The veteran Oscar-nominated VFX supervisor discusses Marvel’s latest Iron Man saga as well as the future of high frame rate filmmaking.
As far as gigs go, Guy Williams has a good one. As a key vfx supervisor at Weta Digital, he gets to work his magic on some of the biggest, most successful films being produced today. He breathes life into mutants and orcs and giant apes. And helicarriers and flying suits of armor. Plus, he gets to do all this AND live in New Zealand. If that’s not enough, he went to the Academy Awards last month. As a nominee. Though he didn’t take home the Oscar, that’s still pretty cool.
Guy’s self-effacing and gentle manor belie his role helming visual effects productions of unbelievable enormity and complexity. His most recent, Oscar-nominated work on Marvel’s Iron Man 3 is a perfect example of just such a production.
He recently presented his work on Iron Man 3 at Vancouver’s Spark [FWD] 2014 Conference. While he was there, I had a chance to talk to him about his nomination as well as the challenges of helming such a huge vfx effort. He also shared his insights on keeping up the “wow” factor in films, what inspires him as an artist and what the future holds in store for the industry in areas such as HFR [high frame rate] filmmaking and theatrical projection.
Dan Sarto: First of all congratulations on the Oscar nomination. You’ve been chosen as one of an exalted group of the industry’s best…
Guy Williams: [Laughs] Thank you. I’m very pleased. This year was a very, very, very tough year. There were at least 8 or 9 films that deserved to be in the top five. It was just such a great year.
DS: Indeed there was a lot of really stellar work this past year. What went through your mind when you first heard you were nominated?
GW: I was a little bit stunned. It’s such a surreal experience that your mind sort of shuffles it to the back and you keep going on with your day. I mean…
DS: It takes a while to sink in.
GW: Well, it still hasn’t quite sunk in. I was just talking about it with my wife. It’s like, “Oh yeah, we’re going to the Oscars.” It’s such a surreal thing.
DS: We’ve talked about this before. Event after all these years at AWN, it’s still so hard for me to get past the sheer enormity and complexity of these big vfx productions. There is such an unbelievably huge volume of intense visuals that you have to design and produce that has to “wow” huge audiences, with little wiggle room for error, all in a ridiculously short amount of time. You have to be spot on from Day One.
GW: Yeah. And I’ll tell you my trick. It’s to surround yourself with incredibly talented people. On that project, we had a great producer and a great production manager. We brought in some great sequence supervisors and tremendously talented individuals. Going into that project, we told management we felt we could handle it, we just needed to have the right people. And they let us have the right people. It takes a lot of stress off your mind when you know you can trust the guy next to you.
DS: That’s part of what your studio is known for. You build these incredible teams and you provide them what they need to succeed.
GW: Joe [Letteri] setup the company really well. The fact we are run by an artist and the fact that we’re all about the work that we produce is huge. We obviously have to stay in business, but our focus is making sure that we do the best work possible. It’s very empowering to be able to go onto a project and know that as a company and as a team we have the resolve to do it right. It means you won’t have to fight too many extraneous battles.
DS: It certainly helps that senior management includes artists that understand what really is involved in performing this work. You’re not run by distracted financiers sitting with spreadsheets trivializing these efforts as mere line items to shuffle around at will.
GW: That’s the beauty of the whole system. Joe and a lot of people in senior management understand what it is we do. But they’re not just giving us the space to do it right. Joe will always push to drive the technology forward. For example, let’s say we really need to focus on creatures or digi-doubles or whatever our little flash point might be at that moment. Joe will push it forward so that when we get on the project we are building technically on the company’s plan, not trying to bend the company’s plan to our will. It means that we are always in alignment with ourselves. It means that when you’re trying to find resources, they are already there and all you’re doing is expanding or extending them out some.
DS: You’re speaking about Iron Man 3 at the Spark CG Society’s Spark [FWD] 2014 Conference in Vancouver. Can you share any particularly “geek” challenges you faced on this film that you approached in a way you’d never done before? What were some of the more interesting moments from this show that you are going to share with the audience?
