It's been a decade since Men in Black 2 and a lot has changed, including technology. Yet the Men in Black world remains a Looney Tunes mash-up of old school and new school sensibilities. However, this time out, Will Smith's Agent J travels back in time to save the world and Tommy Lee Jones' curmudgeonly Agent K. And it seems fitting that Josh Brolin plays the younger K in 1969. Not only do the two actors look alike (they've got the largest heads in the business, according to director Barry Sonnenfeld), but they also co-starred in the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men.
For Sonnenfeld and Sony Pictures Imageworks (which created more than half of the 1,200 VFX shots), though, it was an opportunity to raise their game in 3-D yet keep it consistent with the overall kitschy look. "It's all about seamless integration," suggests VFX supervisor Jay Redd, who collaborated with Ken Ralston, the dean of supervisors at Imageworks. To this effect, Sony used its new HDRI technique by shooting with the Spheron camera, which spins 360 degrees and shoots at 26 stops of exposure. That's for set lighting and better integration of animated characters. They did lots of set extension and augmentation; they built an entire digital New York and Cape Canaveral; they added eye blinks and movement to Rick Baker's practical creatures; and the Time Jump with Agent J off the Chrysler Building was pretty intricate.
"There's a certain stylization that goes on in a Men in Black movie and Ken is always nudging me about not being so real all the time," Redd continues. "And Barry was the same way. There's a whimsy to Men in Black."
"It really is a full-blown cartoon in many ways and Barry's movies are very stylized and we just tried to incorporate that," Ralston adds. "It was a tough thing for Jay and me to get. A style and crazy look yet help the audience feel that what they're looking at is real."
The Time Jump, which is the most fantastical effect, is all about maximizing the looniest aspect of the time travel plot. It was one of the first sequences that was worked on and wasn't completed until the very end. Spencer Cook, the animation supervisor, worked on early previs. Then The Third Floor stepped in to create the previs. They experimented with angles, lenses and speeds. How does it work in 3-D? How tall does the Chrysler Building have to be? How many cuts do you need for the two-and-a-half minute sequence?
"Again, it was truly a mix of every possible thing we could throw in there," Ralston offers. "There's all of Will in CG, some of Will in CG, the environment. It was a fun design sequence that pushes the loonyness more than any of the other sequences. How far can you go before it becomes so crazy?"
In fact, even though they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars testing with stereoscopic rigs, Sonnenfeld insisted on doing the 3-D as a post conversion. He's an old-fashioned film guy and for his squash-and-stretch brand of comedy and the way he composes shots, it just didn't make sense shooting the movie natively in 3-D. The result really enhances the comedy.
"I've always seen in 3-D and have always shot as if I was shooting in 3-D," boasts Sonnenfeld. "There are certain things that 3-D really likes: on-axis and straight-ahead moves, which is all I've ever done as a director and cinematographer. And 3-D hates over-the-shoulder shots and panning and I hate panning. I never let the Coen brothers pan in their first three movies: I was all about the tableaux.
"It's a total ride in 3-D but I relied on stereographer Corey Turner. He's very much aware of not bouncing where you have to focus and eases you into foreground and background separation. And I asked Imageworks about having the Chrysler Building be shadowed by another building so that the background goes dark and the floating doesn't distract."
"There are these Vertigo moments of severe depth and even changing the feeling of the depth during the middle of a shot," Redd adds. "You don't want to knock people over the head with it but you want to give them a woozy feeling of being high up. It's got to feed the action and the pacing, and so we played with it constantly. It went from the actual 80 stories to 200 stories. What happens when you travel through time in hundreds of years in 80 frames? You're seeing prehistoric era, you're seeing buildings being built, you're seeing the light change, you're seeing time lapse."
Even Brolin was impressed with the 3-D. "I loved it," he says, "because it was a new 3-D I had never seen. 3-D at least in my experience is very evasive…. You know, scratch and sniff. And I felt it enhanced the movie and made it more beautiful."
On the other hand, Smith's first concern with 3-D was his small ears. Once they didn't look like satellite dishes, he was fine with it. "The latest [VFX] revealed that there are no limitations. It's funny because it's the same thing that happened with the music business when it went digital. As soon as it exploded, it had a weird, opposite effect where it gets worse for a while, which is strange. As soon as you get the tool to do anything, all of a sudden now the movies aren't as good. How the hell did that happen? I think we're about to turn that corner, particularly with the Men in Black in 3-D that Barry did. He found the balance of not throwing things at the audience: he went for depth, which is more pleasing to the eye."
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld. He's the owner of the Immersed in Movies blog (www.billdesowitz.com), a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen and features interviews with all six actors.