Trevor Hogg chats with Academy Award-nominated visual effects supervisor Michael Owens about his collaborations with Clint Eastwood...
“Space Cowboys  was my first experience with Clint [Eastwood]. We got along great and it worked out very well,’ recalls Michael Owens who has become the visual effects supervisor of choice for the Hollywood legend. “Clint let me do pre-viz for the last quarter of the movie. I edited it together and we shot it. ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] was thinking I was stepping too far; they didn’t quite understand that was what Clint was asking for.” The experience was a not an easy one for Eastwood. “He got through it fine and wasn’t complaining but I could tell it was harder for him because he had to imagine a lot of things.” Owens goes on to tell a story about his time spent working on Invictus (2009) in Vancouver, British Columbia. “At the end of projects, you usually don’t get a lot of sleep; you wakeup in the middle of the night because you’re worried about something. I turned the TV on in the hotel room and Jedi  was on. I was like, ‘I haven’t seen this for a long time.’ It was terrible. We won Best Visual Effects for that movie and at the time it was stunning. But boy did it not age well. I was thinking, ‘Oh, man. I had a blast on that movie. It was very fun movie to work on. It had great scenes in it.’ Cut to two nights later. I can’t sleep again. I turned the TV on and Space Cowboys comes on and I go, ‘I don’t think I can watch this. It’ll be terrible.’ For some reason I always thought it was a milk toast sort of movie storywise. But I enjoyed terribly working on it.” Watching it on the small screen Owens found himself being captivated by the outer space sequence. “We did a lot of that stuff in miniatures. We didn’t do much digital work. We did some digital doubles.” It was a case of using the right blend of visual and practical effects. “I was thrilled that it held up.”
“Flags of Our Fathers  was a wonderful project to work on. It was a turning point for Clint,” believes Michael Owens. “We were shooting in Iceland and had so much war hardware, people, extras, and the ocean. It was hard to get things to work the way you wanted them.” The visual effects supervisor went back to Iceland as a second unit director to get more footage. “When Clint saw what we could do later in post, he said, ‘I guess we didn’t need all that hardware!’ In some sense maybe he was right. We were right on the cutting edge of trying to get the water and the hardware to work interactively. In hindsight, I was slightly under confident of being able to accomplish it as well as we did. From then on Clint was like, ‘Nah. You’re going to do it.’” Questioned about Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), Owens remarks, “It was a continuation; almost like a sequel but it wasn’t.” A remarkable piece of acting stands out to the visual effects supervisor. “On Letters there is this one shot where the general dies in the hands of the lead young guy; we were filming it and he was supposed to cry. One tear fell out of one eye onto his cheek at the perfect moment; he did one take and Clint looks up and says, ‘Well, that’ll never happen again. We’re done.’”
“It was trying to pick the moments that would payoff the best,” says Michael Owens when discussing Changeling (2008) which is set in 1928. “The other thing was to give the audience a sense of period without hammering them or overstating it. I pointed out the places where I thought it would work and Clint agreed with it. I enjoy the idea that you are an extension of what the filmmaker is doing and you’re trying to get the story to be visually correct.” Owens admires Eastwood. “You need to trust yourself to go forward. What’s brilliant about Clint is he’s very secure, not egotistical, and knows what he wants.” Perfection is not the objective. “His films are not supposed to be polished; that’s one of the charms of them.” However, the Californian admits, “Every once and awhile I’d say, ‘Couldn’t we do another take of that?’ He’ll say, ‘It’s fine.’”
“That was supposed to be one shot,” reveals Michael Owens who became more involved with the production of Gran Torino (2008). “Clint doesn’t cry very well as an actor; he gets all stuffy and messy.” The moviemaker wanted to recreate the moment from Letters from Iwo Jima where the soldier cries a single tear when the general dies. “Clint said, ‘I want something like that to happen. Could you do that as a visual effect?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I worked out the shot, put in the timing, and he said, ‘Perfect.’” Eastwood felt his character should have a more dramatic response upon learning that the young girl who lives next door to him has been assaulted. “Clint wanted to bang through a glass cupboard; he did that late in shooting. It meant he needed blood and scars on his hands for the last third of the movie. We added scars to his hands. It’s not a big deal at all. We did some of that on Flags where we added scars and dirt on costumes, and we art directed their makeup to make it look rougher. In Gran Torino there were some fights where the guys weren’t beat up at all so we added all kinds of scars, blood and bruises tastefully.”
“We replaced everything except for the players on every shot,” remarks Michael Owens in regards to the rugby matches in Invictus (2009). “There was no other way you could have done that and still have the freedom of the camera which was what I wanted him to have.” It is important to have the ability to improvise. “I know that I need to give him the room to maneuver the way he likes to maneuver.” He carries on and says, “I hardly ever use green or blue screens with Clint because it will slow him down. It would change his photographic style and it wouldn’t look like a Clint Eastwood movie at that point.” Owens is proud of Invictus. “It worked out quite well. That’s one of the favourite movies I’ve ever worked on.”
“Hereafter  would have been a daunting thought to him awhile back but it didn’t faze him,” says Michael Owens who received an Oscar nomination for creating a computer generated tsunami. “It was difficult not to upstage the rest of the movie with that sequence. Yet it had to be gut-wrenching enough that it made you known what her motivation was for being disturbed about life after that. It was push and pull. I hope that we hit it right. Clint liked it and I think it worked well. I like that movie a great deal. It was a challenge to design the sequence so it flowed.”
Comparing the period films Changeling and J. Edgar (2011), Michael Owens observes, “They’re very similar in their requirements for visual effects.” The latest film from Clint Eastwood carries on his tradition of being subtle with the visual imagery. “J. Edgar isn’t a giant visual effects movie; it’s meant not to be noticed at all and hopefully appropriately so. There wasn’t a tsunami sequence or anything like that even though we joked about it. ‘Maybe we should put a tsunami sequence through this scene?’” The sequence where J. Edgar Hoover reflects upon the 1932 inauguration parade required the blending of archival footage, live action photography and a virtual environment. “We didn’t touch anything of Leo [DiCaprio],” states Owens who had to do some CGI fixes to the practical effects. “Armie’s [Hammer] makeup as an older man didn’t quite come across on film as well as they were hoping.” The visual effects supervisor has a habit of not watching the entire picture until it is completed. “On J. Edgar I needed to see the movie because I was more involved.” He recalls, “When I first saw Gran Torino, I said, ‘This is great.’ I hope I have the same opinion of J. Edgar.”
“What I like about Clint and the other directors I have worked with is that they just do drama,” states Michael Owens. “They don’t want the visual effects to be seen and I don’t want them to be seen either.” The process of dealing with Clint Eastwood is straightforward. “I estimate what he would be looking for as a director, I present stuff to him and get feedback.” Eastwood has come a long way from Space Cowboys. “At this point he’s in complete command of utilizing visual effects.” There is a current trend which the filmmaker is likely to avoid. “Clint I can’t quite see doing stereo pictures.” Owens explains, “Clint is a very progressive thinker but he’s just into storytelling.” He remarks, “All of us who work for him get good at knowing where Clint probably wants to go with the material. We get right in the zone and Clint can be the conductor of the nuances he wants to have happen.”
Many thanks to Michael Owens for taking the time out of his schedule for this interview. For more, be sure to check out Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor Michael Owens.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.