Craftspeople work closely with visual effects experts


As sound rerecording mixer Michael Semanick sat down to do the final mix on DreamWorks/Paramount's "Sweeney Todd" last fall, he was confronted with a small stumbling block: Some of the visual effects for the opening sequence were incomplete, including various CG raindrops and lighting flashes -- small elements to be sure, but crucial when making decisions about the timing of sounds, as well as their placement in the surround field.

It was an inconvenience, but hardly unusual in today's studio filmmaking environment, where so much of what the audience sees onscreen is generated digitally in postproduction.

"On almost every film that I work on, the visual effects aren't done when we're finaling," Semanick says. "We're mixing, and it's like, 'Here's a rough. Here's an animatic,' and the director's describing what it's going to be. You'll go to the art department and look at the sketches of what the visual effects department is going to do and get updates."

For some working in the crafts field, this perennial state of flux is as much an opportunity as it is a nuisance, giving them more creative input and changing the nature of their collaboration with artists in other departments.

"Visual effects houses and editors are working closer than ever before," says "Transformers" (DreamWorks/Paramount) editor Glen Scantlebury, "partly because with digital editing we have the ability to cut and paste elements, bluescreen shots, pre-vis and the kitchen sink together, which gives us a bigger say in what the end result should look like than in the past."

More often than not on "Transformers," Scantlebury and his fellow editors Paul Rubell and Tom Muldoon were cutting footage of actors talking to empty spaces reserved for robots to be added later by Industrial Light + Magic. In the scene where the Transformers meet at Griffith Observatory and plot their next move after their fellow 'bot Bumblebee has been captured, they had even less. All director Michael Bay had shot were empty plates at various angles on the roof of the observatory. After the editors cut the plates to match the scripted dialogue, they realized the words were not sufficient to carry the story, so they completely rewrote the dialogue and restaged the action.

"The editing process is prolonged because of the time that it takes to create, perfect and render the robots, which happens over a period of months," Rubell says. "And, because in many cases the background plates were pretty generic, we had an exponential increase in the amount of possibilities. We could tell any story that we wanted."

Early on, the editors would put subtitles of the robots dialogue on the picture, which they sometimes replaced with recordings of their own voices. Eventually, the actors hired to provide voices for the robots would come in and record the lines as written. Then the filmmakers would see ILM's robot animations come to life and be inspired to do yet another rewrite, adding new lines and better jokes.

"This kills the poor visual effects company that labors to get the lips right only to discover the lines have changed four weeks before delivery," Scantelbury says.

Of course, the visual effects department doesn't just sit back and wait to see what changes might come their way, especially on a project like Warner Bros.' Spartan warrior epic "300" (2006), which boasts 1,300 visual effects shots and a heavily digitally stylized look, with heavily crushed blacks and emphasized browns and whites, reflecting the aesthetics of the Frank Miller graphic novel on which it's based. Visual effects supervisor Chris Watts and his team were intimately involved from the first days of preproduction, testing virtually everything that would be seen in the film -- from the Spartan capes created by costume designer Michael Wilkinson to the wounds and the blood (both CG and "real") -- to see how their colors would appear after the film footage was given an extreme digital makeover in post. To ensure that the look remained consistent, he compiled the results in a style guide and gave copies to each of the 10 visual effects vendors in four countries that worked on the film. Then he met with production designer Jim Bissell and director Zack Snyder and reviewed the 3-D computer previsualizations and concept illustrations created by the art department to determine what portions of the sets would be built and what would be rendered with CGI.

When the film began principal photography in Montreal, Watts did not retire to a darkroom with a computer workstation.

"(Watts) was on the set at all times, and we always talked about the angle and the look of it, the concept, the colors and all of that," the film's cinematographer Larry Fong says. "It's not a case where you can film anything and later they can go crazy. We always knew where it was going."

But just as the process of shooting against giant greens and fleshing out the frame in post forces the various crafts departments to work more closely together, it effectively alienates many other members of the cast and crew, according to Henry Braham, cinematographer for the New Line fantasy "The Golden Compass," which made ample use of CG set extensions in its Arctic sequences.

"Apart from you and hopefully the director, nobody has an idea of what it is that's in this green void," he says. "But in every angle you choose you need to have it clear in your mind what the background is and therefore how the light would be, etc. That's incredibly complex. And you're very alone in this process. If you've stood in a real set, you're all looking at the same thing -- it's a shared experience. If you describe something, everybody has a different picture in their minds, because everyone's mind works slightly differently."

The actors in Paramount's "Beowulf" had no visual references on set whatsoever -- not even costumes. They were shot by 300 motion-capture cameras on an unadorned blue stage, clothed in identical skintight blue bodysuits dotted with dozens of sensors. But at least they got to perform. For cinematographer Robert Presley, there were no pans or tilts, no close-ups or wide shots.

"It is very much theater in the round, and the audience is the cameras capturing the dots of the performances," Presley says. "But every scene is blocked with a camera in mind. It could be (director Robert Zemeckis) saying to the actors, 'Don't worry. This is going to be in a wide shot. You don't need to worry about the subtlety of the performance here,' or 'This is going to be your big close-up. The camera is going to be over there, so make sure all the actors favor this side of the room.' You capture everything -- their full body motion, as well as their facial motions and their eye motions, so that if Anthony Hopkins (who plays Hrothgar) decided he was going to look up to the heavens, you captured his eyeballs looking up to the heavens. The only thing you don't capture is clothing and hair."

The visual effects team led by Jerome Chen took the motion-capture data, cleaned it up and applied it to the virtual skeletons of the characters. Then the characters were placed in low-res versions of their 3-D environments, and Presley and Zemeckis were able to begin the "director's layout" portion of the process, in which they sat down with computer artists (or "digital grips") and chose virtual lenses and shots using Autodesk MotionBuilder. To give the digitally rendered action a more human feel, Presley used a handheld device to execute rough camera moves that were subsequently smoothed out and refined by the "grips."

"Quite a few of the shots in 'Beowulf' are as we originally discussed on the mo-cap stage," Presley relates, "but at other times it was just like being on a live-action stage, where you discover new things and say, 'Hey, wait a minute. This would be a better way to go.'"

As the camera work on "Beowulf" evolved, so did production designer Doug Chiang's virtual sets.

"We know as (Zemeckis) starts to design the shots, we will have to modify the environments and the sets to allow him to get these angles that he wants to tell the story," Chiang says. "Sometimes the camera pans away and when we pan back, it's a whole different set. For instance, in the mead hall, the physical structure of the building changes quite a bit, but it's completely invisible to the audience, because they get so involved in the experience of that moment that they don't realize that the roof at one point is three times as tall as it's supposed to be. That's really great because you can ultimately design almost the perfect shot."

But on "Beowulf" the collaborations affected the most by the use of digital technology were not the ones involving the different crafts departments and the director, but with the actors and everyone else.

"You just have the luxury of having the actors all the time (during post)," Presley observes. "Anytime you want to go to work, they're there. They're on their marks, they're performing, and you can lay out your shots and perfect them."