The Illusionists — Joe Letteri

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 - Joe Letteri

CINEFEX — Early in your career you were at Industrial Light & Magic, pretty much at the start of the digital revolution.

JOE LETTERI — Yes, but before that I was working for a company doing commercials in Los Angeles. I got to ILM right in the middle of their work on Terminator 2, although I did not work on that film. I did a couple of commercials for them, then got put onto Star Trek VI. I worked on the opening shot — that big ring-of-fire explosion of Praxis. That was the first shot I ever did on a film, and it made me want to keep going and do more.

CINEFEX — Soon after that you sunk your teeth into Jurassic Park.

JOE LETTERI — That’s right. That film opened up a new avenue of exploration in that we were doing organic characters. As cool as Terminator 2 was, with the T-1000 as a moving character with real performance, we now had to figure out how to do the dinosaurs’ skin, the skeleton, the muscles, all that organic movement. A lot of work went into making that happen believably for what I think was the first time.

CINEFEX — Were aware of how revolutionary the work was?

JOE LETTERI — It certainly felt pretty new at the time we were doing it. But we were flying by the seat of our pants, just eyeballing it: “I think this looks good. This looks about the right exposure.” We really had no way to measure things like that at the time. That worked for 65 shots on Jurassic Park, but now, when we’re doing thousands of shots in a film, we need ways to really understand what we’re looking at.

CINEFEX — Every year you’re called upon do more and more shots, of ever-increasing complexity. How has that changed your thinking?

JOE LETTERI — In visual effects in general, we’ve started to take a really broad approach. This started for me on Avatar, where we had so many components to work out. We weren’t just putting a character or a creature in a background plate — we were creating a whole world. First time around, we hand-dressed that Pandora forest. Then we spent years thinking about how forests really grow, writing software to mimic that whole process. That came in really handy when we did the avalanche scene in the third Planet of the Apes film, when were able to deploy this software to grow the forest.

CINEFEX — On the flipside, is there anything in your thinking that hasn’t changed?

JOE LETTERI — Really, what we’ve always done with visual effects is try to convince an audience that they’re seeing what was in front of the camera on the day everything else was shot. But we also have to add a fantasy element — because that’s what we’re doing, right? We’re shooting things that could not be shot, by definition. So we’re always looking at reality — things like having the correct weight in an animated movement — but with an eye towards making something a little bit more fantastic to serve the film.

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