GW: Two thing come to mind. One is sort of the obvious, which is the “Lava God” stuff we did. Halfway through our schedule, getting told we need an all CG creature at the end of the film, diving into that…pulling that off was pretty fun. Doing an all CG Killian for the last 25 shots of Killian in the movie. The other thing that sort of sticks out is the fact that we created this really useable all CG seaport environment. We knew we’d have to create some level of CG seaport environment. But there were just too many greenscreens and too many all CG shots. But the fact that we pushed this as far as we did, it held up so well that it gave us the freedom to do so much more with it. We never shied away from the path of the shot. We never said, “Alright, we need to keep the camera a little bit higher off the deck or we need to stay away from that area of the set.” If there was ever a vignette we wanted to dropdown, we would dropdown onto it and do it. Most people would be incredibly surprised by how many shots of that sequence were all CG or 90% CG.
DS: A digital character like Killian has to withstand audience scrutiny more than any other type of digital image. How do you know you nailed it? The final “look” of the film may come after it’s out of your hands. What is the process by which you determine, “Okay, that works, that’s going to be great?”
GW: There are two sides to that coin. One is look and the other performance. With the look, especially with a human [like Killian], you have the luxury of putting the character next to himself. You can take other scenes from the movie, reference stills and things like that, put your character next to those characters to compare. The trick is to iterate. Once you start to think you’ve got it right, you step away from it for a little bit and then come back and look at it real hard. You realize there are a couple more things to fix. So you keep doing that until after you step away and come back, you still can’t see anything wrong with it. That’s the process for nailing the look.
To me, what separates a character from every other digital thing, where it has to hold up even more, is the performance. With cranes, they have to hold up, they have to look totally real. But once you get them looking real, you’re pretty confident you can drop them into shots and they will look really good. With a character, once you get it looking good enough in a still, you have only won half the battle at that point. You’ve got to make it look good in motion. That’s the performance.
You have to iterate and iterate and iterate. You must have a very demanding eye. We try to tell ourselves, “Look guys, just because you’re still working on this doesn’t mean your work is bad. It’s just that we have to push it that hard.” We always try to keep everybody on the project enthused, giving that 100%, so that nobody starts to fall off the path, nobody starts to tire. It’s a pretty extensive and demanding process. It does take a lot of effort to get there and you can’t sell yourself short or it will show.
DS: Iron Man 3 took some of the “wow” factor of the first two films, like the flying suits, and played those up even more. How do you continue pushing the visual envelope and generating greater, more elaborate and visually exciting effects? At a certain point, don’t audiences tire of such elaborate “wow” moments?
GW: It can get challenging. The only way to keep something old “new” is to expand on it by adding something different. Marvel did a brilliant job on Iron Man 3. They introduced a whole range of new suits. By doing them all at the same time, you can’t just baby step it. You can’t just make wholesale changes to a suit and call it an Iron Man suit, because people will catch on. So, by releasing 30 new suits, enough of them feel like they come from old Iron Man suit lineage, that you can have a couple of standout suits. You can have the space suit with the white and black and you can have the large hulking suit that doesn’t even look like a human can fit into it anymore. You can have all these really cool suit designs. That gives you a lot more latitude to play with.
Then add on to that some level of restraint, not going too far afield, so that even if the suit is visually different, like the all black stealth suit with matte black panels and lots of cored edges, very outside the Iron Man lineage, it doesn’t break all the rules. Even though it broke one of the Iron Man rules, where all the panels have to be flush with every other panel, it didn’t break that rule too terribly much. There aren’t too many things sticking out of the silhouette. So, they did a really good job of finding the balance, adding but not over-adding. And in doing that they gave us the opportunity to come up with all sorts of new beats, all sorts of new moments and new ideas and to a large degree, they gave us that latitude to play with suit design. It was their willingness to be creative, that gave us the room to do so.
DS: Looking at the work of your peers, as you said, there was so much good vfx work done on films that didn’t get nominated. When you look at other work being done today, what inspires you? Do you look at other work and wonder, “How did they do that?”
GW: I love great composition and great design. I love scope and scale and I love trying to make things look real. Look at a scene like the starship crashing into San Francisco harbor in Star Trek into Darkness, or the chase on the top of the red car. Those scenes were executed beautifully. Not only do they look real, but like with good cinematography, they're also very beautiful and compelling to look at. There were lot of films that did that. There’s some absolutely outstanding work in Gravity. Even in the movies that didn’t make the top 10 this year, some that should have, like Man of Steel, there was some really stellar work in that too. I love watching these movies not having worked on them. You get to discover them with the rest of the audience. There was some truly inspirational work out there and it’s great for all of us because it enthuses us all to want to do better work on our own stuff.
