Making the Magic

What’s it like to be one of 200 digital artists at Industrial Light and Magic, working on the visual effects for Terminator: Dark Fate

Making the Magic

What’s it like to be one of 200 digital artists at Industrial Light and Magic, working on the visual effects for Terminator: Dark Fate

We asked compositor Alison Lake (Black Panther, Spiderman: Homecoming, Jurrasic World) and effects supervisor Georg Kaltenbrunner (The Avengers, Captain America, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), to talk about the most memorable shots they worked on, and break down what they do on a given shot.

Create: How long were you on Terminator: Dark Fate, and what were your roles?

Kaltenbrunner: Nine to ten months. I’m the point person for the ILM effects department, talking to the VFX supervisors and trying to interpret their vision, and to communicate it to my team, and suggest solutions and creative direction to my team. At the peak time we had about 30 effects artists between San Francisco and Vancouver; they’re all strictly effects artists. It’s a diverse group of people, arguably one of the more intricate departments. It’s a lot of math, so you get a lot of those mad geniuses, but you also get the really creative types.

Lake: Four or five months. As a compositor, we are the end of the line, in terms of the pipeline. We’re the last department that works on a shot before it leaves the studio and goes to the client. But to get a look correct and approved by the client, we will often work in line with lighting and effects, basically to get one early shot looking good, and then they’ll roll that look through the rest of the film. So we work throughout the entire production. I worked on a wide range of about 15 shots throughout the film.

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Create: What was the most interesting shot you worked on?

Lake: It was a shot in the cargo plane sequence, where a T-100 is holding Gabriel against the wall. To get out of that position, he transforms, so the liquid metal comes out of Gabriel. That shot came in as multiple renders for me. I had a basic Gabriel render from lighting, which matched the plates as closely as possible, and on top of that I had a basic Rev-9 model, and then two separate renders, a full skin version and a full metal version. I could mix between the three to adjust the transition and the timing. It was a lot of different pieces to put together. The lighting was very detailed, and I could adjust each part of it. That shot took about two weeks, I believe.

Kaltenbrunner: From my perspective, it was the reinvention of the liquid metal effect that was so hugely impressive in Terminator 2.

The main look development shot for the liquid metal effect was in the highway scene, where you see him form completely for the first time. Developing it was particularly tricky, and a bit of a moving target in terms of a creative look. We started off with the assumption that we were not going to veer off too far from the Terminator 2 look, but it soon became clear that [director] Tim Miller wanted to put his own creative touch on it.

What I found really interesting was the type of reference that Tim gave us. Production sent us time-lapse reference movies that went from time-lapse moss growth, to crystals, to algae growth, to a magnified slime mold. You could tell that Tim wanted something more gritty, more based in nature and organic shapes, almost like coral reefs, as opposed to that smooth liquid metal aesthetic or mercury look that Terminator 2 had. It was really quite interesting and educational for us, seeing the look and feel that Tim Miller was after. 

“It’s a lot of math, so you get a lot of those mad geniuses, but you also get the really creative types.”

Create: Can you walk us through the process of creating that effect?

Kaltenbrunner: We began with in-house concept art, and we tried to match the concept art as well as possible, which is always tricky. The danger is you can pigeon-hole yourself into a position where you can’t execute on what is painted into the still frame. So we tried both a 3-D and a 2-D painted approach.

Essentially, we get a plate from the shoot, and our match-move department goes in and match-moves Gabriel Luna very tightly, so Compositing will be able to blend back into the original plate. Then we replace his form with the liquid metal, working out the timing and how he forms back. From Layout, we get the geometry of an intact Gabriel asset, and we run that through our effects simulation, which has to end up matching exactly the full Gabriel character. Then we send our data to lighting, and they feed Compositing, who puts it all back together.

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Creating the metal effect itself was a two-stage process. There were the 3D shapes, those tendril-like elongated forms like a coral, and then there was the creative challenge of how to transition from the reflective liquid metal back to the natural surface properties of cloth and skin. That’s where Tim came in with the fungi, a very non-linear organic reveal. The tricky part is coming up with a solution of how to translate that behavior into our effects workflow, which can get pretty technical. We tried different algorithms and formulas to fill the volume of Gabriel and control how the colors spread on the surface. We did a lot of exploration, and at the same time figured out how to feed our lighting department with data so they could make it look as realistic as possible. Another main difference for us was the Rev-9 character was supposed to be hollow, as opposed to a full solid character like the T-1000 from Terminator 2.

