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VFX Oscar Nominees 2009: Conversations with Barba, Franklin and Snow

VFXWorld offers its sixth-annual Oscar chat with the supervisors nominated for Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight and Iron Man.

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When Benjamin appears in his 80s, 70s and mid-60s in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, he is completely CG from the neck up. All Benjamin Button images courtesy of Digital Domain. © 2008 Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Ent. 

How curious that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight and Iron Man take CG to new levels of realism to aid their actors' performances. Eric Barba of Digital Domain, Paul Franklin of Double Negative and Ben Snow of Industrial Light & Magic discuss this and much more.

Bill Desowitz: Eric, you're the frontrunner with Benjamin Button and its innovative CG head replacement work. Was there a moment when you breathed a sigh of relief that it worked?

Eric Barba: I have to say it was probably during the putting together of that shot where Benjamin is leaving the young lady of the evening. He was backing away from her and saying, "Will you be here tomorrow?" This was really a great moment. That shot came together in such a magical way and everything just worked right out of the box. There was some work obviously with the performance, but it worked with the body, and the animators finessed a little bit the nuance of what Brad [Pitt] did. That was probably when I felt the most comfortable. But when you're staring down the barrel of 325 shots, it's a bit daunting, but you can check box at least one. And David [Fincher] was very good about starting with the easy ones and I always like to start with the hardest ones because they're going to need the most care and you want to look at them the longest.

He wanted to start with some over-the-shoulders and a few of the simplest wide ones that helped prepare the team for what was coming, including the shot in the trailer when he says, "I'm 7 but I look a lot older." That one took a long time because the body actor happened to be doing sporadic movements almost as if he was so old he was shaking, and initially David thought it was an endearing quality, but when we put Brad's performance on that body, it was an example of Brad's performance not in synch with the body language of the body actor. And we kept it open so long as we tried untold revisions to match that. In some ways because you can change things, you try to see if it'll help.

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BD: What was the experience like for Brad? Was it ever frustrating not being in total control of his performance?

EB: When we were shooting his performance, he didn't seem frustrated. He was genuinely happy and very...

BD: Curious?

EB: I think he was asked those questions, but he'd look at the takes and because David had already [selected] the cuts that we wanted and the takes that he liked for Brad to perform and he'd then direct him, it seemed to go incredibly smoothly and well.

BD: And what was it like working with Fincher, and waiting for technology to catch up with need?

EB: Because I started with him in commercials [in '92] and commercials are their own beast, especially with David's body of work, he pretty much gets the pick of the litter. Just working with him, I knew this was a great opportunity and that the bar was set incredibly high. At the same time, I've learned so much from him. He's really good at knowing what he wants and communicating it. After a while, I can work in shorthand with him. But on this film, we really started talking about it in early 2004, prior to doing the original test. It was amazingly daunting, especially where technology was back then. At the same time, this is what gets me up in the morning because this is the kind of work that, hopefully, will take us to that next level. So I was constantly thinking about the little pieces -- the hair, the eyelashes and glasses, the little subtleties around the mouth, the teeth and the tongue. Certainly the eyes are huge in conveying that emotion, especially since Brad's performance can be so subtle and sometimes all he does with the eyes is everything.

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Dark Knight's Gotham City environments and most of the action sequences were assigned to Double Negative, which created more than half the of the 700 vfx shots. All Dark Knight images courtesy of Double Negative. ™ & © DC Comics. Courtesy of Warner Bros. 

BD: Paul, what was it like working with Chris Nolan again in terms of his requirements for The Dark Knight?

Paul Franklin: It was really interesting. On the one hand, he was willing to give us a lot of creative input into shot design giving us a very loose brief and waiting to see what we came up with. On the other hand, he had learned a lot about the technology on Batman Begins and he had a very clear idea of where he wanted to take the work on The Dark Knight; not only did he challenge us to develop the high-res IMAX pipe but he also got us to do all the Scope work at 4K as opposed to 2K. In every area, he pushed the quality of the images and demanded a seamless match with the unforgiving nature of the original cinematography. However, the best thing about working on one of Chris' films is that you know that, at the end of the day, you are part of a truly great piece of filmmaking. Chris' vision for The Dark Knight lifted it way out of the genre of comic book movies and took it to a place where a vast audience responded with great enthusiasm and that's why all the vfx teams on The Dark Knight worked so hard to get the final result.

