B is for Bullet Time

B is for Bullet-TimeIn the VFX ABC, the letter “B” stands for “Bullet Time”.

Bullet time famously hit the big screen in The Matrix. It was the technique behind the movie’s iconic slow motion shots, like the famous one where the camera spins around Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving as they grapple while floating in mid-air.

This dramatic and stylised effect was created using an array of over one hundred still cameras mounted on a curved rail surrounding the actors, both of whom were suspended on wires. The cameras were triggered simultaneously to produce a sequence of frames, with each individual image taken from a slightly different viewpoint. This sequence was then comped into a separate background.

Bullet time is the epitome of the “magic camera” move – that moment in a film where the director breaks the laws of physics by putting the camera through a ballet routine even Nijinsky would be hard-pushed to replicate. In The Matrix, the bullet time moves are justified by the central story point that Neo and his nemesis, Agent Smith, are capable of, well, breaking the laws of physics. So the extreme camera moves – as well as looking awesome – are fair.

Whether or not a camera move is fair has always been open to debate. Take the 1941 classic Citizen Kane. You won’t see Orson Welles dodging bullets in ultra slo-mo, but you will find a wealth of magic camera moments. At the start of the “El Rancho” scene, for instance, the camera makes an impossible flight over a (miniature) rooftop, passing right through the middle of a neon sign before dropping (by way of a nifty lap dissolve) through the solid glass of a rain-spattered window to enter the nightclub below. Is that move motivated, or is it just Welles showing off? You tell me.

Broadly speaking, the rules of motivation (as much as there are any rules) say that if you’re going to move the camera, you’d better have a damn good reason. That reason might be straightforward: pan left to follow your hero down the street. It might be dramatic: go hand-held for gritty running action when said hero takes to his heels. It could be psychological: the instant Chief Brody spots the giant shark chomping down on poor little Alex Kintner … unleash the dolly zoom! Bottom line is: if the camera move takes you out of the movie, you made the wrong choice.

For a long time, the rules were based on what a real camera can or can’t do. That’s because, until recently, all films were shot with real cameras. However, visual and special effects techniques have now reached the point where the camera – or its virtual counterpart – can go anywhere and do anything (watch the first seventeen minutes of Alfonso Cuarón’ Gravity and tell me it ain’t so).

Now, camera movement is clearly an integral part of filmmaking process. Which leads us to an interesting question, namely: “To what degree do developments in visual effects influence the fundamental language of cinema?”

Well, I’d argue that visual effects have always advanced both the art and craft of filmmaking. As long as there have been directors asking, “Can we do this?” there have been effects artists answering, “Let me try something.” I’d also argue that The Matrix – in particular, bullet time – marks a turning point, a key moment in time where a camera move was employed that not only advanced the discipline and enhanced the story, but also captured the audience’s imagination.

That last part is the crucial bit. Classy camera moves might impress the film buffs, but most audiences don’t even notice them. When the Wachowski Brothers hurled it on to the big screen in The Matrix, bullet time proved itself as a visual effect that could sit centre-stage without disrupting the flow of the movie. Motivated, cool and clever, bullet time still stands as my ultimate magic camera move.

So now it’s over to you. Do you have a favourite magic camera moment?

VFX Artists Plan Obama Protest

VFX Artists Plan Obama ProtestPresident Obama is due to visit the Glendale campus of DreamWorks Animation tomorrow – November 26 – where he is expected to deliver a speech hailing filmmaking as an American success story. Visual effects artists, frustrated by the current state of the industry, are planning to stage a protest at the event. Protestors will wear green T-shirts, the “greenscreen” colour representing what a film looks like without visual effects.

A key issue for the protestors is subsidies. In recent years, economic incentives have seen not only artists but whole facilities moving around the world in search of favourable conditions in which to work. Currently, companies in Canada and the United Kingdom, for example, are enjoying a boom period while their counterparts in California are struggling to compete – or indeed survive. For some visual effects artists, a nomadic existence has become a way of life.

We at Cinefex believe in fair play. That’s why our magazine articles never pass judgement on a film, but simply report on the hard work that went into putting it on the screen. In that spirit, we wish our friends in the visual effects industry worldwide every success in their continued mission to create a level playing field. If everyone competes by the same rules, we all get to enjoy a better game.

