By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Marvel Studios.
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Marvel Studios.
Hard to imagine the Marvel Cinematic Universe without Marvel Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Christopher Townsend, who partnered with super soldier Steve Rogers, went a round with industrialist Tony Stark, hung out with the music-loving Star-Lord, did some cosmic flying with Carol Danvers, and learned some martial arts techniques from Shang-Chi. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings marks the third time that Townsend has been given the responsibility of introducing a significant character to the MCU with the others being Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain Marvel. “One of the great things about working on an origin movie is you’re making it up and setting the scene which is amazing, and that was great to do particularly with the first Captain America, Captain Marvel and then this.”
Indie filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton gained critical acclaim collaborating with Brie Larson on Short Term 12 and had not directed a visual effects-heavy production before. “I did a Visual Effects 101 presentation to him going through all facets of how we use previs and how powerful we can be as a department,” recalls Townsend. “Destin was an incredible student and collaborator.”
Infused into the fight choreography was the Asian cinema tradition of martial arts. “We were fortunate to have had the late Brad Allan as our stunt coordinator who had worked on the Jackie Chan stunt team for many years and brought a lot of that physicality to this,” Townsend acknowledges. “There was always a strong story point as to why the character was using this particular martial arts style, whether it was Wing Chun or Tai Chi or Wushu. There was incredible planning from the stunt team, and we used a lot of stuntvis as well as previs to figure out how to marry all of that together.”
“On the day we shut down [for three months] because of the pandemic there were 400 people for the nightclub environment, for the brother and sister fight between Shang-Chi and Xialing [Meng’er Zhang]. When we came back to shoot that scene, only 50 people were allowed on set at the same time. We had 80 mannequins brought in, dressed and dotted around in the shadows of the set to make it feel more like a crowded place than it was. We had to do multiple passes for large crowds, and it had an impact on day-to-day shooting.
—Christopher Townsend, Visual Effects Supervisor, Marvel Studios
The camera style took cues from Hong Kong and Chinese martial arts film, but there are still about 250 face replacement shots. “We had wide shots and long takes where you get to see the actors doing the actual stunts and martial arts rather than the Hollywood way, which would be quick cuts, shaky camera and closeups,” states Townsend. “In the bus fight, we were blending takes between different performances, doing face replacements and digital doubles. It was a whole potpourri of effects that we’re doing throughout. In the scaffolding fight, there is a shot where Shang-Chi [Simu Liu] jumps down to save Katy [Awkwafina]. The special effects put the three-stories-high mirrored scaffolding set on a massive hinge to tilt it to help the stunt performers to get in the right position; that was shot in a blue volume.”
A prized possession of crime lord Xu Wenwu/Mandarin (Tony Leung) are 10 mystical rings that grant immortality and supernatural abilities to the wearer. “Something that I was most nervous about was how do you make 10 bracelets a threatening weapon and an extremely powerful force?” admits Townsend. “We came up with these beautiful arcs of energy emanating off of them; however, that effect didn’t work with the brilliantly powerful, quiet and contained performance of Tony Leung. We pulled it way back and for awhile ended up with just 10 rings flying around. After watching some of the editorial assemblies, we decided to bring back the idea of using elemental forces to give the rings a sense of logic and grounding. Each style of the power had a slightly different feel to it and had its own challenges, whether it be the lightning or solar flares or Aurora Borealis. It was always about how do you make them feel powerful and real at the same time.”
“We had wide shots and long takes where you get to see the actors doing the actual stunts and martial arts rather than the Hollywood way, which would be quick cuts, shaky camera and closeups. In the bus fight, we were blending takes between different performances, doing face replacements and digital doubles. It was a whole potpourri of effects that we’re doing throughout.”
—Christopher Townsend, Visual Effects Supervisor, Marvel Studios
Reintroduced in the MCU is the Abomination, which originally appeared in The Incredible Hulk. “We went back to traditional man on stilts as an eyeline,” states Townsend. “Abomination was rebuilt from the ground up, and we tried to make him feel much more like the comic book incarnation, particularly with the big flapping ears, scarification and piercing eyes.” Massive sets were built by Production Designer Sue Chan, such as Wenwu’s compound which was extended in CG. “A whole village set was constructed for the world of Ta Lo, but unfortunately,” Townsend says, “we were shooting in harsh Sydney sunlight and it was supposed to be overcast and moody. We had these massive 60 x 40-foot screens suspended on 350-ton cranes to be shadow casters. There was a lot of photography that had big square shadows all over our set that we had to remove and try to make it feel like an overcast world. The sets were great and invaluable throughout the film. There was a lot of world-building with visual effects adding to it.”
“A whole village set was constructed for the world of Ta Lo, but unfortunately, we were shooting in harsh Sydney sunlight and it was supposed to be overcast and moody. We had these massive 60 x 40-foot screens suspended on 350-ton cranes to be shadow casters. There was a lot of photography that had big square shadows all over our set that we had to remove and try to make it feel like an overcast world. The sets were great and invaluable throughout the film. There was a lot of world-building with visual effects adding to it.”
—Christopher Townsend, Visual Effects Supervisor, Marvel Studios
Around 1,760 shots were created and shared by Weta Digital, TRIXTER, Rising Sun Pictures, Digital Domain, Scanline VFX, Method Melbourne, Rodeo FX, Luma Pictures, Fin Design, Perception, Stereo D and QPPE. “The world of Ta Lo was created by Rising Sun Pictures, and which was 30 square miles with 10 million trees,” states Townsend. “The asset also had to be built in a way that was shareable with Weta Digital and TRIXTER. The Foo Dogs were shared between Weta Digital and TRIXTER. Weta Digital built the initial effects of the rings that were then shared with Scanline VFX and Method Melbourne. Method Melbourne finessed some of their original designs and, sharing them, we had assets all over the place. 1,760 shots is relatively low for a Marvel Studios film, but we had some very long shots. You always try to find a streamlined way to do this work, and I don’t know if we could have done any differently, the volume of work and type of shots we had to share those assets.”
“We were fortunate to have had the late Brad Allan as our stunt coordinator who had worked on the Jackie Chan stunt team for many years and brought a lot of that physicality to this. There was always a strong story point as to why the character was using this particular martial arts style, whether it was Wing Chun or Tai Chi or Wushu. There was incredible planning from the stunt team, and we used a lot of stuntvis as well as previs to figure out how to marry all of that together.”
—Christopher Townsend, Visual Effects Supervisor, Marvel Studios
Complicating the production was the coronavirus, which increased the amount of visual effects work. “On the day we shut down [for three months] because of the pandemic there were 400 people for the nightclub environment, for the brother-and-sister fight between Shang-Chi and Xialing [Meng’er Zhang],” remarks Townsend. “When we came back to shoot that scene, only 50 people were allowed on set at the same time. We had 80 mannequins brought in, dressed and dotted around in the shadows of the set to make it feel more like a crowded place than it was. We had to do multiple passes for large crowds, and it had an impact on day-to-day shooting. We were wearing masks and COVID-19 tested every other day for the several months that we carried on shooting afterwards. Then we were all working from home for the most part when we came back in post. It was quite an achievement that we could still pull this off.”
Growing up outside of Washington, DC, Chris White was fascinated with film and TV that transported him to fantasy worlds, alternative realities or worlds of the future. A VES Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated visual effects supervisor, Chris has created compelling digital environments, characters and effects for some of the most significant VFX films of recent times, including the complex Goblin Caverns environment for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and the photorealistic chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas that were the stars of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. He is committed to student outreach and building the pipeline for future practitioners as an active member of InclusionFX, which supports and amplifies underrepresented voices in features, television and games.
As mentors once opened educational doors for me, I feel responsible as a senior artist to give back to the next generation. Working through programs with InclusionFX and Weta Digital, we have opportunities to provide guidance through mentorship, review portfolios and give career advice, hearkening back to what I wish I knew early on. It’s a win-win as we get the rich benefit of students’ enthusiasm and fresh ideas. The visual effects and animation industry needs greater representation, and I’ve seen first-hand how exposure and encouragement have a real impact. We need many voices, talents, history and perspectives to create the worlds of film and television, representing us all.
Keep pushing forward towards your goals. My gateway to visual effects was a testament to persistence and a kind of accidental pathway. I applied for an internship at ILM multiple times while I was in graduate school and was finally accepted on my fourth try. That pursuit gave me my jumpstart creating vortexes and particle systems on Twister. Writing code for digital tornadoes was a perfect blend of my computer science and arts background. And I was on my way.
