Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor Dan Glass

Trevor Hogg chats with The Tree of Life visual effects supervisor Dan Glass…

As part of Method Studios’ plan to expand its involvement in making visual effects for movies, Dan Glass was hired to be its Senior Creative Director; the decision paid immediate dividends for the Los Angeles-based VFX facility as Glass was presented with the Visual Effects Society Award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Live-Action Commercial. “It was a different challenge for me last year to try my hand at commercials,” says the British-born Glass who oversaw the production of the 2 minute 15 second television spot called Halo Reach: Deliver Hope. “It was enormous fun, a pleasure to push the creative boundaries on a short schedule, and a tribute to the team I’m now involved with.”

Having to combine artistic sensibilities with technological expertise is not a foreign concept for Dan Glass. “My mother is an artist; still to this day she does a lot of printmaking and painting,” says the native of London, England. “My father is more of the scientist; he was a PHD chemist. In a way it was a great fusion for a lot of what I now do. My father got myself and my brother a computer to play with at home. I would hardly say I was one of those closet computer geeks who locked myself away for days or weeks but it definitely helped that I could gain a familiarity with it and learn some of the fundamentals. Then with my mother’s artistic sensibilities I was constantly encouraged to explore music and the arts; ultimately, that led to me choosing architecture, as a pursuit at college, which has a fantastic combination of skills. Within that you obviously learn about things like light and space, all of which feed into what we do within crafting an image.”

The MatrixVenturing into the visual effects industry during the early 1990s was like exploring a new frontier for the architecture graduate. “It was a very small field,” recalls Dan Glass. “There was a certain amount of technology and software that existed within television and commercials but it dealt with broadcast video. Equipment that was dedicated to the resolution and level of quality that we needed for film was very scarce.” A lot of creative energy was spent crafting fundamental technical tools. “At the time I joined [the Computer Film Company] all of their machines were custom built; they had figured out how to scan film into the computer and record it back out, and all of the processes in-between. CFC [which became Framestore] had built and designed their equivalent to a Photoshop or a Paintbox. The way we had to work back then was more akin to a computer programmer.” Glass explains, “You had to key in and program every little detail including moving an image to another frame buffer and swapping colour channels – all sorts of the intricate details. Thankfully, now, computers take care of an enormous amount of that as we advance but it was great training. You really knew what was going on and how it was working.”

“My first credit was the very memorable Muppet Treasure Island [1996],” chuckles Glass who was a Visual Effects Compositor on the movie. “After many years on the box as a compositor, I began a freelance supervisor career on the film [Thir13en Ghosts, 2001]. From there I was fortunate enough to follow a freelance pattern that never saw me out of work.” A long-lasting creative partnership for Dan Glass was forged with The Wachowski Brothers when he got the opportunity to serve as a Visual Effects Supervisor on The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003). “Those films seem to have gained a slightly dubious reputation which I don’t completely understand. Any sequel that follows such a successful and original first movie is always going to be challenged,” remarks Glass. “They were extremely successful financially as sequels. When I re-watch them I still enjoy them immensely…To me the projects that appeal to me are the ones that are able to keep my interest throughout the whole making of them. That takes a special kind of project. It has to have a pretty rich diversity with what it’s trying to do or it can be very hard to sustain that stamina through what can be a many-year process. The Matrix sequels were pretty insane for the level of ambition, the volume of work and the content we had to produce. There was never a moment when any of us were bored. Every aspect of the technology was challenged at some point in that production. That’s why it’s probably been a career builder or certainly a career experience for so many people.”

The Matrix Bullet Time“I’ve always kept an open mind,” responds Dan Glass when asked what has enabled him to survive in an industry which is in constant flux. “The universal thing is that you are there to work with and for the director; you determine and translate what it is they’re after and manage that through the restrictions of budget and time.” Another major skill for a successful visual effects supervisor is the ability to corral the companies and the team of artists in a way that brings the project “to a place where you’re getting the best possible result. Every director and every production is a little different. I would doubt that there’s any individual who can fit perfectly into every situation. I think what’s really part of it is trying to find the right pairing.” As to how he would define a great visual effect, Glass states, “I think it’s a lack of self-consciousness to me. I’m trying to use that term to capture a broad range of things. Clearly there are visual effects that standout and could almost be used to sell a movie. I’m not saying that’s wrong if they fit within the context of the story and the film.” Key examples of this for Glass are Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Avatar, and the science fiction tale which established The Wachowski Brothers as international moviemakers. “The thing I thought was extraordinary about the first Matrix was there was an effect that we still talk about to this day; it made such an impression on people but completely made sense within the film.”

“The difficulty of incorporating visual effects into a photoreal environment,” reveals Glass, “is that the closer you get to portraying familiar reality like a human being, the easier it becomes for the viewer to point out discrepancies.” As for the other end of the visual effects spectrum,” he states, “If the stylized reality is clearly defined then that can be a little more straightforward potentially because you’re playing with something that isn’t familiar to the viewer, so you can make some of your own rules.” Contemplating whether the gap between computer-generated imagery and practical effects has lessened, Glass believes that the greatest hindrance is not technology but time and money. “I think the opportunity that we get to really finesse things to that level is very rare.”

Dan Glass“One of the biggest things that we’re likely to see in the next five years is in the increase in render speed,” states Dan Glass. “With the advent of GPU rendering we’ll have these incredibly near photo-real or even photo-real renderings that can be virtually interactive and that in itself will lift some of the artistry…You don’t want artists’ time to be spent waiting for things. The more that process speeds up the more you have time to actually design and develop ideas and push things visually.” Glass is not completely sold on a major visual effect currently sweeping Hollywood. “3D, while I’m not saying it’s only a fad, I think that the mechanism is a little bit more of a gimmick still. Ultimately, its presentation is a cheat on the eyes.” There is also the matter of the image quality. “It is dim because you effectively lose a lot of brightness because you’re wearing polarized lenses, so that cuts out half of the brightness of the image. And with the digital projectors that currently can’t reach the brightness of film projectors, you get even less brightness… There have been some great uses of 3D, but there’s unfortunately been quite a few films I think would have been better without it.” On the other hand, Glass views releasing movies in the IMAX format as being a more genuine pursuit as it is about preserving the visual detail.

The days of having to be more of a computer programmer than an artist are over. “What I find very exciting about the time and place we’re at with visual effects right now is that technology has become a much more malleable form,” enthuses Dan Glass. “As for what the future holds for him, Glass states, “I’m continuing my partnership with Terrence Malick [The Tree of Life] which is a fantastic relationship; I consider him to be a great friend as well. And I will also continue to work with some other filmmakers that I’ve been close to, most notably The Wachowski Brothers; we’ve been developing tests and are working on some things now.”

Many thanks to Dan Glass for taking the time out of his busy schedule for this interview.

Halo Reach: Deliver Hope:

Check out fxguide for an interview with Dan Glass about the making of the Halo Reach commercial.

For more from Dan Glass, check out Vision Quest: The Making of The Tree of Life.

Vision Quest: The Tree of Life & The Big Lie

Visit the official website for The Tree of Life.

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