Martin Carr chats with Upload VFX Supervisor Marshall Krasser…
VFX veteran Marshall Krasser has helped propel Amazon’s Upload into the public eye, through a combination of understated cutting edge affects which enhance the story telling process. He has worked with Steven Spielberg and through his time at ILM been involved in projects which included Avatar, Star Trek and Iron Man 2. He recently took time out to talk to Martin Carr about his involvement in Upload and how VFX have changed things…
What attracted you to Upload as a project?
The whole concept behind it was a very unique thing. I have worked on comedies in the past and kind of like that idea of being involved in something which doesn’t take itself too seriously. That was one thing and just the diversity of the work was another which excited FuseFX, just because it was going to be something which would allow us to showcase the talent that we have. We watched the early rough cut of the pilot and ended up redoing all the VFX in it. Which is something that normally happens with pilots as they don’t have the time or budget to get everything in there.
What were the showrunner’s key considerations going in?
Greg wanted to make sure that we understood the role digital affects would have in a comedy. Basically it was there to assist in the narrative not actually be the narrative. So not to call attention to itself and my understanding from talking to a lot of people, was that they didn’t really stand out and were kind of natural. Even in the digital realm we kind of took that approach and there were certain things we did differently. We would introduce the glitches periodically just to sell the idea to the audience. Some of that was done through lighting schemes during photography where in the real world our camera was more handheld, then when we got into the digital world things became smoother just trying to show the difference.
What influences did you draw on in building this world?
This concept has been in Greg’s head for thirty plus years so when he was a staff writer for Saturday Night Live, he would jot down ideas in a work book which they had. So over time I think he had collected a few ideas and we would go out and look at other options too. We didn’t want to copy anything which had necessarily been done before as far as look. It was going out and trying to find real world examples and how would we do this, what would it look like? Or taking things that were around and how could be update it into something new. FuseFX was not heavily involved with some of the playback displays, but we did numerous ones and we were asked why they weren’t more advanced and I said, if you think about it with a lot of software there is a move towards simplicity. I don’t want to say dumbing down the software but making it more user friendly, while some platforms go heavier, but for the most part it doesn’t have to be all flashy. I don’t want to say that the future is kind of dystopian, but the idea Greg wanted was that the digital afterlife was a much better place than where you were.
Considering the combination of genres in the show, how did you insure tone was maintained from a visual perspective?
Whenever you have a team put together from the showrunner through to myself there tends to be a homogenised look across it. I think it’s just a matter of aesthetics and how they combine. So we just tried to keep it real and Greg didn’t want the affects to be screaming out. So in the scene where Fran is inside talking to the robot asking for assistance originally that was a lot more animated. I let Adam our animator go crazy with and I said let’s just have fun with this and he went all out. Reminiscent of the Luxo lamp Pixar did; they were able to tell the story and we had it and it had us laughing and Greg loved it, but after a few times through he said ‘I hate to do this to you but we just have to tone it down. You’ve done really well bringing a character to life here but it’s not hitting the beat that I need for this moment. You are sort of upstaging the actress and upstaging the story.’ So he gave us notes and we dialled it back. However, even with the dialling back you can still get a hint of a personality there, just ever so subtle so it doesn’t feel as mechanical and still has a little attitude.
To what extent do you think cost is a barrier to creativity within the industry now?
It will always be a problem but I think it is more of a challenge to find that fine line. A lot of times people come in wanting to have the Kobe beef steak, but they can only afford ground chuck. So what you try to do is find a compromise which makes them happy, but yet still doesn’t blow their budget. So a lot of that comes down to not saying no to a client but just saying ‘well here are some options’, some ways we can try to approach this. Upload wasn’t an unlimited budget show or a digital affects driven blockbuster. There again we had to make certain decisions around how we would approach things. I think we were successful in that, there is nothing in there that I’m embarrassed about, I think it’s all great work.
What would you say are the key changes in VFX since you started in the industry and how has that affected storytelling?
As you probably know my first official credit was on Casper and I’d actually done some rotoscoping for Forrest Gump. So since that time the nature of my work is very similar for the most part, but the time to do that work has been greatly truncated. If I go back to Forrest Gump ground was being broken back then and I know there was one particular shot I had on Casper, that took three months to do and I kind of joke now but every day when I went in I thought they would fire me because it took so long. However, when the show was over the director was really happy because no one had really done anything that elaborate at that time. Whereas today we would probably shoot clean passes and the same shot now would be done in about three days. There again with anything the first time you build something it takes longer and once you understand it things go faster.