Priorities make diversity, equity and inclusion happen. We need to go back to the university level to build our talent pool and break the barriers that limit advancement and demystify our field, including giving students exposure to the full spectrum of technical and creative jobs that are available. Some believe this is a dream job – it is not a dream job. It is completely accessible and can be a profitable, stable, long-term career. And it’s on us to forge solutions that encourage young visionaries to pursue this career path and get the word out.
As a senior artist, I feel responsible to give back to the next generation.
-Chris White, Visual Effects Supervisor, Weta Digital
When a person sees themselves reflected in future or fantasy space, those worlds become possible. Anything becomes possible. The TV and film worlds I experienced in my youth rarely featured Black characters. I didn’t see myself or my culture reflected in those frames. I am optimistic about the directors and creatives galvanizing the industry today, and I am confident that my son will see himself in the worlds to come on the screen.
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By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Marvel Studios.
On June 5, 1962, teenage angst accidentally combined with a radioactive arachnoid in a story published in Amazing Fantasy #15 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Since then, there have been various incarnations of Spider-Man living in different dimensions, but the original one resides in New York City on Earth-616. Swinging from the comic-book page into the live-action domain, the Web Slinger first appeared on the children television show The Electric Company, with the mask and tights being donned by puppeteer and dancer Danny Seagren. Hollywood came knocking when Marvel sold the film rights to Cannon Films in 1985, and six years later James Cameron (The Terminator) submitted a 57-page scriptment. However, the ambition was undermined not by the Sinister Six but the financial collapse of the studio.
Subsequently, Marvel licensed the film rights to Columbia Pictures in 1999, paving the way for Sam Raimi (Army of Darkness) and Tobey Maguire to create a trilogy, with Spider-Man 2 (2004) often being listed as one of the greatest comic book adaptations. In 2012, the franchise was relaunched as The Amazing Spider-Man with Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) and Andrew Garfield collaborating on a pair of installments. A dramatic shift occurred as the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a box-office juggernaut worthy of Thanos, and a deal was brokered between Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures Entertainment for Tom Holland to make his MCU debut as Peter Parker in Captain America: Civil War (2016) as well as a solo venture under the direction of Jon Watts (Cop Car).
“The concept art, previs and postvis has been essential when tackling a project like Spider-Man: No Way Home. We rely on such items as the initial stage to begin the digital builds, which can be quite time consuming. … [S]ince the assets from previous movies had been created years ago, most of these previous assets were used as a reference guide. Also, various visual effects elements associated with specific characters had to be re-developed, and some took on a different look per creative direction.”
—Chris Waegner, Visual Effects Supervisor, Sony Pictures Imageworks
Spider-Man: No Way Home concludes the MCU trilogy that features Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019). The entire Hollywood cinematic history of the Wall Crawler becomes part of the storyline thanks to some ill-advised timeline tampering that unleashes the multiverse, thereby allowing the three big screen iterations of the franchise to merge into one blockbuster event. Unlike his reckless egocentric mentor, Tony Stark, the considerate and self-esteem-hampered Peter Parker had no intentions of revealing his secret to the world, but the right to do so was taken away from him when special effects artist turned villain Quentin Beck aka Mysterio frames the high schooler for his murder and reveals the true identity of Spider-Man.
A tabloid maelstrom worthy of the British Royal Family is unleashed, leading to Parker’s every move being the subject of public scrutiny and, in the process, making his friends and family targets of retribution from his growing list of enemies. Wishing his secret had never been revealed, Parker seeks out someone with the same curiosity and willingness to put aside caution as Stark, master of the mystic arts Doctor Strange. The challenge and perilous risk of turning back time is irresistible to Strange, and has second thoughts about his request and disrupts the spell. As a result, separate dimensions collide together bringing forth a multiverse where the multiple variations of the same person can co-exist within the same space.
Someone with a unique perspective on the project is Sony Pictures Imageworks Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Waegner (Men in Black: International) who partnered with Marvel Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Kelly Port (Beauty and the Beast), as well as with Digital Domain, Framestore, Luma Pictures, Crafty Apes, MR. X, Cinesite, Gradient FX, Folks VFX, SSVFX, MARZ and Perception to produce 2,400 shots. Waegner was an uncredited technical adviser on Spider-Man, a lead character setup artist on Spider-Man 2, CG Supervisor on The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Digital Effects Supervisor on Spider-Man: Homecoming. Comments Waegner, “The opportunity of having worked with three great directors and their creative teams on all cinematic franchises has been a wonderful experience. It has given me a wealth of knowledge that I’ve brought with me to the latest instalment depicting the multiverse in Spider-Man: No Way Home.”
“Fortunately, some of these concepts [in the new film] had been explored and visually developed within previous films, creating a visual language that fans can relate to. These previous films have become a great source that we were able to build upon. Often times, this requires new workflows, techniques and specific software development to ensure we meet the creative demands of the creative team.”
—Chris Waegner, Visual Effects Supervisor, Sony Pictures Imageworks
Like Webb, Jon Watts made a name for himself as an indie filmmaker with the crime thriller Cop Car (2015), revolving around two 10-years-olds taking an abandoned cop car for a joyride only to be pursued by a sheriff looking for the missing vehicle. Marvel Studios has gotten in the habit of choosing those with a proven indie track record rather than established Hollywood directors. One theory for this is that Marvel Studios can exert more control over the production, while others suggest that it has to do with the ability for indie filmmakers to develop empathetic characters which are what immerse audience members in the storyline, not the visual effects spectacles. “Jon Watts is very passionate about the story he’s telling and his characters,” notes Waegner. “He’s collaborative and at times will even act out specific actions he feels are important for these characters.” Watts has collaborated through the trilogy with The LEGO Batman Movie screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, twice with Special Effects Supervisor Daniel Sudick (Ant-Man and the Wasp), and welcomed Production Designer Darren Gilford (The King’s Man) and Cinematographer Mauro Fiore (X-Men: Dark Phoenix) into the fold.
An overseer of the overall aesthetic of the MCU since Iron Man (2008) is Ryan Meinerding, Head of Visual Development, Marvel Studios. Upwards of 200 to 300 designs can be done for a character in the MCU before settling on the final version. “One of the fun parts of my job is the notion of knowing that the Iron Man suit could mean something different in the next movie, and figuring out how to make the character design a storytelling opportunity. Sometimes the storytelling is not that important, like the notion of Tony Stark’s armor getting more advanced. However, in other occasions, Captain America is wearing a shield outfit instead of a Captain America costume because he has left behind some of the patriotism that had been part of his previous looks.”
“The characters themselves all have their own unique style of VFX associated with their abilities. Since this franchise spans across many years, VFX styles for specific characters had to be reinvented, and in some cases refined/changed in order to craft a look toward Jon’s vision. Dr Otto Octavious had a small team associated just to him in order to resurrect the same visual demands with our modern software and pipeline. It was important to the filmmakers and fans that he literally matched to the previous movie.”
—Chris Waegner, Visual Effects Supervisor, Sony Pictures Imageworks
The Iron Spider Suit makes an appearance featuring a red, blue and gold color palette as well as the high-tech mechanical iron spider arms and nanobots that result in a quick suit transformation. “The concept art, previs and postvis has been essential when tackling a project like Spider-Man: No Way Home,” remarks Waegner. “We rely on such items as the initial stage to begin the digital builds, which can be quite time consuming.” For the most part, adds Waegner, the visual effects created for the previous films were not leveraged, as the technology is constantly evolving. “In some cases, yes, but since the assets from previous movies had been created years ago, most of these previous assets were used as a reference guide. Also, various visual effects elements associated with specific characters had to be re-developed, and some took on a different look per creative direction.”
Magic and the multiverse had their own unique technical challenges. “Concepts like the multiverse require quite a bit of visual research on many levels,” states Waegner. “It’s very important to create something the audience can relate to and is visually fresh. Hours have been spent going through visual media, which can be scientifically-based art concepts and found media, to help create images that are special to the show.” Adding an element of surrealism is the Astral Form, Eldritch magic, portals and Mandelbroting associated with Doctor Strange, leading to the various dimensional versions of the train sequence taking place at the same time. “Fortunately,” says Waegner, “some of these concepts had been explored and visually developed within previous films, creating a visual language that fans can relate to. These previous films have become a great source that we were able to build upon.” Most films requiring high-concept, intense visual effects will need development. “Often times,” Waegner observes, “this requires new workflows, techniques and specific software development to ensure we meet the creative demands of the creative team.
“Sony Picture Imageworks completed approximately 600 shots and many digital assets, with a production time of 10 months,” continues Waegner. “The digital scope of this show is quite vast. We shared many of our digital assets and several were shared with us. Modern software and technology have allowed the ‘shared asset’ concept to work much smoother these days between different VFX facilities.”
