About Graham Edwards

I'm senior staff writer at Cinefex magazine. I also write novels. In a former life, I produced animated films for theme park rides and science centres. If you offer me a cold beer, I won't say no.

Jay Worth – Sharing a Unique Vision

Jay Worth - VFX supervisor on "Westworld"

Emmy award-winner Jay Worth has worked with Bad Robot since 2005 on television projects including Fringe, Person Of Interest and Westworld. Following his presentation at VIEW Conference 2018, Cinefex caught up with Jay to talk about his life as an independent visual effects supervisor.

VIEW Conference 2018

CINEFEX: You began your VIEW Conference presentation talking about your background in acting, and how you’d had all these other jobs before kind of falling into doing visual effects. You also said that helped you to develop what you call your own “unique vision.”

JAY WORTH: When I started out in visual effects, I felt like I was always playing catch-up – wondering how much was down to me, how much down to the writers, the artists – because I don’t really have a technical background. Then, after I’d been doing it for a while, I realized that I did know what I could bring to the table, and what my own unique vision was. And I love the idea that actually everybody has their own unique vision. Because when you look at any one visual effects shot, that’s been done by a person with their own individual perspective. Even if it’s a fluid simulation, it’s still done by an artist.

CINEFEX: What are the benefits of working as an independent visual effects supervisor?

JAY WORTH: Well, first, I tell people all the time that there are not enough independent visual effects supervisors in television. We all turn down work, a lot, and I think more and more studios and showrunners want to be working with independent supervisors when they can. The great thing for me as an independent is I can work with any companies I want, and I like being able to find those people out there that do certain things really well. I love when vendors send me specific reels. Send me your smoke reel. Send me your fire reel. If you have an artist that you cannot wait to put in front of me, let me know. It’s okay for me if you specialize in something.

CINEFEX: Because every artist has their own vision.

JAY WORTH: Right. There was this one matte painter at CoSA Visual Effects, and I would literally just email them and say, “Send it to her, because I know she’s the one who’s doing the shot.” I love when you find those certain artists. I had this one vendor, and when they were reading their breakdown and found they weren’t assigned this one sequence, they were pissed. They said, “You don’t understand, we’ve got a smoke guy that has to do these shots!” I love it when vendors do that.

CINEFEX: So you’re acting a little bit like a casting director – appropriate, given your background in acting.

JAY WORTH: I never really thought about it that way, but yes. I’m always looking for the next partners, the next CoSA, the next Important Looking Pirates. But also, television shows morph and change. Sometimes you’ll have a pilot that’s heavy on hard surfaces or matte paintings, and then you get into episode four and it’s all fluid simulations. A show doesn’t always want to be stuck with just one vendor.

Watch a Westworld season two breakdown reel by Important Looking Pirates:

CINEFEX: Is it sometimes the case that the right vendor comes along at just the right time?

JAY WORTH: Sure, that happened with Almost Human. It was the big climactic shot that establishes the entire world at the end of the pilot. We had done the whole episode, and I got a note from J.J. Abrams that said, “I hate this shot.” I emailed back to ask what he hated about it, and got no answer. So I used it as an audition piece. I sent the same brief and the same notes, with my idea of what needed to be fixed, to nine different companies. I got back nine of the most different matte paintings you’re ever going to see in your life. A lot of them didn’t work, but there was this one vendor that was seventh on the list in terms of size, and the lowest cost – Artifex Studios up in Vancouver. What they came up with was perfect. Everyone looked at it and said, “That’s the entire show, right there.” They ended up doing every matte painting for the rest of the show.

CINEFEX: These days, in features, the visual effects supervisor is often involved from day one. Is the same true for television?

JAY WORTH: Thankfully, I’ve been blessed that I’ve always been involved from the get-go, but I think that’s a fairly unique position. Bad Robot will call me to say they have a pilot for me; I’ll ask who’s directing it and they’ll say, “We don’t know yet!” So I end up in meetings with the showrunner, maybe a production designer, and me, in a room full of executives, first out of the gate in figuring out what this show will look like.

CINEFEX: Further down the line, when you’re into production, do you end up working on multiple episodes simultaneously?

JAY WORTH: It totally depends on the show, but usually you have four episodes going at once. You’re prepping one, shooting one, editing one, and delivering one or two at a time. Then all of a sudden it backs up, and everything goes a little haywire. With Netflix shows you have a little bit more freedom. From my perspective, because I work on multiple shows, I can have up to 30 shows in the pipeline. Lots of plate-spinning!

This breakdown reel from CoSA VFX features the company’s work on Westworld and other shows:

CINEFEX: Turning to Westworld, did the workload change when you moved from season one into season two?

JAY WORTH: Oh, the volume of work on season two! It was crazy how much more there was. Take Shogun World, my goodness! Because of the look they wanted, they hung silks through the entire street. We had to do hardcore roto to remove all the silks and do sky replacement. At first, we didn’t think we needed Mount Fuji, but we ended up putting Mount Fuji in most shots, because if you saw the California mountains back there it didn’t look right. One of the nice things was that we had a two-day blood element shoot – knife cuts and splashes, so much blood! – which I’d never gotten to do in my career. That was great.

CINEFEX: You had some big moments to tackle, too, like the passage of the hosts into this strange alternate realm in the season finale.

JAY WORTH: Right, there’s this fissure in the universe that goes to what they called the Sublime. But what does that look like? Is it a portal? A doorway? How’s the light going to work? There was this idea that it should bend and kind of tear into itself, and we also talked a lot theoretically about how it’s a computer program that only the hosts can see – but we didn’t want it to look digital …

CINEFEX: You can debate and articulate as much as you like about why something is the way it is, but …

JAY WORTH: Oh, there was a whole lot of “Why?” but it still came down to “What’s it going to look like?” We put in black particles and light particles and vibration and distortion and bending … we just kept chipping away to find out what’s underneath. That’s what this job is – it’s like visual sculpting.

CINEFEX: Do you think things will ramp up even more for Westworld season three?

JAY WORTH: Well, now our hosts are out, so I know that we’re going to have to see them somewhere. So for me it’s about worldbuilding, and I’m fascinated to see how that creative process goes. We’ve all seen future cities, for example, but it always comes back to those classic questions like, “What are the cars going to be?” I know a skyscraper’s going to be steel and glass, but how am I going to make it unique? Worldbuilding is always daunting, and a little scary, but it’s super fun. I’m looking forward to it.

Save the date for next year’s VIEW Conference, scheduled for 21-25 October, 2019.

“Westworld” image copyright © 2016 by Home Box Office.

Matt Aitken – Face to Face with Thanos

Matt Aitken, VFX supervisor at Weta Digital - "Avengers: Infinity War" image copyright © 2018 by MARVEL.

A veteran of films including Avatar, District 9, and all three films in The Hobbit trilogy, Matt Aitken gave a presentation about his role as Weta Digital visual effects supervisor on Avengers: Infinity War at VIEW Conference 2018. Cinefex caught up with Matt at the event and quizzed him not only about the creation of Marvel’s tortured bad guy Thanos, but also the evolution of digital characters at Weta Digital over the years.

VIEW Conference 2018

CINEFEX: Matt, we spoke to you earlier this year for our article on Avengers: Infinity War. Just give us a quick recap on the work that Weta Digital did for the film.

MATT AITKEN: We did everything on planet Titan, where Thanos goes to get the Time Stone from Doctor Strange. Along with Digital Domain, we created Thanos, this digital character who is really the protagonist of the movie. For Marvel, I think this was a bit of a leap, having a lead character who was entirely digital. We were all very aware that if Thanos didn’t work, then the film was going to fail.

CINEFEX: Thanos was played by Josh Brolin, of course.

