There are two types of interviewees: ones that need to be poked and prodded in order to say anything meaningful, and ones who will continue talking until you unintentionally cut them off during a pause. Max Ivins, Supervisor for the VFX company LOOK Effects, falls into the latter category, and I think that’s fantastic. LOOK was the lead effects company on The Muppets, and I got a chance to talk with him about that (and many other things). It was a great interview. It ran quite long, however, so I will be breaking it up into two parts, both of which are awesome.
So, if you have even a fleeting interest in visual effects and their role in films, keep on reading. If you don’t have much interest, maybe this interview will be the thing to change your mind. It’s really fascinating stuff. To see what else the company has worked on, check out the various effects reels on their website, and make sure to return this Monday (November 28th), and read part two of our interview.
Hello Max. Thanks so much for talking with me!
We’re all very big fans of the Muppets here at Flixist.
Yeah, it’s amazing how popular the Muppets are. I never really appreciated it until I told people I was working on it. When I told people, they were like, “Oh! I’ll work on it. I’ll do shots for free.” [Laughs] Four people or so said that, and I was like, “What? Okay! Come on over to the office.”
Was there competition for doing the work on The Muppets, a Battle Royale perhaps?
No, not really. I think that was primarily up to Disney’s post-production department, and the supervisor on the project, Janet Muswell, was hired on the production as the visual effects supervisor and the visual effects producer (she was doing both), and she picked us to be the lead company on the project. I can’t say that I know why exactly she chose us, but I know she interviewed/talked to other companies about it, and we kinda hit it off. Janet’s really great and was really good to work with and the whole thing. She was a compositor earlier in her career, so she really understands the nuts and bolts of it really well. Pretty sharp. She was a pleasure to work with.
At what point in the production did you guys become involved?
We were there from the beginning. They talked to us about a year ago, before they had started shooting. We met with Janet and discussed things, because she was looking for somebody to come in and assist on some of the bigger effects shoots, because she was producing and supervising. She wanted us, being the lead company, to be familiar with what the director was after, how it was going to be put together, and have our input on it so she could go, “Well, you told them to do that!” [Laughs] So, I ended up on the set quite a few times, which was fun, and I would say it was one of the more fun sets to be on.
I can imagine. What sorts of things did you ask for, things that would make your lives easier or something more substantial to the film itself?
Our input was not very much creative story input. It was just sort of technically how to achieve something. Do we want to leave this piece in. do we want to put it in later? Suggestions about how to shoot things. I call them minor tweaks. “Oh, you guys want to do a pan here…” It would be more like, Janet and I would discuss a shot, and she and I would decide, “Instead of doing a pan here, you want to do two panels separately, and then if we want to put a move in it later, we can build a pan into it.” Just suggestions of methodology instead of actual creative.
What we want to do is make things easier for everybody. For example, I asked for some wide plates and some separate plates to cover us. You get that inkling that, at the end of the film, there’s a pan up to the sky, and when they were shooting it, I was like, “They’re definitely going to want to pan up to the sky… I know it,” and they’re gonna go, “Oh, we need a pan up to the sky,” So instead of cramming our effect into the top of the frame, they’re going to want to pan up on it, so I just had them pan up and get the tops of these buildings that were around so we’d have that to build that pan up later. Stuff like that. It was technical things that would make our lives easier. Keeping track of the technical details so we could have an easier time later.
Do you guys do any practical effects or are you all digital?
We supervise a lot of practical effects. We don’t normally go out and shoot them ourselves with the exception being some element shoots, like driving plates and elements for matte paintings. It tends to be that plates are really specific to the production, so 85% of the time the production is where they need to be to shoot what they need to get, so you just have them shoot it and supervise that. Then there’s other times when they just want a certain time of day driving footage, and we go, “Okay, we can go out and shoot that, get that for you,” and charge a flat rate to shoot our own plates. That’s the exception more than the rule. We have supervised a lot of miniature shoots, but we go to someplace where they specialize in miniatures and shoot those, so we just supervise and get the pieces we need. We’re more supervisory with live-action and on-set effects and do the post in the office.
How do you guys feel about using digital in a franchise that’s so heavily physical?
That was one of the key things that the director and the supervisor wanted. I think they were both on the same page from the get go. Keeping everything looking real, and by that I don’t mean keeping everything looking like, for example: in one of the shots, we blow up… the mountain that has four president’s faces carved into it.
