Play ZÁTOPEK

ZÁTOPEK

August 2021 saw the Czech cinematic premiere of Zátopek – the first feature film about the life of iconic Czechoslovak runner Emil Zátopek. He made history at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki when he became the first person in the world to win both the 5000m and 10 000m races and even the marathon to boot.

At PFX, we were responsible for the film’s entire visual post-production, including data management, editing, color grading, and most importantly, the larger-than-life visual effects.

Zátopek is a biographical historical drama and so the visual component of the film is absolutely crucial to the story – the 134 minutes of running time includes 38 minutes of special effects, half of which take place across sports stadiums all over the globe. These stadiums proved to be one of the greatest challenges of the entire project. How could we achieve maximum authenticity and accuracy when depicting some of the most legendary races on sporting grounds that either no longer exist, or happen to be at the other end of the world?

“We started working with the film’s creators long before the first scene was even shot. We scouted the planned stadium locations, filmed a lot of footage and started testing. It became clear very early on that we would find common ground with the filmmakers – they knew what they wanted and we knew how to make it happen. Our cooperation was very intense and took the form of a very satisfying creative dialogue from the get-go,” says Tomáš Srovnal, executive producer at PFX.

“When I first spoke with Jindřich Červenka (VFX supervisor at PFX) on the topic of stadiums, I mentioned the film Bohemian Rhapsody. His response was: ‘I hope it won’t look as bad as that.’ So I said to myself, if this post-production studio is that confident, I must be in the right place. And now that I see the results, it really does look a lot better,” quips the director of the film, David Ondříček.

VFX supervisor at PFX, Jindřich Červenka,  star of Zátopek, Václav Neužil, Director David Ondříček, Executive Producer at PFX, Tomáš Srovnal

Zátopek was a rather unique project due to the sheer extent of VFX  – our VFX supervisor Jindřich spent 38 out of the entire 54 shooting days on set. “The half-dilapidated Brno stadium “Za Lužánkami” ended up “playing” stadiums in Prague, London, Helsinki and Berlin. Everything that the viewer sees in the stadium shots – with the exception of the race track – was created by us. The stadiums had to be recreated as accurately as possible, and so we dug deep into the archives and carefully studied hundreds of old photographs and shots.”

 

The desire for the highest level of realism possible was also reflected in the film’s production process. The easiest and cheapest approach would have been to shoot in a studio using a green screen – though entirely natural lighting cannot be achieved using this method, running the risk that the viewer will notice that the shot has been altered. This is why we opted for a significantly more complex production method and instead decided to shoot in a real stadium environment with real, natural light and subsequent rotoscoping of the actors.

 

 

In order to make it easier for the filmmakers to envision the overall look of a certain scene, we created an application which instantly prepared a visualization of how the stadium would look.

 

“The application helped me both during scene prep and while shooting, because at any given moment, it allowed everyone on set to have an idea of what would be added in post. This made it possible for us to shoot using the right framing and composition and also allowed us to better instruct the actors to, for example, wave at audience members high up in the stands, as they would otherwise be difficult to visualize,” says David Ondříček.

 

 

Some of Zátopek’s races have been very well documented – and Director David Ondříček strove for a very accurate depiction of certain races in order to create the most authentic viewer experience possible. “That’s why it was absolutely essential that everything was shot from the right angles – the complex visualizations at our disposal were a great help in this regard, as we were able to generate them even before production began,”  says Jindřich.

But the stadiums couldn’t just stay empty – another key component of the visual effects were the crowds, that is, adding digital audience members to the scenes. The few hundreds of extras on set had to be transformed into a roaring crowd of over one hundred thousand fans.

Already during production, we created 3D scans of the extras – in a studio equipped with 116 cameras, 45 extras were each shot individually wearing three different outfits. This allowed us to generate over 130 unique 3D scans of characters which we brought to life using motion capture and then planted in the stadium.

Our colorist,  Tomáš Chudomel, also helped finesse the film’s visuals. He worked very closely with Štěpán Kučera, the film’s cinematographer, as well as David Ondříček. “Zátopek is a real story about a real person, and this desire for “realism” was reflected in the approach  of the entire crew, including our own approach to the color grading. Our goal was to give viewers a feeling true to the period and the story, while refraining from creating visuals that were overly stylized. It was also crucial to make the film’s rendering of these historic sports grounds as naturalistic as possible, as the world of sports can sometimes be rather rough,” he says.

Zátopek won his first gold medal during the 10k run at the 1948 Olympic Games in London – the race took place during a 40-degree heat wave. “We needed to make sure that the viewer felt the heat too,” adds Tomáš.

The footage of the 5k race in London posed another sort of challenge, as the race actually took place during a heavy downpour – though it was shot in the blazing sun in 35-degree weather.

For the entire duration of the production and post-production process, the filmmakers had our data management team and our own studio in the Barrandov Film Studios at their disposal, which is also where all of the editing work took place. Our in-house cinema proved to be a vital asset once again, as it always gives us the chance to see how a certain scene translates to the big screen.

For a lot of the long motion shots, I had no idea that it could ever look this good. I’ve seen the film a countless number of times now, and whenever I watch it, I don’t even notice when something has been added in post. The entire thing looks like it’s been shot in a real environment,” adds Ondříček.

The film’s producer, Kryštof Mucha, was also quick to express his satisfaction with the film: “David and I had a certain idea in mind of how the film would turn out, but never did we think it would be so exceptional and uncompromising in execution. PFX exceeded our expectations. They helped us immensely with our film.”

“We spent 2 years working on Zátopek here at PFX, and due to the pandemic we had to wait a pretty long time before we could all watch the film together. When I finally saw the film with other viewers and heard how the audience would collectively hold their breath during the race scenes, I once again felt overjoyed that we were able to take part in the creation of this work. And I was once again reminded of this paradox – we will sometimes pore over certain VFX shots for hundreds or even thousands of hours, but our greatest reward is when the viewer doesn’t even notice our work,” concludes Tomáš Srovnal.

  • CGI
    25%
  • Crowd Systems
    25%
  • 2D Compositing
    25%
  • Grading
    25%