MATT AITKEN: That’s right, and Josh took to the digital performance space like a duck to water. He did this fantastic reference performance for Thanos, and really seemed to enjoy it. Because, you know, Thanos is a complex character. He’s not just a roaring, screaming baddie – he’s actually motivated by what he thinks are good intentions. We really needed to be able to get into his head for the storytelling to work.

CINEFEX: Weta Digital has this great heritage of doing digital characters. Did you break any new ground with Thanos?

MATT AITKEN: We did. In the past we’ve had concerns about these digital characters being physiologically different from the actors that are playing them – necessarily so. Caesar is different from Andy Serkis, the BFG is different from Mark Rylance, and Thanos is different from Josh Brolin. So, when we’re trying to make sure that we’ve captured all those nuances of performance, we’re kind of comparing apples to oranges.

We solved this for Infinity War by creating an intermediary step in the form of a digital facsimile of Josh. We called it the “actor puppet.” It was like a digi-double, but it was very geared towards facial performance, and had all the same range of motion as the Thanos digital puppet. We did a facial solve on the actor puppet, interpreting the tracking data from Josh’s actual face, then we iterated in that space until we were happy that we’d captured the full intention of his performance. So, at that point, we were in an apples-to-apples comparison space.

Once we’d done all that work, and were happy with it, then it was reasonably straightforward to transfer that motion to Thanos. We would take the animation curves, the timing and extent for each of the muscles on the face, and just apply it to the Thanos puppet, which we’d carefully calibrated to the Josh actor puppet. We feel this really helped us to capture all the subtleties of Josh’s performance.

CINEFEX: In that second stage, going from digital Josh to digital Thanos, did you inject a further level of finessing and performance?

MATT AITKEN: Yeah. We would get to the point where we were happy that we’d captured everything that Josh was doing in the technical sense, but then we would always have a keyframe animator – a craftsperson, if you like – sit down and do an extra pass to polish the performance. That’s something that we’ve done at Weta Digital since the very early days of Gollum and Kong because, as good as the pipeline is, the technology can knock the edges off a performance. I think that’s something that we will always cherish, that polishing pass. It’s part of our secret sauce.

Watch a breakdown reel showcasing Weta Digital’s work on Avengers: Infinity War:

CINEFEX: You mentioned Gollum and Kong. Weta Digital has this wonderful lineage of digital characters stretching from The Lord of the Rings through to Caesar in the Apes films, and now Thanos. Can you pick out a few of the key steps that you’ve made along the way?

MATT AITKEN: Kong was a key moment because, for the first time, we used facial motion capture. Some people may not realize that Gollum’s facial performance was entirely keyframe animated, but with Kong we stuck dots on Andy Serkis’ face, tracked them, and did a facial solve. This used a procedural approach to analyze what Andy’s face was doing, broke it down into individual muscle components, and then applied that to Kong’s face.

Now, for Kong’s facial performance, Andy was restricted to a cube maybe three feet on each side. If he moved out of that space we would lose the track, so we used it mainly for the big drama beats. Avatar was the next big leap forward because, for the first time, we had head-mounted cameras filming dots painted onto the actors’ faces. That meant they could roam freely throughout the performance capture space.

CINEFEX: Alongside those things that have changed, is there anything that hasn’t changed?

MATT AITKEN: Well, the thing that anchors all our digital performance work is that it’s always based on a human performance. That’s because, going all the way back to the time of Greek theater, actors are the people that we go to for performances. They are the specialists in that particular task. Why should we change that?

There’s another thing that hasn’t changed since the beginning – and this emerged through the process of working out how to do Gollum’s facial performance. Back then, we started by looking at taking the movement of Andy’s face and dragging a digital Gollum face around the same way, but that really quickly gave the appearance of somebody wearing a rubber Gollum mask. So we discarded that. We also looked at the same approach that we use for our body work, with muscles under the skin that fire, and bulge, and drag the skin around. But that was too crude for the facial performance – it didn’t give us the microscopic level of sculptural control that we needed.

So, the approach that we settled on for Gollum – and which has been the same ever since – was to take a sculptural approach. We have facial modelers who craft the individual component shapes of the performance to a very fine level of detail – a brow raise, a lip curl, and eyelid open or close, a cheek raise. We sculpt a set of 108 shapes for each facial performance, in a way that gives a full range of motion, but always on character. Then the facial animators create a performance from that by dialing those shapes in and out in a very complex way.

CINEFEX: Do you use that across the board? Take an extreme shot where, say, a character is thrown against a wall and their whole face distorts. Do you add some kind of dynamic simulation into the face rig, or is all that also controlled sculpturally?

MATT AITKEN: You mean like when somebody gets a massive punch to the head – which is the kind of shot that we’re often involved with! It would certainly be tempting to just add dynamics to it, but no, we want to have control over the shape of the face even at that moment, because we feel it’s so important to maintain character at all times. So we’ll sculpt those shapes as well.

CINEFEX: You’ve also made steady advances in the final physical appearance of these digital characters.

MATT AITKEN: Again, that started with Gollum, where we used subsurface light scattering, which makes the skin look very natural and not plasticky. Gollum wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if we hadn’t had access to that technology. Then there’s model weight – the amount of detail in the underlying geometry. Kong’s face had more geometric detail than there was in the whole of Gollum’s body. That’s been a constant progression, from Kong to Neytiri, Neytiri to Caesar, and that’s just about the tools getting better and the computers getting more powerful.

CINEFEX: How about lighting and rendering?

MATT AITKEN: We’re getting a lot better at hair and fur. We render now with our path-trace renderer, Manuka, which is able to capture a global illumination model, so everything feels much more photographic and natural. We also have our PhysLight lighting pipeline where we encapsulate all the physical characteristics of light, light transport, cameras – we’re talking absolute values for light rather than relative stops, for example.

Get comprehensive coverage of “Avengers: Infinity War” in Cinefex 159.

Get comprehensive coverage of “Avengers: Infinity War” in Cinefex 159.

CINEFEX: We know you can’t divulge the recipe for Weta Digital’s secret sauce. But are there any ingredients that you’d like to see added to it?

MATT AITKEN: Oh, I just feel like there’s always more we can do. It’s like we don’t ever complete a project – we just run out of time and they snatch it from us! For me, the first time I see one of these films is like another dailies session, only I’m not able to give notes any more! It’s only on the second viewing that I can watch it as an audience member. But, it’s a very exciting space to be working in – the performance space, virtual production, working with actors on the set for what is ultimately going to be a digital performance – it’s just great fun. I just hope to be able to keep doing that.

Save the date for next year’s VIEW Conference, scheduled for 21-25 October, 2019.

“Avengers: Infinity War” image copyright © 2018 by MARVEL.

David Vickery – Capturing Reality with “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”

David Vickery - VFX supervisor on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

After joining Industrial Light & Magic in 2015, and with film credits including Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Parts 1 and 2, and Jupiter Ascending, David Vickery took the role of production visual effects supervisor on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. At VIEW Conference 2018, where he gave a presentation on this latest dinosaur epic, Cinefex chatted with David about the benefits of capturing reality on set, and the magic of enhancing it in post.

VIEW Conference 2018

CINEFEX: In your talk on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom at VIEW Conference, you stressed how important it was for you as visual effects supervisor to be on the show from day one.

DAVID VICKERY: Yes. In fact, I see ILM more and more not just as a postproduction vendor, a tool that is used by filmmakers to finish their movie, but as a real partner in the whole filmmaking process. On Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, we actually tried to find a lot of different ways to engage the shooting crew as part of the postproduction process.

CINEFEX: For example?

