MPC’s visual effects supervisor discusses the challenges of bringing Bryan Singer’s critically acclaimed film to the screen.
Bryan Singer's triumphant and critically acclaimed return to the X-Men franchise with X-Men: Days of Future Past racked up more than $302 million globally in its opening weekend. Matthew Vaughn's 2011 reboot of the franchise seemed like an impossible act to follow, but Singer has succeeded in crafting a star-studded time travel epic that weaves together the universe of the first X-Men trilogy with that of Vaughn's reboot in a smart and exhilarating way. It will come as no surprise that the latest installment of the franchise pushes the boundaries in terms of the size, scope and intensity of the visuals. We caught up with visual effects supervisor Richard Stammers to talk a little about the tremendous challenges he faced producing the visual effects for such an enormous production.
Dan Sarto: Why don't you tell us a little about your role on the film?
Richard Stammers: Well, I was the overall visual effects supervisor. Although I officially work for MPC, I was essentially working for the production overseeing all of the visual effects work on the movie. We actually had 12 different vendors in total, with MPC handling the bulk of the work.
DS: I’m sure your role changes over the course of the production.
RS: Pretty much. Initially, I'm trying to get the ball rolling in terms of identifying the visuals that Bryan [Singer, the director] wants to include. So I'm breaking down the script and looking at the hero action beats and any character development work that we need to do. For example, in Days of Future Past we have new characters that haven't appeared previously in the X-Men franchise, which means we need to go through a fairly significant design processes in order to realize those characters onto the screen.
As production progresses, I become more of a head of department for visual effects, overseeing and contributing to how the film is planned. I could be doing anything from advising on how we shoot certain sequences, to helping schedule the movie. Essentially, I am providing whatever interaction is needed to get Bryan's vision for the story onto screen.
Throughout filming, I am on set every day to make sure we get everything we need and that it is shot in the right way. Then during postproduction I'm overseeing all of the visual effects work. As much as I can, I try to steer the creative look of the film through the visual effects across all of the different vendors. I'm providing them with timely feedback and guidance as to how certain things look, and in many cases, taking my best judgment on how we should push the film in a certain direction. Ultimately, I'm trying to get to something I feel that Bryan will respond to.
DS: Sounds like some full days.
RS: Yeah, exactly.
DS: Were you responsible for identifying and negotiating deals with the film’s visual effects vendors or were you presented with a group of companies to use and integrate into the film's production pipeline?
RS: A little of both. From my point of view, I was brought onto this project by Bryan and Fox partly due to my involvement with and the success of Prometheus. Since I am an MPC employee, it was kind of a given that MPC was going to be involved, although I wasn’t sure to what extent in the beginning.
Then as things progressed and I started to break down the script, it was obvious there were various sections of the movie that featured certain characters, such as the Sentinels, that interacted with various members of the mutant cast in different locations. So it started to become apparent that a big chunk of the work best be allocated to a single vendor, and my first choice was always going to be MPC.
Also, there is always a financial aspect to making these kind of decisions. Often the studio is looking for the most cost effective deals, and that may be a case of exploring territories where there are suitable tax breaks. But personally, my decision is always creative. I have a great producer, Blondel Aidoo, who handles the financial side of things and takes the role of working with the studio to get the best possible combination of what I would like to do creatively, and what will work financially for our budget and our schedule.
But I always try to look at things from a creative point of view. For example, I felt Digital Domain was a great company to handle our 1973 Sentinels and the huge amount of set extensions that went with that, as well as the huge amount of destruction work that they were going to have to carry out too. So they came on as our second lead vendor.
DS: As far as the film’s look development, how much previs was done? How much postvis? Who handled that work?
RS: We did very extensive previs. It's something that Bryan likes to use a lot to help develop the story beats and visually expand upon story details in the script. His preference was to use The Third Floor, as he has worked with them in previous movies and has a good relationship with the team there. They were really a strong part of our visual effects team and pretty much handled all of the previs for the movie.
