PETER JACKSON’S ‘THE FIGHTENERS’ AND THE ART OF VFX

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By Ian Failes

Just last month, The Frighteners celebrated its 20 year anniversary. While not a blockbuster success, the film cemented Peter Jackson’s directing chops even before he went on to make the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Frighteners, now instantly recognizable as a classic cult hit, also introduced many to the talents of Weta Ltd (as it was then known) and the studio’s practical and CG capabilities – until then, the abilities of Jackson’s New Zealand effects facilities had been relatively unknown. But in terms of digital visual effects, in particular, The Frighteners would prove to be an extremely bold undertaking and that led to the call-up of experienced ILM animation supervisor Wes Takahashi as the film’s visual effects supervisor. Here, Takahashi recounts those days back in the mid-90s for OnePerfectShot.

Called Up to the Challenge

Wes Takahashi: I had been working at ILM as the head of the Animation Department. The company was undergoing a major change with the advent of the coming of age of digital technology and computer graphics. The department that I had been with for ten years was seeing its technology that included motion controlled downshooters and lights and hand drawn animation tables relegated to nothing but boat anchors as work on Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 paved the way for a revolution in visual effects.

I had to retool for CG and assimilate into that growing department. At the time I was working on the last project that I did while at ILM, animating the line and bobber and the boy on the moon for the Dreamworks logo. It was then that I got a call from the Bob Zemeckis, the executive producer on The Frighteners. We had a long relationship going back to the Back to The Future Series, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her, and other films. He was inquiring whether I was interested in VFX Supervising a New Zealand production under the direction of Peter Jackson. At that time I had heard of Peter Jackson for his Academy Award for writing Heavenly Creatures, but I had never known New Zealand to have had any distinguished work in visual effects.

Wes Takahashi actually appeared in the film (here as a foreground ghost with a head bandage).
Wes Takahashi actually appeared in the film (here as a foreground ghost with a head bandage).

I was invited down to talk with Bob at Universal. He explained that they were on this production for the better part of a year and that it was a ghost story. That news was comforting as I had worked on Ghost and ILM was currently working on its biggest production ever, Casper, and my relationship with Michael J. Fox the film’s star, went back ten years. I did express a lot of trepidation on heading up a VFX team made up of Kiwis as I wasn’t familiar with the notion of any VFX industry down there.

Bob then showed me a clip that Peter and his team had put together of Michael J. Fox working as a paranormal investigator revealing that he was actually in cahoots with a couple of spirits. The clip was inventive and filled with a number of great sight gags like the ghosts having some difficulty passing through inanimate objects with one stand out gag having one of the ghosts walking and talking as his head passed through a hanging exposed lightbulb which illuminated his head like a translucent light shade (this great shot was cut in the final release) and culminating in bug spray being sprayed onto one of the ghost’s faces who was being annoyed by a pesky fly and obliterating the ghost’s face. Andrew Adamson had been the VFX Supervisor but had opted to take on work on a Batman film. Pretty standup work so far, in my opinion and I gladly took on the role and agreed to fly to New Zealand for the remainder of the production.

Arriving Down Under

I met with Peter at his home when I first arrived. This I was to find a rare occurrence when Peter was not on set shooting day and night and weekend shifts. Passing through his house I was delighted to see whole rooms dedicated to toys and models all personal endeavors in the middle of construction. He handed me a script and discussed where he was and what he wanted to do, especially his goal to create a character in the evil Grim Reaper he hoped would live on in the pantheon of great classic movie monster-dom.

By this time I was feeling somewhat of a mole as I had been seeded into his film company by Bob and Universal to see whether or not there was hope that the film could be done as anticipated. There was only one other person that I knew of that didn’t seem to be handpicked by Peter and that was Jim Garbett, a Universal producer with boots on the ground in New Zealand. He invited me to an afternoon at his house where I had a chance to meet with the VFX crew which comprised of only about seven CG creative and techs at the time. I discovered they were mostly generalists who cut their teeth in the commercial industry who were forced to acquire broad based skills because of the small crews assigned to those projects.