A major part of the visual effects centers around the supernatural powers. “The characters themselves all have their own unique style of VFX associated with their abilities,” states Waegner. “Since this franchise spans across many years, VFX styles for specific characters had to be reinvented, and in some cases refined/changed in order to craft a look toward Jon’s vision.” Digital effects have come such a long way that the practical arms which were puppeteered during the making of Spider-Man 2 for Doc Ock are now a CG creation, and de-aging has become a standard practice for the MCU. Says Waegner, “Dr. Otto Octavious had a small team associated just to him in order to resurrect the same visual demands with our modern software and pipeline. It was important to the filmmakers and fans that he literally matched to the previous movie.”
“Having worked on all the previous films, our web slinging and crawling techniques seem to get more refined with each film. In this case some small refinements were implemented achieving the same great results. The efficiencies in this area allowed the team to focus on other needs for the show.”
—Chris Waegner, Visual Effects Supervisor, Sony Pictures Imageworks
There can be no Spider-Man without web shootings, webbing and gravity-defying action. “Having worked on all the previous films, our web slinging and crawling techniques seem to get more refined with each film,” notes Waegner. “In this case some small refinements were implemented achieving the same great results. The efficiencies in this area allowed the team to focus on other needs for the show.”
If Spider-Man: No Way Home can channel the critical and box-office success of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, one can expect more multiverse scenarios populating the MCU, as it will literally allow for different dimensions of characters to be explored which will result in unlimited storytelling possibilities. “On a show like this,” says Waegner, “the biggest challenge is to always meet the visual needs of our director and the adoring fans. There’s such a deep rich history with these characters and their individual stories throughout the entire franchise. It’s our responsibility to raise the bar and set a new standard for the franchise.”
By TREVOR HOGG
An action adventure about rival fishermen was the first to be acknowledged for outstanding achievement in creating Special Photographic and Sound Effects. The legacy started by Spawn of the North (1938) at the 10th Academy Awards would later see the two different crafts be given their own separate categories with Emil Kosa Jr. receiving the Best Special Visual Effects Award for Cleopatra at the 36th Academy Awards. A sign of what was to come occurred in 1979 when five rather than the usual three nominees vied for the renamed Best Visual Effects Award with two being the first installments of major cinematic franchises: Alien (the winner) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Five nominees became the standard when Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb took center stage at the Kodak Theatre for Inception.
The past three winners First Man (2018), 1917 (2019) and Tenet (2020) have been rewarded for their ability to seamlessly blend practical and digital effects rather than being pure CG spectacle. As for what to expect at the 94th Academy Awards on March 27, 2022 predictions have been complicated by theatrical release dates being like moving targets with an expected nominee Top Gun: Maverick being jettisoned to 2022 while Venom: Let There be Carnage was moved up a couple of weeks. The only certainty is uncertainty. So here, after consulting a number of industry experts to get even a faint pulse of what might happen when the nominees are announced on February 8 are the best guesses for best effects.
One has to wonder what would have happened if Ridley Scott had not left the original production of Dune for family reasons and been replaced by David Lynch. But then Blade Runner would not have come into existence. Serving as a bridge between ‘what if’ and what actually happened is Denis Villeneuve, who directed the sequel Blade Runner 2049, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects in 2017, and got to make his teenage aspiration of re-directing Dune a reality. The story revolves around a spice with supernatural properties, blue-eyed desert inhabitants, giant sandworms, insectoid vehicles, a manipulative galactic empire and a messiah.
There is a possibility that only covering half of the first book, as well as aspects of the narrative making their way into Star Wars, might work against the production. However, the term ‘visionary’ is not used haphazardly when describing Villeneuve, who is able to create epic worlds that do not overshadow the trials and tribulations of the characters. His emphasis on naturalism, which is built upon real locations and sets that are digitally augmented, will avoid the campy and outdated effects that plagued Lynch, and pave the way to Oscar glory for a second time.
What are going to be the contenders that could possibly usurp House Atreides? Marvel Studios has made a heroic effort with the Phase 4 release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals. Marvel Studios President and COO Kevin Feige has a developed reputation for what are seen to be risky projects that turn out to be box office gold with the prime example being Guardians of the Galaxy, which received one of the 10 Oscar nominations for the MCU when it comes to visual effects; however, the comic book empire that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko built has yet to see that translated into a win. Shang-Chi features Destin Daniel Cretton utilizing the crowd-pleasing bar-brawling of Captain America with the iconic Vibranium shield replaced by magical bracelets.
The fight choreography is elevated by paying homage to the death-defying Hong Kong action films that pride themselves on showmanship. Much has been said about the bus and scaffolding fights that embody the mischievous spirit and determination of Jackie Chan, which is a welcomed addition to the MCU. As for Eternals, Chloé Zhao follows the Villeneuve philosophy of naturalism and the avoidance of vibrant, saturated colors. She is essentially dealing with celestial beings echoing the Gods of Olympus, with the major exception being that their view of the world comes from ground-level rather than a mountaintop.
Also, banking on the popularity of comic book adaptations is Sony Pictures which has partnered with Marvel Studios on Spider-Man: No Way Home (2018) and gone solo with Venom: Let There be Carnage.
By taking cues from Hong Kong martial arts films, the fight sequences in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings rise above what has been seen before in the MCU. (Image courtesy of Marvel Studios)
For the sheer fun factor and nostalgia appeal, the edge has to be given to the quick-witted Web Slinger from New York City. If Jon Watts can capture even half of the innovative and narrative craftmanship exhibited in the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, that will go a long way to satisfying the masses and Academy voters. Just the thought of the various cinematic incarnations of Peter Parker and his adversaries appearing together for the first time is enough to spark giggles of glee, but is also a recipe for utter disaster like Spider-Man 3 which was riddled with the ‘way too many characters’ syndrome despite being directed Sam Raimi.
For the adult crowd craving an R rating rather than a PG13, have no fear as the symbiote that debuted in Spider-Man 3 has gained enough popularity to warrant the Venom sequel directed by Andy Serkis. The true act of wizardry has been the ability to create the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dynamic without obscuring the performance of Tom Hardy as a mild-mannered investigative journalist having to share his body with an aggressive and perpetually hungry alien parasite. Undoubtedly, the blood and gore factor will be upped as a serial killer portrayed by Woody Harrelson gets infected and fully embraces the opportunity to greatly increase his sociopathic mayhem.
Godzilla vs. Kong, Jungle Cruise and The Suicide Squad would make an interesting threesome battle. The safe bet would be Adam Wingard’s rematch between the iconic Kaiju that became a cultural institution in Japan and later to the entire world. Interestingly, the original King Kong (1933) sparked the discussion about establishing a visual effects award with producer David O. Selznick petitioning the Academy Board of Governors to recognize the groundbreaking work of animator Willis O’Brien. It is a testimony to how far the digital technology has matured that a project like this required no major pipeline overhaul and the artists could focus more on crafting the performances of the creatures. Jungle Cruise by Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra takes place in an African Queen setting and mixes together the Oscar-winning effects of Life of Pi and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest by bringing to life a photorealistic leopard and living-dead buccaneers. When it comes to The Suicide Squad, what is there not to love about Sylvester Stallone voicing a giant shark that is an aquatic manifestation of Rocky Balboa with a much lower IQ and treats his opponents as edible snacks? James Gunn has done a great job in the past of integrating CG characters into the principal cast, in particular a monosyllabic anthropomorphic tree.
Considering the harsh critical reaction to the two sequels, it is hard to imagine Lana Wachowski returning to the franchise that launched her blockbuster career, unlike her sister Lilly who decided to take the blue pill this time around. The Matrix was lauded with an Oscar, while Reloaded (2003) and Revolutions (2003) were not even nominated despite being a training ground for a lot of the top visual effects talent in the industry today. The Matrix Resurrections brings Neo and Trinity back to life by having Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Ann Moss return to their signature roles. The storytelling ambitions of the Wachowskis always go way beyond the realm of what is physically possible, which means that Reeves and Moss will be surrounded and supported by boundary-pushing technology.
Another franchise revival has become a family affair as Jason Reitman follows in the footsteps of his father, Ivan Reitman, with the release of Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Homages have been woven into visuals with miniature rather than skyscraper-sized Stay Puft Marshmallow Men making an appearance along with Slimer, an ominous thunderstorm, and the station wagon emblazoned with the Ghostbusters logo. Despite the supernatural premise, both Reitmans use visual effects to heighten the dramatic and comedic situations that reveal something about their characters.
Visual effects are not only found in the action and science fiction genres as they assisted Steven Spielberg in fulfilling his ambition of shooting a musical with his remake of the West Side Story; the closest for him previously was the opening sequence in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). There will be no digital doubles or massive explosions to be simulated, but expect invisible environmental work to get the necessary size and scope that will enhance the already gorgeous cinematography by Janusz Kaminski.
