Harrison Abbott chats with Captain Marvel visual effects supervisor Christian Kaestner…
As a VFX supervisor for Framestore’s Montreal division, Christian Kaestner has contributed to several high-profile releases including: Alien: Covenant; Paddington; and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. More recently, the award-winning visual artist oversaw some of the critical work on Captain Marvel, helping to deliver its key environments and most striking images.
In the wake of the film’s staggering box-office performance, we caught up with Christian to talk about his career, what it’s been like working for Marvel and what it takes to be a good VFX supervisor. For those who are more interested in the technical aspects, we also dig deep into nerdier territory, exploring how to pull off a convincing digi-double, the challenges of slowing down CG images and how to simulate underwater physics. Enjoy!
Before we get onto Captain Marvel itself, I thought we could just talk about you for a bit.
Sure, no problem!
You’ve had a really impressive career, moving between lots of different roles and ascending through the ranks to become a VFX supervisor. Could you talk a little about that journey?
It all started with my undergrad in Germany, where I studied communications, design and art-direction. After I got that degree, I then worked for 4 years in an advertising agency and did lots of print stuff. At the time, ILM still had their commercials division, as did Framestore. That was always something that interested me, but I didn’t want to move too far away from home.
Meanwhile, I had the benefit of having an older brother, one who was living abroad. He actually got his undergrad in Florida, which I honestly wasn’t too keen on [doing myself]. Then – when I turned 28 – I looked at his life, compared it to mine and thought: ‘’I’m probably missing something here.”
That’s when I made the decision to go abroad and pursue my interest in doing CG for commercials. I moved to San Francisco and got my Masters at the Academy of Art University. At that point I was still focussed on doing advertising. Even my thesis project was a 30 second Nike Commercial.
Yeah, at a student made level of course.
Eventually, I made connections to a company called The Orphanage (a VFX Studio that worked on Sin City, Iron Man and The Host) and sort of stumbled into film from there. Which is weird, because a lot of people have an ambition to work on movies and they desperately want to be part of the industry, but that wasn’t really on my roadmap. I kind of discovered it by accident.
Anyway, I started working at The Orphanage but I didn’t plan on staying that far away from home. Which is why I used the work permit – that I got with my degree – to move to London. That’s when I began working for Framestore. I showed them my thesis and they decided to give me a shot!
What was it like adjusting to working in film, after starting out in commercials?
I had only just entered the movie industry and so had to start again at the bottom of the chain, doing rota painting and compositing. That being said, I had an established background in art direction and I was already over 30 so, for me, learning the film side of things was only partially new. All I needed was to adjust to a different way of doing things and using different tools. You know, one of my teachers used to say: ‘’for an artist, any new software is just another brush’’ and they were absolutely right.
So despite starting at Framestore as a junior compositor, I did have the right experience for team leading and running big projects. Which meant that I soon became the sequence lead and then found myself in supervision.
So you were able to climb the ladder quite quickly?
Yeah, a lot of people will say:‘ ’Oh you’re so lucky’’, but it’s not really luck at all. It’s actually a lot of hard work and determination! Obviously I was changing my career too, which meant starting over with an entry level salary. That wasn’t great and my parents seriously questioned the decision [laughs], but it soon became apparent that I would be able to progress quite quickly. Over time I gained the trust of some VFX supervisors, who then gave me various opportunities where I was able to prove myself.
When Framestore eventually decided to open up their Montreal office, I was still only a comp supervisor. But they needed a head for the 2D department and I volunteered. We then started to grow as a team and an option arose for me to take on another role. I was working closely with Jonathan Fawkner on Edge of Tomorrow and halfway through that project he said to me: ‘’I think you can handle yourself on your own’’. It wasn’t exactly an official promotion but he gave me the responsibility to take on my own shows.
Expanding upon that, what would you say is the most important quality for a VFX supervisor to have?
I’d say you have to be a diplomat. That might sound weird but, similar to any other supervisory role, you have to be able to mediate and think about what is actually possible within a given budget. It’s an artistic skill.
I mean, when I studied graphic design we weren’t allowed to touch the computer until like the 4th semester. Because the philosophy was that we shouldn’t rely on it. Instead, we needed to train our eyes, focus on our brushwork, hone our calligraphy, work on our photography and so on. It was all about the fundamentals of art. And that was very useful because those have followed me throughout my entire career. You need those basics, along with a real tenacity and attention to detail.
To answer your question then, it’s not that I’m particularly good at any one thing in terms of CG. It’s more about having a broad understanding of everything, about being a good team leader and a good problem solver. Maybe that’s a good summary.
You have to be resourceful and find solutions, rather than excuses.