When Blondel and I first started on the project, we actually just sat in their offices and started talking about using them as a base because they were first on board to start visualizing some of the bigger action beats before we had even awarded work elsewhere. That was our first step and The Third Floor stayed onboard all the way through preproduction. We took a team with us to Montreal and they stayed for the whole production and when we moved into post, we kept a smaller team on board as additional things came up. When we got into postvis, a lot of the scenes they had previously animated could be translated into postvis. So the Third Floor team was on board pretty much all the way through, and we took their work as far as we possibly could.
For me, previs is incredibly important but unless you have all of the filmmakers, the DPs and the producers heavily onboard with the idea, it's something that's only going to be used as a guide. One thing we did fairly successfully on this project was we used a virtual camera setup with our previs team in Montreal. We got the second unit director Brian Smrz and our director of photography Tom Sigel involved in using the virtual camera setup to shoot our previs. So they used the virtual camera to determine the onset camera moves they ultimately wanted to use when shooting their action sequences. In turn, we used our editorial department to cut a lot of these virtual shots together. This really helped all the filmmakers become involved in the previs process in a positive way, so that when we actually started shooting things, we were working very tightly to previs that everybody was happy with.
DS: Right. So, you’re going onto the set with the previs already locked down. That must help with regards to setup decision making, cost and things like that?
RS: Absolutely, it does. Another weapon that we had in our armory was an onset SimulCam setup. This allowed us to encode all of our cranes and some of our dollies to be able to playback a live feed of our previs through the onset monitors, with a live key and real-time match move. That in turn allowed us to see all of our set extensions for the scenes, any of the Sentinel animation that we had prevised, or any of the mutant effects we had available to play back as well, so that the camera operators could see exactly what they needed to frame up for. For example, they could pan with the action and the running Sentinels, or if we had a set extension placed where the white house needed to be in frame, they could get an idea of how far to tilt up and where to stop.
Those things are incredibly important, and it was really useful to have all the previs we had spent so much time working on available for us onset to see live. Because of that, we were able to get low quality posters of each individual take, which was incredibly helpful and provided a good starting point for the editorial team. It really helped them understand what was going on in each inch of the empty plates they’d receive as dailies as they'd also receive an accompanying low res comp of what was going to end up in the shot. That whole process was, for the most part, very successful. When we actually started doing proper quality posters then that animation scene file could be tallied up with the appropriate plate and put together in a better way.
DS: Sounds like you had quite a sophisticated and integrated production both coming out of preproduction and leading into post?
RS: You know, we had some really good tools and some really clever people doing some amazing stuff for us. And for the most part, it worked really well. Was it always 100 percent successful? I wouldn’t say it was a perfect scenario all of the time, but it was incredibly helpful and moved us forward leaps and bounds from where we would have been without it.
DS: One of the challenges with live action shoots is trying to make sure you capture what you need for the visual effects works, making real-time decisions regarding what gets shot live and what you just have to deal with in post. Can you describe the onset dynamic of trying to get what you need without impacting the director and the rest of the crew?
RS: When we’re shooting, of course there are always going to be unexpected things where you need to decide if you can you fix this in post or should we carry on. We are trying to be ready for those things before they happen and anticipate them in preproduction. So when we have production meetings, we're thinking about how long we’re going to spend in each location, how much time we have with sunlight, if we need to put a green screen out, which direction the sun is going to be as we may need to angle it in a particular way, or put a black backing up. It's all of those little things that we need to think about to avoid surprises on the shoot so when surprises do happen, they’re kept to a minimum.
Also, it's really important to work closely with the onset team, with the assistant directors for example, to explain why we need things in a certain way. Making sure they know this information before we get to that moment is incredibly helpful so that they can plan their day. So if we have a lull they can say okay, let's get this thing you need for visual effects whilst the actors are getting changed. If they have all of that information earlier on in the day rather than at the last minute it helps out in trying to anticipate those moments.
DS: This movie features new characters, but also many returning characters. With regards to mutant animation and design, what can you reuse from previous movies? Do you have to rebuild everything for each movie? How much flexibility is there in updating and refining the designs?
