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How ‘Challengers’ VFX Team Created Tennis Ball POV Scene

How ‘Challengers’ VFX Team Created Tennis Ball POV Scene

In Luca Guadagnino‘s tennis thriller Challengers, stars Zendaya, Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor litigate their love triangle as much on the court as in the bedroom. As such, the sport has to stay interesting.

Guadagnino previously told Little White Lies he doesn’t like watching real tennis because it’s boring. “The way in which [the sport] is shown is rather undynamic,” he said. Challengers — punctuated by the camera’s near-constant frenetic motion — seems to be in part about rectifying this failing.

“Luca’s vision for this movie was making the tennis action generally very kinetic,” Challengers VFX director Brian Drewes tells The Hollywood Reporter. The camera sweeps above and below the court, jumping toward the subjects’ beautifully sweaty faces and buzzing with an immersive energy that took the internet and critics by storm upon the movie’s release. This kineticism reaches its peak at the end of the film, when the camera becomes the ball, and the audiences volleys back and forth between O’Connor and Faist in a dizzying pattern of movement that is most definitely not “undynamic.”

How did they make it happen?

Challengers falls in the category of films whose VFX are not immediately visible. “It’s this kind of movie where the audience just feels a little differently for some reason,” Drewes, the co-founder of Zero VFX, says. “It’s subtle, but it leads to this high impact feel. You say, ‘Oh something there is just different.’”

Drewes and his team touched touched every tennis scene (and then some) in the movie, aiding the game’s dynamism with the CG help of balls, hands, rackets, faces, background actors and more.

“We really wanted to focus on the actors,” Drewes says, “really being able to show off all the work they had done.”

In the case of the POV scene, Drewes started with a previs pass (a computer-generated 3D previsualization) of the entire scene, edited to the real-world audio and speed of an actual tennis match overseen by Brad Gilbert, the famed Andre Agassi tennis coach and Challengers tennis consultant.

“He scripted all of the tennis action for the movie in quite vivid detail,” Drewes says. “Where the ball was going and the nature of the volley was defined by him.”

Mike Faist in Challengers

MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

The previs helped Drewes and Guadagnino understand what the scene would look like. “I’d never seen it before,” Drewes says. “There’s no reference for it in the real world.”

With the previs complete, the team filmed the scene with two stunt doubles over the course of about five hours on a Sunday. “The time on this court was very valuable,” Drewes says. “Luca said, ‘So long as you’re shooting what’s in the previs, I’m fine with it,’ and I said, ‘Yes, sir.’”

Though most of Challengers was shot on 35mm film, Drewes used an Arri Alexa LF camera for the POV and several other tennis scenes given the speed required for the movie’s most turbulent shots. (Another example? The corkscrew zoom toward Faist made so popular by the movie’s viral trailer.)

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The camera was attached to a 30′ crane whose footage would later be re-timed to match the speed dictated by previs. The final result moves at the same rate as a real-life tennis match.

In post, the team stitched together 23 shots for the 24-second scene. As they put it together, the individual shots also had to be re-lit to account for daylight changes that occurred over the hours they filmed.

To complete their final models, Drewes scanned tennis courts with lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) and photogrammetry and added over 100 photoscanned background extras to fill the stands.

“We had 900 shots in this movie,” he says. “You would never guess so.”

How similar is the final product to the original previs? “I’m 100 percent sure that Luca would not have approved it if it wasn’t what was in his mind,” Drewes says, but adds, “it was a very collaborative process to get there.”

In fact, he adds, collaboration is often the key to successful VFX. “When it becomes part of the story is when it’s very successful. Sometimes that can mean it takes center stage, something like Furiosa, where you know it’s there but you can enjoy it for its beauty. Then other times, you don’t know it’s there. You’re embedded in the process, looking at it with the filmmakers,” he says. “We love surprising people.”

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