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Entering the Celestial RealM of "Dark Phoenix"

VFX supervisor Phil Brennan describes the making of Jean Grey’s cosmically altered telekinesis, her childhood car crash, an enhanced Cerebro and the 3rd act prison train.

13 years after writing the script for X-Men: The Last Stand, where the telepathic Jean Grey gets possessed by a cosmic force that turns her into the most powerful adversary ever faced by Charles Xavier and his mutant superheroes, Simon Kinberg revisits that storyline, this time as director, in Dark Phoenix, the final installment of the X-Men franchise to be produced by 20th Century Fox prior it’s historic purchase by Disney. “We wanted to take this one in a different direction and go a lot closer to the comic book storyline,” Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor Phil Brennan (Snow White and the Huntsman) explains. “But it’s a movie, so there are compromises. Simon Kinberg wanted to have the spectacle people expect [from the X-Men franchise] but also be much more grounded and dramatic. We were constantly trying to find the right balance.”

1350 out of the 1700 shots in Dark Phoenix have a visual effects component, with contributions coming from main vendor MPC as well as Soho VFX, Scanline VFX, Rodeo FX, Rising Sun Pictures and MELS Studio. “There was certainly a lot of sharing of assets, like environments and digital doubles, but we didn’t have a huge amount of shared shots,” notes Brennan, who changed the Phoenix Force look as well as Jean Grey’s (Sophie Turner) transformation into Dark Phoenix over the course of the production. “Our starting point was fiery and as time went on, it went in a much more cosmic direction.” Brennan studied Hubble Space Telescope imagery as reference, and eventually incorporated liquid components into the cosmic simulation. “We realized early on that the affect Phoenix Force has on Jean had to have a huge range of levels, from the subtle hint to a massive thing that affects her and the stuff around her,” he continues. “A lot of our challenges were in finding the right level, working that into the scenes, and trying to make sure even when it was taken far we didn’t completely eliminate Sophie’s performance.”

Jean Grey has a vast range of supernatural abilities that include telekinesis and telepathy, which become amplified by the Phoenix Force. “From her childhood to young adult years, Jean has been learning, with a lot of help from Charles Xavier [James McAvoy], to control her powers,” Brennan shares. “She’s gotten to a place where she’s comfortable with them and feels in control. Suddenly, because of this event that happens in space, those powers are now magnified many times and Jean can’t control them again because they’re so much bigger than anything she has ever dealt with before. We did need to make sure there was a nod to what those powers used to be.” Grey is also capable of molecular reconstruction. “What you’re doing is pulling apart an environment which is either real or looks photoreal,” he reveals. “That always helps to ground the effect. It was a huge amount of particle effects and those are simulations that require numerous of iterations.”

“One of the things that we did early on with Simon was study all of the past X-Men movies and pick the effects that we all liked,” Brennan states. “For instance, the signature sequence for Nightcrawler [Kodi Smit-McPhee] occurs inside the White House in X-Men 2. We looked at what we thought were the best aspects of that prior work but then tried to use today’s technology to take the effects much further. These days there is so much computing power, and better software and algorithms that we can do a lot more with.” Nightcrawler bampfs (the effect that oc