Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor John “DJ” DesJardin

Trevor Hogg chats with visual effects supervisor John ‘DJ’ Des Jardin…

“2001: A Space Odyssey was my inspiration in 1968 when I was seven years old; it freaked me out even at such a young age because it seemed so real,” states Warner Bros. Visual Effects Supervisor John “DJ” DesJardin whose fascination with science fiction saw him attempt to translate his mental images into cinematic ones. The native of Wisconsin attended the University of Michigan with a particular career path in mind. “I actually went there with the intention of being a marine biologist of all things because they had really good science programs. During my freshmen orientation they started talking about the film program there and I immediately switched. It was like something went off inside me and said, ‘I could go to school, practice this thing I’ve been doing off to the side, and do it for real.’” With the school lacking such items as optical printers, the film student teamed with a friend who was well versed in electrical engineering to build the equipment he needed.

After graduating, DesJardin headed to Los Angeles in hopes of working for Douglas Trumbull’s visual effects company; upon arriving in the city, he discovered that the facility no longer existed. “I had a list of all the effects or graphic houses in Los Angeles and I just started calling all of them up; in June a company called Video Image called me back.” The company specialized in computer and motion graphics, as well as 24-fame video playback which involved syncing up graphics for motion picture cameras. “Greg McMurry and Richard Hollander were two of the partners in that company and they had built Comp C, which was a really sophisticated computer-control camera, for Douglas Trumbull. They did a lot of the crazy traffic lights in Blade Runner [1982] and a lot of stuff in the original Star Trek: The Motion Picture [1979]… That small place grew into a pretty decent mid-size visual effects company called VIFX that continued all the way through until the end of the 90s when it got bought by Rhythm and Hues.”

Technically, the first movie John DesJardin did anything for was 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984), when he helped Greg McMurry shoot an insert on a computer screen for one of the spaceship control panels. DesJardin was pleased to see the end result in the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. “It was a pretty big deal to get high resolution imagery done for a movie. That’s why you have these certain landmark films, I think because places were setup for them but it was still an expensive concern to get the right imagery into the movie and make it look very good.” DesJardin learned quickly that making a living in the small industry was going to be difficult. “There were more than a few times where if the job we were bidding on didn’t come in for VIFX, I was going to be out of a job.” A major turning point was the release of Jurassic Park (1993) when studio executives realized that digital visual effects could add production value to their movies. “They see it as a tool that can be used from pre-production all the way through post-production; it’s not just a post-production concern, which was certainly what it was a long time ago.” Digital visual effects can prevent a lot of potential problems. “If you can previz a lot of what you’re getting into, it’ll answer a lot of questions and give somebody a common frame of reference departmentally throughout the entire production so that everybody knows what we’re trying for.”

“I almost want to say temperament more than anything,” replies DesJardin when asked what is essential to being a successful visual effects supervisor. “Can you keep yourself regimented, and disciplined to be able to get through what you’re going to have to go through to get something done? Can you keep your ideas fresh? Can you be a nice person?” DesJardin points out there are a lot of key elements involved in making a movie. “If you walk in thinking visual effects are the most important then you forget about writing, directing, the actors and everybody else. There are a lot of bigger concerns…so just be concerned about what you need to be concerned about and just be a nice person; just be pleasant about it because it’s a pretty lucky job to have. You’re not mining sulfur, your lungs are not filling up with sulfuric acid and you’re not dying when you’re 30. Have a little humility, keep your head down and do the work. That I think is the most important thing about being a visual effects supervisor.”

Contemplating what makes a great visual effect, John DesJardin remarks, “One that withstands the test of time maybe, I don’t know… I don’t even know if anybody can make those anymore. It seems like the shelf life is pretty short these days because we’re always doing them and then moving on.” Two recent movies stand out to DesJardin. “I went to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World [2010] this year; I had so much fun with that movie. The visual effects, while they weren’t realistic and were never meant to be, were fun. They were such an intrinsic part of that movie and it got a visceral reaction from me; I loved that. Then there is the tsunami at the beginning of Hereafter [2010] and that is a really great opening. So what am I suppose to say is better? Am I suppose to say that the tsunami is better because it’s a real tsunami and Scott Pilgrim didn’t have it? Scott Pilgrim wasn’t made to have that tsunami effect, it was made to have sound effect words coming out of the drum kit or something like that. That was what it was made for and because of that, that is a successful visual effect that I think is great.”