Digital Domain – Ender’s Game

Battle School space station in orbit - Digital Domain

Spectacular science fiction movies. They’re always big studio productions, right? As for the visual effects, they’re always provided by outside vendors – companies hired in by the producers to make movie magic. That’s how it’s always done.

Until now.

Ender’s Game is different. Despite having a budget widely reported to be $100 million, it is in fact an independent film, co-produced by Oddlot Entertainment, Summit/Lionsgate and Digital Domain 3.0. Famous as a leading visual effects facility, Digital Domain is not known for film production. However, with Ender’s Game, the company known familiarly as “DD” has broken the mould by acting not as a vendor on the show, but as a partner.

I spoke recently to Daniel Seah, CEO of Digital Domain, and Matthew Butler, DD’s overall VFX supervisor on Ender’s Game. I was particularly interested to learn how DD’s unique role on the film impacted on the creative process …

Formic battle fleet - Digital Domain

Daniel, as I understand it, Digital Domain has an equity stake in Ender’s Game, and made further contribution in the form of visual effects services.

DS: Yes. Digital Domain’s contribution was both financial and creative, which is why it was such an interesting partnership. With a VFX company as an equity partner and co-producer, the production was able to take advantage of our ability to visually develop the film in the earliest stages to support foreign pre-sales and to produce VFX at cost.

Do you view this as a one-off experiment for Digital Domain? Or is it part of an on-going strategy to explore new business models? And how important is it to future plans that Ender’s Game is a success?

DS: Ender’s Game was an investment in Digital Domain’s future. It allowed the company to expand its role, to participate in a meaningful way, and to start building a track record in co-production. Handled strategically and in a balanced way, we see co-production as an important part of Digital Domain’s more diverse business strategy moving forward.

Matthew, you were overall VFX supervisor on Ender’s Game. What difference did it make to you and your team knowing you were working on an in-house project? For example, did you enjoy a more creative role? Did you feel more invested in the project as a whole? Or was the pressure on to “get it right”?

Zer0-G greenscreen plate and final comp - Digital DomainMB: All of the above! Working on a feature that we were part-owner of allowed us to take a more active creative role, much earlier in the process than usual. Part of the reason for that is that Gavin Hood is wonderfully collaborative. He was the screenwriter as well as the director. Very early on, he and I went over to DD’s local watering hole here in Venice, and he opened up his laptop with the script on it and we started talking and designing right then and there. It was exciting for me, and it’s a great way to get the most for your money. If you start world-building during the script stage, it also helps to save time. It lets everyone involved know the cost of things as you go – what will be painful and what will not.

How about budget management? Did you get more – or less – bang for bucks working this way?

MB: Definitely more. Being a co-producer means that you have skin in the game, so it’s risky, but it also protects you from the system that’s been in place for years. Typically you assess the level of work the best you can, create a budget, plan, and follow through that with the producers involved. When things change – and they inevitably do – as a service company you put your hand up and say, “Hang on.” Then the money people get together and you start the change order process. As a producer, it’s now a closed system. You hold hands with your partners and say, “We’re going to make this movie for this much money and time. These are our assets.” It works well if everyone plays ball. But it was also tricky. You need to be fluid and let things change. It’s an artistic environment. But there are ramifications to that. We got it done, and in the end we were much more efficient and ended up with more on the screen.

Did the financial risk to Digital Domain influence your readiness to take risks creatively? Were you still able to put resources into R&D, experimenting with new techniques and so on?

Greenscreen plate and final comp - Digital DomainMB: Every new project means new challenges, new approaches and breaking records in one way or another – that’s true for every visual effects company on every film, and Ender’s Game was no different for us. We had huge simulations – in one shot 27 billion polygons – and we had brilliant technologists figuring out how to render those scenes without causing a blackout in the studio. Our role in co-financing the movie didn’t change that in any way. You still have to solve problems. It did help us to make choices – like, for instance, while we did create fully synthetic characters for the entire cast in the zero-G battle room sequences, we limited that to simple performances – no dialogue. Having CG actors delivering lines was not a way we wanted to go. Shooting as much as we could live, then using CG and developing new tools where it was necessary to achieve correct zero-G physics was our approach. Again, having that mindset of “these are our assets” and sticking to our plans made that successful.

