It used to be that the look of a film was credited almost entirely to the cinematographer. While it’s most certainly true that the artists of this profession are among the most talented in connecting visual aesthetics with the emotional content of a story, there is no denying that in modern filmmaking they also share this with the VFX department. VFX Compositor Dianshuo Zhang has worked on numerous award winning and nominated productions such as CBS’s Primetime Emmy nominated The Good Fight, FX’s Fosse/Verdon (eleven Primetime Emmy Nominations), and others. Her work on the CBS Feature Film Five Feet Apart helped to create some of the most touching and sweet moments of this film. The film has already acquired a huge fanbase in the teen market with a slew of nominations at the Teen Choice awards and a WW Box Office Gross in excess of $80 Million.
Director Justin Baldoni (writer/creator of the award-winning documentary My Last Days) knows how to engage young audiences. He cast Haley Lu Richardson as Stella Grant (Jane the Virgin, M. Night Shymalan’s Split, Golden Globe Nominated Edge of Seventeen) Cole Sprouse as Will Newman (Riverdale, Friends, Adam Sandler’s Big Daddy) in the lead roles of Five Feet Apart for their unique chemistry. The story might be described as a modern day medical Romeo and Juliet. The two teens must be kept apart as a result of their potential cross infection; Stella has cystic fibrosis and Will has a dangerous bacterial lung infection. Their love story involves rebuking authority (even though well intended) to pursue some real life experiences. Their story is heart wrenching and ultimately bittersweet.
Many of the romantic moments for the two main characters were augmented by Dianshuo’s work. When the teens scape the hospital to make their way to the Christmas lights in a neighboring small town, the picturesque scene of blue sky, lake, and small bridge appear courtesy of Zhang’s matte painting. The detail is impressive, right down to the ice texture on the lake and the color correction. She illuminates regarding the unobvious high tech aspect stating, “This shot was outside a parking lot surrounded with some houses, green trees, and mountains in the background. I used 3D tracking to create a camera in order to add the matte painting in different depths. When the camera moves, you could see the parallax between objects. The 3D tracking also created a PointCloud, so I could see where the ground, the houses, the trees, and the background are, etc. I put each layer of the matte painting, such as winter trees, snow on the houses and ground, and holiday lights, on a card to the shot and matched the correct position according to the PointCloud. I also animated the holiday lights blinking in distance in order to give the background some life. In this way, I turned this spring shot into winter.” It’s not an exaggeration to state that the skill of Dianshuo contributes massively to both the appearance of the film and its production budget.
While she doesn’t always get to attend the premiers or screenings of the films she works on, Zhang notes that viewing Five Feet Apart with an audience was special for her. She relates, “It’s always exciting to watch your work on a big screen. It’s an honor to work with so many talented artists and see what we can create together. Attending the screening of this film, I was so happy to overhear some audience members profess their amazement that the scenes were VFX; that’s the highest compliment I can receive.”