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VFX Oscar Nominees 2008: Conversations with Farrar, Fink and Knoll

On the eve of the Academy Awards this Sunday, Bill Desowitz chats separately with Visual Effects Supervisors Scott Farrar, Mike Fink and John Knoll about CG robots, daemons and the Maelstrom.

Initially, John Knoll had naïve ideas of what creating the Maelstrom would require. All Pirates images © Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved. 

Once again, VFXWorld asks the nominated supervisors what they thought of each others work as well as their own. Industrial Light & Magics Scott Farrar and John Knoll (last years winner) pushed the boundaries of hard surface rendering and fluid simulation with Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End, respectively, and Mike Fink oversaw one of the seasons biggest CG undertakings with The Golden Compass.

Bill Desowitz: In a year dominated by so many fluid simulation achievements, talk about the significance of the Maelstrom?

John Knoll: I knew we were going to be dealing with heavy amounts of CG water, and partly because I previously tried to minimize it, I had little experience with CG water. And going into the Maelstrom I had naïve ideas of what it would require. My perception was that, given all the development work that went into Poseidon, which looked great, I should be able to take those tools and just use them. But as we really started getting serious about making an image, I discovered that there were all sorts of limitations with the tools and that there were things we needed to do that were unique to Pirates.

BD: Such as?

JK: Ill give you a couple of examples. The fluid simulations that we had done on Poseidon were of a flat ocean. And so imagine, for the most part, that the simulations fit into a volume that is very large in two dimensions and very shallow in the third dimension. But imagine the shape of the Maelstrom being very large in all three dimensions. And so this work is done with 3D voxels: a giant vector field that takes a significant amount of memory to represent a shape like that. And so we were going to have trouble getting the kind of detail that we needed in our fluid simulation, even given the 32-gig machines that we had to do this. So a lot of effort went into maximizing the amount of detail and optimizing our use of memory and computer resources. Another thing that hadnt occurred to me before we went into this was the secondary level of detail thats added to water that is procedural -- deep water that gives you small ripples and fine scale waves. And a lot of times addressing that into a shot is based on what the camera is actually seeing. And so there are resolution-dependent optimizations that are made because of the curved shape of the Maelstrom, that youre seeing many different scales of water simultaneously. And some of those few dependent optimizations were not possible. We also had to direct the water to do what the script was demanding and not necessarily what the fluid simulator wanted it to do. And Ill give you an example of that. An important story point to Gore [Verbinski] was that the Maelstrom spins faster when you go deeper down into it. And they use this property in the script a couple of times. The Flying Dutchman cuts down deeper into the Maelstrom where its spinning faster to catch up to the Black Pearl and ends up on the Black Pearls tail, and the Black Pearl has to dive down deeper into the Maelstrom to [elude] the Flying Dutchman. So it was important to Gore that we see that. So even though the Maelstrom was taking on the correct shape of whats called an irrotational vortex, the kind thats formed by water going down a drain, if you frame up a shot in 2:35.1 frame, the water wasnt visibly fast enough down the bottom of that frame. So we wrote tools to do deformations on top of fluid simulations. So we had a twist deformation in that case where we could spin the lower part of the frame so that it was going noticeably faster to make that story point. Then because we wanted to do hundreds of shots and maximize the reusability of these expensive simulations, we decided that the wakes of the boats should be simulated separately from the main fluid simulation of the Maelstrom so that we could put the boats wherever they needed to go for a particular shot, and then add the weight around the boat in that position. And so here you have two fluid sims that are these giant 3D vector fields and we needed to have a way of doing compositing with vector fields, so we wrote some tools that allowed us to do these fluid sim composits.

BD: Looking back on Transformers, Scott, what are your thoughts about making the ultimate robots?

Scott Farrar: You know a lot of things have to come together in any film, and certainly thats true in visual effects. You have an interesting combination of events: the kind of director that youre working with, the kind of talents that you might have, certainly what the story provide you -- youre only as good as the project youre given. Not only is Michael Bay a good cinematographer in his own right but hes also funny. This is the first picture Ive done with him and hes got this great, quirky sense of humor. And he told me one time that in a big, summer popcorn movie, theres nothing like humor. And when hed ask me about a scene, Id remind him about that. And he loved that: this idea that these big robots are goofy. That was unexpected.

What I like is that each and every one of these nominees has a different aesthetic approach to making the film. In the case of Transformers, it was photoreal. It was our job to make these robots look real to the audience. Hopefully, it defied their own imagination, their own logic in looking at a CG creature. It looks like its a puppet, maybe its hydraulic, maybe its animatronic. But that was the puzzle that we were trying to create.

