Spotlight – Rudy Grossman

by Graham Edwards

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

Rudy Grossman

Rudy Grossman is a digital effects supervisor at Atomic Fiction, and lists his career highlights as Pirates of the Caribbean, Deadpool, Maleficent, King Kong, Star Wars, X-Men and Game of Thrones.

CINEFEX: Rudy, how did you get started in the business?

RUDY GROSSMAN: My first big break was at a visual effects studio focused on creating photorealistic humans using a proprietary facial motion capture system called LifeFx. We were working with Jim Carrey doing some tests for a Warner Brothers project and it was an amazing learning experience – the first time photoreal facial motion capture had been used to create a digital actor. Looking back, it really was pretty groundbreaking. A lot of super-talented industry gamechangers came out of that group, including Dr. Mark Sagar, David Taritero, Kevin Smith and Guy Williams.

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

RUDY GROSSMAN: I love the whole visual effects process. From the early planning and preproduction, to prepping the asset builds, putting together the shots, adding that last bit of polish, and finally sitting in the theater to watch all that hard work come together on the big screen. Working in this industry has provided me with so many amazing experiences, traveling and living around the world, experiencing different cultures, getting to meet and work with directors and actors who have inspired me so much, people I’d never in a million years imagined I’d meet. Most of all, making so many friends along the way, and watching them grow and succeed in their own career paths, seeing colleagues who once shared the same wide-eyed enthusiasm when new to the industry, now veteran supervisors.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

RUDY GROSSMAN: The first 10 minutes of Pixar’s Up. Oh, no it’s happening again, just thinking about it. What kind of question is this? Everything’s going blurry …

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

RUDY GROSSMAN: Switching from front-end character setup to lighting. After years of working primarily in rigging, model, creature effects, facial mocap and tech-anim, it was difficult to switch into back-end work – lighting and compositing.

During King Kong, I was involved in creating Weta’s first facial mocap performance, with Andy Serkis playing the title character. It was months of long hours, working nights and weekends. Around the same time that we were delivering the last Kong face shots, an email went out asking if anybody could light shots. I had a little experience lighting, but not enough to make a reel, so I was really excited about the chance to get more experience. To be honest, I was also already completely exhausted! I don’t know where the burst of energy came from – I guess it’s like when you get close to the end of good book and you just don’t want it to end. Anyway, next thing I knew, I was moved over to a different building where I was assigned a lighting shot – this completely awesome shot of Kong towards the end of the film. So there I am at my desk, thinking this must be a mistake, there’s no way they are going to assign this awesome shot to me, sooner or later the production team will stop by and reassign it to a more experienced lighter. My heart was literally racing with excitement, and a little fear.

That night, I slept under my desk so I could periodically wake up, check the renders, and resubmit if anything was broken. Next morning, I was informed the shot would be handed off to a different artist. I understood, and mentioned that I’d just submitted a version to dailies, so they could review its current state for handing it off. They reviewed the shot, liked it, and decided I should keep going with it. More shots were assigned and, before I knew it, I had enough shots for a lighting reel, which then led to more jobs in lighting and eventually compositing too. Weta’s supervisor Chris White and production coordinator Rebecca Downes were incredibly supportive about transitioning me into lighting. Their encouragement was inspirational.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

RUDY GROSSMAN: Creating the facial blood flow effect for the three CG photoreal pixie characters in Disney’s Maleficent. In reality, the human face has subtle hue shifts as blood is dynamically compressed and drained by the motion of our expressions, temperature conditions, and emotional states. At the time, this had been an unexplored area in feature film CG characters. Mathias Whitman, the facial animation supervisor, and John Feather, the face lead, were equally passionate about doing everything we could to make these characters feel real. We listed blood flow as one of our goals while strategizing for the project, but we couldn’t find the resources to get it started. I had promised them that if we couldn’t find anybody to work on this, then I would do it.

