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Peter Hjorth / PHOTO: Courtesy DFI

VFX wiz Peter Hjorth on his craft and work with Ali Abbasi, Tarik Saleh, Ruben Östlund

Exclusive: Scandinavia’s star VFX supervisor is attached to the three Scandinavian films vying for a Palme d’or.

Danish VFX wiz Peter Hjorth boasts an impressive CV, having worked since the late 1990s, with some of the Nordic region’s biggest films and filmmakers, from Thomas Vinterberg, Susanne Bier, Nicolas Winding Refn, Hans Petter Moland, Ali Abbasi, Ruben Östlund, Tarik Saleh to his longest and closest partner of all - Lars von Trier.

Most recently, he won European Film Awards for his work on Ali Abbasi’s Border (2018) and Valdimar Jóhansson’s Lamb (2021) - an accolade shared with Fredrik Nord.


VFX wiz Peter Hjorth on his craft and work with Ali Abbasi, Tarik Saleh, Ruben Östlund

Lamb, Hilmir Snaer Gudnason, Noomi Rapace / PHOTO: Go To Sheep

Hjorth tells us all about his craft and work on the Cannes competition titles Holy Spider, Boy from Heaven and Triangle of Sadness.

You have no less than three films in Cannes - what an achievement. But it is also an amazing coincidence…
Peter Hjorth: Absolutely. When I accepted the jobs on each film, I had no clue I would be in a situation like now, with three films to be delivered in Cannes at the same time, which is crazy but absolutely wonderful.

How did you get into VFX in the first place?
PH: I knew I wanted to do something with film. I started as an assistant to an electrician in a crew, and then worked as a gaffer. I did three projects with Thomas Vinterberg. We were very young. Then I got a proper job in post -production with analogue video and quickly made it as a video editor. I was the right person at the right time at the right place.

When was this exactly? In the 80s?
PH: In the late 80s. Then in the early 90s I worked in post-production for commercials. I started working on more expensive shots on films, we did the first VFX, digital intermediate productions, transferring film directly to digital without going through videotape. I used some of this experience when I started transferring videotape into film for some of the Dogme films in the mid-90s. I‘ve always done a bit of shooting in 2nd units, post production and digital work.

Then computers became a tool and I was there when digital revolution happened. I was lucky to meet people who were interested in learning new things and weren’t so hung up on conventions.

How would you describe your VFX style?
PH: I like to think of myself as someone who has a background in filmmaking and then learnt about computers, not the other way around. I’m fairly old school and it’s good that my early background was working with light. What you try to do with the computer is manipulate the light to try to make it look like it’s natural. But trying to do that on a computer will always be a compromise. Maybe my strong point is that I don’t’ get carried away by what we can do with technology. I’m always a bit critical. If you can do something with a real camera, real light, manipulate it somehow to make it look like what you want on screen, it will probably be more believable. My passion is really putting an image on screens-small or big.

I think you developed a technique with Lars von Trier on his film The Director of it All called ‘automavision’, meant to limit human influence on filming?
PH: Yes. This was a strange project, shot and post-produced on film, and then we had a computer doing the creative decisions. I’ve always had an interest in science and technology. With Melancholia for instance, I got the opportunity to work with scientists, to do scientific works that we inserted in the movie. It was wonderful.
I love working with Lars. We have done eight films together and I’m currently working on his series The Kingdom-Exodus. I’ve developed a lot of methods and systems for him that I use only for him.


VFX wiz Peter Hjorth on his craft and work with Ali Abbasi, Tarik Saleh, Ruben Östlund

The Kingdom Exodus / PHOTO: Henrik Ohsten

You are associated to some of Scandinavia’s biggest directors and your credits includes almost 90 films, docs, series and VR installations. What convinces you to board a project?
PH: If I feel I can make a contribution to a project, then I will do it. It’s the main motivation. Then trust is key. I have to believe in the story, the producer and director, and feel that they will pull it off. Usually, I can’t show them anything until I have spent their money, so they also have to trust that I will do a wonderful job.

What I present them during the process is just my best estimate where we’re going. This is basically my job: show other people - producers, directors, cinematographers, production designers, editors - where I think it’s going, so they can do their job, and VFX becomes an integral part of the film. This approach means I also can go and shoot something with a second unit and make it look like it belongs to the film.

I try to be an extension to what everybody else does, and I constantly show other people where I’m going because by the time it’s finished, polished, it’s too late to change.

Are time and budget the main constraints in VFX?
PH: The balance between ambition and resource is very tricky. Some people think of VFX supervisors are people who come with a chrome ball on set and then work in post-production. But actually, where I put the most energy is in pre-production, and in the whole pitching and pulling a project together. Then in the edit because this is where you decide which shot you need in the film to tell the story and give the feeling that you want.

What type of budgets do you work with?
PH: I have to work with whatever the producer and co-producer can put together, and usually within specific regions in the world where we get support, incentives, etc. For instance Holy Spider is a Danish film, but we ended up working in Sweden for the VFX. With Boy from Heaven, a lot of the technical part comes from Finland.

