Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor John Knoll

Trevor Hogg chats with Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor John Knoll…

“That was a good long time ago,” recalls veteran Industrial Light & Magic Visual Effects Supervisor John Knoll who was part of the team which created the landmark alien pseudo pod for filmmaker James Cameron. “It was something that was very different, new, and exciting for us. I had worked for Dennis Muren [Jurassic Park] on a number of his shows as a motion-control camera operator in the effects animation department. I moved over to the computer graphics department on a television commercial right before The Abyss [1989] happened. It’s funny to have this history with Dennis; he asked if I would supervise the work in the computer graphics department on The Abyss to help keep everybody on track and to come in with a production mindset that we have real deadlines. We have to get this done and let’s figure out how we’re going to push all this stuff through. At that point there were not a lot of established procedures for what the roles were or how things were done. Faced with that, ‘How do you want to do or approach that one?’ ‘I don’t know. Why don’t we try this?’ ‘Let’s try it and see if that works.’ It felt like we were really inventing a lot of stuff there. It was great fun.”

“I feel like I owe George [Lucas] a great debt of gratitude for trusting me on those,” says John Knoll when discussing his work on the Star Wars prequel trilogy. “That was over an eight year period I got I feel a whole lifetime’s worth of experience out of them. Each one of those shows was 2000 shots.” Knoll was rewarded with an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) which featured the character of Captain Davy Jones. “We had a good time on that. I’m very proud on how that turned out. It helps to have a director who has a strong visual sense and supports the right way to do things. We would discuss what the shooting methodology should be for different effects in that show; Gore [Verbinski] would take us seriously, make it happen and defend our requests against the inevitable wall you get.” When questioned about what it takes to be a successful visual effects supervisor, he answers, “Don’t let ego get in the way. Recognize that sometimes the best ideas come from unlikely sources. When I’m at dailies looking at shots I am open to input from the crew and I try not to have an ego about this. Sometimes the best ideas come from unlikely sources. The best ideas should be the ones that rule the day.” Holding the number 10 position on Entertainment Weekly’s The 50 Smartest People in Hollywood List of 2007, Knoll collaborated with his brother Thomas to produce Adobe Photoshop. “We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The whole time we were developing it, I was the number one cheerleader. I was convinced that this was going to rule the world. It’s a verb now.”

“I contacted him about wanting to get involved with 1906,” states John Knoll when discussing the origins of his collaboration with filmmaker Brad Bird on Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011). “We got talking about it and then the project itself was delayed and put into turnaround. Brad moved on to Mission: Impossible and I was still very excited about working with Brad; I’m a huge fan of his films. When he got Mission: Impossible, I said, ‘Wow! I’d love to work on this with you.’” The movie franchise starring Tom Cruise is not unfamiliar territory for Knoll. “I supervised Mission I [1996]. It has been 16 years. The technology is nothing super revolutionary but has evolved gradually. We could be a lot bolder about the things we were doing. We have a scene that takes place in and around Red Square and none of our actors actually went to Red Square.” An adjustment was required for Bird who was making the transition from animation to live-action moviemaking for the first time. “On an animated feature you have more opportunities to do revisions to sequences where you can order up shots and, ‘Yeah. This stuff isn’t working. Let’s fix this and this.’ In live-action you’re a little more constrained by what you shot. We were sometimes going into shots to try to modify them to better reflect Brad’s current thinking about, ‘I wish this shot had a little more energy to it.’ Or it wasn’t apparent until he was cutting the sequence and the real shape of the sequence was emerging.”

“We have a group here that advises us on that,” remarks John Knoll who subcontracted other visual effects facilities to assist ILM on the action thriller. “It’s looking at the reels from the different companies, and talking with them. Sometimes it’s from past experience with them on previous shows and trying to cast appropriately for the success.” He gives examples such as with the Magnetic Suit Sequence where Jeremy Renner jumps down a shaft. “The majority of that work was done at Pixomondo. It’s a CG set extensions, wire removals. The fan at the bottom of that shaft is CG.” Australian company Fuel VFX helped on the signature stunt where Tom Cruise climbs the world’s tallest building. “There are definitely a number of visual effects in that sequence. A lot of it is Tom on the Burj Khalifa at 1600 feet doing the thing that is depicted in the movie. He has a whole bunch of safety cables on him so a lot of the visual effects are wire removal. When you look at the structure of the building it’s a bunch of curved mirrors so it’s the cable, the reflection of the cable, and the reflection of the reflection of the cable, and the reflection of the camera. This an IMAX sequence so it’s doing all of that at high resolution as well. The wire removals were challenging but then there are a number of shots we filmed on a smaller set fragment down at ground level. When Tom is swinging on the cable, releases it, and makes a desperate jump for this open window, those things were shot on this set fragment with building extensions done in CG.”

Not many practical effects were utilized. “We did a two day shoot at New Deal Studios where we shot some pyro elements. They’re all really effects elements such as explosions and debris chunks,” states John Knoll. “We have a very rich stock library that we’ve built up here over being in business for over 30 years. We have lots of explosions, dust, splashes and all those sort of things. When you need a practical element of one kind or another the first place you look is, ‘Do we already have that in the stock library?’ If we don’t have something we can use for that then you schedule a shoot to get a piece that we need.” As for what it takes for successful CGI augmentation, Knoll remarks “Good match moves and matte [paintings], and attention to detail.” He adds, “In a handful of fully computer generated shots you have to make sure that your style of cinematography matches the surrounding material, and the overall style of the show. A lot of set extension shots you just match move the production camera and that’s what you’re working from. We try never to put constraints on how you shoot plates, ‘Oh, boy this would be better if this wasn’t a Steadicam move because it would be easier to match move.’ You try to allow filmmakers the complete freedom to shoot it the way they would want to shoot it if it wasn’t visual effects.”

“It’s not like there is a visual effects style book for the Mission: Impossible films,” states John Knoll. “While they’re popcorn action flicks, they are meant to be reality base; the overriding thing is to make it look like photography. If you’re supposed to be in Red Square make it look like you’re really in Red Square.” In comparing the difficulty of incorporating visual effects in an everyday environment as suppose to a stylized reality, Knoll observes, “I’ve definitely done my share of way out there fantasy type of films. It’s a different base. Usually, that kind of very high end of creating whole worlds comes along with a little stylization. The stylization makes it a little bit easier to sell, and then there are very complex things which are part of that generated world. The more reality base high polish stuff is sometimes harder to execute.” He explains, “The principles all still apply. Its more pixels so bigger files. You have to put more detail into developing assets and everything is a bit slower.”

The Submarine Missile Launch Sequence in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is completely computer generated. “There are a lot of one offs where the assets needed to be developed,” reveals John Knoll. “It only plays in that one shot so you don’t get an economy of scale out of it.” Asked about the challenge of dealing with short as suppose to long shots, he answers, “Its different challenges. There are setup costs for everything. When you’re developing a CG asset the hope is you can hammer down the cost of that development over many shots so the proportion of its cost to a given shot is less. When something has to be developed, and it’s just work in a single shot then all of the cost of developing the geometry, textures and the look that is all burdened on that one shot.” Knoll is pleased with the end result. “It’s got good action but there are moments of situational humour which I think are good because it was something that was needed.”

Many thanks to John Knoll for taking the time for this interview.

Visit the official Mission: Impossible website here, and be sure to check out Trevor’s in-depth article looking at the making of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol over at the CGSociety.

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

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