Since posting part one of my interview with LOOK Effects Supervisor Max Ivins, I was able to see his handiwork in the The Muppets for myself, and I must say that the film is amazing. I haven’t laughed that hard that consistently in a very, very long time, and the VFX are pretty good too. I have been listening to/singing along with the soundtrack since I saw it, and it’s constantly playing in my head even when I’m not listening to it. It’s awesome, and the rest of the movie is too. Props to everyone involved. It’s easily one of my favorite films of the year.
But enough about that. Part two of our awesome interview goes much more heavily into other, non-Muppets projects as well as some conversation about the effects industry in general. We also talk about the proper way to make Jennifer Connelly cry. It’s really interesting stuff. I promise.
Do you ever change performances after the fact? Does the director ever come up to you and say, “Oh, I didn’t really think this actor did a good job, could you change his face/movements?”
Have I ever been asked to change the acting? Yes. [Laughs] Do we do that? Never. Ever ever. We’d get in a lot of trouble for that. [Laughs]
Well, I guess this isn’t a giant secret or anything, but in Blood Diamond, there was a scene where Leonardo di Caprio is talking to his girlfriend, I guess, in the movie on the phone, and she feels really sad; it was Jennifer Connelly. And somehow when they got into the edit room they were like, “Hmm… I don’t really think we’re getting the message across, I think we want to have her cry.” Well, he had never asked her to do that on set, so they came to us and said, “Hey, can you make it look like Jennifer Connelly cries?” and we’re like, “Yeah…” So they hired us to do that, and we made the water build up at the bottom of the eye so her eyes look like tears were welling up in the lower part of the eye and the eyelash, then we made a couple of tears roll down, and they’re like, “No, we don’t want two. We just want one. No, we want it on the right side.” It was one of those things. I mean, it changed a little bit of the feeling of the shot probably, but Jennifer wasn’t very pleased about it. [Laughs] She was a little like, “I can’t believe that! He never asked me to cry! and blah blah blah,” and we were all like, “Oh…” [Laughs] “Oops.” We didn’t know there would be a problem.
It’s a touchy subject, you know, beautification, and changing people’s acting. The only time we’d have cause to do beautification is when you take somebody who’s sixty-five, and you make them look like they’re forty, and everybody knows it’s not real. That’s okay. You can talk about that. Like in X-Men when they show them earlier. But when you’re doing these touchy little touch-up jobs, like removing crow’s feet or blemishes on somebodies face or something, nobody wants you to do that. So, it happens. [Laughs] But messing with people’s acting is not… The art has not really come so far that that’s a very common request, because to really do anything significant would be very expensive.
Tears are probably one of the cheaper things you could possibly do. Anything more, like distorting somebody’s face, would be an enormous investment of time and energy, which translates into cost, so usually you’d be better off re-shooting something. And we’ve done that. They’ve decided they don’t have the right coverage or they want to change the emotional impact of the scene, and they’ll get the actors and shoot them on green screen and then have us put together a background from the footage they shot, wherever they shot on location, and composite them into a shot that will fit into the sequence, so there are variations.
Those things all fit into the clean-up patchwork, fix-it-in-post kind of thing. Most movies have a little bit of that. “Oh, you know, we want to get rid of this sign over here. That shouldn’t be here; it’s the wrong language. Let’s get rid of this car back here. Or [laughs] there’s a police vehicle with his lights flashing here, which is part of the lock-up for the street… yeah, get rid of that.” Lot of little things. The Muppets was more like, “Hey… is that a puppeteer’s head [laughs].” It’s like, “Oh… yeah, that is a puppeteer’s head, let’s put something else there. There are some shots where there are 25 puppeteers all going at once, and if you see 20 puppets together, that means there are about 25 people laying in a crowd below them all crunched together, and every once in a while, a puppet will move to the side and suddenly there’s a head, so we had to clean up that stuff.
Do you prefer to work with something closer to reality like The Muppets or something like Captain America, where you’re putting in the world with tanks and Captain America’s shield and the like?
