Jay Redd’s journey to the visual effects industry began, like so many others, with a profound childhood movie experience. In his case, it was a family vacation to Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming, the location for the alien ship landing in Close Encounters of a Third Kind. Unable to find the landing strip and other signature landmarks from the film, he was astounded to learn that in the movies, you could take something from the real world and turn it into something so fantastic. From humble beginnings doing logo design for local businesses in Utah to supervising visual effects on the latest Men in Black franchise hit, Jay has worked on some of the biggest films to come out of Hollywood. We recently had a chance to talk about his career, working with Ken Ralston again on MiB3 and with Matt O’Callaghan on the recently resurrected Looney Tune 3-D shorts.
Dan Sarto: Before we jump into Men in Black 3, I wanted to take a moment to talk about the recent visual effects supervision you did on Warner Bros.’ new Road Runner & Coyote 3-D shorts. Can you tell us a little bit about that project?
Jay Redd: I had a great time on that. [I got into the project through] Matt O’Callaghan, whom I knew from SPA [Sony Pictures Animation]. He was there working on some projects while I was at Imageworks. I was between projects, having just finished Monster House, doing a few things at Sony Pictures Animation, and I was looking around for some different things to work on. I talked to some folks over at Reel FX, in Dallas, and they asked me to come out and do some work with them on these Road Runner shorts. I talked to Matt a little bit about it, and he said, “Oh man, we could really use your help, it’d be great.” So, that’s how that started.
Working with Reel FX was a pretty interesting experience, because I had been working in a bigger studio, Imageworks. Reel FX was smaller, and had, arguably, less structure. They had done amazing character animation and great stuff for a smaller house. I went over there to help them put together a theatrical quality 3-D system, and these shorts came along. I had a blast making them. I was working with new rendering software, figuring out how to do stereo [stereoscopic 3-D]. There are some really talented people at the studio there.
I grew up on the Road Runner cartoons like everyone else and so being able to take Chuck Jones’ work into three dimensions was an honor, and also a huge challenge. To not just make 3-D versions of the characters, but to inhabit the spirit of the way Chuck Jones’ work was done. When you start deconstructing the work that he and his animators did, there are all sorts of things that are happening in-between frames, and in-between cuts. How would you recreate that stuff in three dimensions? Working with the Reel FX team, we developed a bunch of different methods for creating, say, motion blur in 3D, without using “motion blur”. In a Chuck Jones drawing, you might have six versions of a hand going by made out of paint strokes. How could we actually make that happen in stereo?
There were a bunch of really cool tools that were built at that studio to make all that happen. Matt has such a great comic sensibility and timing, and his strong animation skills really lent themselves to bringing the Chuck Jones stuff to life. We seemed to be able to capture his spirit.
DS: The finished shorts are really funny and look great. To bring such cherished characters and action into the 3-D world, you guys did a really good job.
JR: Thank you. I think we really treated the work with respect and, again, the whole team felt like it was an honor to be able to work on those films. It wasn’t just a little job. It was something we wanted to protect, and something that we wanted to pay homage to and go beyond that. We heard after the fact that Chuck Jones’ wife had seen the films at Warner Bros. They brought her in to look at them, and give them her blessing, so to speak, and – this is what Matt told me – she was almost in tears, saying that Chuck would be proud of them. That was the best message that we could have gotten. So I’m really, really proud of those shorts, and it was a great team at Reel FX that put those together.
DS: Let’s jump now into Men in Black 3. Tell us, what were your main responsibilities on the film? What was the size and scope of the effort, the number of shots? Give us a bit of the low down.
JR: I joined the MiB3 movie in the fall of 2010. I co-supervised the movie with Ken Ralston. He gave me a call in late summer, asked me what I was up to. I asked him what he was up to, and he said, “Men in Black 3,” and that he could use my help on the picture, shooting in New York, and seeing it through to post-production. I left Reel FX to go back to Imageworks to do that show. He told me it was going to be big, and the script was still being worked on, and that we’d be shooting most of the movie in New York, around Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, locations all over the place. Joining in the fall, I went to New York right away and started working with Barry Sonnenfeld, the director, on pre-production, previs, planning, and script breakdown. At the time, it was six or seven hundred shots, and, by the end, I think we ballooned into 1200.
