Tara Bennett asks VFX Supervisor Joe Bauer about reinventing Get Smart for the big screen and the 21st century.
Reinvention is all the rage in Hollywood and that's especially the case when it comes to the latest slate of summer popcorn movies. Everything from TV series to comic books is fair game for big screen inspiration nowadays and that's especially true when it comes to classics that can be made "brand new" for new generations. And that's exactly why Mel Brooks and Buck Henry's seminally silly, '60s spy spoof, Get Smart, was ripe for a revamp (now playing). Looking to contemporize the classic sitcom, Warner Bros. and director Peter Segal cast funnyman Steve Carell as bumbling Agent Maxwell Smart and the lovely Anne Hathaway as his brainy partner Agent 99. Together with their team at CONTROL, they battle the forces of KAOS, who want to take over the world.
While the low brow gadgets of the '60s had a lot of charm, i.e., shoe phones and plastic Cones of Silence, today savvy, modern audiences expect a lot more bang for their bucks so it fell to Get Smart Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Bauer to upgrade Max's onscreen spy world. "I received a call from Chris deFaria at the studio [Warner Bros.] and he said there was a movie he wanted me to do," Bauer says about how he was approached to work on the film. "I did Jon Favreau's second and third films, Elf and Zathura, and maybe based on that they brought me in. I met [Producer] Michael Ewing with Pete [Segal] and we just talked. There was a very limited budget but they wanted it to feel like a big James Bond film. Fortunately, I came into visual effects with one leg in practical and one leg in the digital so we talked in rough terms about how to use both to best effect for the movie. We were all on the same page so they brought me on."
With a production budget of approximately $80 million, Bauer says from the beginning they had to prepare for a very lean post budget. "The original marching orders were to do everything as inexpensively as possible," he explains. "There was a pot of money and they had a cast they wanted to get. It's a pretty A-list cast so by the time you spend the money above the line there isn't much below. And when we first broke the script down it looked like there would be 300-340 shots. By the time we were finished we did over 810 for almost the same money."
Preparation was key, and Bauer says they planned extensively with previs so there weren't any big surprises as production moved forward. "There was not an extravagant amount of time to shoot the movie and there are some big action sequences that were broken off into second and third unit. We opted to hire a previs house, P.O.V. [Persistence of Vision Digital Ent.], and we identified the main action sequences and then prevised them out completely first from boards to camera moves, coverage and action. That was broken up and distributed to the units so everyone was working from the same template so when all the pieces came in -- it fit. It worked out well for us."
Still the shot count ballooned to double the budgeted size, which meant Bauer had to outsource the plethora of work to several post houses that would help them stay within budget. "We happened to go into post production during a time when everybody was slow so they were anxious to work with us," Bauer details. "It was a high profile film so we got great prices for what we were asking for. And right out of the gate we were using the best vendors that we could get for the money we had. Some of the vendors I had used on films with larger budgets so I knew what the quality would be: Digital Dimension, Rising Sun Pictures, Pixel Magic, etc." The rest of the vendor list also included Zoic Studios, EdenFX, elementFX, Look Effects, Amalgamated Pixels and Moneyshots.
In terms of the visual effects aesthetic for Get Smart's update on film, Bauer says Segal wanted to honor and retain the spirit of the original series. "They wanted to feel like we were still in the same world of technology although with upgrades, as we called it," Bauer explains. "For example, 'The Corridor of Doors' had to have the same feel, so we watched the original series opening again and again just to get a cadence. In fact, we played the music back from the original series just to get Steve's walk cadence right and the timing of the doors in relation to the music. We did upgrade the technology. We kept it non-electronic as if it were originally installed in the late '50s/early '60s and had been periodically upgraded but not modern yet. It's still brushed stainless steel and mechanics as opposed to electronics. Also, once it was decided that the art department wouldn't build the whole [corridor set] because it was cost prohibitive, and it fell to visual effects department, then it wasn't a big deal to add functions to the doors and make them more interesting. The main things we had to do were make them feel hydraulic, heavy and complex just because it was fun to watch.
"Actually, I'm most proud of The Corridor of Doors. They are iconic and don't feel like they are an effect. And the sound department did a fantastic job to make it look real."
With such a large shot count, Bauer says they got to do a little bit of everything for the film from the most mundane removals to complicated environment builds. "There were CG environments, like there is a big fight on top of a bakery in Moscow," Bauer continues. "It was a big build set that was surrounded by a black cyc. When we were shooting in Moscow we took a bunch of stills from the top of a building in basically the right location from sunrise through sunset and dark and we ended up doing a digital cyclorama. We could put in the city in each of the shots after the fact.
"For the extended chase at the end, as soon as Max gets outside the plane we had a bus that [Special Effects Supervisor] Michael Lantieri put on a gimbal," Bauer continues. "But as soon as Max is out on the cable it's all green screen stunt work that we comped in. There is never anyone hanging from anything out on the freeway -- it was all added after the fact. Had we had a larger budget we may have opted for more CG, but I think the fact that 2D comps are so much less expensive than the 3D work, we conceived as much as we could on greenscreen. I think it brought a level of realism we wouldn't have gotten if we spent more money," he chuckles. "I guess I'm lucky enough to be old enough to have started when a lot was more practical. I know the camera and the lenses and can talk to the DP. Honestly, if it's real, it looks real. If it's not, you have to work a lot harder."