For the outlier that might surprise everybody, David Lowery took the time during the pandemic lockdown to re-edit The Green Knight and added another 60 visual effects shots. The work consists of a talking fox, a tree-like adversary, wandering giants and fantastical landscapes done with an indie budget. That in itself is a major feat worth celebrating.
By IAN FAILES
We regularly hear about the incredible artistry inside visual effects studios to pull off final shots. But a key step in the VFX component not always discussed is the intricate concept, design and visualization processes carried out within visual effects studios, which often helps shape the particular story being told.
In this roundtable discussion, representatives from Framestore, ILM, Pixomondo, Scanline VFX, Technicolor Creative Studios, TRIXTER and Weta Digital break down their role in this story-shaping process, especially within their internal art departments.
THE PROCESS BEGINS
Daniel Matthews, Concept Artist, TRIXTER: “We will get our very first brief via our internal supervisor on a project, who distills a short, open ‘TL;DR’ version of what’s been discussed with the client. This minimal brief helps us to keep our creativity totally free-flowing, and allows us to cast the widest net possible for ideas. It gives us the freedom to mess up – which is a fantastic thing as an artist – and get bad ideas out of our system. It allows us to brainstorm and build on each other’s ideas as a team. At this stage, ‘happy little accidents’ can happen which often work their way into the final result.”
Mujia Liao, Head of Virtual Art Department/Art Director, Pixomondo Toronto: “Generally, we create mood boards, sketches, illustrations and key art frames that describe a particular moment in the show to help drive the direction for other departments to follow. Aside from creating designs from scratch, we collaborate closely with the asset department. We create paint-overs on renders for quick design changes, mocking up texture/color variations, as well as provide reference photography to help the asset team look dev the character/creature/environment.”
James Clyne, Senior Visual Effects Art Director, ILM: “I don’t think there is a part of the production pipeline that ILM’s art department doesn’t touch. The department is involved in ‘blue sky’ conceptual designs, working directly with the director or with the production designer, sometimes just with the studio. Then we’re involved in everything from character design to vehicle design, prop design, environments and creatures. I think VFX has also allowed filmmakers to make some of the design decisions a little later because we can actually tackle some of those design decisions in post-production like we couldn’t before.”
Martin Macrae, Head of Art Department, Framestore: “As well as designing for projects internally, we’re also able to work independently on projects that don’t necessarily come through the company’s VFX team. Another part of what we do is to help directors put a pitch package together for studio presentations to help get a film greenlit. This will involve discussions with the director to try and establish their vision for the film, taking extracts from early drafts of the script, if there’s one ready, and creating concept art for film beats that evoke the right look and feel for key scenes in the story.”
Leandre Lagrange, Art Director, Technicolor Creative Studios: “We often get pulled in for greenlighting a project. At that point there is no VFX involved at all. Either we’re being reached out to by studios or we already have a VFX supervisor attached to the project who invites us to create images as a pitch to do the final shots. There are lots of different roles we play.”
Jelmer Boskma, Visual Effects Supervisor and Art Director, Scanline VFX: “There have been projects where we were involved early enough to help establish the look and influence the shoot in a way that complemented our ideas and designs wonderfully. Obviously, this is particularly beneficial to us as we can ensure the lighting and general shot setups will translate well later in post. Just as common, though, is for our design services to be requested at a later stage during production. It’s not uncommon for a director to have a change of heart with regards to a certain design, or to find the production’s art department to have simply ran out of time to fully flesh out an idea.”
Sidney Kombo-Kintombo, Animation Supervisor, Weta Digital: “I’m an animation supervisor, but I do lots of previs as well now. It’s even sometimes previs at the end, in the post-production process. It can be previs, postvis and shots all melded into one thing. For example, Marvel always comes up a very strong concept of what they want – ‘Let’s have a dogfight in a canyon.’ They’ll have super-strong art development. But then the missing link is the connection between that strong concept design art and the thrill of the visual. It’s basically taking the strong concept that already exists and adding all the little elements that make that concept visually as interesting as it can be.”
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
James Clyne, ILM: “There are many applications that we use. I would say Photoshop is probably the most dominant, but there’s a lot of 3D applications from Maya to Modo that people are using every day. The strength lies in not just being really good at one thing, but being pretty proficient at not only 2D drawing, but 3D model modelling as well, and being able to do rapid sketching, all the way up to doing photorealistic environments.”
Martin Macrae, Framestore: “It’s a very organic process, every project is done in its own unique way with no set ways to get things done. Artists can use whatever means they need to get an idea out, be it a pencil sketch or a 3D sketch – it doesn’t really matter what tools they use. Concept artists need to be flexible in the way they work as the creative idea is the most important thing to get out, so they have access to any software they need to use. When it comes to software the trend now seems to be Photoshop and Blender, but, again, anything goes.”
Daniel Matthews, TRIXTER: “Some of my colleagues like to explore 3D with Blender or ZBrush, or even using 3D fractals like Mandelbulbs as a base for their concept art. However, I prefer to start out with free-flow using Photoshop and sketches, which sometimes allows happy accidents to occur. If I want to explore 3D, it’s usually with cool software called 3D Coat.”
Jelmer Boskma, Scanline VFX: “Some artists are more comfortable working in 3D and are able to provide high quality iterations in a highly economic manner that way. Others rely more on their traditional drawing and painting skills to communicate ideas. Certain tasks call for a specific approach, but, in general, whatever gets the job done well in a quick and organized manner wins. Whether that is through painting in Photoshop, sculpting in ZBrush, photo-bashing, a rough 3D render, a mock-up in SketchUp, or most commonly a combination of all of the above.”
Leandre Lagrange, Technicolor: “We do create a lot of FX simulations with 3D tools such as Blender and Vectron to give us a base to work from. With painting skills and photo-manipulations, there’s quite a lot that you can do for concepting those. It’s preferable not to have a Houdini artist go into it on their own and start shooting in the dark because it’s very time consuming and it’s so heavy. The idea is we’re giving them a look and feel and some direction, and then they can work with that. As it goes on, they can create more and more accurate FX simulations based on the images that we create. We have a close relationship with VFX artists for that type of complex FX work.”
Sidney Kombo-Kintombo, Weta Digital: “I storyboard a lot. I always try to have a really quick visual sketch of what I’m after. So Photoshop is a big part of it, just like any concept artist will do. But right after that it’s straight into Maya [for previs or postvis]. The best way to make sure that you’re not going to hit any hiccups is to make sure that you are doing this in the software package that will be used ultimately for the shots.”
KEY PROJECTS, KEY CHALLENGES
Daniel Matthews, TRIXTER: “The photostatic veil in Black Widow stayed in the refinement stage for a long time. As they say, 20% of the work takes 80% of the time. We had a rough idea of the look we were aiming for, but of course we wanted to make something new, exciting and as good as possible. The idea was to make this mask look like one of those peel-off self-care masks, with the ability to make the wearer look like someone else entirely. There was also the matter of finding the right shapes. In the end, we settled for the hexagon pattern, which fans say is a shape that features heavily in the Marvel Universe. We definitely get it – hexagons look great, have a futuristic tech-y feel and fit together neatly.”
Jelmer Boskma, Scanline VFX: “We worked on designs for Mysterio’s smokey FX appearance in Spider-Man: Far From Home. We provided concept illustrations in which we tried to capture the look and feel of the effect as much as possible within the constraints of a still image. For FX like these, illustrations only provide part of the solution. Much of the final design is based on the motion, timing and behavior of the simulation. We find that approaching design challenges like this from multiple angles is essential to finding the answer for a director. As a general principle, we like to instill as much real-world reference and logic into any design to give the idea a grounding in reality.”
Sidney Kombo-Kintombo, Weta Digital: “On the canyon chase in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, we tried to see what we could change in the original design of the canyon to make that a more thrilling experience. The first thing I do is go to dogfight reference – Star Wars comes to mind, and Japanese anime. We say, ‘How can we make this interesting?’ I try to come up with the idea for the sequence first and then the environment that makes that idea shine. We rebuilt the canyon from scratch. We did that in the animation department. Usually, the build comes out of modeling and layout, but here it was more a rough model of blocks of rocks done in the animation stage. Animation then passed it back to modeling who adjusted it. It’s a different way of creating the same type of work.”
Leandre Lagrange, Technicolor: “For Prometheus, some of our pieces of artwork were actually concepted by an artist who had a digital matte painting (DMP) background. So, they would actually end up being projected and used in the final VFX shots in the film. Then on Godzilla: King of the Monsters, for example, we worked on an image of Rodan emerging from a volcano. For that we used a design that was already done by Amalgamated Dynamics. We used their design and then built on top of that to make an image. That was more about making a key frame.”
