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'Next': Flex Time for VFX

Vfx supervisor John E. Sullivan tells Thomas J. McLean about working on the fly with several vendors to help convey a fresh futuristic look in Next.

The most complicated sequence in Next is a chase sequence in which Nicolas Cage tries to elude his pursuers as well as an avalanche of rocks and logs. All images  & © 2007 Paramount Pictures.

Time is flexible in Next (opening April 27 from Paramount), a movie in which Nicolas Cage plays a man who can see the future and explore the potential paths it may take. Time and flexibility also challenged visual effects supervisor John E. Sullivan and his crew, which dealt with extensive script revisions, rigid deadlines and tight budgets in the most recent film adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story.

Based on the 1954 tale The Golden Man, Next stars Cage as Cris Johnson, a Las Vegas magician who can see the future. Cris' talent comes to the attention of counter-terrorism agent Callie Ferris, played by Julianne Moore, who hopes his talents can help her prevent a nuclear attack.

The production was in state of flux when Sullivan -- a veteran of projects as diverse as Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Just Like Heaven -- came on board in March 2006. "The first six weeks I was on it, we went through the constant script rewrites," says Sullivan. "In that kind of circumstance, one of the primary things you're fighting with really is trying to lock down what you're doing almost more than doing what you have to do."

Working on the Fly

Given the fluid situation, Sullivan says there was little time to confer with director Lee Tamahori or to research and develop new technology for the film, forcing much of the work to be done on the fly. "We were basically out to try to utilize tools that existed to create an interesting look that wasn't a cliché," he says.

The most complicated sequence in the film is a chase sequence in which Cris tries to elude his pursuers as well as an avalanche of rocks, logs and even cars down a mountain slope. Digital Dream, Look Effects and Comen VFX all worked on aspects of the sequence as part of their work on the film. Digiscope did the extensive tracking work on the sequence, all of which had to be done after the fact, a task that was made even more complicated by the number of different cameras used, which included cable cameras, Steadicams, handheld cameras and footage shot both on film and with a Genesis digital camera.

The chase sequence included a car flip. The sequence used some practical elements in addition to CG, requiring extra attention in integrating those elements into the same shot.

The sequence used some practical elements in addition to CG, requiring extra attention in integrating those elements into the same shot. "When you have objects rolling down, kicking up dust, and then you go to put computer-generated objects that are also kicking up dust going down the same hill, getting them to integrate and not stand out was quite challenging for all the facilities," Sullivan adds.

The Look of the Future

An important part of the film was to establish the effect for Cris' ability. "We had to create an interesting look to try to get the sense of his character taking multiple paths in time and having that have a sense of evolution and growth as the film went along," Sullivan says.

Sullivan says he and Jerry Pooler's crew at Digital Dream came up with an effect they liked that worked even though it went against Tamahori's initial desire to avoid using motion control for the effect. A climactic sequence in which Cris uses his power to get the enemy to waste his ammunition while he saves the woman he loves, played by Jessica Biel, and prevents a nuclear blast was shot at a power plant in Long Beach. Cage was photographed later doing multiple tasks against a greenscreen, which could then be used to create a shot with dozens of versions of Cris.

The sequence posed storytelling problems, and the number of versions of Cris had to be scaled back to make the storytelling clearer to the audience, Sullivan says. "It was a lot of fun, because when you're dealing with stuff like that, we're into the area where everyone sees something different and you're trying to discover something that works for everybody cause there is no answer to it. You're trying to come up with something that's interesting and a little unusual and yet within a reasonable budget."

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In the climactic sequence Cage is photographed doing multiple tasks against a greenscreen, which could then be used to create a shot with dozens of versions of his character Cris.

A Last-Minute Blast

Adding an unexpected twist was the last-minute expansion of the nuclear-blast sequence, which Sullivan says Tamahori originally wanted to downplay because films such as The Terminator 2 have already done it so well. But after shooting was finished, Sullivan says Tamahori and the producers decided to expand the sequence.

Sullivan says some preparations had been made for such a decision and he had reference gathered from the location to begin working on the sequence. "Lee didn't want to do the traditional nuclear mushroom explosion and let us come up with something a little different that gives the dramatic sense of what it might be without stating it visually the way it's been stated before," Sullivan continues.

Stepping in to execute the shot was Tweak Films. "They turned out a very nice piece of work for us that works in the context of the film and did it in a shorter period of time than you'd expect someone to do something that complex," he adds.

Sullivan says Pacific Title and two in-house compositors rounded out his crew, which reached a high of 75 or 80 people, he says. Most of the work was done with Maya, Shake, After Effects and Flame for compositing and paintwork.

Sullivan says a film like this, with about 300 shots, would normally require 25 weeks for post-production, though this one was set for 17 weeks with the knowledge that the original release date of September left them with some wiggle room if they came up short. The release date was moved up to April 27 when the film changed distributors to Paramount, illustrating the need in the film industry to roll with the punches.

"There are just rules that you learn over the years that you apply to it and say. 'Look guys, we've got to do this to at least give me a starting point on the whole thing,' " he says. "That kind of visual effects are what I call of the seat of the pants visual effects, you just kind of go in and do the best you can and hope you don't bury yourself."

Thomas J. McLean is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in Variety, Below the Line, Animation Magazine and Publishers Weekly. He writes a comic-book blog for Variety.com called Bags and Boards, and is the author of Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, forthcoming from Sequart.com Books.

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