RS: There is a little flexibility in that. As a good example, Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Mystique, won’t wear contact lenses. She finds them too uncomfortable and it really hinders her performance. So one of the key things we had to do was CG eye replacements. We started with the assets that were created for X-Men: First Class, and we had a very nice design for the iris and the eyeball which was perfectly usable and a great starting point for our vendors. But as we progressed we were finding that we needed to do a lot more extreme close-ups of her eyes than in the previous movie, and we needed to see much more detail in the model. It's essentially the same. But, we just updated the look so that we could really carry across the emotion of her performance while still retaining depth within the eye and actually seeing light reflection within the lens of the eye. Those things were really important for maintaining a realistic look with her yellow eyes.
Then there are completely new characters we’ve never seen before like Bishop and Sunspot. We had a whole design process for finding the look we needed. First we conceptualized everything in 2D form as much as we could, then integrated that into our previs so we could start seeing in simplistic terms what those characters might look like. Then we would hand that over, in this case to MPC, who spent a long time doing their own internal development on how they could bring that concept still to life.
DS: Looking at the overall production, what were the main challenges you faced?
RS: The Sentinels. Realizing the Sentinels was the first big challenge. We had never seen them in action before in any X-Men movie. We have two story threads to our movie. One in the future and one in the past. So we actually have two completely different Sentinel designs. One is the early prototype, the other a future version which takes advantage of 50 years of Sentinel development and the idea that they have become organic creatures. We are also taking on the idea that Mystique's DNA has been weaponized into their abilities which is reflected in their design. So we had two very different design challenges with the look of the Sentinels. It took a long time to get that honed down to what we wanted. We worked very closely with John Myhre, the production designer. We presented ideas to Bryan as we went along and ended up with two really successful designs from the art departments of both Framestore and MPC in London. That was an interesting process to go through. Then of course we needed to consider the animation design and how they actually moved as characters before we could hand them over to the animation departments of Digital Domain for the 1973 Sentinels and MPC for the future Sentinels. That was an interesting challenge as well.
There was also significant destruction in Washington D.C. where Magneto pulls the whole baseball stadium out of the ground. This was handled by Digital Domain. They did some incredible simulation for ripping that out of the ground and depositing it on the White House lawn. Some amazing work there. That was really, really hard and super complex work.
DS: I know every film is different even if you approach it with the same production methodology and mindset, but was there anything particularly unique or interesting that stood out for you about this film?
RS: One of our major third act sequences takes place on the lawn of the White House. We had very limited resources to build a set for that. It really should have been indoors and I was very concerned about the artificial lighting and the fact that it's a huge part of our end sequence. One of the things we ended up doing was building an external set with a 360 greenscreen and a silk roof over the top so we had a consistent overcast sunlight. That to me that felt rewarding in the sense of working with the DP to come up with a solution that was expensive but absolutely the right choice in terms of getting a good convincing look to the sequence. Not only did we feel satisfied with a very evenly lit greenscreen we could control, but also with consistent lighting throughout the day as well. Sometimes it's the simple things like that, which require a massive engineering effort to build. Those are the things that are particularly rewarding and satisfying.
DS: Never having done that sort of thing before, you just assume at the end of this huge effort it’s actually going to be successful.
RS: Yeah, I mean on a smaller scale, I knew that if we were going to shoot an exterior scene on a greenscreen, then shooting it outside was going to look better than shooting it inside. That comes from years of experience. There are some fantastic DPs out there that can light beautifully and quite often do. But on such a large scale, it is very, very hard to keep even lighting over a huge area. We had a 200 foot square area of lawn that we dressed as a set and if we had to do that inside then we would have been confined to a much smaller space, because we didn't have stages quite that large. It would have been a lot more challenging to keep consistent lighting. And of course we still ended up battling the elements because we were outside. If it was raining or windy it had adverse effects on our shooting schedule. But in terms of the look, I'd done this before on a smaller scale, and I knew it worked in the past. So it's just a case of doing it on a massive scale. You think, yup that's going to work and this is definitely going to be the right thing. We made it happen and that was great.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.