Mujia Liao, Pixomondo: “On The Mandalorian, we worked on several environments on the planet of Arvala-7, a very barren, desert-like planet covered in wet mud, home to creatures like the iconic Blurrgs. I turned to what I knew best and ended up matte painting the looks we needed for approval. We looked closely at a large number of deserts and found some good images of Atacama Desert after rainfall, although none really provided us with the level of detail we needed. Our CG Supervisor, Winrik Haentjens, then came across this area in Toronto’s Scarborough Bluffs with snow that was just starting to melt, creating these streams that flowed across a muddy surface, giving us some beautiful natural-looking erosion shapes. We took lots of photos of that area and created photogrammetry of the details, and that became the foundation to the closeup areas of Arvala.”
A New Dawn in the VFX Art Department
The rise of virtual production has introduced many chang- es to the way visual effects studios operate. LED volume and stage work in particular require some of the final pixel VFX shot work to be carried out upfront – before shooting – rather than traditionally in post.
This means that some production companies and visual effects studios have now launched virtual art departments, or VADs. For example, Weta Digital established a VAD-like department out of work on Avatar and Tintin, with a formal VAD on The BFG, while Lucasfilm and ILM ramped up a VAD with The Mandalorian. Other studios such as Pixomondo have followed suit.
“With the same emphasis in visual development and pre-production, the VAD focuses on not only design but creation of real-time assets from initial lookdev to produc- tion-ready models and environments for virtual production,” details Mujia Liao, Head of Virtual Art Department/Art Director at Pixomondo Toronto.
“We process practical scans and create custom assets to block out initial environments, allowing our clients to do virtual scouts and pre-light early on. In addition to the pre- liminary environment build, the VAD will also supply close to final key visuals by over-painting and hand-off design packages including photographic references and mood boards. This design package and early environment build sets a solid foundation for our virtual production and VFXteams to take further into fully realized worlds.”
Martin Macrae, Framestore: “Blade Runner 2049 was a definite highlight for all of us. For Vegas, we worked initially from designs coming from the production designer and Syd Mead sketches, and working closely with VFX we set to work designing everything from large buildings right down to street-level details, also designing the spinner drone that flew over the city – everything was thought out. We generated hundreds of sketches, paintings and 3D models, all with the purpose to help finalize a look for this sequence so the Montreal team could generate the final shots. As an art department we worked on Blade Runner for over a year and loved every second of it!”
James Clyne, ILM: “On The Last Jedi we had to design this bomber. We were asking ourselves, what is a Star Wars bomber? How does that work in space? I started developing something that had a vertical bomb bay rather than a typical horizontal one. The director, Rian Johnson, said, ‘I like the idea, but you’re going to have to really show me that it works.’ So we went back to the drawing board and did drawings and models of it. It was story driving the design rather than the design driving the story. Through discussions and weeks and weeks building out what this could be, it became what you saw in the movie, which was amazing.”
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Lynwen Brennan and Lucasfilm.
Looking at the responsibilities of Lucasfilm Executive Vice President & General Manager Lynwen Brennan, which involves overseeing Lucasfilm, ILM and Skywalker Sound, one could imagine her head spinning around in bewilderment, but via Zoom she has a ready smile and good sense of humor. “Sometimes it does feel like that! I have an amazing team that helps to keep me on track.”
San Francisco is half a world away from Tenby, Wales where Brennan was the youngest of three born to two school teachers. “It’s as far away from Heathrow Airport as you could possibly get on that island. Everybody knows everybody. My childhood was spent either in the harbor, on the beach or on a boat. My dad was a larger-than-life personality. I got my drive and values of being respectful and interested in other people from him. My mum was definitely the organizer and her work ethic is a thing to behold even now at the age of 84.”
Music rather than movies had a big influence on the family. “My sister and niece are music teachers,” states Brennan, who is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. “Those experiences of playing in orchestras and being involved in a team at such an early age, having those social experiences and having that self-motivation to do your part and practice were hugely important. I play the piano every day. It was the first instrument that I learned. I played the violin and viola in the orchestra, which I still play but not well.” Tenby had one cinema that has since closed down. “I was a [Girl Guide] Brownie when my father took us to see Jaws. Bear in mind I was in a coastal town and spent my whole life on a boat. I was terrified to go into the sea or to even have a bath for ages afterwards! That was the first one I remember going to see. Watching movies became a social thing with friends. When there was a good movie on terrestrial TV, we would get together to watch it. When we were able to get VHS tapes, I watched E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Grease over and over again. Then I got into wanting to actually understand more about movies and what I should be watching, like Casablanca and Citizen Kane.”
Her career path to the movie industry was paved by accidents. “I did biology and geography at the University of London and specialized more on the ecology side,” remarks Brennan. “I was interested in the history behind human behavior and how that leads to either sustainable land use practices or environmental damage. I had intended to take a year off after university and return to do a Masters or PhD or go into law.
The week after I graduated, I went to a local theme park with some friends and fell off of a rollercoaster. It took me about a year to learn how to walk again. In that time my brother, who had been working in broadcast television graphics, had an idea to do some software for film visual effects. He was thinking about setting up Parallax Software and asked me if I would help him. There were only five us in the beginning. I was doing everything from hiring people, payroll, customer support, marketing, public relations, office management to sales. About nine months later, we went to our first tradeshow and Doug Smythe at ILM was looking for the type of paint and roto software that we had created, called Matador. ILM was our first customer and Jurassic Park was the first film that they used it on. I remember sitting in the theater, seeing that Brontosaurus walk onto the screen, and thinking, ‘This is what I’m going to do, and I’m going to work at ILM one day.’”
Parallax Software was sold to Avid Technology in 1995. “I stayed there for two years and was then asked to work for Alias Wavefront for a period of time,” recalls Brennan. “Cliff Plumer, who had worked at Parallax with us, was at ILM and called me about an entry level job and asked if I wanted to assist them to gear up for Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. I thought, ‘I’ll do that for six months and then go back to the U.K.’ That was 22 years ago and I’m still here. Much has and hasn’t changed, which is the way we like it at ILM. I started as a Technical Area Leader for the Computer Graphics Technical Directors. A lot of the time then was hiring artists and figuring out how to scale the crewing systems that we had to handle multiple shows at one time. As things began consolidating, growing and requiring efficiency within the way that we ran the computer graphics side of things, I organically absorbed new responsibilities. I worked my way through the entire pipeline. Eventually, while I was on maternity leave, Chrissie England told me that she was intending to retire and would like me to take on the presidency [of ILM]. I would have a nice ramp in to learn the ropes from her, and she was generous with her contacts and training me on how to work with clients to get their visions on the screen.”
A radical shift had to be made to the business model of ILM as global tax incentives as high as 40% became important in attracting clients. “We grew our Singapore office, pivoted away from games and animation, and focused that team on full pipeline visual effects,” explains Brennan. “This was right around the time of the acquisition by Disney, and George Lucas brought Kathleen Kennedy in.
We were going to make movies again, and wherever shooting was taking place we had to make sure that ILM had a studio there. We expanded into London, Vancouver and more recently to Sydney. That was a huge shift from a management perspective to figure out how do you scale as a global company and keep the DNA that is ILM, but also allow those studios to have a unique character. How do you share work across shots, sequences or shows between studios in different time zones? Also, how do we keep our San Francisco studio feeling energized that its not their jobs going away, and when we’re saying that we are committed to staying in California, we really mean it. San Francisco is as big now as it was then. The part that hasn’t changed is the spirit of loving impossible things, and we’ll figure it out together. John Knoll always says, ‘A good idea is always a good idea no matter where it comes from.’ That is the mantra of ILM. I love that constant striving to push the envelope and to do better. There is never a sense that we know it all, and you can sit back and rest on your laurels.”
“Everybody in visual effects knows that it is not an easy business to run and stay profitable,” observes Brennan. “You have to have a clear vision of what is your North Star. We want to be putting images on the screen that delight audiences and enthuse our clients. We want to be delivering to our directors things that are even better than what they had already imagined. We also want to be looking for work that isn’t just what we’ve done over and over again. We do 15 projects at one time right now, so not everything is something that we haven’t done before, but there is probably an element of it in everything that we do. I will often say when we have taken on something that is hard and the financials are looking scary, ‘Remember why we took it on.’ You’re looking ahead of what you’re going to need, what the problems are, trying to solve them in advance, and you move things around in the company as you need to.
We have amazing producers who are making sure that we are focusing the resources on where the problems are going to be. Also try to minimize the amount of time that you waste. If we have a full pipeline, there is a lot of leeway in terms of efficiency. If you don’t have a full pipeline, then you lose money very quickly over the year.”
