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Jonathan Rothbart Talks the VFX of ‘Deadpool’

Overall VFX supervisor helps director Tim Miller create Marvel’s snarky badass superhero hit.

With a domestic U.S. box office haul todate of over $320 million and a foreign take of over $380 million, whopping figures for a film reportedly budgeted at under $60 million, Fox’s R-rated superhero flick Deadpool is a bona fide hit. At the helm was first time director Tim Miller, a veteran animator and visual effects artist well known for, among other work, a series of short films including Aunt Luisa (2002), Rockfish (2003), A Gentlemen’s Duel (2006) and the Oscar-nominated Gopher Broke (2004) produced by the L.A. company he co-founded in 1995, Blur Studio.

Working alongside Miller on Deadpool was overall visual effects supervisor Jonathan Rothbart, himself a veteran visual effects artist whose has worked on a slew of top movies, including Avatar (2009), Iron Man (2008) and Hellboy (2004). I recently had a chance to speak with Rothbart about his work on Deadpool, it’s tremendous success and how despite the constant struggle against time and budget constraints, he managed to squeeze out 1500 great looking VFX shots, including 800 in the final month alone.  

Dan Sarto: Deadpool has taken theatres by storm. It’s certainly not your father’s Marvel superhero film. It feels so fresh and of course is quite nasty-funny. Not the usual genre pic.

Jonathan Rothbart: Actually, I’m not hugely into working on superhero movies. But when I first read the script, I was laughing so hard, my wife kept on asking, "What are you laughing at?" I told her, "This script is amazing. It's so funny." She's like, "I've never heard you laugh like that reading a script." I said, “I know. But it's so funny." I really liked the script. After reading it, I knew this was something different.

DS: Oh, it’s certainly quite different. What were some of the things going through your mind as you broke down the script?

JR: The first thing I was told was that the film definitely had a shoestring budget compared to your standard visual effects movie. So that was definitely going through my mind. As I was reading and breaking the script down, I was trying to work out what and how we were going to do things in order to make the visual effects work within our budget. There was a lot of back and forth with Tim Miller [the film’s director] as far as trying to decide what we could get into our movie, what we couldn't get into our movie, how many shots we could have, and if we shot it a certain way would we be able to get away with more. I was considering any trick we could use to get as much out of our VFX budget as we could.

DS: Getting involved so early on this film, how did your main duties change over the course of production?

JR: My work was broken down into four parts. First, there's pre-prep, which is basically just myself, the producers, and Tim, as well as the production manager or a line producer on the show. My two areas of focus, along with my VFX producer, is one, I'm working with the director figuring out what things are going to look like, designing the looks of things, and figuring out how everything's going to play out on screen. For example, there was a lot of conversation about what Colossus might look like. There was a lot of conversation about what NTW's effects were going to look like as well as the carrier, all the various sets, and what our city would look like. I don't necessarily get heavily into the design phase of things at that point, but it's the only tangible thing you can work on. Getting through that stuff early really drives how effective you can be moving forward.

Second, you do a lot of budgeting. Lots and lots and lots of budgeting. You’re trying to figure out how much it's going to cost us to do everything, going through and figuring out what shots to do, what shots not to do. Also, you’re developing sequences, then going back through them with Tim, the previs and storyboarding people to reshape them a bit, so that they're more manageable for us from a budgetary standpoint.

That's that early part. Next, you get into prep, which is really about interfacing with all the other departments to try and figure out how you're actually going to get everything done. You’re spending a lot of time with stunts, with costumes, with the grip and lighting guys figuring out greenscreens and placement, things like that.

Then, you’re working out the course of the movie, especially when everything comes down to budget. It's a lot of conversations about how much things will cost on-set for all of the VFX shots. I would sit in on a lot of rehearsals involving our CG characters. Talking about interactive lighting with the lighting guys and again with the stunt guys. Trying to figure out, for example, how we were going to manage to stand in Colossus -- how we were going to block the various fight sequences versus him just standing there talking. Making sure we were always shooting in a way that we could add him back into the shot later. That type of stuff. Casting for it as well. You really get a good opportunity to get heavily involved in most aspects of filmmaking, which is one of the cool things about my job.

Then you get into production. In production, you carry all that forward. You're working through all those things while you're shooting on-set. You’re making sure that whatever they're doing with the practical effects can then merge later with our digital effects.

