The Illusionists — Eric Brevig

by Graham Edwards

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Eric Brevig

CINEFEX — You were visual effects supervisor on the original Total Recall back in 1990. Would it be easier to make that film today?

ERIC BREVIG — Yes, because now we have far more control, especially with all those things we had to create with physical effects, like the volcano explosion. In the old barnstorming days of pyrotechnics, you were at the mercy of physics and luck. Now, using dynamic simulations and so forth, you have precise control. It’s not easy, but it’s completely achievable.

CINEFEX — The effects in Total Recall were mostly traditional, but a little bit of digital work did creep in — like those animated skeletons on the X-ray scanner.

ERIC BREVIG — Exactly. They were digitally created but photochemically composited. I do remember the first time we used a computer to composite an image, on The Abyss. Prior to that it was brute force with photochemical processes and optically copied images, working blind until you saw the processed film. It was revolutionary, the ability to watch in real time when you were assembling images. That was the first milestone, and the second was creating images without having to use a camera. The two of those together is what revolutionized visual effects.

CINEFEX — Since then, we’ve progressed from animated skeletons to complete animated humans that are practically indistinguishable from the real thing.

ERIC BREVIG — Well, the digital human has been the Holy Grail for a long time. There’s an almost infinite number of subtleties in a human face. I think we’re right at the cusp of being able to do that. The Irishman is probably the best recent example of taking digital doubles of actors and putting them on camera without making any effort to hide the trickery. Some shots are better than others but, given enough time and money, we can now make something that’s indistinguishable from the real thing.

CINEFEX — And if you don’t have time and money?

ERIC BREVIG — Use trickery. Don’t let the audience get a good look at something that you can’t do perfectly. That’s what filmmaking has always been about, anyway — selectively showing the audience pieces of something that’s not really complete, but convincing them it is.

CINEFEX — And telling a great story.

ERIC BREVIG — Of course. Think about E.T., which only moved people to tears because of what the filmmakers and actors were doing around the effects. I think that still holds. No matter how we get the fantastic images on the screen, we feel the power from the story that’s being told. When the two are working hand in hand, it’s amazing. It’s why I got into the industry.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists