Bill Desowitz catches up with VES Lifetime Achievement Award winners Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall about producing VFX movies.
For more than 25 years, producing partners Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall (who are also married) have made some of the most successful and innovative VFX (and animated) films of all time, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Poltergeist, Gremlins, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Jurassic Park and this year's Oscar winner, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Along the way, they've also worked with some of the most visionary directors, including Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, M. Night Shyamalan and David Fincher. On the eve of last Saturday's VES Awards, I spoke to Kennedy and Marshall separately about their historic and influential careers.
Bill Desowitz: Let's begin with Benjamin Button: How did this finally come together?
Kathleen Kennedy: It was a question of really doing the movie the way we wanted to and technology catching up to us.
Frank Marshall: It's been a fascinating process because even way back then there wasn't even the thought of doing it with one person. We were thinking about the script in a way that it could be done with four or five actors. And how would you blend those? That was the challenge then. And different directors had different ideas of how you could do it and how long one actor could remain in the role. And then it all evolved as we got into the CG era with Jurassic Park and then onward. We just continued to ask the question when we were at ILM: Is it ready for humans?
BD: And what was your reaction to seeing that first test in 2004 that helped it get greenlit?
KK: Well, you know, in a funny way, it wasn't like seeing the first test for Jurassic where we knew we could create dinosaurs. This was really much more of an evolved process because there are so many layers in creating the technology for Benjamin. It took a much longer period of time before we saw anything.
BD: And your reaction to the way it's turned out?
KK: Well, I think it's pretty thrilling. We all knew this had to be seamless because it wasn't as though we were creating a special effect for a special effects movie. We were creating a special effect where the hope was the audience would soon forget that they were looking at a special effect, and we knew it was important that the work be in service to the storytelling and not just something that was going to cause people to be in awe or surprised. They needed to be emotionally engaged.
FM: And the subtlety of acting and obviously the facial expressions and eyes all that didn't really get there until the last four or five years. And that's what I think David saw and got very excited about because he lives in that world... and thought that if you could put a couple of programs together, you might be able to achieve that. So that's when we really got excited. That was the ultimate goal -- we just never thought it could be done. And where the genius of David came in was figuring out the storytelling aspect of the tool and how to tell the story so it didn't feel like there was an effect there.
BD: Fincher certainly wasn't the obvious choice for this movie. Why did you think he would be a good fit?
KK: Well, Frank and I both knew David years ago when he worked at ILM, and I think he's an incredible filmmaker and, admittedly, his work wouldn't necessarily tell you that he was the obvious director for Benjamin Button, but when he expressed interest, both Frank I immediately thought that he could be an interesting voice because with a movie like this, if the effects work became overwhelming, there is a tendency for directors who are not that experienced with that kind of work to put all of their attention toward that and lose focus on the storytelling. And we knew that wouldn't happen with David.
BD: And that focus was on the unusual love story.
KK: Exactly. He really understood the story from the beginning and he worked very closely with Eric [Roth] on his script -- so much of what is there is from David's point of view.
BD: Kathleen, you're moving from one technological challenge to another with The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, directed by Steven Spielberg. What is this experience like so far?
KK: Well, they're very different, obviously, but with the performance capture that we're doing, we're still keeping the cartoon-like characters that have been created. But we're making them three-dimensional. The technology for Benjamin Button -- I don't want to say it's more difficult -- but it is more detail-oriented in the sense that we had to create Brad Pitt and believe that he was 80 as well as his normal 42-year-old self so that you really believed you were seeing this aging progression. With Tintin, we create the characters and they exist as those characters. But the biggest challenge of all performance capture is to find the emotional ingredient, so I suppose that's something that's similar.
BD: And how is the English-language version of Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo on the Cliff going?
KK: It's been fantastic. We can take no credit, though. We've only worked with John Lasseter to create a version of Miyazaki's work where we reach far more people in America than his films have previously. That's been really frustrating, I think, for all of us who love Miyazaki's work. He tends to get relegated to art houses and, in fact, his movies are so universal, and when people do see them, they love them, so that's what we've been working to do.
FM: And we spent a day at Miyazaki-san's Studio Ghibli and it's just a magical place. He had just created this nursery down the way from where he works and he showed us the yard and it was wonderful.
BD: What excites you most about this one?
FM: [For me], it's so imaginative, and just beautiful. The images he creates are amazing.
KK: I think it's not only this movie but his body of work. I became interested in Miyazaki when I saw Princess Mononoke and then caught up with a lot of his other films. And I've been to Tokyo several times to visit and after making that acquaintance, he asked if Frank and I would step in and try and help with distribution on this one. And we looked at the film and thought it had tremendous mass appeal and exhibits all the wonderful flurries of imagination that only Miyazaki has. And yet underneath, there is always a very poignant and serious message about the environment and good messages for kids as well as adults. So that's what attracted us. Once again, he stands alone in what he tells in his work.
BD: Well, both of you have been associated with directors with strong visions, and who understand the role of visual effects. What have you contributed as producers?