Working on The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) was a massive undertaking for John DesJardin. “The scope of it was huge and we were going to be required to really push things and do almost every kind of effect you could think of up to that point in the visual effects evolution. I think that I felt like that so much by the end of it, that I actually wanted to quit. I came out it and I started looking at projects coming up after that and it was like, ‘I just did that. And I did that too.’ And if I was looking for anything fresh in terms of the exact imagery I was going to have to do, I wasn’t finding it.” While he was considering a career change, DesJardin co-founded Velvetelvis Studios. “It’s more of an umbrella production company for projects that I like to do that aren’t directly related to my visual effects job. It allows me and my partners to play around with making graphic novels, [and] video games.” The career change never happened. “Richard Hollander called me and asked, ‘Can you help me out? I just need somebody who knows something, to do this shoot on Friday Night Lights [2004] in Texas.’ I thought, ‘I’ll do that. Make a little cash.’ Kind of like the mafia – you tried to get out and they pull you back in.”

DesJardin had a fateful encounter arranged for him by Anne Kolbe, the Vice President of Visual Effects at Warner Bros. “I was coming to the end of The Kingdom [2007] with Peter Berg and didn’t have much to go on,” remembers DesJardin. “Anne called me and said, ‘I’ve got this project that I want you to interview for but I can’t talk about it.’ And I said, ‘Alright, I’ll go to the meeting.’ She didn’t tell me who it was with or what it was for. It was that secret. I walked into Zack’s office not knowing it was Zack Snyder. His assistant Celeste told me, ‘Yeah, you’re going to be meeting with Zack.’ And I suddenly realized – Zack Snyder! He did Dawn of the Dead [2004] which I saw when I was in Texas shooting Friday Night Lights, and I really loved that movie. That remake was great. And then I realized that I had seen at another facility… some imagery from 300 [2006]. I’m a Frank Miller comic fan and I had the graphic novel 300 for years. The images that I was seeing at the facility were just like that graphic novel. And I thought, ‘If that’s the same Zack Snyder, that guy is cool.’ So there I was meeting with him for Watchmen [2009] which was amazing to me.” A couple of months later the filmmaker, who was also born in Wisconsin, contacted DesJardin again. “He liked me enough to give me a shot at doing Watchmen. What can I say? [We have] similar backgrounds in terms of parts of the U.S. where we grew up,” enthuses the visual effects supervisor. “Our pop culture references are all the same. I think every time we are on the set talking about something it is reduced to some kind of analogy with a line in Star Wars [1977] or something like that.”

When discussing the attitude Zack Snyder has towards visual effects, John DesJardin observes, “It is just a natural part of his language. He is not afraid to try a lot of things that I think other people might be hesitant to try.” Trying to recreate the JFK assassination in the opening of Watchmen was a problem because the right filming location could not be found. While standing in a parking lot a solution came to DesJardin; it involved retaining a small portion of the action, with the rest being constructed digitally. “I went to Zack and I drew a sketch. I just said, ‘I think you won’t be afraid of this based on what you did on 300. Here’s the picture. Tell me if you’re afraid of it and I won’t do it.’ I didn’t have to say a word to him; he looked at the picture and said, ‘Go do it.’ That’s just it with him. He is ready to take these often fun and amusing leaps of faith to try to do something crazy and that makes the work and the relationship fun.” As for Christopher Nolan (Inception) collaborating with Snyder on Superman: Man of Steel, DesJardin remarks, “Let’s just say that my point of view is I think that’s a really good marriage. The two of them being responsible for that project, I think it’s really cool and from the fanboy side of me I’m excited about it.”

The IMAX format is not viewed by John DesJardin as making his job more complicated. “We’ve being dealing with that for a long time and they have their own proprietary ways of zooming things up to the resolution bit that are really good, so that doesn’t impact us too much. 3D definitely does. I keep hoping with each project that we have to do 3D for, that there’s a little more forethought every time because I think it really crunches you at the end of the visual effects process.” As for his attitude towards the 3D technology, DesJardin pragmatically says, “This is the time I’m living in right now. I’ve seen it come and go in the past as a fad but it is sticking for awhile this time. I’ve just got to swim in it.” The Warner Bros. Visual Effects Supervisor views himself as having been fortunate with his career. “I’m in a position that I probably dreamt about being in way back when I was growing up in Michigan…It was always like, ‘Man, I wish I could be in a position to really make that type of imagery and guide it creatively.’ That’s where I’m at right now.”

Many thanks to John DesJardin for taking the time out of his busy schedule for this interview.

Read more of Trevor’s interviews with Bryan Hirota and John “DJ” DesJardin as they discuss Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch.

Visit the official website of Velvetelvis Studios.

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