I think they have different aspects. I have to say that I was as excited for The Muppets as I’ve been for the top three or four projects I’ve ever worked on. Just because it’s The Muppets. It really has a lot of fans, and it’s like the revival of a great franchise, and there’s something about puppeteering that’s really close to the visual effects industry. It’s kind of like the most ancient visual effect. If you go back to Chinese shadow puppets, thousands of years ago, it is pretty much the oldest form of cinema in a way. I think that that has this sort of long term connection that sort of is what visual effects is rooted in. Visual effects is kind of layer-on-layer and putting in things that aren’t reality, and building miniatures and puppeteering and puppet theater are kind of the great-great-great-great-great grandfather of all that. And sort of the pinnacle of all of that art is Jim Henson. At least for westerners, for us. So there’s something about it that gets right to the heart of all of us.
It’s unbelievable how popular it was with everybody that I talked to. It was just like, “Yeah, of course we’re all huge fans! Of course we are.” [Laughs] It’s not something you talk about all the time or something that I really knew about, but pretty much everyone I know is like, “Yeah, I know, the Muppets are great!” I mean one of our guys knew every single Muppet. I was like, “You’re kidding!” He had blogged about the Muppets before the movie was even ever thought of. He was a crazy fan, so for him it was basically the best project he’d ever worked on in his entire life.
That’s really the great thing about The Muppets. The actual work we did… not really all that technically challenging. We did some helicopter flyover and built 3000 or more people in a crowd going down Hollywood boulevard, which was really cool, and we wrote code to made our own crowd behavior which is fun in its own way, because if you make it a little too active it makes it look like a riot rather than just an enthusiastic crowd. [Laughs] It’s fun and challenging and a lot of geometry and brainpower went into it, but it’s not cutting-edge. It’s standard stuff, totally achievable, and fun to do, and not too challenging to get it to look right, but it was the Muppets and artistically it has its own thing going for it, and it’s staying in that tradition, that’s really satisfying and really fun, and I think the most fun talking to people about it in a really long time. I mean everybody wants to know about the Muppets, what they were like on set. I swear I’ve never seen a set where the instant they shout “Cut!” jokes were cracked. There was also some funny little something from Kermit after a take or some crass remark… it was just a fun place to be and a fun project to do.
That being said, Captain America, which is a classic in the comic book genre, which is pretty popular in our field of work [laughs], and it had its own challenges and all this fantastical stuff. Superhuman feats, a Crazy Frisbee, you know. That’s what I called it, the “Crazy Frisbee.” That had its own satisfaction. I think the thing that tips it to The Muppets really is just that it’s such an iconic thing for more people than those who love the comic genre, for a huge demographic swath, and the fact that we were the lead company on it, and I got to be there when they were shooting it and work closely with the supervisor and feel like we really contributed some stuff. It’s nice when the supervisor goes, “Oh thank you. You really saved us on that. That’s really awesome.” You get a couple of those, and for little tiny things I suggested, which wouldn’t have been a big problem in the end, but you feel like you have more input when you’re the lead facility on a project. And on Captain America, we did some awesome shots in it. We got, I would say, a third of the top 10% of the best shots in the film. We got the shot where Captain America throws his shield directly at the camera with explosions going off behind him, which is pretty much the iconic shot of the movie.
You know, we’re not the biggest company on the planet, but that is a giant coup for us. I mean, I feel like we got the, “Okay, all the best stuff goes to LOOK Effects.” So, I find it hard to say I’m going to enjoy a movie as much as I enjoyed that movie in a long time too, and we did that in our facility while we were working on The Muppets. I mean, you just rattled off two of the greatest projects that we’ve done of all time. I mean, there’s Black Swan, which I didn’t supervise, but was, in its own rite, one of those shows that is clearly not a visual effects blockbuster, but clearly one of the best uses of visual effects in a long, long time. I mean, it’s got like 300 shots in it, but if you watch it, you’re gonna think it has twelve. It is fun to do big, in-your-face effects like on Captain America, but we’ve always prided ourselves in having some Best Picture nominations that we’ve worked on, and they’re almost never the big blockbuster visual effects movies. They’re always the Black Swans and the King’s Speechs. We’ve been pretty successful at those smaller movies that get nominated for Best Picture that we’ve worked on, and that’s always fun.
