The Illusionists — John Knoll

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 - John Knoll

CINEFEX — What drives the spirit of innovation that we see so often in visual effects?

JOHN KNOLL — Well, most big advances don’t really happen because somebody decides they want to develop a new piece of technology. It’s more that a script lands on a desk, and someone reads it and says, “How are we going to do that?” Back on the first Star Wars movie, it isn’t like somebody wanted to do motion control and then figure out a way to use it in movies. It happened because George Lucas had this reel of World War II aerial combat and said, “I want to do shots like this, where the camera’s panning with the ships and the motion is very fluid.” Motion control was the solution to that problem.

CINEFEX — So you don’t consciously try to innovate? It’s purely about answering the brief?

JOHN KNOLL — It’s a little bit of both. Take the on-set capture we did for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. I had done the first Pirates movie with Gore Verbinski, where the challenges were the skeletal pirates. The transitions from the live-action to the animated characters and back were particularly challenging. The methodology was that we shot the actors in wardrobe on the set, matchmoved them in post, painted them out and put in the CG.

CINEFEX — Matchmoving the actors from the plates must have been tricky, especially back then. Why didn’t you do separate motion capture shoots?

JOHN KNOLL — The matchmove was really hard, but here’s the thing. At the end of the first movie, Jack Sparrow becomes a skeleton as well. There were a number of transition shots, and about half a dozen where he’s a skeleton for the duration of the shot. For those all-CG skeleton shots, we did get Johnny Depp in a motion capture suit and have him redo his on-set performance on a motion capture stage. But when Gore looked at the results we immediately got busted, because he really liked what he had shot on set. He said, “I’ll be really up front — I’m going to torture you guys until this performance matches exactly what we shot on stage!” And he was right to do that.

CINEFEX — So when you came to do the second movie, you knew Gore would want to direct his actors on set, even though Davy Jones and his crew would end up as CG.

JOHN KNOLL — Exactly right. We started a conversation with R&D to find a way of capturing motion on set. We needed something as good as what we would get from an optical motion capture system. It had to be robust and lightweight enough to take out on location, and it couldn’t put any restrictions on the filmmakers. We were aware this was something nobody had done before. We knew we were innovating. But, it was all in the service of solving our problems from the first film, and letting Gore work the way he wanted to work.

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