DAVID VICKERY: Take a shot where you’ve got a dinosaur standing up against a wall in a corridor, and there’s nothing else going on in that frame. A lot of the time, you would just take a camera operator and say, “We need a clean plate of that corridor. Just lock it off and shoot it, and we’ll add the dinosaur in post.” That’s fine, and we’ve got really talented people that can do all the dinosaur animation, but we don’t have a camera operator with 20 years worth of experience, or a director of photography who’s trained their entire life in how to light sets. So, what we actually did was put a dinosaur performer in the shot and invited the camera operator to shoot what they felt was right. Because the camera operator is a performer as well – they’re the one telling you what to look at.

CINEFEX: You used animatronic dinosaurs created by Neal Scanlan and his team, and you even had an inflatable indoraptor, right?

DAVID VICKERY: It sounds mad, doesn’t it? Just thinking about it seems slightly insane.

CINEFEX: It does, but when you see the behind the scenes footage, it totally makes sense – a super-lightweight puppet that looks like a bit like something out of the War Horse stage show.

DAVID VICKERY: It’s exactly the same sort of idea. Even if you don’t get quite the performance you’ll get from something like War Horse, you get a lot of value by actually bringing a performance to set. Liam and Aiden Cook puppeteered our indoraptor – they’re a father and son team who work with Neal frequently. They actually became the character of the indoraptor and, as oddball as the footage looks, there are pieces in the sequence where we matched their performance.

CINEFEX: So did you keep the inflatable in shot for the actual takes?

DAVID VICKERY: Well, my original idea was to rehearse with the inflatable so that everyone would know their cues, and camera would know where to look. Then we would take the inflatable away and shoot without it, because it would be a lot of work to paint it out. The problem was, as soon as we did that, everyone slightly missed everything. Eyelines went in slightly different directions and we lost that energy. As director, J.A. Bayona was really aware of this, and so we ended up shooting with the inflatable in, all the time. That way, we got this amazing performance.

CINEFEX: But leaving you with all that paint work in post.

DAVID VICKERY: Well, getting the best shot on the set doesn’t necessarily make things quicker or easier in post, but it does guarantee that you get a really good shot. You believe the performances of Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt, because there’s a fairly lethal-looking inflatable jabbing towards their faces! Those inadvertant flinches they make are all real. Much better than a tennis ball – although we did have to resort to tennis balls every now and then!

CINEFEX: Sounds like a win-win.

DAVID VICKERY: It’s very beneficial for us, and it’s slightly selfish as well. Because what I get on set is a decision from a director as to what’s correct, in real time. Hans Zimmer summed it up beautifully in his talk at VIEW, when he said, “Real time is where shit happens.” He was talking about music, and I’m talking about dinosaurs, but it really is perfectly true, in that good shit happens on set. First, you get decisions. Second, you get people reacting and interacting. So, Neal and I worked hard to find as many ways as we could to bring dinosaurs to the set.

CINEFEX: It’s a theme that’s come up throughout the conference, not least in Dennis Muren’s talk on the critical five percent that makes a shot look great. His idea that you don’t add it in post – you capture it during production.

DAVID VICKERY: Dennis talks about it a lot, and sees it very clearly. If the first five percent is wrong, you’re never going to get the final five percent right. Get it right to start with, and then you’re not fixing it in post. You’re enhancing it in post.

CINEFEX: We’re sensing quite a swing to this way of thinking lately.

DAVID VICKERY: It’s a logical approach to filmmaking and visual effects. I think the slightly ironic thing about my job is that we actually spend most of our time in prep working out how not to do visual effects. It’s our job to help filmmakers understand how they can shoot things for real, not how we can just go do it in post.

CINEFEX: And it’s actually got nothing to do with the tiresome debate of whether you do it practically or digitally.

DAVID VICKERY: That’s right. I would say to Neal, “Look, I’m not precious, it doesn’t need to be digital.” And he would say to me, “Well, I’m not precious either. If you need to fix something, you fix it.” It’s all about making it as good as it can be on screen. We had shots with Blue where we got an amazing performance from the animatronic in camera. While we replaced most of Blue digitally in post to add subtle details, we kept the practical muzzle, because the small vibrations that we got in the leather straps were completely real, and not a detail that we’d have had time to add in post – if we’d even thought of it.

Watch a Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom featurette:

CINEFEX: The original Jurassic Park exploded out of nowhere and took the world by storm. More than anything, it did something new with dinosaurs. Did you and J.A. and the rest of the team want to do that too?

DAVID VICKERY: We’re all creatives, so we come to every project wanting to bring a little bit of ourselves. We knew that J.A. as a director would bring his own visual aesthetic and sensibilities. There’s a very definite Spanish haunted house vibe going on in the third act of the film, which I love. In some of the concept art you can see a direct homage to frames from Jurassic Park, but J.A. would tweak it slightly, like putting an insane dinosaur in a girl’s bedroom rather than a velociraptor in a kitchen.

CINEFEX: Looking back at your recent portfolio of projects – Fast & Furious 6, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Jason Bourne, even Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – a lot of that work is based on what you might call “grounded reality.” Is that your thing, or is it just coincidence?

DAVID VICKERY: I think it’s just coincidence. But, I do feel very passionate about trying to make things as real as possible. It seems silly to say it, because everybody wants that, but even in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when we were working on incredibly fantastic things, I would try to look for inspiration in reality, because you can’t just invent that stuff. If you think you’ve invented a crazy animal, look in nature and you’ll find an even crazier one. I actually trained as an industrial designer, which is all about trying to understand how things are put together, and how they work. I think that gave me a really solid basis for visual effects. But really, I try and make films that I think I would enjoy, personally. I just love the idea of creating iconic, beautiful images. The first sight of the brachiosaur in Jurassic Park has to be one of those same moments for me. I love that there’s a line in Fallen Kingdom where Bryce’s character says, “Do you remember the first time you saw a dinosaur?” Every time I hear that line, I think, “Yep, I remember,” and I get the goosebumps.

Get comprehensive coverage of "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" in Cinefex 160.

Get comprehensive coverage of “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” in Cinefex 160.

Save the date for next year’s VIEW Conference, scheduled for 21-25 October, 2019.

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” image copyright © 2018 by Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.

VIEW Conference 2018 – Interview Roundup

VIEW Conference 2018 - Hans Zimmer, Dennis Muren, Rob Bredow, Geoffrey Baumann, John Gaeta, Dadi Einarsson

From 22-26 October, 2018, the Italian city of Turin hosted the 19th international VIEW Conference, celebrating visual effects, computer graphics, interactive techniques, digital cinema, animation, virtual and augmented reality, and gaming. Cinefex was there through the week, enjoying a host of presentations on some of the latest achievements and trends in visual effects and other disciplines.

The event took place in the heart of Turin at OGR (Officine Grandi Riparazioni), a spectacularly refurbished 19th century industrial complex. The former railroad workshops, with their high steel-framed ceilings, were the perfect backdrop for a stellar series of talks, workshops and masterclasses delivered by top talent, including keynote speeches by industry legends Hans Zimmer and Dennis Muren.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll have seen some of the interviews we conducted at VIEW Conference popping up online through the week. In case you missed them, here are all the articles we’ve posted so far:

If you’re hungry for more, fear not. We’ll be posting more articles through this week, catching up with some more of the people we spoke to at VIEW Conference. Look out for interviews with:

  • David Vickery, visual effects supervisor, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
  • Matt Aitken, visual effects supervisor, Weta Digital
  • Florian Gellinger, co-founder and executive visual effects producer, Rise
  • Jay Worth – visual effects supervisor, Westworld

David Vickery, Matt Aitken, Florian Gellinger, Jay Worth

We’d like to say a huge “thank you” to everyone at VIEW Conference who made us so welcome, especially Maria Elena Gutierrez, Steven Argula and Rick Rhoades. If you have a space in your 2019 calendar, make sure you save the date for next year’s event, scheduled for 21-25 October, 2019.