So… [Laughs] in answer to your question, I couldn’t really say, although I had more personal satisfaction on The Muppets, but I would never want to give up the big in-your-face visual effects shots. Without those on your reel, you’re like, “Eh… we do set extensions.” You want to have some spectacular stuff too. That’s one thing that’s great about our industry. It’s not cookie cutter. You’re always working on something that really hasn’t been done exactly before. I mean The Muppets, it’s pretty much an original, completely. Nobody’s done this sophisticated a puppet movie in years, if ever. It’s probably the most sophisticated one so far, and that’s fun. Then it’s fun to switch back and go to a superhero movie and make people fly.
How much collaboration do you have with other teams?
We have a collection of freelancers, some that we’ve used a lot and some that we’ve newly acquainted ourselves with, but usually we try to find experts or develop our own expertise in certain areas. For example, water is one of those things that, in the past, we used a person that I’d worked with that was available to work for us on a freelance basis, and he actually did it from Canada, where he was living at the time. That was for Lost, when we did the final season of that. Right now we’re doing a big project in New York that has water and we’re developing our own water pipeline for that. We have one of the more brilliant 3D people working on it there. As we get larger, developing more areas of expertise like that becomes more viable.
The other thing that we would outsource significantly would be matte paintings, if we have a project that has a lot of them. We have two very competent matte painters on staff, but one of them happens to be a supervisor for us and is not available very often, and matte paintings tend to come in chunks. You’ve got a matte painting show and you might have ten on it, so we’ll look outside for people to bring onto the project for that, but I don’t think that’s any different than even the really big facilities. You can only keep so many matte painters or particle guys or massive animators on staff, so when you get a show that’s got a lot of something, you’re going to gear up in that area, and I think that’s true for everybody.
I’d say a good 40% of the industry are what I’d call “migrant workers.” They don’t have full-time jobs at one facility (which are tenuous at best anyway), but they are basically professional freelancers. They go where the work is. So they’ll work at Hydraulx [Battle: LA] for one week, then Digital Domain [Real Steel, X-Men: First Class] the next, then Tippet [Immortals, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part I] the next couple of months, and then WETA [Avatar, Rise of the Planet of the Apes] for 8 months, and then, I mean, right now it’s a very international pool of people. You know, WETA, when they get a really big project, they don’t go, “Oh let’s just use our 80 people here.” They go, “Oh, we’re going to have to hire 80 more people,” and they don’t find them sitting around in New Zealand. They bring them in.
That’s just the industry now. They’re the international migrant workers of visual effects. It’s pretty much impossible to do projects without doing that to some degree, just because projects have their own things. For example, we have a big character animation project that we’re doing in our Vancouver office, and that is going to cause us to hire about 20 people, so that we probably have a 40 person group in Vancouver, and 20 of those people won’t be brought on full time, just for the project. That kind of gear-up, gear-down is kind of the way that everybody operates now. I think. I don’t know. In New York, we have a big staff on there. They’ve been pretty stable, but I’m sure they’re going to be gearing-up and gearing-down too.
What are you guys working on next?
Right now, we’re working on Underworld 4 here and a project called God’s Behaving Badly in New York, which is actually a large project with character animation and CG water. We’re also working on a Zombie movie that has fully CG zombies called Warm Bodies. That’s the working title right now. It is a really great project for us, since it’s some entertainment, and we’re the sole effects company on it and have been supervising it. We’ll start the post on it early next year, and we’re really looking forward to that one. It’s going to be really cool. Those are the big ones on the shelf, and there are some other, smaller projects that are going on, but I’m sort of in my own corner, because I’m slid onto Underworld 4. I know a little bit about what’s going on in the rest of the company, but I’m probably not the best person to ask. [Laughs]
Well, that’s all we’ve got. Thank you very much for talking with me!