With the stunt guys, as in the case of Colossus fighting Angel Dust, there's a lot of back and forth. One shot we would have our stand-in there. One shot we would have Gina Carano hitting pads. Some shots we would have our stand-in on risers. A lot of back and forth trying to make sure our fight choreography would play out as realistic as possible once the CG was added. Additionally, we were responsible for capturing all of the digital data needed later for the visual effects teams.

Lastly, in post, it's really about creative management with the work of all the various VFX facilities, making sure there's continuity between all the work, and all the work is up to the level we want on the film. I’m really a liaison between the director and the facilities in a lot of ways. Plus, I’m trying to bring my own knowledge to the table in terms of making sure the shots have everything that's going to make them look as good as possible.

DS: You’ve mentioned budget quite a bit. Everyone in your position, even on the biggest films, says the same thing, "It's always about time and money – there’s never enough." From your perspective, where do you most see the budget constraints impact the visual effects work? Does it impact the number of shots more than the degree of complexity?

JR: It’s both. On this film, there were certain sequences where Tim would lay out the scene from the script and I would breakdown what visual effects would be needed. Then the budget would come back and we'd be double what we could pay for that scene.

Then the discussion became, "Okay, well, do we cut the shot count in half and trim our scene or do we cut that scene entirely and put the money to a different scene?" There was a lot of that going on when it came to the budgeting because we were so tight. It would have been nice if it was more like, "Well maybe we just don't do this big one here…or maybe we trim this one a little here.” It was pretty much heavier block cutting for us.

DS: We you at least able to figure out those compromises early on, or did they come once you were on-set and had a better idea of how the scenes were really coming together?

JR: Tim and I agreed at the beginning, when we were in prep, “Okay, we know we're only budgeted this amount. But let’s shoot everything so that we have it. That way if we get more money, we can go back and make the rest of the scene the way we wanted to, as opposed to then having to go back and re-shoot it, which is much harder to do.” We agreed we're just going to shoot it all, we're going to get it all on camera, and then we'll battle with the studio later in terms of what the budget can be.

That's not always the way you do it, but in our particular circumstance, because the budget was so tight, we felt strongly we’d get more money if they really liked the movie. That ended up working out because they did end up giving us more and we were able to get more visual effects into the sequences.

DS: What was most challenging for you on this film? What gave you the most grey hairs and sleepless nights?

JR: It's funny. Every week it was something new. Let’s talk specifically about the animation. Tim comes from an animation background. He's very particular about animation. I would say, in general, animation was our hardest things to get through when it came to working with Tim because he was so particular about it. More often than not, we'd be working through something and he'd make comments and I'd be like, "Ah, yeah, you're right. Exactly right."

He has such a good eye for animation. I really respected all the decisions he made, even though it was a lot of work for us to get through. At the end of the day I always knew all his comments were going to make whatever we were doing better. When you're doing a lot of animation work, obviously it slows down the rest of your production because you're waiting on those shots to be completed. That can give you grey hairs right there. You know all that stuff is sitting, waiting to get done as time is ticking away. That was one.

The look of Colossus was another. It actually worked out pretty well. Digital Domain developed the look with us. Tim and I had talked about it and when we started, I had a really clear idea in my head of what look he wanted. We didn't have to do a lot of research and discovery on his look. I felt like we had an endgame to shoot for all along. We could really just keep pushing towards that direction, adding and adjusting, adding and adjusting. It wasn't a lot of, "Let's try this, no, let's try this, no let's try this." Colossus actually went pretty fluidly and was fantastic.

Same even with NTW's effects, where the only brief Tim gave me was that he really liked the concept and look of how fuel-air bombs exploded. They burst and emit a cloud of fuel. Then, the fuel ignites. They produce an interesting ignition pattern, which was something he was really into.

Deadpool doesn't have any effect-sy effects nor do any of the bad guys. Then with Colossus, even though he's a fully CG guy who’s all metal, there's no effect-sy things around him. The only supernatural effect-sy thing was NTW. Our movie is so grounded and so gritty that we didn't want to take it someplace where she stood out from everything else. The fuel-air explosive looks like something you’d see in the real world, so we used that as the foundation for her effect.

Because her power happens so quickly, we wanted to create a level of build-up. So we started looking at solar flares because they contain so much energy -- they shoot out, get bent and pulled back in by the sun’s gravitational pull. They have an interesting look that we thought would integrate nicely with the fuel-air bomb. We added it to the effect but really tried keeping all of it as grounded as possible so that NTW didn't stand out in the film.

