Postvis/VFX supervisor Teftt Smith II discusses the Santa Monica studio’s work on nearly 300 shots from previs through final delivery.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts recently tapped Santa Monica-based VFX studio Halon Entertainment to handle previs, postvis as well as almost 300 final visual effects shots for Kong: Skull Island, which opened March 10 in the U.S. The film is a reboot of the well-known Kong story and focuses on the giant gorilla’s life on Skull Island. In the film, a team of scientists, soldiers and adventurers venture into Kong’s domain and find themselves forced to fight to survive and escape the island.
Tefft Smith II, Halon’s postvis supervisor/visual effect supervisor, explains that previs supervisor Andrew Moffett and a team of around four Halon artists started working with the director in late-2015 to previs many of the shots and develop some of the key sequences for the film.
“They worked on several sequences that Jordan really wanted to explore,” says Smith. “It was really early in development, and it was a process of understanding what Kong was going to be, how he was going to be moving, how he was going to be interacting and the scope of the film they wanted to make.”
He adds that much of that process involved working with rough motion capture. “We have a motion capture facility at our location. We had one of the performers come in and capture some of the initial data of Kong. They used it for studies and stuff like that, in the early process.” As far as software tools, Halon’s team relied on After Effects for compositing and Maya for 3D. SynthEyes was used for tracking.
Smith and his team came on for postvis as the crew was finishing principal photography and starting to get some of the main elements. Postvis became an essential tool, used as a stepping stone for the in-house VFX department to finish the final shots.
According to Smith, “We came in and started to flesh out some of the big sections of the film – the visual effects that weren't so much geared toward Kong, a lot of the helicopter crashes, some of the set extensions and the giant spider effects -- in order to flesh out what was going to be happening and get some temp effects in there for personal screenings, studio screenings and executive screenings.”
He adds that since ILM was going to be finishing a lot of the Kong hero shots, they handled much of the layout on those sequences from the start.
Overall, Halon took roughly 290 shots through to final delivery and was involved for roughly two years. Smith explains that since the postvis team sets up in-house, a lot of the final shots fell onto their plate just because of convenience. “Jordan had a lot of small requests that it just made sense for us to do, because we were in-house so we could tackle them easily,” he says. “With the amount of shots that ILM had, it allowed us to fill in some of the areas where they wanted some dust or some fire, some atmosphere, bugs and stuff like that as well as any of the major split screens. We also helped with a lot of the fire and embers that happened during the final confrontation between Kong and Sam.”
“The nice thing about doing both [posvis and finals] for us and for the production is that we're usually set up at the facility or at the studio,” he notes. “So, it's very easy for Jordan or the visual effects supervisor or producer to just walk over and say, ‘Hey, can you guys do a test of this?’ or, ‘Can you do this shot for us?’ or, ‘Hey, we have a couple notes on this, can you quickly fix this?’ because we're right there.”
Smith also mentions that the postvis team typically works very closely with the editorial department trying to get shots done as quickly as possible for rough cuts. “There really is a benefit to being on location,” he says. “They can pile a good chunk of shots on us in a week or in a day. A lot of the times, we can do some of the smaller effects in a quicker fashion because we are familiar with the postvis. What we're trying to do is just up-res it and we have the skillset, machines and capabilities to do that.” Vogt-Roberts was very hands-on during production and post, according to Smith, and would often come in and sit with the postvis and VFX teams to explain what he was looking for, along with visual effects supervisors Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White and co-producer Tom Peitzman.
The line between postvis and final effects basically depends of what type of elements you’re starting with, Smith explains. “When we're doing postvis, we're working with compressed QuickTime. We're using it so that the editors can just quickly line up the shots and cut around them at a fast pace in the edit. Once they lock down the pacing and timing of everything, with the effects in there, then they will turn over the final DPX files to whatever vendor is doing the final effects and use the postvis as a guide. In our case, we would then just redo the shot with higher quality elements. Either way, it either needs to be redone by us or by a different vendor.”
For Smith, the biggest challenge on Kong: Skull Island was the sheer volume of work. He shares that he was honored that “the postvis was at a quality level that the production and the studio felt we could handle the amount of final visual effects that we did do for the film. It was great, but because we were doing such a good job, we were awarded more and more work. The more work that we started to get, the more of a tight timeline we were running into when we needed to deliver the film.”
He explains that they needed to finish their work quickly in order to give the stereography team time to convert everything into 3D. “I think that was when we were getting kind of in-between a rock and a hard place, because Jordan would want to add and revise shots, but stereo was needed in order to finish the film. So, we wanted to appease both, but at the end of the day, stereo still is a huge component of what this film's success is based on. They needed to do their work and in order to do their work, they were waiting for us to finish. That was a challenge to try to make sure we could please everyone.”
Smith, whose credits include such films as Tomorrowland, World War Z, Hunger Games, Passion of the Christ, Green Lantern and Southland Tales, as well TV series like CSI, Bones and Criminal Minds, says that in his six years at Halon Entertainment, he feels fortunate because he’s been able to take almost every project that he’s worked from previs to postvis and then do at least some of the final effects on the film. “But, this was by far the largest amount of work that we've ever done as a company for final films, or for final effects,” he concludes. “We had a really, really wonderful work experience with Jordan and we were able to fulfill a lot of his requests. He was really, extremely happy with the way the film turned out.”
Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched VRNation.tv -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.