One of the big challenges of the film is that the last Men in Black movie came out 11 or 12 years previous. Even though technology has changed a lot we needed to stay true to the first two films and work within the Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black universe.
DS: What were some of the more challenging shots? Was there anything in particular that you struggled with, or things that posed more of a challenge than others?
JR: The interesting thing about a Men in Black movie, especially Men in Black 3, is the wide diversity of shots and environments that need to be created. It’s not just hundreds of shots of aliens. Every shot has a special need, or a special requirement about it.
One of the big, challenging sequences in the film was the “time jump.” That’s Will Smith, at the top of the Chrysler building, jumping off the side of the building and going through a time travel sequence. That’s kind of how it was described in the script, so there’s a lot open to interpretation there. That was one of the things we started doing previs on in early 2010, and it ended up being some of the last material we completed.
What it required was getting on top of the Chrysler building and jumping off. Now, we couldn’t actually put cameras on the side of the Chrysler building. We wanted to control the lighting, and the textures of the walls, and color and everything. So right away it was, “We need to create a virtual New York.” A big challenge is creating a New York that isn’t necessarily the “real” New York. When you look around the Chrysler building, some of the buildings aren’t that interesting from a compositional standpoint. When we knew we had to jump off the building, we wanted to see what kind of texture was going by the camera to create the biggest sense of speed we could. Even though Imageworks has created versions of New York for the Spider-Man films, this was going to look a little different. We were going to be getting all the way down to the ground, moving the camera 360 degrees, in the daylight. There were no night shots, and it really had to hold up from every single angle you can imagine.
DS: You mentioned previs. What type of previs was done on the movie, what were you involved with, and how did it end up supporting the final film?
JR: Early on in previs, Spencer Cook, who is our animation director, went out to New York and started doing some exploration on what we termed the “Fish Fight,” which is this large alien fish at Woo’s Chinese Restaurant. [There was] a lot of early character exploration there. As the movie started to blossom, and we started getting whole cut scenes of the script storyboarded, we teamed up with The Third Floor, and Chris Edwards’ team there, to really previs big sequences including the “Monocycle Chase,” and the “Time Jump” off the Chrysler building. There’s a sequence at Shea Stadium and there’s a sequence at the end of the film at Cape Canaveral. It was really helpful for Barry, and for all of us, to help determine the pacing, and [get] an early view in editorial of how we were going to shoot all this stuff. It was key to say which shots we cared about, which shots we didn’t care about, things we thought would last all the way through the picture, other shots, just angles to explore. It really helped inform us of our workflow as well.
DS: Can you tell us about some of the tools that you used in the film, in regards to lighting, compositing, some of the technologies in your pipeline?
JR: While we’re on set, to get the best version of lighting - at least, that was shot – we used a mix of proprietary technology and a tool called the Sphereon. It’s a 360 degree, high dynamic range, [almost a] slit-scan photographic system that captures up to 11 stops of dynamic range. For example, in this room [indicates room of interview], if this thing were moving, [it would capture] very long exposures at high resolution. It gives us a dynamic range of where all the lights are in a scene. So we can take that into our image-based lighting system at Imageworks, render it using Arnold, our ray-tracer, and that allows us to get our digital characters in the scene rapidly. We can look at it and say, “Wow, that matches, the highlights are all working, [etc.]” Then from that stage we can get into the dramatic lighting on top of that. We did that for every major sequence on the film.
Once we’re at Imageworks, we’re using Arnold to render. Most of our animation is done inside Maya. We also use Houdini for our effects simulations, and Katana, which is our compositing and shot management software, to bring all the pieces together.
DS: Were there any technological advances that came out of your work on this film that made the project any easier, or any more efficient, that you potentially will use moving forward?
JR: That’s an interesting question because on this Men in Black film, again, we want to stay true to the first two. There have been a lot of advances in technology [since the last MiB film]. The way that we capture lighting information on set was really the big one for us. Everywhere we went we [used the] Sphereon [to capture] all the lighting information from scene to scene to drop in our characters pretty quickly. But [there was] a lot of mixing of old school and new school techniques. When I say “new school,” I mean modern, like image-based lighting and high-dynamic-range rendering. But a lot of stuff we were doing was still rotoscoping and match moves. This [movie] was shot on film, so it’s a really interesting balance of old school and new school techniques to make it feel like it’s in the Men in Black world. As far as huge technological advancements, I would say, really, the way we treated our image-based lighting.