BD: Like Chris Nolan, Jon Favreau has been critical of CG. Ben, what was it like changing his perception on Iron Man?

Ben Snow: Yeah, I think that Favreau's career has gone through the history of visual effects. On Elf, he sort of had stop-motion, hanging miniatures and a lot of traditional effects techniques; and he used some of those again on Zathura, also motion control and computer graphics. But he definitely was someone who was quite critical of computer graphics being overused or not used well. And that's what it comes down to. I may be naïve, but I really think that the stigma about CG is starting to go away. People are starting to realize that it's just a toolset and how you use it is what's important. What we were able to do with the test and certainly with the film was to get it to the point where the computer graphics and the live-action suit were pretty much indistinguishable. And so we gradually moved away more and more from the brush metal silver suit and he started commenting on things that weren't CG as if they were and [vice versa].

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The vfx approach on Iron Man had to first win over CG-skeptical director Jon Favreau. All Iron Man images courtesy of ILM © 2008 MVLFFLLC. ™ & © 2008 Marvel Ent. All rights reserved. 

BD: So it must've been a real eye-opener for Favreau?

BS: I think so. And I have to say, to his credit, he was really great about it. And he talked about it and came up and talked to the crew and said how it really changed his perception. Obviously it's great: we love that sort of challenge and it's something we always try to do. And if you've got a director that's passionate about wanting it to look as real as possible, then you've gotta find time on the set to capture the high-dynamic-range images that might help us with the lighting, and take the time to get it right on set.

BD: It's a very tricky thing with comicbook movies, isn't it?

BS: Yeah, there was a to and fro there because we wanted to get the splash page moments, and it was almost as if Favreau was working against his better judgment: he wanted it to be real, but he knew it was important to also have these big "Iron Man is coming to punch Iron Monger" moments, with the light hitting his arm just right and a beautifully art-directed pause, which wouldn't happen if this was a real brawl. But being anchored in realism worked great.

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BD: Paul, what did you think of Digital Domain's achievement on Benjamin Button?

PF: DD's work on Benjamin Button is very impressive. As a professional vfx artist, I spent the first 15 minutes of the film looking for the joins but then I forgot about the vfx and just watched the character because that's what was up on screen. The rejuvenation or "youthification" of the actors [by Lola] is also very well done and opens up a whole range of possibilities for filmmakers in the future. The film certainly represents a significant advance in vfx and cinematic technique in general.

BD: What did you think, Ben?

BS: I really admired the film greatly. Obviously they got the key thing, which was the effect of the aged Brad Pitt. That was seamless -- you really don't question it as you watch the movie, even as an effects professional. And I enjoyed the cinematography and so it's definitely one of my favorites of the year.

BD: Eric, what were your impressions of The Dark Knight and Iron Man?

This year, all three nominees successfully and seamlessly enhance the performances of the protagonists, including Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button.

This year, all three nominees successfully and seamlessly enhance the performances of the protagonists, including Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button.

EB: That's one of the reasons I'm so nervous: the work across the board this year was outstanding and there's really a lot of great work in both of those films. I know when I watched them both on the big screen, I was really excited. With The Dark Knight, it's not just about the great performances, but they also did a good job in taking traditional special effects and integrating it into a superhero movie that makes it feel like it's traditionally shot and not a fantastical film. And with Iron Man, another great performance with Robert Downey that's enjoyable to watch and, my god, when they assemble the Iron Man for the very first time, that was amazing. And coming from the design background that I have, I loved all the little detail of things and how it was assembled. It's just beautiful. And I happen to know one of the guys that worked on that, Russell Paul [a digital artist at ILM], and they did an awesome job.

BD: It's interesting how all three nominees successfully enhance the performances of the protagonists.

EB: And seamlessly. That's always the goal. With Benjamin, if anyone saw that it was a special effect, then we lost. Our job was to never take the viewer out of the moment and the performance. I think potentially that's where this type of work will go, in that there are stories out there that can be told. It only takes one film to launch the idea that we can do this now at other companies and push a certain technology. It's much like when we first saw the dinosaurs walk in Jurassic Park and everyone said it can be done now and can take it to the next level.

Director Chris Nolan demanded a seamless match with the unforgiving nature of the original cinematography. 

Director Chris Nolan demanded a seamless match with the unforgiving nature of the original cinematography. 

BD: Paul, did you notice any parallels between Iron Man and The Dark Knight?

