Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor Bryan Hirota

Trevor Hogg talks with Sucker Punch and The Tree of Life visual effects supervisor Bryan Hirota…

Bryan HirotaOne of the recent additions to the staff of Pixomondo is veteran visual effects supervisor Bryan Hirota; he has worked on over 50 films starting with Demolition Man (1993) as a computer graphics designer. “My Mother has a Masters of Fine Arts; she has always done paintings and drawings,” states Hirota. “My Dad has an engineering background. I’ve been exposed to a mixture of both.” The early exposure to the arts and practical analysis has served him well. “You have to be able to approach stuff with an artistic sensibility because you’re trying to create imagery that evokes emotional responses. But at the same time if I am leading a group of artists…I’m also responsible to come up with the technical approaches that we are going to take to solve the problems to achieve the atheistic look we want.”

After graduating from the University of California, San Diego with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science, the native Californian found himself working in the early stages of the visual effects industry. “Everyone figured out stuff as we went along,” he informs me. “The industry in L.A. was funny from the early 1990s to 2000; it was like a boom industry… If you could patch a computer you would get a bunch of money. It seemed like a never-ending gravy train. Around 2000, that was when London and Sydney started to be viable places to send work.” The trend has expanded to north of the border fueled by provincial government incentives and the studios wanting to financially benefit from them. “Every company under the sun is opening a facility in Vancouver trying to take advantage of these global tax credits.” There are other reasons for the movement away from Los Angeles. “You’ll have local companies in Australia or in England or in Canada that have grownup by getting more and more work and have become quite savvy at what they do.” Hirota observes, “A big difference now is on an artistic level; you have this opportunity to travel the world and go to work at all these different places. It can be a little daunting depending where you are on the food chain if you don’t want to do that.”

The Matrix Reloaded“I’m a visual effects supervisor on the facility side,” remarks Bryan Hirota. “You need to work with your client to fully understand the vision they want to achieve; then you have to pivot 180 degrees inside the facility and work with the team that you have there, whether it be the technicians and or the pure artists, to convey the message of what the director’s vision is and to also be able to construct a workflow and a work methodology that will enable that project to get done.” Keeping an open mind is critical for success. “When you start a new project you really have to evaluate it. I’m sure that the tools and the approaches that you have used before are applicable; if they’re not, quickly identify at the start of the job which ones aren’t. You need to make sure when you get underway that you have tackled all of the creative and technical issues which may come up.”

Questioned as to how he would define a great visual effect, Bryan Hirota answers, “There are certainly the kind of spectacle visual effects that just blow your mind away with the sheer audacity of what’s been attempted and what’s been achieved. The sheer volume of high quality work put into Avatar [2009] is mind-blowing.” Hirota adds, “At the same time there is a film like Inception [2010] which isn’t overtly in your face with their effects as a movie like Avatar but the work is so integral and important to telling that story.” As to what approach is easier when incorporating visual effects, he informs me, “In some ways being given the stylized stuff is easier because no one can say, ‘That doesn’t look right.’…You have less keystones to latch onto when you’re dealing with a stylized world; it’s a tradeoff. You win some you lose some when you decide to go for a style versus reality.” In regards to whether the gap between practical and CG effects has lessened, Hirota believes, “There is a certain physical reality that’s afforded things that are actually real in front of the camera. Will that always be the case? I’m not sure. Up until five, maybe ten years ago spaceships in movies were still always done using models with fiber optics in them. Nobody does that anymore. I don’t know that you can say that the spaceship in the new Star Trek [2009] or the mothership floating around in District 9 [2009] look less real than Star Wars [1977]… I think if you can shoot something with a camera in real life you’re better off doing that because it’s going to look real.”

Sucker PunchPast collaborations are a major factor in getting repeat assignments. One such person for Bryan Hirota is Warner Bros. VFX Supervisor John DJ DesJardin whom he met while starting out at Video Image MVFX; he most recently worked with DesJardin on Sucker Punch (2011) and Green Lantern (2011). “If you can find a group of people with whom you have a good relationship…it’s better to bring them back together because doing any one of these movies is really hard. It is hard from start to finish…It is like being in a foxhole in a war. You want to have people down in that foxhole whom you trust.” Contemplating whether there is more artistic license developing an original concept, Hirota says, “I don’t know if you have more creative freedom. I guess in some ways you do because on a sequel you are beholden to what has come before you. On my end of things, I don’t think it effectively matters what the material I’m being handed is. You look for ways to make whatever you’re doing as great as possible. I think the overall challenge is the same.”

Creating visual effects has been made difficult with movies being released in the IMAX format and 3D. “IMAX, because of the increased resolution, exposes more problems,” states Bryan Hirota. “3D, you have more data because you’re dealing with two eyes and then the added burden of, if you’re looking at something in stereo, you can’t hide problems.” As for the future of the visual effects industry, he remarks, “It will only continue to globalize.” Reflecting on how he has been able to survive for so long, Hirota says, “The technology and the tools have evolved so much in the past couple of decades; it is really an ever changing field…I’ve been lucky that there’s been plenty of things for me to do; that has kept me interested enough to be hammering away at this year after year.”

Many thanks to Bryan Hirota for taking the time out of his busy schedule for this interview.

For more from Bryan Hirota, check out Vision Quest: The Making of The Tree of Life.
Read more of Trevor’s interviews with Bryan Hirota and John “DJ” DesJardin as they discuss Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.