“Tim Miller was very adamant that we make that point come across, so that there was always space for his skeleton to fit inside the liquid metal portion.” 

Create: Can you think of another example where you got story-point notes like that from the director?

Lake: Yes, for the cargo plane shot I mentioned, I got a note from the director that the effects simulation didn’t quite hit his story for it. A big story point for him was that the the liquid metal should be coming out of the skull of Gabriel, not just transforming. I think it was a poetic thing for him. To do that, I changed the effects simulation in Comp by hand-warping and painting to get the look he wanted.

Kaltenbrunner: That’s a really good example of how Alison in Compositing can help me in Effects. Doing that adjustment would have been much more time-consuming in 3D. If you look at it from my perspective, running liquid simulations is a somewhat unpredictable workflow anyway—basically you put in some numbers and you let the system figure it out and hope for the best—and when it’s paired up with a really conceptual creative task like this, it's even harder. In this case, it was a godsend that Alison was able to fix it in Comp. We didn’t have to go back into Simulation and fix it from our end.

I think that’s something that we’re really good at here at ILM, that whole collaboration between all departments and creative connection that we have between our departments.

Create: What is the interaction like between departments?

Kaltenbrunner: It’s very collaborative here. It’s quite common that different departments will suggest solutions that might help another department. It’s like, Okay, we can model that, you don’t actually have to try to simluate that, or Comp will say, Hey we can roto that, we can paint that, no problem. It’s quite an enjoyable process, especially with such creative people on hand.

Create: What’s your favorite type of shot, your favorite part of the process?

Kaltenbrunner: I enjoy prototyping effects quickly, getting a first look in front of the supervisors or the client, getting a look bought off. I like that there is room for your own imagination to play, to solve the problem. That’s what I’m good at, taking it to the 85 percent, getting a creative buy-off, and then ingesting it properly into the pipeline to take it to 100 percent and roll it out for the whole show.

Lake: I really enjoy doing look development on the Compositing side as well. It’s a lot of fun to try to figure out the cleanest way to make it happen, and get that look approved. I also really love to make shots look photo-real. Adding things on the lens, lens flares, camera shakes, maybe a little bit of atmosphere, just adding that little extra touch in Compositing to make it look as real as possible, I find is really fun.

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Create: Least favorite?

Kaltenbrunner: It’s always the things that you think are easy, like the sparks or the raindrops, which you think are going to take a day or two. But everybody has their own opinion of what those things are supposed to look like, so sometimes you can end up in this circle where you’re chasing an imaginary target. Think about how a cloud looks: Everybody thinks they know what it looks like, and they’re all correct, but they aren’t all the same, and you’re trying to hit that mark.

Lake: In the past, I might have said keying, because it’s on the more technical side, but I’ve come to enjoy it more. It’s a challenge to get everything working right technically. Now I would probably say getting a shot omitted. It’s very discouraging, especially if you put a lot of your time and passion into working on something for weeks if not months, and then it’s cut from the movie, that can be a little hard. But it’s part of our day to day.

Create: What drew you to visual effects, as an artist?

Lake: I knew I wanted to work in film or animation since I was very young. I’d do stop-motion and Claymation projects at home, and in high school I took animation classes. At university in Vancouver, I took a visual effects course and realized it was both technical and creative, with a lot of story-telling. So I did a two-year visual effects program, which taught me all the aspects of visual effects, and I discovered I was more interested in mapping and compositing, the artistic side of the field. I always loved to draw and make movies.

Kaltenbrunner: Initially I wanted to become an architect. But in college I got my hands on 3D software, and that opened my mind that there was way more to design than just architecture. Things can actually move. Growing up in Austria, there wasn’t a lot of visual effects, so I worked as a generalist, doing everything myself, tracking, match-moving, effects, painting. Eventually I moved to Chicago and worked on commercials, until someone in London called and asked if I wanted to do a little Smoke work on a movie. I ended up working in visual effects there at Double Negative, and I came to ILM eight years ago. I’ve never thought about doing anything else since: it’s a collaborative, creative field full of very smart, artistic people.

© 2019 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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