Formic battle fleet - Digital Domain

The production of Ender’s Game spanned a difficult period for Digital Domain, involving bankruptcy protection and ownership changes. Daniel, was it difficult to keep the project on track when you took over as CEO?

DS: When I started as CEO in August, the VFX for Ender’s Game were nearly finished, so I don’t believe that management change disrupted the work at all. VFX Supervisor Matthew Butler and the team were laser-focused. I have so much respect for the commitment and abilities of these artists – they went through a lot and delivered amazing work.

Matthew, how easy was it for you and your team to maintain focus on the project through this difficult period?

MB: Honestly, when we’re on a film, crews just put the blinders on and focus. We did that with Ender’s Game, and the whole studio was supportive of keeping teams focused on their shows during that period. We are all really proud that it didn’t impact the quality or schedule of our project.

Explosive space battle - Digital Domain

The visual effects industry as a whole is experiencing turbulent times. Do VFX companies need to explore new revenue streams in order to survive? And, perhaps, to become empowered?

DS: I can’t speak for any companies other than Digital Domain, but we do believe that a diverse business strategy is important, while still understanding and focusing on what is core to the company – in our case, visual effects for feature films and commercials. Approaching co-productions strategically is a path that we believe will benefit our company as we move forward.

MB: I think every company needs to figure out what’s right for its business. Having a strategy that includes diverse lines of business is something Digital Domain believes will be successful for us. A balance of feature film VFX, commercials and games work, co-productions and digital human projects is what Digital Domain has outlined as our path.

Is the “VFX company as producer” model scalable, or is it only big players like Digital Domain who can afford to take the risk?

DS: We at Digital Domain are fortunate in that our parent company is very supportive of our selective involvement in co-productions. Again, I can’t speak for other companies, but having strong financial backing for a co-production strategy is an important consideration.

Now that Ender’s Game is playing in theatres, does Digital Domain’s production role give you more of a sense of ownership? Is this your movie?

MB: Absolutely! We are following the numbers as closely as anyone. And the way we’re reading reviews is different too – we’re just as interested in how the story and actors are received as we are about how the visual effects are judged.

Daniel and Matthew – thank you both for talking about Ender’s Game.

Ender Wiggin surveys his domain - Digital Domain

Ender’s Game features a total of 941 visual effects shots, of which Digital Domain delivered just over 700. An additional 250 shots were delivered by Vectorsoul and Post23 (Mind Game), Method Studios, The Embassy, Comen VFX, G Creative Productions Inc (motion graphics) and Goldtooth Creative Agency Inc (motion graphics).

All images used with permission. Motion Picture Artwork ™ & © Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.

The VFX Supervisor In Your Head

Human Eye - Gray's Anatomy

Here’s how the human eye works. Light enters a hole in the front, passes through a lens and is focused on a light-sensitive surface at the back – the retina. A camera works in much the same way, but instead of a retina it uses either a charge-coupled device or a strip of film.

Unlike a camera, however, the human eye has a problem. There’s a place on the retina where the optic nerve is connected (the bit that carries all the information to the brain). Where there’s an optic nerve, there’s no room for light sensors. The result is something that all sighted people have, but which few of us are consciously aware of: a blind spot.

But that’s okay. If we don’t notice our blind spot, it must be pretty small, right?

Wrong. Although the size of the human blind spot varies from person to person, there’s evidence to suggest it can be up to 70 times the apparent size of the full moon as it appears in the night sky*. If you find that hard to visualise, try this bombshell: you and I are both blind across an area of our vision roughly the size of a DVD held at arm’s length.

I don’t know about you, but I find that mildly freaky.

Luckily for us, vision doesn’t happen in the eye. It happens in the mind. The blind spot might mean the brain gets a picture with a hole in the middle, but it turns out the brain is very good at filling in the missing detail.

Visual effects is all about filling in missing detail too. Like patching into a scene something that was never there in the first place – say, a ravening monster or a crashing aircraft. Possibly both. It might involve extending an existing background to hide the rig used to hold an actor off the ground. In other words, visual effects performs exactly the same sleight of hand as the human brain: it fools you into seeing something that isn’t really there.

