Jay Redd Talks Men in Black 3 and Looney Tunes 3-D
JR: What immediately comes to mind is that on a live-action film we’re still doing match moves. We’re still doing rotoscoping of objects. We’re still painting out cables. All of that to prepare for doing the big stuff, [such as] creatures and integration and…exploding goo for the aliens. For example, in Men in Black 3, a big challenge personally was living in the Barry Sonnenfeld Men in Black 3 world. It’s not quite real. There’s a lot of cartoon whimsy to the stuff Barry does. He would sometimes kid Ken and I for saying that we wanted to get something more accurate looking, or more scientific, or more technically accurate. He’d say, “You guys, this is Men in Black. Just relax! Let it be funny, let it be cartoony, let it be silly.”
A lot of what we do is that we need to match something that is totally, photographically real. We were doing a lot of that in Men in Black because you need to make a city block feel like a city block. You need to make a car look like a car. If it stands out, that’s a problem. For us, it’s a lot easier now to make something look photoreal. I say “easier” but it’s still hard. [Now] we have the tools that allow us to do it, to make something totally photoreal. I feel like a lot of the challenge now is getting into something that’s a little more impressionistic. Maybe something that’s not totally photoreal.
I love space and astronomy and, going back to Contact, trying to really protect the visuals, making planets feel big, making the stars far away enough, the way the sun flares on the camera. All of that stuff’s got to be real. We brought some of that into the Men in Black world, and when we started getting too real Ken would sometimes nudge me, or Barry would, and say, “Nah. Just relax. Pull back a little bit. Let it be funnier, let it be more whimsical.” So I think that sometimes it’s a creative challenge. The technical challenges were big on the movie, but the creative challenges were [in some ways] even bigger. It’s working inside that universe that is much more whimsical than what I am used to.
DS: How did you get into the industry? Take us through the path of your career that brought you to being the visual effects supervisor on Men in Black 3.
JR: How can I condense it? As a kid, I was really interested in light and the way things work. I would take my radio apart, I would look at the stars at night, and the moon. I played with fire. I was a curious kid. One of the pivotal moments for me was going to Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming, which is in Close Encounters of a Third Kind. [It’s] the big volcanic plug where the aliens come to visit. I had no idea for a while that [the monument] was a real place, until my father went, “We’re going to go on a family trip, and we’re going to go there.” It was astounding, I remember, because we got there, and it felt a little smaller than I had imagined, and I thought, “Well, there’s [supposed to be] a cool landing strip in the back where the aliens come out.” None of that was there. I started to the put pieces together of knowing that you take something real, and turn it into a much bigger fantasy, something that’s all in your imagination, but still being able to see [the real part]. Seeing Douglas Trumbull’s work – of course, I was a kid at the time, so I didn’t really know what that was all about – that was hugely inspiring to me to see something that was real taken and manipulated, and turned into something totally different. That inspires me and still inspires me. I’m still wowed by the work on that.
I continued to play with photography and got really interested in graphic design and composition as a teenager. I started working in a little print shop doing paste-up graphics and coloring, working on photo retouching software before Photoshop ever came out. [It was] a little Sitex imaging machine in a little post-production house in Salt Lake City, Utah. While I was going to school full time, I also worked full time doing logo design. I was very young at the time, doing paste-ups and logos for local businesses. They wanted to get involved in 3D. This was 1988-89. I said, “I think I can help.” I started putting corporate logos on the side of mountains, and hot air balloons, and Frisbees, and all of that kind of stuff. Really early photo retouching was something that really helped me understand the photographic process. I had to analyze a photo really intensely to see the direction of the sun, the color of the shadows, the texture of the rock when [I was] embossing somebody’s logo, or putting somebody’s logo on a syringe they wanted to sell. I worked for a medical company for a while. All of that stuff from being a kid, and being aware and trying to analyze the way the world looks, is something that led me to wanting to make movies even more passionately.
I worked on my demo reel at night. I’d go to school full time, I’d work a bit, and then I’d stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, sometimes studying, sometimes working on animation and photo retouching. Then Jurassic Park came out in ’93, and I was blown away by that in the same way I was blown away by Star Wars, and Close Encounters. I had that moment again as a very young adult saying, “I’ve seen something that I never imagined.” I decided it was time to make a leap. I had to get out of Utah. I wanted to go make movies in Hollywood. I sent a reel out, and Rhythm & Hues was the place that I wanted to go. I went to SIGGRAPH in ’93, and met with them there. They called me two weeks later and I had a job at Rhythm & Hues as a lighter. It was really what I wanted to do. I learned Unix and worked on a Wyse terminal. Software at the time didn’t have knobs and color wheels; it was all script based. Even animation had a lot of script base to it. I learned to composite using scripts. I learned how to light using 3D coordinates, so I had to really think about what I was doing, instead of just grabbing and moving stuff around virtually. That led to my becoming a technical director there.
I continued to move up. I became a Sequence Supervisor. I took on more responsibility, learned about leading a team. I worked on Babe, and was thrilled when that won a Visual Effects Oscar. I did probably 12 different shots on that show, as a lighter and a compositor, putting on fur, and painting out. That was thrilling for me.
Then Contact came around. I got wind of it, and said to myself, “Wherever Contact goes, I need to work on this movie somehow.” Carl Sagan was a hero of mine when I was a kid, because of [my interest] in space. I heard a rumor that Robert Zemeckis was going to be directing it, maybe it was going to go to Sony Imageworks, and Ken Ralston was going to come down from ILM…all this stuff was happening. I took the leap. I was sad to leave Rhythm & Hues, because it was a place I felt like I was growing up in, and there was a lovely team there. But I needed to take that chance.
I went over to Sony, and had an amazing opportunity to work on, and to kind of design, the opening shot of Contact. That was the first time I worked with Ken Ralston. It’s kind of interesting to come back, many years later, and work together on a new movie. At Sony, I continued to explore more and work really hard on different films. Stuart Little came our way. I got to design fur and lighting tools and workflows. That’s when I got thrown onto the set for a couple of weeks with John Dykstra and Gerome Chen. I got thrown onto the set in Stuart Little 2, and that’s where it really started to happen, that different opportunities led me along this path.