Ellen Wolff gets deeper into Meet Dave with VFX Supervisor Mark Stetson.
Like a latter-day "Trojan horse," Eddie Murphy plays host to a group of miniature aliens inhabiting his body in the sci-fi comedy Meet Dave (opening July 11 from Fox). Executing this broad comedic premise required a range of visual effects techniques, and Director Brian Robbins (who also directed Murphy in Norbit) chose a consummate pro to supervise those effects: Mark Stetson. An Oscar winner for the vfx in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Stetson has worked on more than 50 films in several capacities -- from model shop/prop shop/creature shop supervisor to designer/illustrator and art director. His credits include the BAFTA-winning effects for The Fifth Element, the Oscar-nominated effects in Superman Returns and 2010, and outstanding miniatures for the legendary Blade Runner. Stetson replied to VFXWorld's questions about Meet Dave from Massachusetts, where he is currently working on the effects for Director Jonathan Mostow's latest film Surrogates.
Ellen Wolff: How did the Meet Dave assignment come to you?
Mark Stetson: I had been in contact with John Kilkenny and Todd Isroelit at 20th Century Fox about another project, which had been delayed. So I guess I was in the right place at the right time. John Kilkenny called; I met with Executive Producer Tom Hamel, Producer David Friendly and Director Brian Robbins, and I started working on Dave the day after my interview!
EW: You had a variety of visual effects shops working on Meet Dave. How did you go about determining which vfx would be done by which houses?
MS: This is a very difficult process on every project. The vfx can live or die by the choices we make. The decision is based on many factors, including the available talent, the creative ideas that the individuals bring to the discussions, the vfx studio's past experiences that may be similar to the assignment at hand, the vfx studios' relationships with the filmmakers and 20th Century Fox, and, of course, the budget. The decision involved Brian, Tom, studio executives John Kilkenny and Jennifer Meislohn, Visual Effects Producer Sophie Leclerc and me. It was up to Sophie and me to find a solution that would engage the best people we could find that fit into our budget, and then convince our leaders that these were the best choices. As we came on board late, this process was not quite complete when we started filming, so the first few days of shooting were a bit shaky for us.
We grouped the sequences so that the work was roughly split between Hydraulx (in Santa Monica) and CIS (Hollywood). Part of the decision was pragmatic, driven by our budget constraints -- we couldn't bring too many people with us for the month-long location shoot in New York City. Hydraulx did the Times Square Sidewalk sequence and the end sequence with the giant whirlpool and Dave's distended mouth. The Sidewalk sequence and whirlpool shots at the end were their high points. They had some really tough shots with the windshield wiper shots and our tiny CG heroes flying on the CG plastic bag. CIS did the beginning sequences, which were shot on stage or on L. A. locations: the alley leg repair and the expository flight through the ship's interior, the interior mouth flooding shots and the mutiny. I really liked CIS' trip-through-the-starship-interior shot and the mutiny sequence. The finger blaster is great over-the-top comedy [and Special Effects Supervisor] Garry Elmendorf gave us great stuff to work with. He launched his exploding police car 20 feet into the air. Both teams had to solve problems which they hadn't faced before, so their lives and ours stayed interesting until the end!
The remaining assignments were made during post-production. We were happy to work with Pixel Magic on the many screen comps and other things that needed visual effects problem-solving. Sophie and I had both worked in the past with Valerie Delahaye and Rusty Ippolito of Make VFX, so we knew they were a perfect choice to develop the engine room energy effects, and Rhythm & Hues came in very late in post-production, with their obvious capability, to help us put the tricky comps in the end title sequence to bed.
New Deal Studios built and shot the impact explosion elements for the Starship crashing to Earth on Liberty Island -- actually their back lot. They also rigged and shot rocket exhausts, as well as elements for the hot dog eating contest. I had this hair-brained idea that we might get some value out of shooting real hot dogs passing through the mouth environment. With the angles we needed, VFX DP Tony Cutrono had enough light to get to t64, which would cook the dogs if he left the lights on for more than a few seconds! As it turned out, CIS used a mix of these elements and CG dogs to complete the work.
EW: Were there whole categories of shots that went to each of these effects companies, or were there any shared shots?
MS: Generally we kept sequences intact with one vfx company. We tried to break up the work in an efficient way that allowed for one vfx studio to develop a look across all the similar shots in the film. That, of course, doesn't always work out exactly. We did have a few shared assets and shots -- CIS, for example, shared their Number 17 digital stunt double with Hydraulx, although each lit and rendered their own. Hydraulx likewise shared the shoe shuttle with CIS. Make VFX provided the engine room effects as a comped subset of frames to CIS for one of their shots. The shot sharing was done with utmost professional courtesy throughout.
EW: How did you coordinate the work with the supervisors at these various facilities? What online tools did you use, if any?
MS: Although we worked entirely with L.A.-based vfx studios, and our postproduction offices were in L.A., we used CineSync nearly always for dailies and shot reviews. That saved us hours in traffic each day. There were key meetings and final reviews where we did get together face-to-face, but CineSync covered about 95% of it.
EW: A company called The Third Floor gets a previsualization credit on Meet Dave. How detailed was the previs work for this film?