The coproduction game has made it great for me because I now have an extended network of people around the world. With VFX, you can find good people everywhere, and spend money in a way that makes sense. But resources is not only about budget. It’s how much time we can spend on shoot, with a director, with the actors to make them understand what they are part of, how much time we can we spend on the art department etc. All these things have to be balanced.


VFX wiz Peter Hjorth on his craft and work with Ali Abbasi, Tarik Saleh, Ruben Östlund

Holy Spider, Zar Amir Ebrahimi / PHOTO: Profile Pictures

Let’s speak about each film in Cannes. How did you board Holy Spider?
PH: I have known Ali [Abbasi] since he was at the Danish film school and I did some of his school projects. It’s funny because one day, I was working with Lars [von Trier] and this young guy phones me. In a broken Swedish/Danish he explains that he has to do a scene with a guy who is killing his brother with a knife. I said…OK. He told me about the story. It was so wild, I felt….OK I have to know more about this guy - Ali. He has a clear idea of what he is doing. And wants to get it precise which is always a revealing sign about a talent in the making.

On Holy Spider, what type of visuals did you create and how many shots?
PH: We did 90 shots, all at DUPP in Sweden. I had to recreate violence. Before, I did a lot of sex - I was thinking…OK I have to do another penis shot! But more recently, it’s been focused on violence, especially gory stuff. So sometimes I feel more like a forensic expert than a VFX supervisor. But I had wonderful people to work with.
With Lars von Trier’s The House that Jack Built, I did a lot of stuff around a serial killer, so basically here I did a similar work. Super scary shots.

I’m so happy that Ali did this film and that is it receiving a lot of international attention. It is a really beautiful film, with a harsh and important subject matter.

With Boy from Heaven, how did you board the film?
PH: I had worked on Tarik’s The Nile Hilton Incident and Tarik liked my work and approach to the filmmaking process. I also collaborated on his US film The Contractor. We did pretty good work on that too. I was super happy when Tarik asked me to work on Boy from Heaven as well.

I believe the film was shot in Turkey no? What was your contribution to the film?
PH: Yes it as shot at the Süleymaniye Mosque. I had very little work to do to the actual places. Roger [Rosenberg[ the production designer did a wonderful job. What I did for the film was like icing on the cake - creating crowds. With Covid we just couldn’t hire extras in Istanbul to do the shots we wanted, so we used CGI with Haymaker VFX in Sweden for the crowd shots. I had worked on three films with Roger [Rosenberg], Pierre [Aïm] the cinematographer, and Tarik, so we didn’t have to discuss too much. We all knew what we were up to. We had last minute changes and that was fine. It worked out very well. In total we did just over 100 VFX shots.


VFX wiz Peter Hjorth on his craft and work with Ali Abbasi, Tarik Saleh, Ruben Östlund

Boy From Heaven / PHOTO: Atmo Rights AB b

What about Triangle of Sadness? What exactly did you work on and how many shots did you do?
PH: I had never worked with Ruben [Östlund] before and knew it would be a different experience as he tends to do a lot of stuff himself, but I gave it a try. I knew his cinematographer Fredrik [Wenzel] very well. The film was also shot during Covid.

I worked on pre-production and concept work. Then Ruben went on set. We had a guy in Greece who worked on the VFX on set and my colleagues Jorundur Arnason -VFX sup, and Copenhagen VFX did all the hard work. My main job was to do solutions for interiors in the luxury yacht. We could not shoot on a real ship. It was a big set but they wanted to look out of the window, have things reflected in the foreground of these shots, natural light coming out of the window reflection etc. We came up with fresh ideas. I worked on 129 shots in total. I haven’t seen the completed work, which is again unusual. Usually, I come at the end to check if everything comes together well, if there are problems, but here I didn’t get a chance. It’s in the can, going to Cannes!


VFX wiz Peter Hjorth on his craft and work with Ali Abbasi, Tarik Saleh, Ruben Östlund

Triangle of Sadness, Behind the Scenes / PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Tobias Henriksson, Plattform Produktion

You’ve reached such a senior position, but do you train the next generation?
PH: We had a great production VFX supervisors programme at the Norwegian film school, and trained three students who are now working in the industry. I try to have people around me, to teach them. But it’s hard. For some reason, not many people are interested in the production side of VFX. It is a tough freelancing job. It’s safer to work at a post house.

What are you working on right now?
I’m working on Lars [von Trier[‘ The Kingdom Exodus series. We are giving the series a hell of an update, restoring the first two seasons and doing the third one with VFX. It’s a different ball game. I’m also collaborating on a Danish arthouse film, The Quiet Migration.

Your work on Ali Abbasi’s Border was amazing. Is it one of the films you’re proudest of?
PH: Yes and the Mexican film The Untamed by Amat Escalante. I’m proud of it because the reviews said wow! There are wonderful prosthetics and physical effects in front of the camera. It was the best reviews I could get as no one noticed there were a lot of visual effects! I take pride in not being noticed.


VFX wiz Peter Hjorth on his craft and work with Ali Abbasi, Tarik Saleh, Ruben Östlund

Border, Gräns / PHOTO: Meta, Spark, Kärnfilm