Brennan is fascinated by the Music and Sound Design Lab that Skywalker Sound does in partnership with the Sundance Institute. “One of the things I love about Skywalker Sound is when they take a scene and do different takes on the audio, whether that be different editing or mix or music, and how you feel differently depending on what the sound choices are made; it brings to the forefront how important sound is. Lucasfilm’s films and series are places where sound have shone, and have been celebrated and noticed by the general audience.” Skywalker Sound works on 200 projects each year. “Some of the tools have changed and the ability to work remotely as freelancers. Not everything has to be done on a big mix stage; that has enabled some expansion and democratization of the sound industry. But when you go to Skywalker Sound there is so much that hasn’t changed. It is so much about collaboration and experimentation.”
Everything is done holistically from the storytelling to business decisions. “We think about what stories we are going to tell on all of these different platforms,” remarks Brennan. “Assets from ILM, our console games and ILMxLAB live in a central platform so there is a playbox that we can work with. Utilizing game and real-time technology, whether that would be Unreal Engine in combination with our own real-time engine Helios, we use the best tool for the job. Because virtual production demands for us to push the envelope in terms of the visual fidelity and the interactivity that is needed to move the camera and manipulate in real-time, it has helped us to be able to think beyond that and how entertainment might evolve.
“I’m excited about where the future could go,” she continues. “Having various platforms to tell nuanced and targeted stories for different audiences and genres opens up the playfield so widely. Then also our job is to be good stewards of that so that we open it up in a thoughtful way. There is variety, but it’s not confusing, overwhelming or too much. The quality always has to stay high, which is Kathleen Kennedy’s mantra. The fact that we also have Skywalker Sound, ILM and ILMxLAB means that we have this creative community within Lucasfilm that we can bring to bear for our directors.”
Several career highlights stand out for different reasons. “I still remember that moment of walking through the door,” recalls Brennan. “Of my years at ILM, the projects that I remember are the ones which were really hard because we were doing something new and difficult. The Perfect Storm nearly brought us to our knees! You come out of that with this amazing sense of commandry. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was definitely a huge moment to be part of. The Mandalorian was another one of those moments. When we went all in on StageCraft, we didn’t know if it was going to work. Then to see how the series was embraced. Seeing Dave Filoni do live-action directing was a wonderful highlight as well. Even the decisions around Grogu, where we were part of a secret and couldn’t wait for the audience to see him. He went so beyond what we had hoped. There are so many highlights. I’ve been incredibly lucky with my career and the people I work with.”
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Lionsgate and Centropolis Entertainment.
Whether it be an alien invasion in Independence Day, a raging Kaiju in Godzilla or the environmental catastrophe of The Day After Tomorrow, German filmmaker Roland Emmerich has gained a reputation of being able to destroy the world in creative ways. The cinematic tradition is carried over into Moonfall where a mysterious force knocks our lunar neighbor out of orbit and on a collision course with Earth. It is up to NASA executive Jo Fowler (Halle Berry), astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) and conspiracy theorist K.C. Houseman (John Bradley) to save the day, and in the process of doing so they make a surprising cosmic discovery. Reuniting the team behind Midway, which includes Production Designer Kirk M. Petruccelli (The Space Between Us), Visual Effects Supervisor Peter G. Travers (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Special Effects Supervisor Guillaume Murray (Crisis), Emmerich has crafted a $140-million independently-funded action-adventure with a cerebral twist.
A different global disaster occurred during pre-production in Montreal as the pandemic caused the project to temporarily shutdown. “When I prepared the movie, I had 74 days to shoot, but then I had to figure out what to cut out to be able to afford the COVID-19 costs of $6.5 million,” states Emmerich. “For an independent film, you can’t go to a bank and ask for more money. I ended up with 61 shooting days. There were no compromises. I just shot faster.”
Re-igniting the public imagination and interest in outer space is the emergence of space tourism. “NASA read the script and supported us,” says Emmerich. “It took us three or four years to get the script right because it’s such an out-there story and we needed to give it some reality.
I read a book called Who Built the Moon? by Christopher Knight and Alan Butler, and thought, ‘Maybe there’s a movie here.’ We made our own series. If you only do a story about the Moon falling down to Earth, that is a disaster movie. We wanted to do something deeper and more exciting than that.”
Even though Moonfall has been described by Emmerich as being a mix of 2012 and Independence Day, a cinematic classic from Stanley Kubrick casts a long shadow. “2001: A Space Odyssey is a seminal movie because it was not only a science fiction film, but also about the origins of life. In that perspective, Moonfall is closely connected to 2001,” Emmerich comments. “I knew by 2022 that nobody would go to the Moon. We figured that the space shuttles would get pulled out of a museum and, within a crazy time schedule, be put back together and sent up there. We thought about what problems that they could have, and that was a cool factor to make this realistic.” The spectacle has to be balanced with the human aspect, he observes. “The biggest problem for any movie that has spectacle is figuring out how much character can you infuse and how much character do people want to have? I’ve been battling with this all of my life! You try to be true to the characters, and we got good actors involved like Halle Berry, Patrick Wilson, Donald Sutherland, Michael Peña and John Bradley. Halle would say, ‘I wouldn’t say that line.’ Then you have discussions about it, and most of the time something better comes out of it. The cast worked with us to make this real.”
“Moonfall has 1,700 visual effects shots. You have to plan exactly what you want to do, because visual effects companies are already working on these shots while you’re shooting the movie. It is like a dance, but because I’ve been doing this for 40 years I’ve gotten good at it.”
—Roland Emmerich, Director
“If you only do a story about the Moon falling down to Earth, that is a disaster movie. We wanted to do something deeper and more exciting than that.”
—Roland Emmerich, Director
As part of the emergency response the space shuttle is recommissioned and retrofitted.
Sets had to be redesigned to accommodate COVID-19 protocols dealing with social distancing. “For instance, in the spacecraft, the chairs had to be four feet away from each other, whereas normally I would have them tighter together,” states Petruccelli. “Roland set into motion every nuance and dynamic that had to be enacted. 135 sets were built on six stages at Grandé Studios in Montreal as well as on a couple of filler stages at MELS Studios. Four to five sets were shot each day. Every set was specifically crafted with the visual effects team in mind. Roland thinks far beyond the physical structure. It all has to integrate with the post-production process. He is masterful at that.” Parts of Colorado had to be recreated onstage because location shooting was minimal. “We had to come in and know when we could use one section of the stage, move it to another section, and rotate pieces of it away to create another set,” says Petruccelli. “There were dedicated stages to space travel that were clean environments. We had to rebuild several locations in Los Angeles, including the planetarium, because everything was so dependent on atmospherics that would occur with the visual effects.”
Designs were based on reality and physics. “Roland loves the fact that truth and reality set us apart from pure fantasy and sci-fi,” remarks Petruccelli. “Things that occur in space are in a vacuum, while things on Earth are being manipulated by the forces that the Moon bears if this [catastrophic event] should happen.” Sets had to be designed to accommodate the physics, he says. “If you’re in a motel in Santa Monica, we had to be west-facing because the water would be coastal. We had to calculate how the water would impact the set, and integrate the volume of water with a bigger event. We talked to experts at NASA about what was the actual load capacity of the space shuttle.” A museum in Florida supplied an original space shuttle cockpit. “We made it usable for us to do the weightless scenes,” enthuses Emmerich. “That was some of the most complicated stuff that we did in the whole movie, because when you sit in a tight set interesting decisions have to be made on how to do it.”
The shooting methodology has evolved for Emmerich. “I’m not doing much floor effects anymore because I know later in visual effects you can do them much better,” he says. “For example, if you have snow flurries I only shoot with wind and leave the rest to visual effects.” Special effects still have an on-set presence. “Roland has clear ideas about how he wants to do things and make them work on-set and onscreen,” states Guillaume Murray. “That gives us the right tools to polish those mechanical effects for him. It has to be quick, efficient and easy to re-set. Most of the rigs that we do are modeled in 3D. The printing aspect will be used for prop building. CNC machines are utilized for all of the mechanical parts.” Motion control systems assisted with the zero gravity effects, Murray adds. “We built a robot and used motion control that allowed us to puppeteer actors or stunt people in the shot, and do it in a way where we didn’t need to stop and program every move on set.
“The Moon being out of alignment created the need for a lot of mechanical effects for the scenes on Earth,” continues Murray. “We had lots of people, cars and tents flying in every direction. There were a lot of body shells to avoid the cables that would cross faces. The majority of the practical elements were captured during the shoot.” Two space vehicles were fabricated with the art department, Murray adds. “Those set pieces were placed on tilt rigs so we could bring them up to 45 degrees for take-off scenes, and there were shaky motors to get everything shaking inside. The largest rig that we built was a tsunami. We had a 45-foot-high tip tank with two tanks each containing 3,200 gallons of water that could be dumped into a ramp right into the hotel lobby and wipe out whoever was there.”
