A changing vision

Four of Sony Pictures Imageworks' top visual effects supervisors talk about how their craft has evolved during the past 15 years.

Behind the scenes at Sony Pictures Imageworks, it's the visual effects supervisors who are responsible for bringing the creative vision to the screen. Small surprise that Imageworks employs a stellar cast of visual effects supervisors: Ken Ralston cut his teeth on 1977's "Star Wars" and has lent his magic touch to such hits as 1985's "Back to the Future," 1994's "Forrest Gump," 2002's "Men in Black II" and 2004's "The Polar Express." Kevin Mack, who is currently working on Sony's upcoming "Ghost Rider," began his career as a model painter and matte artist, graduating to visual effects supervisor on 1998's "What Dreams May Come," followed by 1999's "Fight Club" and 2000's "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Richard Hoover most recently supervised Warner Bros. Pictures' "Superman Returns," but his credits stretch back to 1992's "Freejack," 1998's "Armageddon" and 2000's "Unbreakable." Scott Stokdyk's credits include 2002's "Spider-Man," 2004's "Spider-Man 2" and Sony's upcoming "Spider-Man 3," and his list of digital credits includes 1997's "Titanic" and "Starship Troopers," 1998's "Godzilla," 1999's "Stuart Little" and 2000's "Hollow Man." Debra Kaufman for The Hollywood Reporter recently sat down with all four visual effects supervisors to talk about the industry in general and their work at Imageworks.

The Hollywood Reporter: How has the visual effects industry changed in the past 15 years?
Ken Ralston: The digital age is more entrenched in most everything that's done, and you see effects in almost everything. It's kind of disheartening, in fact -- so much visual manipulation (is) going on. Also, what digital is able to do now in a more convincing way ... If you want a more realistic approach, it can definitely look a lot more real and believable than it used to. And the kinds of things it offers directors now -- it's almost like the gloves are off; they can shoot almost anything they want, and with a lot of pain and effort by these guys, it can be made to work.
Richard Hoover: What's interesting is how much it's changed all the other departments that work on the film. Say, the stunt department used to try to make their wires invisible with piano wire, and now they use rope because we can paint them out.
Kevin Mack: There are a lot of technologies that have actually been around for quite a while, that came to be 15 years ago but were not computable with the resources available ... and we're starting to use them routinely in practice. There are various types of simulation -- rigid body dynamics, the cloth simulation, volume rendering, all the fluid dynamic stuff, the water, the fire.
Scott Stokdyk: The artists get more sophisticated, too. Fifteen years ago, there wasn't this huge pool of artists that we have (now) that know how to do this stuff. Also, what I've seen change a lot, even in the course of "Spider-Man," is just how open-ended shot design and previsualization is now, whether it's done by a 3-D artist or in Avid by someone in editorial. There are fewer limits and boundaries. You can piece together pieces of just about anything, and it's handed over to visual effects to try to execute.

THR: Does that mean now that it will be driven by storytelling instead of effects?
Ralston: That's what it should always be. On the other hand, visual effects now are in everyone's garage ... and all over the world. There's bound to be (an overuse of visual effects) -- it's more accessible. And (sometimes there also is) work that is surprisingly good for what minimal amount of time or money that someone may have. You see it popping up in like terrible things, too. Hopefully, as always, story will win out, but sometimes it doesn't.
Hoover: I think we all are storytellers at some level, and I think the technology at home does have an impact on people and their perception of the work and their expectations of the work. The fact that it's gotten faster just means we can do more. But it also means it's trickled down to other departments -- other people are using it because it's become easier and quicker.
Ralston: Because of what the technology can do now, if you have any chops at all as a supervisor, you're in a closer relationship with the director to speak and discuss the movie as filmmakers, not as technicians. The technology has opened up a lot more of that kind of close one-on-one (interaction) -- if it's the right movie, where you have to really get into what the deep-down meaning is per image and understand what it is and then, as artists, go and try to transform that onto a film image that expresses what the director wants.
Mack: It seems like, for a while, we were really more like vendors; we were outsiders to the main production. We weren't involved with the shooting of the material. They'd come afterwards and say, "Oh, we need a matte painting, we need a shot," and you wouldn't know much about the movie -- you wouldn't work that directly with the creatives involved, whereas now, we're involved very early and (are) really part of the central creative circle of the film.

