District 9, the dark horse in the VFX Oscar race, has the added distinction of also being nominated for Best Picture, which it shares with Avatar. We talked about working with director Neill Blomkamp and the significance of the vfx with Dan Kaufman, the overall visual effects supervisor, Peter Muyzers, Image Engine's on-set visual effects plate supervisor & digital production manager, and Robert Habros, visual effects supervisor for The Embassy.
Bill Desowitz: What were the challenges of supervising the work on District 9?
There were a lot of challenges artistically and technically. The artistic ones being that Neill wanted them to be extremely alien-looking to humans and some of the main ones are aliens that had to emote and move the audience on an emotional level. And so that was the real trick artistically. And then technically the main trick was being able to get a system and pipeline in place that would allow us to take the three basic ways the aliens were animated. These were keyframe, rotomation, where we matched the moves of an actor on set, and motion capture. And so we had to be able to get all that stuff together and get the tools in place because basically Image Engine was a very small company before this movie started, so we brought in the overwhelming majority of people to Vancouver to work on it. And these are people from all around the world, so we had to have a system in place for them to easily and quickly get up to speed for animating as well as rendering and compositing daily.
Our intention was to create easily used tools to help with the animation, and that meant a clean user interface that was geared specifically for District 9 and the aliens. That way the animators could pull what part of the alien they wanted to do, but also store animation that had been done or expressions so that any of that stuff could be treated and used back and forth between different animators.
BD: What do people ask about the work?
Which part is animatronics and which part is CG, which is one of the reasons why during the bakeoff presentation I specifically said it was all CG so there would be no misunderstanding.
BD: But the aliens went through some interesting design changes.
DK: Yes, originally it had more skin texture to it and we all felt it needed to be more alien looking and that it showed too much skin. And so we were asked very quickly to come up with an alternate solution that used these overlapping plates to give a more alien look but still have that ability to have that alien move in a way that would convey emotion. The animation tools stayed the same but they drove additional rigging.
BD: And the mothership?
DK: It started off with the concept artwork from Weta and there was one picture, in particular, that Neill really liked, which encapsulated his look, and so we took that and three-dimensionalized it and added more detail and kept building on that. And the other challenge for that was getting it to sit in the background with the right amount of atmosphere and haze.
BD: And what a thrill it must be to also be nominated for Best Picture.
It's one of those movies where if the effects didn't work, the movie would have a lot of trouble working, and if the movie didn't work, nobody would've cared if the effects looked good. And it's the best of both [worlds] and I enjoy working on movies like this.
BD: What kinds of comments have you received since the nomination?
Peter Muyzers: It is interesting because they do have that weird look on their face about how we managed to do all that work for only a couple of million dollars, when you consider that the gross budget was [around] $38 million. And so people draw conclusions about that, people who don't know the story behind the movie. They may call it the erosion of visual effects, but we have to do a lot of explaining because the production costs were so low: the unnamed actors, a very small crew, we shot in South Africa, [the British Columbia tax credit for post-production] even little things like Peter Jackson loaning the Red camera. But visual effects were really not eroded: the average shot costs were the same that we charge for any other visual effects show. So, for us, as a facility, we never felt that we were doing it on the cheap or taking a hit. As a matter of fact, if we could all of our shows like District 9 we would be a better business, because we actually made some money off of District 9. And that's always a good business model to pursue.
BD: Don't you also have to explain the nature of the work as well?
PM: Yes, a lot of people's responses are, "Hi, I have this movie and I'd like you to do it just like District 9." They think we have this secret sauce and we just apply it to the project and we're done. And it's really tough to explain to people: "Look, it's a combination of things: foremost, it was Neill. Forget visual effects for a moment. It is a guy's vision about this wonderful story and bringing that to life and, yes, these are crustacean-like creatures, and they tend to be relatively easy to achieve in CG compared to much more organic creatures." So I think it was a combination of the right people working together on the right project.
BD: And it helped having such a visual effects savvy director.
Yes, but it's interesting that in the beginning we thought he might get in the way, with having such a visual effects background, even pulling an artist off his desk and sit down and start animating. But he was really good: he told us that he was the director and we were the visual effects guys and this was our job. And he was very focused with his comments, and that's something you don't get from a lot of other clients. Again, I have to remind people that it's the whole package that made District 9 a success.
BD: And did you get The Twilight Saga: Eclipse as a result of your work on District 9?
We were still working on District 9 when we were talking with the clients on Twilight and, again, David Slade, the director, loved District 9. We showed him some of the work and he was over the moon with the quality. He liked the studio and the people that we had, so he really bought into Image Engine as a vendor.
BD: What's all this acclaim for District 9 been like for you over at The Embassy?
Robert Habros: It's quite a treat. It's also funny, in a way, because if you're working hard at your job, it doesn't always get noticed. But to be part of a project that people like really helps. And I was a fan from the beginning because I actually knew Neill from before.
BD: It's interesting how popular the exo-suit has become in recent years.
RH: It's becoming a staple of sci-fi and it reminds me a little bit of Aliens, and I know Neill is a fan of retro sci-fi and he'd always bring up RoboCop. Maybe it's because it's pre-digital and it just feels more physical. But things were different.
BD: And what was the particular challenge for you?
Well, the devil's in the details, and they spent months and months working on the texturing of the exo-suit. On the UVs, we had guys working on the rigging. And you had to make sure that, because it's so faceted, the lines didn't intersect. I mean, it's one thing to come up with a design in drawing. But how does that translate into 3D space? And how do you make it move and do all the stretching and reaching and running? Do you have to re-engineer it and all the gears to make it make sense? The guys did a fantastic job, but they had to redesign the whole suit when we did reshoots, so any of the old design work couldn't be used. So it always slows things down.
BD: And why the redesign?
RH: I'm not really sure. It had more skin to it and was more of a combination of something organic and mechanical. And in the redesign it became taller and more ominous and more of a fighting machine in scale to the aliens. From an audience standpoint, you have to believe the relationship between the characters, and that responsibility fell on Image Engine's shoulders. But a lot of the work we did with animating the suit was to make it feel like it was Wikus inside: it had to retain his body language and it had to take on a bit of the performance of the actor, Sharlto [Copley]. It's like the movie itself: it has to relate to the story of these characters. When you get the chance to help tell the story, it makes the work better.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.