BD: Golden Compass was definitely your most ambitious project, Mike, and it certainly had its share of production problems. Just how difficult was it?

Mike Fink: It was not only my most ambitious project, but also the most ambitious project that New Line had undertaken, even more so than Lord of the Rings. This was an entirely different operation. This wasnt Peter Jackson and Weta doing it all. And no matter how much Susan MacLeod, the visual effects producer, and I told them how difficult it was to achieve what they wanted, they just never believed it. We created two of the central characters in the movie and they had to have real relationships with this young girl that you had to believe. And you had to believe everything: all the other animals in the movie and you had to believe the places they were. It was a live-action movie, so the environments could take on an air of being in a parallel universe, but they had to feel real. As Jim Blinn said years ago about how you render things in computer graphics, It doesnt have to be real -- it just has to look real. For me, its been a guiding tenet for years.

If there is a difference between Golden Compass and the other two contenders for the Oscar -- and believe me, these are the ones that I voted for in the bakeoff -- I think it comes down to the fact that for visual effects Golden Compass was an exercise in intimacy. And for Pirates and Transformers, it was an exercise in spectacle. And believe me, I think intimacy is a lot harder to pull off. So whether we win or not, I think we had the larger task of the three of us. And thats not taking anything away from what the guys did on the other films -- I think they did a stupendous job.

For Mike Fink, the visual effects in Golden Compass was an exercise in intimacy. All Golden Compass images © 2007 New Line Cinema.

BD: What did you think of Transformers, John?

JK: Its amazing to see how dense the geometry is on Transformers and how dense those models are with thousands of moving parts. When I first saw the designs, I wondered how they were going to make an animation rig to control this. Indeed, there was really no way to make a general, all-purpose animation rig for everything that needed to be done on a shot. Instead, they worked out a technique that was totally free-form and the computer could be looking at any part of the robot that was framed up well: I really want to make this piston collapse and this little piece rotate and to able to support doing that there and having it pass through to the final model. I think the quality of the rendering was very nice. They did a really good job of getting these nice car paint surfaces and scratchy metal and this stuff to really look good. And lastly, I think they made a big advance in digital destruction making objects fracture apart in believable ways. Ive done a little bit of that myself and its really hard to make things look good.

BD: So itll be easier the next time youre confronted with that?

JK: Oh, Im hoping it plugs right in.

BD: And what were your impressions of Golden Compass?

JK: I really like a lot of the environmental work. Its not what people are talking about, but I enjoyed the big cityscapes, the dirigible and all that kind of thing. I thought that work was really beautiful. I really liked the daemons that follow everyone around, particularly the little ferret.

BD: It was all dependent on the believability of the animals.

JK: Yeah, when you are trying to animate animals that do things that real animals dont do, thats very difficult, and I think they did a very good job, in particular, I like when we first see the bear character when hes in the workshop. I think he looks fantastic in that scene.

Knoll admired the environmental work in The Golden Compass. Its not what people are talking about, but he found the big cityscapes and the dirigible really beautiful. 

BD: Scott, tell us more about Pirates and Golden Compass.

SF: Pirates is a fantasy genre but, like Transformers, its something we all love -- its pirates. We all grew up playing pirates and it touches the child within us. Were all familiar with the idea of mariners of ancient times sailing off the edge of the world. They were scared of sailing across the Atlantic for fear of dropping off the world. And that concept is in the movie. I mean, there are some really big story ideas in the movie, which are really cool, and those all touch on the things weve been exposed to in nautical lore: getting caught in a Maelstrom -- Edgar Allan Poe wrote about that: a fearful, horrible, awesome kind of an idea that, to my knowledge, has never been done so well in a movie. Then on top of that you throw in some really interesting characters.

Just from the standpoint of lighting alone, the three pictures represent totally different approaches. Ours is broad daylight shots and hard kicks and hard keys so we can enhance the metallic look. Pirates is more of a subdued, velvety, darkish look -- not nearly as contrasty. Its a real interesting color palette. Same is true of Golden Compass, which reminds me of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which I worked on. Only, Golden Compass has a touch more fantasy, where even the backgrounds are not as delineated as sharply and the color palette is very warm -- brighter tones. The whole idea is to try and weave this look that engages you to believe the story that you are seeing.

BD: Again, the challenge of making these animals believable.

SF: I think the movie just wants you to accept the notion of talking animals and go for the ride. Thats pretty neat. These animals are cool and they work well in the backgrounds and they work well against the human actors. And its got all of those childhood elements that we love: dirigibles riding above the city

BD: The cowboy in space with his ship -- the ancient mariner again.