John Gaeta – Entering the Magicverse Age

John Gaeta - Magicverse

John Gaeta is an Academy Award-winning innovator known for his visual effects work on The Matrix trilogy. Having co-founded ILMxLAB, he is now senior vice president of creative strategy at Magic Leap. On Friday 26 October, the final day of VIEW Conference 2018, he will deliver the event’s penultimate address: a keynote presentation on nothing less than the future of immersive media, entitled What is the Magicverse? Cinefex sat down with John before his presentation to discuss what this question means, and why he’s asking it.

CINEFEX: So, John, what exactly is the Magicverse?

JOHN GAETA: First, what we’re talking about is an emerging, mixed reality platform. That means being able to walk around in the real world, and have any form of experience you can imagine existing right there with you in the real world. This is the conversation we want to have – when, and in what way, will we be able to do that?

Now, I’m not a computer graphics engineer. I’m closer to the creative side, a person who thinks about form and moments. But I’ve always got along well with the engineers because they can get you to a certain place that expresses a moment powerfully. This has always been the nature of computer graphics in relation to cinema – getting us to places we haven’t been to before. But, the language of engineers tends to be a little bit antiseptic. We have terms like “spatial computing,” which really means interactive applications that exist in space. Another term that’s being thrown around is “AR cloud,” because if you have a room filled with visual effects that are dynamically changing all the time, you have to hold all that somewhere, and the place where we hold it is in the cloud.

CINEFEX: So you want to call it something different?

JOHN GAETA: Right, because if you say “spatial computing” or “AR cloud” to the everyday person, they’ll be like, “I don’t know what that is, and I don’t really care.” What makes this compelling for people is that it’s an experience. So we’re calling it the “Magicverse,” which is a really simple way of making it human. The term describes this new, hybrid between the real and digital worlds, where wondrous things can be found.

CINEFEX: Are you talking primarily about entertainment?

JOHN GAETA: Absolutely not. We have to decouple from the idea that this is about games and entertainment, because it’s about all things. These interactive applications can be about anything – education, transportation, healthcare, government, economics and, yes, entertainment as well. We’re talking about applications in every form of business, not just on a device, but overlaid like visual effects on top of real things, and involving groups of people interacting together, some of them not necessarily physically there.

CINEFEX: When you apply the word “Magicverse” to that concept, it brings to mind the famous quote by Arthur C. Clarke, that goes something like: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

JOHN GAETA: Yes, and that’s important, because what this does is it sparks human imagination. But there’s a reason why we’re posing this as a question: “What is the Magicverse?” It’s because we don’t have the answer, entirely. There’s no one company that can monolithically make such a thing, just like no one company made the internet. The term is a focusing tool. We can have a conversation around it, so that people can try to describe what they think are the right attributes, both conceptually and architecturally.

CINEFEX: The terminology is critical, isn’t it? You say “virtual reality” and everybody immediately thinks of great big headsets. Or you say “mixed reality” and people say, “What’s that?”

JOHN GAETA: Right, because it’s the destination and the experience that people care about, in all cases. And again, forget entertainment. Let’s say I was able to perform an open heart surgery because the world’s greatest expert was able to join me via this application that allowed some level of participation from afar. That co-presence has enabled someone’s life to be saved.

CINEFEX: Historians love to label eras. You’ve got the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Digital Age … do you think that this world you’re describing is the next age in history?

JOHN GAETA: Yeah, I do, for sure. There’s already evidence of it happening everywhere. You can train with it, design with it, you can show a simulation of your new building in situ. It’s technically challenged in certain ways right now, but that will improve when we can wirelessly broadcast high bandwidth. The turning point in that respect will be 5G, I think.

CINEFEX: They say you can’t tell the time by looking at the second hand. Well, you’re looking at the whole clock here. Looking at the big picture.

JOHN GAETA: Yeah, that’s where I’m at now. You just have to get old! Look, I started working in film with stop-motion, did motion control programming, figured out how miniatures could be rapid-prototyped with machines, worked with the people who were figuring out how computer graphics could be used to visualize, and to control cameras. At that point we suddenly had to work out how to align computer graphics with real world things, understand light, track people … all these things that were seminal bits of understanding. When you do that enough years in a row, and see it become this amazing innovation in cinema, well, then you want to do all of those same things in real time, in the real world.

CINEFEX: So all these things that we’re going to see in the Magicverse, they’ll be at the same quality level as cinema visual effects?

JOHN GAETA: Yes, that’s going to happen, and it won’t be too long. If we were to do a service to the visual effects industry, we would make them aware that their work is going to start spilling out into the real world. Except we’ll be making those visual effects dynamic and adaptive to the places where we’re positioning them. We’re going to be adding virtual components to the real world, and it will be flawlessly real. The artisans who create these expressive, compelling things are going to be vital to make that a joyful, wondrous thing. Or a crazy, dark, insane adventure!

CINEFEX: When you talk about the artisans who are going to make these visions possible, you’re talking about visual effects artists, right?

JOHN GAETA: Well, the tech industry is getting ready for high fidelity graphics, and there are brilliant people in the visual effects industry who can cross over. In the last four or five years, I’ve seen computer graphics people who have adapted to real-time. I’ve seen visual effects being plucked. The studio system had better get wise to the fact that their core talent for visual effects is getting drawn away by these groups that are going to not only make it more difficult to make these big movies, they’re probably going to buy the studios themselves!

CINEFEX: So, the Magicverse is coming. Where will it materialize first?

JOHN GAETA: The cities are going to get this first, because that’s where you’ll get 5G. Cities are going to start getting populated with cinematic worlds. The thing that always slows down the pace is markets, but certain markets exist already, like theme parks. Imagine turning a castle in Edinburgh into a Harry Potter immersive experience. You could adjust the appearance of the real physical spaces with the fantasy elements, with the magic. People would love that, and it would work as a business concept. If Walt Disney were alive today, do you think he would take the components of his films and transfer them over to his physical lands? Absolutely he would.

View Conference 2018

VIEW Conference 2018 takes place  at the Officine Grandi Riparazioni (OGR) in Torino, Italy, October 22 to 26, 2018. Check out the full program of talks, workshops, panels, and masterclasses at the VIEW Conference website.

Geoffrey Baumann – Collaboration and the Making of “Black Panther”

Geoffrey Baumann - VFX supervisor of Black Panther

With nearly 20 years under his belt as a visual effects supervisor, Geoffrey Baumann has worked on films ranging from The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 to Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Cinefex caught up with Geoffrey at VIEW Conference 2018, where he gave an in-depth presentation about his experiences as visual effects supervisor on Black Panther.

CINEFEX: Geoffrey, in your talk at VIEW Conference you stressed the importance of collaboration. How did that feature in the making of Black Panther?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: Well, it was a collaboration between all the different departments. In preproduction, Ryan Meinerding at Marvel might hand off one of his design concepts to Ruth Carter in costume, and then our production designer Hannah Beachler would also put it on the walls in one of the sets. Hannah came up with the Wakandan alphabet, and that alphabet ended up on the Black Panther suit. All of that tied together the story that Ryan Coogler wanted to tell, subliminally and without any words.

CINEFEX: And the same thing carried through to postproduction?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: Yes, another part of the collaboration was about sharing things with the visual effects houses. We gave them Hannah’s Wakandan design bible, plus a similar wealth of imagery for the costumes from Ruth, and Rachel Morrison, the DOP, had a look book too. Those things gave us all a common ground to start with. We had the guys at Perception guide the overall look of the tech in the film; Ryan responded well to their ideas, so we fed those in little packets to all the vendors.

