ILM's supervisor on Iron Man 2 discusses heavy metal CG and what lighting tricks can be applied to the next Pirates sequel.
Bill Desowitz: Were you surprised at all by the nominations?
Ben Snow: Well, I was sort of surprised that Tron wasn't included. But I certainly can't begrudge the other nominations. I think it's cool that the expansion of the list allows for films that have more supporting visual effects. Like Hereafter, gets a chance to be part of the Oscars as well, which is a good thing.
BD: We originally talked at length about the importance of the new lighting tools on Iron Man 2. Briefly, what were some of the other advancements?
BS: We basically gave ourselves more tools to use the image-based stuff more easily and quickly and re-projected on set and browse images and extract lights from images -- all of that sort of thing.
BD: This gave you more of a real world look.
BS: It was both that and Jon Favreau having faith after what we could do on the first one. He really expected that the digital costuming would hold up on a variety of shots.
BD: And was it difficult to meet those expectations?
BS: In the end, no. One thing we didn't have from the first film was a situation where we were forced into a position of scrutinizing the suit and why it doesn't look like the Legacy suit. I suppose we could've made it easier on ourselves going entirely CG, but Jon and Janek [Sirrs] and I felt that keeping the real suits in the mix, at least for some of the earlier parts of the movie, kept us honest. But it was funny because what we were able to do with War Machine, for example, was push the metals beyond what they could with something that anyone could wear in real life. So it meant that when we were freed up from having to match the real suits, we were able to play with materials more, again, using real world materials as the basis.
BD: What alterations did you make to Iron Man to make it a fair fight?
BS: One of the fun parts of these films for us is that Jon definitely invites creative collaboration to the design -- and Marvel is the same. So with the Mark VI suit, originally it was the same as the Mark III but with a triangular design instead of a round one. But I think pretty soon, they realized this wasn't enough. They had to do a big design exploration on trying different levels of metal, going with silver instead of gold. And on top of that, as War Machine came along with all that weaponry, we not only got to contribute to the design of the gun and how it was used but also the other weapons. Robert Downey Jr. is looking at this and saying, "Well, wait a minute: War Machine has a cooler suit than Iron Man; that can't be the case." So then we could go in and add a whole bunch of weapons to Iron Man like the wrist rockets and some of the ways he was using the lasers in his hands. Those beats were added so Iron Man can still one-up War Machine.
BD: And War Machine?
BS: It was literally that Jon wanted a darker, heavier-looking metal than they were able to get with the practical suit. At that stage, everyone was very comfortable with the suits being entirely CG. It just made more sense with War Machine to replace even part of the reference suit that we had been keeping for the earlier house fight with CG. In the end, we felt that we pushed our digital armor a lot further than we had to.
BD: And there's so much mayhem in the final battle in the Japanese garden.
BS: We really had fun with things like War Machine's machine gun ripping apart the drones as they came forward, so we could peel away the outer layer of metal and reveal all the inner geometry of the drones and have spurting fluids that we added as CG elements. It kind of allowed us to make the ultimate gore movie, but, of course, it's all metal so nobody minds.
BD: What about the pressure of adding Whiplash at the last minute?
BS: Oh, yeah! Well, one of the things that Jon had been comfortable with on the first Iron Man was how we could synthesize new material from what we'd filmed and photographed. We'd always had a high-resolution digital stills unit that photographed the set in painstaking detail so that we could recreate plates. So, about two months before our work on the film, they came up with this idea that Mickey Rourke would join the Japanese garden fight at the end. And that became a big scramble and involved some really hard work for the crew here getting through all that. And Janek's team and the effects people went through all the reference plates and everything else we'd shot for the Japanese garden and tried to pull together the backgrounds. Beyond that, we went in using our digital stills and synthesized backgrounds to make new backgrounds for this fight, which was created with previs, mostly. But the cool thing about it was we were able to build on some of the atmospherics -- the smoke and fire -- that had gone on in the first part of the fight and create a much more hellish environment. We did artwork here and pitched it to Jon and asked to go darker and smokier and he really embraced that.
BD: What's the take away from Iron Man 2 that's useful to you on Stranger Tides?
BS: Well, Iron Man 2 represented a maturity of the image-based lighting stuff. And so going into Pirates with that and applying it to creature-type situations it's very interesting because we'd done a lot of really exciting creature work before on the previous Pirates films amongst others and, really, Davy Jones is among the best CG characters ever. But using this sort of approach means we can do stuff with highlights and one of the challenges of this film is that the creatures are closer to human form, so what we're seeing is a big benefit in terms of being able to have a look at what's going on with the lighting with real humans and then extend that for the visual effects on this film.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.