SF: You know: thats true! There you go! Were onto something here! Saturday morning kids kind of touchstone. Theres a wide variety of work in Golden Compass in terms of live actors photographed against blue-or greenscreen where you have to complete the set or the background that doesnt exist. Thats true of Pirates as well. Water, bluescreen that has to be extracted. That has to be a hard, messy thing to do. And then you have to put in all your background to foreground layers to make the audience believe the actors are dueling in a stormy sea with water going everywhere on a ship thats partially real and partially created.

Thats the thing: everyone looks at this as a competition, and it is in some regard, but most of all, its a celebration of the work. All of us are friends. Wed work with one another at the drop of a hat.

For me, and you know I come from a photographic background, the struggle to make these CG images look more and more real has been a slow process. Its real easy for the computer to spit out an image that is geometrically perfect, but the real challenge is to dirty things down -- to make it more real world, to fiddle with the way the light hits different objects. On Transformers, the lighting response on those different metals was usually wrong. Every one of them had to be adjusted and tweaked because the computer doesnt know. You have to custom direct everything to make it look like you see with your own eyes in this real world here on earth. So Im really happy with the way that imagery is finally getting. Its still hard work and it takes a lot of dedication, but everybodys making their images look better and better every year, and its certainly true of these three movies.

BD: And now youre diving back into Transformers 2.

SF: Yeah, weve seen some artwork, weve seen some early animatics and weve had some visits with Michael. It is bigger and better, I kid you not! Its awesome production quality. Its thrilling. You never want to do a sequel just to make more money. No, the dedication is really to mine the depths of Transformers mythology even further. And so theres a lot to portray and a lot of rich storytelling to go on with fully developed characters. The size of the production, the look of the movie is going to be huge.

BD: Mike, what did you think about Transformers?

MF: What I loved about Transformers is the way the robots looked. I liked the way they were rendered and lit and composited into the scene. I liked the integration of the robots, for the most part. There were some scale cheats and a few places where shadows didnt work where I was taken out of the shot for the moment, but it was probably the best work that Scott has ever done. And thats saying something because hes done some great work throughout his career.

Fink loved the way the robots looked in Transformers. He liked how they were rendered, lit and composited into the scene and, for the most part, their integration. 

BD: And Pirates?

MF: In terms of being spectacle, Pirates is just huge. I talked to John just briefly about the quote that was in the trades some months ago about it being a miracle that this movie got finished at all. And I was chiding him because until I read that, that was what I was saying about Golden Compass. But I cant say that [publicly] because John already said it. And do you remember what Bill Taylor said during his opening remarks at the bakeoff about the ridiculous schedules, the waste and the time? Well, that came about because Bill and I talked at some length about Golden Compass and what I had to go through to get that movie done and to John about what he had to go through. Bill literally encapsulated it. I dont know what Scott had to go through, but its a Michael Bay movie. So you just expect its going to be tough from the very beginning. I actually think that they had time, which is something that John and I didnt have.

And it is truly insane. And, in fact, I had a dream when I was finishing Golden Compass about the film being in the bakeoff. I came up to give my little speech introducing the movie at the bakeoff and I start to go on a tirade about how studios cant do this anymore, that its completely crazy, the schedules and the budgets are insane, were bleeding out of our eyeballs, its killing us, its killing our families, we have to make this stop. And then in my dream, because Im a filmmaker, you cut to an over the-shoulder-shot of me looking at the audience -- and theres like seven people in the auditorium.

Farrar notes that in Compass backgrounds are not as delineated as sharply and the color palette is very warm. He also notes that the animals work well in the backgrounds and against the human actors. 

BD: So your dream was about how futile this tirade is.

MF: The fact is John and I both made the films and theyve been nominated for Academy Awards. So do the studios think they cant do this again? Hell, no. They think this is the way to make a movie. This is great: they shorten the post-production schedule and they still get nominated for an Academy Award. So there is no incentive for the studios to change anything.

BD: Except at New Line after The Golden Compass experience.

MF: I was actually more relaxed in post-production on Golden Compass than any movie Ive done. And the reason I was so relaxed was I was firmly convinced that whatever problems the movie had, it had nothing to do with visual effects

But getting back to Pirates, in terms of scale and the accomplishment in the illusion that was created, the time John had and the fact that the visual effects are the best thing in the movie, John did a spectacular job. And, boy, the pain he was going through, because I was going through it too. John once told me about 14 years ago, that when this stops being fun, hes not going to do it anymore. And I think on this film that it may have come closest to not being fun for John as its ever been. But Scott had great fun on Transformers and you can tell. To be honest, I had great fun on Golden Compass, but it was tempered by a lot of other things.

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.