CINEFEX: How did a typical day unfold for you as production visual effects supervisor during principal photography? Let’s take the waterfall fight as an example sequence.

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: We were shooting the waterfall, I think, around the middle of March 2017, in Atlanta. Our call times were between 7:00-8:00am, because we were shooting exterior and trying to maximize the sun. I would generally try to get to set between an hour and an hour and a half before call; not all the department heads were there at that time, so I would see them arriving, and as soon as Ryan arrived or Lisa Satriano, our first assistant director, we would have a walkthrough of what was expected for that day.

CINEFEX: Were you looking at specific technical issues at this stage?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: I would look at where the bluescreens were set up, knowing where we had ended the day before, just to catch anything that needed shifting. Because once the machine starts moving, with all that heavy equipment involved, if I wanted to lift a bluescreen to the other side of the set, that could take up to 30 minutes. But really, the first thing I’d be thinking about is, “What looks wrong?”

CINEFEX: So how long before you were ready to start shooting?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: Well, on that waterfall set, it took a while to get all of the background in. We had extras up on the cliff, and the camera department had to make all their gear safe because we were shooting in water. Eventually, everyone would start converging on that pool of water, and I would start working with Lisa to get people off the set.

CINEFEX: Were you shooting continuous days?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: Yeah, 10-hour days with a walking lunch, so the day was pretty much non-stop. There would be a pause every now and then for people to take a restroom break – that took a little time, because they were all attached for safety. Otherwise we would go until the light just wasn’t working any more. In the morning we were shooting towards the east, because Rachel was going for this backlit look, and we would slowly work our way around so by the end of the day we would be looking west.

CINEFEX: You said you started out looking for what was wrong on the set. Was that your focus through the whole of the day?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: Yes – sort of unfortunately, because I also wanted to help Ryan push the creative story, to make things beautiful and right. But, nowadays, the visual effects department has somehow become the police for continuity on set, whether it’s wardrobe, or how wet someone is, or all the things you don’t want to see like parking cones and water bottles. Go back 20 years and if someone left their water bottle in the shot there’d be an announcement to the whole crew to clean up after yourselves. Now, I think there’s a perception that visual effects can clean things up easily, so that responsibility can get shirked a little bit.

CINEFEX: Is that also to do with the pace at which the shoot moves?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: Yes, there’s a number of other factors, but the thing is I’m the last person in the train. Regardless of whether it’s wardrobe or props that made a mistake, it’s visual effects that has to fix it. So, I’d rather be watching on the day and flag things up, because it’s in my interest in a few months time when I’d really rather be focusing on waterfalls and set extensions, not cleaning up water bottles.

CINEFEX: What’s caused this shift in responsibility, do you think?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: It’s not that people don’t care any more, or departments don’t want ownership. I think it’s because the machine of moviemaking has become a little unwieldy at times. I think people want to help, but they don’t always know how. So I’ll keep running around picking up water bottles until the assistant directors start yelling at me, and I find that once people see me doing that, they start to pay attention and help as well. And that’s collaboration too, because if the grips see me out there straightening out the bluescreen, next time they’ll maybe think to do it themselves. And then, I get the key grip coming to me and saying things like, “Hey, I remember on tech-scout you said you’d need a 30×30 blue. Well, I’ve got that set up on the side for you.” People start being proactive, and that’s when the collaboration really is working. That’s what I enjoy, when it’s a crazy day and I didn’t have the time to look ahead, but I turn around and there’s someone with what I need already set up. There’s a partnership and a camaraderie that comes with that.

CINEFEX: At the other end of the schedule, when you’re in the last couple of weeks before delivery, are you basically up all day bouncing around the world from one cineSync review to another?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: That’s pretty much how it is! I mean, the Marvel team chase the best story, until the film is almost pulled out of their hands. I think it shows, and people appreciate that, but it can make my life kind of crazy, because the pieces are always shifting. I know it’s always for the better, so I always try to stay positive, and to keep the vendors positive too. During the last week on Black Panther, there were a handful of days where I would spend the night at the office, but in general we would get in around 8:00am and stay until 11:00pm, spending that whole time in the screening room doing cineSyncs.

CINEFEX: Which vendors were first on the list?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: We had vendors all over the world, so we would usually start at 8:00am with Germany. Actually, at this point I was working a lot with Method Studios up in Vancouver, so I would get things from them in the evening, look at their shots and give them notes which they would try to turn around by 1:00am or 2:00am the next day, so I could look at them again by 4:00am. Towards the end, we were also having two studio reviews a day with Kevin Feige, Victoria Alonso and Lou D’Esposito – one mid or late morning, then another one at say 3:00pm. If things were really moving, we’d maybe have a third meeting at around 8:00-9:00pm.

CINEFEX: Because this is crunch time not just for you, but for the entire Marvel Studios team, right?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: Right, and you’ve got to remember that at this point it wasn’t just Black Panther. They were also working on Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp was still going … they had all of these other projects that they were focusing on. We also had digital intermediate sessions going on at the same time. After the studio review we would often go straight to a DI session. I would generally try to get stuff updated for that at 6:00am, hopefully leaving enough time to get it to Technicolor so that we had all the latest and greatest in the DI. Otherwise you’re looking at visual effects that are one version up from what’s in the DI, which isn’t ideal.

CINEFEX: By now, you’re looking at shots that you’ve seen about a zillion times, and that you probably dream about. How do you keep your eyes fresh?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: Well, at the very end it really becomes more about logistical management, and also about getting everything to be consistent, managing the quality as best I can, and making sure everything looks the same. I had a great supervisor and mentor who I worked with for years, Erik Nash, who always said that he’d rather have all the visual effects in his film at 80 percent than have most at 95 percent and then some much lower that just jump out at you. So, I would always push to get things as consistent as we could, and at the end of the day make sure that we tell the story. Because that’s what we need to do. And that’s all collaboration again, keeping all the lines of communication open between everyone. It’s stressful, but you just have to be up-front and honest, and then it works, because you’re finding solutions together.

View Conference 2018

VIEW Conference 2018 takes place  at the Officine Grandi Riparazioni (OGR) in Torino, Italy, October 22 to 26, 2018. Check out the full program of talks, workshops, panels and masterclasses at the VIEW Conference website.

“Black Panther” image copyright © 2018 by MARVEL.

Dadi Einarsson Makes Waves at VIEW Conference

Dadi Einarsson - VFX supervisor of Adrift

After building his career working at The Mill and Framestore, Dadi Einarsson co-founded Reykjavik-based RVX in 2008. At VIEW Conference 2018, Dadi presented his work as visual effects supervisor for STX on Baltasar Kormákur’s ocean-going survival film Adrift. Cinefex met up with Dadi after the presentation to talk about what it took to create a shot that balances intimate character moments with the awesome power of a gigantic ocean wave.

CINEFEX: In your VIEW Conference presentation, you talked in detail about a centerpiece two-minute shot from Adrift, where a yacht capsizes in a tremendous storm. It’s an epic shot – how did it come about?

DADI EINARSSON: Well, the film as a whole is a survival story, and it’s a love story, but the key drama point of this sequence is the 100-foot wave that smashes the boat. The go-to image for this sort of thing is the small boat on the huge wave, but that’s been done before, so Baltasar challenged me to come up with something different. We have a good working relationship, and a shorthand, and he trusts me to sleep on an idea, play with it, and suggest stuff.

CINEFEX: How was the action presented in the script?