In other words, we all carry in our heads our very own personal visual effects supervisor, an unsung hero who works constantly to bring inadequate stage footage up the standard required for theatrical release.

So how exactly does the brain perform its magic? One of the tricks it uses is to copy and paste information from the left eye to the right (and vice versa). Then there’s edge interpolation, whereby the brain assumes that any line passing through the blind spot does so unbroken. Also, the human eye is in constant motion. By scanning a scene, it ensures the sighted part of the retina gets to see everything at least some of the time.

The way moviegoers move their eyes is of particular interest to filmmakers, especially as eye tracking technology becomes more and more able to deliver meaningful data. In the future, eye tracking may be used commonly in test screenings to determine where the attention of audience members is directed on a shot-by-shot basis. Even before that stage, eye tracking has applications in the editing suite, such as quantifying how comfortable an assembly is to view. And let’s not forget product placement. Where’s the most effective place to put a can of soda in this shot? The eye tracking data will tell you.

Eye tracking may not yet be a standard weapon in the filmmaker’s arsenal, but advertisers are already using the product placement trick in a variety of media. In today’s movie theatre, it’s just the audience watching the screen. Soon, the screen may be watching them back.

Hmm. Maybe there’s a way to profit from all this. By my crude reckoning, blind spots could obscure up to 5% of the average moviegoer’s field of vision. So why not just leave 5% of the screen blank? Plus, if the eyes of the audience are wandering all over the place, why not dial down the level of detail in the parts of the frame you know they’ll be ignoring? Imagine the benefits of saying to your VFX supe, “Don’t bother feeding this part of the scene into your deep compositing pipeline. Those poor schmucks in the audience won’t see it anyway.” Just imagine! Shorter rendering times! Cost savings! If you can’t see the advantages you must be blind!

But then, in a sense, we’re all blind, aren’t we?

*Source: Awareness and Filling-in of the Human Blind Spot: Linking Psychophysics with Retinal Topography – Richard V. Abadi1,Glen Jeffery and Jonathan S. Murphy

Timing

It is not always possible to produce a lengthy, detailed Cinefex story to coincide with the release of every complicated effects film.

Some readers have taken us to task, on our Facebook page, for the timing of our editorial selections. After all, you got your Titanic issue before that movie came out, and you had Avatar to read when you got back from the theatre, right? What’s the deal with Hobbit?

Filmmaker cooperation with Weta Digital production staff, 2003

Filmmaker cooperation with Weta Digital production staff, 2004

Firstly, production of a Cinefex story relies on filmmaker cooperation. We cover the whole film, no compromises. Titanic and Avatar appeared on their release dates because Don has a unique relationship with James Cameron. Jim didn’t even mind Don ‘spoiling’ the ending of Titanic because everybody knew the ship sank. Peter Jackson, too, has been very kind to us. Ten years ago, we pulled off a coup with Peter’s King Kong and The Lord of the Rings films. But back then we had the budget to visit Wellington in person, and the filmmakers were able to spend time with us a few months before they completed their movies.

Wellington, New Zealand, 2003

Fedex from New Zealand, 2004

On The Fellowship of the Ring, Don Shay flew out to gather interviews in New Zealand, and then we all chipped in — Jody doing the writing, me doing interviews with LA-based vendors. I was solo Ringbearer for Peter’s next three films. That was a fantastic experience, particularly on The Return of the King when after a week of interviews I went on a ten-day tour of New Zealand’s South Island — for safety’s sake, I Fedexed my tapes back to Don before leaving on my hike, just in case I fell into a volcano. That allowed us, with a degree of educated guesswork, to deliver stories for those films bang on their December theatrical releases.