Exactly! You have to be able to mitigate any potential problems in order to produce a great result for your client. When they say they want a moon on a stick, for like 5 quid or whatever, then you have to find a way of delivering that. Saying ‘’no’’ is never an option! That’s not why they come to you.
Cool, now let’s move onto Captain Marvel itself. As with any project of this scale, a lot of VFX companies were required to bring this to the screen. Looking through the credits, there appear to have been at least 12 different vendors here. What’s that arrangement like from your perspective?
Historically speaking that used to be the norm. In the past, no company was big enough to single-handedly pull off these massive shows. However, we gradually started to take on entire projects once we had sufficent resources and the facilities. I think Weta were among the first to do that sort of thing, with Lord of the Rings and Avatar. That was sort of new back then, because they were the only ones who could handle all that work.
So to return to the original question, having work divided up is not especially new to us. Usually the clients are pretty good at providing it in a sensible way, especially Marvel. Their movies are on quite an ambitious scale and a tight schedule. So for any one company to do all of the shots required would just be unrealistic. It would take like 1,500 people. Also, splitting the work up just alleviates the risk on their side.
Is it easier sharing the workload like that? Or would you say that it’s even more challenging because of the fragmentation?
It doesn’t necessarily make it easier, nor does it make it more complicated. As I said, we’re accustomed to collaborating and the work is usually split in a logical way.
How does that collaboration work exactly? Do you all pitch in on different elements of shots, or is it a case of each individual company works on their own separate scenes?
When it comes to shots, we will sometimes have to share. For instance, with Captain Marvel we often liaised with Digital Domain because they were responsible for the Skrull shapeshifting effect and we needed that for some of our scenes. We were providing the environments and the backgrounds, whilst they were doing the work on the transformations.
However, that kind of arrangement is relatively unusual. 90% of the work we do will typically be on our own, but Marvel have a unique set up. They like to have key vendors developing specific effects. For example, on this movie we had Trickster developing Vers’ photon blast, whilst ILM were resposnible for Brie’s digi-double. I guess, they just pick based on what they think you’re good at.
Just to clarify, Framestore did some of the environments and some of the digi-doubles for the film. What else did you guys contribute? How many effects were you responsible for in the end?
I think it was between 130 and 140 shots, so it wasn’t a particularly big show for us. But it was a very ambitious schedule and, even though Marvel had used Framestore in the past, this was the first time that they allocated a big chunk of work to the Montreal division.
Our work can largely be found at the beginning of the movie. We did the Torfa environments, we did the spaceship attacking the planet and we did the bit where Starforce dive into the water. Basically most of the effects up until Brie gets captured.
We also did that small section near the end of the film where she goes through all the colours of her suits. That was only about 8 shots though. The main bulk of our stuff was establishing the look and feel of the alien world at the beginning.
And in terms of that alien world, what was the brief? What did the filmmakers want from Torfa?
Well, a lot of concept art is done before production even starts. After all, they need it to make a few key decisions, like where they want to shoot, if it will be in a studio, what the scale will be and so on.
Because of that, there was a lot of artwork for us to reference. We knew that we needed the planet to be otherworldly but to also look inhabitable, which is why they settled on a location shoot. They found a quarry somewhere out in California, scoped it out, took some photographs and then modified it a little for a dual-tone, yellow and blue aesthetic.
Modified it how?
They added blue-coloured sand and did other things to make it feel less like earth.
Then they moved on to shooting, which they did entirely at night so they could have full control over the lighting. You see, they didn’t want any harsh sunlight that would expose the earth-like qualities to the environment. They could have easily gone to a studio for this, but I’m really glad that they chose a location shoot.
Does that make it easier from your perspective?
Actually, I think it makes it slightly more challenging! The end result is better and it’s easier to get a good looking image, but it’s also harder to arrive there.
Well, in a studio you have full control over every light source and you can film for as long as you want. You don’t have to wait around for the right conditions and you never have to wrap up early. Conversely, if you’re on location then your shooting window is a lot smaller. But what we’ve learned is that, if you shoot it for real, then the visuals are just so much better.
[On the Torfa sequence] we had a few shots that were reshoots and they were done in a studio. I hope that the audience won’t be able to spot that, and the average moviegoer probably won’t, but we certaintly can. We can tell that the reshoots are not quite as successful.
So to answer your question, it’s not easier shooting on location. You don’t get a nice blue screen where you can key easily and there’s a lot more prep invovled. But it does lead to higher quality visuals.
If it’s any consolation, I didn’t notice any obvious reshoots or shifts in quality. It all looked consistent to me.
That’s good! That’s the idea, you know?
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