There were three hard scenes. First was Colossus' fight with Angel Dust. It was just so complex in terms of the back and forth live action and how that was incorporated into the fight. They're grappling together, he's holding her, she's flipping up off of him. All that fighting with a CG character is a lot to work out and integrate.

Digital Domain ended up having to do things like adjust Angel Dust's practical arms or remove her practical arms and put CG arms on her so she could properly hold Colossus. Different things like that. We did a lot of mix and match, trying to make everything work. They did a great job.

The second one was the freeway car assault because it's an entirely digital environment. Everything outside the car is a hundred percent digital. We're using a two phased process where we're world building but at the same time we're doing all the animation. Again, Tim is very particular about animation, so there was a lot of animation being done while at the same time we're trying to build the world around the car as photo-real as possible.

Lastly, the carrier collapse sequence was tough because that was also an all-digital sequence once the carrier starts lifting and collapsing. We shot the guys on a gimbal deck about thirty feet in the air. They kept fighting on the deck while it was tilting and lifting. At one point Deadpool is hanging off the side. We shot all that, but we still had to replace the entire world around them, how they interacted with the ground and all the stuff flying past them. There was a lot going on there as well.

DS: If you know Tim Miller, you can see his personality and sense of humor all over this film. Tell me a little bit about your working dynamic with him.

JR: I would have to say that Tim is one of my favorite directors I've ever worked with. I really loved his style. I really loved his personality. He's brash and straight-forward and though some people don't like it, I always thought it hilarious. His personality was, as you said, so perfect for this movie, so perfect. It's so like him.

Working with him was great. I really enjoyed it. He understands visual effects, so you could have a real conversation about them. He knows what you're talking about. You don't have to spend a lot of time explaining things. You can really discuss what the creative results of a certain technical process will look like. It was great. I really did enjoy it.

Even in post, when we really pushed through a lot of final work, he trusted us to get it done. It really was an amazing experience.

The way he directs is cool because you can tell he spent a lot of time in animation and mo-cap. It definitely translated over into his ability to work with actors and work on-set.

DS: During the course of production, once you started really seeing the film come together, was there a time when you said to yourself, “This is something really special. This is going to be great!” Was there ever an “aha” moment?

JR: Sure. Ryan [Reynolds, who plays Deadpool] is so funny on-set, and so nice. Tim was great. There was no real attitude on-set. When we started seeing the shots, when Ryan started riffing with T.J. [Miller, who plays sidekick Weasel], sometimes I was like, "Oh my God. Are we really going to do that?" And we did it. I really felt, “That was amazing."

That’s when I started to realize we were doing something completely unique and pushing the envelope in a way that no other movie, at least of this genre, had ever done. In reality, when you're on-set shooting a movie, you know what kind of movie it’s going to be. You know if you're working on a movie that is going to be good or not. Definitely, when we got into shooting, we knew we were shooting something that was going to be good. We didn't know it was going to be this good, this huge, but we always felt strongly about it.

DS: From a personal standpoint, what gave you the most sense of satisfaction on this film?

JR: Visual effects wise, it was tough in that we had an insane amount of work in a very short period of time. We ended up doing 1500 total shots on the movie when we originally budgeted it out at about 700. In addition, that time frame got compressed so at one point we only had four weeks left and 800 shots to go. My producer and I would look at each other and say, "We have no idea how we're going to get this done." It was crazy.

What I was really happy about was even under all that time and budget constraint, we managed to get a lot of work done that I am really proud of. I always say that in visual effects, "We can't save a movie but we sure as hell can screw it up." I definitely didn't want to be the guy that screwed up a good movie, that's for sure.

Overall, I’m really proud of Colossus, that he plays as a character, that everybody likes him. They believe him as a character. Some of the funniest moments in the movie are with him. It was really important to me that he never stood out as a digital character but actually felt like somebody that was interacting with Deadpool.

The car chase was great. That's all CG. Everything out there is CG. There's one shot where Deadpool flips off of Colossus and cuts his hand off. Colossus and Deadpool are all CG. It was great. There were some great moments in there where I felt like we really nailed the look. I'm into visual effects that support the movie and are more invisible. That being said, we just did a super hero movie. I'd rather people talk about how cool it was when Deadpool was fighting, and people were getting cut up, and it was gory and gross, rather than the fact that CG blood was flying everywhere, and it was a CG blade.

It's not that often when you get to work on a film that's really good, that you're proud of, and also had a really great experience. And when I say it isn't that often, I really mean almost never. I think this would be the second time in my entire 25-year career in film.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.