THR: What is the bleeding edge of technology, and are you using it in the films you're working on now?
Hoover: I think what Ken is doing on (Robert Zemeckis' upcoming Paramount film "Beowulf") -- we never really had the need for very strong character performances (in "Superman Returns"); certainly it was more of a subtle facial expression thing. Ken is really pulling off full expression and dialogue and so forth. I see us as having the surface qualities nailed -- to do flesh and costumes and material, which maybe five years ago was hard to do. It's not simple now, but it's definitely very doable and real. We're getting close to smaller and smaller issues -- what happens around the eyes, what happens around the mouth. Very, very subtle performance issues, very subtle character -- transmitting what's in the heart to the screen is what we're fighting for now.
Stokdyk: The application I'm working on now (with "Spider-Man 3") is pretty specifically stunt application. In a lot of visual effects action movies, there are physics reasons why you can't move the camera around the person, or you can't move the person. There are safety issues. And those are kind of my issues -- in a traditional live-action movie, you might also have a person who isn't alive anymore, and you have to resurrect them or you have to change their age or something like that.
Ralston: We have entered the age of minutiae that is mind-numbing, doing this kind of work. It's astounding the things you have to watch for now, (that) you have to analyze every day at dailies. What you're talking about is how the light is falling on this part of his shirt -- every little thread, every little whisker is something you're creating, so now you sit and discuss these things ad nauseum to try to make it work. It's very difficult right now, and it takes so much effort to talk about every little nuance on every actor in "Beowulf," for example.
Stokdyk: Going back to what's changed in the last 15 years -- now, typically, many more things in the frames are synthetic and created by us; the evolution of the industry mostly started out with plate photography that you started putting things into. Now, there are less and less photographic sources that go into a shot. Everything that is created has to be scrutinized for things you get for free in plates -- contrast and saturations and sharpnesses and how they work together. Just the amount of time it takes to balance that in any shot has exploded.
Mack: We do shots where there are no photographic elements -- whole sequences where nothing was photographed. It wasn't on the schedule. We have to make the whole thing up -- but it's got to cut into this thing that was shot on film or on digital.

THR: Sony Imageworks is unusual. You've got all four divisions -- key-frame (computer-generated) animation, performance-capture animation, visual effects and stereoscopic 3-D films. Does that impact you creatively with what you're able to do?
Ralston: What we're able to do, yes. It's cool to have that variety under one roof because there is a lot of interesting work being done that we can "borrow" what someone else is doing to use on our own movie, (like) if they've made advances in a particular technique, for example. What we're doing in "Beowulf" can be used on something else. What (the artists) have been doing on "Surf's Up" -- we've borrowed some of their technologies for some visual effects we're doing -- it's this great ongoing communication, which a large house like this has.
Stokdyk: I think it's also about the artist and how many there are and how they get different experiences on different shows. We have this amazing pool of artists here at Imageworks. I want somebody on my show who has worked on (Sony's) "Open Season" and "Polar Express" and "Superman" and has gotten those different experiences, self-critiquing their work and figuring out ways things should and shouldn't look. They all bring something new and different to the table for those experiences.

THR: Any concluding thoughts?
Ralston: I think an important part of where we're going is the kind of depth we can offer directors and the kind of work we're doing in expressing what the movie is about -- what the (screenwriter's intention was) when he wrote it, what the director is trying to do. It's about much deeper levels of performance and storytelling that we're now much more involved with than we've ever been before. That's one of the most exciting things about the work.