PF: Comparisons between Iron Man and The Dark Knight are interesting because they are both adapted from comic book sources but they both take very different routes making two distinct films that are each very successful in their own terms. For me, the greatest achievement in Iron Man's vfx work -- which is extremely impressive throughout -- is that they very successfully sold the high energy dynamism of the character without you ever really questioning whether a human being could live through all that. The gritty look of the CG suit perfectly matched the practical version to the point that you only really know that you're looking at CG when you spot something that couldn't possibly have been filmed for real (such as a metal man in supersonic flight). On The Dark Knight, we had a standard of reality that we had to match and Iron Man achieved a seamless reality that's entirely consistent with that film's own set of internal rules.

As a general observation about all of this year's nominees, it's very important to note that each film is a very strong piece of cinema in its own right. They're all really great movies, and that's not something that it's always been possible to say about previous years. This in itself is a major achievement; more and more really good films are making more and more use of large quantities of high-end visual effects work. This makes me very excited about the future of our craft.

Ben Snow, visual effects supervisor, Industrial Light & Magic.

Ben Snow, visual effects supervisor, Industrial Light & Magic.

BD: Ben, it's interesting how you've segued from Iron Man to Terminator Salvation. It must be fun to witness direct improvements in technology from one robotic film to another.

BS: Yeah, I actually like to jump back and forth in types of films. But I have to say there's a lot of variety in Terminator, maybe even more than on Iron Man. But what's great about being able to do this is that we've developed some new tools and techniques and approaches on Iron Man that we were able to leverage and extend further on this one.

BD: How so?

BS: Just in terms of the realism of some of the images and materials that we then could adapt to a slightly more stylized-looking environment. That just means that you need the realism to be even more spot-on. There's nowhere to hide: the grain's gonna be cranked up and the highlights are gonna go crazy in the treatment.

BD: Looking ahead to this year, what are your impressions of the hot topic of the moment, stereoscopic 3-D?

PF: It was great to see Journey to the Center of the Earth [in] 3-D at the bakeoff, as it's the herald of what could be as big an event in the history of cinema as the introduction of sound. If Avatar is as big a hit as it looks like it might be, then I think there will be a lot of productions that will be scrambling to add stereo to their films. Returning to the comparison with the advent of the talkies, you might even see shows that are in production reshooting chunks for stereo presentation in just the same way that several big nearly-complete silent movies were reshot with sound before being released.

At Double Negative, we've been watching the developments with great interest and we've gained experience in stereo vfx production through our work on this summer's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, for which we created a major sequence in true stereo. It's something that I think all serious practitioners of vfx will have to deal with sooner or later.

EB: I think there's a lot of good that can be worked out there, and there's a lot of reason to move forward because it can immerse you so much more. It's obviously in its infancy as far as the new technology, but when it works, it works incredibly well. And I think it will be the next thing to get people to go to the movie theater, which I think is important. Aesthetically, it has lots of challenges. I think if you can get the immersion thing right, then it will not only tug on emotions or visuals, but also you'll get a sense of being there much more. It's one step closer to a virtual environment.

ILM turned a Malibu cliff into Tony Stark's opulent retreat from the world. 

ILM turned a Malibu cliff into Tony Stark's opulent retreat from the world. 

BS: I think it's still a gimmick. It's not comfortable enough for me yet. There's one reason it could succeed, and that is that you have to wear special apparatus to view the images, which means it's not going to be as easy for piracy, especially if they jazz up that apparatus even more. So I can imagine studios being interested in that. But there's an artificiality that it lends even real sets -- I'm not sure why exactly -- so it'll be interesting to see what [James] Cameron does with it, since he has a lot more experience with it. I was pretty impressed with my friend Eric Brevig's film, Journey to the Center of the Earth. It was very effective.

BD: Paul, since you offered a general observation about the nominees, how would you characterize the current state of the industry?

PF: In all areas, vfx work is getting ever closer to a completely seamless rendition of reality. At the same time, we are developing greater control over that version of reality which is enabling us to capture the vision of directors and -- most importantly -- sell it to the audience. What's interesting is that as vfx technique advances in sophistication, what it actually means to filmmakers is that it's becoming simpler to understand: vfx is, in essence, just another movie camera, but it's one that shoots stuff that you wouldn't otherwise be able to see.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of VFXWorld and AWN.

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