DS: Let’s take a step back with regards to the process of making this film and let’s talk a little bit about the character design and the visual look. Certainly, the Men in Black films are known for their interesting characters and creatures, the morphing from human to creature, and back. Tell us a little about the process of visual development on the film.
JR: The amazing Rick Baker is, of course, on this film, and it’s really his world to design all of these different aliens that inhabit, not only outside the headquarters, but inside the Men in Black headquarters. I think, what was fun for all of us, especially for Rick, was actually being able to work on the modern version of the Men in Black headquarters, which takes place in 2012, but then, because of the time travel element, [also work on] the 1969 version of the headquarters. So, a throwback to a lot of retro-style aliens.
Rick did the majority of the work on the aliens in the movie, at least from a design perspective. At Imageworks, Ken Ralston [did] some design on Boris, which is really mixing Rick Baker’s work with some of our work at Imageworks and bringing parts of Boris’ mask alive that Rick wouldn’t be able to carry in a prosthetic. There’s a reveal at the end of the movie that I don’t want to give away yet, but there’s definitely some cool monster stuff happening.
A lot of what we did on the aliens and the headquarters [was] adding. Bringing the Worm Guys back, that’s an important character, you expect to see them. We did fully digital versions of those guys, and a few incidental aliens in corners walking around, little flying saucers. We also shot a lot of different blue screen elements of Rick’s character designs, and we put them back into the headquarters. What Barry likes to do [while we’re shooting] is look at the display of what Rick might show and say, “Okay, I want that alien here, that alien here, this alien here, and…we’ll see how the sequence cuts together, maybe we’ll use some other blue screen aliens later.” We worked with Imageworks, and then also with Prime Focus up in Vancouver, adding a lot of blinks and breathing to different characters, those kinds of things, to bring Rick Baker’s work alive in the headquarters.
One of the main designs that we did at Imageworks was the fish in the “Fish Fight” at Woo’s Chinese Restaurant. Lots of exploration went into that between Spencer Cook and Ken, myself and our other artists, exploring how to make this gigantic alien fish feel real enough in the world, but also alien enough in the Men in Black universe. There was a lot of exploration going on between weight and mass and speed across shots. He gets in a fight with Will Smith, so there was a lot of work done, even in previs days, before we ever shot one plate. That was a design that [very much] happened at Imageworks. We really stood on top of Rick Baker’s shoulders and manipulated a lot of his stuff.
DS: How has the process of creating visual effects for these types of films changed, from Stuart Little to Monster House, with a lot of motion-capture, to Men in Black 3?
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.
I worked with Rob Minkoff on the Stuart Little movies. When he did Haunted Mansion at Disney, he called me and said, “Come and do this movie.” I said, “Great.” That was really my first foray as a Visual Effects Supervisor. I had done some work previously, on the Stuart Little movies, but [Haunted Mansion] led on to more experience, leading teams, and doing a lot of design work. Meanwhile, Ken had been doing Polar Express, with Robert Zemeckis. This little movie called Monster House was floating out there, with first-time director Gil Kenan. I met with him, and we really hit it off. We loved the same kind of movies, [especially] stop-motion. We wanted to make a movie that felt hand-made and looked different as an animated feature, and that was Monster House. The caveat was, they wanted to use motion capture. We had some issues with the way that humans had been perceived in Polar Express. We thought, did we really want to do the “real human” stuff, and decided we wanted to go on a totally stylized path. That was a wonderful experience because we got to work in a hybrid fashion. We shot it like a live-action film, actually. We had virtual cameras on set, with grey and blue backgrounds, and we captured all the motion of the human beings as well. But we edited it like it was an animated feature. It had this very strange mix of live-action technique, animated feature technique, and visual effects organization. But what it led to is a unique film. It doesn’t really look like anything else.
I took a little break after that, exploring some stuff at Sony Pictures Animation to actually direct, and design. I did the Looney Tunes shorts, and then got a call from Ken to do Men in Black 3. So it’s been a long, but short road at the same time. When I look back, it’s been years and years that I’ve been doing this. I’m happy to be where I am. Men in Black 3 was a really rewarding experience, a hard movie to make, but I’m very happy with the work, and [feel that] my team did an amazing job.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network. Thanks go to Zoe Chevat for help transcribing and editing.