DADI EINARSSON: It was actually written as eight or nine scenes, which was three or four script pages. Shailene Woodley’s character, Tammy, is at the wheel, then a wave crashes against the boat and nearly throws her off. Richard, played by Sam Claflin, pulls her back in, and they have dialog where we go in tight, then there was a cut to the big wave. There was another cut when Tammy goes inside the boat, then we were back outside for when the boat does what they call a pitchpole – it capsizes stern over bow – and Richard gets flung from the boat. There were lots of points in the script that were very visual, like the image of Richard sinking down with the red light flashing on his jacket, but there was a lot of room for interpretation.

CINEFEX: You saw all that happening in a single shot, without cuts?

DADI EINARSSON: Yeah. I read the script several times, and it became clear to me that it wasn’t just about that beat of the boat capsizing. It was all about the precursor to that, staying with the characters and following their gaze up to the wave, somehow going into the cabin with her, then back out underwater. A lot of that came from having worked on Gravity with Alfonso Cuarón, where we spent a lot of time forming this kind of language; I was very influenced by that experience. That was my pitch to Baltasar and he was really into it.

Watch an Adrift breakdown reel by Milk VFX:

CINEFEX: In executing a long shot like this, some filmmakers might have gone to town with a crazy camera move. But you were actually very restrained. There’s just a long, slow push-in behind the boat, with the big move only happening at the critical moment, and very much driven by what the characters are doing.

DADI EINARSSON: Absolutely. I hate physically incorrect, bullshit camera moves that don’t feel like any other camera move in the film. That really breaks everything for me. This shot is all about us finding those characters and being drawn into their experience of the storm.

CINEFEX: To execute the concept, you broke the shot into four separate beats. Then you had to break those into their component parts. You shot some live-action with a boat on a gimbal, some on a rotating “green cube” cabin interior, and then there’s all the CG ocean.

DADI EINARSSON: Yeah, as I was designing the shot, I was also thinking technically about where we could do the beat stitches.

CINEFEX: As you were capturing or creating all those different components, how important was it to keep the original vision in mind?

DADI EINARSSON: Oh, you have to constantly refer back to the concept. And it’s a leap of faith, you know? Adrift wasn’t a $200 million movie. We didn’t have months of prep where we could program motion control moves. I’m happy that we used a hand-operated crane for the gimbal shots, because it gave us the freedom to follow the action, but the flipside was that you just didn’t know whether it was going to work. So there was great anxiety there. Baltasar totally had my back, but the studio would still look me in the eye and say, “This is the moment of the film. It’s going to work, isn’t it?” And I’d be like, “Yeah, it’s going to work.”

CINEFEX: You’ve worked with Baltasar on many films now. What are the benefits of that ongoing relationship?

DADI EINARSSON: I think Baltasar knows that if he needs someone to come up with an idea, he can leave it with me. Then he’ll develop it, of course, or come up with his own ideas as well. For me, it’s magical to read a script and come up with something, knowing that my idea will be supported by the director. By the end of it, I’m sitting in the theater and people are going “ooh” and “aah.” It’s super-inspiring.

Watch an Adrift breakdown reel by Cinesite:

CINEFEX: The visual effects on Adrift were done by Milk VFX and Cinesite. Your own company, RVX, recently shifted away from visual effects to take on virtual reality projects. Why the change?

DADI EINARSSON: About two years ago, there was a lot of hype about virtual reality being huge, with big projections about all these headsets being sold, so RVX redirected its energies to start working on real-time projects, using Unreal Engine. The projected sales weren’t as big as everyone expected, but business has still been pretty good, and it’s been an enjoyable experience. But that doesn’t mean we’ll never do visual effects again!

CINEFEX: What’s RVX working on now?

DADI EINARSSON: We’re just finishing a location-based virtual reality project. It’s a 10-minute experience that takes you to the biggest Viking battle in Icelandic history, for a museum in the north of Iceland. It opens early 2019, and we anticipate 99 percent of users will be tourists who have never used virtual reality before. It’s a linear story, but there’s some interaction so you can walk around and try out weapons before you get taken into the middle of this huge battle. It’s room-scale – the user has full control within this 10-foot by 10-foot square space – and we’re looking at leading the eye to a specific place so we can teleport them to the next location, and they arrive facing in the right direction. I’m not sure if that’s been done before in this kind of virtual reality experience.

CINEFEX: For you personally, what’s the appeal of virtual and augmented reality?

DADI EINARSSON: It takes me back to 25 years ago, when I was just starting out. Things weren’t easier back then, but there wasn’t the volume of work that’s required now in delivering a visual effects film. For a project like our Viking battle, we have a small team and it feels more nimble and light and fun. It feels like we’re trailblazing.

CINEFEX: So are you done with production visual effects supervisor roles?

DADI EINARSSON: Well, there’s always something being dangled in my direction, but it’s a tricky thing to find a work-life balance as a visual effects supervisor. Baltasar is currently looking at something that would be shot in Iceland, which would make it easier for me in that respect. So you never know!

View Conference 2018

VIEW Conference 2018 takes place  at the Officine Grandi Riparazioni (OGR) in Torino, Italy, October 22 to 26, 2018. Check out the full program of talks, workshops, panels and masterclasses at the VIEW Conference website.

“Adrift” image copyright © 2018 by STX Entertainment.

Dennis Muren – Still Playing it Unsafe

Dennis Muren - Still Playing it Unsafe

Dennis Muren, senior visual effects supervisor and creative director at Industrial Light & Magic, will close VIEW Conference 2018 on Friday 26 October with an hour-long keynote presentation entitled Visual Effects: Defining that Critical, Elusive and Final 5%. During his career, Muren has collected nine Academy Awards honoring his contribution to films including Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park. A key member of the ILM leadership team, he now collaborates with ILM’s supervisors on every film handled by the company. During the conference, Cinefex chatted with Dennis about the past, present and future of visual effects.

CINEFEX: So, Dennis, what do you mean when you talk about the “critical, elusive and final five percent” in visual effects?

DENNIS MUREN: Here’s what the five percent is. It’s when you spend so much time working on something, and you think it’s done, but there’s still something wrong. In the past, you might have had a matte painting, and it just looked like a painting. Then someone would get the idea of putting the silhouette of a tree in the foreground with the leaves blowing, and that was a solution. Or take the T-rex from Jurassic Park. It steps in the puddle and we added a splash of water. Well, that wasn’t planned. Later on, we said, “It’s raining, so let’s put a splash there.”

Now, my theory is that all that has basically become obsolete, because everyone’s work has come up to a level of being pretty close to real. There’s nothing to fix any more, not like there used to be.

CINEFEX: So where does the five percent fit in now?

DENNIS MUREN: I think that now the five percent has to happen at the beginning, and not at the end. The production people might say, “They’re running through a forest, but we only have room to build 12 trees. So we’re gonna do this whole scene greenscreen and you can put the rest in, right?” Now, we can do that – there’s phenomenal work like that being done all the time – but doing it that way affects the acting, the photography, the drama, the whole story, because the forest is too sparse, and nature is just incredibly complicated. It’s like having a bad actor. You’re getting the lines and you know how the plot’s moving forward, but you’re not getting any inflexion. So why not take that one little extra step to shoot as much for real as you can, like we used to do it?

Look at the Hoth scene in The Empire Strikes Back, which was shot in Norway. They had a snowstorm, so they had to shoot most of it in two days, but they were really out there in the cold, and you can really feel it. Imagine if that had been a greenscreen sequence. Nowadays it would be, I guarantee. But isn’t it better to have a cinematographer actually out there who knows how to light it, and how to find the angle that’s appropriate, instead of having to put it together layer by layer? That way, you only see everything together at the end, when you’ve already used up all your time.

CINEFEX: And yet that way of doing things has become the norm.

DENNIS MUREN: But I think it’s hurting effects, because the studios are relying on the effects people to tell the story, but when you look at it on the big screen there’s all this missing detail. Environments have become just stage backgrounds with actors in front of them, or it’s just actors in costumes and you’re not getting anything from the background.

