You mentioned that you did full CG recreations of both Las Vegas and San Francisco. When doing this, did you use any reference materials to ensure that your versions were accurate?
We mainly relied on real-life photography. There’s plenty of that available online and you can get it from all kinds of angles. The challenge was actually in recreating them three-dimensionally, because the time-lapse shots obviously cycles through various times of day. That meant that we had to simulate all the different reflections, shadows and so on.
How do you figure that stuff out? It sounds like a lot of work.
It is a lot of work! Thankfully the rendering technology has come a long way and does an excellent job of calculating everything. From our perspective it’s more about putting the buildings in the right place and setting the light sources.
That being said, once you’ve done your first pass you tend to realise that some things don’t look quite right. When that happens, we will always go in and tweak it until we’re happy. That’s where the real artistry comes in.
How many people does it take to put together shots of this nature?
Oh, several teams! With a movie of this scale you have a modelling department, lighting experts to work on textures, animators to move the camera and a rendering team. There are also the riggers, who are the ones who basically set up things like bones and all the different adjustable points in a character. Nowadays there’s a heavy investment in technology as well, so you need a really good IT team to make sure you have all the latest servers and rendering nodes.
For this particular show, we had about 15 people in our CG team. And overall roughly 70 artists.
One thing I’m always interested in when it comes to VFX are the shots that audiences might not even realise are CGI. Were there any like that in this movie that you’re particularly proud of?
Well because we didn’t do any of the creatures, I think most of our work is quite subtle. We did the things that you don’t even perceive as being visual effects. You’d probably have to see the ‘’before and after’’ videos to even understand what we did. For example, there were a lot of set-extensions on this project that I don’t think people will realise aren’t practical. And that’s the whole point of it.
Another thing we did on this show that I haven’t mentioned yet is face tracking and replacements. There was an actress who had to do a reshoot several months later and we needed to integrate her new shots with the older footage and get it all to match. To do this, we had to track her facial expressions, movements and everything else so that we could apply it to the original version and get a consistent look.
That’s another thing that people won’t notice, but it’s there.
Is that an effect that you do often?
No, it’s not very common. But it’s always tricky because our brain is wired to recognise emotions and expressions, meaning that it will pick up on anything strange.
And what is the key to getting it right?
Being super detail oriented. You’ve got to make sure that all the small facial quirks are right. That’s why CG faces are so hard to do convincingly. At least when they’re human. Creatures and aliens are a bit easier but doing a full human face is one of the last big challenges for CG. With everything else, your imagination is the limit I would say.
It feels like it’s getting there though. I’ve seen some CG faces that are almost perfect, even if there’s something that’s a little off about them.
Oh yeah, I completely agree! We can certainly do faces in stills now. Like you can’t tell when a photograph has a CG person. But when you start having them act, move and talk, that’s where it can look a bit video gamey. You’re right though, we are getting close. I’ve seen a few that’ve almost fooled me for a second or two.
I was wondering if you could explain how you do set extensions as well?
Sure. What happens is that the crew will build only part of the set and then the rest is either greenscreen or bluescreen. That’s where we have to add in the rest and make the extension. And normally we just try and keep as much as possible from the original plate.
What sets did you extend for Godzilla?
The water base, the Argo, some corridors, some buildings, you name it. Just to be clear, we didn’t do everything but there was still a lot for us. Especially when it came to the destruction of the cities. The one we really enjoyed doing was the Argo, because it had the clouds in the background. That element of interaction meant that we were doing more than just making the environment larger.
You mentioned earlier that you’ve gradually started to take on more-and-more TV projects. I know you guys worked on House of Cards and also Mindhunter –
Yes, we’re actually doing Mindhunter season 2 right now!
Oh cool! So, do you think that TV is starting to catch up with the movie industry in terms of how it uses VFX?
No doubt about it! Of course, the main reason for this is a growth in budgets, as they’re now equitable to large-scale studio productions. I think that, going forward, you’re going to see more and more series’ with VFX that blow you away. Which is obviously great for us. We’re super happy about it.
Are there any big differences between working in the two mediums?
Not really. I suppose the pace is a little faster, the budgets are a little tighter, and the workloads can vary. Otherwise, it’s no different. The quality is expected to be up to the same standard.
Speaking of Mindhunter and David Fincher, I feel like I should mention that you have a credit on one of my all-time favourite films: Zodiac.
I’m obsessed with that film and would love to hear about your contribution to it?
Obviously, that’s not what you would think of as an effects-heavy movie. But David Fincher likes to use a lot of CG just to create the exact images that he has in his head. He is one of the most detail-oriented people that we’ve had the pleasure to work with. A lot of what we do for him is concerned with that.
For example, if you just look at Mindhunter every detail has been accounted for in terms of the period setting. You don’t see anything that shouldn’t be there. Right now, we’re doing some digital props for season 2 and if somebody is serving themselves a coffee, then we have to make sure that it looks like it would have done at the time. Right down to the label.
That’s the kind of stuff we did for Zodiac as well – set extensions, props and details that audiences won’t notice.
That coffee cup example you just gave is amazing. To think that people are now using VFX to achieve that level of detail is mind-blowing!
Yes! You can literally slow down any of his films and you’ll see that everything is perfect. He’s one of the most amazing [people] that we have ever worked with, for sure.
And you’ve worked with him on several occasions now.
Yeah, he was actually one of the first to give us a chance! That’s why we’re so grateful to him, because he let us show off what we were capable of. We have worked with him on almost every one of his shows since.
How does Michael Dougherty compare? Is he similarly detail-oriented or does his approach differ?
What I really liked about Michael is that, as with every good director, he really immersed himself in the project. He was really great- both in terms of having a clear vision and also in communicating it. Which is equally important.
Another person we were in constant contact with was Guillaume Rocheron, the film’s Visual Effects supervisor. You know, he was one of the Oscar winners behind Life of Pi, so he’s another person with a lot of experience. Like Michael, he was very skilled at making sure that we understood what was required of us throughout.
To round things off, do you have and advice for people who were wanting to break into the VFX industry?
Of course! I think the nice thing about what we do is that it’s a combination of two sides of your brain. On one hand, you have the technical aspects – where we need to understand how to set-up computers, how the software interacts, and how the network handles all these 4K files.
Meanwhile, there’s also the creative, storytelling part. And that’s what I think is so interesting about what we do. We need to be in tune with the story and how to tell it, but we also need to keep up with evolving technology. It’s a tough act to balance and that’s why [there’s] unfortunately a long list of defunct studios out there.
On that note, what do you think is the key to surviving as a studio?
‘’Balance’’ is the operative word. It’s bad if you don’t have enough work, but it’s also a problem if you have too much. Because then you’re suddenly putting stress on your artists and they might not be able to deliver on everything. You just have to try and keep a balance and sometimes that means saying ‘’no’’. Sometimes you might be offered a really exciting project, but you just can’t take it on because you know it’s too much for the team.
The talent is crucial to what we do and keeping them onboard is so important. It’s a tough challenge because, at the end of the day, we get paid on a ‘’per-project’’ basis and we’re never really sure what’s happening down the road. I always joke that this is not a shoe factory where you can plan your production for the year ahead and know that business is going to be consistent. Here, every project is different and has its own demands. Which means that saying ‘’no’’ is sometimes just as important as saying ‘’yes’’.
Many thanks to Alejandro Diego von Dorrer for taking the time for this interview.