“Roland loves the fact that truth and reality set us apart from pure fantasy and sci-fi. Things that occur in space are in a vacuum, while things on Earth are being manipulated by the forces that the Moon bears if this should happen.”
—Kirk M. Petruccelli, Production Designer
Three different color palettes were devised with Earth being organic, while space was chromatic and clean and the Moon colorless. “I was responsible for every digital asset that would be later used in post, so the creation of the post-production was happening far earlier in pre-production than you would imagine,” explains Petruccelli, who did 3D modeling in Maya. “The previsualization was so detailed that it was almost photoreal. You could understand what Roland was going to do and how best to tell the story. Every set was digitally created for visual effects, and then we isolated from it what had to be physically constructed to meet the needs of where Roland wanted to go.” Previs was created for every visual effects sequence. “My previs crew, visual effects supervisor and I talked about the purpose of the scene, how to build the environment and what’s happening, and then I set cameras,” explains Emmerich. “Once in a while it works. If it doesn’t work, we change it. It’s a tedious process that takes four to five months. Moonfall has 1,700 visual effects shots. You have to plan exactly what you want to do, because visual effects companies are already working on these shots while you’re shooting the movie. It is like a dance, but because I’ve been doing this for 40 years I’ve gotten good at it.”
As with the principal photography, the entire visual effects work was done in Montreal with Peter G. Travers supervising the contributions of DNEG, Framestore, Pixomondo and Scanline VFX. “You could make an easy argument that Montreal is the new hub for visual effects,” says Travers. “Considering the work that we needed and the amount people at certain facilities, Framestore and DNEG became ideal choices to add to Scanline and Pixomondo, which have longstanding relationships with Roland.”
DNEG and Framestore looked after space, while Earth was handled by Scanline VFX and Pixomondo. “There were clear lines. Two vendors never worked on the same shot, but assets were shared with the space shuttle being the biggest one.” Travers enjoys being able to research a different subject matter for each movie that he works on. “For this one, I learned every aspect about the Moon. There was an important process that happened in the beginning with Roland. The Moon falling towards the Earth is fantastical; however, what I ended up doing was building a physics simulation in Maya based on the question, ‘If the Moon gains more mass, could we get it to fall with actual physics?’ And we were able to do it.”
Maya is an actual physics simulator. “I built an accurate version of the Moon orbiting the Earth based on Newtonian physics,” explains Travers. “I constructed different virtual cameras showing the same simulation. Then I started messing with the physics of the Moon to see if I could get it to fall. Roland had certain requests, like having the Moon crash into the Earth in three weeks, which in essence is a design factor that got built into the simulation. What we discovered is that it’s not a perfect spiral orbit but elliptical. It was fascinating to learn what the Moon could do under these conditions. In rare instances when the Moon would be so close, you would be pulled 2Gs of gravity sideways while you’re being pulled down. There is a key sequence where the gravity is extremely unusual. This simulation ended up being our physics bible, but within that there is a certain wiggle room. But generally speaking, this was scary enough. We were also using my different cameras for actual moon size throughout the movie.”
LED panels were rigged on cranes and were constantly configured around the windows of the spacecrafts. “It got challenging because Roland wanted to shoot a master shot,” remarks Travers. “It just happened that outside there would be 10 significant events going on while these pages of dialogue were going on. We had to prep ahead of time content that would be done in Maya and be fed into the LED panels; then we would be cueing them editorially. Sometimes we were fed directly into Maya if the camera needed to be changed. There is a scene when one of the crafts is rotating quickly, so we had to have the sun rotating rapidly. We ran the sun across the LED panels. We were constantly figuring out ways to use these panels for lighting, and in some rare instances they would directly show up in camera.” The biggest design challenge was the Moon, states Travers. “I can’t [for spoiler reasons] reveal what aspect of it. It’s the best part of the movie. There is a sense of wonder. Of course, none of this is possible without Roland because he goes to places and shows us things that we have never seen before. That’s literally why we go to the theaters to watch a popcorn movie. This is what Moonfall has.”
By NAOMI GOLDMAN
Visual Effects Society Executive Director Eric Roth has had a front row seat to the dynamic global VFX industry and a major role in the Society’s growth, serving at the helm of the organization’s staff for 18 years. VFX Voice sat down with Roth to get his perspectives as the Society celebrates its 25th Anniversary.
What stands out for you as key achievements in the evolution of the Society?
On one level, it’s the tangible elements and events that have become synonymous with the Society – our award-winning VFX Voice magazine, three editions of the VES Handbook of Visual Effects, developing extraordinary VES Awards shows, our VES Honors Program and Hall of Fame, and our volunteer Committees who do important work for our organization. But on a broader sense, it’s the continuing healthy growth of the organization in terms of membership and reach. When I assumed this role, we were about 750 people, mostly situated in California; now we have more than 4,000 members in over 40 countries and 14 Sections worldwide. We are a vibrant organization that truly embodies a great sense of worldwide community for our profession. That is what I’m most proud of.
One of the goals of the organization is to raise the profile, recognition and respect level of the visual effects industry – how are we doing in meeting those marks?
This pursuit has been one of the most dramatic efforts during my tenure. Right now, I think there is a common understanding across all sectors of entertainment that the industry’s biggest star is visual effects, which is reflected in the size of every show’s budget and what fans want to see. Hit after hit owes so much to the amazing artists who consistently deliver remarkable effects and imagery and make the impossible… possible. And as we keep forging ahead into streaming platforms and the demand for content is exploding, the future for VFX is seemingly limitless.
Tell us about the leadership of the VES Board over the years.
A huge blessing of my tenure has been working with our volunteer leaders serving on the Board in all capacities, and certainly the six people who have held the title of Chair – each of them singularly remarkable leaders. We strive to focus on issues of importance at the intersection of art, technology and business. The passion, knowledge and determination of these leaders to ensure the Society progresses have been essential as we work to represent the industry, the VFX craft and our membership.
At almost two decades as Executive Director, what does your VES legacy look like?
There are specific projects I want to see to fruition, and creating a VFX Digital Museum is at the top of my list. From interviews with luminaries to techniques and VFX props to befores/afters on awards submissions and our own rich history – I want to make sure these assets are preserved and available to our members and the rest of the world in a fun, accessible way. I also want to continue providing valuable benefits to support our members in their professional and personal lives, and our new Member Assistance Program providing health and lifestyle support 24/7 is the kind of programming I want to keep fostering. Ultimately, I’m now most interested in those projects that will stand the test of time so that my successors 30 years from now will look back and feel they have a strong foundation for the work and goals they want to achieve.
How has the VES innovated during the protracted pandemic?
With heads of the tech revolution and early adopters among our ranks, our industry pivoted quickly to tell stories in new and creative ways. And the Society shifted almost immediately into producing a wealth of online content, with dozens of dynamic webcasts and virtual events including a digital spin on the VES Awards. It was important that we maintain our traditions, while pushing the envelope of the pandemic’s constraints. The lessons we have learned to adapt and stay resilient have been invaluable.
We’re also coming up on the 20th Annual VES Awards. What is the magic of this annual event?
The VES Awards is a huge point of pride for me and my producing partner in crime Jeff Okun, as well as the VES Awards Committee, who work year-round to refine the Rules and Procedures that govern the Awards. The magic is the excitement and energy of the crowd. Every year, quieting the ballroom to start the show is a major feat, because people are so excited to be together, if only for one night. When I walk through the crowd and look at the audience from atop the stage, I feel like I am home with family.
What are some moments that stand out from these star-studded VES Awards?
So many. That time I flubbed Ridley Scott’s name and (then Fox Studios Chair) Jim Gianopulos stood up in the ballroom and called me out, mid-speech. Wafting in and out of greenroom conclaves between Jimmy Kimmel and Mark Hamill. Watching intimate moments, like Roger Corman swapping stories backstage with VES Board Chairs Jeff Okun and Mike Chambers. My annual shtick with our wonderful and sharp-tongued perennial host, Patton Oswalt. And moments that change our course, like when Steven Spielberg took the stage and passionately urged us to honor the next generation of artists. And by the following year, the VES-Autodesk Student Award was born. I’m grateful for every moment.
Can you share any closing thoughts?
The number one biggest strength and pleasure is working with extraordinary staff and passionate volunteer leaders as we serve our Board and Sections. We would never be able to pay for the caliber of award-winning artists and innovators who are on this journey with us, simply because they believe in who we are and what we do. I’ve been in the catbird’s seat for 18 years, and I’m the luckiest guy in the industry.
