VFX artist-turned director Scott Stewart discusses his latest sci-fi mash-up starring Paul Bettany and Maggie Q.
Scott Stewart has made great use of his VFX expertise, first as a designer with ILM and then as co-founder of The Orphanage, in helming Priest, the dystopian vampire/western opening tomorrow through Screen Gems. He enjoys riffing on Blade Runner, Brazil and Bad Day at Black Rock, and he likes what 3-D can do (he'd much rather rave about how hard it was to get a close-up of his two stars than some badass fight).
Bill Desowitz: Coming off Legion, what drew you to Priest?
Scott Stewart: The fact that it takes place in an alternate world, and although religion plays a part in it, it's way more Orwellian science-fiction. The vampire is also a different metaphor in Priest. They're albino, they're more feral, they're nocturnal, they're cave dwellers and they have a primitive culture. And so what I realized what was at the heart of the movie was that it has its roots in western iconography and it's an after the war movie.
BD: What was the design process like?
SS: TyRuben Ellingson, an old friend from the ILM days, designed the vehicles; Chet Zar was the creature designer and his characters have a lot of soulfulness. And I'm a big form follows function guy and so are Chet and Ty: his designs are based on relatable, realistic, engineering principles. We just gave ourselves some rules: we called the design aspects of the movie "Retro Futurism." It's hard to do a dark dystopia without living in the shadow of Blade Runner; it's like the Frank Sinatra of science-fiction movies. So you realize that and you just try to make the design tell the story of the world, and we have a walled city, which at the center has a large industrial cathedral, which looms over all the other buildings, and looks like a pin cushion with smoke stacks. And it's always night and it snows ash 24 hours a day.
BD: And the vfx journey?
SS: Jonathan Rothbart's my old partner from The Orphange and was the visual effects supervisor, and Jenny Fulle, the visual effects producer, I've known since she was at Imageworks. They really did a remarkable job of getting an extraordinary amount of work done and they stretched a buck pretty darn far. We worked with a lot of facilities around the world. Tippett was the main creature facility and the main matte painting facility was Svengali; we had Spin in Toronto doing secondary creatures and matte work; we had The Senate in the UK that came in and did some environments for us. Zoic contributed as well.
BD: Talk about Genndy Tartakovsky directing the three-minute animated prologue.
SS: It's really cool. I just thought if we were going to set up this alternate world, that it was a great opportunity here to see the mythology of the world. It goes from the Crusades to World War I to the future and so we did that and Robbie Consing reboarded it for me and I did a boardomatic and the studio absolutely loved it. And then we did our budget and it was going to cost several million dollars and it became really easy for them to want to cut it, but I held it in my back pocket for the longest time. And I had talked to Genndy about it -- this hand-drawn, R-rated animation for mainstream audiences in a theatrical picture, which is unusual these days. I've known Genndy a long time and have worked with him as a producer and developer, but this was an opportunity to work with him as a director and co-directors essentially on this.
BD: So what happened?
SS: So the end of that story is I went to the studio and said, "If I could do it for this number, can we do it?" And they said, "Well, we actually have no idea how'd you do it for that tiny fraction of the original multi-million dollar number it came out to be, but if you can, great." He started working on the designs of the characters and I liked the direction he was going in [Americanizing his love of anime]; we talked about a watercolor style background and we just wanted to be very tactile, almost like a storybook (I think most of it was com'd in After Effects). And it was all done in California. Yet it's quite violent. He started with my boardomatic and then he did his pass and reconceived it and we made further adjustments. I had Alan Dale, who's in the film, record the voice-over. And it was a terrific collaboration. All along, the studio wasn't sure if this was going to work or be appealing. Was the animation going to be too graphic and too simple? And when it was done, they thought it was awesome, and we showed it to audiences, and people were real excited about it and that didn't surprise me at all.
BD: It's interesting that you could get away with more blood and gore than in the actual movie.
SS: Yeah, interestingly enough, even though we're a PG-13 movie, the MPAA just went: "Oh, it's animated -- no worries!" Which was so funny because they actually had huge problems with stuff that's less graphic and violent in the live-action movie. They made us turn our blood black or brown, for the most part, in the movie itself.
BD: What was the 3-D experience like?
SS: I wanted to shoot anamorphic -- Don Burgess was my camera man and is a real legend, shooting Spider-Man and Forrest Gump. We knew it was a landscape movie -- it was influenced by Bad Day at Black Rock and Ford and Leone and other things. And we wanted to make a widescreen movie, so we talked a lot about 3-D and we wanted to shoot film, we wanted to have that look and use those lenses primarily from the '70s, which have a lot of aberration that they've tried to engineer out of those lenses. We knew what we could get photographically in a 2-D version and, if given enough time, we could make a very compelling 3-D version of the movie [in post]. It's very important to Sony, so once they saw an early cut of the movie, we moved forward with stereoscopic conversion and they gave us about eight more months and an early summer release. Several months and a number of vendors and some very talented stereographers, like Rob Engle and Bruce Jones, and I think they did a remarkable job. We wanted the film like a window into a world, so the movie's quite deep, and it's about looking at the vastness of the desert, the dystopian city.
BD: How's The Mortal Instruments going?
SS: It's going well. It's quite different from what I've done in the past: it's based on a very popular young girls' book series [by Cassandra Clare]. It's a bit Harry Potter, a bit Twilight: a female protagonist [Lily Collins], a seemingly ordinary girl in New York, who discovers she has some extraordinary powers, and there's a city within the city filled with creatures (if you look at that dilapidated church, you can see that it's really a gleaming, gothic cathedral) There's a lot of music and this is a lot breezier than Priest, a lot more comedy and romance with still plenty of action. I think it's going to be a lot of fun.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.