus from Sophie [Turner].
Gizmodo: Interesting. Were there any scenes that ended up really having to be rethought because Jean as the Phoenix was too much of a distraction?
Butler: A great example of that is that shot of her on the balcony of the French Embassy with Jessica Chastain, who’s goading her into letting her power take over and using it to do whatever she wants. Initially, Jean was meant to be emitting a fiery energy in that scene. But when the creative team expressed that we were going to be backing away from all of that, we came up with two smaller things. We took over Jean’s hair, remade it digitally, and gave it a slight anti-gravity effect to it so that if you’re not watching her specifically, you’re not necessarily distracted by it.
Gizmodo: Honestly, it’s wild how good Jean’s hair ended up looking onscreen, especially considering how CGI hair tends to... you know, tends to not look great. Did that become your new go-to for telegraphing when Jean was really starting to tap into the Phoenix’s power?
Butler: Definitely, yeah. The hair effect is actually a leftover from a whole package of things Jean was going to do. Her cross was going to be disintegrating and reforming, she was going to have fire coming off of her, her hair was even more active than it is. So, in some of our early tests, her hair was doing a lot of that same stuff, and as we turned off a bunch of things, the hair [is] one of the few things that remains. I’m glad you brought it up because it’s one of the things we hit upon the earliest.
The other effect we ultimately landed on came from something way more intensive: demolecularisation. Originally, her face was going to begin to do that in a lot of scenes: coming off and revealing all of the energy within her before reforming. But as we started doing the early tests, it was like “Woah, ok no. Put her face back together. We needed to be able to see her act.”
Gizmodo: Was it because that version of Jean was uncanny to look at for long periods of time?
Butler: We never got far along enough in the production process to know whether it was going to look too inhuman and unrealistic or just a full-on distraction in the shot. I don’t even know who made the call to pull back from that, whether it was editorial, or the director, or us just looking at it and asking ourselves “is this really what we’re doing?” At one point, we had 10 shots in a row of dialogue and with the [demolecularisation] effect going, good luck trying to follow what Jean’s saying. No matter how it looks, that’s just so much for the audience to have to focus on.
So, instead, we took the [demolecularisation] effect and pushed it into the background instead of having it on Jean. What was doing to be happening to her face is happening to the walls instead, for example. The plaster behind her’s pulling apart and reforming because the energy pouring off Jean is manipulating matter on a molecular level.
Gizmodo: You see a bit of that when Cyclops gets too close to Jean. From a technical perspective, how similar was that meant to be to the effect in Apocalypse?
Butler: I’m not sure I even made that connection until just now, to be honest. Apocalypse had such a massive scale, you know, and that was his signature effect, you’re right. We might have referred to Apocalypse during production, but I can’t be sure. We did establish, though, that Jean has a field around her that we measured and we had a rule that anything that got within a certain proximity of Jean would be affected by her powers, and things farther away wouldn’t.
So, as she would walk around the balcony, it would begin to [demolecularise] a little bit. We talked about doing the same thing in the scene where Jean confronts the X-Men in her father’s neighbourhood because in that moment, it’s obvious that she’s energised, but because the scene’s also meant to be emotional, we ended up pulling back so as not to distract from the performances. But you can still see a little bit of the [demolecularisation] beneath Jean.
Gizmodo: And all of that would have been front and centre when Jean went full Phoenix, then?
Butler: During production, we used the phrase “going full Phoenix,” which was meant to be stage 12, and at one point there was meant to be a scene of Jean rocketing through space and destroying a fleet of alien ships, the same aliens that ended up being on Earth in the film.
Gizmodo: There was a lot more Phoenix spectacle that could have been in the film that audiences went into the film expecting to see. Do you regret that they were dialled back?
Butler: Not for the film Simon made. For the film that Dark Phoenix is, there just really wasn’t a space for that take on the Phoenix, I think. The story of how Jean becomes the Phoenix deserves its own time and space to breathe. All of the more over-the-top stuff wouldn’t have fit – it would have had to be a different movie on a conceptual level for the spectacular stakes to feel right here. If anything, that part of the Phoenix belongs in the second part of a two-film story. The idea of being the most powerful creature in the universe is interesting, but you need a really cosmic style story to explore that.