At Weta Digital, 2003

At Weta Digital, 2004

It was still a white-knuckle ride. Many times, I was writing blind, based on work-in-progress, which in some cases was only gray-shaded previz or pipe-dreams based on what Peter imagined might appear in the film. I had Tolkien’s books to guide me, but I vividly recall as the lights came up after my first viewing of The Two Towers I had to point out to Don that I had messed up the ending of the battle at Helm’s Deep. That page of my story had not yet been printed, so Don allowed me to rewrite one paragraph, rearranging letters like a word puzzle so he could break the type and re-set that page, at some cost, to make that portion of my story align with Peter’s film. Ironically, Peter later recut the scene for his extended edition, restoring it to how he and Tolkien originally described it: with ents attacking Uruk-hai after Saruman’s army flees Gandalf and the Riders of Rohan.

Wellington 2005

Return to Wellington, 2005

I also made a huge leap of faith while writing about Peter’s Kong. When I did my interviews for that film, three months before the movie’s completion, neither the filmmakers nor I were sure if the Central Park ice skating scene in was going to be in the movie. The miniature effects crew told me about how they built the beautiful 1/10-scale frozen lake environment, and I had to go back and re-interview the animation team to ask them about that because — I think — no one was sure how that scene would play, where the hunt for Kong through New York City essentially pauses to allow for a last moment of happiness between Ann Darrow and the ape. The scene drew some flak from critics, but I thought it was an inspired moment that beautifully set up the final tragedy, so I was very gratified to have gone the extra yard to include detail on that scene.

So it’s a high-wire act, and it’s not something we take lightly, choosing what goes into which issue of the magazine. Not only could we, potentially, sell more magazines by having a chronologically hot movie on the cover; the studios always prefer us to have ‘day and date’ delivery, hitting their release dates. It is a big feather in their caps for any publicist to get a massive 32-page cover story on their baby. But we have to pick our battles, and I am sure Don and Jody will not mind me saying our first installment on The Hobbit was a tough one, both for fact-gathering and imagery.

Misty Mountains 2003

Misty Mountains, 2004

If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s recent video production diaries for the second Hobbit film, you will know the filmmakers are currently working flat-out to complete their movie by the end of November. If we had been covering their film in our December issue, our story would have been written a month ago, and all images would have to be going to press right now.

This year, we decided we had a wealth of riches to choose from in our December issue – and, I must say, I am very proud and gratified to have been able to go into detail covering Gravity. We hope that by giving Peter and his team time to complete their second Hobbit film, our story on The Desolation of Smaug in March will be deeper and more accurate, with better images than we could ever have obtained for December. So be patient, gentle readers, you’re getting that one in the Spring.

Good things are worth waiting for.

Ringbearer 2003

Cinefex Ringbearer, 2004

How King Kong Was Filmed (Or Not)

King Kong - Movie Classic 1933How easy was it for fans to read about visual effects in the years B.C.? (That’s “Before Cinefex”, by the way.)

To find out, let’s wind the clock back to 1933 and the release of “King Kong”, a film that inspired not only the audiences of the day, but an entire generation of movie fans and professionals alike.

“King Kong” is packed to the rafters with innovative visual effects, including stop-motion animation, miniature sets, glass paintings, travelling mattes and full-scale practical creatures. The methods by which these effects were achieved are now well-known – indeed, they’re practically part of VFX lore.

But what was it like going behind the scenes back in 1933? Was there any “making of” information available back then? Was anyone even interested? To find out, I’ve delved into some of the magazines from the period.

One of the earliest references I found to the visual effects of “King Kong” was in the 6th Feb 1933 edition of “The Film Daily”, where a small paragraph in the “A Little from ‘Lots'” section announces, “Willis H. O’Brien is completing his work as chief technician on ‘King Kong’, for which RKO has high hopes.”

The following month, in a multi-page promotional feature timed to coincide with the movie’s release, “The Hollywood Reporter” also mentions O’Brien, along with artists Mario Larrinaga and Byron Crabbe. The text includes a rousing but wholly uninformative: “‘King Kong’ is the most sensational exhibition of camera tricks in the history of motion pictures.”

Photoplay 1933 - Cooper and Wray“King Kong” received plenty of attention in the press following its release, even featuring in such celebrity-obsessed monthlies as “Photoplay”. The April 10th 1933 edition contains a typically cheesy publicity still (left). The original caption reads: “She’s no woodland nymph, nor is he a satyr. Fay Wray, heroine, and Merian Cooper, producer … are measuring the hand print this monster ape leaves.”