Mount Rushmore.[Laughs] Yes, right. Mount Rushmore, sorry. In one shot, we blow up Mount Rushmore and it reveals a Muppet’s head. They wanted it to look real, but not like we really blew up Mount Rushmore. You know, it’s a comedy version. We build a model and there’s a practical explosion that goes off in front of it and chunks fly off. It wasn’t really to make it look like we really did whatever it is but make it look like it’s practical elements and practical pieces all shot in camera. Don’t let that digital feel get into it. They didn’t want to take it out of the, “Hey, this is either shot by a helicopter or by a crane.” There’s no “Wow… that was obviously an all-CG shot.” They wanted to keep it tangible, as though some object is really shot even if it doesn’t look like something you’d run into in the real world… I mean, it is puppets after all. Reality has to be suspended some, but I think there was a big effort to not make it look digital.
When they first approached us to do the job, I was like, “The Muppets, how big a job could that be? Unless they want us to put legs on the Muppets. Do they want us to put legs on them? Are we going to do CG Muppets? No… can’t be.” And it wasn’t that. What they really wanted to do was modernize the approach they could use in the movie by allowing the puppeteers a lot more freedom. There are a bunch of shots, Walter is the new Muppet they introduce in the movie (I think it’s the only new Muppet), and it’s basically about him and his adventure. And there’s a scene early in the movie, and he is basically running around in the kitchen, and he gets up on this cupboard and jumps up on a doorknob and flies into the kitchen. For a couple of shots there were four puppeteers moving him around, doing his legs and his arms and his head, and so when you look at the elements, it’s completely a blue screen stage, with four guys in blue head-to-toe crowded behind this puppet, puppeteering him, and that was kind of what we were able to accomplish, was letting a bunch of composite shots, which looks like the Muppet running around (because it is a Muppet), but we gave the puppeteers more freedom to be behind the characters without ending up in the shot at the end.
You’ve done a lot of work on movies like The King’s Speech that you’d think they wouldn’t need visual effects. How pervasive is your kind of work in movies nowadays?
I think that in the last 10 years, probably what’s changed the most in visual effects is not what we can do, maybe there’s a little bit of a horsepower issue because computers have gotten a lot faster over that time frame, but it’s more how visual effects are kind of planned into almost every production in TV and in motion pictures, because people on the production side of more and more of the projects they work on have visual effects in them, and the role they’re willing to let them take gets bigger and bigger. There’s sort of a cost trade-off. Do you fly everybody to Budapest to shoot for two days in front of the palace or for three establishing shots on a bunch of walk-and-talk? Well… maybe not. Or an action sequence, maybe you just build those three or four establishing shots with CG set extensions and shoot the rest of the stuff on a small set, or you shoot it in Prague, or you shoot it… they know that they can leverage their locations to cover other locations, they don’t need to move the production to do those things, so things that have any “Hey, do we want to be in Paris, hey do we want to shoot it in…” visual effects comes up in the conversation. You get us planned into a lot of projects where they go, “Oh yeah that’ll be a set extension, yeah, that’s gonna be.” It’s a lot more pervasive in movies than it used to be.
The King’s Speech is a good example. Okay, yeah, you could have gotten 300 extras out there and kinda made it look like that, but it’s not the way they plan it, because that has its own limitations and its own shooting schedule problems. You go out and shoot pieces and then you put it together in an animated matte painting and you put it into a shot where your people are walking out of a set onto a green screen balcony, and it looks like they walk out and there’s a big crowd with a whole panorama behind them. It’s planned into them more now. I think it’s hard for most people to watch a movie and even imagine how many [VFX] shots there are. I think the Muppets has somewhere close to 900 shots or something like that, and a lot of them are niggly things like removing a rod here and there. We did about 500 or something. Somewhere in that range. And i think, when you watch the movie, you’re going to think there were 30 or 40 shots in it. There’s a couple where you’re like, “Well, there’s no way they could have done that without visual effects,” but the rest of them aren’t even going to register. I mean, maybe if you stopped on them and analyzed them, you’d go “Oh yeah, there’s no way that Muppet could do that without removing some stuff.” There’s a bigger propensity for vfx in movies these days. People are more like clued into it, so they can plan to do it that way.
And that’s all for part one! Come back Monday when we discuss Captain America, freelance work, and how to make Jennifer Connelly cry.