A few months passed and we still couldn’t get anybody allocated to take this on, so I started working on it as a side project, mainly in the evenings and weekends. Paul Debevec’s ICT team shot some amazing reference footage of one of our main actresses going through an extreme range of facial expressions. Using this, I was able to really understand what conditions caused the blood to flow in and out of the different facial regions, and the effect that had on the skin’s subsurface scattering. The first step was re-creating the performance of the blood flow – to do this I used a cgfx shader. This way, I could quickly and interactively focus on fine-tuning the way blood moved within the face and not have to wait around for lengthy render times. The first time it all worked, interactively animating the character’s face and watching the blood flow change in real time was super-exciting!

The next step was taking the formula from the cgfx shader and using that to create higher resolution results with an appropriate time delay on the blood flow recovery. I plugged those results directly into the subsurface scattering of our V-Ray skin shader. Besides adding an extra illusion of life to the characters under normal conditions, it was also really helpful to add realism when they were yelling or upset, and having the faces flush slightly while flying at a higher altitude in colder air.

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

RUDY GROSSMAN: The biggest change has been globalization. The visual effects industry, once very centralized in California, is now spread widely across world. But the challenge of making visual effects is still as exciting. As our community continues to grow and get better and better at making visual effects, the complexity of the movies being made and the appetite of our audience is also growing.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

RUDY GROSSMAN: There is still a lot more we can do on-set, during our acquisition phase, to improve our overall process and allow higher quality work to be achieved more efficiently in areas like digital lighting and lookdev. We need to periodically question our standard workflows and find new ways to get better results.

It would be amazing to see more improvements in plausible simulation. Instead of trying to narrow in on the exact dynamic settings to accurately achieve the desired outcome, we should be flipping this on its head, and have our desired outcome accurately determine the settings required to achieve it – essentially resulting in simulations which are driven by the creative target.

I would also love to see improvements in markerless motion capture. The ultimate goal would be to accurately track and construct correlated 3D deforming data of actors’ faces, bodies, costumes and hair on-set under the actual lighting conditions, synced with the filming.

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

RUDY GROSSMAN: First, think about what you want out of life and what’s important to you. If consistency and predictability are a high priority – like living in the same town with the same routine – then this industry may not be the best fit. Most people in visual effects move around through different job opportunities. It used to be moving up and down the California coast; now it’s moving to new countries. You will know this career is the right choice for you if the work calls to you, gives you a sense of satisfaction, and you have fun doing it.

Second, find a place where you like the people you work with. If you find yourself at a studio where the people around you are mean-spirited, get out – it’s a toxic environment and you will be unhappy every day you are there. Atomic Fiction is a really good example of a studio filled with fun people who are excited to work together. I’ve worked with Ryan Tudhope and Kevin Baillie for years, and I know their intentions are sincere and they care about the people who work here.

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

RUDY GROSSMAN: Deadpool – a surprise hit that kind of came out of nowhere. It is such a fun movie to watch, and it was a fun movie to work on. The team at Atomic Fiction really came together and built a foundation that launched us forward into several exciting projects. I’m super-proud of what we achieved. For a lot of us, it was also a great chance to work with Jonathan Rothbart again. It was like a visual effects reunion!

Maleficent – the pixies’ faces are digital re-creations of the actresses. That required a herculean effort from everybody involved, and the results were simply gorgeous. A significant portion of the face mocap technology used in the film had evolved from the face development work at IMD, and it was really exciting to see the evolution of that technology, and its results recognized with Nicholas Apostoloff’s sci-tech Academy Award.

King Kong – it was a great team, with an unwavering commitment to strive for quality. Peter Jackson is one of those rare big-feature directors that puts in the effort to make people feel involved, appreciated, and important to the process. Spielberg, Zemeckis, and George Miller are other great examples of that rare group. The years of previous work in facial motion capture that had barely seen the light of day, the initial controversy amongst the actor’s guild during the testing in the late 90’s, and even the initial skepticism within our own industry, finally came to fruition with a fully believable, emotionally complex performance. The film itself won an Academy Award for best visual effects, and Mark Sagar was given a sci-tech Academy Award for leading the charge that established performance-driven facial motion capture within the filmmaking process.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

RUDY GROSSMAN: Lounging in a recliner seat while dipping cantucci biscotti into a glass of Vin Santo. It’s like milk and cookies, but for grownups!

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Rudy!