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VFX enhance pix for Eastwood, Aronofsky

In this brave new digital filmmaking world, there's no shortage of grousing that visual effects have overwhelmed story. Yet two determinedly story-oriented directors have movies out this fall that depend on vfx for critical moments. "Black Swan," from helmer Darren Aronofsky, follows the disintegration of an obsessed dancer trying to master the role of the Swan Queen in "Swan Lake." Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" weaves together the stories of three people touched in different ways by death, including a survivor of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. It was up to Dan Schrecker and Michael Owens, the vfx supervisors on "Black Swan" and "Hereafter," to make sure the vfx fit with their respective directors' approach. Both say their directors are "all about story." Owens, for his part, says Eastwood "likes the environment to show up when it's necessary, but it's not about that. He's not a kid in a candy store when it comes to what you can do." Eastwood's famously loose, spontaneous shooting style isn't ideal for visual effects, which thrive on planning. And he doesn't storyboard or previsualize his pictures. Yet Owens, who's worked with Eastwood on pics going back to "Space Cowboys," has made a virtue of that. "If you stick to (previs or storyboards) too closely, you get something that's overcrafted sometimes. Clint doesn't believe in overcrafting or overthinking something." Eastwood understood when Owens had to previs the tsunami sequence, in which a French TV reporter has a near-death experience. The whole sequence was a tricky balancing act for Owens, who had to keep the vfx from overwhelming the drama. "If the tsunami upstaged her hereafter experience, we would have gone too far. And the hereafter experience needed to be dramatic without overstating it." Schrecker, whose credits include several Aronofsky pics and last year's "Precious," says, "In the kind of effects we do on 'Black Swan' and 'The Wrestler,' it's crucial they're completely seamless." Like Eastwood, Aronofsky shoots very fast once setup is done. So Schrecker says, "We try to have a small footprint on set." Some moments in the story simply couldn't be done without vfx, though. For example, while Natalie Portman did her own dancing on "Black Swan" for most shots, there were moments that required a professional dancer. Portman's head had to be digitally attached to the dancer's body. Even in the movie's more fantastical moments, Schrecker had to ensure there was nothing to take the audience out of the movie. "It's all got to be part of the same world, which is different from 'The Fountain' or even something like 'Precious,' where there are fantasy sequences that break out of the main narrative." The bottom line, says Schrecker, is that the approach to vfx on an arthouse drama shouldn't be different from that on a big-budget tentpole. "Any project we work on," he says, "the focus is always on story."