MS: I was introduced to The Third Floor during Meet Dave. Their supervisor was Chris Edwards, one of the principals in the company. The Third Floor is yet another vfx company to spin off from ILM, where they did previs work directly for George Lucas. They did a great job in interpreting the storyboards and developing the sequences creatively. They then gave me clear layout sheets for the technical requirements of shooting plates.
EW: It seems as though a lot of roto, compositing and matchmove work was required for this film. Although these vfx seem very broad, was it tricky to solve problems of scale correct?
MS: This was indeed a show that entailed more composite work than CG work, so the vfx teams faced huge roto tasks. I found my past experiences in miniature effects helped me understand the scale problems on an instinctive level as well as a technical level. I knew we would face problems getting the cameras into positions on our New York City background plates that would allow us to shoot all the angles that our director Brian Robbins and our Director of Photography Clark Mathis wanted to use when shooting Eddie Murphy and Gabrielle Union. Brian's and Clark's challenge to me was to let them shoot Eddie as if he was a normal-sized actor, including normal, slightly low angles up to their faces for their medium shots and their close-ups. This meant the plate camera would be half-buried in the street in Times Square to get the lens low enough to find the technically correct matching angle. In Times Square, this was not an option.
Also, Clark shot the movie with ARRI's new Master Prime lenses, which are beautifully, unforgivingly sharp. So that limited the snorkel lenses we could use that would satisfy Clark's demand for resolution. We shot the Times Square plates and any other plates that required a snorkel with the T-Rex lens system. The lens barrels on that system are all around three inches in diameter, so we had to cheat a lot to make the audience feel we were low enough to make the scale of Eddie's and Gabrielle's characters feel right. To do that, we used a number of little tricks of forced perspective to help the shots along, both as we shot them and as we comped them.
The director also wanted to extend our depth of focus in the scenes so that the backgrounds would suggest more of a colorful sensory overload to help convey the alienation that our tiny characters felt. That took away another of the tools we normally use to convey the feeling of macro-photography -- shallow depth of focus. This became a problem as we were finalizing the sequences. It was a tricky balance to find the amount of depth blur needed to sell the scale of the characters, and still give Brian Robbins the deep-focus worldview he wanted.
EW: You've worked as a visual effects supervisor in the past for companies like Digital Domain and Sony and had your own facility, Stetson Visual Services, but you worked on Meet Dave as an independent visual effects supervisor. How long have you been independent?
MS: Since starting with Digital Domain in 1995, I have migrated back and forth between the vfx company-side vfx supervisor role, and the production-side vfx supervisor role,. I feel very fortunate to do both. My last vfx studio job was with Sony Pictures Imageworks in 2004. Since then I've worked for Warner Bros (Superman Returns), Fox (Meet Dave), and now I'm currently working for Disney on Surrogates. When I'm on the production side, I get the satisfaction of working closely with the creative team of filmmakers. When I'm on the vfx-studio side, I get the satisfaction of working closely with the artists who are actually finishing the shots. There are comparable frustrations and rewards on both sides.
EW: It seems that more and more experienced people are able to do that. Do you see a trend?
MS: There is often a need for a vfx supervisor to look after the needs of a production, as well as one to look after the needs of the vfx studio. In my personal ideal world, I liked the old system of having one vfx studio serve a production with the one supervisor assigned to the show. I've had that experience a few times -- at Digital Domain for The Fifth Element and at Sony Imageworks for Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. Even before those days, however, that production model was the exception, not the rule. The film industry has evolved with shorter post-production turnarounds and far more visual effects shots (e.g. The Fifth Element had 225 shots; Superman Returns had 1,400!) So more than one vfx studio is more often needed to complete even a medium-sized vfx assignment. That's the scenario in which a production-side supervisor is often required.
EW: How has your network of colleagues influenced the projects you have taken on in your career?
MS: I consider myself extremely lucky. I count both Richard Edlund (2010, Die Hard, Ghostbusters) and Douglas Trumbull (Blade Runner, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) as my mentors. Having fallen into visual effects work 30 years ago, I get a chance to renew friendships and business relationships on just about every show I work on. I also get to meet new people and make new friends. Before I started supervising visual effects on movies, I came up in the industry doing miniatures and miniature effects. For a long time since then, I found myself cubbyholed as a miniatures guy, and I would receive job offers from people who, rightly or wrongly, thought there might be a large miniatures component to the work at hand. It took me several years to learn that that was never a bad thing. One way or another, that reputation opened a lot of doors for me.
My perception of our business is that every new project is like starting a new company. The company is born, with all the teething problems that occur in nearly every industry. It matures as the project rolls forward to completion, and ends, with closure (in both senses of the word), when the last shot is finaled and the DI and after-market work is done. Then a new movie is green-lit, and a new company is formed, with a new group of players, and the cycle continues. Personally, I love that cycle of closure and renewal. I miss having more steady, long-term friendships, and the security of a business that is geared toward a continuum rather than project completion. But that's usually a good trade for an industry that offers creative avenues that are always so rewarding.
Ellen Wolff is a southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in other publications, including Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the website CreativePlanet.com. Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.