KK: I think always the interesting first step is getting a sense of the vision of the director because you're often dealing in the abstract when you're trying to create special effects. And so consequently it requires constant communication and back and forth. The research and development process is so important because that's usually when something's taking shape. It's a bit like the script writing phase of effects, and I really enjoy that because it can be extremely creative and we've had such a wonderful opportunity working with such incredibly talented people at lots of different effects houses, primarily at ILM. But many, many others as well, and I'd probably say that that was the area that I find the most interesting. Obviously the organization of execution in overseeing the cost and working out how that's going to be monitored is important, but the creation of those effects and the part of trying to articulate what those are and how they best tell the story is what I find the most fun.
BD: And, Frank, you've mostly been associated with more seamless vfx movies.
FM: It's always been what I like in the stories that I'm working on. They are there as a tool and the effects add to the storytelling.
BD: But you've both witnessed the growth and maturity of CG.
FM: Yes, they were so new to everybody and nobody knew how to manage it. So that's what Kathy and I have both been able to do: figure out how to project and predict what the shot cost is going to be based on our experience and our knowledge now. And also we really work in service to the vision of the director.
KK: It's very exciting. You know, finding that seamless way to blend effects into storytelling is something that will attract A-list directors as well and the weaving of the narrative with special effects makes them even more appealing.
KK: Those are two perfect examples of directors who are also writers and having them be involved directly with the effects makes a huge difference.
FM: And when I go on, say, The Bourne Supremacy, and have a director who has really only worked in television, Paul Greengrass, and he's coming into the big movie world, I'm able to help him realize things he didn't think he could get by introducing him to the world of CGI. "If we do it this way, we really don't have to go back to Moscow."
And I was very proud of Paul because after his experience on Supremacy, he went on to do United 93 and obviously they couldn't shoot at a lot of places they wanted to, so he learned that the backgrounds could be put in behind the planes. And that further prepared him for Ultimatum and working with Double Negative.
BD: Speaking of Bourne, what do you have planned for the fourth film?
FM: We are in the script development phase with George Nolfi and it's not based on any of the other [Robert] Ludlum books -- it's a whole new ballgame. And we're trying to create a contemporary story about the world today, so things have changed so radically since the last movie, so we want to bring those new elements into it.
BD: And what do you think of the Bourne influence on the Bond franchise?
FM: Well, it's very flattering to have a hand in the re-emergence or rebirth of Bond... [Bourne has] recreated the genre in many ways.
BD: Kathleen, people today still point to Jurassic as a CG milestone. Do you have any personal favorites?
KK: I don't have any personal favorites but I will agree that Jurassic was probably one of the most thrilling moments when we realized what we could do. And what the possibilities were when we saw that first test. I certainly remember that vividly. And I don't know if you realize that we did the first CG shot in a movie ever with John Lasseter.
BD: Yes, Young Sherlock Holmes where the stain glass knight comes to life.
KK: Yes, so it's fun to be working with him again.
BD: And you're working with M. Night again on The Last Airbender.
KK: Yes, that begins in March. And it's going to be a big step for him in terms of a big visual effects world that he hasn't encountered before. But I think Night is uniquely qualified.
FM: Well, that's why we're there: "Get Frank and Kathy back -- they know what they're doing!" We're designing a whole mythology and world that doesn't exist. But it's been very interesting. You see, his vision is for the world to be based on Earth but then we have these different nations where there are certain things that are highlighted or exaggerated. So we're using real places but digitally adding to them and making them their own world.
BD: To what extent is the animated series helpful?
FM: Oh, it's very helpful. It gives us the environment and obviously the storylines and the characters. We've been working closely with the guys who invented that series [Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko]. And then taking our own designs and creating into the real world. We're going to Greenland to shoot the northern water temple, which is set in the ice in the animated series, but we're going where the real icebergs are. It's actually right where we shot Eight Below, so I didn't have to go scout.
BD: And I'm sure that previs is helping a lot.
FM: Yeah, that's another tool that's really helping us on managing the cost and efficiency of everything because it is so exact, so being able to do previs with the right lens size helps every department do their job.
BD: And you're in great hands with Pablo Helman and ILM.
FM: Yes, we are.
BD: Speaking of Pablo, what was the recent Indy reunion like on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?
FM: It's been like my real family working on these Indy films. You know, the first one was very special to me because it was my first sole producer credit, it was my first movie that was over $5 million that I worked on, obviously the start of Steven and George's relationship (they're two of my best friends), I met Kathy on the movie, I got my first Academy nomination and it was the first blockbuster. So for me, it was really the start of my career. And then doing the three films and then this last one, being a big family reunion, it was so much fun, and trying to make it in the style of the old ones but bringing the new elements that we all knew about -- the new tools to help us. I think if Steven could've used the optical printer, he would've 'cause we did use a moviola. But it was nice to be flexible enough to blend in the new technology to an old franchise.
BD: Any chance of doing another one?
FM: Well, we'd all like to do one -- if we do it quickly. But if they come up with an idea -- and I know Steven and George are working on one -- I'm waiting for the call, but not holding my breath.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.