I immediately set out to work breaking the screenplay down into the number of VFX shots that I envisioned would be needed. It had been nearly a year in production and had been informed that there was only a handful of VFX shots about five as I recall, that had been final’ed and they had been in the teaser. In my first breakdown I was shocked that I had counted more than 500 VFX shots and was even more shocked to learn that changes were made to the script by Peter and his wife Fran that altered my breakdown count since I had started the process.

Michael J. Fox, the film’s star.
Michael J. Fox, the film’s star.

For the next two weeks I was playing catch up to Peter and Fran’s script revisions and finally had to say that we had to lock the picture, there was too much at stake in regards to completing as promised. I could tell this was not what Peter wanted to hear, but I was trying to explain to him that the VFX shot count was higher than Casper which was presently taking up all of the resources that ILM had to offer with a team numbering into the hundreds. We were dealing with a New Zealand CG team of seven.

Recruiting for a Young Weta

The way Weta had taken shape was a completely different production model than ILM. At ILM production was stratified into specialists applying their niche talents in a long assembly line process. At Weta the crew of Kiwis were all accomplished generalists who were comfortable taking on whole shots, even whole sequences. It made for a very flat hierarchy very Kiwi-like, which sometimes had its inherent problems when things weren’t getting done because everyone had an equal say.

Weta established a strong ghost halo effect throughout the film.
Weta established a strong ghost halo effect throughout the film.

Eventually, I had to hire from all over the world in a very short amount of time. I had to entice people who were used to getting bigger pay rates and entice them with even more money and perks to make the move to NZ. We built out the studio’s infrastructure and increased the number of people working in VFX more than tenfold. I did it all without any of the reprehensible acts of what I consider corporate raiding. All of the people who ran major studios around the world I counted as personal friends at the time and so I went through everyone’s front door and told them my predicament and asked if I could borrow anyone for the period of our production and I would return them as soon as I was done and would make the offer that they could do open recruiting from any leftovers from my team as soon as I was done. I got a number of people from ILM and Sony all of whom I had made certain were not committed to any productions at the time. There were also crew culled from studios in Australia and as far away as France.

VFX highlights

This was my first film where I didn’t count any shots as my own. The tasks at hand were monumental and there was a shot I was animating that I never finished and was held up by the rest of the crew as a testament to my demise with the shot number probably still being echoed in the halls of Weta today.

This excerpt from the series Movie Magic examines Weta’s visual effects work.

But, the shots that came off well were the Grim Reaper shots designed and technical directed by Gray Horsfield with Kyle Balda creating some outstanding animation for this creature. The same character in a different form was that of a figure inhabiting the walls and fixtures of the house extruding the surfaces as he passed through. Another great achievement by Gray Horsfield. There was the transition to the creature turning into a tar-like substance and eventually dripping down into a gravesite with the face of Jake Busey affixed to this oozing mass which was brought to life by John Shiels. There was the climactic end sequence of flesh eating snakes and giant worms brought forth from the depths of hell that was singlehandedly pulled off again by Gray Horsfield in a record amount of time that was left at the crunch end of our post production schedule.

The ghost look had been primarily worked out before I got there. This was what comprised the teaser that enticed me to join up with Peter’s crew. Though the look was somewhat all over the place as far as consistency within the teaser that was shown, there were shots that we locked as standards that we matched all ghost shots to. And we refined the process, color correcting all of our monitors to a standard was another step we had to take.

As well as putting strict controls on our filmouts to ensure a color continuity. I worked with Wayne Stables who was put in charge of the ghost shots and I introduced some of the standard techniques that I used when generating lightning and lasers to effect glows and halation creating inner glows and outer glows that could be applied to the ghosts. The same technique of envisioning in 3D to apply rotoscope mattes that would effect the ghosts passing through solid objects is the same technique used when I worked on Ghost that has been used for practically every ghost movie ever produced.

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