Comic-Con isn’t all about comic book movies, tentpole films, and movie stars. Some folks like to rag on Con for being all about advertising ‐ and those people are missing out. The best panels are generally not in Hall H. The more intimate panels are the ones to go to, the ones about production designers, costume designers, and, in this instance, special effects. Anything about the nuts and bolts of filmmaking and the arts, where the participants aren’t there to sell something, is the place to be.
The first panel to kick things off right was Animated Effects in Live Action. Cinematographer Michael Hofstein, special effects coordinator Ian Hunter (Interstellar), director Peter Hyoguchi, and visual effects supervisors Adam Howard (Birdman) and Kevin VanHook (Olympus Has Fallen) were present to discuss their work.
We made sure to take notes of the high points of the conversation. Here’s what they had to say about the world of special effects:
Searching for the Muzzle Flash that Serves the Story
“We decided to do all the gunshots with visual effects, as opposed to live-action with blanks,” DP Michael Holfsten says, referring to a recent project he worked on. “We’re sending off the tests to the visual effects company. I tell them the certain way I want the muzzle flash, and when they send the muzzle flash back, I realized they had either been watching The Avengers or were working on The Avengers, which wasn’t apropos for the movie I was working on. The muzzle flashes from an automatic weapon look more cartoonish, whereas I wanted a candle that tapers at the end, as the bullet comes out the end of the muzzle. My movie was more of a thriller, not based on a cartoon situation. In The Avengers, those muzzle flashes were perfect, but not perfect for my movie.”
Scorsese and Blood
“Martin Scorsese has done a lot of movies over the years that involve blood splatter and gunfire,” Ian Hunter says, who’s worked with the filmmaker multiple times. “You wouldn’t know it while watching it, but in The Departed, all the muzzle flashes and blood splatter was added in post. Marty, having experience shooting blood splatter and muzzle flashes before ‐ and actually shooting guns in his movies, once or twice ‐ knows the problem a blank causes. There’s a lot that gets coordinated with a blank, and Marty didn’t want to wait to reset or go through the choreographed action for this effect. If you watch the movies very closely from the ’60s or ’70s, you’ll notice the actor flinching, as they’re preparing for the blood to come up. By adding the blood splatter and muzzle flashes in post, it allowed them to shoot faster, move faster, and have the actors react more believable.”
Sometimes Practical Effects are Cheaper
“We were doing this insane car chase [for Unknown] in Germany,” visual effects supervisor Adam Howard recalls. “The director said, ‘So we’re going to shoot the whole thing with green screen.’ Why? He said, ‘Because it’s the easiest way to do it, because we can control it later on.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but then your budget is going to go through the roof. We even got the James Bond stunt driving crew, so why don’t we do it in-camera and see what we get?’ We changed the way it was blocked out and shot. There were 120 shots that could have been visual effects shots.”
James Cameron Doesn’t Believe in the Impossible
“On Titanic, they came to me and said, ‘Jim wants to do a shot where Kate and Leo are running down the hallway, being chased by water,’” Howard says. “’There’s stunt-doubles, so what he wants to do is a little face-replacement.’ He shot the two actors running down the hallway, but then he shot the stunt-doubles with the huge water tank behind them. The problem is, all the lights were flickering on and off [in the scene] and there were other problems. Jim told Digital Domain what he wanted to do, and they said, ‘Go to hell, because it’s impossible.’ Then he went to ILM, who also said, ‘Go to hell.’ It was totally possible, but it was just time and money. The work ended up being 17 hours a day and seven days a week for two a half months, and I was the only compositor on that shot. At the end of the film, Jim said, ‘It had never been done before.’”
Pee-Wee Herman vs. Jurassic Park
According to Mr. Howard, “There are 50 visual-effects shots in Jurassic Park, while there are 1,200 visual-effects shots in the new Pee-Wee Herman movie.” What else is there to say about that?
How to Get Satan’s CG Urine Right
“We did this shot of Satan urinating into a gutter,” Hunter recollects, and which movie that shot was for remains unknown, but if it has satan peeing into a gutter, then it must be good. “The animator was doing this shot, and it just didn’t look like urine hitting the gutter. He’s a really talented animator, but we kept telling him to fix it. He was doing what the computer was telling him to do, to make it look like urine hitting the gutter. We saw in the parking lot the gardener had water running down the gutter. I said, ‘Get the animator’s ass out here!’ It looks real: how it bounces off the surface, how it breaks up, and how it looks in the light. We don’t reference other people’s movies for how physics work, we actually watch real aircrafts, spacecrafts, or gunfire. We observe the real thing, and then we apply that observation to the effects.”
How Green Screen Can Sabotage Having Realistic Focus
“I’ve dealt with a fair amount of green screen cars,” Kevin VanHook says. “I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve had with people over how far out of focus something should be. We’d shoot it and put things in different focal lengths and distances from the camera, so we can see an example of what the focus would really be if something was 20ft away. When you’re doing green-screen, sometimes you can’t do that. You’d be amazed how many people have an opinion about it when, ultimately, they don’t care. They’d say something looks softer or blown-out, but that’s the reality. If you shoot traditionally inside of a car, unless you light the heck out of people inside the car in broad daylight, the outside world gets blown out. When you do green-screen, some people want to throw that out of the window.”
How to Seamlessly Blend Miniatures and CG
“There’s a shot in Shutter Island of Ward C, which is where they kept the most criminally insane,” Hunter says, when I asked about working on that more effects-heavy Scorsese picture. “The exterior was a 60ft tall set, which was gorgeous. Most of it was a visual-effect of some sort. Typically, it was a miniature that was photographed, the guys walking around were actors shot on a blue-screen, and there’s a crane after the hurricane that’s picking up some stuff ‐ and that’s a CG crane. We approach visual-effects as, ‘What’s the best technique to make this shot the most believable?’ Real actors look best because they’re real. The miniatures we shot outdoors in natural sunlight, with the best sunlight we could possibly get, because it’s real. It’s just a matter of combining all these elements to make it believable.”
Don’t Forget to Light the Scene
“I don’t have a real preference,” Hunter responds, when asked about the difference between working with film and digital. “I do agree that film is best recording live events, so it still has an edge over digital. There’s a digital supervisor, Ted Ray, who says, ‘Film is great for recording images, but it’s lousy for storing them.’ The best thing is to film something and then scan them, so you avoid scratches. I think the trick with digital photography is it has this incredible range, so you had people that were not lighting, thinking, ‘I can get away without lighting!’ It looks like crap. I hate using this example, but look at The Last of the Mohicans, which was shot on film ‐ it’s a beautiful, outstanding piece of work. Look at anything Mann has shot recently, and it looks terrible. They’re not watchable. The same cameras that were used to shoot Public Enemies ‐ which is a good movie with terrible photography ‐ were also used to shoot The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and that movie looks great. It’s a matter of the cinematographers still having to light the scene and think about how they’re going to expose the image ‐ and that’s the biggest thing about doing digital photography.”