By NAOMI GOLDMAN
From its ambitious inception in late 1996 with a few hundred members in Los Angeles to a flourishing global honorary society with more than 4,000 members in over 40 countries, the Visual Effects Society is proud to celebrate its milestone 25th Anniversary and the exemplary VFX community whose contributions have made the Society what it is today. As the entertainment industry’s only organization representing the full breadth of visual effects practitioners, the VES has built a rich legacy by advancing the arts, science and application of visual effects, improving the welfare of its members, celebrating VFX excellence and serving as a resource to the ever-changing global marketplace.
The Society has demonstrated its commitment to elevating the craft of visual effects and its practitioners in numerous ways, including:
• Giving birth to a tight-knit global community and 14 diverse VES Sections – Australia, Bay Area, France, Georgia, Germany, India, London, Los Angeles, Montreal, New York, New Zealand, Toronto, Vancouver and Washington;
• Publishing three editions of the industry’s go-to VFX reference, The VES Handbook of Visual Effects, and launching its award-winning print and digital magazine VFX Voice;
• Establishing the VES Hall of Fame and VES Honors program to recognize exceptional contributions to the Society and VFX community;
• Developing valuable programming that educates, inspires and uplifts, including a wealth of virtual content featuring the VFX Pros: Home Edition and VES-Autodesk Ask Me Anything: VFX Pros Tell All webcast series;
• Hosting the VFX industry’s must-attend Annual VES Awards, which recognizes outstanding VFX talent and fosters the next generation of filmmakers;
• And finding new ways to support and invest in our members, with mentoring, skills building, educational and health and wellness resources.
VES CHAIRS, ASSEMBLE!
Six distinguished professionals have served as VES Board Chair over the past 25 years, shepherding the VES’s impressive roster of programs and initiatives in conjunction with staff and Section managers. VFX Voice gathered all the chairs, with VES Executive Director Eric Roth, to share some reflections and insights. This small club of esteemed volunteer VES leaders includes: Jim Morris, VES – President, Pixar Animation Studios (and Founding VES Chair); Carl Rosendahl – Distinguished Professor of Practice and Director of the Entertainment Technology Center’s Silicon Valley campus; Jeffrey A. Okun, VES – renowned visual effects supervisor; Jeff Barnes – Executive Vice President, Creative Development, Light Field Lab; Mike Chambers, VES – acclaimed visual effects producer and consultant; and Lisa Cooke – animation and VFX producer.
Morris: The origin story: In the late ’90s, all of the studios were rolling into VFX and there was tremendous momentum, but we often felt like second-class citizens. The timing felt right to teach the industry about what we do, improve our standing and find a form for honoring the contributors to our industry. Building relationships among artists and practitioners was essential to our business, and so there was great support and acceptance to share our experiences and elevate our craft. Bringing VFX to the forefront and being part of the VES’s genesis – and this esteemed group – is a great point of pride for me.
Rosendahl: In taking the mantle from Jim, who helped realize the foundational vision for the Society, I focused on building the infrastructure… the processes and procedures that would help us mature from our infancy into a stable and sustainable organization. I was tasked with heading our recruiting committee, which ultimately brought on Eric Roth as Executive Director. Now 18 years in his tenure, I see hiring Eric as one of my biggest accomplishments.
Okun: The Awards show was really Jim’s baby… and it was a journey getting to that first show, with 350 people at the Skirball Center, to where we are today. Little known fact: we crowd-sourced the design of the award itself. One of our members came up with the Georges Méliès moon face idea, and here’s what’s unique – the back of the award is the back of a set with chicken wire and the whole thing lights up. Our award won an award for awards! What’s most gratifying is walking into the room on Awards Show night and seeing the mass of people who are genuinely excited to be there in celebration of their peers as we honor every vertical we can think of. And on serving as VES Chair – it’s a life-changer, and Jim and Carl were absolute lifelines.
Morris: I’m so glad we’ve had the opportunity to honor some of our pioneers in our early years of the show, like Lynwood Dunn and Ray Harryhausen. I have vivid memories of us then coming together to lobby the Mayor of Hollywood to get Ray a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Our show continues to be that beacon where VFX talent get their deserved moment in the spotlight. I’m so excited to attend our 20th Awards show this year – it gives me goosebumps!
Chambers: That rally around Ray Harryhausen is actually what inspired the Hall of Fame. While we had the Awards Show in place to honor our contemporaries, so many formative people that had passed on needed to be remembered. A lot of things came to fruition under my watch: the Hall of Fame, launching VFX Voice magazine, and certainly an explosion of global expansion, but everything was a team effort and built on what came before. What guided me when I came into this role was our mission and how could I help us continue to foster education and build recognition for the practitioners all across the industry. Over time, we have evolved into a more inclusive organization. COVID was a left turn, and yet we have been supportive and resilient during the pandemic, so adept at creating remarkable virtual programming and finding ways to keep us all tethered across the globe. We keep getting better, and that’s testament to all of our volunteer leaders and every one of our members.
Barnes: I love being around creative people, and the Society is the pinnacle when it comes to conveying outstanding professionals and using our collective resources to advance our work. When I came on as Chair, I was feeling a sense of responsibility in hiring people for my company and growing a business, and I was aiming to set some precedent and considerations that might help protect them and enhance their professional life. Providing that kind of value was and is really important to me, and I’m proud of the work not only as board member and Chair, but also as a member.
Cooke: Mike, yours were very big shoes to fill. Essentially, I inherited a beautiful, well-built house, but I didn’t have to build the house. The support among this special group who know what’s possible and how to make things happen has been invaluable. I’m proud to be the first woman in this role, and I’m committed to lifting up our future leaders so that I’m not the last.
Chambers: Our determination to outreach to all corners of the globe and to all of the disciplines across the VFX spectrum has definitely yielded us a very rich, talented membership, and that commitment to diversity will continue to be a driving force of the organization. And bottom line, more than just recognizing and honoring our history, we are actually making history for our industry… and we’re documenting it to create a powerful legacy that will endure.
Barnes: From the time that I joined to where the Society is today, it’s mind-blowing. We set out to raise the credibility and respect level of the visual effects community and shine a spotlight on the excellence of the artists and practitioners. And the extent to which that has happened is undeniable. Membership continues to skyrocket, and our magazine and awards show are acclaimed… and so our ability to have an influence gives us a great platform to keep innovating.
Okun: It’s the VES that draws the passion and respect out of people and invests it back into the Society and our industry. I may be biased, but the VES is the gold standard. The volunteerism that fuels our work, at every level, is amazing, and the new voices and new talents who are stepping up to help shape our future encourage me.
Rosendahl: The VES has played a vital role as an industry convener, providing forums for education and skills development, and in prompting conversations around the complexities of our rapidly evolving global marketplace. We have the aptitude to keep focused on how the industry adapts and innovates and can help shape that landscape, while we build capacity among our members to foster their success.
Cooke: When I took on this role, I wanted to delve into who the Sections are, so I’ve been on a global Zoom tour, listening in to keep building a sense of community that is a true reflection of our diverse industry. So much work is going on across the organization that fills me with pride and optimism. I’m enthusiastic about our Education Committee in developing programs to mentor young women and people of color and bring them into visual effects. That effort will only enhance our field for future generations. I’m proud that we will be introducing a Technology Award into the Awards program and of the work of our Archives Committee in capturing and preserving interviews with our VFX pioneers and luminaries. And I’m immensely gratified by the work of our Health and Wellbeing Committee, which has developed amazing resources to support our members, personally and professionally, including our new Member Assistance Program available to our members worldwide 24/7. These are the investments and benefits that make being a part of the Society so meaningful.
Okun: When VFX took the leap on the shoulders of the greats in the ’50s/’60s/’70s and the team on Star Wars – the rubber band that kicked us into orbit – that’s when the magic of VFX became a community of magicians. I begged to join the Society when it was formed, because that’s where the dark arts convened to share the real stories – and still do. We are pivotal to every aspect of the entertainment industry, and there is not a single image that we don’t touch. Our ongoing work to command the respect equal to our contributions is vital and makes a huge difference.
Morris: The esprit de corps, the camaraderie, the authentic sense of community at the center of everything we do, is why we have accomplished so much together our first 25 years… and here’s to the next 25!
Our 25th anniversary issue would not be complete without celebrating our members from around the world.
You are our greatest strength and source of pride – so take a bow!
Domenic Di Giorgio
Jo Ann Tan
Bree Whitford Smith
Alceu Baptistao, Jr.
Charles Abou Aad
Roy C Anthony
Jo Ann Belen