Spotlight – Matthias Wittmann

by Graham Edwards

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Matthias Wittmann is a real-time supervisor at Method EXP, the immersive arm of Method Studios. His visual effects animation credits include The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I, Robot, Tron: Legacy, Maleficent and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. He’s also worked on augmented and virtual reality projects such as Robin Hood VR, Alien: Covenant – In Utero and Passengers – Awakening.

Matthias WittmannCINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Matthias?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: I went to Filmakademie in the ‘90s, and my plan was always to make visual effects for movies. Actually, that’s not true! I thought at first that I wanted to be a director, but I found visual effects – animation in particular – more interesting. At that time, there were no big visual effects companies in Germany, especially not for feature film. A company in Berlin called Spans & Partners was doing really great commercial work, and I joined them as an animator. I stayed there for two years, but I knew that to do film I’d have to go somewhere else. I went to a shop called HDO-Oberhausen and another one, Elektrofilm, that had opened a few rooms to work on movies like House of the Dead, The Shaft, aka Down (not to be confused with Shaft – this movie was about a killer elevator!). I met some people from Digital Domain on Little Vampire, and a few years later in 2003 they asked me to come and work with them. That was my big break. I jumped at the chance to work on Hollywood movies, and moved to Los Angeles.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: Creating life! As a character animator, you do so much to bring your characters to life. You really understand them, and they have real personalities – they’re not just moving through the frame.

Switching to real-time takes that to the next level. When you can make a character that actually recognizes you and interacts with you, it’s uncannily cool. I’m working on a project now where I’ve programmed a virtual human to have emotions so, if you disturb him with your VR hands, you can make him happy or nervous or mad. The other day, for the first time, I poked him on his head and he became angry. It was so cool! I try to write everything with enough fuzzy logic that it’s not absolutely predictable, putting in a lot of “if-then” situations so that I don’t always understand why a character did something, but it’s still within the realm of his behavior.

Everyone’s talking about AI, machine learning, neural networks. Those things are super important for technology and development, but they’re not what brings a character to life. The basic idea is: “What would my character do? How do I hook up the behavior tree so that he feels like a self-consistent intelligence?” The newest neural network doesn’t solve those problems – common sense and experience does. Computer vision will help a character to see and understand what’s around him – feed him with optical input and this segment of his brain will determine what it saw – but what does he do with that information? When he sees a chair, does he sit down? Destroy it? Run away because he’s scared of chairs? To give a character personality and emotion, you need those tools as a piece of the puzzle, but you have to structure the puzzle yourself. That’s my part, and that’s what I enjoy the most.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: I know everyone says the same thing and I will too – there’s never enough time. There are so many possibilities that you could try out, and sometimes the tools you’re using are not made for the things you want to do; that’s especially true in interactive work now. Putting together functions in a way you want them to work isn’t easy, and it takes a lot of time.

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: I’ve had some big challenges in my career, but the most scared I’ve been was for something I worked on in film school, where we sometimes did projects for outside vendors. In 1996, there was a movie being made in Germany called Die Raettin, which means The She-Rat. They wanted us to create a talking rat. Now, rats have hair, and we had not done any hair yet in Germany – or in the school. I think Jumanji had just come out in theaters but at that time, outside of Hollywood you couldn’t just write a shader.

I had heard there was a procedure in PowerAnimator that would let you create hair with traveling particles, and I thought maybe that could work. I asked if the school would build an animatronic rat as a backup plan in case the CG didn’t work. They did – it cost $30K. I modelled this rat in PowerAnimator – all nurbs, no polygons – and gave it dynamic fur with the particle system, and moving whiskers, which took six months. We filmed two sequences, one with the CG rat and one with the animatronic rat. The client chose the CG rat. It was a very rewarding experience because I was still a student, and that success catapulted me to a different level. It was really cool in the end, but really scary getting there!

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: In the early days, it felt like visual effects was more useful – you had to create something to make a movie possible. The effects are still fantastic-looking, but a lot of the breakthroughs seem more about making things easier and improving, rather than inventing. That’s one of the things that attracted me to real-time. It feels like it did when I first studied computer animation. Pioneering.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: The field I’m working in now is really new, so it will probably change a lot over the next few years. We need to come up with solutions to new challenges. That’s the fun part. This will keep me interested for the next few decades.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: You have to make up your mind who you are and what you want to work on, and pursue that relentlessly. That’s not to say you have to sell your soul or work 24/7 for nothing. But you have to make consistent choices to advance. When you’re just starting out, it’s survival, but with the right mindset, the visual effects industry can be a great place.

I’d also say that, whatever you do and whatever you create, make sure your own product is the best it possibly can be. Don’t aim for “good enough.” Do the best you can in the time you have – knowing it will never be enough – and look at your product. Would you accept it?

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: John Carpenter’s The Thing – the effects were absolutely needed to show people something totally unimaginable. The defibrillation sequence where the Thing bites off the medic’s hands, takes over the corpse and ends up turning into a spider-like being and running off – people didn’t understand what they just saw. It was totally unimaginable at the time, until the effects made it something they were able to see.

Starship Troopers – it’s the pinnacle of interaction between live-action and CG. It’s so completely believable and intense, a masterpiece in terms of bringing those two things together. It’s much easier now to integrate things believably, but it’s still hard.

War for the Planet of the Apes – it was fantastically done all round. The choices in character development, the animation, the acting. You forget all of the technology around it. When you see the apes fighting with real people, the CG snow on their fur – you never have to think about it. They’re believable characters, and you accept the whole thing.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: Chocolate croissants. When my wife and I go to movies, it’s usually on a Saturday or Sunday morning when the theaters are pretty empty. We stop first for coffees and croissants and sneak them in!

CINEFEX: Matthias, thanks for your time!