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An Interview with ILM’s Ben Snow and Pixar’s Christophe Hery

At FMX 2011, AWN sat with ILM vfx supervisor Ben Snow and Pixar's Global Tech and Research TD Christophe Hery. If you’re interested in lighting, shading, rendering, the ground-breaking work done on Davey Jones along with other insights into ILM and Pixar filmmaking, these interviews are for you.

Pixar's Christophe Hery (l) and ILM's Ben Snow (r) talk lighting, shading, rendering and the wonders of Davey Jones.

As a visual effects supervisor at ILM, Ben Snow has helmed the vfx efforts on a number of high profile films, including both Iron Man films, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Terminator Salvation and King Kong.  Snow joined ILM in 1994 to work on three-dimensional computer graphics for Star Trek: Generations.

Currently Pixar’s Global Tech and Research TD, Christophe Hery joined the studio in 2010 after spending 17 years at ILM.  Hery’s most recent work involves writing new lighting models and rendering methods for yet unannounced shows.  In 2010 he received a Technical Achievement Award for the development of point-based rendering for indirect illumination and ambient occlusion. He is recognized throughout the industry as one of the leading technical innovators and researchers in areas of lighting and rendering.

At FMX 2011, the two presented a tech talk on lighting and rendering titled, “Introduction of Physically Based Shading and Filtered MIS and ILM.”

Interviewed together by AWN, here are some of the highlights:

When discussing differences between the last and most recent Pirates of the Caribbean films, Christophe and Ben reminisced about the groundbreaking work done creating the character of Davey Jones.  According to Christophe:  

“What was fascinating for me was that the design they came up with on Davey Jones, and all the techniques around it, you had for one of the first times as ILM where the creature made complete sense.  You had an actor the embodied the voice of Davey Jones really well. You had all the little barnacles and details on his tentacles and on his skin that completely made sense for who he was.  You had all the simulation we were doing on the tentacles and we were working on the skin, the translucency, which made sense because he was someone coming from the water…I was so excited when I saw the design.  Everybody was, I think.  We developed all the techniques.  We really pushed it.  We changed the way we approached modeling on the show.  We started introducing Z-Brush into the mix.  This is the first time we introduced point-based techniques, point-based ambient occlusion and indirect diffuse…All that sort of led the way to a lot of stuff that happened later.  By the time we left the show we had a good handle on skin, a good handle on indirect diffuse lighting.  A lot of other studios started doing the same thing. You could see the trend.  You had Benjamin Button and all those shows.  And now, we’re sort of coming back and saying maybe point-based is something of the past, we need to do more ray tracing.  It’s another interesting renaissance for me in terms of algorithms and things like that.” 

Ben concurred with Christophe:

“I agree with you that Davey was an amazing thing.  It’s really great to have the time to develop a character like that.  What was interesting to me about him was that I’d been working on King Kong and just came back as they starting rendering Davey, I don’t think they had any finals yet.  At the end of the show, I talked to the artists and basically the modeler, the texture painter and the look dev TD, and there were a lot of people supporting them, including you [motions to Christophe], and different modelers on the model side, it was a bigger team then that, but they really as a core worked extremely well together.  There was no preciousness. Blurring that line between those disciplines I think was really good.  They really were in sync.  It was to my mind the perfect way to develop something like that, having that relationship. On every show I’ve done since I’ve tried to make that happen, make sure the team working on a creature is a team.”

You can find all three segments of the Snow-Hery interview, along with our 2009 FMX interviews with Christophe here. AWN's 2010 interview segments with Ben can be found here as well. If you’re interested in lighting, shading, rendering and insights into ILM and Pixar filmmaking, these interviews are for you. Visit the FMX Channel on AWNtv to find dozens of interviews and session videos with top industry professionals such as Ken Ralston, Dave Sproxton, Jeff Okun, John Bruno, Alex McDowell, Volker Engel and Marc Weigert, Richard Edlund, Harrison Ellenshaw and many others.