Harrison Abbott chats with Visual Effects Producer Alejandro Diego von Dorrer…
An industrious entrepreneur, Alejandro Diego von Dorrer has embarked on storied career that’s taken him from software distribution, to marketing and eventually special effects. He has a keen eye for recognising gaps in the market (his company actually introduced Adobe into Mexico) and has used this acumen to establish several successful business enterprises.
One his most notable accomplishments was in founding Ollin, a prolific VFX studio (which just so happens to be Latin America´s first and foremost) responsible for many blockbusters and David Fincher’s go-to vendor for set-extensions and digital props. Among their cinematic credits are films like Suicide Squad, Deadpool, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Meanwhile, they’ve also dabbled in a bit of TV, having worked on both House of Cards and Mindhunter. See what I mean about the Fincher connection?
Boasting such an impressive résumé, Alejandro is obviously a business-savvy individual, but he’s also got the creative spark required to survive in the VFX industry. It was therefore very exciting to catch up with the studio head and talk through his personal journal, as well as that of Ollin itself. We cover lots of ground, including the increasing demands placed on modern effects vendors, the emergence of big-budget television and Ollin’s contributions to their latest show: Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
Thank you for taking the time to do this. To kick things off, would you be able to give us a little background info on yourself and explain how you got into VFX?
Absolutely. After graduating from Rice University over in Houston, I returned home to Mexico. It happened to be at just the right moment, as the borders were being opened up for free trade (thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement). So that was an exciting time, because we could suddenly import computers without duties.
Apple took advantage of this and established a dealer network in Mexico, which was great for me because I had a lot of experience with Macs. I used them at college for doing graphics and stuff like that. Anyway, even though they were supplying the Macs themselves, no one was really offering the additionals – you know, the software, the cards and the networking solutions. Stuff like that
So, I started a company called ‘’MacWare’’, which was basically the distributor for everything else. All the third-party products. In fact, we were the ones who introduced Adobe into Mexico. We brought their products over and were then in charge of distributing them, as well as all the marketing.
That’s really impressive!
As the company grew, we decided to expand into 3D technology, which was still in its infancy at the tune. We were already doing a lot of graphic design solutions and so we wanted to get in there early. The first thing we did was [secure] deals with Alias Wavefront and Silicon Graphics, so that we could distribute their products in Mexico. Once we got that going, we had a complete solution in place for 3D!
What happened next was kind of down to luck. You see, we were bought out by a big distributor, leaving us with the question: ‘’Okay, so what do we do next?’’ One of the things we noticed was that there wasn’t a fully-fledged studio in the country for doing animation and so we set our sights on that.
Film production was basically dead in Mexico, but advertising was still huge and was using a lot of CG. However, all that work it was being sent out to Canada and the states. Which is when we noticed an opportunity! And that’s how Ollin started, about 22 years ago.
How did it develop from there?
For the first 5-or-so years, the company was entirely focussed on doing visual effects for commercials. But as the technology took off, we were able to transition into movies and eventually opened an office in the States. Once that was in place, we were finally able to turn our attention to Hollywood. At first it was just feature films, but now of course we also [deal] in television.
As with any blockbuster of the scale, there are numerous special effects vendors for Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
Yeah, the main vendors were MPC, Rodeo VFX, Double-negative and us. Like you said, when it comes to these big-budget movies the VFX workload is too massive for one studio to take on.
What did Ollin contribute specifically?
We did a lot of set-extensions, as well as atmospherics like snow, smoke and fog. We also did 2½ D environments. For example, a big chunk of the movie takes place in a command ship called the ‘’Argo’’. It’s flying all over the world and we created the CG clouds that you see out of the window.
Actually, an interesting thing about that effect in particular is that Michael Dougherty intended to hire out a plane and film the clouds for real. But he asked us if we could have a go at doing something digitally and make it look photoreal. He really liked the test we gave him and so decided to go with it.
From his perspective, the nice thing about doing it in CG was that he has total control over things like the size, the shape, the speed and the lighting conditions affecting the clouds. So, he ended up using that effect way more than originally intended. For basically all the Argo shots in fact.
We also did a couple of time lapse sequences, where you see San Francisco and Las Vegas being taken over by a radioactive jungle.
Oh, you mean the ones in Vera Farmiga’s presentation?
Correct! It’s basically when we show those cities after they’ve been abandoned, and there’s all these mutated trees and plants growing over them.
We had to recreate those environments from the ground up in a computer. We also did the surrounding [foliage] as well. To accomplish this, we developed a piece of software that allowed us to create hundreds-upon-hundreds of trees and have them each grow individually. That way we could make them all look unique, without having to manually go in and animate each one on its own. It worked out well
In reference to all those atmospheric effects, was is it necessary to collaborate with the other studios? For instance, if Godzilla is wading through some of your CG fog, then presumably the two effects will need to interact with each other?
Yeah, sometimes we do that. But not so much on this show.
Because you want to have a consistent and controlled look for each sequence. And that works much better if one studio does the whole thing.
The way it’s normally done is by using what’s called a ‘’tentpole’’ shot. It’s basically an image that sets the tone for the rest of the sequence. That way, if you do end up with a few studios pitching in, then they can all look to the tentpole as a reference. I suppose it’s like a guide for making sure that we’re consistent.
Ah, gotcha! Did you do many of these ‘’tentpoles’’ for Godzilla?
For the Argo we did. So, if any other studio needed to [contribute] to one of those sequences, then they would use our tentpole as a guide.
Returning to the atmospheric effects, which of them would you say was the trickiest to pull off?
The hardest part of atmospherics is integrating them with the lighting. Doing fog on its own isn’t all that complicated and we can easily render it to look great in the monitor. The difficulty comes in when we have to composite it with the live action plates and get it interacting with real light. Because your eye is very well trained at detecting those things subconsciously and your brain will tell you if something doesn’t look right.
I guess fog is tricky in that sense, because it’s supposed to reflect a lot of light. That’s without a doubt the hardest part.
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