As The Painted Veil is set in China in the 1920s, it is no surprise that the effects work for the film primarily consists of CG environments and matte paintings, to enhance and recreate authentic period settings.
Fuel created all the visual effects for the film and Fuel VFX Supervisor, Paul Butterworth, travelled to China to supervise the effects, shot mostly in Shanghai and the beautiful, remote, mountainous province of Guilin.
The most ambitious visual effects work is in the film’s title sequence, which depicts shots of fog-bound junks that reveal a 100% CG wide shot of Shanghai Harbour, shrouded in early morning mist and crowded with water craft. The rural village where much of the film is set was established with carefully planned matte paintings that allowed the director, John Curran, to employ moving cameras if he wanted, while still allowing the mattes to be created as 2D elements.
Completely different effects though were involved in transforming Edward Norton’s face to show the advanced ravages of cholera in the final stages of the film. The cholera disease depletes the body of its fat and fluid stores, reducing the sufferer to skin and bone – so this was something that could not be achieved by make-up alone.
Fuel’s technique was to superimpose a 3D skull over Edward’s face and use this as reference to re-sculpt his features - strip away the soft flesh below the eyes, hollow the cheeks, and narrow the jaw. A mottled and jaundiced skin was then composited onto his reshaped face so that it still moved as it did in the original live action plate.
In the end, the computer generated ‘death mask’ replaced his entire face; only his eyes are his own. Being close-up shots of a well-known actor in a pivotal moment in the film, a lot of care and sensitivity was required in applying the effects enhancements.