CINEFEX: You’re talking ultimately about a sense of realism, and that’s always been the goal, hasn’t it? Right back to the days of the original Star Wars.

DENNIS MUREN: Well, that’s the reason that Star Wars was what it was, because George Lucas said, “I want to pan the cameras with the spaceships and not get into locked-off shots.” He wanted to feel like it was a real world, like in the World War II footage he referenced, because the audiences that grew up on television recognised that as real.

CINEFEX: So he brought in John Dykstra, who developed the motion control camera system to shoot all that stuff, and John found you to operate it. Didn’t he hire you because he was impressed by the stop-motion films you’d made as a youngster?

DENNIS MUREN: Yeah, I didn’t know John, but he wanted me because the motion control motors would move real slow, and I knew about non-real-time performance. But you didn’t want the ships to just go in straight lines. You wanted them to swoop.

CINEFEX: So you were coaxing an organic performance out of this pile of nuts and bolts.

DENNIS MUREN: Right, and I added a lot to it that even John didn’t know we could do. Things like having the ships skid when they bank, like airplanes, or motorcycles. But you know, on Star Wars, we actually started out flying the TIE fighters like those lightcycles in Tron, all these sharp turns – although this was before Tron, of course. The shots were for background plates that George was going to use in the gunport sequence, which he was originally going to do with rear projection. I think maybe Richard Edlund did the shots, and he went for these abrupt angle changes. Now, you could argue that you can do anything in space, but in the end you just couldn’t relate to them; the shots just looked uncomfortable. That’s when we went to more direct copying of the World War II stuff.

CINEFEX: The way that all those ships move has just become so iconic. Especially the Millennium Falcon.

DENNIS MUREN: We actually did a test on this very thing for The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson started out wanting to use models, because he thought the motion looked so much better. I said, “I love models, but there’s reasons why we don’t do them.” And he still wasn’t sure. So, I took three or four shots from Empire that had the Falcon in them, like that shot where it dives down low over the asteroid, and we put a CG Falcon right next to it. I told the animator to copy that original movement exactly. At first he had it zooming all over the place, but then he kept scaling it back and back, until finally you couldn’t tell the difference. It looked exactly like we had shot two identical models of the Falcon in 1980. Some people couldn’t understand why we had done this; they said it was just a way to duplicate nostalgia. Well, I wasn’t doing it for nostalgia reasons at all. I was doing it because the movement just looks better.

Cinefex 65CINEFEX: Looking back into our archive, we dug out a copy of Cinefex 65 from March 1996, celebrating 20 years of ILM. Don Shay interviewed you for that issue, Dennis, and one the things you told him was, “Some day we’ll probably hit a wall. People will be able to accept absolutely anything on film, and it won’t seem as wonderful to them any more.” Is that where we are now?

DENNIS MUREN: I think so. Absolutely.

CINEFEX: Do you think that tackling this “five percent” problem is the solution?

DENNIS MUREN: Yes. Jurassic Park was easy, because it was the shock of the new. Well, the shock’s worn off.

CINEFEX: Here’s another quote of yours from that 1996 article: “You can either play it safe and stay put, or you can go someplace new.” Are you still playing it unsafe?

DENNIS MUREN: Oh, yeah! We’ve got a big thing at ILM at the moment that’s looking amazing. It’s on a Star Wars show, and it’s pretty neat, but I can’t say anything about it right now.

CINEFEX: Well, it’s clearly got you excited, which is great to hear. We may have hit the wall, but there’s something waiting on the other side, right?

DENNIS MUREN: Yes, because things don’t stay the same. They change, but in a technical field change is really hard, because the tools are so hard to learn. So, when you see something that you really like, be exuberant about it. Keep your mind open, and your heart and soul open to those feelings that got you into the business in the first place. Movies are all about feelings. That’s what it’s all about.

View Conference 2018

VIEW Conference 2018 takes place  at the Officine Grandi Riparazioni (OGR) in Torino, Italy, October 22 to 26, 2018. Check out the full program and register for talks, workshops, panels, and masterclasses at the VIEW Conference website.

“Return of the Jedi” photograph copyright © 1983 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

Hans Zimmer – Making a Big Noise

Hans Zimmer

Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer, the maestro behind the music for over 150 projects across all media, delivered yesterday’s keynote presentation at VIEW Conference 2018, entitled Welcome to my Music. Zimmer’s address was followed by a tribute to his music, performed by an ensemble of 10 year-old Italian students. Addressing a packed house of visual effects, animation, game, VR and film devotees, the composer shared wit and wisdom on the subjects of life, artistry, and the job of making the world a noisier and more colorful place.

Hans Zimmer has a muse. Her name is Doris. She’s a single mother who lives in the poor part of the post-industrial town of Bradford, UK, and ever since her husband left her she’s struggled to raise her two kids and make ends meet. Every weekend, Doris faces a choice. She can either go to the pub, or take in a movie. If she chooses the cinema, what she wants more than anything is a film that will transport her out of her humdrum life and into a world of wonder.

Doris is fictitious. To Zimmer however, what she represents is utterly real. Even more than that, she is the reason he does what he does, the person he has in mind whenever he sits down to write a score. “If Doris is going to see a film,” he said during his keynote presentation at VIEW Conference 2018, “we’d better make it worth it. That’s the job – to make her life better.”

Zimmer also asserted his belief that music expresses what cannot be expressed through mere words or pictures. That’s why it’s such a vital piece of the filmmaking puzzle, and why Zimmer always starts composing before the film is made – sometimes before he’s even read the script.

To illustrate this, he related the story of how he came to work on Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar. Out of the blue, Nolan called Zimmer to say he was going to send write a letter, and invited the composer to put down whatever came into his head when he read it. When the letter arrived, Zimmer did just that, and played the result to the director later that same day. “The first time I play a piece of music, it’s very personal,” Zimmer revealed. “So I couldn’t even look him in the eye.”

The brand new composition – which Zimmer described as a “fragile fragment of music” – expressed the composer’s feelings about his relationship with his son. Having played it to Nolan, Zimmer asked the director what he thought. Nodding his approval, Nolan said, “I guess I’ll have to make the movie now.”

Delving deeper into his process, Zimmer confessed that, while he always aims to begin work early on a project, he is also a terrible procrastinator, and tends to leave the final scoring until very late in the game. For the animated feature Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, he even wrote one of the cues on the stage during the recording session. “Composing is like cooking,” he commented. “You need fresh ingredients, and lots of preparation, but it all comes down to that crazy final ten minutes!”

Closing his address, Zimmer invited budding creators in all fields to challenge themselves constantly. “Ask yourself how can you be cantankerous, creative and revolutionary,” he said. “Be reckless. Be inventive. Make a big noise!”

I don’t know about you, but I reckon those words would be music to Doris’ ears.

View Conference 2018

VIEW Conference 2018 takes place  at the Officine Grandi Riparazioni (OGR) in Torino, Italy, October 22 to 26, 2018. Check out the full program and register for talks, workshops, panels, and masterclasses at the VIEW Conference website.

“Solo” – A Fusion of Creativity and Technology

Rob Bredow behind the controls of the Millennium Falcon

As senior vice president, executive creative director and head of Industrial Light & Magic, Rob Bredow gets involved with every project that passes through ILM’s doors. During his keynote presentation at VIEW Conference 2018 today, he shared his experiences as visual effects supervisor and co-producer of Solo: A Star Wars Story. Cinefex sat down with Rob in the Turin sunshine after his presentation to talk more about his adventure in a galaxy far, far away.

CINEFEX: Rob, in your presentation on Solo, you explained that creative solutions are driven by theme. In the case of Solo, the theme was “let’s imagine we’re making this movie in the early ‘70s.”