Today the fine line is around managing expectations like how quickly you can turn things around. One thing we did with Greg was talk about 3D shots, which involve a 3D model and some of that stuff, and why it’s more expensive than a 2D which basically comes down to the number of people involved. When you’re dealing with a shot which is more 2D centric you are generally dealing with a compositor, sometimes with a rotoscoper assisting and possibly a tracker. So you are talking basically one key person, but going into a 3D shot you definitely need the tracker, you might need a layout artist to block out the scene and then you need an animator. They have to animate something so a model has got to be built and that has to be textured and rigged. Then that gets animated then lit and then it goes to the compositor. So the number of people that get involved with that process grows exponentially. Which is why a lot of these ‘making ofs’ sometimes make things look a little easier than they actually are. Mainly because no one wants to know how many days it took to do something because it’s not sexy so to speak. So I think a lot of it is thoroughly understanding what it takes to do the work and getting your clients to understand that. So we can maybe envision this a different way which is not quite as expensive. We had these conversations with Greg as well so he could still tell his story creatively but not blow the budget.
That’s one good thing about FuseFX we see ourselves more as collaborators creatively instead of a service bureau so to speak. We come into it from that standpoint and I was on set nearly every day for Upload. If we can avoid just by moving the camera a few inches having to paint something out in the background, we are saving money so it can be used for something more important. Using VFX just to fix things to me is something which is definitely utilised a lot these days, but that is not what we necessarily want to be doing. We want to be able to visualise cool stuff.
If you had a choice between an unlimited budget and no time or unlimited time and no budget, which would you pick and why?
MK: To be honest neither. Like everything a lot of it comes down to time and money. I worked on War of the Worlds and we essentially turned that around from start to finish in about three and a half months. People said we had basically upset the apple cart, because we showed stuff like this could be done quickly. What people did not understand was that the team for that, primarily Steven Spielberg, Dennis Muren and Pablo Helman had all worked with Steven in the past. He as a director definitely knows what he wants with VFX, so you don’t get a lot of wandering direction. He had total trust in our supervision team at the time that they were making the right calls and decisions for him. So everybody could hit the ground running and muscle through it. Without a lot of back and forth or ‘notes from other people’.
Do you mean delays and interference?
I wouldn’t say interference, but people want to have input and be part of the process. However, if you have too many voices giving counter information it does become tricky. So the thing is with the two options you gave me, with unlimited time and no budget you will burn through your budget immediately just because there are set operating expenses. There again if you have all the money in the world, the only thing there is you can potentially hire more bodies. So if there is a preference I’d probably have to go with that. I have been on shows where we had hundreds of people that you bring together to do it, so that would probably be the one I would go towards unfortunately just to get it done.
What are you working on now in isolation that you can discuss?
I am working on a Christmas movie right now. It’s already been shot and is in the can as they say, so we are not relying on an on set type stuff. In actuality I am supposed to be on set about a month ago for a show which is shooting up here. There again everything has been throttled back and there is work still in the hopper for VFX, but at a certain point unless on set gets restarted there is going to be a gap. Similar to what I think happened with the writer’s strike we had a few years ago, there is going to be a little bit of a void before that material gets back in. Then even for them to start shooting and opening up is easier said than done. There have to be a lot of new distancing rules put in place and reimagining how on set environments work. Where everyone is at come August is really going to be interesting to see where the industry is and where people are. With the new paradigm going on in actuality you will need more VFX added to shows, in order to deal with certain aspects of distancing. If they can’t get within so many feet of each other, do you have to shoot two different scenes on blue and green screen then put them together.
Describe for me your perfect Sunday afternoon.
My perfect Sunday afternoon has nothing to do with VFX. I don’t mean that in a bad way. For me as a kid growing up in the Missouri Ozarks, so that being said I spent practically every weekend out at the lake fishing or on water skis and camping. I remember saying ‘I’ll never have a job, I’ll never have an indoor job’. So you know what, never say never because right now it has essentially turned into the most indoor job possible. Sitting in my back room for seven going on eight weeks now. Still working with our team and doing everything remotely which is great in that aspect, but I don’t get to hang out with them. So I would say it my perfect Sunday afternoon would be out in the wilderness, just absorbing nature and observing nature. I do a lot of photography which is my way of relaxing, getting away from civilisation and becoming more in tune with the wilderness.
On that note all there’s left to say is thank you very much for taking time out to talk about Upload with Flickering Myth.
Upload is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.