When it came time to upgrade some of the more iconic gadgets from the TV series, Bauer says they were very specific about how far to take the changes and for what effect. "The Cone of Silence was always considered a digital effect," he explains. "It's very seldom that visual effects are funny so that was the hardest thing making the doors real enough so they didn't smack of effects. I think we managed that so they are funny. The Cone of Silence is obviously a digital effect so it was more a matter of trimming back and simplifying.
"But something like the Cessna that Alan Arkin [The Chief] is flying at the end -- that was a production concern," Bauer continues. "They couldn't get enough clearance to justify hiring a pilot so we had to do all of that work as digital. There are no real airplanes in the movie. The Cessna at the end was a complete creation and I haven't talked to anyone yet who didn't think it was photographed. In fact one of the reviews cited it as great camera work by Dean Semler!" he laughs.
"Then the 787 that Max and 99 fly to Moscow, we go around the outside and in through a window, that's all digital. Even the little pocket knife when Max is in the airplane restroom shooting the arrows all around -- that was all digital as well. Then with the skydiving, the wide shots were done with a skydiving company but then any shots where you could identify the actors were done with rear projection on the backlot. And in Montreal we also setup digital projectors and we were shooting Genesis that we could see on HD monitors in real time so we could tweak contrast and color."
It's the transparency of the effects in general that Bauer hopes will surprise most people that see Get Smart. "It's a little bit bittersweet in that a movie like Zathura it's very obvious what we've done in every case. For Get Smart we have to blend in and solve little problems in editorial which are inglorious." Bauer just hopes that audiences do appreciate the quality of the work done by the many fine artists on the film.
Highlighting some his favorites, Bauer continues, "For the very beginning of the film, we hired [Zoic], who did the doors, to do the opening satellites, which was a really late addition to the movie. Pete wanted the WB and Village Roadshow logos incorporated into the movie rather than just credit logos so we had to work that out. From conception to delivery, we had less than a month. Fortunately, Zoic had done a fair amount of respectable space stuff, albeit on TV with Battlestar Galactica and Serenity, so we had a shorthand there. They knew how to make an Earth and make space with the shaky-cam look. They were exactly the right people to go to and even so, to do it all of that in less than four weeks was a real feat. Thank goodness they are real artists and were able to pull it off.
"Then with the laser hallway, which EdenFX did, we were on set in Montreal and DP Dean Semler shot his laser pointer through some practical smoke on set. I'm big on shooting reference because in post that's all you've got to guide you. The work for EdenFX was to put just enough smoke in the room not to distract the position. Of course, it's all digital smoke at that point and then selling the fact that wherever the smoke is, is where you see a laser and then it drops away. Just to get that simple lighting effect to look real took many, many months and you wouldn't think so because it seems like such an obvious thing. But again you are staring with air and starting from scratch. It's sort of deceptive.
"There is a little effect with Max walking on the water in front of the Lincoln Memorial. That was interesting because we shot Max on a raised platform in Moscow walking on a Mylar surface and doing his bit. I went to Washington D.C. and shot the background plates because we never shot Steve Carell or Bill Murray [Agent 13] in that environment. All of that was bluescreen and we had to find places in the grass to combine and comp them into the shot. Fortunately the grass in the park here locally looks like the grass at the Capital," he laughs. "The third element was the ducks in the water that we shot in Hollywood in an indoor situation. We handed all of that to Pixel Magic and hammered on it for quite awhile to make sure nothing looked fake.
"And lastly in CONTROL there is the globe that is constantly active with windows popping up and down -- all of that was an afterthought. We gave that to Look Effects, which in editorial was just a clear globe with some laser points on it. None of it was considered effects work so we didn't take any set information or camera information. We just handed them the plates and gave them the graphics and said it was roughly four feet in diameter… so go. I was very proud that they were able to roll up their sleeves in a condensed amount of time and analyze the camera moves and locked the effects in to make it look like a light projection. On screen, people probably won't pay it any mind but it was a lot of elbow grease."
It remains to be seen whether new millennium audiences will take to Maxwell Smart like generations past have but regardless of box office, Bauer is extremely happy with what they've achieved technically with Get Smart. "No matter was anyone says, Pete is a huge fan of Mel Brooks and the show so he was very reverential. We took our cues from him. Without a Ouija board, it's really hard to bring back Don Adams and all of that crew to put the TV show on the screen. Now it's all different elements in a different time with a different audience -- we have to create a new thing that bows to the source material, but is its own thing. That was our task and I really feel like we did it and hopefully you don't feel any of our fingerprints on it."
Tara Bennett is an East coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, SFX and Lost Magazine. She is the author of the books 300: The Art of the Film and 24: The Official Companion Guide: Seasons 1-6.