ROB BREDOW: Exactly. We wanted to make it feel organic and grounded, and tried to apply that to everything we did from the very beginning, to make things feel as believable as possible.

CINEFEX: So where did that theme come from in the first place?

ROB BREDOW: That was an aesthetic choice that Chris Miller and Phil Lord wanted to make from the very beginning. They felt like the movie belonged in that era. Of course, we wanted to achieve things that wouldn’t have been achievable if we had done it in, say, 1968 or 1971, but we wanted it to feel as if we could have. With the train heist, for example, the idea of constraining the camera only to places a camera could really belong on a train that was going 60 miles per hour on the side of a mountain – that was really important to me. I wanted us to religiously obey that rule, and we pretty much did. We did the same thing throughout the whole movie, using methods that honored the methods of the past, even if they couldn’t literally be the same methods. I actually think that, in a world where you can do anything, constraining yourself helps to pull the thing together.

CINEFEX: And constraints can actually encourage creativity, right?

ROB BREDOW: Yes, totally. In fact, I had a whole other section of the talk I did today that I didn’t have time for, about how the creativity really is born out of the constraints. One of my favourite stories on the subject was told to me by the director Ash Brannon, who I worked with on Surf’s Up. Ash was an animator on Toy Story, and he told me they didn’t have enough money to finish rigging the green army men, and they were ready to cut them out of the film. So they pitched the idea that they didn’t have to be fully articulated characters. Those guys basically bark orders, so they just needed the ability to do a simple “eeh” and and “ooh” shape, and they could just move around with their feet tied together. That walk they do is one of the most memorable things in the film, and it may not have happened if it wasn’t for the restrictions.

CINEFEX: Thinking back over the history of movie effects, creativity has always gone hand in hand with technology. If you’re going to excel in this craft, do you need those two sides of the brain working together, the right and the left?

ROB BREDOW: Yeah. I think the more you have them both in one person, or across everybody on the team, the better. You can certainly have people who have strengths of one side over the other, but I think the most fun thing about this industry is getting to combine the very technical and the very artistic together. Especially being able to figure out things on the spot, where you’ve got to figure out some way to achieve this illusion.

CINEFEX: In Solo, your solution to the Millennium Falcon cockpit shots was a highly technical one – wraparound rear projections screens running prerendered final backgrounds. But the end result was super-organic, like the shot where the camera pans from the hyperspace jump onto Han’s face. You said was captured by the first camera operator, Sylvaine Dufaux, kind of on instinct?

ROB BREDOW: Right. One of the great things about real-time effects is that they are much more in the moment than what we can do in postproduction. There’s a place for both, but there really was something great to those shooting days on the Falcon. For the Kessel Run sequence, we had around 125 cues – lighting changes on the walls, or different media clips on the screen, or different blaster fire. I would stand next to Ron Howard as he was directing the actors, and sometimes he would take them back to redo a moment, or sometimes he would take them forward. I’d try to read his mind and work out where he was going next, so the screens would be ready and cued up. And then, sometimes, our DOP Bradford Young would catch my eye and give me a hand signal to add some more blaster fire, because he wanted to amp up the lighting. We were making changes in kind of a dance, live on the set.

CINEFEX: Solo certainly seems to be a great example of how the role of production visual effects supervisor has changed over, say, the last 10 years – you’re more creatively enmeshed than ever with the rest of the production.

ROB BREDOW: That’s been my experience, yeah. Our supervisors at ILM who work production-side find themselves very integrated, not only in how they’re going to achieve something, but also in why and what the creative storytelling opportunity is. That varies in its methodology from show to show. Sometimes you’re answering a lot of questions in previs. Sometimes you’re collaborating directly with either the writers or the director. On Solo, I got a co-producer credit in large part because I was working things out with Ron Howard and Jon Kasdan every day on set. There are lines that Han Solo says in this movie that I pitched to Jon, and he would say, “That’s a great idea, we’re going to have him do that right now!” If Ron liked it, he put it in the film. It was just a huge honour and a big opportunity to be involved creatively in the whole movie from beginning to end.

CINEFEX: Industrial Light & Magic has been doing Star Wars for over 40 years now, and earlier this year you took on the role of senior vice president, executive creative director and head of ILM. When you walk through the door each morning, do you sense the presence of that lineage?

ROB BREDOW: Yeah, definitely. Walking into ILM, you’ll see one of the original optical printers in the hallway, there’s original stormtrooper costumes around. You really do get a sense of the history of the place.

CINEFEX: Is that exciting, or intimidating?

ROB BREDOW: Well, it’s a bit like when I started on Solo. I first thought, “Okay, I have to be really careful. I’m walking on hallowed ground.” Then, a few months into the show, I realised it’s a movie, I’m going to break stuff along the way, I’m not going to make every decision perfectly, and I’ve got to figure out how to make it better and better as we go along. I’m actually having that same experience again in this role as head of ILM. My original thought was, “This is ILM! It’s the company that I’ve looked up to for my entire career. So getting to lead it is an incredible honour.” Then you dive in and realise you have this amazing place with fantastic people but – like anything – it’s not perfect. It’s a great honour, and then at the same time I have a responsibility to say, “Oh, this part’s messy, we’ve got to go in and get our hands dirty.” And that’s the culture of a great company that is reinventing itself, which I really like being a part of.

CINEFEX: How does the ILM lineage come to bear on the films you’re working on now, like Solo?

ROB BREDOW: Well, we’re lucky at ILM to still have some of the people who worked on the original Star Wars films. Dennis Muren was at the office every day looking at previs and dailies, weighing in on the sequences. I can attribute the design of a number of shots to his notes. On some early versions of the train heist sequence, for example, we had very few down-shots, or else the down-shots had gotten cut for various story reasons. Dennis would say, “Where’s that sense of peril?” and we would add those down-shots back in. It’s great having people like that, who aren’t working on the show every single day but are looking at the big picture.

CINEFEX: Do you enjoy that kind of overview yourself now, in your new role?

ROB BREDOW: You know, we have incredibly experienced supervisors in all the departments at ILM, and they certainly don’t need me to tell them how to do their jobs. But I do find that, because I am seeing all the projects going on, and looking at things from a different perspective, once in a while I’ll be able to provide support in some way, or make a suggestion that somebody might find useful. That’s a really nice place to be, for sure.

CINEFEX: Let’s round up with a quick peek into your crystal ball. What do you personally see as the next frontier in visual effects?

ROB BREDOW: One of the things that I’m excited about right now is the use of real-time visual effects on set. We did a lot of that with projection surfaces on Solo, and we’re working on new projects right now where we’re taking that to the next level, doing a lot more real-time and a much higher degree of interactivity. We’re creating in-camera visual effects that I think are going to be pretty surprising to people. The number of cases where we can leverage this has surprised even me – and I’m an optimist about these things. The real-time world of videogames and the postprocessing world of visual effects haven’t completely converged, but we are starting to see some of the best of both worlds come together, and we’re getting a lot of real benefit from that. We’re also doing a bunch of new things in the area of face work. Of course, that’s an area where, if you get it one percent wrong, it’s 99 percent wrong! But we did some really interesting work on Rogue One, and working on some projects that are very encouraging.

CINEFEX: Rob, thanks for your time!

View Conference 2018

Read our 22-page Solo: A Star Wars Story article in Cinefex 160, available from our online store. VIEW Conference 2018 takes place  at the Officine Grandi Riparazioni (OGR) in Torino, Italy, October 22 to 26, 2018. Check out the full program and register for talks, workshops, panels, and masterclasses at the VIEW Conference website.

Photograph copyright © 2018 by Industrial Light & Magic.