Turning Glasgow into Philadelphia for the Zombie Apocalypse of World War Z
DS: This was an expensive production. There were a large number of locations. You had different crews running about. You’re there to capture what’s needed for the visual effects and hopefully do so in a manner that minimally impacts the rest of the crew. Tell me about the onset dynamic. How did you manage such a complicated onset production?
MJ: That’s a key and crucial element. I did a lot of work with Simon Crane, the second unit director, working on the garbage truck and big action stuff. In the old days, if you went in there as a visual effect supervisor, it would be like, “OK, it’s a visual effect shot. Everyone back away from the camera now! You can all just stop. We’re going to take over now.” If you did that today, you’d be fired in less than five minutes. On this film, it was nice being part of the creative team, working with Marc and Simon, to contribute and obviously not get in the way. On a movie like this, you need to know which battles to pick. For the visual effects, there are some things we need to do and make sure that they happen. There are other things where you just roll with it.
For example, in Glasgow, in order to allow the ease of tracking later, I had a team of people in different hotel rooms and offices around the square, shooting with witness cameras. I’d be onset talking with the director or dealing with the ADs, but there were all these other people with their witness cameras making sure they had multiple lines of sight on where the camera crews were located. One of the key things on this movie, because of the hand-held nature, we had physically mounted wide-angle lens reference cameras fixed onto the production cameras. For example, if the camera had a 200mm lens or was zooming around quite tight, our digital video camera always provided us a fixed wide reference point which we could synch with the live action. So even though the live action footage showed a close-up of someone’s face, the reference camera would be showing the doorframe or the wall or something behind it. Those types of setups were key in allowing the movie to keep shooting, be fluid and have the hand-held style that everyone wanted. But, we knew we had all this information in our back pocket.
DS: Ultimately, what was your greatest challenge on this film?
MJ: For me and for the team, it was just making sure people didn’t have a clue what we were doing. To be true and faithful to the style of the book, to make sure our work fit in within the reality of the movie, so it didn’t draw attention to itself. Yes, there is some very cutting edge, very sexy visual effects work in it. But it’s not a film about visual effects so much. You can do big flashy visual effects that work beautifully on their own. What’s harder in some respects, and even more rewarding to me personally, is to do stuff like that but keep it completely stylistically locked within the style of the film you’re making. In visual effects, we can do anything, as you well know. But, it’s not a space movie, it’s not a superhero movie. It’s more grounded than that. We were all just focused on trying to make it look real.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.