Hmm. We’re not getting a lot of detail about how they put the big ape on the screen. Time to dig a little deeper. How about a contemporary review of the film?

In the May 1933 edition of “Motion Picture”, an enthusiastic reporter says, “How many kinds of trickery were used … we do not know, but after the first glimpse of King Kong … one’s imagination becomes adjusted to any slight jerkiness. You will never know the extent of what the movies can do till you’ve seen this tale.”

While it’s interesting to note that, even in those early days, one reviewer at least found stop-motion animation a little “jerky”, it’s still not much help. Perhaps “The Film Daily” can do better. In the 31st May 1933 edition, in a column entitled “Features Influenced by Cartoons”, Hugh Harman of Harman-Ising Melodies is quoted as saying, “Animated cartoons, by their increasing cleverness and popularity, are having a stimulating effect on features, influencing more imagination and novelty. ‘King Kong’ is an example of the feature possibilities suggested by the cartoons.”

“King Kong” a cartoon? It’s another interesting nugget shedding light on the attitudes of the age. But it’s not the VFX gold we’re panning for. Where the heck is the motherlode?

Wait a second. What’s this? In May 1933, “Movie Classic” ran an article entitled: “King Kong – How Did They Make It?” Now that’s more like it!

The article begins in cautious fashion, advising, “Under ordinary circumstances … it is not our desire to strip the films of their glamour. If ‘King Kong’ were other than … an obvious excursion into fantasy, we would not attempt to reveal the ‘inside story’ of its production.” The text goes on to reveal that the various creatures’ “limbs, heads and necks moved on tiny ball bearings,” and says “Kong himself, was constructed upon the skeleton of an ape, with each measurement greatly enlarged.” It also claims, “There were many dozens of Kongs (seventy-four, to be precise), all exactly alike, but of different sizes.”

Eventually we get an actual breakdown, describing the shot in which Ann Darrow shelters in a tree while Kong battles the T-Rex in the background: “All that was photographed … was the girl’s white figure perched among the branches. The background was a solid black velvet curtain. Then it was the job of the composite technicians to strip in the action of the fight – which, incidentally had been shot in miniature more than eight months previously.”

King Kong Screen Book-1There’s even a decent description of the stop-motion process: “For each frame, O’Brien moved portions of the ape’s jaw a fraction of an inch and after photographing the position, moved the jaw again.” However, when interviewee Merian Cooper is pressed for more detail about a later shot where Kong removes Darrow’s clothing, Kong’s creator clams up. “I can’t tell you how this was done,” he says, “for the secret is not mine to divulge. It belongs to Willis O’Brien and his splendid technical crew.”

The article concludes, “There are many details about the production of ‘King Kong’ that are not available at present for publication … For whenever you ask Merian C. Cooper or his associates a question that trespasses on their secret processes, they invariably reply, ‘It was all done with mirrors.'”

Okay, so it’s hardly exhaustive. What’s also clear is that Cooper was keen to maintain the mystique of the movies. Indeed, there’s evidence to suggest he actively spread misinformation about O’Brien’s visual effects. How else do you explain the final article I uncovered in my journey through the Hollywood archives?

The article in question appeared in a 1933 edition of “Screen Book”. It’s a double-page spread filled with diagrams and descriptions purporting to explain exactly “How King Kong Was Filmed”.

King Kong Screen Book-2My favourite picture demonstrates “How 50-foot Ape is shown climbing Empire State Building.” A detailed illustration shows a man in a Kong costume crawling on hands and knees along a model building facade laid flat on the studio floor, with the camera angle cheated to create the illusion of a vertical ascent.

It looks plausible enough, and no doubt convinced the magazine’s original readers. However, as Robert Ripley might say, the choice is yours whether to Believe It Or Not. I know what I think of the drawing. How about you – are you convinced?

If you want to explore how the visual effects of “King Kong” were really done, be thankful you live in the 21st century. Good places to start your research are Don Shay’s biographical article “Willis O’Brien – Creator of the Impossible” in Cinefex #7 and Goldner & Turner’s “The Making of King Kong”. If you want to follow me down the rabbit hole of archived movie periodicals, I recommend you start your adventure with a visit to the excellent Media History Digital Library.