DS: What are some of the next big innovations we can expect to see from Weta? From the industry in general?
GW: I don’t want to say too much, because I don’t want to speak out of turn. But suffice to say that there are a few technological paths at Weta that we are pushing forward on and even though we think we do really well at these things now, we want to stay out in front on them. You’ll see some of that in the next 4 or 5 of our films.
The other thing I would say as sort of second answer, without giving away the first one, is the industry itself is changing and there is a lot of exciting new stuff coming down the pipe. Mostly it’s in presentation media. We’ve seen stereo. Stereo has been around for a while. Dolby showed a TV at SIGGRAPH last year that did stereo playback without glasses. It wasn’t new technology. A lot of people have been doing it for years. But they’ve made some really, really exciting changes to the technology where finally, in my mind, it goes from a gimmick that if you try really hard, you kind of make work to something that you’d have to try hard to not make work. It works that well.
To me, when we all have TVs in our homes where you don’t have to wear glasses to view 3D, the 3D argument goes away. It’s just the next way you watch TV. It will be like the color versus black and white shift. Then you also have things like high frame rate…
DS: I was just going to ask you, what about high frame rate?
GW: It’s growing. The debate now is if 48 is enough? There are compelling tests that show its not. Then you get into the whole financial argument. 96 frames per second is about the point where your eye really gives up and can’t see past. But 96 frames per second is twice as much as 48 and by the time you go to stereo it’s four times as much. It starts to add a lot of cost. But if cost wasn’t a consideration, things like 96 frames per second do change the viewing experience dramatically. The big blowback on high frame rate is that everybody says, “Well it doesn’t look like a film.” To be fair, every time film makes an evolutionary leap, people say that. It don’t look like what I’m used to. “Color is weird, I’m used to black and white. That’s the way you should show the movie.” People have complained about every movie advance. This is just another advance along that line.
DS: It will take some time to educate the audience and the market.
GW: Yeah. I talked with a number of producers of shows that came out at the time the first Hobbit film came out. There was a lot of negative blowback. A lot of people were saying, “48 frames per second wasn’t that good.” What was really interesting was that the largest and most vocal block of people saying that were people over a certain age. There is a concept of brain plasticity, where your brain is willing to accept new things up until you reach a certain age, around 24. After that age we start to become the old dog that’s hard to teach a new trick. When the Hobbit came out, a lot of younger people loved it. HFR just looks more real to them. It wasn’t until you got to the 30-40 year-olds that you heard, “Back in my day film didn’t look like that.”
But with the second Hobbit movie, even the cynics came to accept it more. So, it’s the kind of thing where you’re going to have a few negative reactions at the beginning. But it’s a better format and more and more people will catch on until that’s the way it’s just done.
And then there are all sorts of other exciting things coming out, like laser projectors allowing for much more vivid and higher luminous levels in theatres, things like that. The viewing experience is only going to get better over the next five years. It’s going to be interesting to see what the creative artists in our industry latch on to and expand upon. It’s going to be interesting to see what they do with it.
DS: A big movie screen experience, sitting in a big theatre, it’s still unique. But there are too many small screen alternatives where the experience is almost as good. Anything that expands upon big screen uniqueness can only be good for the film business.
GW: Exactly. Story is always key and story is always important. But a really good story can be told in a book or on a small screen. Big screens can show so much more. It can show epic scale and color. It can wow you in ways nothing else can. The real masters out there, the Jim Camerons, the Steven Spielbergs, the Ang Lees and Peter Jacksons, they have the ability to grasp good story and bring it into the realm of epic. They know how to show you something you can’t see outside the theater, and do it in such a way that you still feel compelled to watch it to the end. You still care about the actual content. It’s just not the visual feast. Those are the ones that excite me, because those are the ones that are always looking for the next best thing for making even more enjoyable film experiences. Those innovators drive our industry forward. That’s a large part of what I’m looking for over the next 10 years. I want to see what these guys come up with, because I enjoy watching their films. The fan boy in me is very excited.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.